The Doctrine of Reprobation
Reprobation is God’s eternal decree whereby he foreordained that (1) certain persons would be excluded from the number of those saved by grace, and that (2) those same persons would instead experience his just wrath.
Reprobation is the Augustinian/Reformed doctrine that God has eternally decreed (1) to refrain from extending saving grace to particular individuals and (2) to judge them according to the strict standards of divine justice. Though there are debates over finer points of theological nuance, all within the Augustinian/Reformed tradition agree that God decrees that certain individuals will be justly punished for the purpose of magnifying God’s justice and grace and that this punishment is (in some aspects) according to his good pleasure. The doctrine of reprobation is most clearly grounded in the biblical text in the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in the exodus narrative and in Paul’s argument throughout Romans 9. Reprobation is also logically implied by the doctrines of unconditional election and the sovereignty of God. Although reprobation is a difficult doctrine to grasp, it invites Christians to submit to a God who is all wise and loving—and who has revealed through his word that he is the supreme end for which all things exist.
While many (perhaps most) Christian doctrines have been the subject of heated debate, few engender as much animus as the Augustinian/Reformed doctrine of reprobation. Many theologians in the Reformed tradition have more precisely described the two aspects of the doctrine above as a negative aspect (or preterition) and a positive aspect (or predamnation). “Negative” and “positive” are not moral terms here but refer to the absence or presence of divine action. On the one hand, the negative term preterition refers to God’s eternal decree to refrain from extending saving grace to individuals. Most Reformed thinkers posit that this aspect of the decree has no regard to foreseen works or human merits; instead, God chooses whom He “passes over” solely on the basis of His will. On the other hand, the positive term predamnation refers to His eternal determination to treat the non-elect by the strict standards of divine justice. Some argue that predamnation is contingent on the reprobate’s actual sins; however, others believe that positive reprobation refers to the unconditional decision made in eternity past to treat certain persons according to the strict standards of justice. As such, predamnation would itself be unconditional while the condemnation of the reprobate in time would be based on their actual sins.
As is already apparent, some disagreements remain within the Augustinian/Reformed tradition, mostly concerning fine points of theological nuance. However, all those within this theological stream agree that God does predestine certain individuals to be justly punished for their sins. Furthermore, they are all united in believing that reprobation (or at least some aspect of it) is not based on foreseen sin but is based solely on God’s good pleasure, for the purpose of magnifying his justice toward the reprobate and His grace toward the elect.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the doctrine of reprobation has not been universally accepted within the Church. In fact, some have gone so far as to denounce the belief on the grounds that reprobation makes God worse than the devil and makes men mere puppets. Sadly, those who make such impassioned statements frequently criticize a caricature rather than the doctrine of reprobation itself. In addition, detractors often rely on emotive appeals rather than on exegetical or theological argumentation. In the end, the doctrine of reprobation warrants acceptance because (1) it is explicitly taught in Scripture, (2) it is implicitly required by other biblical doctrines, and (3) it promotes Christian sanctification.
Biblical Warrant for the Doctrine of Reprobation
To begin examining the biblical warrant for reprobation, we must recognize that the former is a species of a broader phenomenon encountered in both the OT and the NT. Both the OT and the NT repeatedly describe God as willfully influencing persons towards wicked behavior for the purpose of condemning them. Such influence may be called divine reprobating activity (DRA). At times, DRA is described as God’s just response to human sin (ex. Judg 2:1–5, 9:23–24; 1 Sam 2:22–25; 1 Kgs 22:13–23; Ps 81:11–12; Isa 6:8–13). However, God’s reprobating actions are not always depicted as an act of retribution; instead, DRA can be portrayed as God’s chosen means for achieving some non-retributive purpose. Perhaps the most famous example of this type of DRA involves the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (Exod 3–14).
Divine Reprobation: The Exodus Narrative
Despite the claims of some scholars, the text of Exodus does not depict divine hardening to be a response to Pharaoh’s self-hardening. Nowhere in the exodus story is it stated that God was motivated to harden Pharaoh’s heart because of the latter’s prior actions, choices, or attitudes. On the contrary, Moses repeatedly states that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart as a means to demonstrate His own glory and power (Exod 7:1–5, 9:16, 10:1–2, 11:9, 14:4, 14:7–18). Moreover, the narrative employs a variety of techniques to show that Pharaoh’s actions are contingent on the Lord rather than vice-versa. So, for instance, even before Moses encounters Pharaoh, the Lord announces his intention to harden the Egyptian monarch so that he might not let Israel go (Exod 4:21; cf. 3:19). Subsequently, though he acknowledges Pharaoh’s own responsibility for his hardened state, Moses maintains that the monarch’s disposition worsens in accordance with God’s prior announcement that He would in fact harden his heart (Exod 7:13, 7:22; 8:11, 8:15; 9:12, 9:35). Together with other textual clues, these statements indicate that divine hardening did not take place as a response to Pharaoh’s actions or choices; instead, God “raised up” Pharaoh unto the scene of history (Exod 9:16; cf. Rom 9:17) precisely to harden him in order to display His glory.
