In my Sunday School class two Sundays ago, our discussion of 2 Peter 3:9 led off onto a “bunny trail” concerning the doctrine of reprobation. This diversion was such a significant discussion that I found it necessary to devote the entire class period yesterday to a discussion of this terrible and difficult doctrine. In order to help those who wish to mull over these issues further, I decided to revise and edit my material to fit into the format of this blog for everyone to read.
Now, let me warn you as we begin: If you attempt to reconcile all of these matters and wrap them up in a neat little theological package that’s all perfectly tied together, you will never succeed. You and I are not God and we can never understand His infinite wisdom and ways. So let me encourage you to learn to live with the theological tensions. If you could understand it all and resolve all of it, you would be God. But you are not, so just reconcile yourself to the fact that there is mystery in these things and yet somehow, they make perfect sense in the infinite mind of God. So stop trying to rescue God from His own theology.
Let me also give credit where credit is due. Much of what follows has been drawn from James Montgomery Boice and Philip Graham Ryken’s outstanding book, The Doctrines of Grace, some of it almost word-for-word. There is simply no way that I could explain this doctrine more understandably than have they.
The doctrine of reprobation is one of the most difficult doctrines in the whole Bible. One writer has said that since Paul wrote about it more than any other New Testament writer, when Peter wrote in 2 Peter 3:16 that some of the things Paul wrote about in his letters were “hard to understand,” he may well have been speaking about the doctrine of reprobation.
The doctrine of reprobation is the teaching that God rejects or repudiates some persons to eternal condemnation in a way that is parallel but opposite to His ordaining others to salvation.
Romans 9:13-23 is one of the primary texts that teaches this difficult doctrine. In this text, Paul is explaining that God has not rejected the nation of Israel, and beginning in verse 13, it says, 13Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” 14What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! 15For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. 17For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.” 18So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. 19You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” 20On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? 21Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? 22What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? 23And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory,
It is clear from this passage that God clearly stakes claim to being the One who elects some and chooses not to elect others. In fact, it says that He even hardens whom He desires. So if we are to understand this doctrine, we must begin by accepting the fact of reprobation, regardless of any questions we may have. Many other texts also teach reprobation:
4The Lord has made everything for its own purpose, even the wicked for the day of evil.
39For this reason they could not believe, for Isaiah said again, 40“He has blinded their eyes and He hardened their heart, so that they would not see with their eyes and perceive with their heart, and be converted and I heal them.”
1 Peter 2:7-8
7This precious value, then, is for you who believe; but for those who disbelieve, “The stone which the builders rejected, This became the very corner stone,” 8and, “A stone of stumbling and a rock of offense”; for they stumble because they are disobedient to the word, and to this doom they were also appointed.
4For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
Each of these verses (and others) teaches that God passes by some persons, destining them for destruction rather than to salvation. Clear enough. But here we need to make several important distinctions between election on the one hand and reprobation on the other.
First, we need to ask the question: Does God determine the destinies of elect individuals and reprobate individuals in exactly the same way, so that without any consideration of what they do (or might do), he assigns one to heaven and the other to hell?
We know He does that in the case of those who are being saved, because Scripture tells us that election has no basis in any good seen or foreseen in those who are elected. Paul’s chief point in Romans 9 is that salvation is due entirely to God’s mercy and not to any good that might be imagined to reside in us. The question is whether this can be said of the reprobate, too. Has God consigned them to hell apart from anything they have done, that is, apart from their deserving it?
There is an important distinction to be made here. The majority of Reformed thinkers were careful to make this distinction and that distinction has been embodied in many of the church’s creeds. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith, considered the sine qua non of all such creeds, includes two paragraphs concerning election and reprobation. Let me quote them for you.
Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to his eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will, hath chosen in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of his mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith or good works, or perseverance in either of them (Chap. 3, Sec. 5).
The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of his own will, whereby he extendeth or withholdeth mercy as he pleaseth, for the glory of his sovereign power over his creatures, to pass by, and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of his glorious justice (Chap. 3, Sec. 7).
