Calling and Reprobation

Written by Dr. M. J. Arntzen, minister in the Netherlands, this article was reprinted from Koers in Calvinist Contact, September 5, 1975. The English version, herewith presented, is a free translation by Rev. Peter De Jong, pastor of the Christian Reformed Church in Dutton, Michigan.

In every age believing thinkers have pondered the question for whom and for how many the grace which Christ purchased was intended.

There are clear indications in the Bible that God wills the salvation of all (e.g. I Tim. 2:4; II Peter 3:9). But we are told just as plainly that Christ died for His people, that only the elect have obtained it (Rom. 11:7).

We must not conclude too readily that there is a contradiction in the Bible. There is a harmony in the message of the Scripture which transcends our ability to clearly formulate. But we so easily slip into one-sided presentations. On one hand, some very strongly emphasize that salvation is only for the elect. If one doesnt belong to them, it is said. all sighing, seeking. and praying are useless. One’s lot has been negatively decided from eternity. A reprobate never becomes an elect. Accordingly we may not speak either of a wellmeant, earnest offer of salvation for everyone. How can salvation seriously be offered to a reprobate? Wouldn’t that imply dishonesty on the part of God?

Such arguments appear very logical, but they find no support in the Bible, and they make all good pastoral work, admonition, and comfort impossible. Preaching in this vein is still to he found. And people are made unnecessarily anxious by it. Exactly those who desire earnestly to seek the Lord sometimes lose all their hope through such a one-sided preaching and pastoral care, while it often completely misses the indifferent. And the latter are the people who ought to be frightened.

The One-sidedness of Our Time – But there is at present an opposite kind of one-sidedness that is much more common, and against which we need much more warning, that is a new kind of “remonstrantism” (or Arminianism). People are again approaching very near to the doctrine of a universal atonement. Karl Barth is to blame for this development. Although this theologian never went so far as to teach that all men were saved, in his criticism of the classical doctrine of election he went a long way in that direction.

It is worth noticing that Professor Berkouwer, so well known among us, who was at first very critical of these Barthian ideas, later tended more and more to follow Barth. Berkouwer’s 1955 book, De Verkiezing Gods (God‘s Election) came considerably closer to Barth than The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth which had appeared a year earlier. And since then Berkouwer has gone steadily further in the Barthian direction. Many church members and especially preachers said that they found Berkouwer‘s book on election “liberating.” In the preaching one heard less and lcss of the warning that we in our self-sufficiently might be lost. and that there is the possibility and even the reality of an eternal destruction. Still later people rarely talked anymore about heaven because their interests were steadily more preoccupied with life on earth.

Unfair Criticism of Calvin and the Canons of Dort – How can one explain the fact that the d0ctrine of Barth by way of Berkouwer and other theologians found such ready entry into the Reformed world, especially in the synodical Reformed Churches of the Netherlands?

It has already been observed that some welcomed them as a “liberation.” It was also said that the current doctrine of election (and reprobation) threatened our assurance of faith.

Obviously not all are elect. Therefore the possibility of being eternally lost always hangs like a sword of Damocles over our heads. If God had really decided to reject us, nothing could be done about it. It was forgotten that this is a caricature of the doctrine of election. The Canons of Dort clearly explain the doctrine of election (and reprobation) at the same time showing the way whereby one arrives at the certainty of his election; that is, as one observes with spiritual joy within himself the infallible fruits of election, such as sorrow for sin and hunger and thirst after righteousness. It is evident in this that the fathers of Dort, besides being excellent theologians, were also very good spiritual shepherds of souls. Would that we could say as much for the neo-modern theologians. At any rate there is in this no hint of a secret threat.

People have also criticized Calvin because they thought that also this reformer had spoken in an unevangelical way about election and reprobation so that this decree sometimes looked like an inevitable fate hanging over our heads.

In this connection they have cited Calvin’s well-known “decretum horrible” and also his expression that people are created for different destinies, and predestined to life or death. Recently a very worthwhile article appeared in Theologia Reformata in which this kind of criticism (which, as we see it, Wolderink, Herman Ridderbos, and Berkouwer make of the classical doctrine of election) is carefully analyzed. The article was written by Rev. J. Hock of Groenekan and appeared in the June 1975 issue.

Rev. Mr. Hoek plainly shows that Calvin has not been fairly treated because he has been quoted in a one-sided way. The reformer went back to God’s inscrutable counsel in which election and reprobation both have a place. But Calvin spoke just as decidedly about the guilt of man as the ground for reprobation.

Logically we cannot make all this clear, but the writer cites Dr. C. A. Tukker with approval as he speaks of a veil over our understanding. This is different language than that of Miskotte who speaks of the God of election as a masked God.

Rev. Hock makes a number of pointed observations. He recalls the texts in the Bible which provide the scriptural ground for the doctrine of election and reprobation (such as Prov. 16:4; Matt. 22:14; Acts 13:48). The writer rightly states that the new theology runs the risk of doing exactly the thing it accuses others of doing, of getting one’s dogmatics from a certain popular philosophy instead of from the Bible.

Neo-Remonstrantism (Arminianism) – What is worst is that this does not stop with rejecting the doctrine of election and reprobation. It is unavoidable that if one errs at one point the whole of Christian doctrine is adversely affected. Many begin to reveal a more optimistic view of man; and the rejection of the doctrine of election and reprobation is often accompanied by a loss of appreciation of the fearful power of sin and also of our own profound guilt and lostness. At this point too we reap the bitter fruits of Barth’s views which spoke much too superficially of sin as the “nothing” and of unbelief as of an impossible possibility.

This may sound pious because Barth spoke in this way in connection with the triumphant power of Christ, but it is not biblical. In the Bible the accents are quite different.

It is worth observing that in this way people are returning to a new form of Remonstrantism (Arminianism). That movement also spoke too naively about the power of sin. Man was not that deeply lost. All he needed to get back on the right track was some good advice. They knew nothing of man being spiritually dead and only enabled to see the kingdom of God again through the miracle of regeneration by the Holy Spirit. This same superficial, optimistic view of man meets us again, although the old error wears a more modern costume.

We can‘t overlook either, a certain flatness in much modern preaching. The frightening awareness of deep guilt is often lacking. And if misery is mentioned it is usually the misery of colonialists, capitalists, and exploiters; and everyone happily realizes that he doesnt belong to that class. And so he can easily stay out of range. But the question our confession asks is, “Whence do you know your misery?”

This superficial optimism about man comes out also in the words that are used (or no longer used) in Christian teaching. Conversion becomes a change of mentality, official service becomes education.

At the same time there are also many who have a much more pessimistic point of view and a deep awareness of our smallness and inability toward what is good. But there also is a lack of a sense of guilt and an inclination rather to bitterly blame God who permits so much misery in the world. And so one does not get out of his predicament. A man must not only realize his smallness, but must also come to rest in God’s good pleasure. While He created all things good, we spoiled them through our own fault. The profound wisdom of the Preacher is still valid, “Behold, this only have I found: that God made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions.”

The Way Out – There is no healing for the church or the world unless we regain a deep awareness of our lostness, and also come to know the way to be saved from sin. Only God‘s Spirit can lead us in that way and give us faith.

“And that men may be brought to believe, God mercifully sends the messengers of these most joyful tidings to whom He will and at what time He pleases; by whose ministry men are called to repentance and faith in Christ crucified” (Canons I , 3). Although the number of faithful preachers appears small, God can do great things through them.