Sovereign Reprobation

Rev. Gise J. Van Baren

There is something concerning God's eternal decree of predestination, and particularly the decree of reprobation, which seems immediately to arouse the ire of man. Mention election or reprobation, and man closes his ears. Send to him material on such a subject, and he will return it with the acid comment, "I don't want such stuff in my mailbox." Even John Calvin, that noted Reformer and champion of the truth of predestination, is reported to have called reprobation "that horrible decree" (though that is not an accurate translation of his statement). Why is there such opposition to these decrees of God? Is perhaps the reason for opposition to this truth because it particularly exalts the Sovereign God alone and teaches that man is but a mere creature? The truth of predestination puts man in his proper place. Is this why man so strongly objects?

Is there such a thing as reprobation? Usually reprobation is denied. But, will you be willing to make a careful study of Scriptural passages on this point? The teaching of Scripture must stand, for it is the Word of God.

Reprobation is that eternal will, good pleasure, or purpose of God according to which He determined that some of His moral, rational creatures would be cast into hell forever on account of their sins; and that this fact would serve the cause of Christ and redound to God's glory alone.

Before condemning the idea of reprobation out of hand, let us consider what the Word of God declares. There are several pertinent passages which speak on this subject. Possibly the clearest statements concerning reprobation can be found in Romans 9. There we read of Jacob and Esau, that before they were ever born or had done good or evil, God said, "Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated" (v. 13). Of Pharaoh, whose heart God had hardened so that he would not Israel go from Egypt, we read, "Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might show my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout the earth" (v. 17). Romans 9 mentions also that "whom he will, he hardeneth" (vs. 18), and it speaks of "vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction" (vs. 22).

What other conclusion can be drawn from these passages but that they teach plainly that God reprobates some to hell because of their sin? God hardens whom He will; He fits some to destruction. Other passages of Scripture are equally clear. We read, for instance, in I Peter 2:8, "...a rock of offense, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed." Or again, we read in John 10:26, "But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you." These and other passages show that God determines the actions of sinful men (as He did with Pharaoh in the time of Moses), and that these actions are eternally determined by God.

The confessions of the churches of the Reformed faith emphatically teach this truth of reprobation. We read in the Canons of Dordt, the First Head of Doctrine, Article 15: "What peculiarly tends to illustrate and recommend to us the eternal and unmerited grace of election, is the express testimony of sacred Scripture, that not all, but some only are elected, while others are passed by in the eternal decree; whom God, out of his sovereign, most just, and irreprehensible and unchangeable good pleasure, hath decreed to leave in the common misery into which they have willfully plunged themselves, and not to bestow upon them saving faith and the grace of conversion. But permitting them in his just judgment to follow their own ways, at last for the declaration of his justice, to condemn and punish them forever, not only on account of their unbelief, but also for all their other sins. And this is the decree of reprobation which by no means makes God the author of sin (the very thought of which is blasphemy), but declares him to be an awful, irreprehensible, and righteous judge and avenger thereof."

Does this mean that the reprobate, no matter what he does, whether good or evil, is damned to hell? God forbid that such should be the case, or that one should ever teach that. This question, however, is deliberately deceiving. The reprobate are incapable of doing any good. Consider first that all men in Adam are dead in sin (Rom. 5:12). That plainly means that every man born into this world is wholly incapable of doing any good and is inclined to all evil (see also Romans 3). There is not even the remotest possibility that good works, pleasing to our God, could ever proceed from that dead sinner. Can a physically dead person eat or drink? Far less could the sinner ever perform good deeds. God's grace is not given to the reprobate; they are not in Jesus Christ; and therefore they can do nothing pleasing to God.

Secondly, the reprobate are always damned to eternal hell in the way of their own sin. It is true that God determined what their final end would be -- and that He did so before they were ever born. In what other way could one possibly interpret the passages quoted earlier? But the wicked are definitely cast into the torments of hell because of their own evil acts. Never can they point their finger at God, declaring, "God has forced me to do that which was contrary to His will; the fault therefore lies with God and not with me." The wicked reprobate consciously and willingly sin, and for that sin they shall surely be cast into eternal desolation.

One of the many Scriptural passages which indicate this, is found in Luke 11:49-51, "Therefore also said the wisdom of God, I will send them prophets and apostles, and some of them they shall slay and persecute: that the blood of all the prophets, which was shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation; from the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zacharias which perished between the altar and the temple: verily I say unto you, It shall be required of this generation."

But, you ask, is God not then unjust? Is it not terribly unfair on God's part to determine that any should perish? What kind of God is He? We may not have such charges, friend. Who do we think that God is? Do we think that God must conform to our puny reasoning? Since when does the Almighty God owe to any man eternal life? Why should the Sovereign of heaven and earth be required to bestow His grace upon all? Must God bring every moral-rational creature into heaven? "Nay, but O man, who art thou that repliest against God?" (Rom. 9:20). The potter has power over the clay, says Scripture, to make of the same lump one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor (Rom. 9:21). Is God unjust when He does with His own as He sees fit? I confess that I cannot penetrate into the depths of the wisdom of God and explain why such an one would be reprobated, and another elected. All I can say, with Scripture, is that God does all things to His own good pleasure to the glory of His own Name.

