Election and Reprobation

Question from a Site Viewer
Hi! I was wondering about the topics of election and reprobation. It is troubling to me. It seems as though some people would be condemned from birth. Why would God choose some to come into His kingdom and not others and how do you know if you are chosen?

I also was wondering if you had any insight on the topic of the unforgivable sin in the Bible. Any information would be helpful. Thanks!

Tim’s Answer
Thank you for your questions. First, you must understand that not all Christians find in the Bible the doctrines of election and reprobation as you pose them. Since at least the time of the reformation in the 16th century there has been a split within the church, with some teaching that salvation is the personal choice of the individual for God and others teaching that salvation is the personal choice of God for the individual. I will not resolve that conflict in a brief article, or even if I wrote a tome. Many have written lengthy discourses both for and against the doctrines of election as articulated by Reform theology and held by some other groups.

But I will let you know that I do not find in the Bible the view that God chooses individuals for reprobation. The view that God selects some people for salvation and some people for reprobation continues to be a minority view among evangelical Christians. There are sound biblical reasons for rejecting this doctrine. God states in Ezekiel 18:32 and 33:11 that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked and in both passages He calls on sinners to turn to Him. In 1 Timothy 2:4, God desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. In 2 Peter 3:9, God is not willing that any should perish but wants all to repent. In 1 Timothy 4:10 we are told that God is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe. In 2 Corinthians 5:19 we are told that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. In Acts 17:30, Paul states that God commands all men everywhere to repent. In Revelation 22:17, in the last invitation of Scripture, the Spirit and the church together invite anyone who wishes to take of the water of life freely. And repeatedly, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, God calls upon people to repent and come to Him. The Scripture seems clear to me that God desires all to be saved and, unless we accept a duplicity within God’s person, He does not desire any to be reprobate. He will not choose what He does not desire, for Paul tells us that God always acts according to His desire (Ephesians 1:11). Thus, even among my Calvinist friends, I have not found many who support a double predestination viewpoint; that is, a view that God elects some for reprobation.

I have heard some argue, however, that if God elects some for salvation, and does not elect others, that for all practical purposes such means that God has elected some for reprobation. Yet there’s a counter-argument (as always). If ten people are drowning in the sea and you jump in and rescue one, are you thereby electing the others for death? Of course not. You had nothing to do with their death. So, the argument holds that God, by choosing to redeem some, is not thereby reprobating the rest. There is merit to both of these arguments.

There are some, however, who argue that God has both elected some for salvation and elected others for reprobation. The main passage they use is Romans 9. They also may reference 1 Peter 2:8 and Jude 4. In the 1 Peter and Jude passages, there is a question as to whether individuals were appointed for disobedience or condemnation or whether those who acted in certain ways were appointed to such disobedience or condemnation. Stated another way, does the appointing result from something the individual does, or does the appointing cause the evil acts? Both positions can and have been argued from these texts.

Invariably, however, the major text used to support the doctrine of reprobation is Romans 9. The problem with Romans 9 is that the election in that passage is not in reference to salvation. Paul argues that God chose the nation Israel over the nation of Esau (Romans 9:11-13). Paul uses two quotations to support this argument. The first quotation in verse 12 comes from Genesis 25:23 where God tells Rebekah that two nations and two peoples were in her womb and that the older would serve the younger. Paul’s second quotation in verse 13 comes from Malachi 1:2, at the very end of the Old Testament. God speaks to the nation of Israel (Malachi 1:1) and says that He loves Jacob and hates Esau, adding “and I have made his mountains a desolation and his inheritance for the jackals of the wilderness.” I see this as another clear reference to the nation, not the individual. As far as we know, Esau, the man, never owned any mountains. Esau and Jacob were sojourners in the land of the Canaanites. We are told in Genesis 36:8 that Esau lived in the hill country of Seir. We are told that the sons of Esau were given the land of the Horites by God, which became the land of Edom (Deuteronomy 2:12, 21-22). Thus, it seems to me that the best view of Malachi is that it is a continuation of God’s wrath upon the nation of Edom, as the prophets repeatedly stated (Isaiah 22:11-17; Jeremiah 49:7-22; Ezekiel 25:12-14; 35:1-15; Amos 1:11-12; Obadiah). But God’s wrath was not always on Edom, as Deuteronomy 2:12, 21-22 shows. God tells us in Ezekiel 35 that His anger rose against Edom when they rejoiced in the destruction of Jerusalem.

Paul, in using these two Old Testament quotations, demonstrates to me that he has a national election in mind when he speaks of God’s choosing. God chose Israel as a nation (Deuteronomy 7:6-8). But we know that this choice was not in relation to salvation. For there were many in Israel who died in their sins, including many of those who put Jesus to death. In fact, the story of the Old Testament is largely about an elect people who were lost to God and served other gods (idols). The election of Israel did not mean their salvation. In fact, Paul distinguishes between election and salvation in Romans 11:28 where Paul says that from the standpoint of the gospel the Jews are enemies, but concerning the election they are beloved by God. Paul is saying that God has chosen Israel and God still loves Israel, even though they have rejected His Son, Jesus Christ, even though through that rejection they are not saved (see John 14:6; Acts 4:12). Trying to link “the choosing” of Romans 9 to personal salvation thus presents significant hermeneutical difficulties. There are some who have argued that the election in Romans 9 is in reference to personal salvation. I respectfully disagree with them for the reasons stated above.

