Thursday, April 15, 2010

What does the Spirit work in the reprobate? 33

Dear Forum members,

Before I continue our discussion of the restraint of sin and the good the wicked do, I ought to answer a few questions that I received from one of the forum members. These are the questions.

To what extent does the Spirit of God work in the heart of the reprobate?
While never gracious, what is the nature of this work? To what purpose does it serve?
Scripture gives us accounts of the Spirit’s work of hardening hearts (Pharaoh) and restraining sin (Abimelech) in wicked men. How would you further distinguish and explain these two aspects of the Spirit’s work in the lives of the reprobate?
Is it accurate to say that God controls sin by hardening and restraining it in the lives of wicked men until He alone decides when the cup of iniquity is filled?

These questions came from one of our foreign readers. The questions indicate clearly that many throughout the world are interested in holding firmly to the truth of God’s absolute sovereignty. This is encouraging and reason to give thanks to God.

It is indeed true that the questions arise out of a deep sense of the truth of God’s sovereignty. And they cannot be answered in any other way than out of a profound commitment to the truth of God’s sovereignty in all things, including evil. Some years ago when I was still teaching in the Seminary, I and one of my colleagues were discussing how little was the truth of God’s sovereignty maintained in today’s churches. There were many, so he went on to say, that claimed to be Calvinists, but who refused to confess God’s sovereignty in crucial doctrines. The ultimate test, so my colleague stated, of whether a man is truly committed to the truth of God’s sovereignty is: Does he hold to the doctrine of sovereign reprobation?

The questions quoted above have to do with the doctrine of reprobation. But the questions force us to think of sovereign reprobation in a broader way than I have, up to this point, discussed it. I have more than once mentioned reprobation and pointed to its significance in our on-going discussion concerning the question whether God’s grace, in any sense of the word, is general or common, or whether it is only for the elect. These questions suggest an additional aspect to the subject. Granted that God’s sovereignty is also exercised in His control of sin and in His execution of the decree of reprobation, is it Biblical to say that this aspect of God’s sovereignty is effected by the operation of the Holy Spirit?

The two instances the reader brings up are the cases of Pharaoh and Abimelech. The reader who asked the questions referred not to Abimelech, the son of Gideon, but rather the Abimelech who was king of a people in the southwest part of Canaan. Abraham sojourned there for a time during his wanderings in the promised land, but he employed the same ruse here as he had done earlier in Egypt. He told Sarah his wife to tell all they met that she was Abraham’s sister and to keep secret the fact that she was his wife. Abimelech, in the integrity of his heart, determined to make Sarah his wife, but was prevented by God from doing this. God warned him of the sin of marrying Sarah. Abimelech obeyed God, but protested his own innocence. God recognized that Abimelech was indeed innocent, and said to Abimelech, “Yea, I know that thou didst this in the integrity of thy heart; for I also withheld thee from sinning against me: therefore suffered I thee not to touch her” (Gen. 20:6).

The questioner asks whether this is a special operation of the Holy Spirit in the reprobate wicked that restrained the sin of Abimelech. It is my judgment that Abimelech was not a reprobate, but a true elect believer. While the text does not say this in so many words, the entire narrative in Genesis 20 very strongly suggests that.

Nor is this necessarily surprising. After Babel and the division of mankind into races and nations, the true religion continued for some time in various places. Although God narrowed this true religion to the descendants of Shem, He did this over a period of many years. Pockets of the true worship of God could be found. Examples would include Job in the land of Ur, a contemporary of Abraham, Melchisedek, king of Salem, a type of Christ’s office of king-priest, Jethro in the wilderness of Sinai, later to become Moses’ father-in-law, and probably Abimelech who seemed on very intimate terms with God in his conversations with God in his dream.

There is no question about the fact that God, by His Holy Spirit, restrains sin in the lives of His people, even sins of ignorance. It is a part of their salvation.

Nor, so far as I know, is the Holy Spirit mentioned in connection with the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.. Scripture certainly makes a point of it that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. This is mentioned no less than ten times. It is also said in Scripture that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, but, strikingly, a different Hebrew word is used and that only four times.

That God hardened Pharaoh’s heart brings up the question: Did God harden Pharaoh’s heart by the Holy Spirit? If not, how was this accomplished sovereignly by God?

I do not think that the question can be answered with any certainty. I do not know of any passage in Scripture that teaches explicitly that the Holy Spirit is the means God uses to accomplish His purpose in the ungodly.

Having said that, however, the fact seems to be a necessary conclusion from other teachings in Scripture.

As I noted in an earlier installment, Romans 1:19 reads literally, “Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shown it unto them” It would seem to me that it is not at all doing violence to the text to interpret that phrase “in them” to mean that God seals the consciousness of His power and glory upon the wicked by the Holy Spirit. The same is true of Romans 2:15: “Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts . . . .” The wicked, totally apart from grace, know the difference between right and wrong; and they know that God is the One who determines right and wrong. While all these things can be and are known through the creation, it is very well possible that God seals this knowledge upon on the hearts of the wicked by the operation of the Holy Spirit. This is at least implied in what we are told: that God makes Himself known that the wicked may be without excuse.

Further, all God’s works are works which He performs as the triune God. We must never ascribe some works to the first person of the trinity, some to the second person, and some to the third person. That is a sort of tri-theism, which the church has never taught. All that God does, He does as the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But in all the works of His hands, God makes Himself known. God makes known His own Trinitarian life in such a way that He works as the triune God, through Jesus Christ, and by means of the Holy Spirit. God executes His will sovereignly in all the works of His hands, and does so, according to His eternal determination, through Jesus Christ, His own Son, and by the Holy Spirit given to Christ at Christ’s ascension. Even in the OT there were manifestations of Christ in the Angel of Jehovah (whom Scripture calls God, Gen. 32:30, Gen. 19:24, etc.) and of the Holy Spirit of Christ with whom the office bearers were filled in their work, and by whom the OT Scriptures were written (I Peter 1:11).

If God is sovereign in all He does, including His control over the wicked, surely He does this in the same way He does all His works. If one would consider, for example, Proverbs 21:1 “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will,” it surely makes no essential difference whether God triune acts directly on the heart of a king to turn it, or whether God turns the heart of a powerful monarch through the instrumentality of the Holy Spirit.

Scripture strongly suggests this same truth in connection with the preaching of the gospel. In II Corinthians 2:14-17, Paul says, “Now thanks be unto God which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savour of his knowledge by us in every place. For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things? For we are not as many, which corrupt the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ.”

The apostle is clearly saying here that he gives thanks to God when the response to his preaching (which brings the savour of the knowledge of God to men) is a rejection of the gospel, as well as the fact that he gives thanks to God when his preaching is received by faith. He gives thanks to God in both instances, because God’s purpose is accomplished in both the reception of the gospel by faith and the rejection of the gospel in unbelief. Both reception and rejection are a sacrifice whose odor is pleasing to God. In both God’s purpose is accomplished. So God works faith that saves, but also works unbelief that rejects the gospel. The cross of Christ, set forth in the gospel, is the means of working faith, but also of working unbelief.

The text does not specifically say that unbelief is worked by God through the Holy Spirit, but it makes no difference whether God does this by a direct work on the hearts of men or by a work He performs through the Holy Spirit of Christ.

God sovereignly accomplishes reprobation as well as election. I talked of this earlier, and pointed out that election and reprobation are, according to the Canons of Dordt, one decree. This does not deny that God executes reprobation differently than election. Election is the fountain and cause of faith, and therefore of salvation. Reprobation is accomplished in the way of the sin of the wicked.

And here lies mystery – not contradiction, but mystery. God is sovereign over sin; yet He executes His sovereignty in such a way that the will of sinful man is not violated and man remains responsible for His own sin. The sinner is not coerced by God’s sovereignty to sin. He sins because he wants to sin. He is culpable and is punished. Where the execution of God’s sovereign will, whether or not it is through the Holy Spirit, touches the will of man, we find mystery.

Maintaining these truths, we hold to Scripture.

With warm regards,

Prof. Hanko

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