A classic TULIP bouquet: service plans exploring five doctrinal distinctives, page 1 of 2

List the five points of Calvinism,” I asked the congregation one Sunday at the start of a service. “We often use the mnemonic TULIP to help us remember what they are, so let’s work our way down the list, starting with T.” “Total Depravity,” came back loud and clear, but after that the sound level decreased noticeably with each successive point, and I could see that most of the noise was coming from those with a bit—or more—of gray around the temples. The response indicated clearly that our wonderful heritage of faith needs to be passed on to the generations coming up.

So starting that very morning, I presented the congregation with the classic TULIP bouquet—Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints—one per Sunday.

Some may think it a little risky to preach straight doctrine in this age of narrative preaching. Some may think, “I could never do that here.” But I found that people are longing to know their doctrinal distinctiveness in an age of “Generic Community Bible Church,” and these five points of Calvinism are not only solid doctrine, but also solidly scriptural and surprisingly pastoral.

These teachings come from a treatise called the Canons of Dort, written by Calvinists in the Netherlands to counter the beliefs of Jacob Arminius and his followers. Arminius denied certain beliefs held by Calvinists, most notably that people were

welcomed into heaven by God’s election. Instead, the Arminians believed in the ability of humans to make the choice for heaven out of their own free will. The Canons of Dort were adopted at the Synod of Dort in 1618-19. (You can find them in the Psalter Hymnal, pp. 926-949, and online at www.crcna.org/cr/crbe_conf_cd.htm.)

The Canons of Dort are divided into five sections. Contrary to popular belief, however, they do not follow the TULIP acronym. An acronym of the order of the Canons would actually be ULTIP. But over the years, people realized that these five points were much easier to remember (and teach in catechism class) when rearranged—thus, TULIP.

Recently, Rev. Jim Oosterhouse has repotted TULIP as FAITH (Fallen humankind, Adopted by God, Intentional atonement, Transforming grace, Held by God). I have found his book very useful in discipling a new believer. Those who preach to new Christians or to those less familiar with TULIP may find Oosterhouse’s contributions particularly helpful (see p. 24).

A word of warning—this is one of the most challenging series I have ever preached, as it forced me to study and understand Reformed theology at a deeper level than I had before. It also brought me face to face with its more baffling doctrines, such as election, reprobation, predestination, and the extent of God’s sovereignty. To help me address these concerns, I relied on a few solid resources: the Canons themselves; Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology, which is replete with Scripture references and clearly lays out both the challenges to these points and how to address them; Lesslie Newbigen’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, which has a fine chapter on election; Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace, a collection of essays edited by Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995); and John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Week One - Total depravity

Opening of Worship

We decided to focus on God’s holiness as a way of centering the early part of our worship. “Holy, Holy, Holy” served as our opening hymn, and a prayer from Augustine (see box), whose theology was foundational for Calvin, was followed with “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian.”

Confession/Reconciliation/Dedication to Holy Living

The movement from worshiping a holy God toward awareness of our own unholiness is a classic Reformed liturgical move, and one to which our congregation is accustomed. We considered various Lenten hymns, often reserved for their specific liturgical season, to use during the time of confession. The weight of those hymns, we discovered, can be even greater when presented at another time. The hymn was set off with a spoken and sung litany of confession (see box, p. 19).

Scripture Lessons

Genesis 3; Romans 5:6-6:14. (The Genesis 3 passage lends itself to a readers theater, although we did not present it in this way.)

Sermon Notes

  • I began with an illustration of a frustrated teacher attempting to take charge of a noisy classroom by threatening to punish the whole class if a single student speaks out of turn. When that happens and all are punished, the rest protest: “It’s not fair!”

  • From there we moved to the protest all of us could make: “It was Adam who sinned; why are all of us punished? It’s not fair!” Adam and Even uncorked an infection that spread through all of God’s orderly world. Even the good we do is tainted: we volunteer to help out with a neighborhood Bible study not only because is it an investment in the neighborhood but also because it will look great on our résumé.

  • Our depravity keeps us from maintaining the holiness we attempt—how many of us attempt to incorporate a new spiritual discipline into our lives and fail?

  • Total depravity does not mean that we act as sinfully as we can all of the time. Nor that all of us engage in all forms of sin. Although all are depraved, we do not all manifest our depravity in the same ways or to the same degree. But none of us is better than another. When it comes to holiness, we don’t compare ourselves to the guy at the end of the pew, we compare ourselves to God.

  • Because of our depravity, we can do nothing to get ourselves out of this mess and into God’s good graces. Even our most righteous works are like filthy rags (Isa. 64:6). Unlike Catholics, who believe that our good works help us make up for actual sins; unlike Arminians, who believe that our free will enables us to choose God; we believe that sin makes us unable to choose God and unable to do anything that would earn our way into heaven. Sin doesn’t just make us sick, it kills us (Rom. 5; 1 Cor. 15).