Another question arises. Why, if God determines all things, should there even be any reprobate wicked? Why would God, from before the foundations of the world, determine that some should be cast into hell because of the sins they perform? If God truly directs all things, could not He indeed have prevented sin, and rather determined that all men should enjoy the blessings of eternal life? These are troubling questions.

There are several Scriptural reasons God reprobates certain creatures to eternal hell.

In the first place, the decree of reprobation must somehow serve to glorify the Name of God. God, the Sovereign One, directs all things that His glory might the more fully be revealed. This is true for everything without exception. Do not the twenty-four elders of Revelation 4 cry out, "Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive all glory and honor and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created" (vs. 11)? But how, you might ask, can reprobation serve to reveal the glory of God in the best possible way? Through the decree of reprobation, God reveals His eternal hatred and wrath against sin and punishment of the workers of iniquity. Apart from God's decree of reprobation this would never have been so clearly revealed. This contrast is suggested in I John 1:5: "This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all." The same is found in John 1, especially verse 5, "And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not." Do you object? Does not that Sovereign Potter have power over the clay also to fashion vessels of dishonor to serve His own pleasure and to reveal His own glory and goodness?

Secondly, one can understand the reason for the existence of reprobate wicked when he begins to see the whole of God's plan. In Holy Scripture it becomes very evident that the heart or center of all the counsel or plan of God is Christ -- and in Christ is the church. God would reveal His glory in the highest possible way by gathering a particular people in Jesus Christ His only begotten Son. This is the truth of which we read in Ephesians 1:4-6: "According as He hath chosen us in him (Christ) before the foundation of the world... having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to Himself according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace...."

This could be compared, by way of illustration, to the meat or kernel of a nut. The meat or kernel is the significant part of the whole of the nut. Yet there is also a shell around the whole. The shell is not eatable, yet it has a function. When this function has ceased, that shell is broken and discarded. So is the wonder of god revealed in the gathering of the church of Jesus Christ. The cause of Christ, the gathering of the church, is served by all things which take place. Not without reason do we read in Romans 8:28, "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose." The whole of creation, all things which take place within that creation -- these all form part of the shell surrounding the people of God who are in Christ. That shell has its purpose and place -- but when its purpose is served, it is discarded.

Something similar can be said concerning reprobation. The reprobate too must serve the purpose of God in the gathering and defending of the church of Christ. The evil deeds, in which these evil ones seek to oppose God and destroy His church, can and do work rather to the benefit of the church. The crucifixion of Christ is the prime example. Wicked men sought to remove the Christ from this earth. They made plans to kill Him -- and, in fact, they did crucify Him outside of the walls of Jerusalem. But the result was that the determinate purpose of God to save His people through the shedding of Christ's blood was realized. We read in Acts 4:27-28, "for of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together for to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done."

We see then that reprobation is not a "horrible" decree at all. We see too that it is not somehow equal to or on a par with the wonder of the decree of election. God does not arbitrarily declare: "I want to cast some people into hell, and I want to bring some people to heaven." God forbid! But God worked all things (both creation and also this decree of reprobation) to serve His purpose of bringing His elect people through sin and grace to eternal glory in heaven. Even this truth of reprobation must be for my comfort and assurance in this terribly sinful world.

Can or must this decree of reprobation be preached by the ministers of the Word? Or is it some sort of skeleton which must be kept hidden in the Reformed closet? Does not this truth of reprobation tend to discourage those within the church and turn away those outside of it? How can the missionary go forth in his mission labors and teach the heathen this decree of reprobation? If there is such a thing as reprobation, would it not be far better to be silent about it?

No doubt it is Christ and His cross which are the center of all the Word of God. And these truths must be always emphasized by faithful ministers of the Word. But the true minister of Christ's Word cannot avoid teaching some truths such as reprobation which are displeasing to men. God's Word does not ignore this truth -- how then could a preacher of the Word ever do so? One may not try to hide this truth.

We must remember, too, that this truth of God's decree of reprobation is meant to strike terror into the hearts of the wicked. When this truth is properly preached, the wicked have the sure testimony of God that He will reward them according to their evil works.

Finally, does this truth not discourage the church? would not a Christian begin to think, "Maybe, after all, I am a reprobate?" God forbid. One who is truly concerned with his own spiritual welfare, who sees and acknowledges sincerely before God the greatness of his sin -- such an one sees in himself not the fruits of reprobation, but of election. Then the Christian is not frightened by reprobation as far as his own person is concerned. Rather, this doctrine too gives him unspeakable comfort and assurance. Despite all that the wicked seek to do to God's church, the Christian knows that God still has absolute government and control. The wicked too can only serve His eternal purpose. And the final end of the wicked, God has determined for the vindication of His own Name. Should not the church constantly be assured of this glorious fact in the preaching of the Word?

Oh, the wonder of the greatness of our glorious God! Unspeakable are His ways, and His judgments past finding out! May He also grant that we may never be ashamed to maintain this His word even as He has revealed it to us.

Rev. G. Van Baren

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Last modified, 16-Jul-2000