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Rev. Key is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Randolph, Wisconsin.

You will notice that the title of this article contains a question mark.

Having considered what the Bible teaches concerning man’s devastating depravity, as well as the development of sin, we are left with a question. We have shown from Scripture that sin develops according to the sovereign purpose of God, and even as the manifestation of His just judgment against the sinful race (Rom. 1:18-32). But isn’t it also true that there is a certain restraint of sin?

Before we answer this question, we would like to respond with another question: What do we mean by a restraint of sin? Sin, after all, is not merely in the outward actions of man, but in the heart and in the corrupt nature. The question, then, is this: does God restrain sin by some sort of inward operation upon the heart of the sinner, or does He do so only by outward compulsion and constraints?

This is an important question. If all that is meant by the concept “restraint of sin” is an outward restraint brought about by the consequences of man’s actions and by the works of God’s providence, we agree wholeheartedly that there is such a restraint of sin’s expression. The difficulty, however, comes when one teaches a restraint of sin caused by certain inward workings of the Holy Spirit in the sinner.

This question is of no little historical importance to the Protestant Reformed Churches. It brings us back to the very origin of our churches and the controversy involving common grace, which controversy resulted in three ministers and numerous officebearers being expelled from their offices in the Christian Reformed Church.

The Restraint of Sin as an Evidence of Common Grace

The Christian Reformed Church, at the Synod of 1924, adopted an official position concerning the restraint of sin. They taught not only that there is a restraint of sin, but that there is a restraint of sin brought about by a gracious inward operation of the Holy Spirit upon the hearts of men. This work of the Spirit, though not renewing the heart unto repentance and salvation, nevertheless puts a check on the development of sin.

The “second point” of the infamous Three Points of 1924 taught specifically “that God by the general operations of His Spirit, without renewing the heart of man, restrains the unimpeded breaking out of sin, by which human life in society remains possible.” This restraint of sin is a work of “common grace.”

Furthermore, as the “third point” goes on to make clear, this work of common grace not only restrains sin, but also enables the unregenerate man to do good works, if only in the realm of society. The second and third points go hand in hand. As a result of this restraining influence of God’s common grace, and by virtue of a positive, influence of God upon him for good, the unregenerate man is able to do good works in the sphere of things natural and civil, even though he remains incapable of doing any saving good.

An examination of this idea will show that it is a denial of the fundamental truth of man’s total depravity, which truth we have previously discussed.

If we speak of the restraint of sin, we have to remember that sin involves not only the outward actions of man, but also his inward thoughts and desires. Still more, sin can also refer to the condition of his nature. The pollution of man’s nature is the punishment of God upon man because of his guilt. It belongs to that death that is ours in Adam. That is what the apostle Paul refers to in Ephesians 2:l when he describes all men as “dead in trespasses and sins.” That death is a spiritual corruption of the nature, the result of which is that man is incapable of doing any good and inclined to all wickedness, except he is regenerated by the Spirit of God.

The defenders of that restraint of sin which is maintained in the theory of common grace hold, on the one hand, that the Holy Spirit works in the natural man in such a way that his sinful actions are restrained. But they mean more than this. They also mean that there is an inward restraint upon the heart of man which in some way changes man’s corrupt nature. By “common grace” the Spirit works a change in the heart of man, which is not a saving change, but which nevertheless alters the heart enough so that man is not as wicked as he would otherwise be. And as a result of that change in his nature, the natural man is capable of performing good works. They are not works that merit. They are not saving works. But they are works that God judges good, which are performed in the realm of society for the benefit of other creatures.

At issue here is exactly the truth of total depravity.

Such a description of the restraint of sin is a denial of the biblical doctrine of total depravity as historically recognized by the Reformed churches and as taught in our confessions.

If one speaks merely about the sinful actions of men being restrained by God’s providence, we have no quarrel. Such outward restraint, as we shall see, can be and is exercised by God without any change in the nature of man. Man remains totally corrupt, incapable of doing any good and inclined to all wickedness. Man’s conduct can be restrained without any change whatsoever in man’s nature.

A likeness can be seen in ourselves and our own children. It is clearly seen that there are times when we are compelled to do things that we don’t like to do. We sometimes observe in our children a very bad attitude (a reflection of our own sinful natures, don’t forget). They are told to do something, and they grumble and complain, and perhaps even say they will not. But when they are reminded of the consequences of disobedience, they carry out the act, even though the attitude of their heart has not changed one iota.

But when one goes beyond the truth of outward compulsion or restraint, and speaks of an inner work of the Holy Spirit operating upon the heart of the sinner in a positive, though non-saving way, he speaks of something very different. With the Spirit’s work upon the heart, there is a fundamental change in man’s very nature, so that he is no longer as depraved as he could be. One may insist that there is no saving benefit from this work of the Spirit, and that the unregenerated man will eventually go to hell, but he is nevertheless a man whose nature has been changed by the Holy Spirit in such a way that he is now able to do good works. Total depravity becomes partial depravity. There is good in the wicked, even a basis for felIowship.

This theory of common grace is wrong. It is a poison to the Reformed faith. It is death to the antithetical calling of the Christian life.

The Outward Restraint of Sin

There is only one correct way to speak of the restraint of sin, and that is as an outward restraint upon the outward expression of sin, which restraint is worked by the providence of God.

Remember that God’s providence is all-encompassing. Providence is God’s sovereign execution of His own counsel with regard to all things. It is His upholding and governing all things with one primary purpose in view, namely, that He Himself may be glorified in Christ through the salvation of His church.*

God does indeed restrain sin, but only by the influence of God’s providence upon the sinner.

We would prefer another word than “restraint.” We would rather speak of God “controlling” or “steering” the actions of men according to His purpose. That seems to fit better with the idea of “governing” that is a well-known element in the definition of providence. But we will grant the use of the term “restraint,” so long as the whole idea of the restraint of sin is defined in these terms – the outward influence of God’s providence upon the sinner.

God’s providence, then, restrains sin in the lives of individual people by determining all the circumstances of their lives.

The time in which a man lives will determine in a measure how his sin is restrained. The sins which are committed in our licentious society could not have been as readily committed 50 years ago. In that sense, under God’s providence, men were restrained from certain outward actions because of the very time in which they lived. One hundred years ago, for example, a woman could become pregnant by fornication, but she would not have been able to murder her unborn child by an abortion.

Whether a man is born into great riches, or into poverty, will also govern his sinful actions. This, too, is under the providence of God. A child brought into this world and raised on a ranch in the state of Wyoming will not find himself in the circumstances of the child raised in the fast life of New York City. The expression of his totally depraved nature will necessarily be different therefore. And while all men are equally corrupt, in their nature, the activity of that corrupt nature will be quite different depending on the circumstances in which God places them.

The consequences of sin, which consequences also occur by God’s government, themselves serve as a restraint upon man’s self-expression of sin. To this end also the institution of government serves to restrain sin in society. Government was instituted by God as the natural development of the family, to punish the evildoer and maintain order in society. It is an instrument in God’s hand to govern society for the sake of His church.

But this providential restraint or governing of sin must be clearly understood as the work of God, the work of God by which He governs also the development of sin.

Speak of restraint. But don’t forget, the sinfulness of the human race continues to develop. The cup of iniquity is being filled – according to God’s sovereign purpose. He is giving men over to their sin. Soon that cup of iniquity will be filled. And Christ shall return in judgment. And we shall be saved. 

* New readers or those interested in reviewing the truth of God’s providence may refer back to the previous volume of the Standard Bearer, vol. 72, pp. 181, 227, 259.