Necessarily, Freely, or Contingently

When God ordains the reprobation of a sinner, some believe that this choice must mean that God cannot greatly love the reprobate in history.  If God passes over an individual, it must follow that God cannot entreat that sinner to repent, or love that sinner, or send Christ for that sinner. But this is far too simplistic a notion. When God ordains all things, He exhibits His character in all the varieties of life, truly and really. The ordination rolls out and consists of a wide matrix of secondary causes that dare not be emptied of their significance. It includes a demonstration of God’s love. It includes His sending Christ for them. It includes the depths of God’s goodness, and condescension, and genuine yearnings for them to repent.

But it does not stop there. It likewise includes the sinner’s obstinate refusal, stiff necked rebellion, and awful spurning of Christ. And lest one think this unbelief is little more than the marionetting of a puppet, or the programming of a robot, God ordains the secondary causes to fall out necessarily, freely, and contingently. The sinner does what He wants.¹ And he is really confronted with God’s patience and goodness. All this by decree.

This is a great mystery- this ordination of freedom- but it is one we dare not diminish. God offers no violence to the will of the creature, nor is He the promoter of sin.

Naturally, the interplay between divine sovereignty and human responsibility is deeply mysterious; the underlying calculus far exceeds our current capacities. We are like children just beginning to understand numbers and letters. If told that X+3 = 7, and that X is 4, the child would wonder how a letter could ever be a number. The logic defies their current abilities. We are no different. The eternal decree of God is infinitely complex, not only in its innumerable layers compounding across eternity, but in its inscrutable composition. The mechanics are bound up with the Creator/creature distinction. As finite creatures, we do not understand it. Not exhaustively.

This often means that when it comes to this doctrine, or those concepts related to the doctrine of reprobation, theologians tend to subsume divine sovereignty under human responsibility, or emphasize sovereignty to the exclusion of human responsibility (or the diminution of God’s well-meant offer). (A) is swallowed up by (B), or (B) is swallowed up by (A).

But it is not a matter of (A) or (B), but (A) and (B).

We may wonder how it is that God can love the world of sinful humanity (John 3:16), when we likewise know that a portion of sinful humanity will not experience God’s effectual grace, which is a great love indeed. Or we may wonder how it is that God can spread out his hands all day long to a rebellious people (Isaiah 65:3), or lament the stubbornness of Israel (Matthew 23:37), or desire the wicked to turn and be saved (Ezekiel 33:11), while yet delighting in the destruction of Israel (Deut 28:63), or hating Esau (Romans 9:13), or preparing the wicked for the day of destruction (Proverbs 16:4).

All of these truths are bound up with the complexities of God. They are each real. Nor contradictory. They are not entirely unlike the complexities of human desire and choice, but exceed it, differing in degree and depth. And to the degree that they exceed that of our own and plunge deeper than we can imagine, to that same degree we will be left wondering how it all fits together.

The word is mysterious.

But take note. Understanding exactly how it all fits together isn’t the same as appreciating a particular vignette. We can and should rightly maintain God’s electing love. And we can and should rightly maintain God’s heartfelt invitation to the non-elect to believe and trust in Christ for eternal life. The tension between such concepts, and others, will continue to untie throughout eternity, as we continue to learn about God and His marvelous ways. In the meantime, let us guard against reductionism.  It isn’t (A) or (B), but (A) and (B).

¹This isn’t meant to suggest that the will of the natural man isn’t bound to the desires of the flesh.

6 Comments

  1. Armchair Theologian September 12, 2017 at 8:23 am #

    “…or send Christ for that sinner.”

    In what sense does Gentle Reformation think God has sent Jesus for the reprobate?

    “…theologians tend to…”

    Which theologians does Gentle Reformation think have tended toward error in these things?

    “…the complexities of God.”

    Does Gentle Reformation deny the simplicity of God?

    “…differing in degree and depth.”

    Does Gentle Reformation think that the creature/Creator distinction is only quantitative and not qualitative much like theistic mutualism?

    • Austin Brown September 12, 2017 at 9:31 pm #

      Greetings!

      Is this the same Armchair Theologian that interviewed me a long time ago?

      Either way, thanks for commenting!

      Here are some brief comments of my own.

      Gentle Reformation is made up of different authors. While we all share a Reformed worldview, we do differ on particulars (Imagine that! Reformed people differing! Ha!). So this post reflects that of my own.

      And what is that? Allow me to link to a helpful chart:

      https://www.dropbox.com/s/m2ee8nqqpz4o7ot/Conference Chart – 2016 edit.pdf?dl=0

      If that doesn’t work, go here:

      http://theologicalmeditations.blogspot.com/2008/11/conference-chart.html

      I would be what is called a Classic/Moderate Calvinist. Many of my brothers on this blog would be High Calvinists. No one is Hyper. Note the names of the theologians at the end of the chart. Respected thinkers differ on some of these issues.

      With that in mind, allow me to answer your questions. Feel free to follow up.

      A) I believe in the formula “Christ’s death is sufficient for all, but efficient for the elect.” Here is how Dort in one place talks about sufficiency. It says, “However, that many who have been called through the gospel do not repent or believe in Christ but perish in unbelief is not because the sacrifice of Christ offered on the cross is deficient or insufficient, but because they themselves are at fault (art. 6, canon 2).”

      Likewise, I uphold the well-meant offer of the Gospel, which is to say that God does in fact desire the salvation of the non-elect, in one sense. Two things to consider, if you disagree:

      1) The OPC’s majorities statement here: https://www.opc.org/GA/free_offer.html

      2) John Piper’s article “Are There Two Wills in God?” http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/are-there-two-wills-in-god

      Therefore, I believe, along with a host of other Reformed thinkers, that the term “world” in John 3:16 isn’t referring exclusively to the elect. It is sinful humanity. Therefore, God loved sinful humanity and gave His only Son. See the following for further reflection:

      http://calvinandcalvinism.com/?page_id=7250

      B) Which theologians? Arminians and Hyper-Calvinists for starters.

      C) I affirm the simplicity of God.

      D) It is quantitative and qualitative. Here I would reference Frame’s discussion in “The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God.” Basically, God’s thoughts are higher than ours 🙂 And as a good Vantillian, I would lean towards analogical.

  2. Chris Cole September 12, 2017 at 8:48 am #

    God doesn’t love anyone apart from Christ (Ps. 5:4, Ps. 11:5). Rather, they are objects of wrath, not love (Ephesians 2:3).

  3. Nathan Eshelman September 12, 2017 at 4:09 pm #

    I wonder if this article is consistent with the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity in regard to these matters? This seems to be outside of the bounds of promoting a “gentle reformation” of the truths of the Scriptures as understood in our confessional heritage. I would defer to “Armchair Theologian” above. I am merely a lowly GenRef author, but I would be curious if the GenRef administrators see this article as consistent with reformed theology.

    • Austin Brown September 12, 2017 at 4:22 pm #

      Nathan,

      I will respond to each of armchair’s questions, but I am at work still. I am confident that this perfectly accords with the standards, and I trust that my classically moderate position on such things (while you might be a High Calvinist) is well within respected orthodoxy.

      By classically moderate, I have the following taxonomy in mind (see chart) [I would cite books but a link is easier at moment]:

      http://theologicalmeditations.blogspot.com/2008/11/conference-chart.html?m=1

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