If you’ve been around in the Christian world for very long, you may have heard of the theological acronym TULIP. Many people wonder what this means and what it refers to. Acronyms like TULIP can be helpful, but they can also be misleading. Either way, it’s beneficial to understand where terms like this come from historically.

In short, TULIP is an acronym that refers to a theological system. This all harkens back to a debate, which took place in Holland, in the 1600s between two systems of thought: Arminianism and Calvinism. The founder of the Arminian system was a Dutch theologian named Jacob Arminius (1560–1609). He became a professor of theology at the University of Leyden in 1603 and was a leading opponent of John Calvin, the famous Swiss Reformer whose system became known as Calvinism.

Gradually, followers of Arminius came to reject significant points of Calvin’s teachings and presented their views in what were called the five articles of Arminianism. The controversy spread all over Holland where the Reformed (Calvinistic) Church represented the overwhelming majority.

The official Calvinistic response came from the Synod of Dort, which was held from November 1618 to May 1619, to consider the five articles of Arminianism. As a result, the Synod wrote what has come to be known as the Canons of Dort.

The Canons of Dort state the so-called five points of Calvinism in response to the five articles of the Arminians. In other words, the Calvinists did not choose the five points of Calvinism as a summary of their teaching; rather they emerged as a response to Arminians who chose these five points to disagree with.

The five points of Calvinism gradually evolved into an acronym known as TULIP (John Calvin did not come up with this acronym). Each letter is the first letter for one point of doctrine in response to the Arminian theological system. They are as follows:

Total Depravity: Human beings are spiritually dead in sin/spiritual rebels
Unconditional Election: God has mercy on some spiritual rebels
Limited Atonement: Jesus died for the sins of His people
Irresistible Grace: The Father irresistibly draws His chosen ones
Perseverance of the Saint: Those who are saved cannot be lost—they will persevere

While every theological system has pros and cons, I like this statement from John Piper:

“I do not begin as a Calvinist and defend a system. I begin as a Bible-believing Christian who wants to put the Bible above all systems of thought. But over the years—many years of struggle—I have deepened in my conviction that Calvinistic teachings on the five points are biblical and therefore true, and therefore a precious pathway into deeper experiences of God’s grace.”