The Universalist TULIP

John LicitraBy John Licitra

I am thankful for the work of St. Augustine and John Calvin. It was their influence, admittedly, that led me to a firm belief in the sovereignty of God and the eternal security of my salvation in Christ. Whether you accept or reject the theology of Augustine or Calvin, it must be admitted that both were among the greatest theologians in the history of the Christian Church. Recognizing their greatness, however, does not mean that it is necessary to agree with each of the finer points of their respective theologies. After all, there are other great Christian theologians who have come to very different conclusions about the workings of the Christian faith.

One of the most influential gatherings in the history of Christianity was the Synod of Dordt held in Dordrecht in 1618-1619, by the Dutch Reformed Church. This Synod was called to address the teaching of Jacob Arminius, famous for the soteriological theology we know as Arminiansm. One of the outcomes of the Synod was an acronym that has since come to define what we know today as the “Five Points of Calvinism.” The acronym is TULIP which stands for:

  • Total depravity of man
  • Unconditional election
  • Limited atonement
  • Irresistible grace
  • Perseverance of the saints
I find it hard to accept how the doctrines of Five Point Calvinism can be considered “Good News” by anyone. Yet, for many, Five Point Calvinism defines the gospel message as they know it.

Although there are parts of the acronym that have encouraged many believers over the years, there are other parts that have had a terrorizing effect. Think for a moment upon the implications of a person who at once recognizes their own depravity and at the same time accepts the limited atonement of Christ’s work on the cross. What hope is there for such a person? That explains why so many Reformed believers identify themselves as “Four Point Calvinists”; leaving out the emphasis of “limited” atonement. I find it hard to accept how the doctrines of Five Point Calvinism can be considered “Good News” by anyone. Yet, for many, Five Point Calvinism defines the gospel message as they know it.

Although I don’t accept the theology of either Augustine or Calvin, I do find myself in the same camp as many other great Christian theologians. Among those are Clement of Alexandria, one of the early Church fathers, and Karl Barth, the great 20th century theologian who was identified by Pope Pius XII as the greatest Christian theologian since Thomas Aquinas. There are so many others who could be mentioned, but suffice it to say that over the years, there have always been notable and respected Christian leaders who have embraced the theology of Universal Reconciliation. That is to say, they have believed that the death of Christ on the cross was both far-reaching and efficacious. Stated another way, the atonement achieved by Christ was not limited but unlimited. Although it is not my intent to rewrite hundreds of years of established Christian theology, it is with this contrast in mind (i.e. the contrast between limited and unlimited atonement) that I developed an alternative version of the TULIP acronym.

When the angel of the Lord announced the birth of Jesus he proclaimed the following: “Do not be afraid, for behold I bring you good news of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10,11). Did you get that? This message was not supposed to bring fear. It was Good News and it was for all people. Jesus later taught that this truth of the Gospel would be something that would set us free (John 8:32). The liberating truth of the Gospel is that Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who took upon Himself and took away the sins of the world (2 Cor. 5:21, John 1:29) when He willingly went to the cross. That is why at the name of Jesus, every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God. (Phil. 2:10,11).

Here then is another way to consider the beauty of the tulip:

  • Total reconciliation
  • Unlimited atonement
  • LOVE
  • Irresistible grace through the ages
  • Perseverance of God

Admittedly, total reconciliation and unlimited atonement are two ways of saying the same thing. However, given the importance of this concept, it is worth reinforcing! The thought here is simple: Christ went to the cross to redeem humankind and He succeeded!

The Westminster Confession is another famous document associated with the great tradition of Reformed Theology typically associated with John Calvin. This Confession, created in 1646 states the following: “The decrees of God are His eternal purpose, according to the counsel of His will, whereby, for His own glory, He hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.” According to this famous confession, the primary motivation of God is to bring glory to Himself. The confession states at the very beginning that it is therefore, the “chief end of man” to glorify God.

I like to think that the biblical story of redemption woven throughout the Holy Scriptures demonstrates that God may have another primary motivation for all that He does. If God is love as 1 John 4:16 indicates, could it be that God’s primary motivation for all that He does is then love? I believe that the chief end of man IS to bring glory to God. I also believe that God has brought and WILL bring glory to Himself through the greatest act of Love ever shown; the gift of His only begotten Son on Calvary’s cross.

The irresistible grace of God is the one letter that went virtually unchanged in the new acronym that I have proposed. The one difference, however, can be found in the words that were added. Irresistible grace “through the ages.” God’s pursuit of us doesn’t end when we have taken our last breath is this world. Christians down through the ages have always believed that prayers for the dead were efficacious. His grace is still offered to us when we have passed from this world to the next and is indeed irresistible. That is why Paul can state what he did in Philippians 2 with such confidence.

The final letter in the TULIP acronym is “P.” In the original, it represents the perseverance the saints. Although this is an important concept that I fully embrace, I believe that its significance pales in comparison to the concept of God’s perseverance in His pursuit of us. He simply never gives up on us. That is why David was able to declare with such confidence in Psalm 23, “Surely, goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” AMEN and AMEN!

John Licitra is an ordained Christian Universalist minister and has served on the Board of Directors of the Christian Universalist Association since 2012.