02 September, 2016

Genesis 6:3—“… My Spirit shall not always strive with man …”

And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years (Gen. 6:3).

This text is cited by some to teach a gracious restraint of sin in the hearts of the unregenerate, by the Holy Spirit. For example, Louis Berkhof comments on this passage thus: “[The] Holy Spirit resisted the ungodliness and perversity of those generations that lived before the flood. He sought to check their ungodliness and lead them to repentance … But the Spirit strove in vain; sin increased rapidly” (The Three Points: In All Parts Reformed).

Others say that the Holy Spirit, in the passage, is said to have been “wrestling with sinners”—sinners that resisted His strivings and were destroyed in the flood—in that the Spirit was “trying His very best” to save as many of these wicked pre-diluvians as possible, but that He failed in His strivings.


Prof. Herman C. Hanko

[Source: Common Grace Considered (2019 edition), pp. 209-212]

This text is found in the context of the apostasy, that took place, from the covenant line of the seed of the woman, and the consequent terrible wickedness that was found in the pre-deluvian world. It is recorded in Scripture as the introduction to God’s announcement of His judgment on a world that had filled the cup of iniquity. This word, therefore, paved the way for God’s instructions to Noah, who “found grace in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen. 6:8), to build the ark.
If this text is to be quoted in favor of an “inward restraint of sin by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the unregenerate,” then the meaning of the text is this: For a long time, perhaps nearly a millennium and a half, the Holy Spirit had struggled, in the hearts of those who belonged to the line of Cain, to keep these wicked people from being as sinful as they were determined to be, but that, at last, the Holy Spirit, apparently failing in His efforts to restrain sin, withdrew from the wicked and God ceased from restraining their sin by His Spirit. It is an argument based on a strange assumption that the Holy Spirit had worked mightily for over a thousand years to restrain sin but had failed, and it is deduced from a negative statement (“My Spirit shall not always strive with man”) and made to mean a positive doctrine of an inner work of the Spirit in the reprobate that changes their nature for good, but does not save.
But, of course, the text does not say anything even faintly resembling such an idea; and, in fact, the picture drawn for us in Genesis 4 and 5 is quite different. One is hard-pressed to find any restraint of sin of any kind in the hearts of these wicked people. One finds, rather, a frightening development of sin that, within 1650 years or so, almost destroyed the church and made the world ripe for judgment.
Cain was guilty of fratricide, and the blood-soaked ground under Abel’s body cried out for vengeance (Gen. 4:8-12). When God pronounced the curse upon Cain (Gen. 4:11), Cain, and subsequently, his descendants, moved away from the church, where the seed of the woman “began to call upon the name of the Lord,” (Gen. 4:26) to find their way in the world apart from the church.
Lamech, from the line of Cain, was apparently the world’s first bigamist, and defied God’s creation ordinance for marriage. He also took it upon himself, not only to murder one of the people of God, but to compose a song to celebrate his dastardly deed (Gen. 4:23-24); and he dared God to punish him for committing such a terrible sin: “If Cain shall be avenged seven-fold, truly Lamech seventy and seven fold” (Gen. 4:24).
In chapter 6, we have that chilling description of the dreadful sins that took place, when those of the line of Seth sought cooperation with those of the line of Cain:

… the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose … There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown. And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:2-5).

But the sin to which we are pointed in these chapters of Genesis, which was the worst of all, was the sin of the persecution of the church. It began early with the murder of Abel. It continued with Enoch who was taken to heaven, because he was being hunted by wicked men (Gen. 5:24, Jude 14-15, Heb. 11:5-6
[Note in Hebrews 11:5 that the text says that “he was not found,” indicating that he was being hunted, but was delivered by a miracle of translation to heaven without dying]). The entire church, in a world that must have numbered millions, was reduced to eight people at the time the flood came. If the flood had not come when it did, no church would have survived.
All of these things do not speak of an “inward restraint of sin by the Holy Spirit,” but just the opposite: a violent and rapid development of sin, so that the world became ripe for judgment in a relatively short time.
But we must still explain what the text does mean.

