The Biblical Doctrine of Reprobation

Written by Timothy A. Williams
From The Protestant Pulpit

imagesOne of the darkest doctrines of Scripture is the doctrine of reprobation.

Calvin includes it under Predestination, which is an act of God “by which  God adopts some to the hope of life and adjudges other to eternal death, no one desirous of credit of piety, dares absolutely to deny” (Institutes III.xxi.5).  We may define the doctrine in the following way: reprobation is God’s eternal purpose, in which He passes some people by with the operations of His special grace and punishes them for their sins to the manifestation of His justice (Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 116).

Therefore, we may say that reprobation, like election, is included within God’s eternal decree and is summarized in the Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 3:3, which states that, ‘By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death.’

Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) and his followers rejected this idea of both election and reprobation. They asserted that men are elected to salvation or reprobated to perdition on the basis of their believing or unbelieving.  In Article 1 of the five articles (1610 prepared, these Dutch advocates of universal asserted,

God by an immutable decree, before he laid the foundations of the world, ordained in Jesus Christ his Son, to save out of the fallen human race, exposed to punishment on account of sin, those in Christ, on account of Christ, and through Christ, who by the grace of the Holy Spirit believe his Son, and who through the same grace persevere in the obedience of faith to the end. And on the other hand (he decreed) to leave in sin and exposed to wrath those who are not converted, and are unbelieving, and to condemn them as aliens from Christ, according to John 3:36.” (Quoted in Wm. Cunningham, “Hist. Theo.,” Vol. 2., p. 463.

Upholding the teachings of the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism and rejecting the Remonstrance put forward by the disciples of Jacob Arminius (1560-1609), the Synod of Dort maintained the doctrine of election and reprobation, affirming that God in His eternal decree softens the hearts of the elect, however obstinate, and inclines them to believe, while He leaves the non-elect in His just judgment to their own wickedness and obduracy:

§ 7: “But election is the immutable purpose of God, by which, before the foundations of the world were laid, he chose, out of the whole human race, fallen by their own fault from their primeval integrity into sin and destruction, according to the most free good pleasure of his own will, and of mere grace, a certain number of men, neither better nor worthier than others, but lying in the same misery with the rest, to salvation in Christ, whom he had ever from eternity constituted Mediator and Head of all the elect, and the foundation of salvation.

§ 9. This same election is not made from any foreseen faith, obedience of faith, holiness, or any other good quality or disposition, as a prerequisite cause or condition in the man who should be elected, but unto faith, and unto obedience of faith, and holiness. And truly election is the fountain of every saving benefit; whence faith, holiness, and other salutary gifts, and, finally, eternal life itself flow as its fruit and effect.

§ 15. Moreover, holy Scripture doth illustrate and commend to us this eternal and free grace of our election, in this more especially, that it doth also testify all men not to be elected, but that some are non–elect, or passed by in the eternal election of God, whom truly God, from most free, just, irreprehensible and immutable good pleasure, decreed to live in the common misery, into which they had, by their own fault, cast themselves, and not to bestow upon them living faith and the grace of conversion.”

Those who are passed over are those who God has not chosen to soften so that they can be inclined to believe the free offer of the Gospel. This group is instead ordained to dishonor and wrath for their sin, for the praise of the glorious justice of God. Repeatedly, we are told that this was is based upon justice.  Sin is the reason why some are judicially punished by God. The non–elect are “ordained to dishonor and wrath for their sins, to the praise of his glorious justice.” (Westminster Confession Faith,” Ch. 3, sec. 3–7; cf.  Larger Catechism, Question 13;Shorter Catechism, Question 20.

