Thanks again for all the fine and edifying articles that you publish in the Standard Bearer. Very recently in my reading of a great Puritan classicDirections for a Comfortable Walking with God by Robert Bolton (originally published 1626; reprint edition 1991—Soli Deo Gloria), I fastened on a passage that is clearly indicative of the Puritan’s firm grasp of the diametric differentiation that exists between the elect and the reprobate, delineating forcefully what the Puritan and Reformed attitude would be towards the chimerical notion of “common grace”:
If thou be not justified by faith, and accepted through CHRIST, all thy actions, natural, moral, recreative, religious, whatsoever is within thee or without thee, the use of the creatures, all thy courses, ways, and passages, are turned into sins and pollutions unto thee, enlarge and aggravate thy woe and damnation: even “the sacrifice” and whole “way of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord.”
(p. 175—emphasis added).
As this is the defining issue that standardizes the authenticity of a Reformed church or individual and is the measure that gives the most accurate assessment of their doctrinal and creedal integrity, I was constrained to share with the readers of the SB and all PRC brethren, that the noble Puritans almost to a man were classic “Dortian” Calvinists and the PRC’s stance on the common grace issue has a rich historical legacy as well as being eminently Scriptural.
The December 15, 1990 issue of the Standard Bearer includes an article by Rev. Woudenberg entitled, “The Pleasure of God.” The article is, in part, a response to a question regarding the correct understanding of Ezekiel 33:11. The article raises a few questions in my mind.
First, I do not think that I would refer to Arminius as “a troubled young minister.” Calling him troubled implies that he had a troubled conscience. This tends to convey the idea that Arminius was sincere and struggled to understand the Scripture, but developed some wrong ideas. I view Arminius as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, who lay in wait to deceive God’s people. This man was a false teacher who privily and deliberately brought in a damnable heresy.
My main question, however, pertains to Rev. Woudenberg’s explanation of Ezekiel 33:11. I understand the main point of the article to be the truth that reprobation must serve election. I agree that the highest purpose in the counsel of God is the realization of His eternal covenant of grace. Reprobation is therefore not an end in itself, but is a means for the realization of God’s purpose of election. Rev. Woudenberg demonstrates this idea by referring to Ezekiel 33:11. He writes, “In spite of the fact God hates the workers of iniquity, and has no pleasure in their death, He gives them a place in His plan. They all serve as means for the salvation of God’s elect . . . .” In other words, God’s pleasure is not the death of the wicked, but rather the salvation of the elect.
Although I agree with the author’s conclusion, I think he has chosen an inappropriate proof text. By using Ezekiel 33:11 to support the truth that reprobation must serve election, I feel that the author has misinterpreted the text. The way the author uses the passage indicates that he regards the “wicked” mentioned in the text to refer to the reprobate wicked. This is not only shown by his use of the text noted above, but is also confirmed when he writes that these wicked are to be equated with the vessels of wrath mentioned in Romans 9:22.
I am not comfortable with this interpretation for several reasons. First, the death of the reprobate is surely in harmony with Gods good pleasure (Rom. 9:22, 23; Ps. 2:4). God delights in maintaining His holiness against those who were sovereignly appointed to be damned in the way of their sin. Also, Ezekiel 33:10 speaks of those who saw the horror of their transgressions and sins. They feared that their sin was so great that God’s mercy was no longer able to reach them. They cry out, “our sins be upon us” and ask, “how should we then live?” This is never the cry of the reprobate. Finally, I would note that the text does not address the wicked in general, but is limited to the house of Israel, that is, the church.
Positively, I take the text to mean that God, with an oath, declares to the repentant wicked in spiritual Israel, that He does not desire their death. With an urgent and efficacious demand, Jehovah God calls them to turn from their way and live. Those who are truly sorry for their sin, find much comfort in the truth that God will abundantly pardon.
Although I agree with the main point of the article, I feel the author misinterprets Ezekiel 33:11 when he uses the passage to support the truth that reprobation is subordinate to election. Using the text in this manner implies that God has no pleasure in the death of the reprobate. I contend that the text cannot refer to the reprobate. The “wicked” mentioned in the passage must be limited to the repentant wicked—the elect.
I refer the interested party to Volume 44, #1 of theStandard Bearer for a meditation on this text. If I have misunderstood Rev. Woudenberg, I will gladly stand corrected.
I appreciate the letter both for its tone and for the fact that it brings to the fore what is to me an important matter, the proper presentation of the Gospel to those who walk in the way of death.
To begin with, I would like to make a few comments about my designation of Arminius as “a troubled young minister.” That such he was is certainly so. The youngest of the ministers in Amsterdam in the late sixteenth century, his life was spent in troubled debates about his views on predestination. At the same time, however, he was doing his pastoral work well and was well received by his fellow pastors, including even Peter Plancius, his strongest opponent on the matter of predestination.
The question is whether we should not consider him “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” I suppose it depends on what is meant by that. It is true, of course, that he was the chief means of introducing into Dutch Reformed theology an error which has never ceased to trouble God’s church. In doing so he has certainly worried the sheep of God; and this must be recognized.
On the other hand, whether we are to conclude that thereby he was insincere and a purposeful enemy of God, is another thing. After all, those who worked with him, men like Plancius and even Gomarus, as disgusted as they could become with his theology, never accused him of that. To be sure, his exegesis was often faulty, and his arguments more philosophical than theological; but that was not uncommon in those days, and his ideas were hardly original with him, even if they have become identified with his name. For the most part they were carried over from that segment of Dutch society to which he belonged and which had come into the Reformation under the influence of Philip Melanchthon, the cohort and lifelong friend not only of Luther but also of Calvin and most of the other first generation Reformers, but an enemy of the Reformed concept of predestination. The Reformers disagreed with Melanchthon in his theology on this point, but they never questioned the sincerity of his Christianity. And I do not know if it is for us to do so with his follower, James Arminius, as unhappy as his influences may have become. Considering our own frequent errors and sins, all of which hurt the church too, is it not better to leave such judgment to God? (Matt. 7:1-5; Rom. 12:19.)
More important, however, is our understanding ofEzekiel 33:11: “Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?”
The first thing that we must always consider in interpreting a passage of Scripture is the context in which it is found. (In fact, we may note, this is the rule most frequently abused in almost every Arminian misinterpretation of Scripture.) And in this instance the context is rather simple.
The basic figure upon which our text is built is that of a watchman on the walls of a city, laid out inverses 1-6. His is a most serious duty, upon which the well-being of the city rests. When danger approaches he is to give warning, and he is to do this regardless of whether he thinks anyone will listen or not. By giving the warning, the watchman leaves the responsibility to the people of the city; but should he fail to do so, and the city be destroyed, the responsibility becomes his.
So Ezekiel was told that he was the watchman of Israel (vs. 7), and his duty was to warn them of their impending doom. Just exactly how important this was is brought out next (vss. 8, 9). Israel was headed in the way of death, and Ezekiel was to tell them, “O wicked man, thou shalt surely die.” Indeed, given the history of Israel, there was little reason to expect them to listen; but this was not his judgment to make. Should he not give warning, the guilt for their death would be his. But, should he warn them, even if they did not listen, he would be free, and the responsibility would lie only on those who refused to repent. They would die in their sin.
Clearly, at this point we can hardly suppose that Ezekiel’s next remarks (vss. 10, 11) were to be directed only to part of the people, the elect remnant of promise (Rom. 9:6-9). It was exactly this he had just been told not to do. He was to warn everyone, those who would not listen as well as those who would. (The danger of “Hyper-Calvinism,” the tendency to speak only to those who willingly listen, was as real then as now.)
And so we come to verse 10: “Therefore, O thou son of man, speak unto the house of Israel; Thus ye speak, saying, If our transgressions and our sins be upon us, and we pine away in them, how should we then live?” The thought here is not the easiest, but clearly it is a part of a string of cynical arguments to which Ezekiel must reply, going something like this, “If we pine away because of our transgressions and sins, is it not because God is pleased to have us die? And, how should we then live? or, what chance do we then have?” and continues (vss. 17, 18), “The way of the Lord is not equal.” After the manner of Satan, they were accusing God of being cruel and unfair.
