The Decree of God
The Decree of Election
The Decree of Reprobation
The outworking of God’s saving grace on sinners begins long before any individual sinner experiences the benefits of that grace. Before the sinner’s conversion and justification, before the Savior’s substitutionary atonement, and even before the creation of the world itself, God’s redemptive grace has its origin in eternity past in the sovereign counsel of the will of the triune God. As Paul wrote to Timothy, God saves his people according to his own eternal purpose, having lavished on them grace “in Christ before the ages began” (2 Tim. 1:9). In sovereign freedom, solely out of the overflow of his loving-kindness and grace, God set his love on particular individuals, chose them to be saved from sin and death, and purposed that they would be restored to a right relationship with him through the redemptive work of his Son applied by his Spirit. Therefore, both the Son’s accomplishment of redemption and the Spirit’s application of redemption are carried out according to the Father’s eternal plan of redemption (Eph. 3:11).
The Decree of God
Because the decree of election is a subset of God’s general decree (cf. 1 Cor. 2:7) by which he has infallibly determined all that comes to pass and according to which he works all things (Eph. 1:11), it is necessary to briefly review the biblical teaching on God’s decree, for whatever is true of his decree in general must be true of his decree to elect and save. Scripture employs various terms to identify God’s decree, including his eternal purpose (Eph. 3:11; cf. Isa. 46:10; Rom. 8:28; 9:11; Eph. 1:9; 2 Tim. 1:9; Heb. 6:17), his definite plan (Acts 2:23; 4:28), his counsel (Ps. 33:11; Isa. 5:19; 46:10), the counsel of his will (Eph. 1:11), the purpose of his will (Eph. 1:5), his good pleasure (Luke 12:32; Phil. 2:13), and his will (Rom. 9:19).
THE CHARACTER OF GOD’S DECREE
A survey of these and other passages yields the key characteristics of God’s decree. In the first place, Scripture presents God’s decree as having been determined before the creation of time, and thus it is said to be eternal. David praises God because all his days were ordained and written in God’s book before any one of them came to pass (Ps. 139:16). Paul explains that the plan of saving the Gentiles was accomplished in accordance with God’s eternal purpose (Eph. 3:11), a mystery that “God decreed before the ages” (1 Cor. 2:7). He also explicitly teaches that God chose to save his own “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4; cf. 2 Tim. 1:9), and thus Jesus can say that the kingdom has been prepared for the elect “from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34). In Isaiah 46:10, Yahweh asserts that he will accomplish all his good pleasure and establish all things according to his purpose. Paul makes a similar statement in Ephesians 1:11 when he states that believers have been “predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” Thus, all of God’s providential actions in time conform to a fixed purpose that precedes time.
Second, a significant implication of the eternality of God’s decree is that it is necessarily unconditional. That is to say, because the eternal, self-existent triune God was the only entity present in eternity past (Isa. 43:10; 44:24), it is impossible that anything external to God moved him to decree one thing as opposed to another, for there was nothing external to him (Gen. 1:1; John 1:1–3). Thus, every decision which is part of God’s decree was an uninfluenced, free decision in accordance with God’s “good pleasure,” or that which pleases him (Pss. 115:3; 135:6; Isa. 46:10; 48:14; Phil. 2:13). So far from his decree being contingent on the choices or actions of men, Scripture proclaims, “All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth” (Dan. 4:35).
Third, God’s decree is immutable and therefore efficacious. Just as nothing could influence God’s sovereign decree from its inception in eternity past, so nothing in time can change his decree. No creature can alter what God has determined to bring to pass; rather, the psalmist declares that it is God who nullifies the creature’s counsel, even frustrating the plans of peoples (Ps. 33:10). The subsequent verse cements that reality: “The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations” (Ps. 33:11). Nebuchadnezzar confesses that “none can stay his hand” or call him to account for his actions (Dan. 4:35); when God puts his hand to accomplish something, it cannot be reversed. In a similar fashion, God himself taunts the nations, asking, “For the Lord of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back?” (Isa. 14:27). And after receiving what may be the most scathing, forceful rebuke in all Scripture, Job summarizes the immutability of God’s decree: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). The plans of man often need to be revised because men lack either wisdom or the ability to carry out their plans. Yet God lacks neither the wisdom nor the power to bring his infinitely wise counsel to pass. His decree is immutable and therefore efficacious, for he says, “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.… I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it” (Isa. 46:10–11).
Finally, God’s eternal, unconditional, immutable, and efficacious decree is also exhaustive. “God causes all things to work together” according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28 NASB) and works “all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). The psalmist repeats that the Lord does whatever he pleases (Pss. 115:3; 135:6). God himself declares that he will accomplish all his “good pleasure” (Isa. 46:10 NASB).
Further, this exhaustiveness points not merely to a general control but also to God’s specific and meticulous providential governance of all things. Scripture declares that God is the cause of various kinds of weather: snow, rain, ice, winds, and lightning all “turn around and around by his guidance, to accomplish all that he commands them on the face of the habitable world. Whether for correction or for his land or for love, he causes it to happen” (Job 37:12–13; cf. 37:6–12; Ps. 148:8). God causes the sun—which Jesus calls his sun—to shine both on the just and the unjust (Matt. 5:45), which in turn causes the grass to grow and brings forth produce from the earth (Ps. 104:14). He determines the lifespan of even the smallest of birds (Matt. 10:29) and provides food for the animals that roam his creation (Ps. 104:27; Matt. 6:26). He determines the boundaries of nations (Acts 17:26) and rules over them (Ps. 22:28), removing and setting up kings (Dan. 2:21) and even turning their hearts wherever he wishes (Prov. 21:1). That God turns their hearts indicates that he ordains even the desires and free choices of men, whether for good (Eph. 2:10) or for evil (Gen. 45:5–8; 50:20; 1 Sam. 2:25; 2 Sam. 24:1; Isa. 10:1–8; Acts 2:23; 4:27–28). Even seemingly random events are determined by God, for “the lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Prov. 16:33). Neither do the events of the personal lives of men escape God’s sovereign ordinance, for he supplies their every need (Phil. 4:19; James 1:17), determines the length of their lives (Job 14:5; Ps. 139:16), and even directs their individual steps (Prov. 16:9; Jer. 10:23). Perhaps the greatest summary statement of the exhaustiveness of God’s decree comes in Paul’s doxology in Romans 11:36: “For from him and through him and to him are all things.” Whether ends, means, contingencies, desires, choices, or even the good and evil actions of men, nothing escapes the providential governance of God’s decree.
