The covenant and Dordt (6): Reprobation—concluded

Reprobation is God’s eternal decree to leave the reprobate in their misery of sin, not to give them saving faith and the grace of conversion, and to condemn and punish them forever. This is the teaching of the Canons in Head I, Article 15. Article 15 adds that this decree is righteous and unchangeable.

Reprobation is also “out of His [God’s]…good plea­sure.” That, first of all, eliminates the possibility that God’s determination of who are reprobate is based on something in the person. Just as election is according to God’s good purpose and not based on something in the person (no conditions to fulfill), so likewise is reproba­tion. In addition, “His good pleasure” teaches that this is the good will of God. The decree of predestination is not a decision of God that is written in a book of laws. It is God’s will, His eternal plan. It is what God wanted to do. The people He elected are the ones He wanted to choose; and the people He reprobated are also the ones He sovereignly and freely wanted to reject. Their condemnation and eternal punishment will be on the ground of their sin, but God’s determination to repro­bate them is His good pleasure.

God’s covenant of grace is governed by election. God sovereignly determined to establish His covenant with His elect, chosen unto salvation in Christ. God sovereignly saves His people and in this way brings them into His covenant life of love and friendship. God continues His covenant in the line of continued generations, even as He promised Abraham to be a God to Abraham and to his seed after him (Gen. 17:7). The doctrine of double predestination beautifully explains that God establishes His covenant not with all the children of believers, head for head, but rather with the elect children of believers.

But then, how does the other side of predestination, namely, reprobation, mesh with the doctrine of the cov­enant? This discussion we started in the last editorial.

The decree of reprobation explains the reality that reprobate children are born to believers. Esau was the son of the patriarch Isaac and his believing wife Rebecca. That raises questions. Specifically, does God estab­lish His covenant with these non-elect children of be­lievers? Does God promise to be their God? Does God promise that they are His people? Does God promise forgiveness and eternal life to these children?

We noted that many reject election as governing the covenant, and teach that God establishes His covenant with every baptized child of every believer. All such an­swer the above questions in the affirmative. God prom­ises all those blessings to every baptized child objective­ly, on the condition that the child believes.

This runs contrary to the Canons, which maintain that according to His good pleasure God determined to leave those reprobate children of believers in their misery of sin, not to give them saving faith and the grace of conversion, and to condemn them and punish them forever. God cannot, then, in time promise such chil­dren all the blessings of the covenant, the blessings of salvation.

The question must be faced, why does God place rep­robate children in covenant families? Why are Esaus born to believers?

Negatively, it must be clearly stated, God’s purpose is not their salvation, nor even some spiritual good for the reprobate. The promises spoken at baptism are not conditional; they are genuine and sure. The Reformed “Form for Administration of Baptism” summarizes the promises of God spoken at baptism.

God the Father witnesseth and sealeth unto us that He doth make an eternal covenant of grace with us, and adopts us for His children and heirs, and therefore will provide us with every good thing, and avert all evil or turn it to our profit. …the Son sealeth unto us that He doth wash us in His blood from all our sins, incorporating us into the fellowship of His death and resurrection, so that we are freed from all our sins and accounted righteous before God. In like manner…the Holy Ghost assures us, by this holy sacrament, that He will dwell in us and sanctify us to be members of Christ, applying unto us that which we have in Christ, namely, the washing away of our sins and the daily renewing of our lives, till we shall finally be presented without spot or wrinkle among the assembly of the elect in life eternal.

These promises are, may only be, spoken to the elect children, never to the reprobate. There was no prom­ise to the circumcised Esau, of whom God said, “Esau have I hated” (Rom. 9:13), and there are no promises to the baptized ‘Esau’ today. God’s love is eternal and un­changeable.[1] So likewise is His hatred. Fearful to think about, but true: God hates the reprobate child while the child is being baptized. To deny this is to make God changeable. And if God be changeable, terror then fills the soul of the believer. For the God who loves him to­day and gave those astounding promises to him at bap­tism, might hate him in the judgment day. But Jehovah God assures believers that it can never be so. “For I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed” (Mal. 3:6).

These baptized reprobate children, quite obviously, have a heavy responsibility due to their position and up­bringing. They are described in Hebrews 6:4–6, 8.

For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame….But that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned.

Jesus also warned, “And that servant, which knew his lord’s will…neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes” (Luke 12:47).

For they know! They had years of instruction from godly parents. They had years of catechetical instruc­tion. They may even have had the privilege of training in Christian schools. Yes, this upbringing is a privi­lege, but not a blessing to them. They were taught to memorize, “The Lord is my shepherd” (Ps. 23:1). They prayed the Lord’s prayer, calling God their Father in heaven, all the while hating Him. A terrible judgment awaits. For they know the truth about the triune God, His Son Jesus, the cross, heaven, and hell. And they despise it. My soul quakes to think of it. To this, says Peter, “also they were appointed” (1 Pet. 2:8).

But we must return to the question. If God’s purpose is not the salvation of the reprobate, and God is not offering them salvation on the condition of faith, why does God place some of them in covenant families? It must be that there is a benefit for God’s elect in the cov­enant. What might that be?

