/ Concerning the divine decree / Gentle Reformation

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.