Sunday, February 28, 2010

II Thess. 2:6,7 & Belgic Confession, Arts. 13, 36 (30)

Dear Forum members:

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.

Whatever the apostle may be referring to in the text, someone or something, known to the Thessalonians, was preventing a premature appearance of antichrist and would be taken out of the way at God’s time, that is, when in God’s time the time of Antichrist had come. And, therefore, no restraint of the Holy Spirit can possibly be referred to. Such an interpretation of the text is foisted on the text in such an unnatural way that no one can accept it as true.
* * * *
We turn now to the articles in the Belgic Confession (Sometimes called The Netherlands Confession of Faith, or simply, The Confession of Faith).
Two articles were referred to. The pertinent parts of the articles read as follows: “This doctrine (of divine providence, HH) affords us unspeakable consolation, since we are taught thereby that nothing can befall us by chance, but by the direction of our most gracious and heavenly Father, who watches over us with a paternal care, keeping all creatures so under his power that not a hair of our head (for they are all numbered), nor a sparrow, can fall to the ground, without the will of our Father, in whom we do entirely trust; being persuaded that he so restrains the devil and all our enemies that, without his will and permission, they can not hurt us” (Article 13; Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. 3 [Baker Book House, 1983] 397).
Berkhof tells us why, in his opinion, Article 13 is relevant. “The doctrine of providence is thus comforting for God’s people. It contains among other things this comfort especially, that God controls their enemies with a bridle. In their anger, these enemies cannot go further against the church than God permits. They are under the rule of the heavenly Father and are controlled by Him” (Louis Berkhof, De Drie Punten in Alle Deelen Gereformeerd [The Three Points Reformed in Every Part] {Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1925] 40. The translation is mine.)
Berkhof is aware that some critics of this proof have said that, according to Article 13 of the Belgic Confession and the interpretation given it by the CRC, God also gives his common grace to the devils, for the article speaks of God’s restraint “of the devil and all our enemies.” Berkhof, of course, repudiates this interpretation, although he does not make clear why he can exclude the devils as objects of common grace, if this article in the Belgic Confession is proof of common grace.
The proof which was offered for an inner restraint of sin by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of all men indicates how meager and contrived the proof from the confessions really is. Berkhof himself spends almost no time in showing how this article proves an inner, divinely-worked restraint of sin, but spends his time, other than the quote given above, trying to free himself from the charge that the devils must also be the objects of common grace.
No Reformed man who believes in the sovereignty of God has ever denied that God restrains sin. No Reformed man has ever denied that included in God’s sovereign control are Satan and his black hosts from hell. Even while our Lord was on earth, the devils who were cast out of devil-possessed people, were subject to the Lord’s will. They could not even enter the pigs without the Lord’s permission (Mark 5:1-17). This profound truth of God’s sovereignty is taught in Article 13 of the Belgic Confession. But there is absolutely no mention made of an inner work of the Holy Spirit who restrains sin from within a man by changing man’s nature so that he can do good. Appeal to this article is an unwarranted twisting of the article on God’s providence.
The other article referred to is Article 36, which is titled “Of Magistrates.” “We believe that our gracious God, because of the depravity of mankind, hath appointed kings, princes, and magistrates, willing that the world should be governed by certain laws and policies; to the end that the dissoluteness of men might be restrained, and all things carried on among them with good order and decency. For this purpose he hath invested the magistracy with the sword, for the punishment of evil doers, and for the praise of them that do well” (Italics are in the original because the quotation is from Scripture. Article 36. [Idem, 432]).
Berkhof’s justification for an appeal to this article is: “These words speak for themselves. God demonstrates His goodness in this that, because of sin, He ordains a magistrate and gives him the sword. And the purpose that He has in mind with this is that the lawlessness of men is restrained, and with respect to human affairs, everything goes well.” (Idem., 41. The translation is mine.)
Who can disagree with that explanation? Again, it is clear to every Reformed man that indeed God ordains magistrates to keep order in society. But as one man once put it to me, “The second point (of common grace) confuses the Holy Spirit with the policeman” – or makes the sword of the magistrate the Holy Spirit. It is impossible to derive from this article anything even remotely resembling a work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of all men, bringing to these men God’s grace, and restraining man’s sin by these gracious internal influences. It is no wonder that Berkhof apparently felt such an appeal to Article 36 to be poor proof, for he makes only two or three short sentences in explanation. It is well that he adds, “These words speak for themselves.” It reminds one of a preacher who is somewhat doubtful about the correctness of what he wants to say from the pulpit, and so intersperses his remarks with comments such as: “This is as clear as the sun in the heavens.” Or, “Anyone can see how true this is.”
We need not delay ourselves with further argumentation on this matter of the proof for the restraint of sin. It is quite clear that there really is none.
Yet, the idea, first propounded by A. Kuyper, is one that has taken hold of many. It is well to notice this in passing. But there is also a positive truth set forth in Scripture that runs counter to the teaching of the idea of an inner gracious restraint of sin and we do well to note this truth. I shall deal with this in a future installment, God willing.
With warm regards,

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