12 September, 2016

Another Look at Common Grace—Chapter Five: "Restraint of Sin: Its Meaning"

Prof. Herman C. Hanko


We have written a number of articles dealing with that aspect of common grace which teaches that God is favorably inclined to all men, which favorable inclination includes the bestowal of blessings, such as rain, sunshine, health, prosperity, etc.

The doctrine of common grace is by no means exhausted by this idea. The proponents of common grace teach that common grace includes also the restraint of sin by the work of the Holy Spirit, which restraint of sin results in the unregenerate man being made capable of doing some limited good works.

It is to this idea of common grace that we turn in this and in succeeding articles.

We must understand at the outset that, on the one hand, a restraint of sin in the hearts of the unregenerate is related to God’s blessing upon elect and reprobate alike; and, on the other hand, the restraint of sin in the lives of the unregenerate is a view which carries with it various other implications, some of which we will mention a bit later.

We shall, in the course of this study, take a look at all these things.

The Teaching

It is best to learn what is meant by the restraint of sin by referring to and quoting from others who hold to this doctrine.

Louis Berkhof

Louis Berkhof gives a very concise and thorough definition of the whole idea of common grace not only, but also of this aspect which we now treat. He writes in a summary of common grace, that common grace includes:

...those general operations of the Holy Spirit whereby [God], without renewing the heart, exercises such a moral influence on man through His general or special revelation, that sin is restrained, order is maintained in social life, and civil righteousness is promoted.1

Berkhof is somewhat hesitant to say that common grace is rooted in the cross as its judicial basis, but speaks nevertheless of benefits from the cross which come upon all men.2

When Berkhof is speaking of the means by which sin is restrained, he mentions general revelation, government, public opinion, and divine punishments and rewards, although he does not mean to deny, by these outward restraints, the inner working of the Spirit. Both operate.3

The following elements in the restraint of sin can be found in Berkhof’s position: 1) Sin is restrained by means of the temporal operations of the Holy Spirit; although other means may also be employed such as government, public opinion, divine punishments and rewards, etc. 2) These operations of the Holy Spirit take place without renewing the heart of man, i.e., without actually accomplishing the work of regeneration and salvation. The man so restrained remains unconverted and eventually perishes, if no saving work follows. 3) This restraint of sin is specifically connected with revelation, something of such importance that we shall have to look at this more closely in a different connection. 4) While Berkhof hesitates to claim that the atonement of Christ forms the judicial basis for common grace, the restraint of sin is nevertheless connected to Christ’s work on the cross and is a blessing which flows from it.

James Daane

James Daane, in discussing common grace, emphatically speaks in general of gracious operations of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of men. He writes:

The traditional manner in which Reformed theology accounted for this difference between absolute and total depravity was by reference to a general, gracious operation of the Holy Spirit upon unregenerate human hearts.4

This matter of gracious operations of the Holy Spirit in the heart is, for Daane, crucial. In order to support his contention that this is the traditional manner in which Reformed theologians defended common grace, he refers to Abraham Kuyper and quotes from him:

“Thus common grace is an operation of divine mercy, which reveals itself everywhere where human hearts are found to beat and which spreads its blessings upon these human hearts."5

Daane sums up the matter by saying: “Thus it is evident that 19246 teaches in harmony with traditional Reformed thought that there is a restraint of sin in the life of the unregenerate....”

Daane’s emphasis that this restraint of sin takes place within the hearts of men is important, for no one, so far as I know, denies that a restraint of sin actually exists in the world. Whether it takes place by an inward work of the Spirit or by outward constraints is the question at issue.

A. A. Hodge

A. A. Hodge treats common grace in connection with the internal call and writes:

“Common grace” is the restraining and persuading influences of the Holy Spirit acting only through the truth revealed in the gospel, or through the natural light of reason and of conscience, heightening the natural moral effect of such truth upon the understanding, conscience and heart. It involves no change of heart, but simply an enhancement of the natural powers of the truth, a restraint of evil passions, and an increase of the natural emotions in view of sin, duty, and self-interest.7

Although Hodge does not say so in so many words, it is clear that he also considers this restraint of sin to be an inward work of the Spirit. He speaks of the Spirit working through conscience and having an effect upon heart and conscience. He speaks of the effect being a restraint of evil passions and an increase of the natural emotions—all of which can take place only by internal influences.

