How Election Relates to Reprobation (Digging into Dort, Point 1, Part 4)
The First Main Point of the Canons of Dort deals with the doctrines of divine predestination and reprobation. We have dealt with the idea of election over the past few posts, but we will now turn to see what the Canons teach about reprobation (and what it means). The Canons recognize that this teaching may be difficult to understand, but still seek to explore the idea and also how we should respond to it.
The Meaning and Basis of Reprobation
In many ways, the idea of reprobation is an implication of the doctrine of election – God has chosen to save some from sin and misery, but this also means that He has chosen not to save some. The Canons of Dort put it this way in Article 15 of Main Point 1: “Moreover, Holy Scripture most especially highlights this eternal and undeserved grace of our election and brings it out more clearly for us, in that it further bears witness that not all people have been chosen but that some have not been chosen or have been passed by in God's eternal election.”
At first glance this might sound shocking, but this truth makes sense of our experiences, doesn’t it? We know that not all people believe and that there is evil and wickedness in this world, so our world testifies that not all receive the gift of faith that leads to holiness. In a previous post we examined whether or not there is some sort of merit in those whom God saves that leads to God giving them grace; however, we found that the Scriptures teach that there is no merit in them that leads to them experiencing God’s grace. In contrast, however, the teaching on reprobation shows that those who experience this fate do so because of their own doing and fault, as the Canons of Dort state that God chooses “to leave them in the common misery into which, by their own fault, they have plunged themselves; not to grant them saving faith and the grace of conversion; but finally to condemn and eternally punish those who have been left in their own ways and under God's just judgment, not only for their unbelief but also for all their other sins, in order to display his justice.” The italicized words highlighted the individual’s responsibility, as the concluding section of the Canons of Dort (“Rejection of False Accusations”) notes, election is the cause for fruit and good works but reprobation is not the cause for unbelief and ungodliness (rather, ungodliness and unbelief lead to reprobation).
Does this Make God the Author of Evil?
A common accusation when someone hears about this doctrine or idea of reprobation-- that some remain in their state of sin and rebellion--is that this idea would make God the author or cause of evil. The Canons, however, explicitly reject that idea, noting that God is not the author but rather the judge of evil: “And this is the decree of reprobation, which does not at all make God the author of sin (a blasphemous thought!) but rather its fearful, irreproachable, just judge and avenger.” This doctrine shows us that God takes sin seriously and will punish it, which should give us comfort when we see sin and injustice in our world. The doctrine also teaches that sin is not the fault of God but rather of sinners.
How To Respond
After explaining the idea of reprobation in Article 15, Article 16 then seeks to teach us how to respond to this doctrine. People hear that not all are chosen and then sometimes wonder and worry, “What if I am not one of the chosen?” Previous articles pointed to the idea of assurance that we can find through the doctrine of election, and Article 16 tells us not to despair if we are missing that assurance but actively seek God for it, calling us to “use the means by which God has promised to work” this sort of assurance. The means that it refers to are the means of grace – the Word of God and the sacraments. If we are seeking those things, we should not “be alarmed at the mention of reprobation, nor to count [ourselves] among the reprobate; rather [we] ought to continue diligently in the use of the means, to desire fervently a time of more abundant grace, and to wait for it in reverence and humility.” If we are seeking God but still stumbling in sin and struggles, we should not fear, as our merciful God has promised “not to snuff out a smoldering wick or break a bruised reed” (Isaiah 42:3).
Reprobation should not lead us to despair if we are seeking to follow God and are experiencing ups and downs (election should give us assurance in those down moments), but it should be a warning to “those who have forgotten God and their Savior Jesus Christ and have abandoned themselves wholly to the cares of the world and the pleasures of the flesh,” as “such people have every reason to stand in fear of this teaching, as long as they do not seriously turn to God.” It is a reminder that there is judgment for those who remain in their sin and do not turn to God in unbelief, so it exhorts us to return to God if we have wandered or ask for His grace if we have never done so before, as God gives grace to those who humble themselves.
Therefore, reprobation should not lead us to some sort of fatalism (that our fates are sealed no matter what) or rebuke towards God for not saving all, but rather to thank God for His just judgment on sin and His great mercy towards sinners in producing in them faith.
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