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Author:Rev. Stephen 't Hart
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Melville
 Melville, Australia
Title:Reprobation: When God leaves sinners in their sin
Text:CD 1 art 15-16 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Bible Translation: ESV

Book of Praise: 2014

Psalm 149:1

Hymn 1

Hymn 12:1,2,3

Psalm 138:4

Hymn 12:14

Read:  Romans 9

Text:  Canons of Dort chapter 1, art. 15-16

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ,

This afternoon we will be dealing with a difficult, and often mis-understood teaching from the Bible.  We call it the doctrine of reprobation.  Simply put, reprobation is when God leaves sinners in their sin.

  We've been learning about the doctrine of God's election.  The Bible teaches us that out of the whole human race, by his sovereign and good pleasure, God elects or chooses specific individuals for salvation in Christ.  The fact that I am a believer and a child of God is not because of anything good in me but simply because of God's good pleasure.  As such, our election is unconditional.  That's a good and a comforting doctrine for which we give praise to God.

  But then what about those who are not elect?  What about those whom God did choose to eternal life?  What does the Bible teach us about that?  Does God really leave sinners in their sin?  How can a good and loving God, one who is sovereign and in control, even over our salvation, do such a thing?  And if this doctrine of reprobation is true, what are we to think about it?  What about our loved ones who have turned their back on the Lord?  What about ourselves?  What about those times when we see how bad our sin still is?  What about the doubts and fears that you might have when, in your darkest moments you ask, "But am I really one of God's children?  Am I really one of his elect?"

  And that in turn might lead us to challenge God.  "It's not fair, God!" we might be inclined to say.  "How can you, a good, loving and gracious God, elect some to eternal life but pass others by?"  And on that basis this doctrine is not only misunderstood but also hated by many.

  This afternoon we turn to Scripture, God's Word, as we seek to find some answers to these rather difficult and troubling questions.  I preach God's Word to you under this heading:

Reprobation: When God leaves sinners in their sin

1. The biblical teaching

2. Some pastoral guidance

1. The biblical teaching

Since the doctrine of reprobation is both hated and misunderstood by so many people, it's important that we have a clear understanding of what reprobation is, and what it isn't.  Chapter 1, article 15 of the Canons of Dort describes reprobation and it does so very carefully.  It would be helpful, therefore, for us to read this again, one line at a time.  Please turn to page 568 of your Book of Praise, and we'll go through this together.

"Holy Scripture illustrates and recommends to us this eternal and undeserved grace of our election, especially when it further declares that not all men are elect but that some have not been elected, or have been passed by, in the eternal election of God."

First of all, it is Holy Scripture, or the Bible itself that teaches us not only about election but also reprobation.  The doctrine or teaching about reprobation isn't our attempt at trying to figure God out, but it is what God himself reveals to us in the Bible.

  Second, we are to see reprobation in connection with election.  We already learned that election is God's decree to redeem people out of their sin and misery.  We also learned that this election is unconditional:  God does not elect us because of anything that is good in us but simply on account of his good pleasure.  It is by the grace of God that we are elect and it is by his power that we are saved.  And we also learned one other thing about election and that is that God does not choose all but only some to salvation.

  And in the third place then, that means that "not all men are elect but that some have not been elected."  Instead, article 15 says, "they have been passed by in the eternal election of God."  "They have been passed by."  That's an important phrase when it comes to reprobation, one that we will be getting back to.

The next sentence of article 15 says this,

"Out of his most free, most just, blameless, and unchangeable good pleasure, God has decreed to leave them in the common misery into which they have by their own fault plunged themselves, and not to give them saving faith and the grace of conversion."