  • It would have been fair for God to leave us, to condemn Adam and Eve for all eternity. But God didn’t. God cursed the serpent first. And in the cursing of the serpent, God promised that a Redeemer would come and depravity would be no more. Because of the work of Jesus, we are saved, we are forgiven, we are free. It’s not fair. Thanks be to God!

Hymn of Response: “And Can It Be” PsH 267, RL 451, TH 455, TWC 473

Closing Hymn: “Holy, Holy, Holy” PsH 249, PH 138, RL 611, TH 100, TWC 2 (stanza 3)

Opening Prayer

O loving God,

to turn away from you is to fall,

to turn toward you is to rise,

and to stand before you is to abide forever.

Grant us, dear God,

in all our duties your help;

in all our uncertainties your guidance;

in all our dangers your protection;

and in all our sorrows your peace;

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

—Augustine of Hippo (354-430)

We Are Reconciled to God

All sing:

    Ah, holy Jesus, how have you offended,

    that mortal judgment has on you descended?

    By foes derided, by your own rejected,

    O most afflicted!

Leader: Did God create people so wicked and perverse?

People: No. God created them good and in his own image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness, so that they might truly know God their creator, love him with all their heart, and live with him in eternal happiness for his praise and glory.

All sing:

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon you?

It is my treason, Lord, that has undone you.

’Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied you;

    I crucified you.

Leader: Then where does this corrupt human nature come from?

People: From the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise. This fall so poisoned our nature that we are born sinners—corrupt from conception on.

All sing:

For me, dear Jesus, was your incarnation,

your mortal sorrow, and your life’s oblation;

your death of anguish and your bitter passion,

    for my salvation.

Leader: But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined toward all evil?

People: Yes, unless we are born again, by the Spirit of God.

All sing:

Therefore, dear Jesus, since I cannot pay you,

I do adore you and will ever pray you,

think on your pity and your love unswerving,

    not my deserving.

—From the hymn “Ah, Holy Jesus” (PsH 386) and Lord’s Day 3, Heidelberg Catechism

Week Two-Unconditional election

Opening of Worship
“Great opening hymn choice today!” said a member as I walked into the sanctuary. “We used to call that the TULIP hymn.” Indeed, “How Vast the Benefits Divine” (PsH 497, TH 470) hits all the high points of Reformed theology, and is especially clear on election, which is why we chose it for this Sunday. The words of the opening prayer were based on the New Testament lesson for the day (see box), and the song following the prayer, Psalm 136, “Love Is Never Ending” focuses on God’s election of Israel, a theme highlighted in the Old Testament lesson. (We suggest singing all the stanzas, since the song moves quickly.)

Confession/Reconciliation/Dedication to Holy Living
Election is fundamentally about the love of God for his children, and so our confession section used spoken and sung words to point out God’s love for us (see box).

Scripture Lessons
Deuteronomy 10:12-22; Ephesians 1:3-14

Sermon Notes
In this sermon I did what I rarely do: I used three points and a poem.

  • Election is biblical. Pointing to the biblical evidence for election (Matt. 22; John 6, 15; Acts 13:48; Rom. 8, 9, 11; 1 Thess. 1; 1 and 2 Peter) and even to the work of theologians such as Augustine and Aquinas helps listeners avoid the common misperception that unconditional election was Calvin’s own idea!
  • Election is baffling. An obvious point to make, but one that’s very important pastorally. People may think that if they don’t understand election, they are less pious, less trusting, less orthodox. Acknowledging that election is baffling frees people to speak of their hesitation to accept it.

I attempted to make it a little less so by talking about the power of God’s spoken Word (an insight gleaned from Gordon Spykman’s Reformed Dogmatics). God creates by speaking (Gen. 1). God’s Word creates. And when God places Adam and Eve in the garden, he speaks a warning: if you eat of this tree, you shall surely die. When they fall into sin, God speaks a word of hope: the seed of the woman will crush the head of the serpent. Both the word of death and the word of life are bound to be fulfilled. From this comes the doctrine of election, in which some are chosen for life and some are chosen for death.

Because we do not always do what we say, we are baffled by a God so bound by his word that he will do whatever it takes to fulfill it. Some, like Arminius, reject this doctrine. He proposed instead that God knew who was going to choose him, but that it was up to us to make the choice. But as we learned last week, we are unable to choose God because of our depravity.

Election is also baffling because it puts God at the center, as Paul makes clear in Romans 9. And our fallen natures resent that. Poet Chad Walsh gets at our bafflement in his poem “Two Gray Cats” (box).

How should we deal with this? Neither Paul nor Walsh nor Calvin, for that matter, ever really answers the question. Each gets to a certain point and then simply leaves it with God.

  • Election is balm. Our heads may be willing to leave it at that, but our hearts yearn to go a step further. Calvin saw election as a doctrine that provides deep comfort and assurance, and that is how the Canons of Dort presents it as well. For those who have accepted Jesus, there are no worries for eternity. Unconditional election is biblical, and it is baffling; but above all it is balm because it shows God’s amazing love for his children. It shows us a God who does what he says he will do. It. It shows us a God who keeps promises, whose ways are not our ways, whose thoughts are not our thoughts. Unconditional election is about God. Blessed be God’s name.