The text can only refer to the preaching of the gospel that took place prior to the flood. This is evident, first, from the fact that the preaching of the gospel is always accompanied by the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit never works independently of the preaching, but He always works where the preaching takes place—whether that work is to save or harden. Second, we know that, prior to the flood, God had His preachers in the world. Two are mentioned in Scripture: Enoch, who

prophesied of these (wicked men who ‘went the way of Cain’—HH), saying, Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints, to execute judgment upon all, and to convince all that are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have ungodly committed, and of all their hard speeches which ungodly sinners have spoken against him (Jude 11, 14-15).

Noah also is said, in II Peter 2:5, to be a “preacher of righteousness.” It is clear from the description of Enoch’s preaching, found in Jude 15, and of Noah’s preaching, found in II Peter 2:5, that the preaching contained all the elements of true preaching: the command to repent from sin, the warning of certain judgment on unbelievers and the call to believe in Christ and the gospel of salvation in Christ. That Noah preached salvation in Christ who was to come, is evident from the fact that Noah was a preacher of righteousness, as Hebrews 11:7 makes clear. Both Noah and Enoch not only preached the gospel that righteousness could only be found in the Seed of the woman who was to come, but both also called to repentance and warned against coming judgment. For this they were persecuted.
This powerful preaching was mocked, opposed and hated. And so God said He would withdraw this preaching and its accompanying work of the Spirit—as He always does to apostate churches, and as He did to wicked Israel (Amos 7:11-12). In churches where the gospel is no longer preached, the Spirit is withdrawn. The work of the Spirit is no longer present. The “striving,” of which the text speaks, is, therefore, the preaching of repentance from sin, which the preachers of the pre-deluvian world proclaimed, and that truth of the gospel impressed on the consciences of men by the Spirit. It all is a warning to today’s rapidly departing churches that the Spirit is no more present where the gospel is perverted. And the sound of the gospel is no longer heard in nations in which these apostate churches are found, and which have rejected the gospel.
If you ask: What was the work of the Spirit that accompanied the preaching?, the answer is that the Spirit convicts of sin, reproving sin in the consciousness of the wicked and impressing upon the wicked the certainty of judgment (John 16:8-11). When God takes His Spirit from a church, or nation, or person, such are no longer even warned of their sin and impending judgment and the consciousness of their sin is lost. This is dreadful.



Robert C. Harbach (1914-1996)

[Source: Studies in the Book of Genesis, pp. 125–127]

The proponents of the theory of “common grace” think they find their hypothesis all through this passage. Dr. Geerhardus Vos, professor of Biblical Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary, writes this:

The narrative proceeds in … the rapid development of sin in the line of Cain. In connection with this it describes the working of common grace in the gift of invention for the advance of civilization in the sphere of nature. It shows further that these gifts of grace were abused by the Cainites and made subservient to the process of evil in the world. We have here a story of rapid degeneration, so guided by God as to bring out the inherent tendency of sin to lead to ruin, and its power to corrupt and debase whatever of good might still develop. So far as this circle of humanity is concerned, the facts bear out the interpretation above put upon the period (ital., RCH).

What Dr. Vos means is that there is a common grace shown to men in the gifts of science, invention, labor, industry, the arts, agriculture, and what is produced from them in modern conveniences and the general advance of civilization. However, this “common grace” does not get much chance to develop and do men much good, because sin develops faster, and because men prostitute the use of all these good gifts in the service of sin and their own lusts. Men, therefore, neglect, refuse, resist this “common grace.” Further, their sin has a tendency to ruin everything, that is, sin causes men to drift in the direction of absolute depravity, and may proceed to his utter destruction in the sink of iniquity. In this way, sin has a power to gradually corrupt the good of “common grace,” thus rendering it of none effect, and making man the number one candidate for final judgment. The implication is that “common grace” would succeed in its purpose to make men and the world better with that pinch of the salt of humankindness that is in him, if men would only let it. But men fail in this regard; they pinch out that pinch of humankindness. Then God in judgment sovereignly guides their sin to corrupt even their best works, so that there can no longer be found even a spark, or a pinch, of “common good” anywhere. Also it is presumed that the facts of scripture bear out this “common grace” interpretation!