And if the election in Romans 9 is to something other than salvation, then I find the hardening of the heart in Romans 9 to be something other than reprobation. This passage is not about salvation or reprobation, but about God’s sovereign will to choose a people for Himself. He chose Israel as an object of His mercy and He chose Pharaoh as an object of His wrath. I see the hardening of Pharaoh again in a national sense; that is, Pharaoh is the leader of a people. God ended up judging not only the person Pharaoh, but all of Egypt. Accordingly, in my understanding of the passage, Paul is arguing from God’s choice of Israel and His hardening of Pharaoh that God can choose whomever He wants for mercy and for hardening. In the past, He chose Israel to be objects of His mercy and He chose the Gentiles to be objects of His wrath. Paul then shifts to the present in verses 22-33, where the objects of God’s wrath are now the Jews, the very people God had previously chosen, and the new object of God’s mercy is the church, those both of Jews and Gentiles who pursue Christ by faith. After explaining faith in Chapter 10, Paul returns to the thought that that God has now hardened Israel (Romans 11:7-10) but through His mercy has chosen some of Israel (Romans 11:5) and the Gentiles (Romans 11:11) to be His people. Paul lets us know, however, that this hardening of Israel has happened only for a time (Romans 11:25-27). Then, Paul concludes in Romans 11:30 that we Gentiles who once were disobedient are now shown mercy. Paul states in the next verse (Romans 11:31), that the Israelites are now disobedient in order that, because of the mercy shown to the Gentiles, they also “now” may be shown mercy. So “now” both Gentiles and Jews are shown mercy. Lest we failed to understand this, Paul pulls everything together in a great conclusion stating: “For God has shut up all in disobedience that He might show mercy to all.” (Romans 11:32)

Thus, going back to Romans 9, the God who shows mercy on some and hardens some, in His great wisdom and way (Romans 11:33), has a purpose to reach the place where mercy is shown on everyone (Romans 11:32). That is where the argument of Paul goes. We, who were Gentiles and objects of God’s wrath (see Ephesians 2:3) have been extended mercy through the gospel of Christ. The Jews, who were objects of God’s mercy, rejected the Messiah and now are objects of His wrath even as we Gentiles were. But, even to them, God has extended mercy through the gospel of Christ. To everyone, Jews and Gentiles, the gospel brings the mercy of God. Thus, Paul can say in Romans 1:16 that he is not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God unto salvation, to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. The gospel brings God’s mercy to all. The proclamation of the message of Christ’s death for our sins and His resurrection can change hearts. Paul says in Romans 10:17 that faith comes from hearing, and hearing comes by the word of Christ. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:1-2 that the Corinthians were saved by the gospel. Paul says in Ephesian 1:13 that the message of truth is the gospel of our salvation. Paul says in Colossians 1:5-6 that the gospel is constantly bearing fruit and increasing. Paul says to the Thessalonians that the word of God performs its work in you who believe (1 Thessalonians 2:13). Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 2:14 that the Thessalonians were called through the gospel. Paul says in 2 Timothy 1:10 that God has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:21 that God was well pleased to save those who believe through the message preached. It is the proclamation of the gospel to the peoples of the world that constitutes the extending of God’s mercy to people. We are born again by the word (1 Peter 1:23-25) which has been preached to us. The proclamation of the gospel is the extension of God’s mercy to all who hear. And we have the Great Commission to proclaim the gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15).

Ultimately, however, I have no desire to interject another view of this doctrine to you. Nor am I asking you to accept my view. I have no interest in gaining any following. But I have an interest in seeking truth. To this end, I have great interest in having the Spirit of God teach you about the nature and work of God and the nature and actions of man. I encourage you to begin in the book of Genesis read through your entire Bible. Get to know the God of the Holy Scriptures. Learn the stories. But most of all ask yourselves these two basic questions as you read through the texts: 1) What does the passage teach me about God? and 2) What does the passage teach me about people? And pray for the Holy Spirit’s teaching as you read. When you come to a tentative understanding, hold your understanding with grace and humility. As Paul said, knowledge puffs up but love builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1). Remember that the wisdom that comes from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, and without hypocrisy (James 3:17-18). Do not let your understanding divide you from other Christians who are your brothers and sisters. Always, maintain love for the brothers and sisters, for in so doing you will be loving God Himself (Matthew 25:40); 1 John 4:20-21).

Finally, I give you this advice. It is nice to try to harmonize the various passages of Scripture. We all like to have consistency in our understanding of what Scripture is saying. But do not let your understanding of one passage force you to strain the understanding of another passage. There are inherent tensions in Scripture and we do well not to ignore them. Such tensions lead us to accept the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Sufferings of Christ, the Vicarious Atonement, and the Nature of God. Tensions abound with mercy and justice, love and wrath, forgiveness and holding people accountable, and many similar issues. “Blessed are the persecuted” is meant to be a tension. All of these tensions ultimately are resolved only in God Himself. I believe the same is true with the doctrines of election and personal choice. Find out for yourself what God teaches. And may the Spirit of God teach you (1 John 2:27).

You also asked about the unpardonable sin. I refer to an article entitled The Unpardonable Sin that explains my views on this subject.

May the Holy Spirit guide you into truth about the mind of Christ on these subjects,

a pilgrim,

tim

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