13 September, 2016

Another Look at Common Grace—Chapter Six: "Restraint of Sin: Is it Biblical?"

Prof. Herman C. Hanko


An important aspect of the doctrine of common grace is the teaching that the Holy Spirit of God restrains sin in the world and in man.

Defenders of common grace present the restraint of sin as taking place in many different ways, among which are: 1) The temporal operations of the Holy Spirit through government, public opinion, knowledge of divine punishments and rewards, etc.; 2) General revelation which comes to all men without exception through the creation; 3) The work of the Holy Spirit enlightening the mind and conscience of man; 4) Such influences of the Holy Spirit which prevent man from becoming a devil or a beast and which enable man to engage in cultural activities which are for man’s good.

The result of these restraining influences are: 1) That man is not as bad as he would otherwise be;1 2) That he retains some ability to do good; 3) That judgment and divine wrath are postponed as God reveals forbearance and longsuffering towards men while making overtures towards them to persuade them of the desirability of salvation.2

It is generally agreed that these restraints of sin, while in many respects outward, are nevertheless also inward; i.e., they are brought about by an inward operation of the Holy Spirit upon the hearts of men which, though not renewing the heart unto repentance and salvation, nevertheless checks the workings of sin.

It is this aspect of common grace which we consider in this article.

Restraint and Original Sin

As I mentioned in my last article, I do not know of anyone in the history of Reformed or Presbyterian thought who has denied that God outwardly restrains the manifestations of sin by His providence. This is so clearly taught in Scripture and so obvious from life that no one could possibly deny it without being accused of irrationality.

The careful reader will notice, however, that in the above paragraph I used the words, “God restrains the manifestations of sin,” rather than saying merely, “God restrains sin.” There is good reason for that difference in wording. And it involves the point at issue.

In this discussion the word “sin” can and must be used in two different ways. Sin certainly can refer to all the wicked and evil deeds of man, not only those which he commits in his outward speech and actions, but also those which are part of his inward life of thought and desire. But sin can also refer to the spiritual quality or condition of his nature. I do not suppose that there are any in the tradition of Reformed and Presbyterian thought who would disagree, but the point ought to be emphasized nevertheless. It is often overlooked or ignored, though it is of crucial importance. The latter is called original sin.

Scripture and the confessions of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches speak of “original sin.” By original sin is meant original guilt and original pollution. Original guilt is the guilt which comes upon all men for the sin of Adam’s disobedience in eating of the forbidden tree. Adam became guilty before God for this act of disobedience; but, because he was created as the federal or legal head of the entire human race, the guilt of this sin of Adam was imputed to all men who are born from Adam. They are guilty for that sin and deserve to go to hell for that sin alone.

Original pollution is the just punishment of God upon those who are guilty of Adam’s sin. It is part of the death which God said would surely come upon man for disobedience: “The day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.” It is what Paul refers to in Ephesians 2:1 when he describes all men as “dead in trespasses and sins.” It is spiritual death. It is a spiritual corruption of the nature of man so that he is incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil. It is what brought forth David’s lament: “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5). It is with original pollution that we are concerned.

Original pollution is what is referred to in the Heidelberg Catechism in Q&A 57: “What believest thou concerning ‘the forgiveness of sins’? That God, for the sake of Christ’s satisfaction, will no more remember my sins, neither my corrupt nature, against which I have to struggle all my life long....” The Belgic Confession also speaks of the corruption of the nature when it describes original sin in this way:

We believe that, through the disobedience of Adam, original sin is extended to all mankind; which is a corruption of the whole nature, and an hereditary disease, wherewith infants themselves are infected even in their mother’s womb, and which produceth in man all sorts of sin, being in him as a root thereof; and therefore is so vile and abominable in the sight of God, that it is sufficient to condemn all mankind (Article XV).

In similar fashion, the Westminster Confession says:

They (Adam and Eve) being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation.

From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly disposed, disabled, and made opposite of all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions (VI, 3 & 4).

Let it be unmistakably clear: the defenders of common grace mean by their doctrine of the restraint of sin two specific and quite different things. They mean, first of all, that sin in the first sense mentioned above is restrained. That is, they mean that sin as deed is restrained. Men’s words are restrained—as in the case of a man who will not take God’s name in vain in polite company. Men’s actions are restrained—as in the case of a driver who will not speed when he notices a police car in the median of the expressway. Even, in a certain sense, men’s thoughts and desires are restrained, although they are part of those deeds which belong to the activity of his mind and will. The restraint of his inward psychic activity is also part of external restraint which comes about by the providence of God.