The last part of this sentence says that to some, God has not given this saving faith and the grace of conversion.  That's the truth.  That's the clear teaching from the Bible, as we'll soon see.  But, going to the first part of this sentence, this is not God's fault, it is not that he is being unfair.  He has decided to leave, or pass by, some "out of his most free, most just, blameless, and unchangeable good pleasure."  God is free to do this and he is not at fault to do so.  And the reason why it is not God's fault is because his decree of reprobation is simply to leave some "in the common misery into which they have by their own fault plunged themselves."  This is important, and we have to understand it.  God did not choose to elect or not elect innocent people but he was dealing with people who had fallen into sin.  Yes, we have been elected from eternity, but from God's perspective, man had already fallen into sin before he elected some and left, or reprobated, others.  That's how we began this teaching on election in article 1 of the Canons of Dort, recognising that "all mankind is condemnable before God."  Sometimes people have the idea that God was dealing with innocent people and that he took one person at a time and said concerning the one person, "I will save you" and concerning the other, "I reject you".  In that way, they say, reprobation condemns innocent people to hell.  But that's not true.  In election and reprobation, God is dealing with sinful people, condemned people, because we all share in the sin and the condemnation of Adam.

Let's move on to the next sentence of article 15.

"These, having been left in their own ways and under his just judgment, God has decreed finally to condemn and punish eternally, not only on account of their unbelief but also on account of all their other sins, in order to display his justice."

Note how this sentence begins.  They ". . . have been left in their own ways and under his just judgment."  There is nothing unfair about that.  God had every right to do this.  He is just to leave them in their sins, their sin of unbelief that is, in their refusal to believe in the only Saviour Jesus, and in their other sins.  And, in fact, by doing this God displays something of his justice.  (We'll get back to that point about his justice later.)

And the last sentence of this article,

"This decree of reprobation, which by no means makes God the author of sin (the very thought is blasphemous!), but rather declares him to be its awesome, blameless, and just judge and avenger."

The teaching that God leaves some in their sin and misery does not make God the cause of their sin.  Rather, he is righteous in punishing sin.

So by way of a very short summary, election is God's decree to redeem people out of their sin and misery; reprobation is God's decree to leave others in their sin and misery.

And that is exactly what the Bible teaches us.  In a previous sermon on the Canons of Dort, we have already seen that this is what the Bible clearly says in the Book of Deuteronomy.  God chose Israel to be his people on account of his good pleasure and in doing so he bypassed or left other nations in their sin.  Psalm 147:20 also makes that clear where it says,

"He has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know his rules."

And of course there's Malachi 1:2-3, which is quoted in our Scripture reading for this afternoon, Romans 9.  Malachi 1:2-3 says,

"I have loved you," declares the LORD.  But you say, "How have you loved us?"  "Is not Esau Jacob's brother?" declares the LORD.  Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated."

The context of these words is that God's people had been in Exile and were now back in the Promised Land.  But they were discouraged, disillusioned, and depressed.  If the LORD was their God, why was life so hard?  Where were the covenant blessings they had thought would come?  Later in the prophecies of Malachi the Lord would answer that question more fully, but he began to affirm his love for Israel.  And he did so by comparing Jacob to Esau, Israel to Edom.  Both the descendants of Jacob, that is Israel, and the descendants of Esau, that is Edom, had been invaded and taken into captivity, and now both were trying to rebuild their nations.  But God was with Israel in a way that he was not with Edom.  "Jacob have I loved, but Esau I have hated."  What that means is that God had chosen Jacob and the nation of Israel to be his people in a special way.  They were the ones to whom he said, "I am your God and you are my people."  But he did not do this to Esau, nor to the nation of the Edomites.  Esau remained in his sin and would therefore ultimately be condemned.

There are other times in the Old Testament also, where we see not only God's grace in election but also his justice in reprobation.  Romans 9 mentions Isaac as being the one whom God chose with the implication that he did not choose Ishmael in the same way.  And then in verse 17-18 we read that God said concerning Pharaoh,

"For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.  So then he has mercy on whom he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills."

From the beginning God decreed that he would not show his grace in electing Pharaoh to eternal life, but instead God would use Pharaoh to display his justice and his judgment.  Pharaoh is an example, therefore, of God's reprobation.