Those statements teach that in some ways election and reprobation are the same: both flow from the eternal counsel or will of God rather than the will of man, and both have as their ultimate purpose the revelation of God’s glory. But there are two important points of difference.
First, the Confession speaks of the reprobate being “passed by.” Some will argue that in its ultimate effect there is no difference between being passed by and being actively ordained to condemnation. But while that is true of the ultimate effect, there is nevertheless, a major difference in the cause.
The reason why some believe the gospel and are saved by it is that God intervenes in their lives to bring them to faith. He does it by the new birth or regeneration. But those who are lost—and this is the crucial point—are not caused by God to disbelieve. They do that all by themselves. To ordain their end, God needs only to withhold the special grace of redemption.
Second, the Confession speaks of God ordaining the lost “to dishonor and wrath for their sin.” That makes reprobation the opposite of an arbitrary action. The lost are not sent to hell because God consigns them to it arbitrarily, but as a judgment for their sins. The great Dutch reformer Abraham Kuyper wrote: “We dare not forget that while God, according to the secret of his counsel, elects those who are saved…this same omnipotent God has made us morally responsible, so that we are lost, not because we could not be save, but because we would not.”
Kuyper’s theology was based on The Canons of the Synod of Dort, which state: “Not all, but some only, are elected, while others are passed by in the eternal decrees” and these are punished “not only on account of their unbelief, but also for all their other sins” (Chap. 1, Art. 15).
So then, election is active; reprobation is passive. In election God actively intervenes to rescue those who deserve destruction, whereas in reprobation God passively allows some to receive the just punishment they deserve for their sins.
But what about Romans 9:22-23, which seems to say that God actively ordains men to reprobation? Let’s take a look at it. It says, 22What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? 23And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory.
The key to understanding these verses is found in the original language. I want to start in verse 23 and work backwards to verse 22. In verse 23, Paul says that God wanted to “make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory.” The verb which is translated “He prepared beforehand” is in the active voice in the Greek which means that God (the subject) actively acted upon those vessels (or men, who are the object of the verb’s action) to prepare them for glory. In other words, God was the one doing the action in preparing those vessels for honor and glory.
But in verse 22, where it says that God “endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,” the verb “prepared” there is in the passive voice in the Greek, meaning that God (the subject) was not the one acting to prepare them for destruction, but rather that the vessels did the action to themselves.
So, rather than proving active reprobation, these verses are proof of passive reprobation; that is, that God actively elected some to salvation, but in passively passing by the others who justly deserved judgment for their sin, He thereby ordained them to reprobation.
So, you can probably see that there is a huge paradox with this doctrine. One the one hand, God eternally decreed that man would fall into sin. But He also eternally decreed to elect some and to pass by others, thereby effectively decreeing that they would eternally receive the just punishment for their sin. But if God hadn’t decreed that man would fall into sin, then it would not have been necessary to elect some and leave the others to eternal reprobation.
The whole issue gets more and more complicated the deeper you go into it, so my recommendation is stop trying to understand it and just accept it as biblical truth. Be like the pot, which does not challenge the potter’s right to do whatever He wishes with or to the pot.
Somehow, God’s decree that sin would invade His new universe and that some would be elected to eternal salvation while others would not, fits into His sovereign purpose to bring greater glory to His name. After all, in which situation would He receive greater glory—a world where no one ever sinned—or a world in which all mankind rejects and rebels against Him, yet He sends His Son to die for some and grants them eternal life? The answer is obvious.
As we begin to understand these things, we also understand that reprobation is a gospel doctrine, because reprobation highlights mercy and reduces those who hear and accept the doctrine to a position of utter submission to Him. As long as a person believes that he is in control of his own destiny, he will never submit to Christ. But when he understands that he is in the hands of a just and holy God, and that he is without any hope of salvation apart from His free and utterly sovereign intervention, then he will call for mercy, which is the only right response.