Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) on Reprobation and the Means of Grace

   Posted by: CalvinandCalvinism   in God who Ordains



[246] From the foregoing it has become evident in what sense reprobation must be considered a part of predestination. From the perspective of the comprehensive character of the counsel of God, we have every right to speak of a “double predestination.” Also sin, unbelief, death, and eternal punishment are subject to God’s governance. Not only is there no benefit in preferring the terms “foreknowledge” and “permission” over the term “predestination,” but Scripture, in fact, speaks very decisively and positively in this connection. It is true that Scripture seldom speaks of reprobation as an eternal decree. All the more, however, does it represent reprobation as an act of God in history. He rejects Cain (Gen. 4:5), curses Canaan (Gen. 9:25), expels Ishmael (Gen. 21:12; Rom. 9:7; Gal. 4:30), hates Esau (Gen. 25:23-26; Mal. 1:2-3; Rom. 9:13; Heb. 12:17), and permits the Gentiles to walk in their own ways (Acts 14:16). Even within the circle of revelation there is frequent mention of a rejection by the Lord of his people and of particular persons (Deut. 29:28; 1 Sam. 15:23,26; 16:1; 2 Kings 17:20; 23:27; Ps. 53:5; 78:67; 89:38; Jer. 6:30; 14:19; 31:37; Hos. 4:6; 9:17). But also in that negative event of rejection there is frequently present a positive action of God, consisting in hatred (Mal. 1:2-3; Rom 9:13), cursing (Gen. 9:25), hardening (Exod. 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:20,27; 11-1F14-4; Deut. 2:30; Josh. 11:20; 1 Sam. 2:25; Ps. 105:25; John 12:40; Rom. 9:18), infatuation (1 Kings 12:15; 2 Sam. 17:14; Ps. 107:40; Job 12:24; Isa. 44:25; 1 Cor. 1:19), blinding and stupefaction (Isa. 6:9; Matt. 13:13; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:40; Acts 28:26; Rom. 11:8). God’s reign covers all things, and he even has a hand in people’s sins. He sends a lying spirit (1 Kings 22:23; 2 Chron. 18:22), through Satan stirs up David (2 Sam. 24:1; 1 Chron. 2IT), tests Job (ch. 1), calls Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus his servants (2 Chron. 36:22; Ezra 1:1; Isa. 44:28; 45:1; Jer. 27:6; 28:14; etc.) and Assyria the tod of his anger (Isa. 10:5ff.). He delivers up Christ into the hands of his enemies (Acts 2:23; 4:28), sets him for the fall of many, and makes him a fragrance from death to death , a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense (Luke 2:34; John 3:19; John 9:39; 2 Cor. 2:16; 1 Pet. 2:8). He abandons people to their sins (Rom. 1:24), sends a spirit of delusion (2 Thess. 2:11), raises up Shimei to curse David (2 Sam. 16:10; cf. Ps. 39:9), uses Pharaoh to show his power (Rom. 9:17), and heals the man blind from birth to manifest his glory (John 9:3). Certainly in all these works of God one must not overlook people’s own sinfulness. In the process of divine hardening humans harden themselves (Exod. 7:13, 22; 8:15; 9:35; 13:15; 2 Chron. 36:13; Job 9:4; Ps. 95:8; Prov. 28:14; Heb.’ 3:8; 4:7). Jesus speaks in parables not only in order that people will fail to understand but also because people refuse to see or hear (Matt. 13:13). God gives people up to sin and delusion because they have made themselves deserving of it (Rom. 1:32; 2 Thess. 2:11). And it is ex posteriori that believers see Gods governing hand in the wicked deeds of enemies (2 Sam. 16:10; Ps. 39:9-10). Nevertheless, in all these things also the will and power of God become manifest, and his absolute sovereignty is revealed. He makes weal and creates woe; he forms the light and creates the darkness (Isa. 45:7; Amos 3:6); he creates the wicked for the day of evil (Prov. 16:4), does whatever he pleases (Ps. 115:3), does according to his will among the inhabitants of the earth (Dan. 4:35), inclines the heart of all humans as he wills (Prov. 16:9; 21:1), and orders their steps (Prov. 20:24; Jer. 10:23). Out of the same lump of clay he makes one vessel for beauty and another for menial use (Jer. 18; Rom. 9:20-24), has compassion upon whomever he wills and hardens the heart of whomever he wills (Rom. 9:18). He destines some people to disobedience (1 Pet. 2:8), designates some for condemnation (Jude 4), and refrains from recording the names of some in the Book of Life (Rev. 13:8; 17:8).

