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.” (Ro 1:24) To see just how much this text reveals about God’s nature and power, consider the implications of, “God gave them up.”
Whom did God give up? He gave up men and women. (Ro 1:26-27)
What did He give them up to? God gave them up to their own depravity. (Ro 1:28)
What was God doing before He gave them up? Before God “gave them up” to their own depravity, these depraved men and women, God was restraining them. Before He turned them loose to wallow in the depths of their sin, God must have been holding them back. Does the fact that we turn something loose imply we have been holding it back? Yes, it does.
Does God restrain sinners in their sin? Does He work in people to keep them from sinning more than they otherwise would? 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 in a manner that would have been perfectly natural for him, and Abimelech had not even noticed. When God was restraining him, He did so in an imperceptible way.
Perhaps this is an exception. Does God generally restrain the evil of mankind? Consider what He says clear at the other end of His Word, in 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 is in place to restrain our violence toward one another? God takes peace from the earth, God need not introduce violence – it emerges naturally between men when His peace is removed.
Revelation describes a future time when God’s restraining influence will be relaxed in 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.” In the absence of God’s restraining influence, “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.” (vs 8)
Until then, as in the here and now, what do we see? God is imperceptibly resisting human depravity according to His sovereign purpose. God is reigning in the heavens, in absolute control of everything, restraining sinners without their knowledge, doing “according to His will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth.” (Da 4:35)
When God desires a remnant to serve Him, where does He turn? Does He look to the free will of men – searching for those who will serve Him voluntarily out of the goodness of their own hearts? Consider God’s answer in Romans 11:4b, “I have reserved to myself seven thousand men, who have not bowed the knee to the image of Baal.” God reserves to Himself whom He will, all on His own.
Does God restrain certain people, and enable them to do good according to His purpose? God is able to do this (Jud 24), so He does. (1Th 5:23-24)
What if He should not do so, and leave us to our own will, hoping we will find it within ourselves to repent and turn to Him? What happens then? “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 14:2-3) Heaven would be an empty place if God left anything about salvation or sanctification entirely up to us; we would all continue to choose to be His enemies. (Ep 2:3) He must quicken us, or we remain dead to Him in our sin. (Ep 2:5)
So why doesn’t God restrain us more? Why does He allow so much evil in this world? Why does He save so few of us? (Mt 7:14) Why for example, does He allow innocent children to suffer so horribly? How can a God of love be like this?
This may be the strongest argument against the existence of a good and loving God; many stumble here, reasoning that if God were good He wouldn’t allow such pain and misery in the world — so either He doesn’t exist, or He isn’t good.
Yet our intrinsic awareness of the existence of evil, and our relentless demand that innocent suffering be rectified, happens to be one of the strongest argument for God’s existence: it makes zero sense in a godless universe. Our very design proves the existence of God; we are made in His image, and we are unable to live otherwise.
Our inability to see good reasons for God acting the way He does is simply a reflection of our own limitation and ignorance, not a reasonable indictment against God. He is not done yet; He is letting history play itself out fully; there is more to come. For now, we can either arrogantly exalt our selves as gods and accuse Him, or humble ourselves, trust that God is good, and believe the Lord knows how to work everything out for good. (Ro 8:28)
God truly is merciful and gracious (Ps 103:8), infinitely so even with those who fear Him (Ps 103:11), and promises to rectify all innocent suffering. (Ps 145:14, 103:6) All who look back on history from God’s perspective find all His ways indescribably glorious. (Re 15:4)
What shall we say to these things? God reigns supreme in the heavens (Ps 115:3); nothing takes Him by surprise; nothing thwarts His plan; nothing is out of His control. His way is perfect. (Ps 18:30) He is restraining wickedness in the world according to His good pleasure, in a manner that maximizes His own glory (Re 4:11), taking for Himself — out of the filth and mire of this present darkness — a holy people (Tit 2:14), a people of His name that love Him and walk in the light, in intimate fellowship with Him. He creates His own nature within us, working in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure. (Php 2:13) He is in complete and utter control of everything, and that is a good thing; apart from Him restraining and enabling us, we have no hope. (Ep 2:12)
So, 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; they do what we program them to do. But Man, when left to himself, consistently goes off the rails in the worst possible way.
Understanding that God is restraining us, that He is holding us back from our sin, that He is reserving a few of us to Himself, ultimately says nothing about His love. The fact that He chooses some and not others, that so few are elect, is not an implication of injustice in God. It is a natural consequence of our own depravity, and how God is glorifying Himself in spite of it.
Truth be told, the only One who actually ever suffers unjustly in the midst of all this is God, Who suffers in and through all innocent suffering (Ac 9:4), and is personally molested by every single sin (Ps 51:4); we have nothing to complain about, nothing at all. (La 3:39)
Suppose for a moment that we are the way that the Bible says we are: depraved. Yes, imagine for a minute that we are not just ignorant and confused, not just a product of a corrupt environment, not moderately bad people who can still be reasoned with in love.
Suppose, just for now, that we are just as the Bible says: suppose we do not understand God’s nature or way, and that we do not want to. (Ro 3:11) We never do anything remotely good. (12) Our throats are like open graves for the filth that comes out of our hearts; we regularly use our tongue for deceit; the poison of venomous snakes is under your lips, just waiting to spew out and poison our neighbors. (13) Our mouths are literally full of cursing and bitterness (14), and our hearts are deceitful above all things, desperately wicked. (Je 17:9) We always make the most evil choice God allows us to make every time we make a choice.
If this is all true, then why don’t we see more wickedness than we do?
This is because, as we are showing, God is always mercifully restraining us (La 3:22), such that we never experience the full depth of our own depravity in this life, or that of anyone else. (Je 17:9)
So, if this is truly the way we are, what does this imply about the love of God?
It reveals God’s love to be utterly amazing; that He would love any of us in our depravity … in any way, shape or form is unfathomable mercy. (Ro 5:8)
We need to quit blaming God for our depravity. It is not His fault. He did not create us this way, nor tempt us, nor cause us to fall. He merely made it possible, giving us adults real freedom to choose, and warning us to be very careful, telling us explicitly about the consequences. (Ge 2:17) 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, academic detail. It is a plain and self-evident fact, and it has nothing to do with His love. In fact, it makes His love altogether mysterious and wonderful, that He still loves us in spite of what we have done to ourselves and to Him. 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.” (Ep 2:10) God restrains the evil in us and moves us in righteousness for His name’s sake. (Ps 23:3)
So, should the fact of God’s restraint in us motivate us to live insanely, tempting God (Mt 4:7), thrashing about and wounding ourselves and our loved ones, or to be reckless with holiness? About as much as gravity encourages us to jump off tall buildings without a plan for landing safely. 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, constantly asking God to use this capability, unless all you ever pray about is the weather and health. Whenever we 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, we have just invoked His restraining grace. Continue to do so, giving Him the thanks, praise, and trust that belongs with it. (Ep 5:20)
Yes, the “God, who loved me, and gave himself for me,” (Ga 2:22b) is still on the throne. His irresistible, restraining grace is how He reigns, as He sanctifies and protects us until He brings us home. Rejoice! Rejoice exceedingly! “In everything give thanks,” (1Th 5:18) “casting all your care upon Him, for He careth for you.” (1Pe 5:7)