Covenant Protestant Reformed Church
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Providence and the Restraint of Sin

Ronald Hanko

In His providence, God controls and directs all things that happen. Even men’s lives in every detail are under this sovereign control of God. “He doeth,” as Nebuchadnezzar said, “according to His will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth” (Dan. 4:35). By His providence, therefore, God also controls and directs the sinful actions of men, as is evident from the example of Nebuchadnezzar and others (1 Sam. 2:25; 2 Sam. 16:10; 2 Sam. 24:1; 1 Kings 22:19-22; Acts 2:23; Rom. 9:18). Included in this sovereign and providential work of God is a restraining of sin. God, by providence, restrains in many different ways the wickedness of men.

Scripture gives us many examples of this restraint of sin. Genesis 6:3 is the first example in Scripture. There God restrained sin by shortening the length of man’s life. He also restrained sin at the time of the tower of Babel by changing man’s speech. Passages that speak of God’s giving someone up to sin also imply a previous restraint of some kind (Ps. 81:11-12; Acts 7:42; Rom. 1:24-28).

Many cite these passages as example of so-called common grace. That God restrains the sin of man, they say, is evidence of a gracious disposition of God toward all men. Some would even say that this common grace is the result of a non-saving work of God in the heart and mind and will of man, that it leaves man less than totally depraved, and that it prepares the way for the gospel by making it possible for a man to accept or reject the gospel as an offer of saving grace.

That there is such a restraint of sin does not, however, prove that it is a matter of grace. The question “How and why is sin restrained?” must still be asked.

Scripture clearly teaches that this restraint of sin is accomplished only by God’s power, not by any gracious operation of the Spirit working some change in man’s depraved nature. It is much the same, therefore, as putting a muzzle on a rabid dog. It prevents him from biting, but does nothing to recover him from his madness. In this way God uses many things, especially the fear of consequences, to restrain men’s wickedness without changing their hearts. One of the best example of a sovereign but non-gracious restraint of sin is found in Isaiah 37:29, where God says to the king of Assyria, “Therefore will I put My hook in thy nose, and My bridle in thy lips, and I will turn thee back by the way by which thou camest.” There is nothing gracious about that.

This same passage from Isaiah reminds us of the purpose of this restraint. It has no other purpose than the protection and preservation of God’s people in the world.

The common operations of God’s providence are not a common grace. Grace is the power by which God saves His people (Eph. 2:8-10). There is no other kind of grace besides wonderful, amazing, saving grace. Praise God for it.

(Ronald Hanko, Doctrine According to Godliness: A Primer of Reformed Doctrine [Jenison, MI: RFPA, 2012], pp. 97-98)

Herman Hoeksema: "[The] organic development of sin is limited by various factors and influences. It is subject to the all-dominating rule of God, who, indeed, gives men over in unrighteousness and punishes sin with sin in His righteous judgment, but who so directs the development of the sinful world that His counsel is fulfilled. It is limited and determined by various gifts and talents, by disposition and character, by times and circumstances. All men do not commit the same sins; everyone sins according to his place in the organism of the race and in history. The sin of apostate Jerusalem is greater than that of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is determined by various, often contradictory motives in the deceitful heart of the sinner, such as fear of punishment, shame, ambition, vainglory, natural love, carnal lusts, love of money, jealousy, envy, malice, vengeance. These various motives are often in conflict with one another, but they remain sinful nevertheless, even though one sinful desire or motive will often prevent the sinner from satisfying another. It is directed in certain channels by the different forms of life and social institutions, the home and the family, the economic system, the state, and even the church. But in all these channels and under all these determining and directing influences and factors, the current of sin moves irresistibly and uninterruptedly onward, never stemmed or restrained, constantly emptying itself into the measure of iniquity determined by the Most High, till that measure shall be filled. Then may the judgment come, and the lovers of iniquity be eternally condemned to perish under God's righteous wrath. And only when we are regenerated by the Spirit of God are we delivered from this awful power of sin and restored to God's favor, that we might be holy and without blemish before Him in love!" (A Triple Breach, pp. 55-56).