November 3, 2016

Five tulips in one field: Revelation 13:8-10

by Jesse Johnson
Image result for five tulips

photo by Roger Meador

The “five points of Calvinism” are a mnemonic approach to understanding the complexity of our salvation. The doctrine of salvation can seem complicated because it incorporates hamartiology (the effects of sin on a person’s nature), Christology (the nature of Christ), theology proper (the sovereignty of God), and pneumatology (the work of the Holy Spirit). To put it another way, our salvation intersects with just about every major area of theology, and the five-points help us understand what exactly is going on when God saves us.

The five-points are often presented in an acronym form (T-U-L-I-P), and that is fitting because the whole point of extracting these five particular points of emphasis is to help us think memorably about salvation. While they are called the five points of Calvinism, they were not designed by John Calvin—although they do reflect some of the emphasis of his ministry, it is unfair to his legacy to confine it to the five points.

While the five points themselves were identified in the 1600’s, the acronym T-U-L-I-P didn’t come into use until the 1900’s in the United States (say what you will about Americans, but we are good at acronyms).

A common push back against the five points is to claim that they are an invention of man, and are not found in the Bible. In a limited sense I grant that is true: the phrase “total depravity’ is not in the Bible (nor is I suppose is “theology”), but the concepts themselves are obviously biblical, and there is no shortage of resources that make strong cases for them (like this long-form article on Desiring God, or an 8-part Grace To You series, or a 30-minute John MacArthur video).

But this year, I stumbled across a new (to me) approach to the five points. In studying for a sermon on Revelation 13:8-10, I realized that all five points are represented in this single concise passage:

All who dwell on the earth will worship the beast, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain. If anyone has an ear, let him hear.  If anyone is destined for captivity, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he must be killed. Here is the perseverance and the faith of the saints.

T—Total Depravity

“All who dwell on the earth will worship the beast.” John declares that during the tribulation, every human will worship the beast, and by extension, the antichrist. Revelation 13:7 expressly says that it will include people from every ethnic group, language group, and nation. Verse 16 says that “all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave” will worship the antichrist. In other words, every human has the capacity to worship the devil and believe his lies.

It’s not just that humans are sinners. Total depravity means that we worship that which is evil. Nor is this confined to some future eschatological judgement on earth. Back before the flood God had already said that “every inclination of people’s hearts is only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). Total Depravity doesn’t mean that people are as evil as they could be, but it does mean that every one of their actions, inclinations, and desires are all corrupted by sin; so much so that they will worship the antichrist, were he on earth. You could say it this way: there is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who seeks for God; all have turned their own way.

This depravity is exactly what makes our salvation necessary.

U-Unconditional Election

“Everyone whose name has not been written from before the foundation of the world in the book of life.” While everyone is born depraved, and with the inclination toward worshiping the devil’s lies, that is not the end of the story. There is a sub-group of people that will be rescued from this, and they all have one thing in common: their names were written by God before the world was even created.

If you are a Christian, marvel that before your parents even met, God already knew you by name. Before our country was formed, before God spoke light into darkness, he knew you, and he knew you by name.

He didn’t know you because he saw that would do something good in your life. Rather, before you were “even born, or had done anything good or bad, in order that God’s purpose in election might stand,” God wrote the names down of the people whom he would save.

He didn’t write everyone’s name down. Also, he didn’t write family names, or church names, or nation’s names. That’s because he doesn’t save nations, churches or families—he saves people, people whom he has known before they were even alive.

John presents this book as the causal effect for why one group of people does not worship the antichrist. There will be lots of differences between them and the rest of humanity (holiness, purity, worship, faith, etc.). But none of those are presented as the causal difference. John instead identifies this book with names as what separates those who will be saved from those that will perish resisting the gospel. And this book was written before anyone was born.

This election is what makes our salvation possible.

L-Limited Atonement

“..the book of life of the Lamb that was slain.” While I prefer the phrase “definite atonement” or “particular redemption,” those would mess up the acronym, so we are stuck with limited atonement, which is probably the most controversial of the five points.

But when you look at the book John sees, you see one of the places this doctrine comes from. The book is titled “The Book of Life,” and the copyright date is “before Day 1.” The content is a list of names. But closer inspection reveals that this book has a subtitle: “The Book of Life: of the Lamb that was slain.”

The book which describes whom God will save was written in light of the means by which God would save them. Jesus did not simply die a generic death for people everywhere, but a specific death to take away the punishment for the sins of specific, named people.

The Lamb indicates that the death was substitutionary and efficacious. Jesus’ death was in our place, and was effective at removing the sins of all for whom he died—even the sin of unbelief. In fact, once the Lamb died, our salvation was so accomplished that Jesus himself could declare, “It is finished!” (John 19:30).

The atonement is what accomplishes our salvation.

I- Irresistible Grace

“If anyone has an ear, let him hear.” John inserts a refrain from the seven letters (Revelation 2-3), which serves as an appeal for those who are spiritual to see the spiritual truth which he is describing. And of course this is an adaptation of Jesus’ own explanation of why he taught in parables: “So that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven” (Mark 4:12).

If Jesus accomplished our salvation at the cross, how come people whose names are in the book of life spend much of their lives running from God and rejecting the gospel? Because of their depravity they are unwilling to turn and be saved, and this remains until God gives them spiritual ears to hear. This is called regeneration, and it has the effect of opening a person’s eyes to the truth, so that they can turn and be saved.

This happens in time, through the preaching of the word and the gift of faith. It is a work of the Holy Spirit (John 3:8), and it results in a person able to hear spiritual truth through their faith (1 Corinthians 1:18;  2 Corinthians 2:15, 4:3).

This grace is what makes our salvation a reality.

P—Perseverance of the Saints

“If anyone is destined for captivity, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he must be killed. Here is the perseverance and the faith of the saints.” John now quotes Jeremiah 15:1-6, which was Yahweh’s response to Jeremiah’s question. Yahweh told Jeremiah to evacuate Jerusalem, and the question was, “where, exactly, should they all go?”

God’s proposed destinations were less than encouraging. He said that some of them could be killed by the beasts, some by birds, some by famine, and some by plagues. In short, if God wants them to go to jail, to jail they will go. If he has chosen some of them for death by the sword, then by the sword they will die.

What is that reference doing in Revelation 13? Well for Christians under the antichrist’s reign of terror, they too might wonder “Where should we go?” The answer is simple: God has already chosen each person’s end. Some the antichrist will throw in jail, and some he will kill with the sword. But despite their martyrdom, the antichrist cannot take their salvation away. They may die a martyr’s death, but their names cannot be removed from the book of life. The cannot take Jesus off the cross, and he cannot take the Spirit out of believer’s hearts. And because their names are in the book, and Jesus did die for their sins, and they do have spiritual ears to hear, then they will overcome. Or, as John says, “this is the perseverance of the saints.”

Such a promise encourages believers to hold onto the grace that is holding onto them. It compels us to trust God even in the midst of horrific persecution.

This perseverance is what makes our salvation a certainty.

Taken together, these verses explain salvation by showing:

The condition that required it (depravity)

The predestination that allows it (election)

The substitution that achieves it (atonement)

The illumination that gives it (regenerative grace)

The sovereignty that keeps it (perseverance).

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Alex

    I’m grateful for the way that you consistently demonstrate the immediate and practical benefits of reading and studying the book of Revelation. It seems that many Christians either view this beautiful letter from John as unhelpful in our current Christian lives, or as an unintelligible code book of future events. Thank you for demonstrating how and where we can “stop and smell the tulips.”