God’s Power and Man’s Free Will – Part 3 – Graphical TULIPs

In this post we will continue to explore that age-old dilemma of reconciling the infinite power of God with the existence of man’s free will as it pertains to man’s Salvation.

In my last post I presented in written form a summary of the Calvinist position on Salvation. [These beliefs are often referred to with the acronym TULIPtulip-pic which stands for Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints.]

I believe that TULIP represents an unreasonable theological position because if you believe TULIP, then you must also believe some rather uncomfortable ideas about the nature of God and man (which we’ll discuss later). It’s certainly true that discussions about Salvation can get very complicated very quickly and TULIP is no exception. Here at SimpleCatholicTruth we strive to explain the complicated in simple terms. Therefore, I thought we’d have some fun and look at TULIP in cartoon/graphical form.  Let’s get started:

“T” – Total Depravity

John Calvin and TULIP says:

As fallen mankind, we are Totally Depraved. If we were a car, John Calvin would say that we were in an accident and are now “totaled.” According to TULIP, we are completely destroyed, with all potential, utility and goodness now forever gone. We are no longer an automobile.



But, the SimpleCatholicTruth is:

Yes, after the fall we suffer the effects of original sin. We have lost the supernatural life of God within us and eternal life in heaven is lost. But we are not a total wreck, it’s more like we are broken down.


It’s true as fallen mankind we are stuck, we can not move. We need help. But, we are still unique creatures, created in His image and likeness with the potential to love in a divine way.

Take a good look the image above. We still have tires and a motor and maybe some gas in the tank. But nothing works. The battery is dead, the car won’t start, maybe the tires need air and we are stranded out in the middle of nowhere. On our own, we are completely helpless. We need the grace of God. In our fallen state, we can’t even desire God without His help. The Church teaches us that in our fallen state, we need God’s initial grace to begin the process of reconciliation.

Calvin thought of fallen man as a totally depraved creature but the SimpleCatholicTruth is that even fallen, we are unique creatures made in His image and likeness. Yes, we are broken and in need God’s grace to begin healing. However, God desires all to heaven (1 Tim 2:4) so we must not cry, because we have hope in His promise. Help is on the way.

“U” – Unconditional Election

John Calvin and TULIP says:

God selects those for heaven based solely on His divine will. Those that end up in heaven are referred to as the “elect”, those going to hell are called the “reprobate.”


Looking at the diagram above which represents the “U” in Calvin’s TULIP, we see that from a group of fallen mankind, God has unilaterally chosen the elect and the reprobate remain – “left behind.”  One problem with this view is that it reduces salvation to one-way, one-time event, somewhere in a person’s life being completely directed by God. Although this view properly affirms God’s ultimate power, it completely ignores man’s free will and purpose of creation and life itself. Even worse is the implication that an all-knowing God created some humans in His image and likeness with the intent of sending them to Hell. To me that sounds like a monstrous God, not a God of perfect love, justice and mercy.

But, the SimpleCatholicTruth is:

Instead of thinking of salvation as a unilateral, Unconditional action whereby God pulls us from the crowd by our collars and tosses us into heaven, I think it better to think of salvation as a gift from God. A totally undeserved, unmerited gift offered by a perfect loving God.








Note in this image the gift of salvation being extended to mankind. Also, note that like all gifts, this unmerited gift of salvation needs to be accepted by mankind. It is in this act of acceptance that mankind’s free will is necessary.

Keeping the gift exchange image in mind, we see that salvation is a process that is both unconditional in one sense,  and conditional in another sense. The grace that leads to salvation is unconditionally offered to all human persons in one way or another. Since fallen mankind is like a broken down car unable to move on its own, the mere offer of salvation itself is accompanied by the graces to accept. Initially, God gives us the graces needed to become enlightened, and enables each person to freely accept or freely reject subsequent saving graces.

Salvation is also conditional. We are not saved only by the offer of salvation or an act of election. We are called by God to respond to the offer of salvation with repentance and love. Some will say that accepting the gift reduces the power of God, or even worse it tries to elevate the power of man. However, keep in mind that fallen man is broken down and unable to move without the grace of God. So yes, we must reach out and accept the gift, but even the ability to respond is enabled by the grace of God.

We Catholics must disagree with the strict Calvinist’s idea of unconditional election is so far as this concept rejects the role of mankind’s free will in salvation.

“L” – Limited Atonement

John Calvin and TULIP says:

The term atonement is used to describe the effects of Jesus Christ’s ultimate sacrifice of the cross. There are many theories of why and how this works which we will not explore at this time. However, as Christians we know that Christ’s work of atonement on the cross opened the doors of heaven to us all. Unfortunately, the third letter of TULIP essentially says that Christ’s atoning sacrifice on Calvary is Limited to those that God called as elect.