However, the italicized words in the quotation above show a contradiction. They speak of a “common grace” in the gifts of invention, etc., and imply a “common grace” in men’s use of those inventions and gifts, in his works of culture, business, sociology, education, [and] all the marvels and comforts of civilization. Nevertheless, all the sin of men corrupts and debases whatever good they might do. This means that their most glittering accomplishments are only glittering sins! Even the so-called common grace acts of men are polluted by their sin, and are therefore evil and condemnable. In one breath we have the assertion, not proof, of “common grace” and then it is overthrown! The conclusion, then, is that there is and can be no such thing as a grace that is common, no more than there can be works of men that are good. “Common grace” adherents usually contradict themselves and upset their own theory. On another page this same professor says, “Even the good, kept alive, was not enabled to force back the evil. Nothing is said about any influence proceeding from the Sethites upon the Cainites. While the power of redemption remained stationary, the power of sin waxed strong, and became ready to attack the good that still existed” (Old and New Testament Bible Theology, chap. V, paragraphs 2, 4).  We most heartily agree with this last statement, pointing out that, it being true, there can be no “common grace” nor any such thing as a restraint of sin, as verse 5 makes so clear. If there was a universal grace restraining sin, how could it be said “that the wickedness of man was (then so) great in the earth”?

So, according to the theory under consideration, God’s Spirit restrains sin by a general non-saving operation in the heart of all men. This restraining influence of the Spirit temporarily improves men, it keeps men from becoming as bad as they otherwise would be from their naturally (totally?) depraved nature. This restraint of the Spirit of Jehovah suggests a resistance on the part of man against it. There is a back-and-forth struggle between the Spirit and men, not that men ever overcome God, but after a time, in which God finally becomes exasperated because men do not benefit by the restraining operation, judgment is the only course open to God. So He withdraws the restraining influence of His Spirit and destroys man. This is the “common grace” view of this passage, and, as the careful reader can see, dualism is involved in this view.

The Arminian interpretation carries out this line of thought to its logical conclusion, and teaches that in fallen man the divinely appointed aim of creation of the world, namely, the glorifying of God, was disturbed by sin. For this reason, there is a yet unrealized desire on the part of God and His people as expressed in the Psalm of God’s glory in creation, Psalm 104, that “the sinners be consumed out of the earth, and let the wicked be no more” (v. 35). God’s Spirit attempts to restrain sin, while sin, in turn, represses the sway of God’s Spirit. His controlling influence is hampered by the wilful error of mankind. Then God withdraws His Spirit which has all the while been present to make man’s salvation possible. So the effort of God’s Spirit, a mere attempt, at best, it all too often seems, fails. Man was given his chance, so the Spirit of God brings all that unsuccessful effort to an end. The striving comes to an end not because God’s willingness to help comes to an end, but because the human race sinks beyond the possibility of help. This is Semi-Pelagian philosophy.

Now this word, “strive” (yadhon), is found in Ecclesiastes 6:10, “… neither may he contend with him that is mightier than he.”  It is also found in Nehemiah 9:30, “Yet many years didst Thou forbear them, and testifiedst against them by Thy Spirit in Thy prophets …” So the meaning is that God’s Spirit contends with men, testifies against them. The word means “to act as judge in man” in the sense of the Judge himself testifying against man. God shall not always act as Judge, but finally as Executioner! Here we have the picture of the Spirit in man as a Sword (the Sword of the Spirit is the Word of God, Eph. 6:17) in a scabbard. The sword will soon be unsheathed and drawn out in capital punishment. Meanwhile the sheathed sword opposes man at every turn he makes. God did so act in the preaching of Enoch and Noah, in the testimony of Seth and Methuselah, in all the Old Testament prophets. He acts as Judge now in the preaching of the Word. Cp. I Peter 3:19, 20. God always opposes the wicked by the Word. Strive means exactly that, to oppose by the Word.