No one ever denied this. This is simply taken for granted in all discussion of Reformed theology.

But the defenders of common grace mean more than all this. They mean an inward restraint which in some fashion changes man’s corrupt nature. They refer to a restraint of sin which does away with the full corruption of man’s nature, though it does not save. As a result of this change in his nature, the natural man is capable of performing some good deeds.

Although the terminology I have used is not that commonly employed by the defenders of common grace, this is nevertheless what is meant by the restraint of sin. This is evident from three considerations.3

In the first place, the defenders of common grace speak of a restraint of sin by the work of the Holy Spirit upon the heart of man. It is not a saving change which is wrought; but it is a change which alters the heart sufficiently so that man is not as wicked as he would be without this work of the Spirit.

In the second place, some defenders of common grace speak of a distinction which must be made between “total depravity” and “absolute depravity.” By the latter is meant that the depravity of the human nature is as complete as it can possibly be. Man is as wicked as it is possible to be in his nature. Although it is not always clear exactly what is meant by “total depravity” in distinction from “absolute depravity,” generally speaking the defenders of this distinction mean that, although every part of man’s nature is corrupt, every part is not as corrupt as it could be. This surely implies some modification of the corruption of the nature by the work of the Holy Spirit.

And finally, that the defenders of common grace speak of a restraint of sin in terms of an alteration in the spiritual condition of the nature is evident from the fact that they speak of this restraint of sin as a work of God the Holy Spirit which prevents man from becoming a devil (as John Murray spoke of it), or a beast (as Abraham Kuyper said). Now it is apparent that this description of the restraint of sin is a reference to the nature of man. Whether man is a devil or a beast, or whether he remains a rational and moral man is a question of his nature, not his deeds. Thus it is clear that the restraint of sin has to do with a significant alteration in the spiritual condition of man’s nature.

Now this is crucially important. And its importance lies in the fact that such a description of the restraint of sin is indeed a denial of the biblical, Calvinistic, and Reformed doctrine of total depravity.

While we want to look at this a bit more closely later, let it be clearly understood that the real issue here is the doctrine of total depravity. In the Reformed conception, if sinful deeds are restrained by God’s providence, that can and is done by God without altering in any respect the nature of man. Man remains a totally corrupt man incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil. The manifestation of that corrupt nature in a man’s conduct may be restrained without any change in man’s nature whatsoever. But an inner work of the Holy Spirit operating upon the heart of man is a fundamental change in man’s very nature, so that he is no longer totally depraved, though he still is not saved and will eventually go to hell.

Outward Restraint

Although the doctrine is not in dispute, we ought briefly to affirm the doctrine of the outward restraint of sin in the lives of men.

What needs emphasis here, of course, is the truth that this outward restraint of sin takes place by God’s providence.

God’s providence is the sovereign execution of His eternal and unchangeable counsel.

From before the foundation of the world, God has determined all that comes to pass. His counsel is His own living will. It is God’s sovereign determination with regard to all things.

It is a counsel that is in the absolute sense of the word all-embracive. It determines all that happens in all the brute creation, in all the lives of all men, in all of heaven and among the angels, and in all of hell among the devils. No power outside of God exists. Nothing happens by chance and apart from His will. His counsel determines it all.4

That counsel is sovereignly efficacious. That is, the counsel is itself the power of its execution. We must remember that God’s counsel is His own will. It is not a mere plan. It is not a blueprint for history which is filed away in some file cabinet in heaven consulted by God as the need arises. It is not subject to change or alteration depending on circumstances which may force God to amend His plan. It is not a “good guess” as to what shall transpire in history, or a divine prediction which is always right. The power of the execution of God’s counsel lies in the counsel itself. And thus the determinations of God’s counsel infallibly come to pass. None can withstand His will; none can resist His purpose. None can force God to change His mind or alter that which He has determined to do.5

But there is one more truth of God’s counsel which must be remembered. God’s counsel is not a mere collection of decrees, arbitrarily thrown together without any rhyme or reason. It is a unified plan and purpose with each single decree perfectly related to the whole, and the whole perfectly adapted to the goal. God has determined to glorify Himself in the highest and best possible way. That way is the way of the salvation of an elect church through Jesus Christ, God’s Son, the Mediator of the covenant. All things which God determines to do are perfectly and marvellously willed so that God’s great purpose may be accomplished. God’s purpose in the creation and in the lives of all men is for the salvation of the church in Christ to the glory of God’s grace. All things that happen in heaven and among angels serve the great purpose of God to glorify Himself in His Son. Hell and Satan and all Satan’s hordes are under the sovereign control of God and for His own glory.

