The work of the Spirit ought to be of real interest and concern to each child of God. Jesus’ word to Nicodemus in John 3:5 indicates the principal reason for this interest: “Verily, verily I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he can not enter into the kingdom of God.” His work results in our salvation. 

But there is additional work of the Spirit which also deserves our attention. What does the Spirit work outside of the realm of salvation? Is the Spirit’s work evident upon the reprobate? 

The question is of more than passing concern to members of the Protestant Reformed Churches. The question, with the answer given in the “Three Points” of common grace, by the Synod of Kalamazoo in 1924, became part of the reason for the separate existence of the P.R.C. from the Christian Reformed Church. 

It was the “Second Point” of common grace which dealt with the question of the restraint of sin in the wicked by the Spirit. Editor Kuyvenhoven, in theBanner, Feb. 4, 1985, summarized that point thus:

Without renewing the heart, God’s Spirit restrains sin in unregenerate individuals, and by the same activity he makes human society possible

Gen. 6:3, Acts 7:42, II Thess. 2:6-7,


It might seem unnecessary to treat a subject as this which was discussed in great detail over 60 years ago. Further articles might be like “beating a dead horse.” There appear to be so many more interesting and significant subjects which can be studied. 

Others still insist that there is not now, and never was, any essential difference between the P.R.C. and the C.R.C. on the question of restraint of sin. It is said that what the P.R.C. termed the “providence” of God, the C.R.C. called “common grace” in the second point.

Yet, the C.R.C. speaks specifically of “grace” (common to all men)—not just a “restraint of sin,” but a favorable work, a gracious restraint of sin within the wicked. Also, the teaching includes by implication the “third point” which speaks of the civic good of the reprobate. The wicked can, by virtue of this common grace of God, do certain good which is pleasing in God’s eyes. These confuse the work of the Spirit in providence with Divine favor—an error which becomes more obvious when one considers that the same Spirit also rules so over the devil himself. 

The question is one of importance because it necessarily affects one’s understanding of God and His attitude towards the wicked—but also definitely will affect one’s attitude toward the wicked and that which he does. When the wicked is said to be graciously restrained from sin, thus allowing him to do certain good works, then the conclusion follows: the Christian can “redeem” these works for the benefit of the church. Then one can claim also to be able to “redeem” the movie and the dance. 

This subject itself has been treated extensively in theological works. For further study, one can read Berkhof in his Systematic Theology and Hoeksema in his Reformed Dogmatics

Berkhof states in his Systematic Theology, (p. 439), “Special grace is supernatural and spiritual: it removes the guilt and pollution of sin and lifts the sentence of condemnation. Common grace, on the other hand, is natural; and while some of its forms may be closely connected with saving grace, it does not remove sin nor set man free, but merely restrains the outward manifestations of sin and promotes outward morality and decency, good order in society and civic righteousness, the development of science and art, and so on . . . .” 

H. Hoeksema in The Protestant Reformed Churches in America, gives this explanation to the “restraint of sin” in natural man: “There is the all-overruling power of God, who indeed gives men over into unrighteousness, and in His righteous judgment punishes sin with sin; but who also controls the progress of sin and leads it into those channels which are conducive to the realization of His counsel. There is the limitation imposed upon every man by the measure of his gifts, powers, and talents, by time and occasion, by means and circumstances, by character and disposition. All men do not commit all sin; each one sins according to his place in the organism of the race and in history. It is determined and limited by various and often conflicting motives, such as fear and shame, ambition and vain-glory, natural love and carnal lusts, malice and envy, hatred and vengeance. And it is influenced by the power of the magistrates. But in all these channels and under all these controlling and determining factors, many and various though they be, the current of sin and corruption moves onward without restraint and interruption, until it shall have served God’s purpose and the measure of iniquity shall be filled!” 

In brief summary, we can state several things concerning the work of the Spirit outside of the realm of salvation. First, the Spirit is that Person of the Trinity Who gives life. Already in Genesis 1:2 we read of the Spirit moving (brooding) upon the waters. He gives life to creation which the Triune God formed. The Spirit is the life-giving Power Who instills not only spiritual life, but also gives natural life. 

