John Calvin: In His Own Words
Article II: Reprobation
He has served as Pastor, Church Planter, Strategist (NAMB), Director of Missions, and Associate Executive Director of Evangelism and Church Planting for a State Convention, and now in the 4th quarter of ministry as Minister of Missions.
People take pleasure in rooting for the underdog. I’ll never forget the boys of the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team beating the brash Soviet Team for a gold medal in 1980. It was a David vs. Goliath magic moment as America surprisingly celebrated the thrill of victory instead of the agony of defeat.
To me, the reprobate is the underdog in the theological world. How would you like to be doomed for destruction? The contrasting proposition of Calvin’s view of divine election is reprobation.
Before we look at what Calvin had to say, I want to introduce a definition from a book that has chapters from prominent SBC Calvinists and non-Calvinists, it says:
“Reprobation – From the Latin verb reprobare, to reprove. This is the belief that God has eternally condemned all non-elect persons to eternal condemnation for their sins. Calvin insisted “that this is not just a matter of God’s ‘passing over’ the non-elect, but an actual hardening so that they are actually strengthened to resist the gospel,” although he also taught that humans are unable to understand the full counsel of God on this issue and must humbly trust His goodness and justice in this.” [i]
With that context, please note what John Calvin had to say in his own words:
“We say, then, that Scripture clearly proves this much, that God by his eternal and immutable counsel determined once for all those whom it was his pleasure one day to admit to salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, it was his pleasure to doom to destruction. We maintain that this counsel, as regards the elect, is founded on his free mercy, without respect to human worth, while those whom he dooms to destruction are excluded from access to life by just and blameless but at the same time, incomprehensible, judgment.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3:21:7)
In the case of the reprobate, we find several disquieting constructs according to Calvin’s particular position:
- According to Calvin, God by his eternal and immutable counsel determined those chosen or elected to salvation.
- The reprobate (non-elect for salvation) is doomed for destruction.
- The eternal and immutable counsel of God determines this destruction.
- God passes by the non-elect, excluding them from his saving will or decree of salvation. Reformed theology calls this “preterition.” It is defined as God’s sovereign passing by of the non-elect, thus excluding them from his decree of salvation.[ii]
- This determination was made by the pleasure of God.
- The determined destruction of the reprobate is without respect to human worth.
- God is just (in those he gives life) and blameless (in those to whom he dooms to destruction).
- God’s judgment is beyond our understanding.
Some Southern Baptists may find Calvin’s teaching historic and principled, while others find it shocking. Those finding it shocking may even initially sense a cognitive or spiritual dissonance as the conflicting ideas of God’s mercy and grace struggle with his justice and judgment.
Calvin seems to reduce this dissonance or confliction of ideas by stripping man of his free will and personal responsibility by placing the burden of eternal condemnation on the sovereign shoulders of God in pre-creation.
Calvin prophesied my reaction when he wrote, “The human mind, when it hears this doctrine, cannot restrain its petulance, but boils and rages as if aroused by the sound of a trumpet.” He goes on to say, “This they do ignorantly and childishly since there could be no election without its opposite reprobation.”
Calvin also says in this section, “Those, therefore, whom God passes by he reprobates, and that for no other cause but because he is pleased to exclude them from the inheritance which he predestines to his children.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3:23:1)
Only “consistent” Calvinists have the right to throw stones at my petulant heart. A consistent Calvinist believes that all infants are born condemned with the imputed sin and guilt of Adam and some are born doomed for destruction and others are the elect ones.
A serious question always arises concerning the death of infants. How do consistent Calvinists stay true to Calvin’s proposition of imputed guilt and reprobation? An extremely helpful book on this subject has been written by Dr. Adam Harwood, Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at Truett-McConnell College as he studies the views of sixteen theologians (past to present), and ten related and relevant biblical texts. He argues that infants inherit from Adam a sinful nature but not guilt. The sinful nature that infants inherit will eventually result in their becoming guilty by knowingly committing acts of sin and at this point we immediately fall under God’s judgment and condemnation.[iii] He shows the inconsistency in the Augustine-Calvin tradition in dealing with this subject through the centuries.
We see a softening of the teachings of reprobation by Augustine and Calvin as the Reformed tradition moved closer to the 20th century. Along the way, infant baptism, covenant theology, confessions being updated, and the view that children of the covenant are safe by having believing and baptized parents has helped Reformed Theologians win the battle over church member mutiny.
However, cringe moments do happen in our day. Seminary Presidents Al Mohler and Danny Akin collaborated on several timely theological papers addressing what one noted reformed professor said after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. The terrorism of Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people, including 19 children under the age of six. Although they do not mention Dr. R.C. Sproul Jr. by name, Drs. Akin and Mohler said, “Yet, a popular evangelical theologian chided Billy Graham when at the Oklahoma City memorial service he said, “Someday there will be a glorious reunion with those who have died and gone to heaven before us, and that includes all those innocent children that are lost. They’re not lost from God because any child that young is automatically in heaven and in God’s arms.’ The theologian scolded Dr. Graham for offering what he called ‘… a new gospel: justification by youth alone.’”[iv]
Professor David J. Engelsma’s reformed view is that children of believers are automatically saved under their parents’ covenant and thus have no need for personal conversion. However, children of unbelievers who die in infancy are reprobate and go to hell.[v]
From a historical perspective, Dr. Steve W. Lemke says, “Baptists have always believed that since infants are not yet capable of actual sin until the age of accountability and since their sinful nature is saved through the atonement, they go to heaven. Humans are not held accountable for their sins until they are morally accountable, and at that point their destiny is decided by their response to God’s initiative of grace, not the spiritual heritage of their parents.”[vi] The Baptist Faith and Message 1963 and 2000 concur, “… as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation (Section III, Man).”
Jesus teaches Nicodemus in John 3 that the lost sinner remains in his condemnation for one single, solitary reason, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. The cause of a person being sent to hell or damnation will be their sinful unbelief of rejecting Jesus. There are no under dogs, just over lords of their own rebellious ways.
Sadly, lost people go to a devil’s hell for all eternity when they die without Jesus. However, God did not pass them over; they passed over Jesus and rejected his love, mercy, grace, and total forgiveness.
[i] Shawn D. Wright, “Glossary of Some Important Theological Terms,” in the book, Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue, Nashville: B & H, 2008, 284.
[ii] Ibid, 284.
[iii] Adam Harwood, The Spiritual Condition of Infants: A Biblical-Historical Survey and Systematic Proposal (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2011), 153.
[v] Steve W. Lemke, “A Biblical and Theological Critique of Irresistible Grace, in, Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, ed. David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke (Nashville, B&H Academic, 2010), 132.
[vi] Ibid, 133.