Calvin himself makes this same assertion. For example, in his comments on Isaiah 6:2, he states, “Such blinding and hardening influence does not arise out of the nature of the word, but is accidental, and must be ascribed exclusively to the depravity of man.”  Again, in his comments on Genesis 50:20, he makes the following point:

This truly must be generally agreed, that nothing is done without [God’s sovereign] will; because he both governs the counsels of men, and sways their wills and turns their efforts at his pleasure, and regulates all events: but if men undertake anything right and just, he so actuates and moves them inwardly by his Spirit, that whatever is good in them, may justly be said to be received from him: but if Satan and ungodly men rage, he acts by their hands in such an inexpressible manner, that the wickedness of the deed belongs to them, and the blame of it is imputed to them. For they are not induced to sin, as the faithful are to act aright, by the impulse of the Spirit, but they are the authors of their own evil, and follow Satan as their leader. Thus we see that the justice of God shines brightly in the midst of the darkness of our iniquity. For as God is never without a just cause for his actions, so men are held in the chains of guilt by their own perverse will.

Sin, however, is not the reason why God has not chosen them to receive the grace of regeneration. God’s will was not to show them mercy, and He did this by withholding from them saving faith and the grace of conversion. “God elects as sons those whom he pleases, according to the good pleasure of his will, without any regard to merit, while rejecting and reprobating others” (Calvin, Institutes. III.xxiii.10; cf. III.xxii.11; III.23.1).  When we look to the salvation of men, it is must attributed to God alone, but if we are to see the cause of their damnation, it must rest upon their own sin. William Perkins said that it is God’s will “to permit someone to fall into sin, and to afflict the punishment of damnation for sin” (De Praedestinationis Modo et Ordine. Cambridge 1598, p. 22).   In reprobration, there is a negative act in passing over and leaving one in sin, and a positive act of judging the person for their sin. Reprobation comprises preterition and condemnation or damnation. W. T. G. Shedd comments on the importance of this:

Much of the attack upon the general tenet of reprobation arises from overlooking this distinction. The following characteristics mark the difference between the two. (a) Preterition is a sovereign act; condemnation is a judicial act. God passes by or omits an individual in the bestowment of regenerating grace because of his sovereign good pleasure (eudokia).   But he condemns this individual to punishment, not because of his sovereign good pleasure, but because this individual is a sinner. To say that God condemns a man to punishment because he pleases is erroneous; but to say that God omits to regenerate a man because he pleases is true. (b) The reason of condemnation is known; sin is the reason. The reason of preterition is unknown. It is not sin, because the elect are as sinful as the nonelect. (c) In preterition, God’s action is permissive, inaction rather than action. In condemnation, God’s action is efficient and positive.

The notion that God shows mercy to some people and not to others can be seen in Romans 9:13.  Here Paul notes that it was God’s will and purpose to show mercy to Jacob, but that it was not His will and purpose to show mercy to Esau. Paul does not see God as being unjust by loving Jacob and hating Esau, who are the representatives of Israel and Edom respectively (9:13). Instead, he sees it as the sovereign choice and good pleasure of God to love Jacob and hate Esau.

There are some scholars, while seeking to avoid the obvious force of this passage, seek to interpret it as a reference to the fate of nations, rather than the predestination and reprobation of individuals. However, such efforts have not yet fully successfully explained how the corporate election of two peoples, Israel and Edom in Romans 9:12, 13, fits together in Paul’s argument with the statement that not all who are descended from Israel are Israel (9:6b).

Douglas Moo gives expands on this reason to interpret Paul as referring to Jacob and Esau as individuals. First, Paul mentions their conception, birth and works (Rom. 9:10b-11a). This language, he argues, is not easily applied to nations. Second, several of the key words and phrases that Paul uses in this passage are words he generally uses elsewhere with reference to the attaining of salvation; and significantly, they occur with this sense in texts closely related to this one: “election” (Rom. 11:5, 7); “call” (Rom. 8:28), and “[not] of works” (Rom. 4:2-8, 11:6). Similarly, these words are difficult to apply to nations, or peoples, because Paul did not believe that people or nations – not even Israel – are chosen and called by God for salvation apart from their works (Moo, Romans, 585).