Also Scripture indicates that the Spirit controls and directs all things—using even the wicked to serve the purpose of our God. He leaves them without excuse in the judgment day, for we read in Genesis 6:3, “And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man . . . .” Although the CRC claimed that this represents the failing attempt of the Spirit to restrain wickedness within the sinner, there is no basis for this in the passage. Rather, the striving of the Spirit with man takes place principally through the preaching of God’s Word. The Spirit testifies against the wicked through that preaching. Jude 14, 15, states, “And Enoch also, the seventh from Adam, prophesied of these, saying, Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints, to execute judgment upon all, and to convince all that are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have ungodly committed, and of all their hard speeches which ungodly sinners have spoken against him.” The preached Word is used by the Spirit to testify against the ungodly—but the flood would bring an end to that in Noah’s day when the wicked are destroyed. 

Scripture gives other indications of the work of the Spirit upon the wicked. In the case of King Saul, the Spirit governed his rule over Israel. In I Samuel 11:6 we read, “And the spirit of God came upon Saul when he heard those tidings, and his anger was kindled greatly.” Saul was given that which was necessary for his task of ruling over Israel—and later God also took all this away from hi. But Saul’s heart was not affected, and the very abilities given him served further to condemn this king who refused to rule to God’s glory. 

The Spirit does use various means in order thatoutward sin be restrained. Sin must develop in a certain way through the various ages. God will not have all sin committed all at once. Romans 13:3 teaches, “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same.” Government, including the policeman, serves as a form of deterrent to the wicked. 

The Spirit uses also other means to govern outward sin. He does this by sending consequences upon the disobedient. The alcoholic can develop cirrhosis of the liver. The homosexual and the promiscuous persons contract various sexually related sicknesses, some, as AIDS, very serious. Many refrain from certain outward acts of sin to avoid these consequences. 

Peer-pressure effectively limits the activities of others. These would be well-thought-of by their neighbors. These would gain the approval of others. Therefore, some lead the kind of lives which can be praised by men. 

Self-preservation serves also as a means to deter the wicked. These would preserve their own lives by insisting that all adhere to certain rules. The Spirit uses all of these things to keep the wicked from carrying out many evil designs—thus directing that the very development of sin in this world at the same time will serve His Sovereign purpose. 

The Spirit governs all things that God’s counsel may be fulfilled. The Spirit is indeed active in the world of sinners. This is not, however, a gracious act upon the sinner, nor does it affect any sort of moral improvement in the sinner. The sinner remains dead in sin, prone to all evil. His heart is corrupt and he refuses to do anything pleasing to God. And through the ages, man continues to develop and grow in sin and evil. 

It can not, then, be shown that there is any sort of spiritual benefit or blessing to the sinner because of this “restraint.” Nor can the sinner, because of this government of the Spirit, now perform certain good deeds. There is no benefit to the sinner either here or hereafter. 

Nor is this “restraint” in any way the fruit of the work of the cross. The wicked derive no spiritual benefit from that cross. But the Spirit does control the wicked and govern them in their activities that Christ’s purpose of saving His people might be realized. 

Then we can understand the outward “restraint” or government of the wicked—and surely it is not a manifestation of the favor of God upon them. 

For the wicked, God directs that all things lead to the greater damnation of the reprobate wicked. Asaph speaks of that in Psalm 73:18: “Surely thou didst set them in slippery places: thou castedst them down into destruction.” What is “favorable” in such activity of the Spirit? 

In the day of judgment, it becomes clearly evident that the wicked knew that they walked ever in transgression of God’s law. Even their outward restraint, for fear of certain consequences on this earth, is itself a testimony against them. The wicked indicate that they abstain from certain sins not because of any improvement of their hearts (for their evil intents and desires remain), but for certain selfish advantage. 

But the purpose of the Spirit in ruling over the wicked thus, is that God’s counsel might be fulfilled: His people must be gathered and defended in this world of evil. The work of the Spirit which is to the condemnation of the wicked, serves at the same time unto the salvation of the church. 

Thank God that the work of the Spirit is not limited to the church—but that His rule and direction extends also over the wicked. God continues to rule in all things and over all creatures. Then the church confesses that everything works together for their good.