Reprobation and the Second London Confession

November 27, 2016

In its chapter on God’s decrees, the Second London Confession states:

By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory some men and Angels are predestinated, or fore-ordained to Eternal life, through Jesus Christ, to the praise of his glorious grace; others being left to act in their sin to their just condemnation, to the praise of his glorious justice.1

The confession then goes on to say that “these angels and men thus predestinated, and fore-ordained, are particularly, and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain, and definite, that it cannot be either increased, or diminished.”2 These statements taken together indicate that the Second London Confession affirms reprobation, a doctrine which has been and continues to be the subject of much controversy.

Reprobation refers to God’s eternal decree to refrain from providing saving grace to particular fallen individuals and to harden these in their willful sins so that they might be justly condemned and God’s glorious justice might be made manifest.3 Perhaps unsurprisingly, many have found the doctrine profoundly distasteful. In the middle of the 16th century, Albertus Pighius, Jerome Bolsec, Sebastian Castellio and others condemned the doctrine in the strongest of terms.4 As Calvin recounts, these argued that “all who teach that certain men are positively and absolutely chosen to salvation and others destined to destruction, think of God unworthily, attributing to Him a severity alien to His justice and goodness.”5 In 1691, a group of dissenting Particular Baptists framed a confession of faith explicitly rejecting Calvinist doctrines. Their confession includes the statement that “those that own personal election, and personal reprobation before time, so as to deny the love of God to the world, do not own the faith of the gospel.”6 Around fifty years later, John Wesley articulated similar sentiments in a sermon delivered in Bristol. As he declared,

This doctrine [i.e. reprobation] represents our blessed Lord, “Jesus Christ the righteous,” “the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth,” as an hypocrite, a deceiver of the people, a man void of common sincerity. … But there is yet more behind; for just as it honours the Son, so doth this doctrine honour the Father. It destroys all his attributes at once: It overturns both his justice, mercy, and truth; yea, it represents the most holy God as worse than the devil, as both more false, more cruel, and more unjust.7

Many today hold a similar estimation of reprobation. Despite this state of affairs, I will argue that the framers of the Second London Confession were right to affirm reprobation. I will attempt to show that the doctrine of reprobation (1) is taught by Scripture, (2) is made necessary by God’s sovereignty, (3) is consistent with God’s character, and (4) is profitable for Christian discipleship.

 

Biblical Evidence for Reprobation

As has been shown, there have been many serious charges leveled against the doctrine of reprobation. Evidence from Scripture, however, strongly suggests that God does in fact predestine certain individuals to receive the just condemnation for their sins. The Old Testament repeatedly foreshadows this decree by depicting God as acting to secure the earthly condemnation of certain individuals and groups. The New Testament then goes further by revealing God’s role in fore-ordaining the eternal condemnation of particular fallen men and women. Given the nature of this article, only a few examples can be explored.8

The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in the exodus story strongly hints at the doctrine of reprobation. While Scripture does say that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, the account as a whole suggests that the LORD’s hardening work was primary.9 The decisive nature of God’s hardening is made clear by the sequence of events. Before any mention is made of self-hardening, God disclosed His plan to ossify Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus 4:21. Furthermore, God had specific purposes He desired to accomplish through Pharaoh’s continued rebellion. So for instance, YHWH tells Moses that He hardened Pharaoh’s heart “that I may show these signs of mine among them, and that you may tell in the hearing of your son and of your grandson how I have dealt harshly with the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them, that you may know that I am the LORD.”10 And as the rest of the narrative makes clear, God hardened the hearts of Pharaoh and his servants, not with a future softening in mind, but with the purpose of destroying them for the display of His glory. Thus, the exodus story seems to teach some form of divine reprobation.

The New Testament builds on the evidence from the Old Testament and teaches more explicitly that God predestines some to eternal perdition. Judas serves as a case in point. The New Testament authors present Judas’ betrayal of Jesus as a heinous act for which he was completely responsible; yet, they also depict his actions as being foreordained by God. Thus, Jesus can predict Judas’ betrayal beforehand, claiming that Judas’ actions would fulfill Old Testament prophecy.11 Even more, the New Testament suggests that God predetermined Judas’ eternal condemnation. So in His high priestly prayer, Jesus calls Judas the “son of destruction,” and indicates that he was lost so “that the Scripture might be fulfilled.”12 Similarly, in Mark 14:18, Jesus alludes to Psalm 41:9 in order to predict Judas’ betrayal. He then states that Judas’ sin would be so heinous that “it would have been better for that man if he had not been born.”13 These descriptions suggest that Judas was predestined to a condition to which non-existence would have been preferable.  Altogether, the New Testament data strongly suggests that God predetermined that Judas would betray Jesus and that he would then be justly damned for his heinous sin.

