Summary: In this sermon we notice that God sends judgment on some, and that is not inconsistent with his justice.
Today I would like to study what is arguably one of the most difficult doctrines in the entire Bible: the doctrine of reprobation.
The previous two weeks we studied the positive side of predestination, which is election. Of course, many people struggle with the doctrine of election. However, the so-called negative side of predestination—reprobation—troubles people even more.
The biblical teaching of election is that God chooses some persons—a great number, in fact (Revelation 7:9)—to salvation. On the other hand, the biblical teaching of reprobation is that God passes over or rejects all other persons to eternal condemnation.
Let’s see how Paul expresses the biblical teaching of reprobation in Romans 9:17-18. I will begin reading at verse 14, in order to set the context for today’s message:
14What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (Romans 9:14-18)
Many people, as I mentioned, struggle with the biblical teaching of election. Many more people, however, struggle with the biblical teaching of reprobation.
During my basic training in the South African Air Force, we were out on a field trip for about a week. It was bitterly cold and raining during the entire period. Shortly after we arrived in the field, the corporal in charge had our unit line up outside.
“You, you, and you,” he shouted as he randomly picked several of us, “You go and dig latrines in the field. The rest of you get inside your tents.”
Off we went to go and dig latrines in the cold and rain, while the rest of the unit went into their tents to get warm.
Now, many people think of God as someone a little like my old corporal. They see God as an unconcerned deity who sits on his throne in heaven, and he randomly assigns some to heaven and others to hell for no good reason. He says, as it were, “You, you and you, you go to hell! The rest of you go to heaven!”
This, of course, is a complete distortion of how God acts. But it is the view of so many, and therefore I need to address it.
Dr. James Montgomery Boice, former pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church, says that “it is impossible to have election, the positive side of predestination, without reprobation, which is the negative side.”
This has been recognized throughout church history. John Calvin, for example, summarized the thoughts of many when he wrote, “Election cannot stand except as set over against reprobation.”
Now, it is easy to distort the teaching of reprobation, as many unfortunately do. But, let me remind you of what I have said the last few weeks: it is not that it is so difficult to understand predestination, election and reprobation; it is just that it is hard to swallow.
Intellectually, predestination is really not that difficult to understand. Emotionally, however, it is difficult for us to swallow. But, if we are going to grow in grace, we must joyfully submit to the clear teaching of God’s word and not to our emotions.
Let’s briefly review what Paul is teaching in Romans 9.
The fundamental question that Paul is dealing with in Romans 9 is this: “Why does not all Israel believe when the message of the gospel should be clearest to them?” Or, to put it another way, “Why don’t all people believe the gospel, especially those to whom the gospel should be clearest?”
In Romans 9:1-5, the Apostle Paul makes it clear that he has great sorrow and unceasing anguish in his heart for his own kinsmen, the people of Israel. They have enjoyed tremendous spiritual privileges but have nevertheless rejected Jesus as God’s Messiah. It is important to recognize that Paul cares deeply for his kinsmen, because Paul has some very hard things to say. He is very invested in the plight of his own people, and yet he speaks clearly and articulately of God’s sovereignty in election and reprobation.
Then in verses 6-13 Paul gives his first answer to the question of why not all Israel has believed the gospel: It is not because God’s promises have failed. Paul answers the question by appealing to God’s election. He basically says, “No, God has not forsaken his promises, because you need to understand that these promises are not simply made to all those who are physically descended from Abraham. They are made specifically and covenantally to those whom God has chosen.” And the climax of Paul’s argument is in verse 13, where he says: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”