Hymn of Response: “My Lord, I Did Not Choose You” PsH 496 (We paired this with the more familiar tune aurelia.)

Closing Hymn: “Father, Long Before Creation” PsH 464, RL 353

Opening Sentences Based on Ephesians 1:3
Leader: Grace and peace to you this day from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

People: Blessed be the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing.

Leader: Before the world was made, God chose us in Christ to be holy and blameless before him in love.

People: According to God’s great pleasure, we are adopted as God’s children, redeemed according to God’s good pleasure.

Leader: In Christ we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace.

All: For this reason we bow before the Father. To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.

We Are Reconciled to God

Call to Confession
The proof of God’s amazing love is this: While we were sinners Christ died for us. Because we have faith in him, we dare to approach God with confidence. In faith and penitence, let us confess our sin before God and one another.

Prayer of Confession
Righteous God, your mercy awaits us when we return to you in meekness and repentance. Cleanse us from selfishness and falseness, which separate us from your fellowship. Through your atoning love, heal the brokenness in our lives and in our world. With wholeness restored, help us live for the coming of your Son, our Savior, in whose name we pray. Amen.

—adapted from Arlene M. Mark, Mennonite Publishing House Bulletin, Scottsdale, Pennsylvania

Assurance of Pardon

Hear the good news!

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, that we might be dead to sin, and alive to all that is good. I declare to you in the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.


Sung Response: “What Wondrous Love” PsH 379, PH 85, SFL 169, TH 261, TWC 212

Two Gray Cats
Two gray cats under a tree
I open the door and summon one
Both of them bound and run to me
Get away get away I tell one
And shove him off with the flat of shoe
I let the other gray cat through
I open a can, I find a dish
I feed his soul on tuna fish
The other cat can gnash his fangs
and scratch for scraps in the garbage can
Spare me your ethical harangues
Neither deserves to be my cat
I chose one and that is that.

—Chad Walsh, unpublished

Week Three-Limited Atonement

Opening of Worship
We used “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” to open our worship, another hymn that touches on total depravity (“prone to wander”), unconditional election (“Jesus sought me”), limited atonement (“bought me with his precious blood”), irresistible grace (“oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be”), and perseverance of the saints (“bind my wandering heart to thee”). Our litany highlighted the theme of atonement, and Psalm 27, “The Lord Is My Light” (SFL 206) reminded us of God’s care.

Confession/Reconciliation/Dedication to Holy Living

We focused on Jesus as the atoning sacrifice
for our sins, using “O Christ, the Lamb of God”
PsH 257) with intervening Scripture and a prayer (see box, p. 22).

Scripture Lessons

Isaiah 53; Hebrews 9:11-28

Sermon Notes

  • In order to understand Atonement, it is helpful to look at Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. The sins of the people demanded sacrifice: “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22). This was powerfully displayed to the people of Israel in many ways throughout the year, and most graphically on Yom Kippur, when the people would fast and the animals would be slaughtered for the sins of the nation.
  • When Jesus died as the lamb of God, it was to end the system of sacrifice and to pay the final price. I used Oosterhouse’s concept of intentional atonement here, since calling this doctrine “limited” could imply that God is limited, or that the blood of Jesus can only go so far. “Intentional” allows us to see this doctrine as another example of God’s sovereignty. God is intentional about those he saves, leaving nothing to chance. God will do everything that needs to be done in order to bring his children home, even allowing his Son to die.

Hymn of Response: “No Weight of Gold or Silver” PsH 374

Closing Hymn: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” PsH 384, PH 101, RL 293, SFL 166, TH 252, TWC 213

Opening Sentences
Give thanks to God, for God is good.
When we were overwhelmed by sin, God atoned for our transgressions.
God lifted me from the pit of sin and set me safely on a rock.
God made me a new creation and gave me a new song to sing.
Thanks be to God for his priceless gift, even his Son, our Savior.
Give thanks to God, for God is good.
—from Arlene M. Mark, Words for Worship, Herald Press, 1996

We Are Reconciled to God

Call to Confession
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. In humility and faith let us confess our sin to God.

Sung Response: “O Christ, the Lamb of God,” women and girls, measures 1-6

Prayer of Confession
Eternal God, our judge and redeemer, we confess that we have tried to hide from you, for we have done wrong. We have lived for ourselves, and apart from you. We have turned from our neighbors, and refused to bear the burdens of others. We have ignored the pain of the world and passed by the hungry, the poor, and the oppressed. Through your atoning love, forgive our sins, and free us from selfishness, that we may choose your will and obey your commandments; through Jesus Christ our Savior.

Sung Response: “O Christ, the Lamb of God,” men and boys, measures 7-12

Assurance of Pardon, based on Isaiah 53:6

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Sung Response: “O Christ, the Lamb of God,” all, measures 13-21

Mary S. Hulst (mary.hulst@gmail.com) is Assistant Professor of Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan. She is an ordained pastor in the Christian Reformed Church.


Reformed Worship 63 © March 2002, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.