THE DECREE OF GOD AND THE PROBLEM OF EVIL
A natural objection that arises to the doctrine of exhaustive sovereignty is that it seems to make God morally culpable for sin. However, while God is properly said to ordain—and thus to be the Ultimate Cause of—all things, he is never the proper chargeable cause of evil. Scripture distinguishes between the (1) Ultimate Cause of an action and (2) the proximate and efficient causes of an action, indicating that only the proximate and efficient causes are blameworthy for an evil action. In addition, Scripture also takes into account the motive for an evil action. While God ordains the evil choices of free moral agents, he does not coerce them; rather, they act according to their own freedom of inclination. Because God is never the efficient cause of evil and because he always ordains evil for good, he incurs no guilt.
This theodicy is substantiated by numerous passages in the Bible, such as God’s role in sending Joseph into slavery (Gen. 45:5–8; 50:20), in sending Assyria to destroy Israel (Isa. 10:1–8), and in inciting David to take the census of Israel (2 Sam. 24:1; 1 Chron. 21:1). But the clearest example comes from the apostolic record of the greatest evil event in history: the murder of the Son of God. If God can be absolved of wrongdoing for ordaining the greatest evil, then there can be no objection to his justice in ordaining lesser evils.
For example, Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles, and the people of Israel were rightly to blame for the crucifixion of Christ (Acts 4:27). Indeed, Peter openly indicted the men of Israel for their crime (Acts 2:23, 36). And yet Peter also explicitly said that such evil was accomplished by God’s decree, that is, “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). Indeed, Herod, Pilate, the Jews, and the Gentiles were gathered against Jesus “to do whatever [God’s] hand and [his] plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27–28).
It may be observed, first, that God is the Ultimate Cause of the crucifixion, having predestined every circumstance that led to its occurrence and thus rendering it certain. Second, the Jews were a proximate cause, having incited the Romans to crucify Christ. Third, Herod, Pilate, and other godless men were the efficient cause, because the crucifixion was carried out by Roman authority. The Jews were thus held accountable as a proximate cause, as Peter said to them, “You crucified and killed [Jesus] by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). That it was the Romans who actually nailed Jesus to a cross made the Jews no less culpable for that crime. And yet God, by whose hand all these things ultimately came about, is not the chargeable cause of any evil, because, while the perpetrators meant it for evil, God meant it for good. As Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) explains,
[It is consistent to say] that God has decreed every action of men, yea, every action that they do that is sinful, and every circumstance of those actions; [that] he determines that they shall be in every respect as they afterwards are; [that] he determines that there shall be such actions, and so obtains that they shall be so sinful as they are; and yet that God does not decree the actions that are sinful as sinful, but decrees [them] as good.… [B]y decreeing an action as sinful, I mean decreeing [it] for the sake of the sinfulness of the action. God decrees that it shall be sinful for the sake of the good that he causes to arise from the sinfulness thereof, whereas man decrees it for the sake of the evil that is in it.
Thus, Herod, Pilate, Judas, and the Jews conspired to bring about the crucifixion because they wanted to be rid of this man who indicted them for their sin. But God ordained the evil of the cross for the good that it would bring, namely, the salvation of his people from their sin. Such an explanation may not satisfy every objection of fallen man, but such is the theodicy that arises from Scripture itself. On that basis, it must be accepted that while God is the Ultimate Cause of all things, he is not the chargeable cause of evil.
THE DECREE OF GOD AND PREDESTINATION
Because God’s decree is exhaustive, his sovereignty extends to the plan of redemption. Indeed, the doctrine of God’s eternal and universal decree and the doctrine of predestination are not separate doctrines; the latter is a subset of the former. Therefore, that which characterizes God’s decree to accomplish all things also characterizes his decree concerning the salvation and damnation of man. God’s predestination of man is thus eternal, unconditional, immutable, and efficacious. The term predestination is often employed as a synonym for God’s decree, since he predestines all things. However, it is also used more narrowly to summarize God’s dealings with fallen man concerning salvation, and in that sense it has a twofold meaning: the doctrine of predestination concerns God’s decision to elect some to salvation (election) and his decision to pass over others and punish them for their sins (reprobation). Such truth necessitates a discussion of election and reprobation in their turn.
The Decree of Election
The decree of election is the free and sovereign choice of God, made in eternity past, to set his love on certain individuals, and, on the basis of nothing in themselves but solely because of the good pleasure of his will, to choose them to be saved from sin and damnation and to inherit the blessings of eternal life through the mediatorial work of Christ.
THE BIBLICAL CONCEPT OF ELECTION
The doctrine of election is one of the most controversial doctrines in Christian theology. Misconceptions of the nature of God, an unbiblical conception of love, and fallen humanity’s notions of fairness have caused many to balk at the idea that God unconditionally chooses some and not others to receive salvation. Because the sovereign freedom of God scandalizes the subversive human mind, some theologians have altogether denied the biblical teaching concerning election and predestination.
However, both the terminology and the concept of election are taught explicitly throughout Scripture. In Ephesians 1:4–5, Paul writes that the Father “chose [Gk. eklegomai] us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined [Gk. proorizō] us for adoption as sons.” In Romans 8:29–30, he says, “For those whom he [the Father] foreknew [Gk. proginōskō] he also predestined [Gk. proorizō] to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined [Gk. proorizō] he also called.” In the next chapter, Paul illustrates God’s absolute freedom in salvation by pointing to his discriminating choice between the twins, Jacob and Esau:
Though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election [Gk. hē kat’ eklogēn prothesis tou theou, lit. “the according-to-election purpose of God”] might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Rom. 9:11–13)
Perhaps the clearest statement on God’s sovereign election in salvation comes in Paul’s remarks to the Thessalonians: “God has chosen [Gk. haireomai] you from the beginning for salvation [eis sōtērian] through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth” (2 Thess. 2:13 NASB).
In addition to these several references to God’s sovereign, predestining choice, the New Testament also recognizes a category of individuals designated “the elect” (Gk. hoi eklektoi). They are the specific objects of God’s saving choice. It is customary for the apostles to refer to all believers as “God’s chosen ones” (Col. 3:12; cf. Titus 1:1) or “those who are elect” (1 Pet. 1:1; cf. 1 Thess. 1:4). It is for “God’s elect” that Christ was delivered over to death; they are thereby justified and saved from all accusations and condemnation (Rom. 8:32–34). Because they are his own, God does not delay to “give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night” (Luke 18:7). It is “for the sake of the elect” that the days of the great tribulation will be cut short (Matt. 24:22; Mark 13:20), that Christ may return with his angels and “gather his elect from the four winds” to himself (Matt. 24:31; Mark 13:27). And it is “for the sake of the elect” that the apostle Paul endures his many ministerial hardships, that those who have been chosen by God in eternity past may finally come to “obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Tim. 2:9–10). The reader of Scripture simply cannot deny that the doctrine of election is a biblical teaching that permeates the pages of divine revelation.
