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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Title:The Difficult Doctrine of Reprobation
Text:CD 1 Articles 15-16 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:God's Justice
 
Preached:2017
Added:2017-12-27
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 6

Psalm 99:1-3

Hymn 71

Hymn 1

Psalm 149

Scripture readings:  Mark 3:22-30, 1 Peter 2:1-12

Catechism lesson:  Canons of Dort 1.15-16

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved congregation of Christ,

They say a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing.  I think this also holds true when it comes to the doctrine of election.  There are those who know just a little about the doctrine of election, and that little they know becomes one of the central reasons why they reject the Christian faith.  And oftentimes it’s the aspect of reprobation that’s the sticking point. 

You see it sometimes reflected in literature. In her novel Gilead, Marilynne Robinson has a character named Jack.  He’s the son of a Presbyterian minister.  He’s grown up being taught the Christian faith.  As part of that, Jack has heard all about election and reprobation.  At a certain point, Jack is 43 years old and he’s visiting with his father’s friend Rev. Ames, a Congregationalist pastor.  Jack suddenly says, “So, Reverend, I would like to hear your views on the doctrine of predestination.”  Thinking he’s facing a futile conversation, Reverend Ames replies, “That’s a complicated issue.”  Jack pushes him further, “Let me simplify it.  Do you think that some people are intentionally and irretrievably consigned to perdition?”  To that question, Rev. Ames fails to give a clear answer.  He hums and haws and dances around the matter.  He just can’t answer this question with a straightforward, biblical answer.  In Robinson’s book, you have a pastor’s son who knows just enough to ask a difficult question about reprobation, but then also a pastor who doesn’t know how to answer the question.

You might say it’s just a book, but my experience says there’s more than just a little reality there.  There are many people who’ve been brought up in the church, brought up with Christian teaching.  They were taught things like election and reprobation.  Maybe they weren’t taught these things well.  Maybe they weren’t paying careful attention when these things were taught.  But either way, they know a little, misunderstand a lot, and then use that to justify rejecting God and the Christian faith. 

There’s no doubt that the doctrine in front of us this afternoon is a tough one.  It’s challenging to teach this well.  It’s also easily misunderstood, especially if you’re not paying careful attention.  Reprobation is a difficult doctrine, but since it’s included in Scripture the Holy Spirit wants us to learn it.  It’s among those things which are profitable for us to know and believe.  So we’re going to learn this afternoon about the difficult doctrine of reprobation.  We’ll see that the Canons of Dort answer two main questions:

  1. What is reprobation?
  2. How do people respond to it? 

We’ve seen in earlier sermons that the Bible teaches a doctrine of unconditional election, one of the key passages being Ephesians 1.  In Ephesians 1, the Holy Spirit teaches us that God the Father has chosen believers from before the creation of the world.  He didn’t choose them because they were better or more worthy.  It wasn’t because of works.  He didn’t choose them because he foresaw they would believe.  Election is not because of faith.  God simply chooses out of his good pleasure.  No one deserves it.  But for our purposes this afternoon, we need to see that some are chosen.  In the very fact that some are chosen, many are not.  When God chooses some, he doesn’t choose others.  The two things are bound up together with one another.  One necessarily implies the other.  Election implies reprobation. 

But there are explicit indications of reprobation in the Bible too.  You could think of what we read from 1 Peter 2.  Peter describes those who do not believe.  Then he says in verse 8, “They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.”  There are those who were chosen by God to eternal life, and there are others who were not.  There are the elect and there are those who are not, there are people who are reprobate.  Because election is in the Bible, so is reprobation. 

And what is reprobation exactly?  The definition is where many people get confused and misunderstand.  You have to listen carefully.  Reprobation is not the negative mirror image of election.  In election, God actively chooses some to eternal life.  Reprobation does not have God actively choosing to reject others.  It’s not as if God pays attention to that specific person and explicitly decrees, “I reject you.  You will go to hell.”  Reprobation is different than election.  In election, God actively includes the individual in his decree, but in reprobation we say that God “passes by” those who are not elect.  “Passes by.”  That’s the careful language used in article 15.  The reprobate have not been elected, they have been passed by, they have been left in their misery.  By not choosing them, God has passed them by and left them in their lost condition.  In other words, they weren’t in a neutral spot waiting for God to push them in one direction or another.  All human beings were in a lost condition.  Some were chosen out of that lost condition, and others were left in it. 

Being passed by or left in their lost condition, the reprobate remain under the just judgment of God.  God will condemn them to hell, not because of his decree of reprobation, but because of their unbelief and other sins.   People go to damnation in hell because of their sins and rebellion, not because of reprobation.  God judges these sins to be worthy of his eternal punishment.  So when someone ends up in hell for eternity, you can’t say that this is God’s fault.  It’s not God’s fault.  The blame is entirely on that sinful human being.  God is the just judge and the sinful human being is the justly judged.                    