Providence is the execution of God’s counsel. Providence is not some vague and impersonal force which men generally worship—as in the language of Deists.6 Providence is not just a rather general way of saying that God does all things in the world. Providence is God’s sovereign execution of His own eternal counsel so that His purpose in Christ may be accomplished.

Outward restraint of sin comes about through this providence of God which has as its purpose the glory of His own name through the salvation of His church in His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

It ought, I think, to be evident that this definition of providence in relation to the outward restraint of sin puts some important limitations on the question.

But be that as it may, God’s providence restrains sin in many different ways.

God’s providence restrains sin in the lives of individual people by determining all the circumstances of their birth and life. God’s providence determines the time in history when each man shall be born, and the time of his birth determines how his sin is restrained. After all, Lamech, who was the first bigamist, could commit adultery, but he could not commit adultery as easily and readily as is possible today with the invention of birth control devices and the approval of abortion. He was restrained from sinning in certain respects because of the time in which he was born and during which he lived. Nor could Cain sin with a TV or an automobile, for the time of his birth, determined by God, prevented him from sinning in these respects.

Other circumstances of a man’s birth also restrain sin. A man may be born in very poor circumstances or “with a golden spoon in his mouth.” The man born of poor parents is never going to be able to commit the sins which multi-millionaires or billionaires commit. The circumstances of his life restrain sin in this respect. There is, so to speak, no possibility of a poor man committing the sin of a Kennedy. But God’s providence determines the circumstances of a man’s life and thus determines his sin. So, through providence, God restrains certain sins in the lives of certain people.

But there is more. God’s providence also determines where a man is born, and this too has much to do with the sins of which a man can, in the course of his life, become guilty. A native of the jungles of Samoa is in a position quite different from that of a man born in London or Chicago. The native of Samoa cannot possibly sin in the same way as a man from Chicago’s northwest side. These circumstances are determined by God. In this way God determines certain limitations of man’s sins.

Let it be clearly understood that all men are exactly the same as far as their spiritual condition is concerned. Cain and Mr. Rothschild are equally depraved. Lamech and Magic Johnson are equally depraved. A native of New Guinea and a Wall St. banker are both equally corrupt in their nature. But the activity of a corrupt nature is quite different. The family man on 132 Elm St. in Elmhurst lives under circumstances different from those of the head of a Mafia clan in Hoboken. They are both totally depraved, but the manifestation of their sin will be quite different.

Outward Restraint and Government

But most will have no trouble with these things. There are other questions which are more difficult. What about government? Or what about man’s self-restraint, if I may for the moment call it that?

There are those, among whom is Abraham Kuyper, who find in the institution of government a common grace of God because of the fact that government restrains sin.

Now, apart from anything else, it ought to be apparent that even though it is true that government restrains sin, such restraint is, after all, an outward restraint and by no means an internal work of the Holy Spirit.

But here is a problem. Although by no means do the defenders of common grace clearly explain what their position is, it is important that we attempt to figure out what the underlying idea is all about.7

The difficulty lies in the fact that the institution of government is said to be a gift of God’s grace. The question is: How can that which only outwardly restrains be a gift of grace? Supposing, e.g., that I have a vicious pit bull dog which would attack anyone who ventured past my house. It would be possible to restrain that dog by putting it on a chain and anchoring the end of the chain firmly in the ground. I would in this way be restraining the dog, but one could hardly call that restraint a kind of grace to those who pass by. The point is that government may be a means by which God restrains sin in the world as a chain restrains my pit bull, but it is not at all clear that this is yet grace to those who are affected by the outward restraint of government. It is merely God’s means of preserving good order in society for the sake of the church.

But the defenders of common grace seem also to mean that government comes into being by an inward restraint of sin in the hearts of men. It seems the idea is that man’s willingness to establish government and his willingness to live in obedience to government is due to God’s gracious influences upon man’s heart which enables him to do these good things.