THE CATEGORIES OF ELECTION
Scripture employs the terminology of election in several senses. First, God is said to choose, or elect, certain people either to an office or to perform a specific task of service. He chose people for leadership over the nation of Israel, as in the case of Moses (Num. 16:5–7) and Zerubbabel (Hag. 2:23). Scripture indicates that God chose those whom he pleased to the priestly ministry of Israel, both the tribe of Levi in general (Deut. 18:1–5; 21:5; 1 Chron. 15:2) and men individually (e.g., 1 Sam. 2:27–28). As with the office of priest, so also God elected his chosen ones to serve in the offices of king (Deut. 17:15; 1 Sam. 10:24; 1 Chron. 28:4–6; 29:1) and prophet (Jer. 1:10). The Father also, in a special manner, chose the Son for the task of accomplishing salvation for the elect (Isa. 42:1; Luke 9:35; 1 Pet. 1:20; 2:4, 6). Then, during his earthly ministry the Lord Jesus himself chose twelve of his disciples for the task of apostolic service and preaching (Mark 3:13–15; Luke 6:13; John 6:70; 13:18; 15:16, 19; Acts 1:2, 24).
Second, Scripture also speaks of corporate election—the choice of certain nations or groups to enjoy special privileges or perform unique services to God. This is never clearer than in the case of God’s choice of Israel to be the recipient of his covenant love and blessings. As Moses declared the law of God to the second generation of Israelites preparing to enter the Promised Land, he insisted that their covenant relationship with Yahweh was rooted in his sovereign election:
The Lord your God has chosen [Heb. bakhar] you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love [Heb. khashaq] on you and chose [Heb. bakhar] you, for you were the fewest of all peoples. (Deut. 7:6–7)
Yet on your fathers did the Lord set His affection [Heb. khashaq] to love them, and He chose [Heb. bakhar] their descendants after them, even you above all peoples. (Deut. 10:15 NASB; cf. 4:37; 1 Kings 3:8; Isa. 41:8; 44:1; 45:4; Amos 3:2)
God set his electing love and affection on Israel to be his special possession among all the nations of the earth. He entered into covenant with them, and, as such, his choice of that nation is irrevocable. While the vast majority of the Jewish nation are presently enemies of the gospel and cut off from covenant blessing, nevertheless a time is coming when “all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:26), for “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew [Gk. proginōskō]” (Rom. 11:2). “As regards election [Gk. eklogē],” Paul says, “they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:28–29).
Finally, in addition to election unto service and corporate election, Scripture clearly teaches that God chooses certain individuals for salvation. Some theologians point to the several passages of Scripture that teach vocational election or corporate election in order to argue against the doctrine of unconditional individual election. However, such an argument is invalid. It is not disputed that Scripture employs the terminology of election in multiple senses, but the mere occurrence of one sense is not in itself an argument against the legitimacy of any other sense. Indeed, Scripture is replete with references to individual election to salvation. In the Old Testament, Nehemiah proclaimed that God chose Abram and entered into covenant with him (Neh. 9:7), which God himself declared from the beginning: “For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him” (Gen. 18:19). He also chose Isaac over Ishmael (Gen. 17:19–21; 21:12; cf. Rom. 9:7–9) and Jacob over Esau (Rom. 9:10–13) to be children of the promise.
The New Testament is especially clear that God has chosen particular individuals for salvation. In the first place, it makes the relationship between election and salvation explicit. God’s foreknowledge and predestination are intimately linked with the other aspects of the application of redemption, including the effectual call, justification, sanctification, and glorification (Rom. 8:29–30). Paul declares that the sphere of God’s election is in Christ (Eph. 1:4), so that those who are recipients of God’s election are chosen in union with the Mediator of their salvation. Further, he indicates that the purpose of God’s election is for those whom he has chosen to stand holy and blameless before him as adopted sons (Eph. 1:5), clearly linking election to soteriology. Luke narrates the conversion of the Gentiles in Pisidian Antioch by noting that “as many as were appointed [Gk. tassō] to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48), an explicit affirmation that individuals believe because they are appointed to eternal life. Using similar language, Paul declared to the Thessalonians that God had “destined [them] … to obtain salvation [Gk. etheto … eis peripoiēsin sōtērias]” (1 Thess. 5:9). And he explicitly proclaimed to them, “God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation” (2 Thess. 2:13 NASB). In the case of the nation of Israel, though the majority had rejected the Messiah and were hardened, “the elect obtained” salvation by the grace of God (Rom. 11:7).
Since, then, there can be no question that election is intimately linked to salvation, opponents of this doctrine question the proper objects of election. That is, while they admit that election clearly concerns salvation, they contend that this election is corporate rather than individual. In other words, God does not choose specific persons to receive salvation but rather chooses to save a class or category of people who trust in Christ. Just as God chose the nation of Israel corporately in the Old Testament, so now in the new covenant era God elects the church as a corporate body. Thus, they say, when Paul declares that God “chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4), the “us” is plural and therefore refers to the church as a corporate body, not to individuals.
Yet this is a tenuous claim, since the first-person plural pronoun was the only option that would not confuse Paul’s intent. If he had used the first-person singular me, he would have communicated that God had chosen only him, which was certainly not his intent. Neither would he have used the second person singular you, for he was writing to all the saints (Gk. toi hagioi, Eph. 1:1) at Ephesus, not merely one individual. Further, if he had used the second person plural you, he could have been mistaken to mean that only the Ephesians were elect, which was also not his intent. The first-person plural us was the only option that would communicate that God had chosen each individual believer in Christ according to his sovereign pleasure. Thus, this isolated argument for corporate election on the basis of the plurality of the direct object in Ephesians 1:4 fails to overturn the clear teaching of Scripture.
Another argument for corporate election is built on Paul’s statement that believers are chosen in Christ. Since Christ is God’s archetypal elect one (Isa. 42:1; Luke 9:35; 1 Pet. 1:20; 2:4, 6), God has chosen only Christ as an individual; believers become part of the elect at the moment of faith by virtue of their union with Christ. Several problems arise from this position. First, it fails to do justice to the fact that Paul says that God “chose us” in Christ (Eph. 1:4); the direct object of God’s electing is “us,” not “him.” Second, corporate election is foreign to the context, for each of the salvific blessings outlined in Ephesians 1:3–14 is received by individuals. In salvation, individuals receive spiritual blessings (1:3); individuals are made holy and blameless (1:4); individuals are adopted as sons and daughters of God (1:5); individuals receive freely bestowed grace (1:6); and individuals have been redeemed (1:7–8) and sealed with the Spirit (1:13). These final two blessings are unquestionably personal and individual; each individual believer, not merely an undefined group, has been ransomed by Christ and sealed with the Spirit. In the same way, individuals are the proper object of the spiritual blessing of election. Third, Paul elsewhere teaches that God chose foolish, weak, and base individuals—not merely an unnamed, faceless mass—in order that no individual may boast before him (1 Cor. 1:27–31). God did not elect Christ and leave humanity to unite themselves with Christ by faith. As Boettner says, such a scheme “makes the purposes of Almighty God to be conditioned by the precarious wills of apostate men and makes temporal events to be the cause of His eternal acts.” Yet Paul teaches that God chose us in Christ “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4), not at the moment of our faith. It is by his doing—not ours—that we are in Christ Jesus (1 Cor. 1:30).
