Sunday, February 14, 2010

Scriptural "proof" for the Second Point of Common Grace (29)

Dear Forum members:

I have described that aspect of common grace, which teaches the restraint of sin in the hearts of the unregenerate. In this letter I intend to begin to deal with the proof that was offered by the defenders of this view from Scripture and the Netherlands Confession of Faith. It is true that the latter is a Confession of the Dutch Reformed Churches, and is not of any confessional relevance to Presbyterians. But the teachings of the two articles quoted as proof bring up some interesting points that are worth discussing in connection with this error of an inward restraint of sin. We will look at the Biblical proof first of all.

The first text used for proof is found in Genesis 6:3: “And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man.” This text is found in the context of the apostasy that took place from the covenant line of the seed of the woman and the consequent terrible wickedness that was found in the pre-deluvian world. It is recorded in Scripture as the introduction to God’s announcement of His judgment on a world that had filled the cup of iniquity. This word, therefore, paved the way for God’s instructions to Noah “who found grace in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen. 6:8) to build the ark.

If this text is to be quoted in favor of an inward restraint of sin by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the unregenerate, then the meaning of the text is this: for a long time, perhaps nearly a millennium and a half, the Holy Spirit had struggled in the hearts of those who belonged to the line of Cain to keep these wicked people from being as sinful as they were determined to be, but that, at last, the Holy Spirit, apparently failing in His efforts to restrain sin, withdrew from the wicked and God ceased from restraining their sin by His Spirit. It is an argument based on a strange assumption (The Holy Spirit had worked mightily for over 1000 years to restrain sin but had failed), and it is deduced from a negative statement (“My Spirit shall not always strive with man”) and made to mean a positive doctrine of an inner work of the Spirit in the reprobate that changes their nature for good, but does not save.

But, of course, the text does not say anything even faintly resembling such an idea, and, in fact, the picture drawn for us in Genesis 4 and 5 is quite different. One is hard-pressed to find any restraint of sin of any kind in the hearts of these wicked people; one finds, rather, a frightening development of sin that within 1650 years or so almost destroyed the church and made the world ripe for judgment.

Cain was guilty of fratricide and the blood-soaked ground under Abel’s body cried out for vengeance (Gen. 4:8-12). When God pronounced the curse upon Cain (Gen. 4:11), Cain, and subsequently, his descendants, moved away from the church, where the seed of the woman “began to call upon the name of the Lord,” (Gen. 4:26) to find their way in the world apart from the church.

Lamech, from the line of Cain, was apparently the world’s first bigamist and defied God’s creation ordinance for marriage. He also took it upon himself, not only to murder one of the people of God, but to compose a song to celebrate his dastardly deed (Gen. 4:23, 24); and he dared God to punish him for committing such a terrible sin: “If Cain shall be avenged seven-fold, truly Lamech seventy and seven fold” (Gen. 4:24).

In chapter 6 we have that chilling description of the dreadful sins that took place when those of the line of Seth sought cooperation with those of the line of Cain: “. . . the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose. . . . There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown. And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:2-5).

But the sin to which we are pointed in these chapters of Genesis, which was the worst of all, was the sin of the persecution of the church. It began early with the murder of Abel. It continued with Enoch who was taken to heaven, because he was being hunted by wicked men (Gen. 5:24, Jude 14, 15, Heb. 11:5, 6. Note in Hebrews 11: 5 that the text says that “he was not found,” indicating that he was being hunted, but was delivered by a miracle of translation to heaven without dying.). The entire church in a world that must have numbered millions was reduced to eight people at the time the flood came. If the flood had not come when it did, no church would have survived.

All of these things do not speak of an inward restraint of sin by the Holy Spirit, but just the opposite: a violent and rapid development of sin so that the world became ripe for judgment in a relatively short time.

