The pastoral use of reprobation
August 8, 2015
If I may be permitted one final thought (for now) on this difficult doctrine of reprobation, it is vital that we do not treat it lightly but use it well. All scripture and doctrine is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training us in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). The pastoral imperative when considering this darker side of predestination is important to keep in mind. I have already mentioned one way in which we are not to apply this doctrine.
We mustn't censor out parts of the Bible, of course, and just pick the bits we like. As Martin Luther rightly said,
Truth and doctrine must be preached always, openly, and constantly, and never accommodated or concealed... If, therefore, God has willed that such things should be openly spoken of and published abroad without regard to the consequences, who are you to forbid it? (LW 33:56, 59)
But he also very wisely said this, when he spoke of Jesus' own reaction to the eternal decree not to save everyone:
It is likewise the part of this incarnate God to weep, wail, and groan over the perdition of the ungodly, when the will of the Divine Majesty purposely abandons and reprobates some to perish. And it is not for us to ask why he does so, but to stand in awe of God who both can do and wills to do such things. (LW 33:146)
It is no laughing matter, but a sombre and sobering truth which should have an emotional impact on us.
The Synod of Dort (1618-1619) is perhaps most famous for its pronouncements on this sort of issue. Those who have never read its "canons" might assume they are harsh cannonballs full of strident dogma. But since they were written by theologians who were pastors (and pastors who were theologians) they have an eminently pastoral edge to them. This paragraph (Canons 1.16) especially, on the right use of the doctrine of reprobation, is crucial to ponder on this literally awe-inspiring truth of scripture:
Those who do not yet actively experience within themselves a living faith in Christ or an assured confidence of heart, peace of conscience, a zeal for childlike obedience, and a glorying in God through Christ, but who nevertheless use the means by which God has promised to work these things in us -- such people ought not to be alarmed at the mention of reprobation, nor to count themselves among the reprobate; rather they ought to continue diligently in the use of the means, to desire fervently a time of more abundant grace, and to wait for it in reverence and humility.
If you are regularly attending a Bible teaching church, but are not yet committed to Christ with all your heart and soul, or feel you lack assurance -- talk of this doctrine shouldn't terrify you. Don't think of yourself as one of the damned, but diligently desire God's grace and ask him for it.
On the other hand, those who seriously desire to turn to God, to be pleasing to him alone, and to be delivered from the body of death, but are not yet able to make such progress along the way of godliness and faith as they would like -- such people ought much less to stand in fear of the teaching concerning reprobation, since our merciful God has promised that he will not snuff out a smouldering wick and that he will not break a bruised reed.
If you are trying to please God and follow Jesus but don't feel you're doing very well at it -- don't let this doctrine frighten you either. Rather, trust in God's tender mercy and fan into flame what little faith you have.
However, those who have forgotten God and their Saviour Jesus Christ and have abandoned themselves wholly to the cares of the world and the pleasures of the flesh -- such people have every reason to stand in fear of this teaching, as long as they do not seriously turn to God.
But if you are one of those who has fully embraced the ways of the world and spends their time and money pursuing their own pleasure and security above all... if you have forgotten Jesus and don't even pretend to follow him -- then be afraid. You have every reason, while in that state, to tremble at the thought and mention of God's sovereignty. Repent and believe, before it is too late.