It is in connection with these ideas that some have introduced the notion that without the restraint of sin, outwardly through government and inwardly by the Holy Spirit operating on the heart of unregenerated man, man would have become a beast.

Dr. Abraham Kuyper and many others have argued that, if God had not intervened in His common grace after Adam’s fall, this present earthly creation would have become a wasteland, a wild howling wilderness, an abode of jackals and predators; and man himself would have become an animal or a devil. The result would have been, except for the intervention of common grace, that society would have been reduced to chaos and all culture would have been absolutely impossible. But since common grace intervened and the Holy Spirit restrains sin inwardly so that man did not become a beast or a devil, the creation, though under the curse, is still a very beautiful place to live, and society functions quite well on the whole with law and order prevailing for the most part and with criminals put away where they cannot bring chaos upon society’s institutions.

There are here important questions.

Once again I remind our readers that we must view this question from the viewpoint of God’s providence, and not merely from the viewpoint of what we see around us. Surely this means fundamentally that all which is ascribed to God’s common grace and some inward restraining power of the Spirit is, in fact, God’s providence.

But, of course, this does not automatically solve the problem. It may still be argued that God’s providential control over all things includes a gracious attitude of favor towards all men revealed in the work of the Holy Spirit, who successfully restrains sin.

It must, however, be remembered that God’s providence is not an arbitrary rule of all things, but is God’s salvation of His elect church in Jesus Christ. Whatever best serves that purpose God has decreed to do. God may use government to restrain sin in the world to make the world a place where the church can be gathered. The world is like a leashed pit bull held by the chain of government to prevent the church from being mauled. But the fact that government is the leash and the world the fierce dog does not involve a change for the good in man’s nature either in government itself or in the world whose vicious character is restrained by government. The question is: Is that work of providence grace? And is that work of providence accomplished by the restraint of sin through the operation of the Holy Spirit?

That question shall finally have to be answered, of course, on the basis of Scripture itself. And we shall examine such scriptural passages which have been quoted in support of this position.

But for the moment, there are other considerations which we do well to take into account in evaluating these ideas. And we consider it legitimate to work in this way because the defenders of common grace gain most of their proof for their position from what they see in the world about them, and only after coming to certain conclusions on the basis of their observations do they seek some scriptural support.

The first question which we face is this: Is it true that man, after the fall, would have become an animal or a devil if God had not intervened in His common grace to restrain, through the Holy Spirit, these effects of the fall? And let there be no mistake: It is not a question merely of man becoming as wicked as a devil or as ungovernable as a beast; rather man would have become in fact a beast or a devil.

Now it ought to be evident immediately that this notion does not come from Scripture, and no one, so far as I have been able to tell, has ever made an effort to prove this rather strange idea from God’s Word. It is a deduction which comes from man’s thinking, not from Holy Scripture. It is a conclusion only, and is not taught in God’s sacred Word.

It ought further to be evident that, from a certain point of view, it would have been preferable for man to become an animal after the fall than to remain a man. Common grace, it would seem, would be more clearly revealed if man had been changed into an animal than if common grace preserved him as a man. After all, animals cannot sin, and be punished, and go to hell. But men can.

Nevertheless, all this is impossible on the very surface. If the fall means that man would have become a beast or a devil apart from God’s common grace, then the essential nature of man would have been changed. Man would have ceased to be man. That is flatly impossible. God created man. Man sinned. Man fell. Upon man comes God’s judgment. Man dies while he remains man. Man is judged by God and endures the awful punishment for his sin. To claim as some do that the fall, apart from common grace, would have altered man’s essential being is absurd on the face of it. The horror of life here in this world is that man always remains man.

But what about government? It simply is not true that government is an institution which was added to man’s life by God in God’s common grace. Government belongs to the creation order. Man was created as friend-servant under God. He was, by virtue of his creation, God’s representative in God’s world to carry out God’s purpose in God’s name and to God’s glory. As such he was made the head of the creation. He ruled over the creation and all in it.

If God had given Adam and Eve children in the state of perfection which surely would have happened (Gen. 1:27, 28), Adam would have been ruler over his family. And from that one family unit would have come forth the human race over which Adam would have been the head.

And so, even though the fall intervened, all the relationships of life which involve authority and obedience develop originally from the family. This is why the Heidelberg Catechism can interpret the fifth commandment, which requires obedience of children to their parents, as a commandment which obligates us to “show all honor, love and fidelity, to my father and mother, and all in authority over me” (Q&A. 104).