Therefore, while it is indeed true that God has chosen his people to be a fellowship, the corporate body of the church is made up of individual members, whom God knows personally by name (Ex. 33:12, 17; Isa. 45:4). Jesus, as the Good Shepherd, insisted that he personally knew his sheep (John 10:14)—even those who had not yet existed (John 17:20–21)—who were given to him by the Father (John 10:28; cf. 6:37, 39, 44, 65; 17:2). He even said to the Father of his sheep, “Yours they were, and you gave them to me” (John 17:6). From all eternity, the Father has so chosen particular individuals that they are said to be his, and it is these precious sheep that he entrusts to the Shepherd. Election is so intimately personal that the names of those chosen by the Father have been written in the book of life from before the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8; 17:8; 21:27). Clearly, God has chosen individuals for salvation.
THE BASIS OF ELECTION
In the above definition of election, it was stated that God’s choice of certain individuals is made not on the basis of anything in those individuals themselves but solely because of the sovereign and good pleasure of God’s will. This is to say that election is unconditional; God’s choice of individuals for salvation is not predicated on any virtue or worthiness that God sees in those individuals. As Moses told the people of Israel, “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples” (Deut. 7:7). In other words, there was nothing in Israel that commended them to God as a ground for choosing them. Rather, he continued, “it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers” (Deut. 7:8). Moses is nearly tautologous: God set his love on his people in election because he loves them. When the question is asked, why does God choose one person over another? the answer cannot be because that person did this or that but rather because God acted according to the sovereign freedom of his will (Eph. 1:5).
The Arminian Doctrine of Conditional Election. Arminian theologians reject the teaching of unconditional election. They contend that it would be unfair for God to save some and not others, all things being equal between them. Instead, on the basis of Paul’s comment on God’s foreknowledge in Romans 8:29, they posit that God has chosen those whom he will save because in eternity past he looked ahead into the future and foresaw who would believe in Christ and who would reject him. God is often pictured as “looking down the corridors of time” and discovering those who according to their own free will would believe in Christ—these he chose to save on the basis of their foreseen faith. Discovering that the rest would reject Christ, he decided not to save them on the basis of their lack of faith. For this reason, this view is often called the foreseen faith view, the prescient view, or the simple foreknowledge view of election. Thus, the Arminian conception of election rests the ultimate cause of salvation on man, not on God; election is simply God’s ratification of the choices that he foresaw individuals would make.
There are several significant problems with the prescient view of election. In the first place, it posits that the events of reality are somehow disconnected from God himself. When God “looks into the future,” it is said, he discovers what will happen independently of his sovereign decree and then makes decisions on the basis of what he learns by his so-called foreknowledge. Besides fundamentally undermining the omniscience of God, this position misunderstands that the events of the future take place precisely because God has decreed them to take place. As has been demonstrated above, God “works all things according to the counsel of his own will” (Eph. 1:11; cf. Pss. 115:3; 135:6; Isa. 46:10; Dan. 4:35). Thus, God does not form his decree because he knows the future; rather, he knows the future because he has decreed the future.
Second, the prescient view of election also fundamentally misunderstands the nature of God’s foreknowledge, especially as taught in Romans 8:29. To begin, this verse does not say that God foreknew facts concerning the actions or choices of his creatures; it says that God foreknew particular persons themselves: “For those whom he foreknew”—that is, “those who love God” and “who are called according to his purpose”—“he also predestined” (Rom. 8:28–29). If the foreknowledge spoken of in Romans 8:29 is, as the Arminian contends, to be equated simply with “knowing in advance” (i.e., simple foreknowledge), what sense could it make to speak of a subset of people within the larger set of those whom God has foreknown? If he is omniscient, he must have foreknown everybody, not just those whom he predestined to become conformed to the image of Christ. Yet if “those whom he foreknew” includes every individual in history without exception, one must commit himself to the doctrine of universal, final salvation. For Romans 8:29–30 teaches that those whom he foreknew he also predestined to become conformed to the image of Christ, and those whom he predestined he effectually called by his Spirit, and those whom he called he justified and glorified. The Arminian interpretation thus impales its advocates on the horns of a dilemma: to be consistent with their interpretation of foreknowledge, they must either (a) deny God’s omniscience (i.e., affirm that he foreknew only those who are saved), or (b) embrace universal final salvation (i.e., affirm that all those he foreknew, which is to say everybody, will finally be justified and glorified). The Arminian rightly denies both of these conclusions, which do violence to Scripture, yet he does so at the cost of the consistency of the Arminian system.
In reality, the Greek verb proginōskō in Romans 8:29 speaks not of simple foreknowledge but of the knowledge that characterizes an intimate personal relationship. There are two other places in the New Testament in which proginōskō speaks of God’s foreknowledge. In the first, the apostle Peter writes, “He [Christ] was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you” (1 Pet. 1:20). If foreknowledge means nothing more than God looking ahead to see what is going to happen, this verse is meaningless. To be consistent with the simple-foreknowledge definition, one would have to say that this verse means that God looked down the corridors of time, discovered that Christ would willingly lay down his life for sinners, and then on that basis decided to appoint him the Mediator between God and man. Instead, Peter’s intent is to point to the intimate knowledge of personal relationship between the Father and the Son in the Trinitarian counsel of redemption. The other occurrence comes in Romans 11:2, where Paul employs the term with respect to Israel, saying, “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.” Once again, we cannot conclude that Israel was the only people of whom God was aware; rather, Paul’s point is to emphasize the intimate relationship between God and Israel founded on the covenants of promise.