Charles Hodge

Charles Hodge, though almost reluctant to speak of common grace, nevertheless also defines it in terms of a restraint of sin. He writes:

The Bible therefore teaches that the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of truth, of holiness, and of life in all its forms, is present with every human mind, enforcing truth, restraining from evil, exciting to good, and imparting wisdom or strength, when, where, and in what measure seemeth to Him good.... This is what in theology is called common grace.8

This same idea appears also when he says In connection with Acts 7:51:

[God is] everywhere present with the minds of men, as the Spirit of truth and goodness, operating on them according to the laws of their free moral agency, inclining them to good and restraining them from evil.9

In connection with his discussion of Romans 1:25, Hodge claims that the very fact that God gives the wicked up implies some prior restraint; and he refers this to the Holy Spirit.10

From these quotations it is clear that Hodge maintains concerning this aspect of common grace: 1) that the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of all men without distinction, and not only in the hearts of the elect. 2) That this work of the Holy Spirit is especially upon the minds of men. 3) That the fruit of this work of the Spirit is a restraint of sin and a consequent enabling of the sinner to do good. 4) And, strangely enough, Hodge ascribes this work of the Spirit to the Spirit as the “Spirit of Truth,” whom Christ specifically promises only to the church.11

Henry J. Kuiper

Henry J. Kuiper makes some extremely interesting and important observations about this aspect of common grace.12
Kuiper makes the interesting point that “if you accept the first [point], you have in principle accepted the others.”13 His argument, undoubtedly correct, is that if one accepts God’s gracious attitude of favor towards all men, one must accept also the idea that this attitude of favor towards all men and grace which He confers on all men must include an inward restraint of sin in the hearts of all men by the Holy Spirit. In other words, this conferring of grace on all men cannot simply be an outward display of good gifts such as in rain and in sunshine; but it must be also an internal work of God in man’s heart.

Undoubtedly the necessity of this internal work of God lies in the nature of grace. Grace is an attitude of favor, of love, of compassion, or mercy. God’s attitude of love and mercy is not shown if it is limited to outward gifts; it must include the sinner’s conscious experience and knowledge of God’s favor. This is true, if we stop to think about it, also of relationships between men mutually.14

There is another point here which needs to be made, although it is somewhat beside the point of our discussion.

The point has to do with the relation between the free and general offer of the gospel and the internal operation of the Spirit by which sin is restrained and man is enabled to do good. It is undoubtedly this relation too that Kuiper had in mind when he insisted that to accept point one was to commit oneself also to point two. Point one taught not only a general attitude of favor on God’s part towards all men, but it stated also that this attitude of favor was especially evident in the general offer of the gospel.

Although it is impossible to tell whether Synod had such ideas in mind, the fact nevertheless remains that if one connects the well-meant offer of the gospel with an inward operation of the Spirit in the hearts of all which restrains sin, then it follows that this work of the Spirit is preparatory to the preaching of the gospel. That is, the work of the Spirit restraining sin and producing good prepares all men for the gospel in such a way that they are in a moral and ethical condition to accept or reject the overtures of the gospel. And, of course, the decision to accept or reject is theirs to make. God intends the salvation of all and expresses this intention in the gospel itself. God does all that He can to make men aware of this desire on His part. God even gives His Spirit to all men so that their sin may be restrained and they enabled to do some good, though not saving good. God, having now done all He is capable of doing, leaves the final decision with man himself who, through the work of the Spirit, is made capable of making such a choice.

Whether this idea was, in fact, in the minds of the authors of the statement concerning common grace at the Synod of 1924 is impossible to say. What is clear is that this notion has become generally accepted by those who hold to common grace and the free offer of the gospel.

But anyone with any Reformed sensitivity will readily see that this notion is Arminianism at its worst.