Government was not, therefore, instituted by God as a fruit of His common grace; it was the natural and organic development of the family in the more complex relationships of life. Government is an institution of society created by God which can be either good or bad depending upon those who occupy the positions of authority in government. It has nothing to do with any operation of the Holy Spirit restraining sin.

That government actually does restrain sin is obvious. Indeed it is true that if no government existed society would fall into total chaos. Where there is no law and order there is chaos. But society would not long endure under those situations.

Government is part of God’s providential rule of man. By it God restrains sin. He restrains sin so that there may be peace and quietness in the world where the church lives so that the church can perform its calling to preach the gospel to every creature. If chaos prevailed, the church would be destroyed. That government functions is due to God’s providence, which creates an environment in which God can accomplish His purpose in Jesus Christ. Thus providence is for God’s eternal purpose to save His church in Christ.

We are even commanded to pray for magistrates, partly because God is pleased to save magistrates too, but also because through the magistrates God enables us to lead quiet and peaceful lives (I Tim. 2:1-4). But such restraint is outward only and not necessarily grace, except to the church.

Nevertheless, it is also true and readily to be admitted that God’s providential rule over governments involves also a desire on the part of men to establish an orderly state in which laws are made and enforced which will bring tranquillity to men in the civil realm. Most men see clearly, whether regenerated or unregenerated, that it is advisable to have society institutions which enforce certain laws and precepts that make life in human relationships possible.

Restraint of Sin and Good Works

The question is: Does the fact that unregenerated men recognize the value of government necessarily imply common grace and the operation of the Holy Spirit?

There is another question involved in this, of course. That question is: Is it a good work on the part of men, whether regenerate or unregenerate, to have some regard for virtue and good order in society?

This is a question which is answered in the affirmative by those who teach common grace. They insist that such regard for virtue and good order is a good work. It is not our intention to enter into that question at this point—although, admittedly, it is inescapably bound up in the problem before us now. But that question of the “good” of which the unregenerate are capable is a question to be discussed at a later date.8 For the moment we only quote an important article in the Canons of Dort which deals with this question.

There remain, however, in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the differences between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment. But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God, and to true conversion, that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay, further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds it in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.

But the point which we now need to consider is the fact that it is not necessary for the natural man to have in his heart the work of the Holy Spirit which changes his nature in order to have some regard for virtue and good order in society.

He is a rational and moral creature. He remains such even after the fall. He did not become a beast or a devil. He still possesses a mind and a will. His mind and will are wholly corrupted and incapable of doing anything aright. But he still has such a mind and such a will.

Because he possesses and continues to possess his rational and moral nature, he is also capable of seeing and understanding that order in society is far preferable to chaos. He can understand that it is better for himself, his wife, and his children if murderers are locked up rather than permitted to roam the streets. It does not take a work of the Holy Spirit to show him that it is preferable to have traffic lights in busy cities and policemen to see to it that everyone stops when the light is red than to have everyone flying around without any laws governing his conduct behind the wheel of his automobile. If there is no speed limit enforced by government agencies and no traffic lights to control traffic, he would almost certainly be in an accident before long and he would never make it to work on time. Why does the Holy Spirit have to give him this knowledge by restraining sin in his heart? Any man can see that.

In other words, a man will surely see that his own life in the world and, in large measure, his own comfort in the world are dependent upon government. In fact, as law and order continue to break down in our society, a man can see that even a dictatorship is preferable to a democracy if a democracy no longer seems capable of maintaining law and order. And that is precisely what will presently happen in our society. The liberals who are intent on maintaining society by pleading for the rights of everyone but the law-abiding citizen will soon learn that they are destroying democracy and paving the way for a dictatorship in which no one will have any rights. But no rights in a safe society is preferable to all kinds of rights in a society where I may be robbed or shot in the next fifteen minutes. There is no need for a gracious operation of the Holy Spirit to understand that. Even a totally depraved man can see that an orderly society is better for his pursuit of sin and will enable him to enjoy sin more fully than if he is a prisoner in his own house.

This understanding of the benefits of civil government puts the benefits of government under the providence of God, who rules sovereignly over all in order that His own purpose in the salvation of the church may take place.

It is interesting to observe how all these principles operate in society today.