This understanding of proginōskō is substantiated by its Old Testament Hebrew counterpart, yada‘, which, though often used to speak of simple knowledge, many times carries the connotation of intimate, personal knowledge. Perhaps the most vivid illustration of this meaning is Scripture’s use of yada‘ to refer to sexual relations between a man and a woman. The Genesis account records, “Now Adam knew [yada‘] Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain” (Gen. 4:1), and “Adam knew [yada‘] his wife again, and she bore a son and called his name Seth” (Gen. 4:25; cf. 4:17; 19:5, 8; 24:16; 38:26; Judg. 11:39; 19:25; 21:11–12; 1 Sam. 1:19). So personal and intimate is the knowledge connoted by yada‘ that it adequately describes the sexual union between a husband and a wife. No mere “simple knowledge” results in the conception of children! Further, as God contemplates hiding the destruction of Sodom from Abraham, he says, “For I have chosen [yada‘] him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him” (Gen. 18:19). The knowledge connoted by yada‘ so aptly describes God’s personal, sovereign election that all the modern translations translate it as “chosen” (ESV, HCSB, NASB, NIV). A similar dynamic is at play in Amos 3:2, in which God tells Israel, “You only have I known [yada‘] of all the families of the earth.” Just as in Romans 11:2, this cannot mean that Israel was the only people group that God had known about but rather points to the intimate covenant relationship between God and Israel grounded in his sovereign choice of them (Deut. 7:6–8). In fact, several translations render yada‘ as “chosen” to adequately bring out the force of the verb (NASB, NIV).
Still further, as Moses pleads for God’s presence to accompany Israel, God says to him, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know [yada‘] you by name” (Ex. 33:17; cf. 33:12). Here the concept of being known by name is parallel to having found favor in the sight of God. Of course, God knows every individual by name in the literal sense, because he is omniscient. But in this sense, God’s knowing one by name is synonymous with his having graced him or her with his favor. A similar comment concludes the first psalm, where the psalmist declares, “The Lord knows [yada‘] the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish” (Ps. 1:6). By virtue of his omniscience, God knows every man’s way. Yet the psalmist’s intent is to say that God graciously favors the righteous and protects his way from perishing. Finally, the connection between this intimate knowledge and love is drawn in the synonymous parallelism of Psalm 91:14, where God speaks of the believer: “Because he has loved Me, therefore I will deliver him; I will set him securely on high, because he has known My name” (NASB).
The term yada‘ is the Hebrew counterpart not only to proginōskō but also to its cognate ginōskō, which can have a similar meaning as well. To those who named Christ but never did the will of his Father, Jesus declares, “I never knew [ginōskō] you” (Matt. 7:23). In 1 Corinthians 8:3, Paul defines the believer and lover of God as one who is “known [ginōskō] by God” (cf. Gal. 4:9), and in 2 Timothy 2:19, he declares, “The Lord knows [ginōskō] those who are his” (cf. John 10:15, 27). If one accepts the Arminian concept of simple foreknowledge, the knowledge in these verses would be not the intimate knowledge of relationship but bare knowledge. However, that would make it impossible for Jesus to say, “I never knew you” (Matt. 7:23), because the Lord knows all men; he is omniscient (John 16:30; 21:17). Once again, the doctrine of simple foreknowledge is shown to do violence to the omniscience of God.
Therefore, the testimony of proginōskō, its close cognate ginōskō, and their Old Testament counterpart, yada‘, confirms that the sense of God’s knowledge used in Romans 8:29 speaks not of a simple knowledge of facts but rather of an intimate, covenant relationship grounded in God’s sovereign choice and marked by his favor and love. When Paul declares that God has foreknown individuals, he is indicating that God has determined to set his electing love and favor on them, setting them apart for an intimate, personal, saving relationship with him. To foreknow is to “forelove.” In this sense, both the foreknowledge of Romans 8:29 and the predestination Paul brings up in the next phrase are simply synonyms for God’s election. Predestination speaks of election from the perspective of God’s sovereignty, while foreknowledge speaks of election from the perspective of his love. Thus, the Arminian doctrine of simple foreknowledge cannot be sustained from Romans 8:29, and without it there is no biblical support for the doctrine of conditional election based on foreseen faith.
God’s Unconditional, Electing Love. Not only is there no biblical basis for conditional election, but also Scripture explicitly testifies to the contrary. In Ephesians 1:4, after identifying both the beneficiaries of election (i.e., every individual believer) and the sphere of election (i.e., union with Christ), Paul comments on the timing of election, namely, “before the foundation of the world.” The Father’s election was an eternal decree, predating creation and history. Just as the Father loved the Son “before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24) and foreknew the Son “before the foundation of the world” (1 Pet. 1:20), so were the elect loved and foreknown before the foundation of the world, by virtue of God’s choosing them—this grace having been “granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity” (2 Tim. 1:9 NASB). An important implication of this reality—indeed, Paul’s point in discussing the timing of election—is to rule out personal merit as its ground. No temporal circumstances or personal characteristics influenced the Father’s election of his people, for it was a decree made before time began.
Paul then goes on to explicitly state the basis of God’s choice: “In love he predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will [Gk. kata tēn eudokian tou thelēmatos autou]” (Eph. 1:4–5, author’s trans.). The prepositional phrase “according to” (kata plus the accusative) indicates the standard or basis of an action. Thus, Paul says that predestination is carried out according to the standard or on the basis of the good pleasure of God’s will. Though either eudokia (“good pleasure”) or thelēma (“will”) would by themselves have adequately expressed Paul’s intent, he employs both terms in synonymous repetition in order to emphasize God’s absolute freedom in election. This delivers a fatal blow to the supposition that election was conditioned on faith—or on anything else the sinner might think or do. If the basis of God’s choice was the foreseen faith or actions of those whom he chose, Paul would have had to write that God “predestined us … according to his foreknowledge of our faith.” Yet he explicitly asserts that it was the good pleasure of God’s will, not man’s will, that was the ground of his choice. Quite simply, if election were conditioned on faith, as the Arminian contends, Paul has misspoken in Ephesians 1:5. On the contrary, similar to Moses’s comments to Israel in Deuteronomy 7:6–8, the reason the Lord has set his love on his own is not because they commended themselves to him in any way but only because, in the exercise of his sovereign freedom, he determined to savingly love them.
Paul develops and illustrates this concept further in Romans 9:6–18. He recounts God’s dealings with Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau to illustrate his sovereign freedom in choosing his own for salvation. While his choice of Isaac over Ishmael illustrates that he is a discriminating God, his choice of Jacob over Esau gives specific insight into the unconditional nature of election. Paul writes, “Though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—[Rebekah] was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated’ ” (Rom. 9:11–13). Just as Paul did when he stated that election occurred “before the foundation of the world” in Ephesians 1:4, so here he makes the point that God’s choice predates Jacob and Esau precisely in order to rule out personal merit as the ground of his decision. At the point of God’s choice, they had done nothing good or bad; none of Esau’s evil actions prejudiced God against him, and none of Jacob’s righteous actions prejudiced God in his favor. Rather, God chose Jacob over Esau “in order that God’s purpose of election might continue” (Rom. 9:11)—again grounding God’s choice in his own sovereign purpose.