These numerous strong pronouncements of Scripture are daily confirmed in the history of humankind. The defenders of reprobation, accordingly, have always appealed to these appalling facts, of which history is full.153 Present in this world there is so much that is irrational, so much undeserved suffering, so many inexplicable disasters, such unequal and incomprehensible apportionment of good and bad fortune, such a heartbreaking contrast between joy and sorrow, that any thinking person has to choose between interpreting it–as pessimism does–in terms of the blind will of some misbegotten deity, or on the basis of Scripture believingly trusting in the absolute, sovereign, and yet–however incomprehensible–wise and holy will o f h im who will some day cause the full light of heaven to shine on those riddles of our existence. The acceptance or rejection o f a decree of reprobation, therefore, should not be explained in terms of a persons capacity for love and compassion. The difference between Augustine and Pelagius, Calvin or Castellio, Gomarus and Arminius is not that the latter were that much more gentle, loving, and tenderhearted than the former. On the contrary, it arises from the fact that the former accepted Scripture in its entirety, also including this doctrine; that they were and always wanted to be theistic and recognize the will and hand of the Lord also in these disturbing facts of life; that they were not afraid to look reality in the eye even when it was appalling. Pelagianism scatters flowers over graves, turns death into an angel, regards sin as mere weakness, lectures on the uses of adversity, and considers this the best possible world. Calvinism has no use for such drivel. It refuses to be hoodwinked. It tolerates no such delusion, takes full account of the seriousness of life, champions the rights of the Lord of lords, and humbly bows in adoration before the inexplicable sovereign will of God Almighty. As a result it proves to be fundamentally more merciful than Pelagianism. How deeply Calvin felt the gravity of what he said is evident from his use of the expression “dreadful decree.”154 Totally without warrant, this expression has been held against him. In fact, it is to his credit, not to his discredit. The decree, as Calvin’s teaching, is not dreadful, but dreadful indeed is the reality that is the revelation of that decree of God, a reality that comes through both in Scripture and in history. To all thinking humans, whether they are followers of Pelagius or Augustine, that reality remains completely the same. It is not something that can in any way be undone by illusory notions of it. Now, in the context of this dreadful reality, far from coming up with a solution, Calvinism comforts us by saying that in everything that happens, it recognizes the will and hand of an almighty God, who is also a merciful Father. While Calvinism does not offer a solution, it invites us humans to rest in him who lives in unapproachable light, whose judgments are unsearchable, and whose paths are beyond tracing out. There lay Calvin’s comfort: “The Lord to whom my conscience is subject will be my witness that the daily meditation on his judgments leaves me so speechless that no curiosity tempts me to know anything more, no sneaking suspicion concerning his incomparable justice creeps over me, and in short, no desire to complain seduces me.”155 And in that peaceful state of mind he awaited the day when he would see [God] face to face and be shown the solution of these riddles.156

[247] Though, on the one hand, there is every reason to consider reprobation as a part of predestination, it is not in the same sense and manner a component of God’s decree as election, as the defenders of a double predestination have also at all times acknowledged. When the sovereignty of God, the positive and unambiguous witness of his Word, or the undeniable facts of history were at issue, these defenders were as intransigent as the apostle Paul and had no interest in compromise or mediation. In such situations they sometimes uttered harsh words, which could trouble the Pelagianistic human heart. Augustine, for example, once commented that God could not even be accused of wrongdoing if he had wanted to damn some people who were innocent. Said he: “If the human race, which exists as originally created out of nothing, had not been born under the guilt of death and with original sin, and the omnipotent Creator had wanted to condemn some to eternal perdition, who could say to the omnipotent Creator: Why have you done this?”157 Other theologians as well, also among the Reformed, have expressed themselves with a similar harshness. Anyone who realizes something of the incomparable greatness of God and the insignificance of humans, and considers how we frequently contemplate with complete indifference the most severe suffering of humans and animals–especially when such suffering is in our own interest or for the benefit of art or science–will think twice before condemning Augustine or others for such a statement, not to mention calling God to account. If the question here is only one of rights, what rights can we claim over against him who formed us out of nothing and to whom we owe everything we have and are? Still, though one may for a moment speak in this fashion to someone who believes he or she has a right to accuse God of injustice, Calvin and almost all later Reformed theologians have in the end firmly, and with indignation, rejected such “absolute rule.”158 Although the reason why God willed one thing and not another, chose some and rejected others, may be totally unknown to us, we do know his will is always wise and holy and good, and that he has his righteous reasons for everything he does. His power, we must insist, cannot be separated from his justice.159 If only God’s honor and sovereignty were first recognized, all Reformed theologians recommended the most cautious and tender treatment of the doctrine of predestination and warned against all vain and curious approaches to the subject. “Hence it is not appropriate for us to be too severe. If only we do not in the meantime either deny the truth of what Scripture clearly teaches and experience confirms, or venture to carp at it as i f it were unbecoming to God.”160 Although God knows those who are his and the number of the elect is said to be small, “nevertheless, we should cherish a good hope for everyone and not rashly count anyone among the reprobate.”161