However all this may be, Kuiper also very clearly distinguishes between inward restraint of sin and outward restraint of sin.15 After examining the question, Kuiper comes to the conclusion that Scripture teaches both. He admits that the Reformed confessions actually teach only an outward restraint (although an inward restraint, so Kuiper claims, is implied), but Scripture itself is clear.16

The Scriptural proof which Kuiper offers is interesting.

He appeals first of all to the “repentance” of the Ninevites under the preaching of Jonah as an example of inward restraint. His argument is that Nineveh’s repentance was not true repentance, but an outward remorse rooted in terror of destruction. Because Jonah himself speaks of God’s grace in this connection, we have here, so says Kuiper, an example of common grace, which common grace is an inward restraint of sin by the Holy Spirit.17

Further proof is found in Psalm 81:11, 12. Here the line of proof is much like that of Hodge in connection with his comments on Rom. 1:24. Kuiper argues that because God gave Israel over, an inward restraint of sin is implied, for one cannot give another over who has not previously been restrained.

William Masselink

William Masselink gives his own insights into this matter of the restraint of sin when he specifically connects common grace with general revelation.18 Although general revelation and common grace differ, according to Masselink, in origin, purpose, and how we acquire knowledge of them, they are related.19 Masselink writes:

They are related, however, because in common grace God uses the truths of general revelation to restrain sin. The two results of general revelation are: God-consciousness and moral consciousness. By means of these two results, through God’s common grace, sin is curbed in the natural man.20

Masselink claims that Reformed theology all but went into eclipse for 200 years after the Reformation because “the great fact of the Christian’s relation to the world was neglected.” But Kuyper and Hodge were the ones who revived Reformed theology once again.21

In referring especially to Kuyper, Masselink speaks of a negative element in the restraint of sin which restrains “the devastating effects of sin,” and a positive element which is “the constant operation of the Holy Spirit upon all mankind by which civil righteousness is promoted.”22

Donald Macleod

Macleod also includes restraint of sin in his discussion of common grace.23 He seems, however, to speak mostly of external restraints, for in mentioning the instruments of this element of common grace he speaks of God’s general revelation, the presence of the church which restrains sin and postpones judgment, ordinances of law and government which create a good climate, influence of public opinion, God’s judgments which remove wickedness, and the external call of the gospel.24

John Murray

Because of John Murray’s prominence as an orthodox and biblical theologian whose influence has been widespread and great, we refer to his views in some detail.

Those of our readers who have followed this series of articles will recall that our earlier references to John Murray made clear that, while some theologians who held to common grace were reluctant to root common grace in the cross of Jesus Christ, Murray does not hesitate to do this. He speaks forcibly about benefits of the atonement to the non-elect,25 of the non-elect enjoying “many benefits that accrue from the atonement,” although, Murray insists, the non-elect do “not partake of the atonement.26 Among these “benefits” are also those internal influences of the Holy Spirit.

Referring to A. A. and C. Hodge’s definition of common grace as “the influence of the Spirit of God on the minds of men,” Murray finds this deficient and pleads for a broader and more inclusive definition which embraces any gift or favor “of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God.”27

The various elements of common grace include restraint “upon the expressions and consequences of human depravity and of unholy passion.”28 This restraint is, in tum, broken down into: 1) Restraint of sin which is “restraint upon the workings of human depravity” by which God “prevents the unholy affections and principles of men from manifesting all the potentialities inherent in them.”29 2) Restraint upon the divine wrath so that judgment is postponed and God’s attributes of forbearance and longsuffering are revealed to the non-elect. 3) Restraint upon evil by means of which God sends “correcting and preserving influences so that the ravages of sin might not be allowed to work out the full measure of their destructive power.”30

Murray never states explicitly that these restraints upon the wicked are caused by the internal operation of the Spirit in the hearts of the non-elect. Indeed, when he speaks of the agency of restraint, he mentions specifically civil government and points out that the purpose of civil government, as defined in I Peter 2:14, is at least in part achieved.31 But he seems to imply such internal workings when he speaks of a restraint which “prevents the unholy affections ... of men from manifesting all the potentialities inherent in them.”

