Restraining Grace

Romans 1 is a well-known passage that highlights the compounding nature of sin in the human heart, progressively worsening, and the punishment that it is due under the wrath of God. In context, the apostle Paul is writing to the believers in Rome, having a desire to preach the gospel to them in person. He starts with an exposition on the very necessity of the gospel, beginning with the nature of God before expounding on the corrupt, sinful nature of man’s heart . This of course is the correct starting point, with God, as we must see ourselves under the wrath of the all-holy God such that we can see and come to realization of the nature of our sin in offending God. Paul, of course under divine inspiration of the Spirit, does this masterfully such that Romans 1:18-32 has become a treatise on the nature of sin in the world and is often held up, rightly, as the example for the times in which we find ourselves.

However, while the passage is written from a negative perspective, particularly as it relates to God giving over those who reject Him to their compounding sins, there is equally an unstated positive view to this passage. Namely, that in order for God to give over a person or people to their compounding, progressively worsening sins, there must have originally been restraining grace from God. In other words, the only explanation that God unleashes the flood of sin and debauchery is that He also was the One holding back the flood through a dam of restraining grace.

In Romans 1:18, as noted, the passage begins with the revelation of God’s wrath against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of mankind who suppress the truth of God in that unrighteous state. This truth of God is then defined as that which God has revealed to all mankind through His creation. We will look at this more closely another time, Lord willing, but for now it is sufficient to say that God as Creator has not left Himself without a natural witness in the created world. Indeed the His creation is His witness, declaring His glory, along with His invisible attributes such as eternal power and divine nature. This natural revelation is sufficient to be clearly perceived that there is indeed a Creator and that He is powerful and divine. The problem is not with the witness of creation in how it points to the Creator. The problem is that man, part of creation – indeed its pinnacle, suppresses this truth about the existence of God because of their unrighteousness. Knowing, or at least having a desire to have a god to worship, man looks not to the Creator, but instead to the creation to find objects of worship (Romans 1:23). Essentially, this rejection of God as Creator and substituting worship of Him for worship of creation is the first step of the unrighteous, ungodly heart in its progression away from God and towards an increase in ungodliness. In short, while unbelief, or in this case failure to acknowledge God, is the gateway, idolatry is the pathway that leads to progressively worsening sins of the heart and their manifestation in the body, contextually idolatry of the heart manifests itself as sexual immorality as we will see.

As a result of this idolatry, indicated by therefore, we find the first of three uses of, “God gave them up”. This little phrase, gave them up, is the Greek word paradidomi and it means, “to give into the hands of another” or “to deliver up to custody, to be judged, condemned, punished, scourged, tormented, put to death”. This first paradidomi of those who have rejected God as Creator is unto the impure lusts of their hearts resulting in shaming their own bodies via sexual immorality (Romans 1:24). What exactly is this? Any sexual desire, thought, or physical action that is outside of the marital bond. This includes both those who are married and those who are not married. The first level of restraining grace that is removed as a result of rejecting God is a simple handing over to the impure desires of the heart, which are never satisfied internally but reach their (temporary) fulfillment physically, more pointedly, sexually. In practice, God removes His hand of restraining grace to give the heart what it wants, i.e. lusts of the flesh. On the surface, this might seem like a “so what” to the world, but it should be terrifying. It is a level of blindness and hardness from sin that is unrestrained, uncontrolled, unlimited in it’s decent into debauchery. It would be easy enough to consider the sexual revolution of the 1960’s as evidence for a descent of this kind, but in reality that was child’s play compared to the widespread extent of lustful desires and expressions of the sinful heart that manifest themselves in shameful dishonoring of one’s body through online social media accounts. It is no longer limited to freedom loving hippies or adult stars, but is mainstream and normalized.

The next giving over that we encounter as a result of those who reject Who God is as Creator, trading Him for created things, is dishonorable passions or what the KJV translates as vile affections (Romans 1:26-27). On the surface, this may just seem to be a parallel of the first case as dishonor is again used. However, this time dishonor is not related to the body, rather it is internalized and associated with the passions or affections. In other words, there is an internal progression of sin in the heart from impure passions, to shameful or dishonoring passions. It is this latter case wherein God removes His hand of restraining grace which leads to sexual relations contrary to nature, namely homosexuality. In the first case, there was a dishonoring of the body in a natural sense we might say. In this case, the dishonoring has devolved to such an extent that it is unnatural, seeking no longer expressions of lustful passions among oneself nor among the opposite sex, but now it has crossed over or rather has exchanged the natural for the unnatural. This is the second phase and the evidence that society as a whole has descended into this phase is so obvious it doesn’t require much commentary. It is prolific not only among those who participate in homosexuality, but in its promotion of it even among children (which as we will see is indeed a consequence).

The third and final case given in Romans 1 of God removing His hand of restraining grace is a debased mind to do what ought not be done. A synonym here for debased is simply reprobate, unproven or rejected, literally worthless. Is there anything more fearful than losing one’s mind, particularly as it relates to the ability to reason right and wrong? This is expressed in unrestrained wickedness that manifests itself outwardly with the individual and collectively with cultural chaos.
They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 

Romans 1:29-30
The crown of this debauchery is not only doing the sinful actions of the heart, but giving approval of them as we alluded to earlier (Romans 1:32). Indeed, we might even say not simply approval, but promotion and celebration.

In this progression of giving over, or when God removes His hand of restraining grace, God gives those who reject Him over to the desires of the heart, what you lust for, such that it dishonors you own body. But it doesn’t stop there. It leads to increased unnatural desires that result in the dishonoring of your body by others. Again, it doesn’t stop there. The warning signs of the heart and shame of the body, if ignored lead to God taking your mind. The mind, the conscience, the ability to know right from wrong is part of our Imago Dei, the image of God. Should God lift His hand of restraining grace taking away our faculties of reason, we would be numbered among the beasts.

The classic example of God removing His hand of restraint occurs in the Old Testament, specifically with King Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel chapter 4 begins with the king giving praise to God, which seems unusual given he is a gentile king responsible for the exile of Israel through his own Babylonian Empire. As the chapter unfolds however we find that this praise was in response to God removing His hand of restraint and then restoring it once again. After explaining a series of dreams which Daniel interprets, King Nebuchadnezzar was walking on the rooftop of his palace overlooking his kingdom, but makes the fatal error of declaring it to be from the work of his own hands. In other words, just like in Romans 1, here Nebuchadnezzar fails to acknowledge, recognize, and give thanks to God as the source of his own prosperity. As a result, God removed His hand of restraining grace from Him. As we know, while the words of self-congratulations were still in his mouth, Nebuchadnezzar’s reason was taken away as well as his physical appearance as a man. He literally had his mind and body taken from him for failing to recognize the sovereignty of God. Not surprisingly, when God restored His hand of grace to the king, his reason returned as well as his appearance and he immediately gave glory to God.

It is a certainty that the world is devolving through the phases of Romans 1, particularly in the West. From the passage, it is evident that the world has descended this path before and the result is frightening. The only thing…let me say that again, the only thing that keeps the world sane, following some sort of morality, is the restraining grace from the hand of God. When that is removed, literal hell follows to the point of faculties of reason being turned more beastly than that reflecting the image of their Creator. It should be noted that the presence of sin or sins as described above is not necessarily a sign that God is handing one over to debauchery. However, this passage should alert us that the presence of these sins are meant to show our need for a Savior. God’s kindness is meant to lead to repentance. Repeatedly ignoring who God is and the warnings He has given are want leads to the removal of restraining grace.

May God have mercy.

Soli Deo Gloria

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Christian saved by grace through faith.

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