* 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, MI.
There are errors that can be made with regard to reprobation, errors which must be classified as hyper-Calvinistic perversions of the gospel. They are just as deadly as Arminianism. Of them we must be warned. Pastors and elders may not allow their membership to promote or believe such sentiments. The Protestant Reformed Churches hold to no hyper-Calvinist doctrine. They have emphatically repudiated such charges and have shown carefully that they do not restrict the call of the gospel to the elect, do not look for signs of election before they will call to repentance and faith. But let us examine the broad range of hyper-Calvinistic possibilities, so that we may avoid them as strenuously and fearfully as we avoid Arminianism.
I only mention here, but do not discuss, the hyper-Calvinism discussed and warned against in Prof. David Engelsma’s book Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel. The hyper-Calvinism discussed there is primarily (though not exclusively) that which would limit the preaching of the gospel to those who can be identified as God’s elect and would limit the call to believe to those who show signs of election. It denies the duty of repentance to any but the elect. Since reprobation is the inseparable and necessary counterpart of election, those dangers discussed in his book with regard to election necessarily and fully apply here with regard to reprobation.¹
I also only mention the error that the Canons themselves warn against. If reprobation is the cause of unbelief in the reprobate, we must be extremely careful to understand that rightly. There is a real danger, unless reprobation is taught clearly and preached carefully—so clearly and carefully that especially the young people understand—that these errors will arise. It must be made explicit in the discussion of reprobation that reprobation is not the identical counter-part of election. No one may ever fail to know that reprobation does not cause unbelief in the same sense that election causes faith. Everyone must be crystal-clear that God does not infuse unbelief into good people, making them bad. The instruction in our catechism classes must leave no one wondering: “Does God really force the unbelievers to be bad?” This will take careful work by pastors, elders, and parents. If they are not willing to do that work, hyper-Calvinism will creep in by the careful and determined efforts of the evil one, who hates the truth of election and reprobation. From one side or another, he will seek to destroy it.
But my main interest in the last part of this paper is to explore those areas of hyper-Calvinism that might not be considered so among some orthodox, Reformed Christians (also and especially Protestant Reformed Christians). Indeed, what hyper-Calvinist would admit that he has misrepresented the Reformed faith?
It is my joyful and firmly held conviction that the PRC hold no doctrine that is hyper-Calvinistic. God save the PRC from such. Every pastor, however, can testify that there are always members who are inclined to take the truth into an area that becomes radical, that exaggerates the Reformed faith so that it is distorted and ugly, where it ceases to be the Reformed faith. When this takes place, the charges of hyper-Calvinism stick.
I mention especially these areas of concern:
1. Attributing equal importance to reprobation and election
Without due care by preachers, members will suppose that reprobation and election are of equal importance. Let all the saints understand that reprobation is not of the same weight as election, but lesser. Election is always on the foreground; reprobation on the background. Election is the master; reprobation the servant. Election is served by reprobation as chaff serves wheat. Reprobate Pharaoh serves elect Israel. Reprobate Judas serves elect Jesus Christ and, through His crucifixion, the church. Let every believer defend the truth of reprobation for the sake of election, for the sake of Jesus Christ.
2. “Supras” preaching “infras” out of the Reformed camp
I leave others to lead us into the depths of the debate between supra and infralapsarianism. Here, I caution us against an error that is becoming more prominent in discussions of supra and infra-lapsarianism: that of supras supposing that infras are Arminian, and infras supposing supras are hyper-Calvinistic. Here we concern ourselves with the former—those who claim to be supra-lapsarian but consider infra-lapsarians somehow the weaker brethren, if not somehow suspect.
Let truth be told among us: though I was reared to believe, and many of our preachers have said, that supra-lapsarianism is the preferable view, we are confessionally, officially, infra-lapsarian! Let truth be told among us: infra-lapsarianism is Reformed, biblical truth! Let truth be told among us: the Reformed camp has always had room—much room—for those who hold to the infra-lapsarian view! Let it be proclaimed loudly: the debate between supras and infras is a debate among brothers, not enemies! Let every man tempted to damn infras to a lesser place in the kingdom be reminded: the Synod of Dordt was large-hearted enough to allow the supras place among them without condemnation, though the majority was infralapsarian. The Canons of Dordt are nothing if they are not infra-lapsarian.