While many others speak of the fact that common grace serves special grace, Murray not only makes a special point of this, but goes on to make a very strange assertion in this connection. He writes that the salvation of the church is “not the only purpose being fulfilled in history and not ... the one purpose to which all others may be subordinate.”32

This is strange, to say the least. While Murray does not enter into this idea at all, questions arise which seem to be unanswerable to a Reformed man. What other purpose is there in history but the one purpose of the salvation of the church? Does God have multiple purposes in His counsel—if, indeed, Murray believes that history is the temporal realization of God’s counsel? Does God glorify Himself (the one great purpose for which God does all things) in other ways than the salvation of an elect people in Christ? If so, does God have other purposes in His works apart from Christ? What a strange statement of Murray this is.

But whatever Murray may have meant, it is clear that Murray, too, held firmly to a restraint of sin as a part of common grace.

Kornelis Sietsma

Slightly different is the view of Sietsma on the restraint of sin. Sietsma is not ready to find the origin or judicial basis for the blessings which the wicked received in the cross of Jesus Christ. He prefers to explain the lingering elements of good in man in terms of remnants which man preserves after the fall and which are remnants of the office in which man was created.33 He writes:

Of course, Satan did not succeed in destroying man completely. Man is not a devil, full of conscious and deliberate hate for God. We believe, according to what we designate “common grace,” that there are active in the world and in man many energies or powers of the Word and Spirit of God which prevent the transformation of all that God once created good into its very opposite. The Lord sees to it that the thoughts of the human mind, the affections of the human heart, and the works of the human hand still manifest His glory and the rich qualities of His creation. There remains a rich form of human life, even where there is no regeneration of the heart and even where the grace of salvation has not been bestowed.34

Abraham Kuyper

Perhaps no one is more responsible for developing this aspect of common grace than Dr. Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper did not, of course, hold to the free and general offer of the gospel, and, in fact, sharply repudiated it. But later in life, after Kuyper had resigned from the active ministry in order to devote himself to politics, he developed his own theory of common grace. His views on common grace are to be found especially in his three-volume work, Gemeene Gratie,35 and in his Stone Lectures published in book form under the title Calvinism.

After speaking of the magistrate as “an instrument of ‘common grace,’”36 Kuyper broadens his definition and speaks of common grace as that which arrests sin. It does “not kill the core of sin, nor does it save unto life eternal, but it arrests the complete effectuation of sin.”

God by His “common grace” restrains the operation of sin in man, partly by breaking its power, partly by taming his evil spirit, and partly by domesticating his nation or his family.37

Henry VanTil

Henry VanTil, though disagreeing with Kuyper in some respects, gives an excellent summary of Kuyper’s position as outlined in his Gemeene Gratie. He writes:

Creation would have returned to the void unless God in his common grace intervened to sustain it; thus the creative will is now achieved through common grace. Common grace does not merely have a restraining or negative influence but it is also positive and progressive in motivating cultural activity. Culture is a gift of common grace since through it the original powers deposited in nature were brought to fruition. The very antithesis between light and darkness is possible only on the basis of common grace.38

The Christian Reformed Church

Finally, we quote the “second point” of the doctrinal decisions of the Christian Reformed Church taken in June of 1924 by the Synod of these churches and declared by that Synod to be the teaching of Scripture and the Reformed confessions.

Relative to the second point, which is concerned with the restraint of sin in the life of the individual man and in the community, the Synod declares that there is such a restraint of sin according to Scripture and the Confession. This is evident from the citations from Scripture and from the Netherlands Confession, Arts. 13 & 36, which teach that God by the general operations of His Spirit, without renewing the heart of man, restrains the unimpeded breaking out of sin, by which human life in society remains possible; while it is also evident from the quotations from Reformed writers of the most flourishing period of Reformed theology, that from ancient times our Reformed fathers were of the same opinion.39

With that quotation we bring our discussion of this idea to a close. It is possible to quote many more writers who have expressed themselves on this view, but a sufficient number have been quoted to give us a correct view of what defenders of common grace mean by the restraint of sin.