Governments and peoples are interested in their own carnal pursuit of pleasure and prosperity. The only reason sin is somewhat restrained is because man sees that to refrain from curbing sin in all its manifestations is necessary to create a climate and environment where he need not suffer the consequences of sin. But if the least possibility of sinning and escaping its consequences presents itself, he will quickly turn to sin.

Sometimes, of course, even suffering the consequences of sin is insufficient to deter people. It is, e.g., a fact that the transmission of the HIV virus comes about through sexual contact (especially among homosexuals) and drug usage. There are some who advocate sexual restraint, but for the most part the terrible sins which bring about these horrible consequences continue unchecked.

Nevertheless, as a general rule, the consequences of sin can act as a powerful restraint. But such restraint does not change the nature of man, for if a man determines that he can sin and avoid the consequences of sin, he will surely favor the sin. If the consequences of immorality can be avoided by various birth-control devices, or, as a last resort, by abortion, he will be as promiscuous as it is possible for him to be. There are still, quite naturally, the consequences of divorce, broken homes, one-parent families to consider, and in some instances these consequences will prove to be something of a deterrent; but as the social stigma of divorce disappears and the law itself becomes more lenient, divorce with its sad consequences is no longer a restraint of sin.

The reason is that, although God in His providence has created many ways in which sin is restrained, the nature of man remains unchanged. He is always the same totally depraved man he always was and will always be apart from the regenerating grace of God.

And that is, after all, the nub of the matter. Restraint of sin by an internal operation of the Holy Spirit in the heart of man is a change in his nature. And a change of this sort in his nature is a change in the corruption and depravity of his nature.

Total and Absolute Depravity

The distinction between total depravity and absolute depravity will not hold up. It is, first of all, a distinction not found in the Scriptures. No one who has supported this distinction has ever, so far as I know, made any effort to find it in Scripture. Scripture and the Reformed confessions teach, in keeping with the Calvinism of the historic Reformed and Presbyterian faith, that man is totally depraved.

If by total depravity in distinction from absolute depravity is meant that man is depraved in every part of his being, though every part is not totally depraved, this is a denial of total depravity on the very surface of it. Total depravity means that depravity is total. And any effort to mitigate that simple truth is a playing with words which cannot be tolerated in any theological discussion.

Scripture and all the confessions of Reformed and Presbyterian people teach that man is as bad as he can possibly be. That does not mean that he sins in every possible way, is perpetually guilty of the most heinous crimes, lives like a mafia gangster or heroin addict, behaves like a lust-filled homosexual every single second of his life. Of course not. Total depravity has to do with man’s nature. That nature, the nature of a man, a rational and moral nature, has, since the fall, become corrupt. It is totally corrupt in every respect.

That total corruption means on the one hand that such a man is totally incapable of any good. The Heidelberg Catechism is, e.g., quite clear on the point: “Is man then so wicked and corrupt that he is incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil? Indeed he is, except he is regenerated by the Holy Spirit” (Q&A. 8).

That total corruption means, therefore, that he cannot think one thought pleasing to God; he cannot desire one good thing; he cannot even will to be saved—his will wants only sin. He is incapable of any good word or deed which is according to God’s law and is pleasing to Him.9 He is, indeed, as wicked in his nature as it is possible to be.

That sinful nature does not always reveal itself in overt sins of the most heinous kind. It is apparently this that confuses those who want to find good in man. Does a man have to spend every moment lying, cheating, murdering, fornicating, blaspheming, etc., to be totally depraved? By whose standard? According to whose criteria?

Sin is, after all, not limited to the outward violations of the law which are manifestly wrong. The sins which are particularly awful in the sight of God are often of other kinds. The man who smiles at his fellow member in the church with hatred in his heart, and who will destroy his neighbor with his tongue just as soon as he is out of earshot is hateful in God’s sight as much as (or more than) the man who sticks a knife in his neighbor’s back. The man who sits in his pew in church looking pious while figuring out ways to cheat at his business is just as bad as (if not worse than) the man who lies on his income tax. The latter may be caught and imprisoned as a thief, but the former is as great a sinner, though he has done no overt wrong.

The fornicator may contact the HIV virus and show to all the world that he is guilty of crass fornication, but the man who is outwardly faithful to his wife in a monogamous relation and works every day to support his family may be considered a man with an abundance of common grace; but God knows that in his heart he lusts after every woman he sees. Who can say that the one is a greater sinner than the other?

