September 2010 • Volume XIII, Issue 5
(Our: Vol. 12, Number 11)


    Reprobation and God's Good Pleasure (2)
    Antithetical Living and Witnessing

Reprobation and God’s Good Pleasure (2)

Those who teach a gracious and well-meant gospel offer do not want sovereign reprobation. The curious defence of the defenders of a well-meant offer is not a pious defence of the gospel, nor are these defenders interested in true evangelism; their vendetta is against the doctrine of reprobation. They do not want a sovereign God who accomplishes all his good pleasure in the salvation of the elect and also in the damnation of the reprobate. They are willing to sell the latter in the interests of a god who loves all men and seeks their salvation.

But someone may say, How can God sovereignly accomplish His decree of reprobation and still earnestly and seriously insist that all men repent of sin and believe in Christ? Or, to put it bluntly, How can God’s eternal purpose and counsel sovereignly be realized in the damnation of the wicked and yet it also be true that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Eze. 33:11)?

Such a formulation of the question clearly puts the whole matter on a different level. The question is no longer the rightness or wrongness of a gracious and well-meant gospel offer. The gracious gospel offer is out of the window and has no place in Reformed thought. The question is this: How can a sovereign God realize the counsel He has eternally determined, and yet leave man accountable for his sin? That is an entirely different question, and, as a matter of fact, one with which the church has struggled since the time of Augustine (354-430). It is a question Luther answers in his book, The Bondage of the Will. It is a question Calvin faces in his treatise on God’s eternal predestination. It is a question that is addressed in the Canons of Dordrecht.

Let me quote from the Canons. In the Conclusion of the Canons, the fathers at Dordt answer some vicious charges that were made by the Arminians against the teaching of the Canons on the truth of sovereign predestination. One of the objections that was made by the Arminians was that the doctrine of sovereign predestination (especially reprobation) makes God the author of sin. While that charge is repudiated in the Canons proper, it is also repudiated in the Conclusion. We read there this statement: "[TheSynodrejectsthechargethatpredestinationteaches] that in the same manner in which the election is the fountain and the cause of faith and good works, reprobation is the cause of unbelief and impiety."

The meaning here is clear. Dordt said that election is "the fountain and the cause of faith and good works." That is strong language, and Dordt insists on it. But at the same time, Dordt also says that reprobation is not the cause of unbelief "in the same manner" as faith is the fountain and cause of faith. In other words, reprobation, though sovereign, cannot be said to be the cause of unbelief. The Canons proper say, "It is not the fault of the gospel, nor of Christ offered therein, nor of God, who calls men by the gospel and confers upon them various gifts, that those who are called by the ministry of the Word refuse to come and be converted. The fault lies in themselves ..." (III/IV:9)

In the history of Reformed theology, the orthodox have expressed the truth that God is sovereign and man remains accountable in this way: God sovereignly accomplishes reprobation in the way of man’s unbelief. Dordt rejects the idea that reprobation is the cause of unbelief. Dordt also rejects the error of saying that reprobation is because of unbelief, an idea that makes unbelief the ground for God’s reprobation. And so, the expression has been and is still used: God accomplishes sovereignly his eternal decree of reprobation in the way of unbelief. In this expression, God’s sovereignty is maintained and man’s accountability is preserved.

One may claim that this is hard to understand. I agree. At that point where God’s will touches the will of man in such a way that God’s will is accomplished and man remains accountable before God, we confront a great and wonderful work of God that is beyond our understanding.

But our inability to understand this work of God is, after all, not surprising. What works of God do we understand? Not one of them! We do not understand how a baby is conceived and formed in the womb of its mother and becomes a new person with a soul or spirit. We do not understand how a blade of grass grows in the field, for we do not understand the principle of life that makes this possible. We do not understand how God moves every drop of blood in our veins and arteries by his sovereign and omnipresent power and Godhead. We are feeble and small. We know almost nothing of the greatness of God. We stand in awe of the simplest of His works. We bow in humble adoration before His majesty.

Thus one problem persists in our understanding of the sovereign work of the gospel. Its difficulty may surely not be reason to corrupt the truth. We know with absolute certainty that the God of sovereign election and reprobation does not desire and long for the salvation of all men. We bow before the Scriptures that teach clearly that God has one will in Jesus Christ according to which He accomplishes all His good pleasure. We know to our everlasting shame that we are responsible for every sin we commit and that we deserve everlasting hell. We know that we cannot now, and never will be able to, lay the charge of our sin at God’s feet. And all the wicked in hell will have to confess that they are in hell because of their own refusal to repent of their sin. The righteous shall forever marvel at the greatness of God’s grace and mercy revealed in Jesus Christ that has given such glory to us poor sinners.

The theodicy is the goal of all history: that God is vindicated in all He does and justified in all His works. His righteousness and holiness are vindicated in the everlasting punishment of the wicked; His gracious gift of salvation is magnified in Jesus Christ in whom alone we have our salvation. God is God. To him is all praise and glory forever and ever, world without end. Prof. Hanko

Antithetical Living and Witnessing

Referring to the blessed man of Psalm 1:1 who "walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful," a reader states, "I need to grasp the ‘standing, sitting and walking’ we are not to do with the ungodly ... It is where the ‘rubber hits the road’ in our every day witness. Where does one draw the line in relationships at work, with neighbours, etc?"

