How God Aborts the Birth of Conceived Sin by Acting on the Will
By John Fast
In our previous study we considered various ways by which God neutralizes the power and ability necessary to actually commit the sin which has been conceived in the will, thereby preventing sin from ever being born. In this study we shall consider how God works on a person’s will in order to abort the sin which has been conceived in their heart, causing sin to die in the womb. Depriving people of their power and ability to sin does nothing to diminish their will and desire to sin. Oftentimes it only makes them more determined and desperate to perpetrate all the sin to which their will has consented, so that they weary themselves trying to find some way to actually give birth to the sin which they have conceived. Unless the will to sin is in some way arrested, conceived sin will come to full birth at the first opportunity.
Prior to the period known as The Enlightenment in the 18th century and the destructive philosophies spawned by it, rarely did anyone ever seriously question the existence of God. Throughout human history people’s conceptions of God have been many, diverse, pagan, and false, but they never denied the existence of God. The fact that “all the gods of the peoples are idols” (Ps 96:5) proves that there has always been a universal persuasion of the existence of God. The multitude of world religions testifies to this universal inborn awareness of the existence of God. No matter how low, degrading, and superstitious their representations of God have been and still are, they all agree that there is a God whose being is to be acknowledged, if not worshiped, revered, and obeyed.
In secular, post-Christian nations like America, Canada, Australia, and Europe, most people still maintain an instinctive belief in God, but this belief has no influence on their daily lives. The question has never been, is there a God, but, who is He and what is He like. More recently, despite all of Satan’s wiles and the most vigorous efforts by many of his human instruments, the vast majority of people still maintain a belief in the existence of God, however false and generic there conceptions of Him may be. We still publically say and sing ‘God Bless America’. England still sings ‘God Save the Queen’, but like the Athenians, most acknowledge an unknown God (Ac 17:23).
Notwithstanding over sixty years of a systematic and aggressive indoctrination in evolutionary dogmas by the public education system, and the best efforts of communism, humanism, secularism, and atheism, Satan never has and never will be able to eradicate the notion of the existence of God from the mind of men and women. Satan does not lack the will and malice, but the power to extinguish all belief in the existence of God. To rationally argue someone into conceding the existence of God is no great moral, intellectual, or philosophical achievement. There is nothing salvific in simply confessing what God has made obvious. After all, even the demons believe in the one true God, but they do not love Him. Belief in the existence of God is no foundation for a love for God as He is.
Much evil has been committed in the name of God and ostensibly in the service of God, thereby exposing people’s ignorance and perversion of who God is, “an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God” (Jn 16:2). God has ordained that through His creation all people must and do know that He exists, “because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them”, which leaves them without any excuse (Rm 1:19, 20). Yet God has equally determined that He can only be known truly through the revelation of Himself in His word the Bible, enlightened by the Holy Spirit. Despite the numerous and emotionally moving anecdotal stories to the contrary, no one ever has or ever will come to a true and right knowledge of God in Jesus Christ apart from the revelation of Himself in His inspired and inerrant word.
Finding it impossible to eradicate this innate conviction from the minds and consciences of any but a few of the most depraved individuals, rather than attempt to overthrow it and make people atheists, Satan finds it much easier to do as He did with Eve, and that is to deceive the mind with His craftiness (2 Cor 11:3). An absolute denial of the existence of God is not natural to mankind, but the denial of His true nature and word is. When people habitually reject God’s clear revelation of Himself; when they consistently deny one or more of His attributes, misrepresent His nature, deny His sovereign providence and rule over creation, and insist on conforming Jesus Christ and His gospel into a form more in keeping with their own wisdom, prejudices, and lifestyle, they in essence deny the existence of the God of the Bible. It is not the existence of God per se which fallen mankind objects to, but the existence of God as He has revealed Himself in His word the Bible; God as holy, God as sovereign, God as law-giver, and God as judge. Concerning Him the heart of natural man universally declares, “We do not want this man to reign over us” (Lk 19:14). It is much easier for people to be practical atheists than actual atheists. Practical atheism is the natural state of fallen and unregenerate mankind.
We are told by God that, “Those who forsake the law (i.e. the word of God), praise the wicked” (Pv 28:4). The reverse of this is equally true; the reason people praise the wicked is because they have forsaken God’s word. We live in a society that not only praises, but heaps its highest acclamations and honors upon the most wicked entertainers and promoters, practitioners, and inventors of evil and rebellion to God and His truth. We live in a post-Christian society because our society has forsaken God’s word. Therefore, when people consistently and habitually reject God’s revelation of Himself; when they twist, distort, and adulterate it to make it conform to their own ideas and image of God, their own system of religion, and to serve their own self-interests; when they define Christianity in terms so broad and vague so as to embrace their own conceptions of Jesus and methods of salvation, then God will exercise His displeasure and wrath by giving them over to their own various lusts and leaving them to their own depraved wills. He leaves them to fall into the deepest filth and pollution of their own vice, immorality, and natural depravity, and to be blinded to the true Jesus Christ by the Jesus of their own imagination.
During this year which marked the 500th anniversary of The Reformation, much has been said and written about the reclamation of the doctrine of salvation by grace alone, faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone. What is often lacking is any sort of clarity and consensus for the words “grace”, “faith”, “Jesus”, “Christian”, and “Christianity”. The question becomes what meaning do people attach to these words? What Jesus and Christianity do they have in mind? The Jesus and Christianity revealed in the New Testament, or of some fragment of the New Testament torn from and interpreted in isolation from its context? Do they mean the Jesus of pop-culture, of human reason, of liberal Christianity, of a social gospel or liberation theology, of apostate denominations, of various cults, of commercial Christianity, of false teachers, or our own imaginations; a Jesus transformed to suit the tastes of modern minds? It is so easy to give old words new meanings, and to invent a different Jesus and various forms of Christianity that evolve with the times. This is the end for which Satan expends his greatest efforts, to “blind the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor 4:4). Many systems of religion, including many which profess to be Christian, and call themselves Christian, claim to point the way to God, but Jesus Christ clearly presents Himself as the one and only Way (Jn 14:6; Ac 4:12).
The Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck accurately identified the difference between true Christianity and all other systems of religion when he wrote,
“Buddha and Confucius, Zarathustra and Mohammed are no doubt the first confessors of the religions which have been founded by them, but they are not the content of those religions, and they stand in an external and to a certain extent accidental relation to them. Their religions could remain the same even though their names were forgotten, or their persons replaced by others. In Christianity, however, it is altogether different. …Christianity stands to the person of Christ in a wholly different relation from that of the religions of the peoples to the persons by whom they have been founded. Jesus is not the first confessor of the religion which bears His name. He was not the first and most eminent Christian, but He holds in Christianity a wholly different place….Christ is Christianity itself; He stands not outside of it but in its centre; without His name, person, and work, there is no Christianity left. In a word, Christ does not point out the way to salvation; He is the Way itself.” (Quoted in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol 3, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 367)
A Christianity which is indifferent to the true nature, person, and work of Jesus Christ is, in fact, no Christianity at all. An ambiguous Jesus and Christianity are not the Jesus and Christianity of the Bible. A humanitarian Christianity can afford to be ambivalent to the true Jesus Christ, but a redemptive Christianity cannot. God out of Christ is a consuming fire. When people separate their faith from Jesus Christ as He has revealed Himself in His word the Bible, they separate themselves from Christianity, and proclaim themselves to adhere to another system of religion. This is the poison in most people’s religion today, it is not Christianity. By some convoluted form of reasoning they may convince themselves they are Christians, and call their system of religion “Christianity”, even though they reject Jesus Christ as He really is. Despite all of the Bible’s warnings and examples, the overwhelming majority of mankind, including most of professing Christendom, still attempts to reduce the Divine Nature into “an image formed by the art and thought of man” (Ac 17:30). Because all people are natural-born practical atheists, “The whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1Jn 5:19). Because people are unwilling to forsake their most cherished sins, idols, and self-interests and come to Jesus Christ as He is and on His terms, and honor Him as God, He justly abandons them to their own wills “to do those things which are not proper,” (Rm 1:28). It is to be attributed solely to the sovereign grace of God that He takes away, changes, and restrains the will from actually giving birth to all the sin which it has conceived.
Two Ways God Works on the Will
There are two general ways in which God graciously works on the will in order to prevent the sin it has conceived from actually being born. Sometimes He does it one way and at other times He does it by the other. The first of these two ways is common to all persons, believers and unbelievers alike. The second way is particular to believers only. In both ways God has various particular ways of working. These two general ways are:
- By common restraining grace
- By special transforming and assisting grace
By Restraining Grace
One way God restrains a person’s will to sin is by producing a conviction in the mind and conscience regarding the particular sin to which the will has consented. This sense of conviction will change how a person thinks about their sin, thereby altering their attitude and affection toward it, and disinclining the will from actually committing it. In this way the sin which had been conceived is aborted. The purpose of conviction is to change and arrest how a person thinks about their sin. That which only prevents the outward act of sin and does nothing to alter how the mind thinks about it cannot be considered a conviction of sin. A personal conviction of sin, that this or that thing is wrong for me personally, and not that it is universally and objectively wrong because God’s word unambiguously declares it to be sin, is not a conviction of sin. True conviction changes how a person thinks about their sin. Precisely how God does this, the immediate ways and means He uses, and the instruments He employs are beyond our knowing. His ways are unsearchable. He “does great and unsearchable things, wonders without number (Jb 5:9). God retains His sovereignty over the heart, mind, and conscience. He “has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires” (Rm 9:18).
Esau was intent on killing his brother Jacob. He “bore a grudge against Jacob” (Gn 27:41), and consoled himself with his plans to kill Jacob after the death of their father Isaac. However, when the two brothers met again after a twenty-year separation, all the sin which Esau had conceived against Jacob melted away, “Esau ran to meet him and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (Gn 33:4). Esau had the power to destroy Jacob and all he possessed, but he no longer had the heart and will to do so. Instead Esau embraced the brother he had long planned to destroy. How God changed Esau’s intentions, the method and means He used, is not revealed to us. Saul was intent on capturing and killing David, but when the opportunity presented itself in a cave for David to kill Saul, David spared Saul’s life, thereby convicting Saul of his wicked intentions, “You are more righteous than I; for you have dealt well with me, while I have dealt wickedly with you” (1 Sm 24:17). Saul still had the power of his three thousand troops, but his will to pursue David was subdued, so “Saul went to his home,” (1 Sm 24:22).
In this general way God prevents the perpetration of a multitude of sins every minute of the day and night. He brings some sharp conviction upon the mind and conscience concerning the sin to which a person’s will has consented. Their nature and thinking is not changed in regard to sin in general. They are no less enslaved to their own various lusts and pleasures. Rather their mind is changed with respect to the particular sin which had been conceived in their will. They no longer have the will and desire to commit this or that particular sin. Their resolve to perpetrate it dissolves, so their heart and mind goes to work on another. David escaped into the land of the Philistines so that “Saul then will despair of searching for me anymore” (1 Sm 27:1, 4). While it is impossible for us to know specifically how God does this work on the will, we may gain some insight into the ways by which God accomplishes this work by making a couple of general observations drawn from Scripture concerning God’s restraining grace.
General Observations of Restraining Grace
First, the general means that God uses to subdue the will, and of which this restraining grace consists, are various arguments, thoughts, and considerations presented to the mind which produce a change and alteration in the mind’s purpose toward the sin it has conceived. Reasons and information are presented to the mind of a person which compel and persuade them to abandon their sinful intentions and purposes. In this way Saul’s intentions toward David were altered on two separate occasions, when it was made known to Saul that David had spared his life (1 Sm 24:19; 26:21). A consideration and remembrance of the fact that “the ways of a man are before the eyes of the Lord, and He watches all his paths” (Pv 5:21), should be sufficient to arrest anyone’s will to sin. When people lose the true conception of God; when they forget who He is; when they imagine Him to be something other than He is; when they fail to honor Him as God, then there is nothing to restrain them from sinning at will, “For My people have forgotten Me, they burn incense to worthless gods and they have stumbled from their ways, from the ancient paths, to walk in bypaths, not on a highway” (Jer 18:15). This is the way in which restraining grace generally works, through reasons and arguments presented to the mind which erode a person’s willingness to perpetrate the sin it has conceived.
A second general observation concerning restraining grace is that no amount of reasoning, no arguments, and no appeals will be effective in stopping or restraining a person from committing the sin they have conceived in their wills if that person has the power and opportunity to give it birth. Joab’s attempt to persuade David not to go through with his plan to number Israel was to no avail. David had the power, the opportunity, and the will, even though his purpose was satanically inspired. Joab’s argument had no effect in restraining David from doing what his will had conceived (1 Chron 21:1-4). The fact that both Pilate and Herod considered Jesus to be innocent of any crime deserving of death did nothing to abate His accuser’s evil and obsessive desire to have Him crucified (Lk 23:14, 15), therefore Pilate “delivered Jesus to their will” (Lk 23:25). Arguments and reasoning are not in themselves restraining grace, not even God’s common grace. Nothing can be considered grace of any kind apart from its relation to God. It is only when God, by His Spirit, makes these arguments and reasons effectual in actually restraining and preventing the birth of sin that they become restraining grace. Unless these motives and arguments are empowered by the Spirit of God they remain merely human attempts at persuasion, and in their own nature simply naked reason.
It is a great judgment of God when He withholds His common grace so that no argument or reasoning will prevail against a person’s or nation’s will to sin. God gives them “a spirit of stupor, eyes to see not and ears to hear not” (Rm 11:8). Like those to whom the prophet Ezekiel was sent, “they will not be willing to listen to you, since they are not willing to listen to Me” (Ezk 3:7). Unwilling to “know the things which make for peace”, that is peace with God, those things which make for peace are “hidden from your eyes” (Lk 19:42). It is the power which God infuses into these arguments and persuasions, making them effectual in preventing sin, which alone makes them restraining grace. Without this empowering by the Spirit of God, no arguments and reasoning can have any effect on the will. With these two general observations in mind, let us now consider some of the kinds of arguments which God has often effectually used to restrain the sin conceived in the will.
Types of Arguments
First, God aborts the sin of many people by the consideration of how hard, difficult, and the outright impossibility of actually committing the sin they have conceived in their heart. They have a will and mind to do it, they study how to do it, but given all the obstacles to actually committing their sin, they decide it is best to just abandon it. The Jewish leaders desired to arrest Jesus in the worst way, but fearing the multitudes they considered the difficulty connected with arresting Jesus publically, so they waited until they could do it by stealth (Mt 26:3-5). How many people attempt to steal the gold from Fort Knox? People invest in elaborate security systems to deter criminals from even attempting to commit a crime against them and/or their property. Because of the difficulty involved with perpetrating their crime against one target they look for easier prey. In this way God intimidates the hearts and minds of multitudes every day and prevents them from even attempting to commit the sin they have conceived in their wills. The difficulties they will encounter, should they even attempt it, prove so insurmountable as to make the actual sin seem impossible, or so it used to be.
Who would have ever thought it possible that sinners would even attempt, much less prevail in gaining public approval and legitimacy for sins which on their very face are blatantly and grossly unnatural and degrading (Rm 1:26, 27), and which God has unambiguously declared to be abominations deserving of eternal death? Sins from which people once refrained because of the difficulty involved in their commission – adulteries, divorces, thefts, murders, immoralities, homosexuality, fornications, drug use, pornography, drunkenness – are now enabled, facilitated, legally protected, publically condoned, and openly practiced, even by much of professing Christendom. It is a deep judgment of God when sinners are not deterred in the least by the difficulties involved in actually committing their sin, when they judge no obstacle to their sin to be insurmountable, when it is with them like God said at Babel, “now nothing they purpose to do will be impossible for them” (Gn 11:6), and when a society actually facilitates rather than discourages their practice.
Secondly, God stops many a person in their ways by an argument from the hardships, troubles, and embarrassments they would encounter in the pursuit of their sin. If they actually stick to their sinful intentions, then this or that trouble, hardship, or humiliation will result. This is one of the most effective arguments to restrain the will, and place boundaries around the lusts of men and women when empowered by the Spirit of God. Solomon described the inevitable consequences of associating with bad company (Pv 1:10-19), committing adultery (Pv 5:1-14; 6:20-35), and rejecting God’s wisdom (Pv 1:20-2:22) as an argument against and deterrent to these sins. Paul’s reminder of how God dealt with Israel when they were unbelieving and sinful in the wilderness was meant to be an argument, “that we should not crave evil things, as they also craved” (1 Cor 10:6). In Romans 2:14, 15, Paul explains why “Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law”. One would expect that no group of people in the world should be more prone to committing all the sin which their wills can conceive as those who do not have the Law of God. So what prevents them? “…in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them”. Their inward “thoughts” (i.e. “reasonings; dialogs”) accuse or excuse them.
Everyone carries on a dialog in their own mind. The foolish farmer “began reasoning to himself” when he had no place to store his crops, and came to a foolish and spiritually disastrous conclusion (Lk 12:17-21). When Jesus forgave the sins of the paralytic, some scribes were wrongly “reasoning in their hearts” that Jesus was guilty of blasphemy (Mk 2:6, 7). It is from these inward dialogs, arguments, and reasonings concerning sin and its consequences that even those without the written Law of God abstain from what the Law condemns as sinful, because of the negative and harmful consequences associated with it. Where love for God provides no restraint to sin, self-love and self-interest will. They consider that “the way of the treacherous is hard” (Pv 13:15).
Do you see what a great and awful judgment of God it is when arguments from the hardships associated with sin provide no restraint against the sin a person has conceived in their heart? Despite all the hardships and judgments experienced by Israel as a consequence of their rebellion against God and His word, the arguments drawn from these hardships proved ineffective in restraining the people from committing all the sin which their wills had conceived, “As for the message that you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord, we are not going to listen to you! But rather we will certainly carry out every word that has proceeded from our mouths,” (Jer 44:16, 17). When God’s warnings and threats are scoffed at and despised as they are today; when those who proclaim and warn of God’s judgments are ridiculed and dismissed as unloving and irrelevant; when people refuse to even consider any connection between their sin and their miseries; when they relentlessly work to minimize and eradicate the temporal consequences of sin; when people come to think they can sin with impunity, evade the disastrous consequences of sin, escape reaping what they have sown, and live as they please and still go to heaven when they die, this is a sign that God has given them over to a depraved mind and left them to their own wills.
A third argument which God may use to restrain the actual commission of sin is an argument from the lack of any personal profit or benefit from the sin which the will has conceived. It was just such a consideration that kept Joseph’s brothers from murdering him, “Judah said to his brothers, ‘What profit is it for us to kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come let us sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him;’ (Gn 37:26). By this argument God often sought to turn Israel away from following and assimilating the idolatrous practices of the pagan nations which surrounded them, “What profit is the idol when its maker has carved it, or an image, or a teacher of falsehood” (Hab 2:18). This argument is used to expose the futility and uselessness of the sin of extra-biblical revelation and of those who relay it, “Behold, I am against those who have prophesied false dreams”, declares the Lord, “and related them, and led My people astray by their falsehoods and reckless boasting; yet I did not send them, nor do they furnish this people the slightest benefit,” declares the Lord” (Jer 23:32). Jesus uses this argument to expose the futility of trying to preserve your life and lifestyle in this world, “For what will a man be profited, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul?” (Mt 16:26).
Yet this is precisely what the vast majority of professing Christendom has done and is doing in its obsessive fixation with numbers, popularity, cultural relevancy and accommodation, commercial viability, intellectual respectability, and worldly success. In seeking to gain the world most of what professes to be Christian has forfeited its soul. They may not come right out and say it, but the actions, values, and practices of most professing Christians echo the attitude of Israel when God’s word no longer had any impact on their life, “You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God; and what profit is it that we have kept His charge,…?” (Mal 3:14). Their whole demeanor says, “Who is the Almighty, that we should serve Him, and what would we gain if we entreat Him?” (Job 21:15); and, “It profits a man nothing when he is pleased with God” (Job 34:9). Their secret thoughts and reasoning is, “what’s in it for me”. Like Israel they link their blessings to their sin, “for then we were well off and saw no misfortune” (Jer 44:17), and their hardships to their obedience, “But since we stopped burning sacrifices to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her, we have lacked everything and have met our end by sword and famine” (Jer 44:18).
When people come to believe that sin is more profitable than holiness; when disobedience seems to promise more personal benefit than obedience; when human wisdom, methods, and opinions are preferred over reliance on God’s patterns, promises, and prescriptions; when programs and amenities that accommodate worldly and carnal desires and human pride and wisdom are valued more than faithfulness to God and His word; and when arguments such as, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people” (Pv 14:34), cease to have any effect in restraining sin, we know we live in a time and place where God has given people over to do those things that are not proper. Ask yourself what Paul asked the church in Rome, “Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death” (Rm 6:21); spiritual and eternal death.
What profit and benefit can there possibly be in corrupting and commercializing Christianity; in adulterating Christ’s gospel, misrepresenting the nature of God, the nature of man, and the nature of the new birth? What has been gained from rejecting God’s law and personal holiness; in pretending to be a Christian, and masquerading as a servant of righteousness? What good has been won by slandering the person and work of Jesus Christ and making the narrow way broad enough to accommodate everyone; from twisting, altering, and adding to His word, minimizing the sinfulness of sin, calling evil good and good evil, redefining marriage, and legitimizing so-called “gender confusion”? What benefit has come from defiling God’s worship, disparaging sound doctrine, denying God’s holy wrath and judgment, and in reinventing Christ’s church? It is a great judgment of God when even arguments from the unprofitableness of sin provide no deterrent to a people’s will to sin.
Fourthly, God sometimes restrains the will by arguments taken from what is good, right, honest, acceptable and pleasing in His sight. These are the primary arguments which God uses in the life of a believer under their temptations and conceptions of sin, to abort sin in the womb. He recovers and restores their thoughts and reasonings. Joseph, being a righteous man, and not willing to disgrace Mary, reasoned and deliberated to “put her away (i.e. “divorce”) her secretly” (Mt 1:19). But by means of a message delivered in a dream, God changed Joseph’s intentions to leave Mary, and instead made him willing to do “as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and he took her as his wife, and kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus” (Mt 1:24, 25). In most of his letters Paul reminds his audience of truths which they have forgotten or are in danger of forgetting, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own” (1 Cor 6:19)? The psalmist Asaph confessed that his enviousness for the prosperity of the wicked had caused him to have doubts concerning the profitableness of his own obedience (Ps 73:13, 14). But when he was reminded of the ultimate end of the wicked, he could say, “For, behold; those who are far from You will perish; You have destroyed all those who are unfaithful to You. But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord God my refuge,” (Ps 73:27, 28).
God recovers the minds of believers from their false, fleshly, worldly and unbiblical thinking, deliberations, and intentions by reminding them of gospel truths suited to their particular situation and temptation, or by revealing a command, principle, or truth of which they were previously unaware, causing them to think differently than they had. He reminds them, in one way or another, of His grace, love, and mercy in calling them out of darkness into His marvelous light; that His purpose in calling them is to “redeem them from every lawless deed and purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds” (Tit 2:14). He makes them mindful that they are to be separate from the world, and to “come out from their midst and be separate”, says the Lord. And do not touch what is unclean;” (2 Cor 6:14-7:1). He reminds them of the superiority of obedience and holiness, the trustworthiness of His word and promises, and the immutability of His nature (Hb 13:5-8). He reminds them they are to walk by faith and not by sight. He makes them mindful of all He has graciously provided for them in His word and by the power of the Holy Spirit, and of all His past faithfulness and provision. God makes them appreciate the reproach and scandal their sin would bring on Christ, grieve the Holy Spirit, and invite His discipline as was the case with Joseph, “How then could I do this great evil, and sin against God?” (Gn 39:9).
Sometimes God will intervene directly, without the use of any arguments, to restrain someone from committing sin, especially when they themselves are unaware that what they might be intending is sin. This was how God worked with Abimelech king of Gerar when he unwittingly took Sarah for Abraham’s sister and not his wife. God said to Abimelech, “I also kept you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her” (Gn 20:6). He was not prevented by arguments because he had no way of knowing that what he intended was sin. How and by what means God prevented him from sinning with Sarah is not revealed, but only that God did prevent Abimelech from accomplishing his intentions. Once God made him aware that Sarah was really Abraham’s wife and not Abraham’s sister as Abraham had led him to believe, this changed his entire thinking and intentions toward Sarah. For Abimelech to have despised God’s grace and kept Sarah for his wife and not restored her to Abraham after being made aware of the sinfulness of his intentions, would have invited the judgment of God, not only on himself, but on his entire household, “But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours” (Gn 20:7).
Do you see what a great judgment of God it is when arguments drawn from what is good, right, honest, acceptable, and precious in the sight of God have virtually no impact in restraining the sin which has been conceived in the heart? When the purity and truth of God’s word, the holiness, righteousness, and goodness of His law, and the preciousness of Christ’s blood provide no restraint to corrupting, adulterating, peddling and trampling on them, this is a sign that God is no longer making these arguments effectual in restraining sin. When it is considered virtuous and noble for a person’s religious convictions to play no role in influencing their secular decisions and actions, it is clear that their professed convictions are ineffectual in restraining the sin in their life. Rather God has abandoned them to their own wills, given them over to do those things which are not proper, and left them to rot away in their sin.
When God Withholds His Restraining Grace
Arguments by themselves, no matter how logical or persuasive, provide little if any restraint to sin. Yet when arguments are empowered and managed by the Holy Spirit for this purpose, then they most certainly become effectual in restraining the will from giving birth to the sin which it has conceived. Even the word of God by itself, unaided by the Holy Spirit, remains ineffectual in restraining the sin of people, especially in those who “go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth” (Hb 10:26). It is not the argument, but the power of God in the argument which makes the argument effectual. Jesus is by far greater than Jonah, but the people of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah whereas Jesus’ generation rejected Him and His preaching (Mt 12:41), incurring for themselves a more severe judgment.
How quickly would this world become a hell if God were to completely remove His restraining grace; if all unbelievers were permitted by God to commit all the sin to which Satan tempts them, their corrupt natures incline them to, and to which their wills consent. By this we can gain a better understanding of just how severe a judgment of God it is when virtually no arguments are effectual in arresting and restraining a people’s will to sin at will. When God withholds His restraining grace, then “the word of the Lord has become a reproach to them; they have no delight in it” (Jer 6:10). They think and say, “You must not prophesy to us what is right, speak to us pleasant words, prophesy illusions. Get out of the way, turn aside from the path, let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel,” (Is 30:10, 11); and in effect say to God, “Depart from us! We do not even desire the knowledge of Your ways” (Job 21:14). It is not due to the weakness of the arguments, but to God removing His restraining grace that renders all arguments ineffectual in preventing and restraining the sin which the will has conceived.
I ask you reader, how effective have been all the arguments and efforts made by Christians against restraining the genocide of abortion? Not even the revelation of Planned Parenthood’s barbaric and grisly practices have been effectual in restraining this evil. How successful have been the arguments against the destructive and demeaning philosophies of feminism? How effectual were all of the arguments against legalizing so-called “same sex marriage”? How successful have been the arguments against a host of sins in preventing them from becoming commonly practiced at will and publically accepted? What effect have all the arguments and evidences against all sorts of false teachings, false teachers, false beliefs, and false practices had in preventing them from flourishing more and more? Why have all these arguments failed to persuade or convict? Is it because they have no biblical, moral, historical, or logical foundation? How did we come to this condition where people now accept and even applaud the sins that are now commonplace, protected, and institutionalized? How did those who practice such things come to receive protected, preferential, and heroic status? How have blatant heresy, worldliness, and sacrilege come to be the new orthodoxy? Is such thinking evidence of a more spiritually enlightened mind, or a mind spiritually darkened and given over to do those things that are not proper? Is all of this a sign of God empowering these arguments with restraining grace, or of His giving people over to their own wills and leaving them to rot in their sin?