This is not to say that the people of God among us should not be permitted and even encouraged to prefer the supra-lapsarian perspective and emphasis. However, let us be clear on a couple of matters. First, the order of elements of the decree in the mind of God has nothing to do with which is first or second in time. There is no time in God’s eternal decree. Understanding this is essential to a willingness to allow a brother to hold either supra or infra-lapsarianism. Second, we ought to consider taking Herman Bavinck’s lead in understanding neither supra nor infra to be the final answer, but finding in both an important aspect of biblical truth. Understand well, both views teach that reprobation is an eternal, sovereign, unconditional decree.² Supralapsarianism emphasizes the biblical truth that the main purpose of God in His counsel with election and reprobation is His own glory in Jesus Christ. Who would deny this? God’s glory in Christ has the pre-eminence in God’s counsel. First is Christ, then is election and reprobation. We are chosen “in Christ.” God created all things “by Christ” and “for Christ” (Col. 1:15, 16). Infralapsarianism, on the other hand, emphasizes the biblical truth that those whom God chose and those whom God rejected appeared in the mind of God as fallen and depraved sinners. Who would deny this? He chose us in order that we might become holy (see Eph. 1:4). God did not choose good people, or even neutral people, but depraved sinners in need of redemption. Must the case be “either supra or infra”?
There are even hyper-Calvinistic dangers in the supra-lapsarian position, if one is not careful. Let no one say, as (if I remember correctly) one poet once mocked the Reformed faith, putting in her mouth the exclamation: “Oh, glorious fall!” Let no one be so cavalier with these holy things of God that he glories in sin because “on account of sin Christ came.”
3. Judging an individual to be reprobate because of his unbelief
I consider this error a very easily adopted form of hyper-Calvinism. It is not uncommon. It comes in many different forms. Most common is the mistake of designating a sinful man as a reprobate when we mean “unregenerated” or “unbelieving.” The people of God do not know God’s decree with regard to the eternal state of any man living (except for Antichrist when he appears and those whom the Bible identifies as reprobate, as Esau). They must be careful when (and whether) they try to determine the eternal state of any man who has died.
When a child of believing parents leaves the fold, departs from the truth and life of holiness, and dies in his unbelief, what must be the God-glorifying disposition of our heart? Sorrow must fill our heart. Carefulness must characterize our thoughts. O God, spare me. Judge righteous judgment, Lord! And show mercy.
4. Refusing to express the desire for the salvation of an unbelieving man
A devastatingly wrong attitude that can be conveyed by those who misunderstand the decree of reprobation is the attitude that refuses to express desire for the salvation of a wicked man who rejects the truth of the gospel. There is no personal desire for the salvation of an unbeliever whom they may meet. This, too, goes beyond the Reformed faith and misapplies the truth of reprobation.
Just recently I heard of a woman who denied a request even to pray for a sinning individual with the statement: “God is sovereign.” Where does this attitude come from? God’s people may not conduct themselves according towhat may be God’s hidden will, but according to what is His revealed will. To do otherwise is a gross form of hyper-Calvinism.
Let it be clear: we express no general desire of God for the salvation of all men or of any particular man. We do not say to everyone or anyone we meet: “God loves you, wants to save you, and has a wonderful plan for your life.” In fact, does not all hyper-Calvinism come from this—a misguided desire to preserve Reformed truth in our own way rather than Scripture’s? But refusing to say “God loves all of you” does not prohibit a Reformed Christian from saying: “I sincerely desire that you be saved.”
Hyper-Calvinism’s defense is persistent: “But the man may be reprobate; I certainly may not express a desire that is contrary to the decree of God.” Calvinism answers with the words of holy apostle Paul who, after Agrippa refused to believe the preaching of Christ, said to this stubborn unbeliever: “I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am (a believer!), except these bonds” (Acts 26:29). With Calvin, true Calvinists respond: “With what zeal to spread abroad the glory of Christ was this holy man’s (Paul’s) breast inflamed…and doth desire that (Agrippa) might escape the deadly snares of Satan, and to have both him and also his partners to be partakers with him of the same grace….”³ Rather than being afraid of expressing this desire, Calvinism in its true form has heartfelt zeal exactly because a Calvinist loves his neighbor and desires the glory of God in his salvation.