The totally depraved sinner can do no good in the sight of God. His total depravity does not manifest itself as fully as it did in Hitler or Stalin. But that does not mean that his nature has been improved to the point that it is no longer totally depraved, though it remains depraved in all its parts. This is nonsense on the surface of it. A man may not be “as bad as he can be” in his outward actions, but this does not mean that he is not “as bad as he can be” in the depravity of his nature.

That the notion of total depravity as proposed by the defenders of common grace is absurd is evident from the fact that common grace of this sort proposes to us the possibility of a man who is no longer totally depraved (in the sense, at least, of being as bad as he can be in his nature), but is nevertheless unconverted and can very well go to hell. The Holy Spirit works in his heart so that sin is restrained by a change in his nature which, while leaving every part of his nature depraved, results in a nature which is partially good. Yet he remains unregenerated and unconverted, and unless regeneration and conversion is given him, will still go lost. Such a man is a spiritual and ethical monstrosity.

But such a denial of total depravity leads to outright Arminianism. For, after all, common grace teaches that part of the good which such a man in whom sin is restrained by an inward operation of the Holy Spirit is capable of doing is to accept the overtures of the gospel and hear the pleadings of God who expresses in the gospel a desire to save him. Two points may be observed in this connection. The first is that common grace implies a revelation of God’s love and favor towards all men by expressing in the gospel His desire to save all men. The second point of connection is that by an inner restraint of sin upon the heart through the work of the Holy Spirit, man is put into such a spiritual condition that he is able to accept or reject the offers and pleadings of the gospel—which reaction to the gospel will determine his ultimate fate in heaven or hell. It is impossible to separate the restraint of sin by the Holy Spirit from the well-meant offer of the gospel. The Holy Spirit enables the sinner to accept or reject the gospel, on the basis of which decision he will be saved or perish. And here is the Arminianism of it all. Total depravity means, after all, that salvation is by grace alone. It is the free gift of God in our Lord Jesus Christ. Common grace means that now man is able to make a decision by the activity of his own free will which becomes decisive in salvation.

One more point needs to be made. Should the proponents of common grace hold to a total depravity which is indeed total and still maintain a restraint of sin which is able to produce good works, it is a strange total depravity indeed. A depravity which makes it impossible for one to do any good is nevertheless a total depravity which, under the restraining power of the Holy Spirit, can make room for good. A thoroughly rotten apple still has good parts to it. A totally dead man still has some signs of life. A totally dead tree still produces some branches which bear fruit. This is a strange depravity which is a flat contradiction in terms.

Thus the Reformed faith is lost and the truth of Scripture is cast to the winds. God’s glory is sacrificed on the altar of man’s pride.


There are those who speak of a providential restraint of sin in the lives of men. With those we have no quarrel at all. There are those who speak of common grace as nothing more than a providential restraint of sin. With these too we have no quarrel, although we could wish that the defenders of this position would not call such a restraint “grace,” for, as we noticed in an earlier article, it is far from that.

But there is nothing biblical or confessional about an operation of the Holy Spirit which so restrains sin that the nature of man is spiritually altered and man is capable of doing some kind of good. This view is destructive of Calvinism, inimical to the Reformed faith, and an intolerable concession to Arminianism and Pelagianism. For such error there can be no room in Reformed theology.


1. The distinction is often made between total depravity and absolute depravity.

2. See our last article for a detailed description of the many views on this subject that emerge from the writings of defenders of common grace.

3. For quotes of various writers which support these considerations see my last article, to the November, 1994 Journal.

4. Any other position introduces into theology an intolerable dualism which speaks of two autonomous powers: God and evil.  

5. God’s counsel is also determinative of sin. Sin does not take place outside God’s counsel and will so that it takes God by surprise. Although we are not concerned about the question in our present discussion, the great theologians of the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition have all held that God’s sovereignty extends also to sin.

6. One can find examples of this in the writings of the early fathers of our country as, e.g., The Declaration of Independence.

7. One sometimes wishes that the defenders of common grace would make themselves clear in their own writings, which are often characterized by vagueness, and not leave it to others to explain precisely what they mean.

8. It ought to be obvious to all that, if the regard for virtue and good order in society which unregenerate men are capable of showing is the fruit of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, these works are also good works, for the simple reason that the Holy Spirit always produces nothing but good works. He is incapable of producing evil works.

9. The whole question and problem of good works we will discuss, the Lord willing, in a later article.

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