In the above diagram, I’m trying to communicate the Calvinist belief that Jesus Christ’s death on the cross only applies to a subset of God’s creation, i.e. to the elect. In other words, a Calvinist would claim that Christ did not die for all men. For the sake of time, I’ll simply remind everyone that the Bible provides numerous evidences that Christ came to save the entire world (1 John 2:2, 1 Tim 4:10 etc.)

But, the SimpleCatholicTruth is:

We have seen that a strict Calvinist holds that man is totally depraved “T”, and that man is elected unconditionally “U” (free will plays no part in salvation). That Calvinist therefore is logically forced to maintain that Christ’s atonement is limited to the elect since we all know that the Bible tells us that some will go to heaven and some will go to hell.

The Catholic teaching on atonement is not burdened by this logical difficulty.atonement-earth
Catholic teaching holds that Christ’s redeeming work on the cross was completely and perfectly sufficient for the salvation of all mankind.

But some might be asking, if Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross was perfect then how can it be that some go to hell. The answer again involves the fact that man has a free will to either accept the free gift of salvation or reject it.

Of course, Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary was perfect in the sense that the forgiveness of sins and the offering of eternal salvation applies to all mankind. However, forgiveness of sins requires repentance of the sinner in order to be effective. Theologians would say that the sacrifice on Calvary was perfectly sufficient for the salvation of all, but limited in effectiveness by the free will of mankind.

So we see that the atonement is not limited, for that would contradict Holy Scripture, but it’s effectiveness can be limited by the free will choices of mankind.

“I” – Irresistible Grace

John Calvin and TULIP says:

Calvin would say that if God decides to give a person the grace that enables him to come to salvation, then that person always responds and never rejects that saving grace. This is another way of ignoring or rejecting the free will of mankind. To Calvin, it would seem like God grabs a person and drags them off to heaven much like a police officer might handcuff a person before taking them to jail. The destination of jail is irresistible.


Now some might argue that what’s the harm if God forces you to heaven? Okay, that sounds good on the surface, but how do you explain the reverse when God “forces” someone to hell? Is that the action of a just and merciful God? I don’t think so.

But, the SimpleCatholicTruth is:

We know from scripture that some people will go to heaven and some will go to hell. It’s also clear that man needs the grace of God for salvation. It’s impossible for a perfectly loving God to act with such cruelty and evil as to send one of His creatures to eternal misery. Therefore, man must have some ability to reject God’s saving grace. In other words, God’s grace at some point must be resistible.

Theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas address these facts by acknowledging that there are two kinds of grace from God. The first type of grace, he calls prevenient grace. This initial gift from God provides our knowledge of good and evil, lets us understand the goodness of God, but also enables us with a free will to act and choose. To use the the criminal example once again,consultation this initial grace would be like a person being instructed in the rule of law including the rationale and punishments. It’s important to note that this initial (prevenient) grace is irresistible. If it were not, then a person would never be ultimately responsible for subsequent decisions relating to heaven or hell. We know that God grants this prevenient grace to all human persons without distinction because Scripture tells us that God is perfect love, is perfectly just and desires all to heaven.

The second kind of grace that the theologians talk of is what the Catholic Church calls “Sanctifying Grace” and it is completely resistible. It is this grace that transforms us into a new creation and establishes our eternal destiny. In our lives we make the free will choice to accept or reject God and that decision defines our eternal destiny.

The concept of rewards and punishments (i.e. of legitimate justice) and of heaven and hell, only make sense when if we look at grace in the two-tiered manner just described. Some grace is irresistible and some is resistible. Ignoring this difference or conflating the two leads to the heresy promoted by John Calvin.

Final judgment and the resultant eternity in either heaven or hell can only be just when mankind knows right from wrong and then has free will to choose.final-judgement






“P” – Perseverance of the Saints (Once Saved, Always Saved)

John Calvin and TULIP says:

Calvinists teach that if a person ends up in a state of saving grace, then he can never depart from that state. Of course this belief is the natural artifact required of a belief system that completely rejects the contribution of man’s free will.jail Again, using our previous legal analogy, Calvin would most certainly support the notion of “Once in Jail; Always in Jail” or the converse statement of “Once not in Jail, Never in Jail.”



But, the SimpleCatholicTruth is:

Throughout our lives, we continually have the natural ability to accept or reject God. Even if we are in a state of Sanctifying Grace, we retain our free will thus allowing us the possibility (however unlikely) of changing our mind and rejecting God. Even if we have rejected God in the past, we will until our death have the ability to repent and receive the full saving atoning grace of Jesus Christ.

Scripture is abundantly clear that salvation can be lost as evidenced by 1 Pet 2:20-22, 1 Cor 15: 1-2 and Col 1:21-23 to list just a few passages.

Remember, as the infamous Yogi once said, “It ain’t over ’till it’s over.” (Yogi 1: 1-3)yogi


Okay, this posting went way too long but I hope that you got the message. In Catholic teaching, there is no conflict between the ultimate power and providence of God and the fact that man was created with a free will.

Not only does a conflict not exist, but man’s free will is an essential element to the plan of salvation put in place by our perfectly loving and just God.



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