* A paper given originally for the officebearers’ conference of Classis West of the PRC on March 2, 1999 in Redlands, CA. Rev. Gritters is pastor of the Hudsonville PRC in Hudsonville, Michigan.

Introduction

Reacting against one evil always opens up the believer to the danger of falling headlong into another. One who sees and hates the abuse of government power against the common citizen must be warned against the equally virulent evil of the militia mentality. Responding to Roman Catholicism must not incline one to Anabaptism. There are always errors, not just on one side, but on both sides of the truth. “Let us sin that grace may abound” is the classic example of this kind of overreaction. Likewise, Reformed believers who see the evil of the Arminian denial of reprobation must not fall into the equally malignant evil of hyper-Calvinism. To warn against that danger is the purpose of this paper.

But warning against hyper-Calvinism in this day of rampant Arminianism should remind us to be aware of something C.S. Lewis described in his brilliant satire, The Screwtape Letters. In his book, Lewis has a senior demon, Screwtape, instructing his nephew, Wormwood, in the myriad ways of undermining and destroying the faith and life of professing Christians. In his twenty-fifth letter to Wormwood, Uncle Screwtape, mentor, tells his nephew of one way they can proceed:

We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. Thus, we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm (excitement and emotionalism: BG) at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later when we are really making them all … drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere “understanding.”1

For Reformed believers, one danger is the denial of reprobation and with it the denial of sovereign, gracious election. This is the great danger today. Falling into that evil, as so many are, will lead to the destruction of the truth among us. It will leave us without a gospel. Another danger, not as common in the Reformed church world, but a danger nevertheless, is to exaggerate, and thus to distort, the doctrine of reprobation.

So some will be inclined to cry out, “That’s not the great danger among us! The great need among us is to warn against Arminian denial of reprobation! We may not lose the truth of reprobation!” Indeed. I hear that cry. We understand the danger well in the PRC. But that does not mean that we do not recognize another danger. Failure to see it and warn against it will also spell the loss of the great biblical truth of predestination among us and thus cut out from our churches the very heart of the gospel. So serious is the danger of hyper-Calvinism. Notice, I did not say “so common,” but “so serious.” For the sake of even one saint who may be inclined to this error, we must be warned. But my judgment is that this is a necessary warning for all the saints in the PRC.

While, then, we keep in mind the danger of Arminianism, I examine in this paper the danger of hyper-Calvinism in connection with the doctrine of reprobation.

Definitions

Election is God’s eternal, sovereign, and gracious good-pleasure to save to eternal glory some men through the means of faith in Christ. Reprobation is the eternal, sovereign, and righteous good-pleasure to condemn others to eternal damnation on account of their sin, as manifestations of His justice, and to serve the purpose of the realization of His elect church.2 The official Reformed definitions of the two are in the Canons: “Election is the unchangeable purpose of God, whereby, before the foundation of the world, he hath out of mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of his own will, chosen, from the whole human race, which had fallen through their own fault…a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ…” (I:6). Reprobation means that “not all, but some only are elected, while others are passed by in the eternal decree; whom God…hath decreed to leave in the common misery…and not to bestow upon them saving faith and the grace of conversion” (I:15).

We may define reprobation only in light of election, because it serves election. To define reprobation apart from election would be akin to defining “night” apart from “day.” Reprobation is election’s necessary “antithetical counterpart,” or “side-shadow,” as Hoeksema put it in his pamphlet “The Place of Reprobation in the Preaching of the Gospel.”3 The inseparable connection between the two proceeds from the reality that God’s decree is one decree. The Reformed fathers indicated such when they referred to predestination as “that decree (singular, BG) of election and reprobation, revealed in the Word of God” (Canons of Dordt, I:6). That God’s reprobation serves election comes out in the introductory statement of the central article in the Canons on reprobation: “What peculiarly tends to illustrate and recommend to us the eternal and unmerited grace of election…” (I:15).

Calvinism is the name we give to that body of biblical truth rescued by God in the sixteenth century by men He raised up for that purpose. Foremost among them was John Calvin. By Calvinism we mean that system of belief that maintains the absolute authority of Scripture alone for faith and life, and those doctrines of grace which maintain the absolute sovereignty of God. These include the five main points established by the Synod of Dordt in 1618 and 1619 over against Arminianism. We refer to them, for ease of memory, by the acronym TULIP.4 First among these doctrines is eternal, sovereign predestination, including election and reprobation. Calvinism and the Reformed faith have at their heart the doctrine of predestination.

Hyper-Calvinism is defined in different ways by men in Reformed circles. All by itself, the word means “a teaching that goes above and beyond Calvinism.” Hyper is the prefix that means, above, over, beyond, excessive, as a hyperactive child is excessively active. Hyper-Calvinism is an exaggeration of Calvinism, a taking of the doctrines of grace above and beyond the place given them by Calvin and the Reformed fathers.

