Is Reprobation Necessary for God to Demonstrate His Holiness and Wrath?

According to Calvinism, God voluntarily predetermined for some of the human race to experience salvation in order to display His mercy, while concomitantly and voluntarily predetermining to pass over most of the human race, thereby inviolably destining them to perish in hell. The former are known as the unconditionally elected and the latter are known as the reprobate. This predestination is said to be necessary in order to display both His grace and His wrath.

For example, commenting on Romans 9:11ff, John Calvin plainly says, “The reprobate are expressly raised up, in order that the glory of God may thereby be displayed. At last, he concludes [referring to Paul] that God has mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth (Rom. 9:18). You see how he refers both to the mere pleasure of God. Therefore, if we cannot assign any reason for his bestowing mercy on his people, but just that it so pleases him, neither can we have any reason for his reprobating others but his will. When God is said to visit in mercy or harden whom he will, men are reminded that they are not to seek for any cause beyond his will.”[1]

This understanding is reflected in the Westminster Confession 3.3 which says, “By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death.”[2] In like manner, William T. Shedd remarks, “Reprobation is the antithesis to election and necessarily follows from it. The logical and necessary connection between election and reprobation is seen also by considering the two divine attributes concerned in each. Election is the expression of divine mercy, reprobation of divine justice. God must manifest one or the other of these two attributes toward a transgressor.”[3]

Jonathan Edwards similarly states, “The great and last end of God’s work which is so variously expressed in Scripture, is indeed but one; and this one end is most properly and comprehensively called, the glory of God . . . . And though God in seeking this end, seeks the creature’s good; yet therein appears his supreme regard to himself.”[4] Edwards exemplifies the common sentiment that is supposed to harmonize reprobation and God’s omnibenevolence.

Edwards statement does not introduce a problem regarding the irreconcilability of God simultaneously seeking His own glory and the creature’s good” (what I think the Scripture teaches), but rather it repeats another unsuccessful attempt at reconciling Calvinism’s belief that God voluntarily damned the vast majority of His creation because it pleased Him with His concomitant seeking of “the creature’s good.” For that to be true would require a redefining of the nature of “good” or “hell,” the latter being their final abode solely because it so pleased God. Outside of Calvinism, there does not seem to be a biblical reason for believing that God’s provision of salvation for all to have an opportunity to be saved is somehow incongruent with the end of all things being God’s own glory. Moreover, it is manifestly unclear why God would be more glorified with fewer in heaven than more when it would have taken no more redemptive work.

Calvinism is definitely committed to double predestination, which emphatically declares that either God voluntarily and actively predetermined to send people to hell, or it happens consequently by His determining to offer accessible salvation only to some. For example, Calvin averred, “By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death.”[5]

Thus, if Calvinism is true and man was created with compatible moral freedom as Calvinism believes, it seems inescapable that God could have created a world in which at least one more, many more, or even everyone could have been elected to salvation (such is not true of the libertarian perspective).[6] It appears at least that one could easily conclude, and I believe rightly, that such an outcome would have been because God acted more benevolently since fewer, or even no one, would have suffered God’s wrath.

Additionally, it seems difficult to find actual and clear biblical support for how that would prohibit Him from still doing everything for His own glory. He would receive at least as much glory as the salvational plan according to Calvinism, and no one would need to be predestined to suffer eternal judgment for the mere purpose of displaying the wrath of God. I would even argue that if we base our understanding of why people are in hell upon what we clearly see in Scripture (without having to resort to “it is a mystery” or a “secret will” that is inconsistent with His revealed will), it does seem to be the case that people do not suffer hell so that God can show His glory in wrath, but rather as a just dessert for their unrepented of sin. This is not to say that God is not glorified in exercising wrath against sin (as is true of everything He does), but only to say that it does not seem to be necessary for Him to predestine people to hell in order to display His glory in judging sin.

I would also insist that it is both biblically and logically unnecessary to conclude that God voluntarily chose to create beings who could not actually refrain from sinning and who could only, and therefore would only, freely will to sin (compatibilism). This includes God also voluntarily choosing to pass over most people in order to demonstrate His wrath and holiness. Calvinism’s verdict (that there is a reprobate class) is certainly not obvious to most Christians, and it is not even necessary if one relies solely upon Scripture for his conclusion.

Consider the following:

First, the desire for God to demonstrate His wrath, unflinching intolerance of sin, is more than eminently evident in His judgment of Lucifer and those who chose to sin with him. Scripture explicitly says that hell was created for the “the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41).

Second, God’s wrath and unflinching holy intolerance for sin could have been overwhelmingly displayed by simply creating man with otherwise choice since (as I have contended several times in this forum) it seems impossible to guarantee, in a world where sin is an option, that some libertarian free beings will not choose to misuse that freedom and sin. Such a scenario is absolutely consistent with the Scripture’s claim that God truly desires that none would perish (2 Peter 3:9), and they in fact did not have to perish since He did abundantly provision so that those who perish do not have to perish (John 1:29).

