How not to apply reprobation
July 31, 2015
In my former article on The darker side of predestination, I spoke about how Article 17 of The Thirty-nine Articles is not entirely limited to talking about the positive aspects of that doctrine. It does indeed mention "the sentence of predestination", the flip side of the coin, as do other Anglican formularies. Article 17 teaches that reprobation cannot be used as an excuse for immorality, not that there is no such thing as reprobation.
This reading is confirmed I think by a passage in Archbishop Thomas Cranmer's proposed canon law reform, the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum. There, he writes,
On the fringe of the church there are many who live in a wild and dissolute way, who when they get interested in the subject, being dissipated by excess and completely cut off from the Spirit of Christ, always toss predestination and rejection, or (as they usually call it), reprobation, into their speech, arguing that since God by his eternal counsel has already determined something, both concerning salvation and destruction, they have some excuse for their wrongdoings and crimes and all manner of evil. And when pastors upbraid their dissipated and disgraceful life, they blame God's will for their crimes and by that defence consider that the reprimands of admonitions are wasted... Wherefore everyone must be warned by us that in undertaking actions they should not rely on the decrees of predestination, but adapt their entire way of life to the laws of God, and contemplate that both promises to the good as well as threats to the bad are generally set forth to him in the Holy Scriptures.
In other words, one may be reprobate, but one is not to assume this in deciding how to live. All the more so, since "the decrees of predestination are unknown to us," as the 1553 edition of Article 17 says. Interesting use of the plural "decrees" there.
Rather, we are to obey the warnings of Scripture and trust the promises. As Article 17 says, "in our doings, that Will of God is to be followed, which we have expressly declared to us in the Word of God." So we are not to base our rejection of God on a presumption that he has not chosen us. Scripture, when it speaks of reprobation, does not apply it in this manner.
So preachers should simply declare the promises of God for forgiveness as applicable to all those who repent and believe. Just because we don't preach reprobation to people as an excuse for them to sin, that does not mean there is no such thing as reprobation.
I love the way Article 17 tells us that believers should not recoil from this doctrine of predestination as "too complicated" or "too divisive" or "too mysterious", but meditate on it as "full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort" for believers. It leads to godliness and love for God. We can and should focus on that, as a much needed gospel comfort. But that doesn't mean we should dismiss as "scant" the references to another aspect of this doctrine.
Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society, adjunct lecturer at Wales Evangelical School of Theology, and Research Fellow of the Jonathan Edwards Centre Africa at the University of the Free State, South Africa