But we must still explain what the text does mean. The text can only refer to the preaching of the gospel that took place prior to the flood. This is evident, first, from the fact that the preaching of the gospel is always accompanied by the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit never works independently of the preaching, but He always works where the preaching takes place –whether that work is to save or harden. Second, we know that prior to the flood God had His preachers in the world. Two are mentioned in Scripture: Enoch who “prophesied of these (wicked men who ‘went the way of Cain’, HH) 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” (Jude 11, 14, 15). Noah also is said in II Peter 2:5 to be a “preacher of righteousness.” It is clear from the description of Enoch’s preaching, found in Jude15 and of Noah’s preaching found in II Peter 2:5, that the preaching contained all the elements of true preaching: the command to repent from sin, the warning of certain judgment on unbelievers and the call to believe in Christ and the gospel of salvation in Christ. That Noah preached salvation in Christ who was to come is evident from the fact that Noah was a preacher of righteousness as Hebrews 11:7 makes clear. Both Noah and Enoch not only preached the gospel that righteousness could only be found in the Seed of the woman who was to come, but both also called to repentance and warned against coming judgment. For this they were persecuted.

This powerful preaching was mocked, opposed and hated. And so God said He would withdraw this preaching and its accompanying work of the Spirit – as He always does to apostate churches and as He did to wicked Israel (Amos 7:11, 12). In churches where the gospel is no longer preached, the Spirit is withdrawn. The work of the Spirit is no longer present. The striving of which the text speaks is, therefore, the preaching of repentance from sin, which the preachers of the pre-deluvian world proclaimed, and that truth of the gospel impressed on the consciences of men by the Spirit. It all is a warning to today’s rapidly departing churches that the Spirit is no more present where the gospel is perverted. And the sound of the gospel is no longer heard in nations in which these apostate churches are found, and which have rejected the gospel.

If you ask: What was the work of the Spirit that accompanied the preaching, the answer is that the Spirit convicts of sin, reproving sin in the consciousness of the wicked and impressing upon the wicked the certainty of judgment (John 16:8-11). When God takes His Spirit from a church, or nation, or person, such are not longer even warned of their sin and impending judgment and the consciousness of their sin is lost. This is dreadful.

* * * *

Additional proof offered for the restraint of sin in the hearts of the unregenerate is a group of texts that speak of God giving man over to sin. It might be well to quote the texts here.

“But my people would not hearken to my voice; and Israel would have none of me. So I gave them up unto their own hearts’ lusts: and they walked in their own counsels” (Psalm 81:11, 12).

“Then God turned, and gave them up to worship the host of heaven; as it is written in the book of the prophets, O ye house of Israel, have ye offered to me slain beasts and sacrifices by the space of forty years in the wilderness” (Acts 7:42)?

“Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves” (Rom. 1:24). The same expression is found further in this passage in verses 26 and 28.

It is difficult, if not impossible to see an inward restraint of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the unregenerate in these verses. Presumably, the argument is that if God gives a man over to sin, God must first of all restrain sin, and only after failing to restrain sin, God ceases His restraint. Yet no Reformed man would ever talk in a way that implies a frustrated God who cannot accomplish what He intended, nor can a prior restraint of sin be dug out of a passage that speaks of God’s work of giving man over to sin.

The meaning of these texts is rather, as I explained in connection with our discussion of Romans 1:18-32, that God punishes sin with sin. God’s wrath is revealed in His terrible judgments upon the wicked. One of those judgments is that God pushes as it were the sinner into greater sin. Romans 1 uses the language, “gives them over.” Idolaters who change the glory of God into an image made like unto corruptible man are punished by being given over to homosexuality. History is replete with examples of this. God is, after all, sovereign. He gives the sinner over to the sin that his wicked heart craves. Sin multiplies and becomes worse. And all this takes place until the cup of iniquity is filled. But all this has nothing to do with any kind of inner restraint of sin in the hearts of the wicked.

I shall say no more about this for the present, for I intend to discuss this further a bit later in another connection. But it ought to be clear in any case that it takes considerable exegetical legerdemain to extract from these passages an inward work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the ungodly that alters the depraved natures of the wicked and results in good works, but does not save.

With warmest regards,
Prof. Hanko

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