Some Related Matters

Although a detailed discussion of this matter of the restraint of sin will have to wait for later articles in The Journal, we conclude this introductory article with a few observations and general remarks.

General Favor and Restraint of Sin

Although we have discussed the aspect of common grace which teaches God’s attitude of love and favor upon all men separately from our present discussion of the restraint of sin, one must not get the impression that these are two unrelated matters. All proponents of common grace connect the two ideas.

We have talked about this matter earlier in this article, but must discuss it a bit more.

That they belong together is evident on the surface from the fact that both are grace. They are not saving grace, but grace shown to all men. God’s attitude of favor and His gracious restraint of sin are both grace, common to all.

The relation between these two is clear. Not only are the gifts of rain and sunshine evidences of God’s attitude of love and favor upon all men, but also his gracious restraint of sin is evidence of His attitude of love and favor. After all, the inward restraint of sin by the Holy Spirit is grace. And grace is favor, by definition. So the relation is this: God shows His love and favor to all men in many different ways. Two of them are the good gifts He gives and the work of the Spirit in restraining sin.

But this connection between the two does not exhaust the ideas which proponents of common grace have in mind. Although they are not always as clear as one could wish on these questions, certain ideas nevertheless emerge.

The best way to get at this matter is to proceed from the question: What is considered, by the defenders of common grace, to be the relation between common grace and saving grace? More than one defender of common grace speak of this.

Herman Bavinck writes in connection with his discussion of general and special revelation:

Grace is the content of both revelations, common in the first, general in the second, but in such a way that the one is indispensable for the other.

It is common grace which makes special grace possible, prepares the way for it, and later supports it; and special grace, in its turn, leads common grace up to its own level and puts it into its service.40

In a similar fashion, but more explicitly, John Murray discusses this point:

Apprehension of the truth of the gospel that is prior to faith and repentance, and therefore prior to the regeneration of which faith and repentance are the immediate effects in our consciousness, cannot strictly belong to the saving operations of the Spirit. They are preparatory to these saving operations and in the gracious design of God place the person concerned in the psychological condition that is the prerequisite of the intelligent exercise of faith and repentance. In other words, they place in his mind the apperceptive content that makes the gospel meaningful to his consciousness. But since they are not the saving acts of faith and repentance they must belong to a different category from that of saving grace and therefore to the category of non-saving or common grace.

We may thus say that in the operations of common grace we have what we may call the vestibule of faith.41

Thus, the whole idea of common grace is connected to the free offer of the gospel. David Silversides, e.g., says of common grace:

God enjoins his ministers to present a genuine and benevolent invitation to sinners to come to Christ expressive of his love and favour to them.42

It is evident, therefore, that the connection between God’s gracious attitude of favor towards the wicked and the restraint of sin include the following.

First of all, both are manifestations of God’s grace shown to all men in common. Perhaps it would not even be an exaggeration to say that the idea is that God’s restraint of sin is an evidence of His attitude of favor, just as rain and sunshine demonstrate this favor. That is, God expresses and shows His love and benevolence for all men by restraining sin in their evil hearts.

Secondly, among the evidences of God’s favor is the free and gracious offer of the gospel.43

Thirdly, the relation between common grace and special grace is twofold. On the one hand, common grace, evident in the free offer of the gospel, speaks of God’s love and favor towards all because it expresses objectively God’s earnest desire and will to save all. But, on the other hand, because the subjective restraint of sin by an operation of the Holy Spirit within the heart is also grace, it is a preparatory grace which puts the sinner in a position to receive the gospel. It is, to use Murray’s words, the “vestibule of faith.”

So the conclusion of the matter is that, although common grace is not in itself saving grace, it is nevertheless indispensable for the saving operations of the Spirit.


1. Berkhof, Louis, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1953) 436.

2. Ibid., 437, 438.

3. Ibid., 440, 441.

4. Daane, James, A Theology of Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1954) 88.

5. Ibid., 89. The quotation is from Abraham Kuyper’s Gemeene Gratie, I, 251.

6. The reference is to the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church which in 1924 adopted three distinct points concerning the doctrine of common grace.