  But Romans 9 does more than give us a few Old Testament examples of reprobation; more broadly this chapter, along with Romans 10 and 11 wrestles with the question of why so many of God's people Israel did not believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Why was it that as a nation the Jews rejected the Messiah, whereas many Gentiles believed?  Was this evidence that God's promises had failed?  Had he given up on his covenant with them?  Paul considers this question very carefully to demonstrate that there was nothing wrong with God's promises, nor with the way that he was keeping them.  What God was now doing in saving many Gentiles was not inconsistent with his promises to Israel, and nor was the rejection of the gospel by the Jews inconsistent with his promises to them.  Rather, the salvation of the gentiles and the rejection of the gospel by many Jews was evidence of God's saving and electing love for the Gentiles.  And, praise be to God, by the time you get to Romans 11 you get to learn that even the salvation of the Gentiles would ultimately be for the good of the Jews.  And it is in this context that Romans 9 speaks about God having mercy on whom he wills and hardening whom he wills.

But then the apostle Paul goes on in Romans 9:19.  Because doesn't this teaching mean that it was God's fault that Pharaoh, Esau, Ishmael and many thousands of people today do not believe?  If you can't resist God's decree of election, and if you are not elect you cannot be saved, then surely that makes it God's fault and not yours if you do not believe?  This is a difficult question, but the Bible does not run away from it.  He already addressed this objection in Romans 9:14, when he asked, "What shall we say then?  Is there injustice on God's part?  By no means."  But then he goes on to say more in Romans 9:19-24.

19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

You see, God is God.  This is how he is determined to act.  It is not for us to answer back to him.  This is how God has decided to display both his justice and his mercy and it is not for us, who have all plunged ourselves into sin and condemnation, to say that's not fair.  Rather, as article 15 of the Canons puts it, it is "out of his most free, most just, blameless, and unchangeable good pleasure" that God not only saves some to everlasting life but leaves other sinners in their sin.

  But this is still a difficult doctrine, and the Fathers at the Synod of Dort recognised this.  And so they decided to write article 16, to give us some pastoral guidance regarding the doctrine of reprobation.  We will consider that, more briefly, in our second point.


2. Some pastoral guidance.

The Bible does not shy away from the doctrine of reprobation.  The fact that God leaves some sinners in their sin is clear not just from Romans 9 but from many other passages of Scripture, including John 6:35-37, 1 Peter 2:7-9 and Jude verse 4.  But what are we to do with this doctrine?  How should we respond to it?  How should it affect us?  Article 16 of the Canons of Dort lists three different responses to this doctrine that are real and living concerns for the people of God.  The first response is this:

  For some of God's people, talk about reprobation makes them very anxious and afraid.  The first line of chapter 1, article 16 of the Canons says,

"Some do not yet clearly discern in themselves a living faith in Christ, an assured confidence of heart, peace of conscience, a zeal for childlike obedience, and a glorying in God through Christ."

They know the gospel, they've heard the gospel and they believe in God, but they are struggling with the question of whether or not it is really true for them?  Perhaps the fruits of faith are not there in abundance.  Perhaps their pathway of sanctification, their growth in holiness, is really lacking.  They wonder if they are sorry enough for their sins, they despair that they don't hunger and thirst for righteousness as much as they should.  Or perhaps they just struggle to have "peace of conscience" and of embracing not just with their heads but also their hearts that their complete salvation entirely rests in Christ alone.  Is that your situation?  Are you able to relate to this?  If so, you are not alone.  If you have such doubts, they will affect you and your joy of faith.  That's a serious matter.  But if talk about reprobation leads you to conclude that perhaps God is leaving you in your sin and that you will not be saved even though you want to be, that's not what you should be doing.  Do not be surprised if, at some stage of your life, you wrestle with what it means to be saved and accepted as one of God's elect in Christ.  We already learned about that in article 12 of the Canons, when it said that

"The elect in due time, though in various stages and in different measure, are made certain of this their eternal and unchangeable election to salvation."

