Reformed Christianity has various terms that some people might ask: what does that mean? One of those terms is “The Doctrines of Grace.” What does that phrase mean? That’s a good question!
First of all, think about the phrase itself. “Doctrine” in this context means the teaching of Scripture. “Grace” means God’s grace. But in this context “grace” specifically means God’s grace in saving sinful people. Salvation is by grace, not works (Eph. 2:1-10). All that to say, this phrase (the doctrines of grace) means “the teaching from Scripture about God graciously saving sinners.” But that’s a mouthful! So we say, “the doctrines of grace.”
Second, although the doctrines of grace are found both in the OT and the NT, at one point in history they came to the forefront of Christian theology. Around the year 1600 some in the Dutch Reformed churches began to teach things that didn’t line up with the Reformed confessions. These teachings were written in a series of points (the five articles of remonstrance, or protest). Basically, the points said that 1) God elects people conditionally (based on their faith), 2) Christ died for every person, but didn’t secure salvation for anyone, 3) people are not completely sinful, but can come to faith with some help from God, 4) God’s saving grace can be resisted, and 5) true Christians can lose their salvation. Today we refer to these teachings as Arminian doctrine or Arminianism.
Here’s where the doctrines of grace come in. The Dutch Reformed church called a meeting to deal with these non-Reformed teachings. This meeting was named the Synod of Dort and it met from 1618-1619. The synod ended up writing the document which is now called “The Canons of Dort.” This document counters the five points of remonstrance by explaining from Scripture that 1) God’s election is unconditional. It is based on his will, not a person’s faith.(1) 2) Christ died to actually save his people, God’s elect.(2) 3) All people are totally depraved - that is, dead in sin and unable to come to faith apart from a renewing work of the Spirit in their hearts and minds.(3) 4) God’s saving grace is irresistible.(4) 5) True believers cannot ultimately fall away because God will certainly preserve them.(5) For more information, it would be very beneficial to read through the Canons of Dort.
This discussion may ring a bell for some of you. Yes, the five points that the Canons of Dort sets forth have been called the Five Points of Calvinism or TULIP (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited/definite atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints). However, John Calvin (along with Martin Luther and other Reformers) did not want their teaching to bear their own names since the teachings were biblical. They didn’t make them up! Therefore, it’s probably best to refer to these five doctrines that the Canons of Dort so well explained “The Doctrines of Grace.” Indeed, these teachings which are ultimately found in Scripture highlight God’s amazing grace in saving sinners!
David Steele, Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented, 2nd Ed.
Edwin Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism: A Study Guide
James Montgomery Boice, The Doctrines of Grace
Michael Horton, For Calvinism
Richard Phillips, What’s So Great about The Doctrines of Grace?
Shane Lems: The Doctrines of Grace: Student Edition
Expanded Explanation on the Doctrines of Grace
About the Author
Pastor Shane Lems (MDiv, Westminster Seminary California) is currently the pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Hammond, WI (CPC’s Facebook Link). His interests include systematic theology, church history, hermeneutics, biblical studies, the study of religions, and homiletics. He reviews/discusses books on his site, The Reformed Reader.