Calvinistic Reprobation: an Unintended Consequence?

May 14, 2014

by Doug Sayers
layman, former Calvinist


The word even sounds ugly – like a cuss word. When I was a Calvinist, I preferred to keep this aspect of my doctrines under wraps as much as possible. But we should jerk the varmint out of its hole for a closer look in the light of Scripture and evident reason. Let’s be careful though, it is a word found in the Bible, but not necessarily in the Calvinistic sense. The word reprobate means rejected, castaway, or proven unfit. We are told that the original word is a metallurgical term used for coins or metal that did not pass muster for purity. Sometimes it is translated “debased.” Most understand it to mean something (or someone) rejected for a known reason. Calvinists use the term “reprobate” to describe those specific individuals who (in their view) were not chosen to be believers before the foundation of the world. They would be the non-elect. They would be the individual souls who would be born with no realistic hope of salvation because God did not elect them to be saved.

In the Reformed view, thereis no plan of salvation for the reprobate. God does not promiseto save them if they meet the condition of repentance and faith.

This would be a mockery of a promise because God has made no provision for their salvation and they would have no God given ability to repent or believe the Truth. As seen in Chapter 3 and Sections 6-8 of the Westminster Confession, Calvinism teaches that Jesus did not die for the reprobate. If Jesus did not definitely die for your particular sins, then you don’t have any hope of being forgiven. The logic is inescapable: God would be a liar if He promised salvation to anyone for whom Jesus did not die. I don’t think most Calvinists relish the idea that some people could never be saved. What probably happened is that the early “Calvinists” were trying so hard to protect “salvation by grace” from “salvation by works” that they over-corrected, and created a doctrinal monster. Those who invented the automobile probably never intended to create a machine that would enable the violent and un-natural death of millions of people. They were trying to help us get around better. We might refer to this as the law of unintended consequences. It happens a lot.

If you want the Calvinist’s “unconditional election,” then you must take the irresistible reprobation that comes with it.

Hypothetical illustrations of Calvinistic election and its dreadful afterbirth, reprobation, are numerous, but they are rarely used by Calvinists. One opportunity for illustration is provided by Mark Driscoll in his sermon series and book, “Religion Saves + 9 Other Myths.”

In his message on predestination, Mark told the real life story of his young daughter who would playfully, and deliberately, run towards the street in front of their house. This was in spite of his admonitions never to go into the street. On one occasion, his daughter ran straight for the street and did not heed his commands to stop. While screaming for her to stop, Mark ran after her and pulled her from the path of an oncoming truck that almost hit them both. He explained that this was like the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination. Sinners are so dead in sin that they cannot heed God’s warnings and cannot choose to repent. They must be saved by benevolent force. It was a powerful, dramatic, and effective illustration of irresistible grace.

The problem for Calvinists is that this could also provide an effective illustration of reprobation.If Mark had said that the same thing happened with one of his other kids and he decided to let the truck hit him, then that would have been an excellent illustration of reprobation in the Calvinistic system. In their view, God must save irresistibly, and He only chooses to save some sinners. Penitent faith is not really a requirement in their system of salvation. There really aren’t any meaningful human requirements for salvation in their system. Mark is left with the impossible task of trying to explain how his illustration leaves any room for meaningful faith and genuine repentance. His daughter certainly played no essential role in her deliverance. Daddy simply rescued her. (Monergistically, if you like.)

Question: In the Calvinistic system, what must someone do in order to be reprobate?

Answer: Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Reprobation would already be done to you by virtue of Adam’s sin and the sovereign decree of God. The reprobate would be punished forever for being what they were born to be. If this makes biblical sense to you, then you may like being a Calvinist.

Calvinists are not uniformly clear as to why the reprobate were rejected for any hope of salvation. This is not their favorite topic in the debate. One writer for Ligonier’s Tabletalk entry for May 30, 2008, said the following as it relates to the hardening effect of the parables on the reprobate:

“Our focus is not to be on why God has not chosen some. Instead, we must be thankful that He has made us, who are no more deserving than the reprobate, to see the kingdom.”

Phew. That’s got a really bad smell.

Perhaps, one of the most palatable ways that I have seen reprobation defined by Calvinists is in the New Dictionary of Theology by IVP. It was edited by Sinclair Ferguson, David Wright, and J.I. Packer. On pages 528-530 under Predestination it reads:

“The problem came with the negative side of predestination, commonly known as reprobation. The doctrine of reprobation teaches that God, according to his sovereign will, passes over some sinners, leaving them in their sins, and at last, condemns them for their sins.”

It then goes on to say: “to many this doctrine seems harsh, unjust and determinate.”

No kidding? How could anyone think it is too harsh, even unjust, for God to eternally punish someone in a place called “the lake of fire” for being irresistibly stuck in Adambefore they were born, and then becoming a natural born sinner who is only “free” to do more evil, and then for failing to embrace the way of salvation in which they had no ability to embrace, and was never intended for them to begin with? Seems fair to me – it’s only a little worse than torturing a quadriplegic for not running a 4-minute mile, or beating a two year-old for failing to finish Moby Dick before supper. Forget harsh. It’s sick. At least they admit it’s a “problem,” and I’m sorry I ever taught it.

The reason this definition of reprobation may not seem so bad is that it is significantly incomplete. Again, the best way to defend Calvinism is to omit the objectionable stuff. Their definition shouldread:

The problem came with the negative side of predestination, commonly known as reprobation. The doctrine of reprobation teaches that God, according to his sovereign will, passes over some sinners, leaving them in their sins, and at last, condemns them for their sins.[And their damnable sins will have been altogether unpreventable. They could not prevent being created in Adam and going down with him in the fall, and thus they could not prevent being “dead on arrival” at birth, whereby they are only “free” to commit “splendid vices,” and therefore they were not able to embrace the gospel offer, which was never really intended to save them anyway].

Calvinists are usually very thorough – but not in their defense of reprobation. They do not want to spend a lot of time on this aspect of their system. It is much like using an outhouse or portable toilet. You just get in and get out as quickly as possible. They believe it is a necessary doctrine – but they know that it stinks.