The Horrible Doctrine

In a recent study, Steven D. Levitt (of Freakonomics fame) discovered that people who decided to make major life decisions — quitting a job, getting engaged, getting divorced — were happier than those who took no action, and stuck with the status quo.  But what he also discovered was that, for many, the decision to shake up their lives was not the result of careful thought and deliberation. It was the result of a coin toss.   Would you decide to change jobs or relationships with a coin toss?  Or bet everything you have on the flip of a coin?

Most of us despise nothing more than for our success or failure, gain or loss, salvation or condemnation to be wholly dependent on others or, even worse, mere chance.   Despite its wretched theology, we tend to resonate with William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus as he rages, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”  Yet we don’t have to live very long to recognize the delusion in this mantra.  

We are not so free as we like to believe.  And fate and evolution, to which so many ascribe, are, indeed, horrible doctrines.  Outcomes ruled by nothing more than time and chance destroy all hope of meaning, purpose, and lasting significance.  But at least victimization at the hand of impersonal time and chance, gives us little room to legitimately complain of injustice.  All we can say is “these things happen.”

But what if the decision that ordains and decrees the outcome of our lives, both temporally and eternally is made by a personal, all-powerful God without reference to our foreseen merit or demerit or consideration of our favorable or unfavorable circumstances?   On the surface such an idea is repugnant.  Though he taught it, Calvin labeled this a Decretum Horribile, or “horrible doctrine.”  Yet, this is exactly what the Bible describes as it unfolds the doctrine of election, and its theological corollary, reprobation.   Biblical support for these doctrines is copious.  But perhaps no passage is clearer than Romans 9:10-23

And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory

Romans 9:10-23

In the middle of Paul’s great exposition of grace, we find this “horrible doctrine.”  A doctrine which, in our pride, tempts us to accuse God of injustice, of being the author of sin, and of commanding apparently useless tasks such as evangelism or intercessory prayer.  In our hubris, election and reprobation are indeed “horrible doctrines.”   

Yet as we carefully consider what the Bible says about the total depravity of our fallen condition, these “horrible doctrines” soon become “doctrines of grace.”  Every aspect of our lives is affected by the guilt and presence of sin.   “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)   Were God to base His decision to save on anything in us, we would be hopelessly doomed.  

The early American pastor, Jonathan Edwards, once declared, “we contribute nothing to our salvation except the sin that made it necessary.”  And Jesus taught that “unless a man is born again [from above] he cannot see the kingdom of God.”    Those horrible doctrines, which at first fill us with indignation and accusation toward a Holy, Sovereign God, become gracious doctrines when the Holy Spirit enables us to see the depth of our sin.  

In scripture, these doctrines are always proclaimed to offer us assurance, not fill us with hopeless dread.  Such is the case in Jeremiah 24.   As the long-threatened judgment begins to unfold.  Nebuchadnezzar captures and conquers the land of Judah.  God gives the prophet a vision of two baskets of figs.   Through this vision, God declares his intention to save and restore some but to judge and condemn others, giving hope to the hopeless and warning to the heedless.  

On what basis do you appeal to God for his mercy?  Is it your works?  Your circumstances?  Your piety?   Is it enough?   Or is your hope in something much more solid?  Only in the calling and election of God is there assurance.   Have you answered His call? 

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out….  this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.

John 6:35-40

Join us this Lord’s Day, August 23 as we examine Jeremiah 24 and consider the doctrines of election and reprobation – doctrines of grace, not horrible doctrines. We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:30 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  Or join us on Facebook Live @PottsvilleARP