7. Hodge, A. A., Outline of Theology (New York: Hodder &. Stoughton, 1878) 449, 450.

8. Hodge, Charles, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1946) 667.

9. Ibid., 668.

10. Ibid., 669.

11. See the references to the Spirit of Truth in John 14:16-18, 26; 15:26; 16:7-11, 13, 14.

12. Kuiper, H. J., Sermons Delivered in Broadway Christian Reformed Church (no publisher given, 1925). It is important to remember that H. J. Kuiper preached these sermons to defend the statements concerning common grace which had been adopted by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 1924. In those statements, three in number, the first one spoke of an attitude of favor which God shows to all His creatures and to all men, the latter of which is especially evident in the free offer of the gospel. The second statement spoke of the inward restraint of sin in the hearts of all men by the Holy Spirit. The third statement spoke of the good which the unregenerate are capable of doing because of the work of the Spirit. Against the background of these statements Kuiper makes his remarks. Hence, he states in the preface: “Our real purpose was to explain and defend the three points.”

13. Ibid., 14.

14. Whether Kuiper himself was completely aware of these implications, I do not know. His sermons do not include such a line of argumentation. But his statement is emphatic: Acceptance of an attitude of favor towards all necessarily implies an internal work of grace.

15. This is important for, on the one hand, not all defenders of the idea of the restraint of sin make such careful distinctions; and, on the other hand, while the Bible clearly teaches an outward restraint, it is quite another question whether it teaches an inward restraint by the Holy Spirit.

16. Ibid., 21, 22.

17. Ibid., 23-25.

18. Masselink, William, General Revelation and Common Grace (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1953).

19. Ibid., 69.

20. Idem.

21. Ibid., 187.

22. Ibid., 188.

23. Macleod, Donald, Behold Your God (Edinburgh: Christian Focus Publications, 1990).

24. Ibid., 118-123.

25. Murray, John, Collected Writings, Vol. I (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976) 68.

26. Ibid., 69.

27. Ibid., Vol. II, 96.

28. Ibid., 98.

29. Ibid., 98. For proof Murray cites Genesis 3:22, 23; 4:15. With respect to Cain, Murray speaks of "a halo of sanctity" which "was placed around his life" (99). Further proof is found in Gen 20:6, but the assumption here is that Abimelech was an unbeliever, something difficult, if not impossible, to prove (100).

30. Ibid., 101.

31. Ibid., 111.

32. Ibid., 113.

33. Strangely, and in seeming contradiction to what he writes, Sietsma does speak of original goodness preserved in man as being related to Christ (p. 34); but he never explains what that relationship is.

34. Sietsma, K., The Idea of Office, tr. by Henry VanderGoot (Winnipeg: Paideia Press, 1985) 27.

35. Kuyper deliberately called his view of common grace Gemeene Gratie to distinguish it from the more common term, Algemeene Genade. Though it is impossible to distinguish between the two terms in an English translation, Kuyper chose the former so that his view would not be confused with the general offer of the gospel.

36. Kuyper, Abraham, Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1943) 82.

37. Ibid., 123, 124.

38. VanTil, Henry, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1959) 229. The reader will notice that Kuyper also speaks of a positive “good” resulting from this restraint of sin. This positive good is taught by all who hold to common grace. This is understandable. The restraint of sin results in “good.” This latter aspect of the question, however, we hope to treat separately.

39. Quoted from Hoeksema, Herman, The Protestant Reformed Churches in America (Grand Rapids, Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1947) 354.

40. Bavinck, Herman, Our Reasonable Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1956) 38.

41. Murray, Op. cit., Vol. II, 115.

42. Silversides, David, Paper on the Two Natures of Christ (Unpublished Paper) 35.

43. That the free offer of the gospel is an evidence of God’s gracious favor to all is evident from the first point of common grace adopted by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 1924, which speaks of the fact that this general offer is proof of God’s favorable attitude towards humanity in general.

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