Herman Hoeksema (1886-1965)


[Source: The Rock Whence We Are Hewn (RFPA, 2015), p. 405, emphasis added]

The tacit and supposed exegesis of synod is, “My Spirit shall not always check the progress of corruption in man’s nature,” but this has no sound basis … The Spirit before the flood had not restrained the development of sin at all; the whole race had fast become ripe for destruction. Further, the word strive certainly does not mean the same as check or restrain … The simple and self-evident explanation is that the Spirit had striven through the word, by the mouths of the prediluvian saints, with the ungodly generation living before the deluge. The result, however, had been not a check of corruption, but hardening of the hearts and further development of sin. The strife of the Spirit would not last forever. The end was approaching. The world would be judged and destroyed in the flood.


[Source: The Standard Bearer, vol. 40, no. 6 (Dec 15, 1963), p. 125; emphasis added]

According to [advocates of common grace], this text means that God so restrains sin in the heart and mind of the natural man that he is improved and is capable of performing much good. But this is an impossible interpretation for the following reasons: (1.) Because, in that case, God and His Holy Spirit would then have suffered defeat: for God attempted to restrain sin in the heart and mind of the ungodly, but in spite of this, wickedness developed very fast. (2.) In spite of the restraint of sin by the Holy Spirit, the wickedness of the prediluvian world had so far developed that they, in about sixteen hundred years, had become ripe for judgment. (3.) The context militates against this interpretation. In verse 5 we read: “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” How could this be, if the Holy Spirit worked in the hearts and minds of the natural man continually? … What, then, is the meaning of the text? What is the sense of the word “strive”? Did God strive by an inward operation of the Holy Spirit to check the power of sin in the heart and mind of the ungodly? Let Scripture speak. In Jude 14, 15 we read: “And Enoch also, the seventh from Adam, prophesied of these, saying, Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints, to execute judgment upon all. And convince all that are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have ungodly committed, and all their hard speeches which ungodly sinners have spoken against him.” … How, then, did God strive with men in the prediluvian world? The answer is: through His Word as it was spoken by Enoch. To be sure, also through His Spirit, but not in order to restrain sin, but to make the Word spoken by Enoch powerful and to harden their hearts.


[Source: The Protestant Reformed Churches in America (1947), 370-371]

14.   How would synod read this text?
Synod read this passage as follows: “And the Lord said: My Spirit shall not always restrain sin in the heart of man so as to improve him.”

15.   Why is this interpretation wholly impossible?
Because it would presuppose that until that moment the Spirit had actually restrained the process of sin in the heart of the wicked world, while the facts plainly contradict such a view. Wickedness in the predeluvian world had abounded and developed with astounding rapidity, so that, after sixteen centuries of development, the world was ripe for judgment and its measure of iniquity was full. It is evident, therefore, that there had been no checking of the process and progress of sin in the world. This leaves only two possibilities: either the Spirit of God had attempted to stem the tide of sin, but had utterly failed, which is blasphemy even to think; or there had been no such operation of the Spirit of God upon the heart of man as synod declares to be taught in this text. The latter is the truth.

16.   Does not the context also contradict the interpretation of synod?
It does, for in verse 5 we read: “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. It is quite impossible that, given an operation of the Holy Spirit upon that heart of man, every imagination arising from it could be only and continually evil.