In this case, God’s certainty of the outcome is not dependent upon predetermination, but rather it exists because He is essentially omniscient.[7] For that reason, He knows many will choose to reject His loving offer of forgiveness; therefore, given the nature of libertarian freedom and God’s omniscience, a place for wrath is certain rather than necessary and this without the need of predetermining man to freely sin and then God passing over most. This seems to be the simplest and most consistent reading of the explicit teachings of Scripture.

Third, if Calvinism is true, it seems unnecessary for God to predetermine more than one person to be eternally damned in order for God to display His wrath and holiness. Based upon the previous options, any attempts to justify the seemingly inordinate number of people condemned by resorting to “it is a mystery” is most evidentially an insufficient response; whose insufficiency is repeatedly emphasized in light of the consistent and explicitly stated salvific plan and plea for all to be saved as portrayed in Scripture (John 3:16; Revelation 22:17). This point has nothing to do with just dessert (I agree God would be just to damn everyone to hell), but it only has to do with the question of why is there a need for so many to predeterminately perish to demonstrate wrath when it appears that fewer would accomplish the same? This is particularly interesting in light of Calvinism’s frequent contention that God saving more is not necessary to demonstrate His perfect love, grace, and mercy, i.e., numbers are not relevant.

Fourth, preeminently and therefore most compellingly, is the fact that no humans had to perish in judgment in order to graphically and most incontrovertibly demonstrate God’s unmitigated wrath because that was unsurpassably demonstrated when He judged His only begotten Son on the cross for the sins of mankind. Even if He would have chosen to damn every single person He created a thousand times over, such demonstration of holy wrath would be massively dwarfed by the death of Christ on the cross.

Thus, based upon what we know from Scripture about God, for Him to voluntarily withhold salvation from even one person so that He might be glorified by demonstrating His wrath seems incomprehensibly ghastly, gratuitously unnecessary, and irreconcilably contrary to His omnibenevolence. Just another thought, this is precisely why Calvinist Universalists believe in universal salvation (not merely universally offered). For example, Oliver Crisp makes the argument that according to the Augustinian view, all could be saved since no one need go to hell to demonstrate God’s justice and wrath, so long as “the sin of all human agents is atoned for in the death of Christ.”[8]

Except for seeking extrication from another calvinistically-generated quandary, I see no reason for God’s concern with His glory necessitating the predestination of these to damnation, nor why salvifically loving all His creation is even in conflict with “the glory of God” as the “great and last end.” I see why it is seen as such within Calvinism, but biblically it is neither obvious nor needed.

In Extensivism, the atonement can be actually universal (accessible by grace-enabled faith), wherein people are saved because God freely chose to comprehend man’s choice in His salvific plan.[9] To wit, God freely chose to create man with otherwise choice and to grace enable everyone, while still in their sins, to be able to believe or reject the gospel (only now with greater knowledge of what is being rejected than prior to being grace enabled, similar to Adam).

Those who receive God’s sufficient call of the gospel are the elect. Being omniscient, He has always known the elect. The designation “elect” highlights God’s provision, initiation, and calling of people to Himself through the gospel (Acts 2:39). Without God’s choice, there is no salvational provision, and therefore, no one can be saved. Accordingly, the saved are rightly called the elect, and this without necessitating Calvinism’s predestining of some to heaven and reprobates to hell.

God has always known who the elect are. His knowledge is neither dependent upon perceptivity (looking down the halls of history) nor micro-predestination (Calvinism and compatibilism), but rather it is simply an essential aspect of what it means to be God. God has always known every future true proposition because He is essentially omniscient, and He cannot believe a falsehood because He is infallible incapable of error or believing what is not true. The lost are not reprobate (a class God predestined voluntarily or consequently to suffer His eternal wrath without an opportunity to be saved), but rather they die in their sins because they rejected the same accessible offer of salvation in the gospel that others, known as the elect, accepted.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997).
[2] William Greenough Thayer Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, ed. Alan W. Gomes, 3rd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2003), 334.
[3] Ibid, 333.
[4] Jonathan Edwards, God’s End in Creation, in Ethical Writings, ed. Paul Ramsey, vol. 8 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. Perry Miller (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 530, as cited by Oliver D. Crisp, Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014), 104.
[5] John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, translated by Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997 reprint), vol. 2, Book 3, Chapter 21, Section 5, page 206.
[6] Compatibilism is the idea that determinism and moral responsibility are compatible; hence, the name. This compatibility is achieved not by lessening the deterministic nature of the position, but rather by defining free choice as existing when a person chooses according to his greatest desire, even though the desire is determined; additionally, given the same past, the person could not have chosen differently than he did in fact choose.
[7] In His essence, He cannot believe a false proposition nor can He not believe true propositions. He does not learn perceptively, looking outside of Himself, but rather He has eternally known all true propositions regarding potentialities and what He would actualize.
[8] See Oliver D. Crisp, Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014), 113.
[9] Extensivism is used here in a general sense of encompassing views that believe God salvifically loves everyone, which is evidenced by His provision for everyone and anyone to be saved by faith in the gospel.

Ronnie W. Rogers