5. Speaking of God’s decree to the exclusion of His purposes in it
Scripture rarely speaks of election without showing why God elected: “that we should be holy and without blame before him….” We were “created in Christ Jesus (according to his election of us) unto good works, which God before ordained (according to his election of us) that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). “I have chosen you and ordained you that ye should go and bring forth fruit” (John 15:16). According to Scripture, election must be taught in connection with God’s purposes of works (fruit) to His glory. Likewise, reprobation must not be spoken of without asking why God reprobated. At the end of Canons I:15, the Reformed faith teaches that reprobation “declares him (God) to be an awful, irrepre-hensible, and righteous judge and avenger thereof.” The article begins by saying that reprobation’s place is “to illustrate and recommend to us the eternal and unmerited grace of election…” (Canons I:15). Beautifully, this is the Reformed guard against hyper-Calvinism: every mention of reprobation must be to magnify the unmerited grace of God shown to me.
Right here, we face the danger of “over-emphasizing the sovereignty of God.” It has been said that it is impossible to do this. No one, they say, can emphasize sufficiently the sovereignty of God. That statement, I fear, though true in itself, may well miss the point. The point is not whether God’s sovereignty is emphasized sufficiently, but whether it is so emphasized that the people in the pew do not hear anymore (if they are even mentioned) the purposes of God’s sovereignty in election and reprobation, the calling they have in response to these truths and realities. They have heard the sovereign grace of election, but not that God chose “in order that we might be holy.” If the call to a holy life is missing, the sovereignty of God has been wrongly taught. If the grace of God to us over against the dark background of reprobation as the most humbling reality is missing, the sovereignty of God has been wrongly emphasized.
For example, a minister who preaches on the commandments does grave injustice to the truth if he does not point the people of God both to the reason for our obedience and the power for our obedience in Jesus Christ. So also the minister who preaches election and reprobation does grave injustice to the truth if he only tacks on to the end as an afterthought the truth of the purposes of God in His decrees. He fails properly to balance his presentation of the truth in both cases.
6. Taking casual and carnal delight in the doctrine of reprobation
Finally, when a Reformed minister or member, with a kind of relish, looks for every opportunity to preach and mention reprobation, he betrays a spirit of hyper-Calvinism. He does not live in the spirit of Calvin who called it “that awesome (horribilis: astonishing, dreadful) decree.” He does not live with the heart of Paul who, though he did not hesitate to teach it, cried at the thought of many perishing in their unbelief according to God’s reprobation of them. But Paul’s great heaviness and continual sorrow is not this man’s. This man cannot wait to get to the coffee shop to exhibit his orthodoxy in a tenacious defense of sovereign reprobation. There he displays with his “orthodoxy” a cruel-hearted attitude towards those who perish. In a sick way he has perverted the teaching of the Reformed faith.
This attitude and these sentiments do as severe damage to the faith as does Arminianism. Arminians are greater in number; we fear them most. But let’s not forget the enemy on the other side.
Rather than delighting in the doctrine of reprobation with a kind of crazed relish, let the believer be quieted by it, and humbled. Let him always seek to magnify God’s righteousness (in His righteous judgment of the reprobate) and undeserved grace (in His free salvation of him). Let him hear this truth preached and let him preach this truth with profoundest sense of shame and sorrow for his own sin. Let the result be greatest sense of humility: “I should have been rejected!”
Let him have this sense: were it not for the mighty, electing grace of God, I too would be an enemy of righteous reprobation; either by denying its sovereignty and righteousness, or by becoming hyper-Calvinistic. God save us from both.
1. See especially his last chapter, called “The Threat of Hyper-Calvinism.” To my mind, this is a chapter that ought to be read and re-read by all our pastors and elders.
2. William Klempa is wrong when he says that “infralapsarianism … represented election as unconditional but regarded reprobation as conditional upon human sinfulness.” (See “Supralapsarianism,” in the Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith, Donald McKim, ed.)
3. Calvin’s commentary onActs 26:29.