Paul teaches the doctrine of reprobation in Romans 9 while addressing the issue of God’s faithfulness in the face of Israel’s unbelief.14 He approaches the issue gradually, first using the examples of Abraham’s descendants who were passed over. The apostle indicates that Ishmael was not considered a child of God because he was not the child of promise (Romans 9:7–9). Paul also claims that, before Esau was born, he had been rejected and hated by God while Jacob was chosen and loved (Romans 9:10–13). Given the context and the language employed, the apostle already seems to be referring to reprobation. But hints give way to straightforward assertions as Paul discusses the case of Pharaoh. Paul says that Pharaoh was raised up in order to serve as a demonstration of God’s destructive power (Romans 9:17). Furthermore, the exodus story demonstrates that the Lord has the sovereign right to have mercy on whom He desires and to harden whom He desires (Romans 9:18). Then Paul makes his point in the boldest of terms:

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 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?” 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? 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, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?15

The objection demonstrates that Paul was discussing God’s sovereignty over the hearts of the condemned. Paul replies to his interlocutor with a poignant rebuke of human pride and an appeal to the rights of the Creator. Paul argues that, like a potter, God has the right to “make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use” (Romans 9:21). The first type of vessel seems to refer to those destined to receive mercy, while the second are later called “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction.” Thus, Paul affirms that God does in fact prepare some fallen individuals for eternal damnation. Furthermore, the fact that both are shaped from the same lump indicates that the vessels were not distinguished by anything intrinsic to them. The metaphor makes the point then that the only factor that distinguishes the elect and the reprobate from one another is God’s sovereign purpose. On the one hand, God designed “to show His wrath and to make known His power” through the dishonorable vessels; but on the other hand, the destruction of the reprobate serves “to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory” (Romans 9:22–23). As Calvin states, “the infinite mercy of God towards the elect must appear increasingly worthy of praise, when we see how miserable are all they who escape not his wrath.”16 The ninth chapter of Romans then explicitly teaches that God, for the praise of His own glory, unconditionally foreordains salvation for some, while He refrains from showing saving mercy to others and instead hardens them in their wickedness to prepare them for their just destruction.

 

God’s Sovereignty and Reprobation

As we have seen, both testaments testify to the divine act of reprobation. By itself, this ought to compel Christians to receive the doctrine with reverence and humility. At the same time, other theological considerations also seem to render the doctrine necessary. To provide just one example, the doctrine of God’s sovereignty seems to necessitate reprobation.17 The Second London Confession affirms a high view of God’s sovereignty. It states that “God hath decreed in himself from all Eternity, by the most wise and holy Counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably, all things whatsoever comes to pass.”18 The confession goes on to assert that God’s control extends over the sinful actions of moral creatures:

The Almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God, so far manifest themselves in his Providence, that his determinate Counsel extendeth itself even to the first fall, and all other sinful actions both of Angels, and Men; (and that not by a bare permission) which also he most wisely and powerfully boundeth, and otherwise ordereth, and governeth, in a most manifold dispensation to his most holy ends: yet so, as the sinfulness of their acts proceedeth only from the Creatures, and not from God; who being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be, the author or approver of sin.19

Such a high view of God’s sovereignty accords with the Scriptures and leads by logical necessity to the doctrine of reprobation.20 If God is sovereign over all things, including all human choices,21 then He is sovereign over the choice to reject the gospel.22 Furthermore, if God is sovereign over all the affairs of men, then He is sovereign over where the gospel is preached.23 Thus, if the gospel must be believed in order for one to be saved (which it must), and God decides where the gospel will be proclaimed (which He does [Acts 16:6-10]), then God is sovereign over where salvation is even made available.

Because of the close connection between sovereignty and reprobation, those who deny the latter must modify their definitions of the former. Arminians for instance, claim that, though God has sovereign rights over the world, He chooses not to exercise them in order to make room for libertarian freedom.24 They claim that God’s control over the world extends to all things except for evil, which occurs not by God’s design but only by his permission.25 Such a view necessitates the admission that the entire created order from early in its existence has operated outside God’s purpose for it and the gamble of creation was lost by God (Romans 8:20, 21). This view of divine sovereignty, however, cannot be reconciled to the Biblical data. It would contradict God’s testimony about himself in Isaiah 44;24-28 as well as what is implied in the praise of heaven in Revelation 4:9-11.26 Furthermore, if God chooses not to exercise His sovereign rights, then has He not in fact abdicated His throne? The Arminian view of sovereignty tends to lead to the conclusion that God is King in name only. But the God of the Bible is no figurehead; the God of the Bible is completely sovereign over all of creation, including over all the free choices of individual men. This in turn logically requires the doctrine of reprobation.

 

God’s Character and Reprobation

Many have objected to the doctrine of reprobation on the basis of its alleged inconsistency with God’s just and loving character. On the contrary, careful theological reflection reveals that reprobation does not threaten these attributes of God. So for instance, reprobation does not call into question God’s justice. The biblical doctrine of reprobation does not describe God as decreeing to punish the innocent, nor does it describe God as actively corrupting good men in order to punish them. Rather, reprobation refers to that decree by which God predetermines to withhold saving grace from particular fallen individuals and predestines these to be condemned for the sins that they voluntarily commit from their own sinful nature. Thus, the Second London Confession rightly asserts regarding the reprobate:

As for those wicked and ungodly men, whom God as a righteous judge, for former sin doth blind and harden; from them he not only withholdeth his Grace, whereby they might have been inlightened in their understanding and wrought upon in their hearts; But sometimes also withdraweth the gifts which they had, and exposeth them to such objects as their corruptions makes occasion of sin; and withal gives them over to their own lusts, and the temptations of the world, and the power of Satan, whereby it comes to pass, that they harden themselves, even under those means which God useth for the softening of others.27

As the statement makes clear, God does not reprobate righteous men, but men who are wicked and ungodly. By withholding saving grace from such men, God does not do them any injustice since grace is by its very nature undeserved. Likewise, God does not act unjustly when He blinds and hardens fallen individuals, for they deserve God’s wrath by virtue of their natural ungodliness and sinful actions.

Reprobation is also compatible with God’s love. Sinners who are left in their sin are still recipients of the general love that God has for all His creatures, though they do not experience His saving love which is reserved for the elect.28 God’s general love is real and should by itself elicit repentance (Romans 2:4). It is only due to human depravity that God’s general love does not overcome men’s enmity towards Him. God then sets a special kind of saving love on particular individuals in order to overcome their sinfulness, to bring them to faith and repentance, and to save them for His glory. This is a freely given love that God does not owe any sinful creature; thus, He is free to withhold it from whom He pleases. Those who suggest that God must love all His creatures in the same way force upon Him a requirement contrary both to Scripture and to human experience.

 

Reprobation and Christian Discipleship

I have argued thus far that reprobation is clearly taught in the Scriptures, is made necessary by God’s sovereignty, and is consistent with God’s character. In addition, I posit that reprobation furthers Christian discipleship. I say this for at least three reasons. First, the doctrine of reprobation tends to destroy human pride. In our conceit, we naturally assume that human beings are the center of the universe and that God exists to help us flourish. The doctrine of reprobation demonstrates however that God is central and that all human beings exist for the display of His glory. Thus, the doctrine of reprobation humbles believers like few other doctrines do. Second, by accepting the doctrine of reprobation, disciples foster a radical submission to the Word of God. All Christians are tempted to stand over the Bible and to force God’s Word to conform to our own philosophical or moral judgments. But the doctrine of reprobation confronts our worldly ways of thinking and offends our natural sensibilities. It uniquely requires us to put aside our own presuppositions and to bow the knee before God’s revelation. In so doing, reprobation teaches Christians to grow in their appreciation of and submission to the authority of the Bible.

Lastly, reprobation supports Christian discipleship by safeguarding the salvific exclusivity of the gospel. Every Christian needs to wrestle with the problem of the unevangelized. Many confessing Christians have responded to the issue by asserting the possibility of salvation apart from the conscious acceptance of the gospel. The reason this pertains to the discussion at hand is because the same impulses that lead to the rejection of reprobation also lead towards the denial of the salvific exclusivity of the gospel.29 This explains why similar appeals are made to God’s justice, God’s love, and God’s goodness in order to argue that the Lord could never condemn to hell individuals who were not afforded the opportunity to hear the gospel.30 The doctrine of reprobation on the other hand teaches that God is free to withhold saving grace from sinners. It also declares that the reprobate serve a divine purpose: they demonstrate the glory of God’s justice and highlight God’s amazing grace towards the elect. In these ways then, the doctrine of reprobation strengthens Christian disciples. Thus, the framers of the Second London Confession were wise to defend the doctrine.

 

Conclusion

The doctrine of reprobation continues to trouble many Christians and to invite much controversy. Yet, faithfulness to the God of the Scriptures often requires theological courage. It requires Christians to receive all that the Scriptures teach, to accept the necessary implications of clear doctrines, and to trust that God’s revelation is always consistent and beneficial. Thus, believers ought to receive the doctrine of reprobation as a matter of fidelity, even as the framers of the Second London Confession once did. Furthermore, Baptists should be thankful for the discussion of reprobation found in the Second London Confession. The confession contains an explication of the doctrine that is saturated in biblical fidelity, theological precision, and God-honoring conviction. I pray that many might continue to study these confessional articles so that they might learn to articulate and defend the doctrine of reprobation.

