In talking about that aspect of common grace that is called “the inner restraint of sin by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the unregenerate.” I was talking about the Scriptural proof offered to support this idea. I continue an investigation of this proof.
Another passage of Scripture quoted in support of this idea is II Thessalonians 2:6, 7: “And now ye know what withholdeth that he might be revealed in his time. For the mystery doth already work; only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.”
As far as the text itself is concerned, this is a very difficult passage for various reasons and many interpretations have been offered of it. It is not my intention to mention all these various interpretations and to exegete the passage in detail to learn what the Holy Spirit has in mind in this verse. My intention is simply to ask and answer the question: Can this text in any way support a doctrine of the gracious work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the unregenerate that enables them to do works pleasing to God? And the answer to that question is certainly a negative one.
If one is to find in this passage a reference to the gracious restraining power of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the unregenerate, then some sort of interpretation similar to the following would have to be given. The apostle is speaking here of the rise of antichrist at the end of time. Antichrist is called “the man of sin” in the context. He is part of the “mystery of iniquity” that is present in the world (I John 2:18). But this rise of antichrist is graciously restrained by the Holy Spirit, for that which “withholdeth” is supposed to be a reference to the gracious operations of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will graciously restrain sin in the hearts of the reprobate, particularly in the antichristian development of antichrist in history, and enable those who stand in this historical development of antichrist to do good throughout most of the new dispensation until the man of sin, the antichrist, is revealed “in his time.”
This is strange exegesis indeed. The objections against such a view are compelling.
1) The apostle tells the Thessalonians that they knew that which was withholding. Now if the reference is to the gracious inner working of the Holy Spirit in the unregenertate, the apostle could not have said that the Thessalonians knew of this work of the Holy Spirit. How could they? In all the apostle’s writings there is no other mention of any such thing. Apart from the fact that this expression, “what withholdeth” is a strange way to speak of the Holy Spirit, found nowhere in Holy Scripture, this interpretation presupposes that the Thessalonians knew about common grace and knew about that aspect of it that involved the restraint of sin almost 2000 years before it became a doctrine sanctioned by the church.
2) The idea of the restraint of sin emphasizes that this restraint is in the hearts of all men in general to restrain all kinds of sin and to enable sinful man to perform good works. But here in this text the expression is limited to the development of the antichrist. In fact, it would seem to me to follow that this restraint of sin is to be found in Antichrist himself, that he is the object of grace, that the Spirit graciously restrains him, and that he is able to do good in the eyes of God.
3) If the Holy Spirit and His work is the reference here, then the last line of the text would have to read this way: “But the Holy Spirit who restrains sin will continues to restrain sin until “he be taken out of the way.” The cessation of the work of the Holy Spirit is ended when the Holy Spirit is “taken out of the way.” What a strange and unbiblical way to speak of the Holy Spirit. It ought to be clear to anyone with a modicum of understanding of Scripture that this interpretation cannot possibly be correct.
It would have been extremely helpful if the texts cited in support of common grace had been exegeted and explained by the Synod that adopted these doctrines. But one looks in vain for any explanation; it seems to have been considered sufficient merely to quote texts without any explanation.
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We turn now to the articles in the Belgic Confession (Sometimes called The Netherlands Confession of Faith, or simply, The Confession of Faith).