I know that spring has arrived, when a patch of dirt by our front lamp post erupts in dark green shoots. Days later a feast of color bursts upon the eye as the tulips fully bloom.
Spring brings also the yearly commemoration of the passion, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. One interesting controversy centers on the scope of Christ’s atonement, and tulips also remind me of this.
By 1610 a controversy had erupted in Holland, over a rift that had emerged between followers of Jacobus Arminius, and the rest of the reformed community who hewed to what we would today call Calvinism, after the theologian John Calvin. Eventually the Synod of Dort (which seated only the Calvinists) settled the matter in 1619 in favor of Calvinism.
The dissidents were known as the “remonstrants” who took issue with five theological points. These points are sometimes called the “Five points of Calvinism”, and they form an acrostic that reminds us of the tulips of Holland:
P-Perseverance of the Saints
A lot could be said about each of these things, but this would get out of hand fairly quickly. I’ll focus on one: The “L” in TULIP is the idea that Christ didn’t actually suffer and die for all humanity. He died only for the Elect, for those particular people who have been chosen by God from the beginning of time to receive his Grace. Jesus seems to have come out and said just this in his upper room discourse on the night before his death (the same occasion that gave us the institution of Communion or the “Lord’s Supper”). As St. John recorded, Jesus prayed aloud for his disciples and all who would believe through them, in what is often referred to as his “high priestly prayer”:
“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. … I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.” (John 16:6, 9; Holy Bible, English Standard Version)
This idea of limited atonement is at one end of a spectrum, the opposite of which would be the idea of Universalism, which teaches that Christ’s atonement is universal in scope and that his death saves everyone, whether they believe or not. No one is lost. Universalism is a very comforting philosophy, but unfortunately only a tortured reading of Jesus’ words would permit one to reach this conclusion. Jesus’ teachings are clear that in the end some are saved, but many will perish. This is a deep and troubling mystery that confounds us. For those who take Jesus’ teachings seriously, Universalism is not a viable option except as a vague hope–in the end only God knows what He will do with Buddhists and agnostics. Universalists are on the fringe of Christianity.
Between these extremes would be the idea that Christ’s death is universal in scope (he died for all) but that not all people will avail themselves of his grace and therefore are not saved–each person must choose whether or not to accept Jesus. He died to take away all sin, and thereby to make salvation available to everyone who chooses in faith to turn to him.
Calvinists and non-Calvinists would tend to agree with the formulation that Christ’s death is “sufficient for all but efficient only for some.” The point of the controversy really comes down to the mysterious interplay between human free will and God’s will. It comes down to whether God intended that only a few be saved, or perhaps rather that He had a blanket desire that everyone be saved, but sadly God’s will is thwarted, as he leaves it up to us and our own free will to decide, each one for himself or herself.
We currently take the position here at this site that both viewpoints are Christian, and within the bounds of orthodox Christian belief. Therefore we don’t take a strong stance. There are faithful people on both sides of this question of free will versus determinism.
What all traditions would agree, is that for you as an individual, if you are a believer, then there is no limitation on God’s grace. Christ’s atonement is as unlimited as it is unmerited. It is shocking in its scope. However heavy a bag of sin you carry, you can lay it all at the cross.
The God of Christianity is the same who was praised by the psalmist for treating us not as we deserve but as children:
For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
Saint Paul probably recalled this when he wrote his letter to the believers in Rome:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39, New International Version).
Reflect on this as you witness the unfolding of the tulips, and the unfolding of the drama of the death and resurrection of our Lord.