I know what it feels like to hate a truth. I absolutely believe that “God works in all things for the good of those who love Him” as Romans 8:28 says. When I found out that one of my closest friends was sexually assaulted, I despised that verse. I still believed it, but I couldn’t possibly take that verse as comfort. I sure as hell didn’t offer it to her as consolation. It’s been more than two years since my friend shared that horrible news with me and to this day, I get woozy with disgust and heartbreak and rage when I think about it. I haven’t the slightest clue how God could bring good from that, but I know that He will.
Honestly, I don’t know if the doctrine of reprobation is more or less sickening, more or less personal. Neighbors and friends’ family have died leaving us unsure of their standing with God, or totally certain that their standing was not good. For all the evils and pains we experience on earth, we can still cling to hope. Old wounds can heal. We can find peace again. Through Christ, we can seek reconciliation with those who’ve done us wrong. And one day we will be in heaven where there will be no more tears. All will be right. We don’t have that same comfort for our loved ones who go to their grave hating God. For them, to quote 2 Corinthians 6:2, the “acceptable time” and “day of salvation” has passed. Hope has gone with it. No healing can occur. No reconciliation can happen.
Obviously this isn’t an easy topic to talk about, and yet I find myself talking about it all the time. It’s unavoidable in the Christian life. It’s a question Christians have wrestled with for centuries, and not because Scripture is silent on the matter. The answer is in fact found quite easily in the Bible. Accepting the answer is the challenge. That’s been the case for me, and I keep that in mind as I broach this topic with others. Whether you’re a fellow believer struggling to share your beliefs well or you’re merely interested in seeing how Christians answer this question, hopefully this post can help start the conversation. There are three things I remind myself of whenever I speak about reprobation. First, believing in this is uncomfortable. Second, belief must be grounded in faith, not feelings. Third, some of the questions we’ll want to ask must be left unanswered.
At the start, let’s make sure we know what we’re talking about. Scripture regularly displays God’s sovereign choice in saving some people and rejecting others. The Old Testament is full of examples of this playing out on earth in time: God chooses Isaac to be heir to Abraham’s promise, though Ishmael was Abraham’s firstborn; the Israelites are given the land of Canaan, while all the nations that had lived there for centuries were displaced, destroyed, and erased; David is anointed king over Israel and Saul is denounced by God. The New Testament tells us that God’s sovereign choice spans beyond time. This saving-some-and-rejecting-others applies to every person’s eternal destiny. God has written some names in His book of life. Other names, He has chosen not to write. Christ’s death on the cross atoned for all the sins of those whose names were written down; for those whose names were omitted, their sin shall remain on their own shoulders. Those Christ saves are destined to eternal glory and love from God. Those He rejects are destined to eternal judgement and wrath from God.
I think many proponents of reprobation doctrines all too often approach the topic coldly, as a mere academic exercise. That makes it tolerable to talk about, but I resent that. This is, quite frankly, an intolerable topic. We’re not talking about some abstract Hitler-esque “Mr. Reprobate.” We’re talking about our next door neighbors. Our best friends. Our own family. Real people going to a real hell. We can’t allow the discussion to be cold and removed because it’s fundamentally not. Paul wept as he wrote about it in Romans 9; he was so distraught that he confessed…
“I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit—I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel.” (Romans 9:1-4a, NIV)
If it were possible, Paul would have sacrificed his own election so that his fellow Jews could be saved in his place. Of course, that’s not even remotely possible—Paul has just spent eight chapters explaining how salvation is accomplished by Christ alone at the cross—but it is how he feels. That matters. I’m not at all saying we shouldn’t think critically about this. If anything, I’m saying the opposite. Reprobation needs to be thoroughly explored, rigorously studied, and effectively articulated. Any matter of such weight deserves such an approach; being academic is a necessity, not a defense mechanism. We need to keep the faces of our friends and families in the foreground every step of the way.
Faith behind belief
If I had to bet, there’s a good chance you’ll start to feel the tension I’m asking us to embrace as we start our investigation. Keep it personal, but don’t let that sway your answer. It’s all too easy to fall to one extreme or the other: passion and feelings can grow so strong that one abandons truth as soon as it poses a threat to the things and people one loves; or, truth and the pursuit thereof become so firm, so powerful, so solid, that feelings become a thing of either contempt or indifference. Neither extreme is acceptable for the Christian. We must hold to both passion and truth. We also need to acknowledge that passion does not change the truth. Passion doesn’t affect reality, but it still matters because it’s what sustains our humanity. Christ doesn’t call us to only be right, He commands us to be merciful.
If our passion and humanity don’t help us find truth, what does? That’s the critical question that determines what we believe regarding reprobation. Before we can even broach reprobation, we have to first establish our theological presuppositions. Specifically, we need to be able to answer the following questions: What is the foundation of truth? What does it mean for God to be sovereign? What does it mean for God to be just? To be merciful?
These are all questions you have to answer for yourself. There are objectively correct answers, but for you to answer the question “What do I believe?” this can’t be an exercise in rote repetition. This has got to be conviction. I’ll tell you right now what my theological foundation (and not just mine, but also that of a great many biblical scholars and theologians) is for all of this. The only reliable source of authority, the sole foundation of truth on this matter, is the Bible. God would be fully just to damn all sinners, but in His sovereign mercy, He chose some to be saved from the destruction they deserved. I assume the existence of hell, the historical gospel narrative, and Christ’s role as judge of the world when I come to the topic of reprobation. As you begin to form your own answer on predestination, thoroughly assess your own presuppositions and assumptions. They are what determine your answer. Do you believe in a God of love? What does that mean? Where did you get that idea? How do you respond to positions that you disagree with?
There’s one final disclaimer I have before we dive into our actual answer. I was reminded of this a few Sundays ago when my pastor preached on how to discern the will of God. Drawing material from Kevin DeYoung, my pastor taught that a part of God’s will is His sovereign will. This refers to the things that God has predetermined and that will inevitably come to pass. This is the sense in which “all things happen according to the will of God;” in His divine wisdom and power, history has unfolded exactly as God orchestrated it so that He could fulfill all that He desired to accomplish. God’s sovereign will is what is referred to in Deuteronomy 29:29 as the “hidden things.” That’s because, save for a few notable exceptions through history (i.e., God’s promises; prophetic explanation of events past, present, or future; whenever God says “I’m gonna do this and here’s why”), God’s working and reasoning behind His workings are largely unknown.
Predestination is mostly one of those “hidden things.” God reveals in Scripture that predestination is real —there really is a “book of life” with the names of all the saints written in it—but gives scarce details past that. He very adamantly and intentionally refuses to show us the list of names. We don’t get to know who’s in it and who’s not—at least, not by reading the book. The means He gives us to determine if one is elect or not is way more difficult, more uncomfortable, more personal: “If you love Me, you’ll keep my commandments” (John 14:15). To know if someone is saved, you need to know them. You need to know their actions and their motives, their past and present. Their story. Their pleasures and pains. Only then can you make a judgement call, and even then your judgement isn’t perfect. Only God’s is.
To that end, we need to be smart about what questions we ask about this matter. If we end up seeking to look into the “hidden things” we’ll either end up disappointed, confused, or insane. John Calvin himself referred to these hidden things as an endless labyrinth that one cannot navigate and will never escape. One of the greatest theologians to ever live—a man who knew God’s word more intimately than most ever will—essentially concludes with “Stop trying to explore things you could never possibly know, much less understand, and focus on what God has actually revealed to us.” God has given us what we need to know, nothing more and nothing less.
With all that out of the way, we’re ready to explore the doctrine of reprobation. Rather than writing my own explanation and argument, I think it’d be more wise to read the words of real theologians and experts on the topic. Again, this is a topic Christians have wrestled with for centuries. I doubt I would be able to say anything as clearly or completely as those before me already have. Below are a number of resources I’ve read and processed. I hope you find them as helpful as I have. I’ve also included my own study on Romans 9, a pivotal passage in this discussion—not that I consider my own work equal to the other sources. I’ve just put a lot of thought into this topic as well, and my study on Romans 9 goes into more detail on a specific passage in Scripture; other sources give a more general overview.
https://www.gotquestions.org/book-of-life.html I’m typically wary of GotQuestions but this is a good overview of the “book of life” throughout Scripture
https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/the-doctrine-of-reprobation/ Brief discussion of reprobation
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/anonymous/canonsofdort.pdf historical statement affirming biblical predestination theology
https://www.ligonier.org/blog/predestination-what-does-mean-non-elect/ Quick answers to a few common concerns with reprobation doctrine; this article links to other articles on double-predestination and reformed theology in general
https://document.desiringgod.org/beyond-the-bounds-en.pdf?ts=1446646765 A massive and brilliant book with multiple authors from various Christian traditions defending orthodox Christianity against open theism. Around page 205, there’s a discussion about the “hidden things” of God. More so, this book can help you assess your own beliefs, presuppositions, and assumptions. To read the whole thing would be quite an undertaking; it’s a book written by academics, for academics. I recommend skimming and exploring sections that interest you.
https://takenoteofthisblog.wordpress.com/2018/10/13/gods-sovereign-choice-a-study-on-romans-828-929-part-3/ A study of Romans 9 that speaks directly to your question, though it’s part 3 in a three-part series on Romans 8:28-9:29