Paul gets clearer as he continues. Adding an explicit negation, he goes on to say that God’s election is “not because of works but because of him who calls” (Rom. 9:11). To the statement that God had chosen Jacob over Esau before they had done anything good or bad, some reply that, while that is true, God could still have based his choice on the foreseen future actions of Jacob and Esau. Here, however, Paul repudiates this notion. He states unequivocally that the choice was not because of works at all, in any sense. Rather, it was because of him who calls.
This statement is the undoing of conditional election based on foreseen faith. Throughout Paul’s letters, he regularly contrasts works and faith:
Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Rom. 3:27–28)
What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. (Rom. 9:30–32)
Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law. (Gal. 2:16)
Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?… Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? (Gal. 3:2, 5)
Therefore, when one comes to his statement in Romans 9:11 and reads that election is “not because of works,” it is natural to expect him to say, “but because of faith.” If the Spirit desired to convey that the conditioning basis of election was faith, there was no better opportunity to reveal it than in this passage. Yet the apostle breaks from his consistent pattern of contrasting works and faith precisely because election is not based on faith. He declares rather that it is “not because of works but because of him who calls.” Once again, the basis of God’s electing choice is grounded in God himself, which is to say that election is based on the good pleasure of God’s own will (cf. Eph. 1:5). While faith is a condition of justification, it is not a condition of election. Election is unconditional.
Paul recognizes that when his doctrine confronts fallen human reasoning, the response will be to charge God with injustice (Rom. 9:14). This is significant because the Arminian doctrine of conditional election would never draw this objection. Who would accuse God of being unjust for choosing to save people on the basis of their foreseen acceptance or rejection of Jesus? Only the doctrine of God’s unconditional choice of some and not others elicits accusations of injustice. But Paul does not let up. He quotes God’s own declaration to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Rom. 9:15; cf. Ex. 33:19), and he concludes, “So then it [election] does not depend on the man who wills [Gk. ou tou thelontos] or the man who runs [Gk. oude tou trechontos], but on God who has mercy” (Rom. 9:16 NASB). This verse ought to be enough to end the controversy concerning salvation and man’s will. Paul unequivocally denies that human will and human effort have anything to do with the basis of God’s election to salvation. Neither faith born of human will nor works of love born of human effort constitute the ground of God’s choice of his people. Rather, election depends on God who has mercy, once again an affirmation that the decisive basis for election is God’s own sovereign will. Election is unconditional.
A final problem concerning the doctrine of conditional election is that it is unable to escape the charge of undermining the doctrine of salvation by grace alone (sola gratia). By grounding God’s electing purpose in man’s foreseen faith and not in God’s sovereign will, the Arminian ultimately makes man the determinative cause of salvation and not God. On this view, what ultimately differentiates the saved person from the unsaved is not something God has done but something man has done. To Paul’s question in 1 Corinthians 4:7, “For who makes you differ from another?” (NKJV), the Arminian, if he is to be consistent, must ultimately answer, “I make the difference. God chose me and not my neighbor because he foresaw that I would freely believe and my neighbor would not.” In that case the believer has grounds for boasting. Yet Paul replies that God has chosen the foolish, and the weak, and the base—not the wise, the strong, or the faithful—“so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:29–30 NASB). Grudem summarizes helpfully:
What ultimately makes the difference between those who believe and those who do not? If our answer is that it is ultimately based on something God does (namely, his sovereign election of those who would be saved), then we see that salvation at its most foundational level is based on grace alone. On the other hand, if we answer that the ultimate difference between those who are saved and those who are not is because of something in man (that is, a tendency or disposition to believe or not believe), then salvation ultimately depends on a combination of grace plus human ability.
The Decree of Reprobation
The saving blessings that flow from God’s sovereign election are not enjoyed by all who are made in his image. The Lord Jesus says that few will enter the narrow gate that leads to life but that many will travel the broad way to destruction (Matt. 7:13–14). He teaches that there will be sheep as well as goats—those who inherit eternal life and others who go away into eternal punishment (Matt. 25:46). Most succinctly, he declares that “many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14). Thus, Scripture instructs that in his inscrutable wisdom, God has not chosen to save all men. His election is particular, not universal. Given this, we must inquire as to the destiny of those whom he has not chosen to save.
Because God’s decree is exhaustive, the doctrine of predestination extends not only to his decision to elect some unto salvation but also to his decision not to elect others and thus to leave them to the destruction that their sins deserve. Just as God has determined the eternal destiny of those sinners who will eventually be saved, so also has he determined the destiny of those sinners who will eventually be lost. The former is the decree of election; the latter is the decree of reprobation.
THE STATEMENT OF THE DOCTRINE
The decree of reprobation is the free and sovereign choice of God, made in eternity past, to pass over certain individuals, choosing not to set his saving love on them but instead determining to punish them for their sins unto the magnification of his justice.
The doctrine of reprobation is a difficult teaching to accept. It is not pleasant to contemplate the miseries of eternal suffering in and of themselves, let alone to consider that the God who is love and is by nature a Savior has sovereignly determined to consign sinners to such a wretched end. Because it so easily offends fallen man’s sensibilities, many Christians who embrace the doctrine of election nevertheless reject the doctrine of reprobation altogether. That is also the case because the doctrine is so easily and so often misunderstood. Because of that, it is necessary to state what precisely we do and do not believe concerning the doctrine of reprobation.
In the first place, reprobation is often wrongfully conflated with the doctrine of equal ultimacy. Equal ultimacy teaches that God’s actions in election and reprobation are perfectly symmetrical, so that God is just as active in working unbelief in the heart of the reprobate as he is in working faith in the heart of the elect. It pictures God in eternity past contemplating all humanity as yet unfallen and morally neutral and arbitrarily deciding to work sin and unbelief in the reprobate in order to be justified in consigning them to eternal punishment. Though this is what many think of when they hear the terms reprobation or double predestination, it is a gross caricature of the biblical doctrine of reprobation that is utterly foreign to Scripture, repugnant to the love and justice of God, and an aberration of historic Calvinism that has been rejected throughout Reformed orthodoxy.
Instead, Scripture teaches an unequal ultimacy with regard to election and reprobation—that is, while God does indeed decree both the salvation of some and the damnation of others, there is a necessary asymmetry in these decrees. Such an asymmetry is observed in Romans 9:22–23, for example, where Paul uses the active voice to speak of God’s involvement in election (“vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory”) and the passive voice to speak of his involvement in reprobation (“vessels of wrath prepared for destruction”). When God chose some and not others for salvation, he regarded them not as morally neutral but as already-fallen creatures. That is not to say that they were already created and fallen, for God’s decree is eternal and thus pretemporal. Rather, from eternity, before anyone had been created, God conceived of or contemplated all people in light of their fall in Adam and thus as sinful creatures. In the case of the elect, he actively intervenes—setting his love on them, determining to appoint Christ as their Savior and to send the Spirit to sovereignly quicken them from spiritual death unto new life in Christ. In the case of the nonelect, however, he does not intervene but simply passes them by, choosing to leave them in their state of sinfulness and then to punish them for their sin. While he is the efficient cause of the blessedness of the elect, he is not the efficient cause of the wretchedness of the nonelect; rather, he ordains them to destruction by means of secondary causes. Thus, the elect receive mercy, for they are not punished as their sins deserve, but the nonelect receive justice, for they are rightly condemned as their sins deserve. On neither ground can God be charged with unrighteousness, because all are guilty and because he is not obligated to show grace to any.