17.   What, then is the meaning of Genesis 6:3?
“Strive” in the text has the meaning of striving or opposing by the Word. It is evident from Scripture that the Holy Spirit had striven with the wicked world before the flood through the Word of God by the predeluvian patriarchs. Thus we read in Jude 14-15: “And Enoch also, the seventh from Adam, prophesied of these, saying, Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints, to execute judgment upon all, and to convince all that are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have ungodly committed, and of all their hard speeches which ungodly sinners have spoken against him.
From this passage it is evident that the Spirit did strive with the ungodly world, not by an operation of the Holy Spirit upon the hearts of the ungodly, but by the Word of the prophets. It is also plain from this text that the ungodly sinners contradicted the Word of God and spoke “hard speeches” against it. And thus it is easily to be understood that over against this striving of the Spirit the world increased in sin. The Word of God, as always, had a hardening effect. And this interpretation, while it is in harmony with the text itself, is also in accord with the general teaching of the Word of God that the Word is a savor of death unto death for the ungodly and that it hardens men’s hearts if by it they are not converted to God.



Homer C. Hoeksema (1923-1989)

[Source: The Standard Bearer, vol. 50, issue 9, (Feb. 1974)]

[If one is to use this text to support common grace, he] should show from the text, and that, too, in the light of Scripture, that this striving is gracious. The term grace is not so much as mentioned. One might even argue that the very term strive, which would seem to indicate opposition and conflict, indicates the opposite of a gracious attitude.



Martin Luther (1483-1546)

[Source: “Luther on Sin and the Flood: Commentary on Genesis,” trans. John Nicholas Lenker, D. D. (Minneapolis, MN: The Luther Press, 1910), vol. II, pp. 138-140.]

52. I understand this passage therefore as words spoken by Lamech or Noah as a new message to the whole world. For it was a public message proclaimed at some public assembly. When Methuselah, Lamech and Noah saw that the world was hastening straight to destruction by its sins, they resorted to this proclamation: My Spirit shall no longer preach among men. That means: we teach in vain, we admonish in vain; the world has no desire to be better.
53. It is as if one in the present perverse times should say: We teach and make ample effort to summon the world back to sobriety and godliness, but we are derided, persecuted, killed, and all men, in the end, rush to destruction with blind eyes and deaf ears; therefore we are constrained to desist. These are the words of a soul planning appropriate action and full of anxiety, because it is clear that the human race, at the height of its peril, cannot be healed.

54. This exposition conforms to faith and Holy Scriptures. When the Word is revealed from heaven, we see that some are converted, who are freed from damnation. The remaining multitude despises it and securely indulges in avarice, lust and other vices, as Jeremiah says (ch. 51, 9): “We should have healed Babylon, but she is not healed: forsake her, and let us go everyone into his own country.”
The more diligently Moses and Aaron importuned and instructed, the more obstinate Pharaoh became. The Jews were not made better by even the preaching of Christ and the apostles. The same befalls us who teach in our day. What, in consequence, are we to do? Deplore the blindness and obstinacy of men we may, correct it we cannot. Who would rejoice in the eternal damnation of the popes and their followers? Who would not prefer that they should embrace the Word and recover their senses?
55. A similar exhibition of obstinacy Methuselah, Lamech and Noah saw in their day. Therefore there bursts from them this voice of despair: My Spirit, namely the Word of healing truth, shall no longer bear witness among men. For inasmuch as you refuse to embrace the Word—will not yield to healing truth—you shall perish.
These are the words of a heart filled with anxiety after the manner that the Scriptures say God is anxious; that is, the hearts of Noah, Lamech, Methuselah and other holy men who are filled with love toward all. Beholding the wickedness of men, they are troubled and pained.
56. Such grief is really the grief of the Holy Spirit, as Paul says, “Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, in whom ye were sealed unto the day of redemption,” Eph 4, 30. This means that the Holy Spirit is grieved when we miserable men are distracted and tormented by the wickedness of the world, that despises the Word we preach by the Holy Spirit. Thus Lot was troubled in Sodom, and the pious Jews in Babylon under the godless king Belshazzar; also Jeremiah, when he preached to the ungodly Jews and exclaimed (Jer. 15, 10): “Woe is me, my mother, that thou hast borne me.” So in Micah 7, 1: “Woe is me! for I am as the grape gleanings of the vintage: there is no cluster to eat.”



More to come! (DV)

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