But God has given you his answer to such struggles and doubts and that is the preaching on the gospel and the use of the sacraments, along with prayer.  That why we call these things "the means of grace".  And if you are making use of these means, then do not be afraid of the doctrine of reprobation, thinking that God might reject you after all.  Article 16 of the Canons goes on to say,

"Nevertheless, they use the means through which God has promised to work these things in us."  And, therefore, "They ought not to be alarmed when reprobation is mentioned, nor to count themselves among the reprobate.  Rather, they must diligently continue in the use of these means, fervently desire a time of more abundant grace, and expect it with reverence and humulity."

Do not let this teaching of reprobation cause you to tremble and hide from Christ but instead flee to him, trusting his promise of John 6:37 that

"whoever comes to me I will never cast out."

The Canons then goes on to a second unhelpful response to the doctrine of reprobation.

"Others seriously desire to be converted to God, to please him only, and to be delivered from the body of death.  Yet they cannot reach that point on the way of godliness and faith which they would like."

These are those who know only too well how sinful they are.  These are the ones who cry out to God, "Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?"  But they should be even less terrified by the doctrine of reprobation," article 16 says,

"since a merciful God has promised not to snuff out the smouldering wick nor to break the bruised reed."

That promise, that God will lift up those who are bowed down, that he will never break the bruised reed, comes from Isaiah 42:3, and is repeated in Matthew 12:20.  And these are the very people whom Christ is calling to a living faith in him.  Jesus said in Luke 5:31-32,

 "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance."

And therefore do not fear that God will leave you to die in your sin but rather turn to Jesus Christ and receive the assurance that he will forgive you, he will heal you and he will give you everlasting life.  And then, with the apostle Paul who cried out "Who will deliver me?" cry out in amazement,

"Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!"  (Romans 7:25)

But then third and finally, there are those who do not truly seek God, and for them this doctrine is important to dwell on.  The last part of article 16 says,

"Still others disregard God and the Saviour Jesus Christ and have completely given themselves over to the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth.  For them this doctrine of reprobation is rightly fearsome as long as they do not seriously turn to God."

And that, no doubt, is also why the apostle Paul wrote what he did in Romans 9.  In Romans 9 Paul was wrestling with the question as to why so many Jews had rejected the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ.  These Jews were outwardly religious but they did not live from the gospel.  It is in this context that Romans 9:6-7 says,

"But it is not as though the word of God has failed.  For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but "Through Isaac shall your offspring be named."

Ishmael was also a child of Abraham, and he too was circumcised, but he was not chosen.  And in this there was a warning for the people of Israel - and for you here today also.  Do not presume upon God's grace, nor that you will be saved if you neglect him, if you do not serve him, if you do not make use of the means of grace, of the preaching, the sacraments, perhaps not even Bible reading and prayer.  Do not presume upon God's grace, nor count yourself as one of God's elect if you do not love him nor do you live to the praise of his glory.

  Sometimes I as your pastor and the elders of this church will see this.  We will see those who may have grown up in Christian families, even Reformed Christian families, we will see those who, because they once professed their faith, assume that they are Christians but do not walk in the ways of God's elect.  "Be careful!  Be warned!" the Canons of Dort says.  "Our God is a consuming fire" Hebrews 12:29 says, and "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" Hebrews 10:31 teaches us.  Heaven is real, but so is hell.

So what then must you do to be saved?  What must you do to be comforted in the assurance of your election, even in the face of reprobation?  Open God's Word and call out to him in song and in prayer. Receive the gospel preaching and embrace it in faith.  Receive the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper as God's sure promise to you that he is your God and that he promises the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Repent and, believing the gospel, turn to Jesus Christ.  And as you do this you may struggle and at times you might even fall. But get up, press on, and be assured God will by no means drive out those who come to him by a true faith in Jesus Christ.

The doctrine of Reprobation is the biblical teaching that while God saves some people to eternal life, he leaves other sinners in their sin.  But do not be dismayed at this doctrine, do not be afraid.  Instead look to Christ, the security and the anchor of your soul, and stand firm and steadfast in him.  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2020, Rev. Stephen 't Hart

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