The parable of the wheat and the tares (Matt. 13:24­–30, 37–43) sheds light on the question. Jesus tells of how in a certain field (representing the world) the tares are sown in closest proximity to the wheat. The parable makes plain that God wills that both wheat (elect) and tares (reprobate) grow up together throughout the his­tory of the church and the world. The tares appear as wheat in the early stages of growth, just as young elect and reprobate children in a covenant family cannot be distinguished and labeled. God has reasons for the elect believer to grow up with a brother or sister, a cousin, a friend, whom God has eternally determined not to save, even though the chosen one does not know what God has willed about the relative or friend.

First, God determines that the tares will gradually manifest themselves as such. Under covenantal instruc­tion and biblical preaching, the true spiritual nature of children gradually comes to light. The truth about Christ the complete and merciful Savior fills them with utter loathing. Eventually this hatred manifests itself. God’s decree of predestination becomes manifest under, even through, the instruction given to covenant chil­dren. The elect, by grace alone, more and more love God whom they come to know. On the other hand, the same instruction hardens the reprobate. That differ­ence is clearly manifest in God’s time and way.

Second, the parable makes plain that God’s purpose in placing reprobate in closest proximity to His elect is to teach His people to live the antithesis. The antithesis is not (as conditional covenant theologians teach) be­tween baptized and unbaptized children. That would make things easier. Every baptized child might then as­sume that all other baptized children are on the Lord’s side, and they only need be concerned about the unbap­tized folk.

But in this parable Jesus warns believers that there are tares among the wheat, yes, also in the church and in covenant families. Believers are thus taught not blindly to follow a teaching or lifestyle of another member of their church or family. They must be willing to refute the errors and reject the sins even of those inside the church or family. Such a stand, the battle for the antith­esis, painful as it can be, makes God’s people spiritually stronger. That is the message of the parable.

More can be said of God’s purposes.

The manifestation of reprobates in covenant families is also the cause of much humility. The elect child is re­minded that his salvation is all of God, all of grace. The only thing that distinguishes Jacob from Esau is God’s electing mercy (Rom. 9). God choose Jacob in pure, sov­ereign grace and therefore God saved him, miserable sin­ner though he was. Jacob came to know not only that his salvation was all of God, but also that he was no more worthy of salvation than was his brother. Humbling.

The decree of double predestination worked out in covenant families also teaches humility to believing par­ents. In it they behold that salvation of their children is not of them. They can save none of their children. They instruct their children, one and all, the same. The same teaching, the same discipline, the same warnings, rebukes, and admonitions. Their instruction is an in­strument that God uses for the salvation of God’s cho­sen, but salvation is of the Lord alone.

The manifestation of unbelief in covenant children and their total rejection of Christ emphasizes that God establishes His covenant not with all but only with the elect children of believers. The promises of salvation are spoken to and about the elect children alone. One such promise is Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Believing parents of a wayward child can struggle with that verse. Its promise is so clear. It is God’s own promise, and therefore it cannot fail. But, they can rea­son, we raised this child as we did all the other children. Yes, in weakness and in sin, but directing each one in the paths of truth and righteousness. Why did this one depart? The answer is not that God’s promise failed. Nor is this verse a mere prediction that is true most of the time. Rather, the answer is that God’s covenant promises are spoken only to and about those chosen in Christ. The promise of Proverbs 22:6 never fails.

For believing parents, this is most difficult. If what III John 4 states is true of believing parents, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth,” the converse is also true: there is no greater sorrow than to see children forsake the truth, curse God, and die in unbelief. David’s heart-rending cry captures it, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Sam. 18:33).

Now it is so, that God mercifully does not identi­fy to parents elect and reprobate among their children. Also, parents may never assume that this child is elect or that one is reprobate. Until the day they die, believing parents will pray for a wayward son or daughter that God will have mercy on that child and bring to repentance. They know about the son of God-fearing Hezekiah, Manasseh, who “made Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to err, and to do worse than the heathen, whom the Lord had destroyed before the children of Israel” (2 Chron. 33:9). But God brought this son to true repentance after many years. (See vv. 12ff.)

For all the sorrow they experience, believing parents do not deny God’s wisdom and goodness in His sover­eign decree of double predestination that governs His covenant. They bow in worship of their God “in the heavens: [who] hath done whatsoever he hath pleased” (Ps. 115:3).

God is merciful to believers. At the same time, God in various ways does bring parents to face the question, whom do you love more, God or your child? God commanded Abraham to offer up Isaac, and by faith Abra­ham did so. At the end of the trial, God spoke this approval to Abraham: “[N]ow I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me” (Gen. 22:12). The fear of God is not only reverence, but love. And God added,

[B]ecause thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice” (vv. 16–18.)

God blesses obedience. God abundantly blesses par­ents who submit their wills to God’s. And their love for God exceeds their love for anyone, including their children.

This is also the answer to believers who, rightly, love every child God gives them. They might wonder how it is possible for parents to be fully happy in heaven if some of their children are not there. I do not know heaven’s joy, except in principle. But I do know that not one in his/her perfected state in heaven will be sad that someone he or she loved on earth is missing. Our love for the great God will saturate our perfected souls. Our overwhelming joy will be to praise the glory of God’s grace—that marvel­ous grace that saved every chosen one.

And reprobation emphasizes grace. As the Canons I, 15 so beautifully puts it, reprobation “particularly tends to illustrate and recommend to us the eternal and unmerited grace of election…[namely] that not all, but some only, are elected….”

1 Jeremiah 31:3, The Lord hath appeared of old unto me, saying, Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee.