Providence and the
Restraint of Sin
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).
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.
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.