Peter Toon defines hyper-Calvinism as “an exaggerated, rationalist form of the Reformed faith.”5 Professor David Engelsma, in his Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of theGospel,6 defines hyper-Calvinism as “the denial that God in the preaching of the gospel calls everyone who hears the preaching to repent and believe. It is the denial that the church should call everyone in the preaching. It is the denial that the unregenerated have a duty to repent and believe. It manifests itself in the practice of the preacher’s addressing the call of the gospel, ‘repent and believe on Christ crucified,’ only to those in his audience who show signs of regeneration and, thereby, of election….” At the end of his book, Engelsma broadens out on that definition, calling hyper-Calvinism “the lie on the right that must be guarded against as scrupulously as the lie of self-salvation on the left.”7

No faithful Reformed believer or church desires to exaggerate the truth, to go above and beyond the Reformed faith. To exaggerate the truth is to distort the truth, to falsify the gospel, to do damage to the testimony of Scripture. To do so would be sin. To be guilty of hyper-Calvinism, therefore, would be to become guilty of great evil.

What is not hyper-Calvinism

In a paper that defends the doctrine of reprobation against hyper-Calvinism, carefulness requires us to define and explain reprobation with accuracy, lest we mistakenly identify Calvinism itself as hyper-Calvinism. Just because Arminianism is such a threat, we must be careful that in our defense of reprobation against hyper-Calvinism we do not compromise the truth of reprobation. Let us draw the lines carefully. Let us be balanced.

First, maintaining the truth of reprobation itself is not hyper-Calvinism. Because the Reformed faith (Calvinism) is defined by the Reformed creeds, confessional reference is especially significant. On the basis of a multitude of Scripture passages, the Canons of Dordt teach reprobation. I have shown that in the definition of reprobation given above. To deny reprobation is not to defend Calvinism against an exaggerated form of it, but is to deny the heart of Calvinism itself. For a denial of reprobation is (not will be, but is) a denial of election.

Second, preaching reprobation to the congregation of Jesus Christ is not hyper-Calvinism. A boyhood neighbor and friend once told me that he had to admit that reprobation was taught in the Bible, but that his (dispensationalist) pastor had told him that it was certainly not something that should be preached in the church. It is not only dispensationalist pastors who believe this. By their silence on the matter, many Reformed pastors must conclude that to preach reprobation is improper, unhealthy. Whether dispensational or Reformed, every pastor is bound by God to preach His whole counsel, which includes the doctrine of reprobation. Every Reformed pastor is worthy of deposition if he does not, since in the Formula of Subscription he has promised to the consistory and congregation that he will “diligently…teach and faithfully… defend” this doctrine. How can any man promise to “refute and contradict” errors that militate against reprobation, and “keep the church free from such errors” if he does not preach the truth of reprobation? Besides, the Canons themselves require preaching reprobation: “…the doctrine of divine election (which decree itself passes by many, BG)…is still to be published in due time and place in the church of God, for which it was peculiarly designed….”

Third, teaching and preaching unconditional reprobation is not hyper-Calvinism. When God reprobates, He does not do so because of the unbelief or unworthiness of those whom He rejects. Why does God reprobate this man or that man? For so it seemed good to Him. God’s eternal good pleasure. The potter has power over the clay. Whether looked at from a Reformed supra-lapsarian or from a Reformed infra-lapsarian viewpoint, reprobation is unconditional. Even though infra-lapsarians hold that the objects of reprobation are, in God’s counsel and mind, sinners, they are not rejected because they are sinners, or all sinners would be rejected. That the Reformed doctrine teaches unconditional reprobation is plain from the Canons themselves. It is also plain from the vehement objections at the Synod of Dordt. What objections would there be to a doctrine that holds that God rejected some because He foresaw that they would reject Him? What violent objections would be raised to that? The Canons and Reformed believers who hold to unconditional reprobation stand in good company with the apostle Paul who, because he also taught unconditional double predestination, heard the very same objections (Rom. 9:14ff.). When Paul (and Dordt) face the unbeliever’s challenge to the doctrine of reprobation, they appeal to God’s sovereignty, not God’s justice or righteousness. This reinforces the truth that reprobation is not conditional.

Fourth, maintaining the doctrine of supra-lapsarianism is not hyper-Calvinism. The debate between infra-lapsarianism and supra-lapsarianism concerns the order of the elements in God’s decree, specifically the relation between the decree of predestination and that of the fall. “Infra” (under, or after) maintains that the decree of predestination comes after the decree of the fall. “Supra” (above, or before) maintains that the decree of predestination precedes the decree of the fall.8 I want to deal with this more below, but it must be said now that a proper understanding of supra-lapsarianism is not hyper-Calvinism. If supra-lapsarianism were such an exaggerated form of Calvinism that perverts the faith, the supra-lapsarians at Dordt would have been condemned and explicitly rejected in the Canons. Instead, both at Dordt and in subsequent years, supra-lapsarians have been received as fellow Reformed believers.