All of them maintained, furthermore, that, though sin is not outside the scope of the will of God, it is definitely against it. Sin, admittedly, could not have been the efficient and impelling cause of the decree of reprobation, for sin itself followed the eternal decree in time, and would, if it had been the cause, have resulted in the reprobation of all humans. However, it was the sufficient cause and definitely the meriting cause of eternal punishment. There is a distinction, after all, between the decree of reprobation and reprobation itself. The former, namely, the decree, has its ultimate ground in the will of God alone, but the act of reprobation itself takes account of sin. The decree of reprobation is realized through human culpability.162 This decree, therefore, is neither a blind fate impelling humans against their will, nor a sword of Damocles hanging threateningly over their head. It is nothing other than God’s idea of reality itself. In the decree cause and effect, condition and fulfillment, and the whole web of things are linked together in precisely the way it is in reality. In the decree sin, guilt, misery, and punishment have the same character and relate to each other in the same way as in the empirical world we daily observe. With our own eyes we see that decree–which was not revealed to us beforehand–gradually unfold in all its fullness in history. As we on our part think about it, that decree is and has to be an exact reflection of reality. We see and think about things after they occur. But on God’s part the decree is the eternal idea of reality as it gradually unfolds in time. His ideas of things precedes their actual existence. What the decree of reprobation finally comes down to is that this entire sinful reality, all of world history as an interconnected series of events, is ultimately caused, not by factors inherent in itself–how indeed could it? but by something extramundane: the mind and will of God. The decree does not in the least change reality. Reality is and remains identical, whether one follows Augustine or Pelagius. But the decree prompts the believer to confess that also this dreadful world–which Manichaeism attributes to an antigod, pessimism to a blind malevolent will, and many others to fate or chance–exists in accordance with the will o f him who presently would have us walk by faith, but who will at sometime in the future, on the day of days, vindicate himself before all creatures.

Entirely mistaken, therefore, is the notion that the counsel of God in general and the decree of reprobation in particular is a single naked decision of the divine will concerning someone’s eternal destiny. It is wrong to conceive the decree as if it determined only a person’s end and coerced him or her in that direction regardless of what they did. The decree is as inconceivably rich as reality itself. It is, in fact, the fountainhead of all reality. It encompasses in a single conception the end as well as the ways leading to it, the goal along with the means of reaching it. It is not a transcendent power randomly intervening now and then from above and impelling things toward their appointed end. On the contrary, it is the divinely immanent eternal idea that displays its fullness in the forms of space and time and successively-in its several dimensions-unfolds before our limited field of vision that which is one in the mind of God. The decree of reprobation, accordingly, does not exist separately alongside other decrees, not even alongside that of election. In real life sin and grace, punishment and blessing, and justice and mercy do not occur dualistically side by side as though the reprobate were visited only with sin and punishment and the elect only with grace and blessing. Believers, after all, still sin daily and stumble in many ways. Are the sins of believers the consequence of election? No one will say this is so. True, these sins are again made subservient by God to their salvation, and all things work together for good to those who are called (Rom. 8:28). But this is not the natural outcome of those sins themselves; it is the result only of the gracious omnipotence of God, who is able to bring good out of evil. Sins, therefore, are not means of salvation, as regeneration and faith are. They are-not “a preparation for grace” but, inherently, the “negation of grace.”163 Hence, the law is still important also for believers. For that reason they are still admonished to be zealous to confirm their election (2 Pet. 1:10), and among them, too, we sometimes witness a temporary hardening and rejection. Conversely, the reprobates also receive many blessings, blessings that do not as such arise from the decree of reprobation but from the goodness and grace of God. They receive many natural gifts–life, health, strength, food, drink, good cheer, and so forth (Matt. 5:45; Acts 14:17; 17:27; Rom. 1:19; James 1:17)–for God does not leave himself without a witness. He endures them with much patience (Rom. 9:22). He has the gospel of his grace proclaimed to them and takes no pleasure in their death (Ezek. 18:23; 33-11- Matt 23:37; Luke 19:41; 24:47: John 3:16; Acts 17:30; Rom. 11:32; 1 Thess. 5:9; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9). Pelagians infer from these verses that God’s actual intention is to save all people individually, and therefore that there is no preceding decree of reprobation. But that is not what these verses teach. They do say, however that it is the will of God that all the means of grace be used for the salvation of the reprobates. Now, these means of grace do not as such flow from the decree of reprobation. They can be abused to that end; they may serve to render humans inexcusable, to harden them, and to make their condemnation all the heavier–like the sun, which may warm but also scorch a person. Yet in and by themselves they are not means of reprobation but means of grace with a view to salvation.164