When we think about this doctrine, oftentimes the question of fairness gets raised.  Is it fair for God to choose some while passing others by?  I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth repeating.  What we all deserve is condemnation.  No one has a right to election.  What we all deserve is God’s justice, and justice would mean being left in our sinful condition without salvation.  Justice would mean receiving hell after we die.  Reprobation leads to justice.  Election is grace.  So the question is not, “Why doesn’t God choose everybody?”  The question is:  “Why would God choose anybody?  Why would God choose me?”  And the answer is simply:  grace.  Pure grace.  No one deserves it.  We have all done everything to forfeit it. 

A related matter that people sometimes stumble over is the unforgivable sin.  We find that sin described in what we read from Mark 3.  It’s blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  If you commit this sin, you are clearly among the reprobate.  You have committed a sin that can never be forgiven and you will definitely end up in hell after you die.  People sometimes ask, “What if I’ve blasphemed the Holy Spirit?  What if I’ve committed the unforgivable sin?”  The author of the Christian classic Pilgrim’s Progress was John Bunyan.  He was converted later in life and while he was becoming a Christian, he struggled with this question.  When he was an unbeliever, John Bunyan had mocked Christianity.  So after he read about this sin against the Holy Spirit, he began to wonder if he had done it.  Would he be saved by Christ after all?  Or was he actually among the reprobate, for sure damned to hell because he had committed the unforgivable sin? 

In Mark 3, Christ was speaking to the Pharisees and other Jewish religious leaders.  They had said he was speaking and acting in allegiance with Satan.  They said he was not filled with the Holy Spirit, but with a demon.  They said Christ was not good, but evil.  They said Christ was Satanic and the Holy Spirit was Satan.  That’s what Christ identifies as being blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  It’s insisting on identifying Christ and the Holy Spirit with Satan.  Only reprobate people will say such things and continue to hold to such things.  They will never be forgiven, because they will never seek forgiveness.  Their hearts are cold and dead set against God.

Loved ones, if you are worried that you may have committed the unforgivable sin, the fact that you are worried says that you haven’t.  Those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit never care that they’ve done so.  They don’t worry about it.  They don’t think about it.  They did it, they continue doing it, and they just don’t care.  They will never care.  But if you care, if you’re concerned that you’ve committed the sin that won’t be forgiven, your care and concern are proof that you haven’t.  John Bunyan eventually came to realize that as well.  He came to peace when he realized the Holy Spirit had worked in his heart so that now he cared about things like blaspheming the Holy Spirit.  So with you too.  If you care, that’s because the Holy Spirit has made you care.  The Holy Spirit doesn’t make the reprobate care.  They will never care, never get concerned about these types of things.                 

In article 16 of the first chapter of the Canons we find several responses to the doctrine of reprobation.  People learn about this doctrine and react in different ways.  There are those who have a quiet confidence about their election.  These people aren’t mentioned in article 16.  They’re mentioned earlier in article 12.  There are people who just rest in God’s sovereignty and they don’t get troubled when they hear about reprobation.  It doesn’t bother them.  Maybe you’re one of those and that’s fine.  But there are other Christians who are perhaps more sensitive, maybe more prone to thinking or over-thinking, and they do get hung up on reprobation.  The Canons mention two types of people in particular.

There are those who look at themselves and don’t yet see a living faith in Christ.  They’re not assured in their heart, they don’t have peace in their conscience, they’re not zealous for obedience, and eager to glorify God through Christ.  This person is not really sure whether or not he or she is a Christian.  But, and this is an important “but,” they make use of the means through which God has promised to work these things in us.  What are those means?  That’s referring to the gospel.  In other words, despite their uncertainty about their spiritual condition, they continue coming to church to hear God’s Word preached.  They don’t give up on church attendance.  They continue to make it a priority.  They continue to read and study the Bible for themselves and with their brothers and sisters.  They have to continue doing this and expect that God will work through these means.  He will.  The Holy Spirit will work through the gospel to bring about that living faith in Christ and everything that follows it.  But when you remove yourself from the means, when you give up on going to church and stop reading the Bible, then you’re going to drift further away from God.  No one grows closer to God by away from the means through which God works.  Instead, you’ll be backsliding. 

But so long as such people continue to avail themselves of the gospel, they ought not to be alarmed when they hear about reprobation.  Just because you can’t see the fruits of election in your life, doesn’t automatically mean that you’re reprobate.  After all, there are plenty of people like John Bunyan who went through a large part of their life as unbelievers.  Some of you have as well.  You only became a Christian when you were older.  Does that mean you were reprobate at one point and then became elect when you were converted?  No, you were always elect.  God’s decree of election was made before the world was created.  God didn’t decide you were elect when you became a Christian.  So no one who’s struggling to see the fruits of election in their life right now should automatically conclude they’re reprobate.  That doesn’t follow.  Just keep close to the gospel.  Keep using the means, stay in the Word and under the Word as it’s preached.  In due time, God will work through that with his Spirit to bring you to where you need to be.

There’s a second type of person mentioned in article 16.  It’s the person who believes in Christ, but is struggling in their sanctification – in growing in holiness and good works.  The Canons refer here to those who “seriously desire to be converted to God.”  Conversion there is not referring to the beginning of one’s Christian life.  Instead, this is about daily repentance.  This is about a Christian desiring to grow as a Christian, especially in good works.  This Christian looks at their life and sees they’re way off from where they think they should be.  They can’t seem to make much progress and they’re wondering whether that says something about their election or reprobation.  Can I be elect if I’m unable to see the progress I want in my sanctification?

Our confession rightly says such people shouldn’t be alarmed at all by the doctrine of reprobation.  Article 16 quotes from Isaiah 42:3 – God will never snuff out a smouldering wick or break the bruised reed.  That’s such a beautiful, comforting passage.  It means that those who are God’s, even if they are weak and just barely hanging on, they’re still his and he won’t forsake them.  God doesn’t give up on his people.  God isn’t going to give up on you.  He’ll continue his work.  And again, keep in mind that the reprobate just don’t care about holiness.  They’re not worried about advancing in godliness.  These are concerns that never enter the reprobate mind.  Reprobate people don’t care about pleasing God and living for him. 

And here’s something to think about in relation to our sanctification.  It sometimes feels like it goes up and down.  We go through peaks and valleys.  I do, we all do.  There are times where we feel like we’re making real progress, but there can be other times where it feels like we’re just barely Christians.  We just barely care about holiness.  We need to keep in mind the big picture.  Christian counsellor David Powlison has a great illustration he uses for the big picture.  Our lives are like a yo-yo.  Up and down.  Up and down.  That’s what we feel and experience.  But what we don’t often see is the big picture.  The big picture is that our life is a yo-yo, but it’s held by a man travelling on an escalator going up.  Even when we feel like we’re at the bottom, he’s still leading us upward.  God is still moving us forward and upward.  Loved ones, be encouraged and comforted.  We’re still in God’s hands and he’s not going to let go.  He will not snuff out the smouldering wick or break the bruised reed.  Count on it.      

Now there’s a third category of person mentioned in article 16.  It’s the person who doesn’t really care at all about God.  It’s the person who has no saving interest in Jesus Christ.  They’re consumed with life in this world.  They’ve been deceived by riches – tricked into thinking that more money and more stuff is going to be the answer.  They don’t see their need for the Saviour.  It’s not necessarily the case that they’re among the reprobate.  They might later repent and believe in Christ.  You never know.  But for now they’re unbelievers and living like it.  If they hear about the doctrine of reprobation, they should be afraid as long as they don’t repent and believe.  Notice the exact wording, this doctrine is “rightly fearsome.”  That’s said carefully.  It’s rightly fearsome.  It should scare them.  But it rarely does.  Nonetheless, if anyone should be put in a state of fear by this doctrine, it’s this person.  It’s the unbeliever who should hear about reprobation and tremble.  Believers shouldn’t.  More mature and established believers shouldn’t be afraid of reprobation, and neither should less mature or new believers. 

Loved ones, if we have any regard for God and the Saviour Jesus Christ, we need not fear God’s decree of reprobation.  If with even a weak faith we have taken hold of the gospel promises and believed in Jesus as the Saviour, we need not wonder whether God, in the end, will finally condemn us.  Instead, if we are believers, whether weak or strong, young or old, mature or immature, if we are believers, we can and should have confidence.  As the hymn says, “The hope of faith shall not deceive us; the Saviour’s words are true and sure.  Our friends on earth may fail and leave us, but Jesus’ faithfulness endures.”  He will never let go.  Trust him. AMEN.    

Prayer:

Heavenly Father,

You are holy and just beyond anything we can imagine.  When you made your decree of election, you did it justly.  No one can fairly accuse you of wrong.  You chose a people for yourself, and passed others by.  You were not unjust in so doing.  We thank you for your grace in election.  We pray that you would help us to humbly accept what your Word teaches, both about election and reprobation.  As we think about these things, we praise you for your mercies towards us.  When we think about reprobation, we can only say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”  Thank you for your love towards us.  Father, please teach us to trust you in these things.  And if there is anyone here this afternoon that’s disturbed by reprobation when they shouldn’t be, we pray that you would put their hearts at peace with your Spirit and Word.  We pray that you would give gospel confidence and assurance to all your children.  And Father, if there’s anyone here this afternoon that’s not disturbed by reprobation when they should be, we pray that you would work that disturbance in their hearts with your Spirit.  Upset them.  Bring trouble and unrest to their unconverted soul and bring them to repentance and true faith in Jesus Christ.    

  

      




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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