Fifth, denial of the well-meant offer of the gospel on the basis (in part) of the truth of reprobation is not hyper-Calvinism. This may be the most common occasion for the charge of hyper-Calvinism. We claim that God eternally hates some men and therefore neither desires their salvation nor instructs preachers to express such a desire on His part. Perhaps the most powerful part of the Canons of Dordt with respect to the will and purpose of God in the salvation of men is found in II:8: “For this was the sovereign counsel and most gracious purpose of God the Father, that the…efficacy of the … death of His Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation.” Is that not clear enough that God does not desire, will, intend the salvation of the reprobate? Determined that no one misunderstand, the fathers continue: “…that is, it was the will of God, that Christ…should effectually redeem…all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation… that He should confer upon them faith… should purge them from all sin… and… should at last bring them…to… glory” (emphasis mine, BG). If anything expresses more clearly the Reformed understanding of the will of God (which must be preached promiscuously!), I don’t know of it. Into what knots a Reformed preacher must tie himself who tries to preach a well-meant offer of the gospel at the same time he preaches the truth of Canons II:8!9

Sixth, teaching that God deals in time and history with men, withholding faith from them, even hardening them in their sins, according to His reprobation of them, is not hyper-Calvinism. According to this truth, God’s reprobation of men is the cause of their unbelief. Here we must tread with greatest care. For the Reformed faith, in the significant “Conclusion” of the Canons, explicitly rejects something that sounds very much like what I have just asserted. Is God’s reprobation in fact the cause of man’s unbelief?

In the “Conclusion,” the fathers are rejecting and expressing a loathing of certain wrong inferences that were being drawn from their teaching. One of those inferences that the Reformed fathers “detest with their whole soul” was “that in the very same manner (Latin: eodem modo) in which the election is the fountain and cause of faith and good works, reprobation is the cause of unbelief and impiety.” At first glance, it may sound as though the Fathers here deny that reprobation is the cause of unbelief and impiety.

In fact, what the Canons are saying is this: “Election is the fountain and cause of faith! Reprobation is the cause of unbelief and impiety! But they are not so in the same manner! We deny that reprobation is the cause of unbelief and impiety in the same manner in which election is the fountain and cause of faith.” Right at this point we must guard carefully against a form of hyper-Calvinism.

According to the Reformed truth of election, God infuses faith into His people who are dead in sin. Election is the “fountain of every saving good; from which (election, BG) proceed faith, holiness, and the other gifts of salvation” (Canons I:9). God does not, however, infuse unbelief into the reprobate who are good men, or even neutral. According to His decree of reprobation, God withholds the gifts of faith and piety from the reprobate who are by their own fault evil and depraved. But in that sense, God’s decree of reprobation is the cause of their unbelief, as Jesus said to the unbelieving Pharisees in John 10:26: “Ye believe not because ye are not of my sheep.”

In the end, how God sovereignly hardens some and withholds faith from them without being the Author of sin is incomprehensible. But He does. “And truly the Son of man goeth as it was determined: but woe unto that man by whom he is betrayed!” According to Scripture, the credit for faith goes to God (Eph. 2:8-10Phil. 1:29; etc.), but the blame for unbelief is man’s. No Reformed believer may take away responsibility and the guilt of unbelief from the unbeliever, or attribute guilt to God. The judgment day will justify God with regard to all those criticisms.

… to be continued.


1.Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan, 1977) pages 117,118.

2.See Herman Hoeksema’s definitions in his Essentials of Reformed Doctrine catechism book, Lesson 7, and his Reformed Dogmatics, page 161. My definitions are combinations and slight modifications of his.

3.Page 13. Translated by Rev. C. Hanko and reprinted by Southwest PRC, 1993. See also Hoeksema’s explanation of the relation between election and reprobation in his “modified-supra” position: Reformed Dogmatics, page 161, #4.

4.The Canons of Dordt, which give us these five points, began with the doctrine of eternal election. Their order is U-L-T-I-P.

5.”Hyper-Calvinism,” in the Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith, Louisville, KY: W/JKP, 1992, page 190.

6.Grand Rapids: RFPA, 1994, page 15.

7.Page 195.

8.The debate between “supras” and “infras” is almost always confused by the failure to see that the matter is in the order of the decrees. True infralapsarianism does not teach that God decreed to save after the fall took place. Rather, the decree of predestination comes after the decree of the fall.

9.For the rest, I refer the reader to Engelsma’s Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel.