In the Bible it is written, “Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves.” (Rom 1:26) This text contains a concept that reveals much of God’s nature and power: “God… gave them up.” A bit of probing reveals the treasure quite promptly.
Whom did God give up? He gave up men and women.
What did He give them up to? God gave them up to their own depravity.
There is nothing profoundly insightful here… yet.
What was God doing before He gave them up? Well, this is interesting! It is evident that before God “gave them up,” these depraved men and women, God was… restraining them! Before He turned them loose to wallow in the depths of their sin, God was holding them back. Does the fact that you turn something loose imply that you were holding it back before you did turn it loose?
Does God restrain sinners in their sin? Does He work in people to keep them from sinning? Consider Genesis 20:6 “And God said unto him in a dream, 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.” God kept Abimelech from sinning, and he had not even noticed. When God was restraining him, He did so in an imperceptible way.
Perhaps this was an exception. Does God generally restrain the evil of mankind? Consider Revelation 6:4, “And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.” Does God create war among men? or does He simply remove a peace that was in place to restrain them from their hatred toward one another? God takes peace from the earth, God does not introduce violence – it is there naturally when His peace is removed.
This text in Revelation is apparently the time when God’s restraining influence upon men is removed, and a fulfillment of 2 Thessalonians 2:7. “For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth (prevents, restrains) will let (prevent, restrain), until he be taken out of the way.” When God’s restraining influence is removed from the earth, “then shall that Wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming.”
Until then, as in the here and now, what have we? We have a God reigning in the heavens that is in utter control of everything. He is restraining sinners without their knowledge, doing “according to His will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth.” (Daniel 4:35)
When God needs a remnant of folks to serve Him, where does He turn? Does He look to the free will of men – finding those that serve Him voluntarily out of the goodness of their heart? Consider Romans 11:4, “But what saith the answer of God unto him? I have reserved to myself seven thousand men, who have not bowed the knee to the image of Baal.” Does God restrain people for good according to His purpose? Apparently He does.
What if He should not do so, and leave us to our own depravity, hoping we will find it in ourselves to turn to Him. What would happen? God tried this once; it did not work out very well. “The LORD looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one.” (Ps 14:2) Heaven would be an empty place if He “did all He could and then left the rest up to us,” as the many in the evangelical community would have us believe.
What have we then? We have a God Who reigns supreme in the heavens. Nothing is taking Him by surprise, nothing is hurting His plan, nothing is out of control. He is restraining wickedness in the world according to His good pleasure, and taking out of the filth and mire of this present darkness a people – a holy people, a people of His name that love Him and want to walk with Him in the light. He creates His own nature in them, working in them both to will and to do of His good pleasure (Phlp 2:13), and is in utter control of it all. “Our God is in the heavens, He hath done whatsoever He hath pleased.” (Ps 115:3)
What!? If God is in control… are we just robots?
We are not up to that level, frankly. We are very much worse than robots. We are very precisely and predictably evil. At least robots are neutral… and do what you program them to do when they are working correctly.
How can a God of Love be like that?
Understanding that God restrains us, that He holds us back from our sin, that He reserves the few that He does to Himself, says nothing about His love. The fact that He chooses some and not others, the fact that so few are reserved, is not an implication of unjustness in God. It is a natural consequence of our own depravity and we have nothing to complain about at all.
Suppose for a moment that you are the way that the Bible says you are: depraved. Yes, imagine for a minute that you are not just ignorant and confused, not just a product of a corrupt environment, not a moderately bad person that can still be reasoned with in love.
Suppose, just for a minute, that you are just as the Bible says that you are: your throat is like an open grave for the filth that comes out of your heart, you regularly use your tongue for deceit, the poison of an asp is under your lips, just waiting to spew out and poison your neighbor. (Rom 3:10-18) Your mouth is literally full of cursing and bitterness, your heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. (Jer 17:9) You will make the most evil choice that God will allow you to make in every choice of life.
Given that this is the way you are, what does that imply about the love of God?
We need to quit blaming God for our depravity. It is not His fault. He did not create us that way, nor tempt us, nor cause us to fall. He merely made it possible, and then warned us to be very careful. We immediately ignored what He said and did exactly what He told us not to do. Want to blame Him? Go ahead. It is absurd.
Your depravity and mine is not just a theological detail. It is a plain fact. It has nothing to do with His love. In fact, it makes His love altogether mysterious and wonderful. How can we conceive of anyone loving us in such a state, especially the God that is profoundly wounded and aggravated and molested and polluted by our sin? It is amazing that He tolerates us, much less loves us.
If you are a believer, God will not allow very much evil in you, for you “are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” (Eph 2:10) God restrains the evil in you and moves you in righteousness for His name’s sake. (Ps 23:3)
So, should the fact of God’s restraint in you motivate you to live insanely, to thrash about and wound yourself and your loved ones, or to be reckless with holiness? About as much as gravity encourages you to jump off of tall buildings. Is gravity good for you, since it holds you in place and keeps your life in order? So then is the restraining grace of God in your life, and in the life of your spouse and children, your neighbors and friends… and in your enemies.
The restraining grace of God… remember it next time you pray. You have been praying in this truth all along… if you pray much at all. You constantly ask God to use this capability, unless all you ever pray about is the weather and your health. Whenever you ask God to change someone’s mind, keep them safe, provide for their needs… do anything that involves the will of any human being on the face of the earth, you have just invoked His restraining grace. Continue to do so, no longer ignorantly, and start giving Him the thanks, praise, and trust that goes along with it.
Yes, the “God, who loved me , and gave himself for me,” (Gal 2:22b) is still on the throne. Perhaps more so than you realized. Rejoice. Rejoice exceedingly! I am so very glad it is Him, and no one else. There is no need for fear, no need for worry. “In everything give thanks,” (1 Thess 5:18) “casting all your care upon him, for He careth for you.” (1 Pet 5:7)