Nothing is more just with God than His removing His means of grace when His grace has been repeatedly abused, corrupted, and scorned. Might God not say to us today as He did of His covenant people Israel, “they were broken off for their unbelief” (Rm 11:20). Therefore remember, “if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you” (Rm 11:21)? To somehow think we are immune from the judgment which God has inflicted on other people, nations, and churches in other times and places is the height of arrogance. This judgment is often threatened in God’s word, and has been inflicted on many once celebrated churches and nations. Just as God once told Israel, “But go now to My place which was in Shiloh, where I made My name dwell at the first, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of My people Israel” (Jer 7:12), so can I say, go to Jerusalem, go to the seven churches of Asia to whom John wrote Revelation, go to Alexandria, Egypt, go to Constantinople (now Istanbul), go to Europe where many famous preachers and churches once flourished, and learn for yourselves what a horrible judgment it is when God removes His restraining grace and gives people over to their own wills. Just look at our own nation! Just look at the lives of the people who govern it! Just look at what pervades entertainment and social media! Just look at what dominates so-called “Christian” television, radio, bookstores, music! Are we blind?!
On account of this sin of corrupting, abusing, and scorning His grace, God has and will judge this sin with the most dreadful spiritual judgments this side of hell. Judgments such as hardness of heart (Hb 3:13), spiritual blindness (Jn 12:40), vile and perverted affections (Rm 1:24-31), multiplied and accumulated forms of godliness (2 Tm 3:5); judgments which those who are under them never see, feel, or complain of, nor will they ever be convinced they are the objects of them. If God sends these judgments on people for their abuse and suppression of what God has made known to all people, in all times, and in all places through His creation (Rm 1:18, 21, 24, 26, 28), how much greater are those judgments that are inflicted when their sin is the abuse, corruption, and rejection of His special gospel grace?
This judgment of God is always just, always deep, and its effects are always terrible. Those on whom this judgment falls are oblivious to it; they feel nothing, see nothing, and fear nothing. They remain secure in their “discipline of delusion” (Jer 10:8). Like Noah’s generation, they continue to live as if God’s threats of judgment were just so many fairy tales, until it is too late. No place in hell is tolerable, but it will be more tolerable for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah than for those who have rejected and despised the truth of God (Mt 10:15; 11:24). “For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy commandment delivered to them (2 Pt 2:21); “how much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God” (Hb 10:29). It is painfully obvious that there are very few that truly believe this. If it were possible that you had no sin but the sin of unbelief, your sin is deeper, your judgment is more dreadful, your eternal torment will be greater than that of the most vile nations to whom the grace of God was never made known.
The need is not for newer, better, and more persuasive arguments, flashier performances, charming personalities, aggressive politicking, innovative methods, enticing allurements, friendlier atmospheres, or dynamic and motivational speech-making, but for God to make His word and arguments effectual by His power. For this let all true Christians fervently pray. In this way the most seemingly foolish arguments and weakest instruments can be made effectual for restraining sin. It is through the foolishness of the message preached that God saves those who believe (1 Cor 1:21). Any other way is to place our faith in the wisdom of men, not on the power of God (1 Cor 2:1-5), and when faith is in this way misplaced, the arguments themselves cannot help but fail to restrain. It was not Moses’ eloquent speech or his powers of persuasion which subdued Pharaoh’s obstinate determination to keep Israel in bondage, for Moses was “unskilled in speech” (Ex 6:12), but it was by the power of God. The Ninevites were not convicted by Jonah’s half-hearted and reluctant warning of impending divine judgment, but by the power of God in the message. Jesus preached as no other man ever had, and His divine nature and mission was attested to by miracles, yet His ministry had little immediate success. Whereas Peter, a poor, uneducated fisherman, empowered by the Holy Spirit, was the instrument God used to convert more people by a single sermon than had been by all of Jesus’ preaching and miracles throughout His entire earthly ministry.
By Transforming Grace
There is the common grace of God whereby he restrains the sin which has been conceived in the will of a sinner, and then there is the special, transforming, and renewing grace of God by which He transforms the whole person. Common grace is so called, not because it is commonplace and ordinary (it is rare enough in times like ours), but because it is not saving grace. When saving grace is poured out on many, then restraining grace will abound even more, but when God withholds even His restraining grace so that sin abounds, His saving grace is rarely bestowed. Saving grace is special grace and is reserved for those whom God has chosen “from before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him” (Eph 1:4). Saving grace not only restrains the outward act of this or that sin, but removes the inward inclination toward any and all sin by renewing and transforming the heart, mind, will, and affections. Common grace may change a person’s behavior, but only saving grace will transform a person’s nature. People may be made nice, moral, benevolent, religious, and humanitarian by common grace, but it requires God’s special grace to make someone abhor themselves and their sin, and love and obey Jesus Christ as He is. In a true Christian God aborts the birth of conceived sin by His transforming, renewing, and saving grace, both at the time of regeneration and conversion, and afterwards during times of temptation by providing fresh supplies of His grace.
When God brings a sinner to a saving knowledge of Himself, an immediate transformation occurs, wrought by the Holy Spirit, in their heart, mind, soul, affections, and will. The whole person is renewed by God’s transforming grace. They are made a new person spiritually and morally. Before their conversion they were “dead in your trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1); slaves of sin and “enslaved to various lusts and pleasures” (Tit 3:3); and “darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God” (Eph 4:18). But after God’s transforming grace, they are “freed from sin and enslaved to God” (Rm 6:22); “renewed in the spirit of your mind” (Eph 4:23); and “dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rm 6:11). However, because of the power and deceit of sin, sometimes a true believer can find themselves at times consenting to some sin, especially when that sin is publicly approved, defended, and indorsed.
It is one of the greatest mysteries of God’s grace and love in that He often meets a person with His saving grace while they are in the midst of their greatest resolutions to sin. In this way God demonstrates the superiority of the power of His saving grace over the power of sin. The sin which they at one moment were doggedly determined to perpetrate is now withered at the root, and instead of a determination to give birth to the sin which has been conceived in their heart, they are filled with shame, sorrow, and remorse that such sin should have ever been conceived by them. There are numerous recorded accounts of God thus dealing with the most foul and hardened sinners during the time known as The Great Awakening. People who attended the open-air preaching of men like George Whitefield, John Cennick, Howell Harris, and many others, and who came not with the intention of listening to them, but to jeer at them and pelt them with stones, mud, rotten vegetables, manure, and pieces of dead cats, were, upon hearing the pure gospel preached, convicted and converted on the spot. The sin they had conceived in their heart instantly melted away, and they became lovers of the message and men they had intended to mock, humiliate, injure, and even kill.
Such an example we have in the conversion of the Apostle Paul. Not satisfied with the stoning of Stephen, and with ravaging the church in Jerusalem (Ac 8:1-3), Saul of Tarsus was on his way to Damascus “so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Ac 9:2). His heart was full of malice and persecution, and he was headed to Damascus with the intention of venting his hatred to the fullest. It was while his heart and will were bent on violently persecuting the Christians in Damascus that he heard a voice from heaven saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Ac 9:4). In a moment, the most rabidly violent persecutor and silencer of the gospel of Jesus Christ became its greatest proponent and propagator. Paul even points to himself as a pattern for how God often meets the most profane and horrible sinners with His powerful saving grace at the point of their greatest determinations to sin. It was by reason of his being the chief of sinners that Paul found mercy, “in order that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience, as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life” (1 Tm 1:16). No sinner is beyond the power of God’s saving grace to renew and transform them.
We have another example of God’s transforming grace in Dionysius the Areopagite. As an Areopagite he was a member of the Areopagus, a highly distinguished court of aristocrats, scholars, and philosophers in Athens, of which Dionysius was a judge. When this group of elitists sneered at Paul’s preaching of Jesus Christ resurrected from the dead, Dionysius and a few others, rather than side with the majority in sneering, were transformed by God’s saving grace and they believed (Ac 17:19-34). No doubt they were expelled, mocked, and ostracized by this crowd of worldly wise men, thereby illustrating Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians, “For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh” (1 Cor 1:26). Every generation can point to such examples. People, who at the height of their purpose to commit the sin they have conceived in their heart, are abruptly stopped by the power of God’s renewing grace.
This should be a great encouragement for all who grieve and mourn over the season in which we live; a season foretold by Paul which would, from time to time, surpass other times in its level of sin and evil because most people are, “lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God; holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power;” (2 Tm 3:2-5). They are times in which even those who profess to be Christians “will not endure sound doctrine, but wanting to have their ears tickled, will accumulate for themselves teachers according to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths” (2 Tm 4:3-4). In such seasons we are prone to being tempted to despair and to think we are running in vain, or tempted to accommodate the culture, or to dilute the truth, round off the sharp edges of doctrine, and make the narrow way broader, but God reminds us it is not the man who wills or the man who runs, but God who has mercy, and to put no confidence in the flesh or the wisdom of man, but in the power of God. Times of refreshing are not brought about by man’s ingenuity and effort, but by persistent, fervent, and believing prayer and patient use and trust in God to bless the means He has ordained, which is the unadulterated preaching of His divine word.
We must remember that the people and nations of the world have their times and seasons. It is God who has “determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation” (Ac 17:26). The nations that once embraced Christ and made His word the foundation for their laws have now rejected Him and set up their own idols and images of Him in His place. Nations have their times of spiritual darkness and their times of spiritual awakening. Therefore let it be remembered that although Christ and His gospel is today despised and rejected by the governments and mass of people in every nation, including most of professing Christendom, He still has His elect scattered and dispersed among these nations. God’s flock is always a small flock. God never leaves Himself without a witness to the power of His transforming grace. It is not the multitude of gimmicks, schemes, programs, rituals, traditions, man-made religions, showmanship, religious institutions and organizations, denominations, or the wisdom, ingenuity and art of man that is the power of God unto salvation, but the true and pure gospel of Jesus Christ (Rm 1:16). We sow with a hope and faith that rests not on the wisdom, gifts, or abilities of man, but on the power of God (1 Cor 2:4, 5). We preach and contend for the pure gospel of Jesus Christ, even when it is woefully out of season (2 Tm 4:2). Like Paul we are called to “endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, that they may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory” (2 Tm 2:10).
To be a recipient of God’s saving grace in a season when God is now withholding even His restraining grace is to receive grace upon grace. True conversion is rare in any time. The way that leads to eternal life is always narrow, “and few are those who find it” (Mt 7:14). But among a people who live under a comfortable false security, and have lived under its influence for some time, and who have progressively, increasingly, and habitually abused God’s grace, and who obstinately hold to a form of Christianity that is indifferent to and not dependent on the work, person, nature, and gospel of Jesus Christ, true conversion is even more rare. However, even in a season such as we are currently living in, where it is obvious to all who have eyes to see that God is withholding His restraining grace, every day someone somewhere is stopped in the midst of their resolutions to sin by God’s transforming and renewing grace.
By Assisting Grace
God’s transforming work of grace does not begin and end at conversion, but continues throughout a believer’s earthly life, “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6). The same grace that converts also assists and helps, especially in time of need (Hb 4:16). As was declared previously, sin, by means of its deceit, may gain the consent of the will in a Christian. However, by His special assisting grace God will provide the help needed to prevent and deliver them from perpetrating the actual sin. The psalmist Asaph declares as much of himself, “But as for me, my feet came close to stumbling; my steps had almost slipped” (Ps 73:2). Asaph was at the point where his faulty reasoning concerning the prosperity of the wicked was producing conclusions harmful to his faith and dishonoring to God, so that he thought, “Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure, and washed my hands in innocence” (Ps 73:13). So powerful was the temptation he was under, and so distorted were his thoughts that he says, “When my heart was embittered, and I was pierced within, then I was senseless and ignorant; I was like a beast before You” (Ps 73:21, 22). God delivered Asaph from his sinful thoughts before they progressed to giving birth to actual sin, “Nevertheless I am continually with You; You have taken hold of my right hand” (Ps 73:23). Not until after God delivered Asaph from the darkness of his temptation did he discern the hand of God in his deliverance. Without this unseen help and assistance to uphold him Asaph would have been overcome.