Sometimes, in order to rightly distinguish reprobation from equal ultimacy, people make inaccurate statements concerning precisely how election and reprobation are unequal or asymmetrical. In particular, they often wrongly state that election is positive and unconditional while reprobation is negative and conditioned on man’s sin. While such statements can be true depending on what one intends, they are confusing because they fail to distinguish between the two elements of the decree of reprobation: (1) the decision to pass over some, called preterition, and (2) the determination to condemn those passed over, called precondemnation. With respect to the positive-negative distinction, preterition is indeed a negative or passive action on God’s part; God simply passes over man and leaves him in his state of sinfulness. Precondemnation, however, is a positive action in which God actively determines to visit judicial punishment on sin. The “vessels of wrath” are “prepared for destruction” (Rom. 9:22), destined to disobedience (1 Pet. 2:8), and “designated for this condemnation” (Jude 4). With respect to the unconditional-conditional distinction, precondemnation is indeed conditional, for God assigns men to condemnation on the basis of their sin and guilt. Preterition, however, is unconditional. Sin cannot be the basis on which God passes over some men, for all men without exception are sinners. Like election, God’s decision not to choose someone for salvation is based on nothing in that individual but rather is a sovereign act of God’s good pleasure. Thus, preterition is passive and unconditional, while precondemnation is active and conditional. To say that election is positive while reprobation is negative is to fail to adequately emphasize the active nature of precondemnation. And to say that election is unconditional while reprobation is conditional is to fail to adequately emphasize the unconditional nature of preterition. Avoiding both of these imprecise statements will ensure an accurate understanding of the doctrine of reprobation.
THE VINDICATION OF THE DOCTRINE
Having understood what is and is not meant by reprobation, it is essential to prove the rightness of this doctrine from Scripture. Once again, it is acknowledged that reprobation is a difficult doctrine, one that Calvin himself called a decretum horribile, “a fearful decree.” Nevertheless, the doctrine of reprobation is taught in the Bible, and we are therefore obliged to reverently submit our minds and our emotions to the infinite wisdom of God’s revelation, trusting that what he says and does is right and just (Rom. 3:4).
In the first place, reprobation is a necessary implication of the biblical teaching concerning election. If God has chosen only some sinners unto salvation, he has necessarily not chosen to save others. The very existence of a category of persons called elect (Matt. 24:22; Luke 18:7; Rom. 8:33; 11:7; 2 Tim. 2:10; 1 Pet. 1:1) necessarily implies a category of persons who are nonelect. The decision not to choose is in itself a determinative choice. Thus, as Boettner rightly concludes,
Those who hold the doctrine of Election but deny that of Reprobation can lay but little claim to consistency. To affirm the former while denying the latter makes the decree of predestination an illogical and lop-sided decree. The creed which states the former but denies the latter will resemble a wounded eagle attempting to fly with but one wing.
Not only is reprobation implied in the biblical doctrine of election, it is also taught explicitly in the New Testament. In his first epistle, the apostle Peter speaks of unbelievers who “stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do” (1 Pet. 2:8). Significantly, Peter does not merely say that their stumbling or disobedience was destined, though of course that is true. Rather, using a third-person plural verb (Gk. etethēsan), he says that these people themselves were destined to disobey and stumble. When one asks, by whom were they thus destined? the only reasonable answer is that they were destined by the only One who destines anything: God himself. Similarly, Jude speaks of the false teachers who troubled the church with their teaching that salvation by grace permits licentiousness and sensuality. He describes them as “certain people … who long ago were designated for this condemnation” (Jude 4). The Greek term translated “beforehand marked out” is prographō, which literally means “to write beforehand.” Jude pictures God’s reprobation of these false teachers as the writing of a script in eternity past that was to come to pass in time, the end of which is their condemnation. They are among those “whose name[s] ha[ve] not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb” (Rev. 13:8; cf. 17:8; 20:15; 21:27).
The clearest portion of Scripture affirming the doctrine of reprobation is Romans 9, in which Paul discusses God’s sovereign freedom in unconditional election. Just as God has loved Jacob (election), he has also hated Esau (reprobation) (9:13). Paul goes on to use God’s dealings with Pharaoh to illustrate the truth that “he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (9:18), and that he does so in order to demonstrate his power and proclaim his name throughout the earth (cf. 9:17, 22). Having taught, then, that God inviolably determines the destiny of both the saved and the lost without respect to human will, effort, or merit (cf. 9:11, 16), Paul anticipates this objection: “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ ” (9:19). If no one can resist God’s sovereign will or decree, how can he justly hold people accountable for that which they are unable to do? Paul answers those who would reproach God by reminding them that mere mortals are in no position to call God to account: “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?’ ” (9:20). Paul then continues with this analogy and pictures God as a potter, likening the election of some to fashioning a clay vessel for honorable use and likening the reprobation of others to fashioning another clay vessel for dishonorable use (9:21). In defending God’s freedom to do what he wishes with what is his own (Matt. 20:15), Paul then goes on to describe the elect as “vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory” and the reprobate as “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” (Rom. 9:22–23). These vessels could only have been “prepared” by the potter himself, and Paul clearly indicates that those whom he hardens (9:18) are those whom he has fitted for destruction.
While these passages are enough to vindicate the doctrine of reprobation, Scripture also speaks clearly concerning the means God employs to bring about the destruction he has decreed for the reprobate. Because Paul himself used God’s dealings with Pharaoh to illustrate reprobation, it is appropriate to consider God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart as evidence of the means of reprobation (Ex. 4:21; 8:19; 9:7; 10:1; 11:10; 14:4, 8). The Lord’s purpose was to display the glory of his redeeming power in the deliverance of Israel from slavery, and in order to do so, he hardened Pharaoh’s heart on numerous occasions (cf. also Deut. 2:30; Josh. 11:20; 1 Sam. 2:25). In the same way, his purpose in reprobation is to justly punish the sins of those he has not chosen to save, hardening their hearts as the means to achieving that end. Paul explicitly teaches this idea in 2 Thessalonians 2:11–12: “Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.” Because God had decreed the condemnation of these unbelievers, he also ordained the means by which that condemnation would be brought about, in this case by purposefully deceiving them. Elsewhere he is said to have blinded the eyes and hardened the hearts of the unbelieving precisely so that they would not see, understand, and repent (John 12:37–40; cf. Isa. 6:9–10). Jesus’s own response to this reality is to publicly thank the Father for hiding truth from the wise and understanding and yet for revealing it to little children, which he attributes to no other basis than the good pleasure of the Father’s will (Matt. 11:25–26). Thus it is plain that God has ordained both the ends and the means of reprobation.