Divine Reprobation: Romans 9
Once one recognizes the existence of non-retributive DRA in the exodus story, one begins to detect its presence in other places in Scripture (Deut 2:30, 29:3; Josh 11:20; Ps 92:7, 105:25; Prov 16:4, 22:14; Matt 11:25; John 12:37–40; Rom 9:22–23; 1 Pet 2:7–8; Rev 17:15–17). Moreover, some passages teach that non-retributive DRA can have eternal condemnation as its goal. The most critical text in this regard is Romans 9. Romans 9:1–6 indicates that Paul’s mind is on matters of eternity: his concern is to demonstrate that God’s word remains true despite the fact that vast majority of his contemporaries were liable to face eternal condemnation. The apostle argues his case by showing that the OT reveals that God had always discriminated between the children of promise and those who were merely physical descendants of Abraham (Rom 9:7–9). Furthermore, Paul observes that the difference between the former and the latter has never been based on human merits; instead, the distinction has always rested on the electing purpose of God (Rom 9:11–13). While the doctrine of reprobation could have been established from what has been learned thus far, Paul provides the church with even more evidence for the eternal decree when he addresses typical objections to his teaching. He counters the first objection (i.e. that unconditional election would render God unjust) by showing that the OT affirms God’s sovereign prerogative (Rom 9:14–18; cf. Exod 33:19). By doing so, he demonstrates that his imaginary interlocutor does not just oppose Paul’s views; in reality, he also rejects the OT’s teaching about God’s character. Significantly, Paul does not respond to the objection by softening his stance; instead, he grounds his teaching in God’s self-revelation (Rom 9:15) and affirms once more that salvation does not ultimately depend upon human will or effort but on God who has mercy (Rom 9:16). In addition, by referring to God’s treatment of Pharaoh, Paul observes that the OT also asserts God’s right and willingness to harden whomever He desires for the sake of His glory (Rom 9:17–18).
Paul then turns to a second objection: if his teaching were true, would God have the right to condemn anyone (Rom 9:19)? Paul responds by rebuking human pride (Rom 9:20) and by appealing to God’s sovereign rights as Creator (Rom 9:21–23). Comparing God to a potter, the apostle makes the point that God has the right to make both vessels of honor and vessels of dishonor from the same lump of clay (Rom 9:21). The illustration seems designed to teach that God retains the prerogative to create some persons for grace and others for wrath, though no internal qualities inherently distinguish the one from the other. He then posits why God currently endures those whom he has prepared for destruction: the Lord does so because he desires to make known his wrath and power so that those who are objects of his mercy may enjoy the riches of his glory (Rom 9:22–23). As such, Romans 9 stands as the prime, though not exclusive (see John 17:12; 1 Pet 2:7–8; Jude 4), example of the biblical witness to the doctrine of reprobation.
Divine Reprobation as a Logically Implied Doctrine
The doctrine of reprobation is also implicit in related biblical doctrines. First of all, reprobation is logically required by the doctrine of unconditional election (cf. Matt 11:27, 13:11, 22:14; John 6:37, 6:44, 6:65, 13:8, 17:1–9; Acts 13:48; Rom 8:28–30, 9:6–23; 1 Cor 1:27–31; Eph 1:3–4; 1 Thess 4–5; 2 Thess 2:13; 1 Pet 1:1–4). While Reformed theologians have posited important differences between election and reprobation, many have rightly observed that the existence of the former logically implies the latter. Since a person’s salvation depends upon God’s unconditional choice, and since not all are saved, it seems to necessarily follow that God has voluntarily excluded some from his saving decision. Opponents of reprobation have tried to argue that God’s choice to save some does not require a choice to reject others; however, such a formulation seems logically unstable (not to mention the fact that it overlooks clear biblical teaching; cf. John 17:12; Rom 9:22–23; 1 Pet 2:7–8; Jude 4). Moreover, “single predestination” requires Christians to envision the state of the non-elect as being somehow outside of God’s will; indeed, the position implies that the fate of the unsaved is some unintended dilemma that cannot be resolved completely to God’s liking. Such a portrait flies in the face of Scripture and is unworthy of our heavenly King.