Anyone who has ever been called to warn those who live in sin knows how real such accusations can be. One need only tell such that their miseries (of which there are usually plenty) are God’s warning to them to repent, to bring forth the heated response that, if that be so, God would be most unfair. In a God who would think to punish them, they cannot believe—as though thereby to excuse their continued living in sin.
Of just such, Ezekiel was told (vs. 11), “Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?” And that gives rise to our question: what does this text mean?
If, as is suggested, the expression “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked” is indeed an affirmation of grace, and, as we have seen, it is to be addressed to all Israel, to those who would reject the Lord’s warning as well as to those who would not, the implications are rather serious. In the first place, it would indicate a kind of common grace, an assurance of divine favor to all, including those who refuse His Word. It might be a grace within the sphere of the covenant, as some might have it, but a grace common to elect and reprobate nonetheless. Secondly, it would seem to suggest that an affirmation of divine love is the appropriate incentive for repentance, rather than a pointing out of the seriousness of sin—a favored view of the Arminian evangelists, to be sure, but not according to Scripture, and hardly Reformed. And finally, it would leave little meaning to the expression, “For why will ye die, O house of Israel?” other than to suggest that some are to be offered grace who may in the end go lost.
Far preferable, is it not, to find in this a simple affirmation of fact over against the cynical distortion of those who would excuse their own sin? No one may caricature God as a cruel tyrant who punishes people simply because He delights in seeing them die. He does punish them, to be sure, but for the sake of maintaining his justice (Rom. 9:22) and because in his infinite wisdom it serves to save his elect (vs. 23), but not because He enjoys seeing people perish. The delight of God is rather only in that men turn from their sin and live (Luke 15:7), which all who sincerely seek what is pleasing to God will certainly do. While in turn the searching question goes forth, “Why will ye die, O house of Israel?” To which all who reject His warning can only ever answer—because they have themselves chosen the way of death.
Rev. B. Woudenberg
Amen! Perhaps this is too strong a use of language, but it does signify how I feel in response to your February 1, 1991 special article by Rev. C. Haak entitled, “Applicatory Preaching,” in particular, and to your magazine in general.
The article by Rev. Haak was of special interest to me because I am currently a student at Covenant Theological Seminary (Presbyterian Church in America) in St. Louis, Missouri. Rev. Haak’s article sounded like my first semester of Homiletics boiled down in one article….
I also want to thank you for your excellent publication. As a member of a congregation in the Reformed Church of America (my wife’s background in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church), enrolled in a Presbyterian Church in America Seminary, currently attending a Christian Reformed Church here in St. Louis, and a graduate of Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, IL, I have experienced an entire spectrum of Reformed thought. I just wanted to tell you that your magazine has served in an excellent way for me as a source of good solid Reformed and Calvinistic work. It is very refreshing to me to find such a publication amidst wishy-washy periodicals from all different directions. I admit that my subscription has been a gift from my brother Andrew, a member at the Protestant Reformed Church of South Holland, and because it is difficult to find time to read it between studies I almost let my subscription run out. I have decided, however, to renew my subscription (enclosed) if for no other reason, to read the special feature articles and to have current Calvinistic thought par excellence in our home.
John Owen Birkett
St. Louis, MO
Good reasons for subscribing.
Thanks to Andrew.
The article, “The Reformed Family: Grandparents,” by Mrs. Mary Beth Lubbers (the SB, February 1, 1991) brought tears to my eyes. I wholeheartedly agree with Mrs. Lubbers. It is my prayer that God may grant us the privilege of becoming grandparents one day and that we may be this blessing to them and our children.
Grand Rapids, MI
It was with considerable interest that I read your good response to Mr. Cole’s letter in the February 1, 1991 Standard Bearer. I would indeed like to suggest a book that you will find most interesting:Less Than Conquerors: How Evangelicals Entered the Twentieth Century, by Douglas W. Frank, Eerdmans, 1986. The book traces the origins of dispensationalism and Finney-style revival- ism and shows how these phenomena, although relatively recent in church history, have deeply penetrated twentieth century American evangelicalism. The author is properly quite critical of the doctrines of Scofield, Finney, Billy Sunday, and their modern-day successors….
Robert A. Caldwell