THE JUSTIFICATION OF GOD
As mentioned, the chief charge leveled against the doctrine of reprobation is that it is incompatible with the justice of God. Yet it must be remembered that God is not subject to fallen notions of fairness, nor will he be tried at the bar of human reason. To those who would bring such charges, Paul’s rebuke is apropos: “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” (Rom. 9:20). All such accusations are born of the erroneous presumption that if God gives grace to any of his creatures, he must give grace to all. Boettner says, “Many people talk as if salvation were a matter of human birthright. And, forgetful of the fact that man had lost his supremely favorable chance in Adam, they inform us that God would be unjust if He did not give all guilty creatures an opportunity to be saved.” Yet it undermines the very nature of grace to suppose that it is owed to sinful human beings. Truly, the question concerning God’s decree of predestination is not, why did God not choose everybody? but rather, how can it be that this supremely holy God would choose anybody? It is the marvel of marvels that the King of kings, whose glory is exalted above the heavens, should lift a finger to rescue even one of such vile traitors as the sons of Adam. Then to learn that this infinitely worthy King has purposed to redeem not one but countless multitudes at the cost of the life of his own dear Son bows the sinner’s heart in humble wonder. For those with eyes to see, all the objections to these difficult doctrines are answered in the revelations of such glory.
And this is precisely the defense that Paul gives in Romans 9:22–23. The arrogant objector is rebuked severely and told to put his hand over his mouth. But to the submissive, inquiring worshiper for whom the furthest thing from his mind is to find fault with God, who simply wants to know his God and worship him for who he is, Paul gives another answer as to how God can still find fault with those who cannot resist his will. He says, “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and 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?” God has ordained sin and evil—even the eternal punishment of the wicked—to display to the elect the full glories of his name. None has explained this better than Jonathan Edwards:
’Tis a proper and excellent thing for infinite glory to shine forth; and for the same reason, it is proper that the shining forth of God’s glory should be complete; that is, that all parts of his glory should shine forth, that every beauty should be proportionably effulgent, that the beholder might have a proper notion of God. It was not proper that one glory should be exceedingly manifested and another not at all.… Thus ’tis necessary that God’s awful majesty, his authority and dreadful greatness, and justice and holiness [should be manifested]; and this could not be except sin and punishment were decreed, or at least might be decreed. So that the glory shining forth would be very imperfect, both because these parts of divine glory would not shine forth as the others do, and [because] then the glory of his goodness and love and holiness would be faint without them; nay, they could scarcely shine forth at all.
If it were not right that God should decree and permit and punish sin, … [t]here could be no such thing as any manifestation of God’s holiness in hatred of sin, or in showing any preference in his providence to godliness before it.
It would be no manifestation of God’s grace or true goodness to be free from all sorts of evil, for it would be absolutely impossible that any should be any otherwise; and how much happiness soever he bestowed, his goodness would be nothing near so much prized and admired, and the sense of it not near so great.…
And as it [is] necessary that there should be evil, because the glory of God could not but be imperfect and incomplete without it, so it is necessary in order to the happiness of the creature, in order to the completeness of that communication of God for which he made the world; because the creature’s happiness consists in the knowledge of God and the sense of his love, and if the knowledge of him be imperfect, the happiness must be proportionably imperfect.
God has ordained whatsoever comes to pass—even the preparation of vessels of wrath unto destruction—in order that his people might enjoy the fullest display of his glory. Those who would reproach God for ordaining the destiny of the wicked for his own glory must remember that, far from a megalomaniacal narcissism, God’s pursuit of his own glory is, as Edwards said, “in order to the happiness of the creature … because the creature’s happiness consists in the knowledge of God.” Our knowledge of God would be imperfect if we did not see the full expression of his attributes: grace, mercy, forgiveness, justice, righteousness, and the rest of the panoply of his perfections. And yet none of those attributes could be expressed fully if there was not sin to punish and to forgive or sinners to whom to be gracious or on whom to exercise justice. God is not less glorious but more glorious because he has ordained evil, and the more he magnifies his glory, the greater is his love to his people. Surely God cannot be charged with unrighteousness for doing that which amounts to the greatest benefit for those who are his.
Neither do the doctrines of election and reprobation undermine the reality that all are commanded to repent and believe the gospel. Those who suppose that God’s sovereign choice is incompatible with man’s responsibility to believe fail to do justice to the whole of God’s revelation. Indeed, immediately following what is the most exalted teaching on divine sovereignty in Romans 9, Paul just as clearly teaches human responsibility in Romans 10. He declares that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (10:13), mandates that preachers of the gospel be sent to call all to repentance (10:14–17), and pictures God’s loving benevolence even to the obstinate by depicting him as one who stretches out his hands and calls them to salvation (10:21). Scripture never teaches that God’s absolute sovereignty obviates the sinner’s responsibility to turn from his sins and trust in Christ. Neither is the sinner exhorted to determine whether God has chosen him for salvation or not. The sinner’s responsibility is not to discern the secret counsels of God’s decree but rather to heed the clear commands of Scripture to repent and believe the gospel (Mark 1:15; Acts 17:30).
Paul concludes his treatment of the doctrines of election and reprobation by bowing in worship before the magnificence of this sovereign God: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom. 11:33). Meditating on these truths caused him in the opening verses of his letter to the Ephesians to erupt in praise of the God who “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph. 1:3–4). The same must be so for us who are the beneficiaries of such glorious grace. Above all else, the doctrines of sovereign election and reprobation should lead us to bow our minds in humble wonder of the God whose wisdom is inscrutable and whose grace is so bountiful as to save such wretched rebels as ourselves. We are graced with every spiritual blessing, not because of any commendable or redeemable quality in ourselves but because of the free and sovereign mercy of the God who delights to set his love on the undeserving. Such truth must evoke praise from the depths of our souls: “To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36).
And yet the lavish administration of God’s grace did not stop with his choice of us in eternity past. God has not only planned our redemption but has also sent the Lord Jesus Christ to accomplish our redemption. It is to the accomplishment of redemption that we now turn.
 MacArthur, J., & Mayhue, R., eds. (2017). Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (pp. 489–511). Crossway.