What is vitally important here is that Paul does not regard God as being unjust in choosing one above the other (Rom. 9:14).  This is because none deserves his mercy, for all are sinful. So when God decides to bestow mercy and compassion on some and not on others, it is His sovereign prerogative to do so. This same Godly prerogative also applies if He chooses to harden some sinners (Rom. 9:18). God reserves absolute liberty in the exercise of His mercy and compassion, yet this should not imply that God has an arbitrary and capricious attitude to humanity, because Romans 9:15 shows us that God delights to show mercy.  This is the very point that divines at the Synod of Dort make in their opening remarks on election and reprobation:

Since all people have sinned in Adam and have come under the sentence of the curse and eternal death, God would have done no one an injustice if it had been his will to leave the entire ­human race in sin and under the curse, and to condemn them on account of their sin. As the apostle says: “The whole world is liable to the condemnation of God” (Rom. 3:19), “All have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), and “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Canons of Dort, I/II.1

It also shows that judgment is His strange work (Isa. 28:21). If not all are chosen to become the elect people of God, then this means that those whom God has passed over are those whom He has rejected. Both election and reprobation stand and fall together – one cannot exist without the other (cf. Rom 9:13). Calvin made this point in the Institutes: Many . . . as if they wished to avert odium from God, admit election in such a way as to deny that anyone is reprobated. But this puerile and absurd, because election itself could not exist without being opposed to reprobation (Institutes, III.xxiii.1).

Paul does not see as problematic the fact that God chooses to show His wrath and make His power known by bearing with great patience the objects of his wrath prepared for destruction (9:22). Paul seems to be saying in Romans 9:22-24 that God ordains both the objects of mercy and the objects of wrath. This double emphasis on predestination, however, is not one of equal ultimacy, because God chooses the eternal destiny of men from those who are already fallen. God as the Potter has the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use (Rom. 9:21).

Because God is sovereign, He can pass over some and leave them in their sin, or He can choose to save some from their sin and make them His beloved people. God’s saving intentions can thus be restricted to a proportion of humanity, because if He had loved the non-elect in the same manner as the elect He would have made them the recipients of His regenerating grace, thus enabling them to repent (Acts 11:18) and have faith in Christ (2 Pet. 1:1). Because He did not, they remain in their current state as objects of wrath (Eph. 2:3) and so continue to be dead in their transgressions and sins (2:1).

It is often wrongly concluded from the fact that God reprobates some that He has no common grace or general love for mankind. John Davenant, one of the leading British delegates to the Synod of Dort stated, “Reprobation is not a denial of sufficient grace, but a denial of such special grace, as God knoweth would infallibly bring them to glory.” Shedd likewise notes,

The reprobate resist and nullify common grace; and so do the elect. The obstinate selfishness and enmity of the human heart defeats divine mercy as shown in the ordinary influences of the Holy Spirit, in both the elect and nonelect: “You stiff-necked, you do always resist the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:51). The difference between the two cases is that in the instance of the elect God follows up the common grace which has been resisted with the regenerating grace which overcomes the resistance, while in the instance of the reprobate he does not. It is in respect to the bestowment of this higher degree of grace that St. Paul affirms that God “has mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardens [i.e., does not soften].”

Sadly, while the reprobate is the recipient of common grace, this common grace only augments his damnation. From the Word of God, the reprobate are “accustomed to form stones to dash themselves upon” (Calvin, Comment on John 6:60). They “suck venom from the most wholesome food, and gall from honey” (Ibid., Comment on John 6:66).  “God offers his word indiscriminately to the good and bad, but it works by his Spirit in the elect, as I have already said; and as to the reprobate, the doctrine is useful, as it renders them without excuse” (Ibid., Comment on Ezekiel 2:3).

Seeing that we do not know who the elect and the reprobate are, we are to give the gospel to all. “And as we cannot distinguish between the elect and the reprobate, it is our duty to pray for all who trouble us; to desire the salvation of all men; and even to be careful for the welfare of every individual” (Calvin, Comment on Psalm 109:16).  And no man should rashly conclude that he been reprobated by God, and we should not conclude them to be (See Calvin’s Comment on 1 John 5:16). Each person should take the offer of the Gospel immediately and without delay.

Now, then, the blame lies solely with ourselves, if we do not become partakers of this salvation; for he calls all men to himself, without a single exception, and gives Christ to all, that we may be illuminated by him. Let us only open our eyes, he alone will dispel  the darkness, and illuminate our minds by the “light” of truth (Calvin, Comment on Isaiah 42:6).