The Bible’s teaching on God’s sovereignty also implies the doctrine of reprobation. The Scriptures affirm that God is King over all the creation (see for instance Pss 10:16, 24:7–10, 29:10, 47:2, 47:6–7, 95:3, 98:6). He rightfully sits enthroned over all things because He is the Creator of all things (Gen 1:1; Rev 4:9–11). His rule includes meticulous, unconstrained control over all that comes to pass (Pss 115:1–3, 135:6; Dan 4:34–35; Eph 1:11). It extends over the fortuitous and the calamitous (Prov 16:33; Isa 45:6–7), over life and over death (Deut 32:39; 1 Sam 2:6; Acts 17:25; Jam 4:15), over the natural and the supernatural (1 Sam 18:10; 1 Kgs 22:19–23; Job 1:12, 2:6; Ps 104:10–30, 105:16; Matt 6:26–30, 10:29), over individuals and over nations (Exod 9:16; Deut 4:19, 32:8; Prov 16:9; Isa 10:5–11; Jer 1:5; Acts 17:26), over the past and the future (Isa 41:22–23, 44:7–8, 46:5–10; Acts 17:26). It even extends over the free choices of men, whether these be for good or for evil (Gen 45:4–8, 20:6; 50:20; Exod 4:21; 1 Sam 2:25; 2 Sam 24:1; Isa 63:17; Acts 2:23, 4:27–28; Phil 2:12–13; 2 Thess 1:11; 2 Tim 2:24–26). Such an expansive picture of God’s sovereignty seems to also require that the decision to accept or reject Christ be ultimately subject to God’s own will. It therefore should come as no surprise that this is in fact what the NT teaches (John 6:37, 6:44, 6:64–65, 10:1–5, 10:26–30, 12:37–41; Acts 13:48, 16:14; 1 Cor 1:30; Phil 1:29–30; Eph 2:8–10; 2 Thess 2:9–12).
The Role of Reprobation in Our Sanctification
It is important also to recognize the sanctifying benefits of this doctrine. First of all, the doctrine of reprobation fosters humility and the fear of the Lord. Knowledge of God’s eternal decree uniquely reminds us that humanity exists not for itself, but for the glory of God (Rom 11:36; Col 1:16). In a culture that increasingly sees the self as sovereign, the doctrine of reprobation serves to awake us to the true state of things. Second, reprobation encourages radical submission to God’s word. By summoning us to believe a doctrine that is so dread-inspiring, so counter-intuitive, and so contrary to our man-centered instincts, the passages that teach reprobation train us to place our hearts and minds completely under the authority of God’s word.
None of this means that the doctrine of reprobation is easy to grasp. In fact, many throughout church history have had trouble understanding how the doctrine of reprobation can stand side by side with what the Scriptures teach about God’s justice, about human freedom, and about God’s command to proclaim the gospel to the nations. Theologians over the centuries have wrestled with these issues so as to define reprobation in a manner consistent with other biblical truths. Thus, the Reformed doctrine of reprobation affirms (1) the distinction between its negative and positive aspects, (2) the asymmetry between election and reprobation, (3) the difference between predamnation and damnation, (4) God’s maintenance of secondary causes, (5) a compatibilist understanding of human free will, and (6) the predestination of both the means and the ends.
Reprobation in the Early and Medieval Church
- Fulgentius of Ruspe
- “The Truth about Predestination and Grace,” in Fulgentius of Ruspe and the Scythian Monks: Correspondence on Christology and Grace, pp. 121–231.
- “Second Letter to the Scythian Monks,” in Fulgentius of Ruspe and the Scythian Monks: Correspondence on Christology and Grace, pp. 108–120.
- Anselm of Canterbury
- “The Harmony of the Foreknowledge, the Predestination, and the Grace of God with Free Choice,” in Anselm of Canterbury: Complete Philosophical and Theological Treatises, pp. 531–574.
- Thomas Aquinas
- “Of Predestination,” in Summa Theologica
Reprobation in the Reformation and Post-Reformation Period
- Martin Luther
- John Calvin
- Peter Martyr Vermigli
- Girolamo Zanchi
- William Perkins
Reprobation and Related Issues in the Modern Period
- R. C. Sproul
- Geerhardus Vos
- Joel R. Beeke
- Matthew Levering
- John Piper
- Thomas R. Schreiner
- G. K. Beale
- Peter Sammons
- “The Decree of Reprobation and Man’s Culpability: The Role of God’s Use of Secondary Causality,” PhD dissertation, Master’s Seminary
- B. B. Warfield
- Lorraine Boettner
- Donald Sinnema
- “The Issue of Reprobation at the Synod of Dort (1618–19) in Light of the History of This Doctrine,” PhD dissertation, Toronto School of Theology
- D. A. Carson
- P. H. Mell
- Guillaume Bignon
- Robert L. Reymond
- “A Consistent Supralapsarian Perspective on Election,” in Perspectives on Election: Five Views, pp. 150–94
- Richard M. Blaylock
- Mike Riccardi
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