So it is with many a Christian. They are often at the very brink of committing some sin, or engaging in something foolhardy when God intervenes with His assisting grace, recovers their thoughts, and returns them to a reverent, trusting, and obedient frame of mind. This is a special work of Jesus Christ in which He displays His tender, merciful, and faithful care for His own, “He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted” (Hb 2:18). He delivers us from temptation. As sinners, as saints, as creatures, and as Christians we are in constant need of God’s assisting grace, for apart from Jesus Christ and His grace we can do nothing (Jn 15:5). The greatest enemy to this grace is our own pride and sense of self-reliance, self-confidence, and self-importance. It is not until we have a deep sense of and acutely feel our own insignificance and impotence that we see that only the grace of God is sufficient to help in time of need and trouble, and that all help and reliance on self and man is in vain. Today, within much of professing Christendom, God’s assisting grace has been highjacked by “Christian” motivational speakers and self-esteem cultists as the source for personal empowerment, worldly success, and self-improvement.
Jesus Christ’s faithfulness to His own does not consist in making them feel good about themselves, boosting their self-esteem, self-image, and self-confidence, but in abasing, disciplining, and humbling them. He makes them feel the evil of their own hearts, breaks all their schemes of earthly joy and self-sufficiency, so they might find their all in Him. No one truly looks to God by faith for the help which they think man can provide. There is a difference in the temptations that are from Satan and those which are from God. Satan tempts with the intention of making us sin. God tempts for our good; for good and holy ends, to test and try our faith, to humble us, and make us see and feel our reliance and need for Him and His grace alone. God led Israel in the wilderness for forty years, “that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart,” (Dt 8:2). God let them be hungry, and fed them with manna, “that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord” (Dt 8:3).
God’s assisting grace is a wonderful blessing because He has promised to give it to all His own. Since it is impossible for God to lie, then this grace is always being given, whether the believer is aware of it or not. “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand” (Is 41:10); “…for He Himself has said, ‘I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you,’ so that we may confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What shall man do to me?” (Hb 13:5, 6). Every word in these two passages provides us with an abundance of rich food for our faith. Such promises are to be found from one end of the Bible to the other. Jesus Christ promises to be for us and do for us which none but He can be or do (Rm 8:31, 37-39).
Herein lays a great part of Christ’s assisting mercy and grace toward His poor saints. He does not leave one of His lambs to be assailed by the power of sin and carried away into ways that would bring reproach on the gospel and render them useless for His cause. Rather He interposes with His assisting grace just as He has promised, “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:13). The way of escape which God provides is not the removal of the temptation, but by providing the grace to “endure” it (i.e. “remain under it”; go through it). Such temptations produce perseverance in the faith which is in Christ Jesus alone.
Let the times be what they are, and the temptation be what it may, the assisting grace of Christ will always be sufficient to help, to resist, to endure, and to conquer. The grace given is always effectual for the end for which it is given. However, let me add a word of warning against abusing Christ’s promise of assisting grace. To willfully expose yourself to temptations, especially those to which you have an inclination, thinking God will prevent your being entangled and overcome by them, is not faith, but presumption. God’s promise is for those temptations that are “common to man”, those which we encounter in the course of everyday life simply by virtue of living in a sinful world, not for those to which you willingly expose your heart and mind. This receives the strongest warning, not promise, “For if after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first” (2 Pt 2:20).
One final observation about God’s assisting grace is that its help is primarily internal, not external. This is why the way of escape which God provides is the ability to endure the temptation, not its removal. A weak, exhausted, and collapsing runner may be helped by the strength of another, or even carried across the finish line, but this is merely external help. This runner would be helped much more by new inward power given to him so he could run with new strength. Jesus Christ applies His assisting grace to us inwardly, giving us renewed strength not only to endure various trials and resist various temptations which come upon us for our testing (Jm 1:3; 1 Pt 4:12), but new strength for our works of faith, and much delight and pleasure in doing them. When such showers of Christ’s helping grace come into a believer, then endurance, perseverance, and obedience become, in a way, as sweet, easy, and natural to them as walking, running, and working does to a person with natural bodily strength. “Yet those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary” (Is 40:31).
Every true saint knows this by their own experience. Some believers have, like Paul, been “burdened excessively beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves” (2 Cor 1:8, 9). Why does God let His saints come to the end of all their own resources, their own strength, their own plans, and even their own selves, so that they despair even of life? “…in order that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead…He on whom we have set our hope” (2 Cor 1:9, 10).
These are the two general ways which God works in the will of a sinner to abort the sin which has been conceived in the will – by His common restraining grace, and by His special transforming and assisting grace, so that of their own doing a person abandons the will and purpose for actually committing the sin to which their will had consented. We are witnessing what happens when God withholds His restraining grace and gives unbelievers over to their own wills. By His special grace Jesus Christ upholds the glory of His gospel, which even believers would soon tarnish if left to themselves to commit all the sin which is conceived in their hearts. Praise God for His glorious grace in Christ Jesus our Lord.
As we near the end of this exposition into the power and presence of indwelling sin, and given the sad reality of the times in which we live – times where the sinfulness of sin has been given multiple coats of whitewash, with a fresh coat added by each new generation to cover those sins which might bleed through the previous layers – there remains the sad necessity of demonstrating the power and efficacy which the law of sin has exercised in all ages, even in believers, by considering the bad fruit which it has produced. Such a consideration should, I pray, stimulate all true Christians to exercise a more careful and diligent watch over their own hearts, and earnestly pray for God to once again poor out His Spirit to convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment.