That Horrible Decree
Rev. Gise 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” (a deliberately poor translation of his statements). Why such opposition? Is it possible that the reason is that this scriptural truth particularly exalts God as Sovereign alone and teaches that man is but a mere creature? It puts man in his proper place. Is this why man so strongly objects?
Is there such a thing as reprobation? That usually is denied. But, will you be willing to make a careful study of scriptural passages on this point? The teaching of Scripture must stand—it is the Word of God.
I would define reprobation as 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.
Now wait a moment before condemning that idea of reprobation out of hand. First, let us view several pertinent scriptural passages which speak of this subject. Possibly the most clear statements concerning reprobation can be found in Romans 9. Before they were ever born or had done any good or evil, God had said, “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” (v. 13). Of Pharaoh, whose heart God had hardened so that he would not let 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” (v. 18), and it speaks of “vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction” (v. 22). What else can we say of passages such as these but that they plainly teach reprobation of some to hell because of their sin? Other passages are equally lucid. In I Peter 2:8 we read, “… a rock of offence, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed.” Not only then does Scripture teach that it is God Who determines the end or final destiny of all men, but also that such determination is from all eternity. (Other passages which might profitably be examined are: Dan. 4:34; I Sam. 2:25; Matt. 11:25-27; John 8:43; Rom. 11:7-8; II Sam. 16:10; II Sam. 17:14; John 10:26; Rev. 17:17 and many others.)
Does this mean that the reprobate, no matter what he does, is damned to hell? God forbid that such should be the case, or that we should ever teach that. This question is deliberately deceiving. 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 the evil (see also Romans 3). There is not even the remotest possibility that good works, well-pleasing to our God, could ever proceed from the dead sinner. Can a physically dead person eat or drink? Far less could the dead sinner ever perform good deeds. Let none dare charge us, or any true Calvinist, with teaching the lie that a reprobate could love and serve God faithfully all he would—but will nevertheless be cast into hell. Such never happens. Be not deceived! 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, I would call to your attention that the reprobate are always damned to eternal hell because of their own sin. It is true that God determined what their final end would be—and He did so before they were ever born (again I ask you: in what other way could one possibly interpret the passages quoted above without denying the plain meaning contained in those texts?). But the wicked are definitely cast into the torments of eternal hell for their own evil acts. Never can they point the finger at God, declaring, “Thou hast forced me to do that which was contrary to Thy will; therefore I am not worthy of any punishment.” The reprobate, the wicked, consciously and willingly sin, and for that sin they shall surely be cast into eternal desolation. One of the many scriptural passages which shows this is 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 alter and the temple: verily I say unto you, it shall be required of this generation.”
But is not God then unjust? Is it not terribly unfair on God’s part to determine that any should perish? What kind of God is he? Stop with those charges, brother. Who do you think that God is? Thinkest thou that He must conform to your puny reasoning? Since when does the Almighty God owe to any man life? Why should the Sovereign of heaven and earth be required to bestow His grace upon all? Must He 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 to make of the same lump one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour (Rom. 9:21). Is God unjust when He does with His own as He sees fit? I confess that I can not penetrate into the depths of the wisdom of God and explain why such a one would be reprobated, and another elected. All we can say, with Scripture, is that God does all things to His own good pleasure to the glory of His own Name.
But, you ask, why (if God determines all this) should there even be reprobate wicked? Why should God, from before the foundations of the world, also 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? I will try to posit several reasons for this act of God. I do not pretend to be able to search out the eternal counsel of God, but, on the basis of Scripture, several reasons can definitely be given.
1. The decree of reprobation must serve the glory of God. God directs all things that His glory might the more fully be revealed. Do not the twenty-four elders of Revelation 4 cry out, “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive all honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created” (v. 11)? But how, you 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 the sinner. His own purity becomes manifest in His utter condemnation and punishment of the workers of iniquity. Apart from God’s decree of reprobation this would never have been so clearly revealed. Do you object? Does not the Potter have power over the clay also to fashion vessels of dishonour to serve His own pleasure and to reveal His own glory and goodness?
2. But there is more. In Holy Scripture it becomes very evident that the heart or centre of all of the counsel or plan of God is Christ—and in Christ, the church. God would reveal Himself in the highest possible way by gathering a particular people in Jesus Christ His only begotten Son. Is it not this 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 …”
The wonder of God is revealed in this that the gathering of this Church in Christ is served by all things which take place (Rom. 8:28). The same is true concerning those whom God has reprobated, and who shall be cast into hell because of their sins. These too must serve the purpose of God in gathering and defending the church of Christ. And the evil deeds, in which these wicked ones seek to oppose God and destroy His church, can and do work rather to the benefit of the Church. The wicked, according to God’s determination (Acts 4:27-28), crucified the Christ—which was the only way of redemption for the church. The wicked may seek to oppress the church and try to cause that church to defect, but this only drives the child of God deeper into the arms of the Comforting Rock. Thus God uses these very reprobate to prepare and equip His people for their future abode in glory.
We see then that reprobation is not a “horrible” decree on an equal par with the wonder of election. God did not arbitrarily declare: “I want to cast some people in hell, and I want to bring some to heaven.” God forbid! But God worked all things (creation and also this decree of reprobation) to serve election (so that in time on this earth all God’s people are gathered and finally brought to glory through the work of Christ on the cross). Again I confess that I can not penetrate into all of the wonder and wisdom of God which is here revealed. But this I must say, and you must confess, that God has revealed Himself in Scripture. Also this truth of reprobation then must be for my comfort and assurance in the midst of this world.
Can or must this decree of reprobation be preached by the ministers of the Word? Would not such a truth serve rather to discourage the church and turn away those outside of the church? How can one go forth in missionary labours—and teach such a decree of reprobation? Granted that this decree is true, would it not be the part of wisdom to be silent about it?
1. Of course, there would be something wrong if every minister every Sunday would preach sermons on reprobation. Christ, His cross, and His church are the centre of all the Word. And these truths must be clearly taught by the minister of the Word. He may not simply emphasize one point to the exclusion of others. But neither can the true minister of Christ’s Word avoid teaching the truth of reprobation. God’s Word does not ignore it—how then can the preacher of the Word ignore this truth? It is a truth which may not be hid.
2. In preaching, the minister of the Word is called to preach the whole Word of God. And when he preaches, he addresses particularly the church of Christ (notice that the epistles are also addressed in this way). No minister can properly preach first for the elect; then include a word for the reprobate; but always he addresses the Church of Christ. The minister is not called to distinguish and point out which individuals are elect and which are reprobate. God determines that—not man. And it is God, through the Holy Spirit, Who so applies the preaching of the Word that it finds a ready entrance into the heart of the elect and bears fruit, but in the heart of the reprobate that same preached Word arouses greater and greater opposition and hatred.
3. Certainly 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 works.
4. Finally, does this truth not discourage the church? Would not a Christian begin to think, “Maybe, after all, I’m 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 a 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 gives him unspeakable comfort and assurance. Despite all that the wicked seek to do to God’s church, the Christian knows that God has still absolute government and control. That government is also over all the wicked. They 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, 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!
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