This is a good question that involves directly the Reformed doctrine of the antithesis: the unbridgeable, spiritual chasm between the wicked and God’s covenant children that exists because the wicked are of their father the devil, whose works they do, and God’s people are regenerated and called to live in this world by grace, as children of the light and as those who represent the cause of God’s covenant in this world.

The difficulty lies in the fact that we are in the world, though not of the world, as Christ puts it (John 17:15-16). We "rub shoulders" with unbelievers in every aspect of life. Wicked and righteous work together in the same shop or office. Wicked and righteous buy and sell in the same stores. Wicked and righteous are often related to each other, some in very near relationships, others in more distant relationships.

The problem has attracted the attention of theologians for many centuries—and even millennia. Roman Catholic doctrine has traditionally taught that separation from the world is the way for the Christian to maintain the antithesis. Have nothing to do with the world! Crawl into a monastery and venture out only at night and only when absolutely necessary, but scurry back into the safety of a cell lest contact with the world defile one. That is the way to holiness. The old Anabaptists hold to much the same idea.

Others seek to overcome the problem by speaking of a "common grace" that is given to all men, which enables the Christian to have fellowship with those in the world and engage in a common endeavour with ungodly men. As long as both are seeking the same goals (the welfare of the working man, the eradication of abortion, the battle against homosexuality, the conquest of poverty, etc.), it is permissible and even desirable to cooperate in the work.

The biblical and Reformed doctrine of the antithesis condemns both ideas and calls God’s people to a higher realm of service. The key to the life of the antithesis is the calling to be a witness to one’s faith in the world. The antithesis itself is sharply set forth in Psalm 1, Deuteronomy 33:28, II Chronicles 19:2, II Corinthians 6:14–7:1 and many other similar passages. But the calling of God’s people is also to "let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven" (Matt. 5:16). It is indeed at this point that "the rubber hits the road."

Christian liberty is involved here. How one causes his light to shine before men surely differs for one who is in the armed forces from one who lives with an unbelieving spouse. Surely how a Christian doctor lets his light shine before men differs from the calling of one who works in an environment where blasphemy and foul talk are the order of the day. And each must, for himself, in his own station and calling, determine how he is to let his light shine before men.

First, never, never partake with them in Babylon’s evil deeds (Rev. 18:4); never participate in evil. Nor are we to participate in evil with other Christians; nor in our private lives when only God can see what we do. We must not only refuse when we are asked but we must explain why we refuse, pointing to God’s Word and its calling.

Further, our good works must be constant and visible. Our good works shine before men when we never swear, never desecrate the Sabbath, never speak filth, never mock authority. Our good works shine before men when we do what is right: seek God’s blessing at mealtimes (on the job too!), love our wives and children, go to church on the Lord’s Day, are happy and cheerful even in affliction and trial, speak only words of concern, sympathy, love and trust in God. Peter reminds us that, when our light shines before men, they will ask us concerning the hope that is in us. When they do, we are to be ready to give a good defence of our faith; Peter calls it an apology (I Peter 3:15).

This means that we must be ready always and quick to speak of our faith and our hope. There are really two sides to this: the one side is that we condemn the wickedness that is prevalent around us. We tell people that it is sinful to use God’s name in vain and that God will not hold such a man guiltless. We defend the sanctity of marriage and purity of life and speech. In doing this, we must call such men to repentance and faith in Christ. If we love our neighbour as ourselves, then we want them to be saved, and salvation comes through repentance from sin and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.

My father told me of a Christian who complained about being persecuted and ultimately fired for his witness. He worked during World War II on an assembly line that made tanks. But he, when pressed, admitted that he walked up and down the assembly line witnessing to his fellow workers. He had to be told that his witness was to be as hard a worker as he possibly could be first of all. Without this his witness was a farce and his being sacked was not persecution, but what he deserved. Yet, if persecution is the result of our witnessing, we are to bear it as a mark of slavery to Christ.

Our witnessing is not a constant harangue about religion, for then we cast pearls before swine (Matt. 7:6). But we must not keep silence when we ought to speak. Our obligations in our calling are fulfilled when all those with whom we come in contact know we serve Christ and love him, know that we believe and live according to the Scriptures, and know what their own personal obligation before God is.

Each must do this in his own place and station in life. Each must do this, as Peter reminds us, "with meekness and fear" (I Peter 3:15). Each must do this so that God is glorified, for others seeing our good works must glorify our Father in heaven.

The man who walks around in a restaurant asking each of the diners whether he is saved, while he refuses to go to church and give his children godly instruction, is a poor witness and frequently does more harm to the cause of God than the unbeliever.

We are to love our neighbour; our neighbour is the one standing alongside us and sometimes in need of our help. God put him there so that he too may come to know his calling. Whether ultimately he repents of sin or not is irrelevant; God has His purpose. The goal of it all is that God may be glorified and praised whether through His work of salvation or His work of just punishment of the wicked. Prof. Hanko

Covenant Protestant Reformed Church
Lord’s Day services at 11 am & 6 pm • Clarence Street, Ballymena
Pastor: Angus Stewart, 7 Lislunnan Road, Kells, Ballymena, N. Ireland, BT42 3NR