Last month, Dr. Peter Sammons—assistant professor of theology at TMS—published his second book, Reprobation and God’s Sovereignty: Recovering a Biblical Doctrine. Covering the much-debated doctrine of reprobation, Dr. Sammons agreed to answer a few questions about his new work, discussing the importance of studying this doctrine and why he devoted his doctoral dissertation to this often-neglected topic.
This is the second book you’ve written on the topic of reprobation. Why this subject? What motivated you to spend so much of your time thinking about and writing about this difficult, often disputed aspect of theology?
Predestination and reprobation are capstone doctrines. To properly understand both, the theologian must be well-versed in other doctrines. If a theologian doesn’t have a right understanding of God’s Word and character, he’s going to misunderstand reprobation. Studying this doctrine meant I was essentially studying all the fundamental doctrines. Personally, it was very enriching. There is a known lack of contemporary resources devoted exclusively to reprobation, so I sought to serve the church by thoroughly examining this doctrine.
What is the most prominent way the doctrine of reprobation has been misunderstood by Christians in recent years?
If people don’t like the doctrine of election, which results in the salvation of a soul, they certainly are going to struggle with reprobation, which results in the condemnation of a sinner. Alongside the emotionally difficult nature of the doctrine, there have been theological challenges from those with an Arminian view of salvation, which teaches that men have free will to choose or reject salvation. Arminian doctrine undermines reprobation because it says God does not actively decree the eternal punishment of the non-elect. The combination of Arminian theology and contemporary notions of liberty and “free will” have contributed to the misunderstandings.
The common misunderstanding of “free will” is that sinful nature is innately present in us, it was not God who orchestrated our fallen nature. Our nature, fallen because of the consequences of sin, is more complicated than the notion of “free will” suggests. No human is without influence from his natural desires. Desires give motion to volition, which gives motion to actions. So, men act according to their natures; they aren’t free from their natures. However, the misunderstanding of “free will” is built on this wrong understanding of human volition. God determines responsibility. If God didn’t hold mankind accountable for their sins, the world’s evil would go unpunished. We should praise the Lord for His justice that doesn’t allow people to commit injustice without consequences (Ex. 34:7; Num. 14:18). That’s the beauty of sovereign love: God can transfer our penalty to Christ. That truth is foundational to the gospel. If God didn’t have that freedom, but was bound by some kind of equity in holding men responsible, then no one could be saved.
I know you’d say that a true, biblical understanding of the doctrine of reprobation should humble every believer. Talk about the clear, essential connection between this doctrine and the virtue of humility.
It’s hard not to be humble when you come face to face with the reality that God can do whatever He pleases and that He’s worthy of worship for both unconditional election and reprobation. The key word there is “unconditional.” What we were before our conversion and even what we are now is all under the hand of meticulous providence. That puts our unworthiness into perspective. I’m not sure if anyone who truly understands depravity and then realizes sovereign grace in salvation can be prideful.
What theologians from church history were instrumental in shaping your view of reprobation? And which theologian is particularly clear and persuasive on this topic?
I dove into Luther (Bondage of the Will), Edwards (Freedom of the Will), Calvin (Institutes, and Bondage and Liberation of the Will), and AW Pink (Sovereignty of God) when I was a new believer. I began to see a consistent articulation of this doctrine throughout church history. It was originally Chosen by God by R.C. Sproul that introduced me to reprobation. When I started to dig into the topic for my dissertation, I was edified by a wide group of theologians; Gottschalk of the 9th century, Aquinas on causality, Junius, and the great Puritans like William Perkins, all helped me wrestle through the issue in a biblically informed way. I studied at the feet of the historical faith in a way that was incredibly edifying.
How can a doctrine as difficult as reprobation be a cause for rejoicing and marveling?
I believe any doctrine God has revealed in Scripture is cause for rejoicing and marveling. As we are being sanctified, we are coming to a better realization of who God is and who we are. We are not focused on who He seems to be at a given moment, or who we think He is, or hope Him to be. We try to strive to delight in God being God. That’s not something we are born with; it’s a continual work of the Spirit in our hearts and lives, bringing us into greater love and adoration of those truths. You can’t read much of the Bible before you come across texts like Isaiah 33:12-14, 63:1-6, 66:15 & 24, Revelation 14:17-20, 19:11-16, Zechariah 8:17; Amos 5:21,22; Psalm 5:5, and rather than assuming they are incorrect depictions of who God is, or that they’re not purposefully placed in the Bible, you recognize that they are there to tell us about God. And for Christians, that’s what we were reborn for: to delight in God.