 


1 Second London Confession, Chapter III, “Of God’s Decree,” par. III.
2 Ibid., Chapter III, “Of God’s Decree,” par. IV.
3 For discussions of reprobation, see John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 2, Library of Christian Classics (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 931; John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 221–24.
4 For a discussion of these figures and their acrimony towards predestination, see Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, 6th ed., vol. 1, The History of the Creeds (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1877), 474–77.
5 John Calvin, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, trans. J. K. S. Reid (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1997), 55.
6 William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, rev. ed. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 1969), 339.
7 John Wesley, Free Grace: A Sermon Preach’d at Bristol (Bristol: S&F Farley, 1739), 22–24.
8 Some other texts that may teach or imply the doctrine of reprobation include Genesis 15:16, Deuteronomy 2:30, Joshua 11:20, 1 Samuel 2:25, 2 Samuel 16:10, 17:14, 1 Kings 22:20–23, 2 Chronicles 25:16, Isaiah 6:9–10, 29:9–10, 44:18, 63:17, Psalm 105:25, Proverbs 16:4, 22:14, Matthew 13:10–17, Mark 4:10–12, Luke 8:9–10, John 12:37–40, 1 Peter 2:7–8, and Jude 4.
9 The Scriptures refer to God hardening Pharaoh’s heart nine times (Exodus 4:21, 7:3, 9:12, 10:1, 10:20, 10:27, 11:10, 14:4, 14:8), to God hardening the hearts of the Egyptians one time (Exodus 14:17), to Pharaoh’s heart being hardened six times, (Exodus 7:13, 7:14, 7:22, 8:19, 9:7, 9:35), and to Pharaoh hardening his own heart three times (Exodus 8:15, 8:32, 9:34). Furthermore, two of the texts (Exodus 7:13, 7:22) that simply mention that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened also say that this hardening happened “as the LORD had said.” For an extended defense of this view, see G. K. Beale, “An Exegetical and Theological Consideration of the Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart in Exodus 4-14 and Romans 9,” Trinity Journal 5, no. 2 (1984): 129–54.
10 Exodus 10:1–2; unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture citations are from the ESV.
11 John 13:18; see also Acts 1:16–20.
12 John 17:12.
13 Mark 14:18–21; Matthew 26:20–25.
14 An extended discussion of Romans 9 goes beyond the scope of this article. For treatments from a similar perspective, see Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament 6 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998), 478–523; Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 570–609.
15 Romans 9:19–23.
16 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, trans. John Owen, 500th Anniversary Edition, Calvin’s Commentaries (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009), 369.
17 The doctrine of unconditional election also requires reprobation by logical necessity. For a defense of this argument, see Geerhardus Vos, “The Biblical Importance of the Doctrine of Preterition,” The Presbyterian 70, no. 36 (1900): 9–10.
18 Second London Confession, Chapter III, “Of God’s Decree,” par. I.
19 Second London Confession, Chapter V, “Of Divine Providence,” par. IV.
20 See for example Psalms 9:2-8, 47:7-8, 93:1-2, 103:19, 115:3, 135:6, Isaiah 6:1-3, 46:9-10, 66:1, Jeremiah 10:10, Daniel 4:34-34, Malachi 1:14, Matthew 28:18, Acts 4:24, Ephesians 1:11, 1 Timothy 6:15, Jude 1:25, and Revelation 6:10.
21 See for example Genesis 45:7-8, 50:20, Psalms 33:15, 139:1-4, 16, Proverbs 20:24, 21:1, Jeremiah 10:23, Ezra 1:1, 6:22, Acts 2:23, 4:27-28, and Philippians 2:13.
22 See 1 Peter 1:7–8.
23 See Acts 16:6–10.
24 Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 123–24.
25 Ibid., 120.
26 The most striking example is set forth in Acts 4:27, 28. The murder of the Son of God must be considered the greatest evil ever committed. Yet, the New Testament writers clearly depict all the details of his death as occurring in accordance with divine design.
27 Second London Confession, Chapter V, “Of Divine Providence,” par. VI.
28 For a discussion of the different ways the Bible speaks of God’s love, see D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2000), 16–21.
29 Clark Pinnock states in fact that inclusivism should appeal to Christians because it “relieves us of those dark features of the tradition that suggest that (at worst) God plays favorites or (at best) inexplicably restricts his grace, so that whole groups are excluded from any possibility of salvation.” See Clark H. Pinnock, “An Inclusivist View,” in Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, Counterpoints (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 101. Walls and Dongell manifest similar tendencies. In their discussion of the fate of the unevangelized, they approvingly quote C.S. Lewis’ views on the possibility of salvation for those unreached by the gospel. They then make the claim that “the grace made available by Christ is extended to everyone through the work of the Holy Spirit, even if they live in times and places where the gospel is not explicitly preached.” See Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell, Why I Am Not a Calvinist (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 195.
30 See John Hick, “Response to R. Douglas Geivett and W. Gary Phillips,” in Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, Counterpoints (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 246–50.