So, whereas election and reprobation may culminate in a final and total separation, on earth they continually crisscross each other. This indicates that in and by itself neither of the two is a final goal, and that in the mind of God they were never a final cause. Both are means toward the attainment of the glory of God, which is the ultimate goal and, therefore, the fundamental ground of all things. Accordingly, the beginning and the end, the reason and purpose of all that is, is something good. Sin and its punishment can never as such, and for their own sake, have been willed by God. They are contrary to his nature. He is far removed from wickedness and does not willingly afflict anyone. When manages to overrule evil for good (Gen. 50:20) and makes evil subservient to the salvation of the church (Rom. 8:28; 1 Cor. 3:21- 23), the glory of Christ (1 Cor 15:24ff; Eph. 1:21-22; Phil. 2:9; Col. 1:16), and the glory of Gods name (Prov. 16:4; Ps. 51:4; Job 1:21; John 9:3; Rom. 9:17, 22-23; 11:36; 1 Cor. 15:28). he does it, it is not because, deep down, he wants to. They can therefore have been willed by God only as a means to a different, better, and greater good. There is even a big difference between election and reprobation. Whatever God does, he does for his own sake. The cause and purpose of election, accordingly, also lies in God. The truth is that in the work he accomplishes as a result of election, he takes great delight. In that work his own perfections are brilliantly reflected back to him. The new creation is the mirror of his perfections. But what he does in keeping with the decree of reprobation is not directly and as such the object of his delight. Sin is not itself a good. It only becomes a good inasmuch as, contrary to its own nature, it is compelled by God’s omnipotence to advance his honor. It is a good indirectly because, being subdued, constrained, and overcome, it brings out God’s greatness, power, and justice. God’s sovereignty is never more brilliantly manifested than when he manages to overrule evil for good (Gen. 50:20) and makes evil subservient to the salvation oft he church (Rom. 8:28; 1 Cor. 3:21-23), the glory of Christ (1 Cor 15:24ff; Eph. 1:21-22; Phil. 2:9; Col. 1:16), and the glory of Gods name (Prov. 16:4; Ps. 51:4; Job 1:21; John 9:3; Rom. 9:17, 22-23; 11:36; 1 Cor. 15:28).

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Backer Academic, 2004), 2:393-399. [Italics original; square bracketed inserts original; footnote values and content original; and underlining mine.]


153J. Calvin, CR, XXXVII, 289ff.

154J. Calvin, Institutes, III.xxiii.7.

155J. Calvin, “De aeterna praedest.,” CR, XXXVI, 316 (Reid, 124).

156J. Calvin, Institutes, III.xxiii.2; idem, CR, XXXVI, 366 (Reid, 184).

157Admonitio de libro de Praedestione et Gratia, et subsequente epistola Ferrandi ad Egyppium, PL 65, col. 843A. Ed note: Bavinck cites this as Augustine, De praed. et gratia, 16. Migne indicates that the author is uncertain but places it in the oeuvre of Fulgensius, North African bishop (462-527) and devotee of Augustine’s theology.

158See above, pp. 237-40 (#208).

159J. Calvin, CR, XXXVI, 310, 361 (Reid, 117, 179).

160J. Calvin, ibid., 366 (Reid, 184); U . Zwingli, Op., VIII, 21; T. Beza, Tractationum theologicarum, I, 197; P. M . Vermigli, Loci communes, c. 1; Westminster Confession, according to E. E Karl Muller, Die Bekenntnisschriften der reformierten Kirche, 552; Canons of Dort, I, 12, 14.

161Helvetic Confession, according to E. E K. Muller, Bekenntnisschriften, 181; J. Piscator, Aphorismi

doctrinae christianae maximam partem ex Institutione Calvini excerpti (Oxoniae: Ioh. Lichfield and Hen. Curteine, 1630), 223; J. Zanchi(us), Op. theol, II, 497ff

162A. Polanus, Syn. theol, 251; W Twisse, Vindiciae gratiae, I, 273ff.; W. Perkins, Works, I, 769; E Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, IV, 14; Synopsis purioris theologiae, XXIV, 50; A. Comrie, and N. Holtius, Examen van het Ontwerp van Tolerantie, VII, 445; H . Heppe, Dogmatik der evangelischreformierten Kirche, 132.

163M . Becanus, Theologiae scholasticae, I, tr. 1, c. 14, qu. 3, nn. 12-20.

164Synopsis purioris theologiae, XXIV, 54ff, H . Heppe, Dogmatik der evangelisch-reformierten Ktrche, 134-35.

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