Rejecting God’s Restraints

Rejecting God’s Restraints

by John MacArthur Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The only true hope for all sinners is salvation by grace through faith in Christ. Apart from that, mankind remains “dead in [his] trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). Only through God’s mercy and love can the spiritually dead be made alive with Christ (Ephesians 2:4–5). And by God’s grace, He continues to redeem sinners, drawing them to Himself in repentance and faith.

But in the wisdom of His divine design, God has also placed restraints within us and within the structure of society to mitigate the effects of man’s corruption and hold back the full chaos into which the world repeatedly devolves. And when these restraints are carefully maintained, life can be enjoyable. But when they’re assaulted, diminished, or destroyed, life quickly becomes difficult and miserable.

The Conscience

The first restraint is built into the heart of every man—the conscience. We know the conscience exists because so many people are full of guilt, anxiety, fear, and dread. All those issues frequently point back to a conscience that won’t be silent. Why?

We look to Romans for the answer. Paul writes, “For there is no partiality with God. For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law; for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified” (Romans 2:11–13). Put simply, all sinners stand equally guilty, regardless of their access to God’s law.

How is that fair? Paul explains: “For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them” (Romans 2:14–15). Built into every human is a moral reality—a sense of right and wrong.

The conscience is a gift from God. In the same way that physical pain alerts you to not rest your hand on a hot stove, your conscience cries out to warn you of moral danger—it pleads with you to not do the thing you know you shouldn’t do.

The conscience isn’t a substitute for the law of God, or some means through which He speaks. Rather, it is aligned to the highest moral law it knows. That means the law of God that is written in every heart—don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t kill, and the other basic moral lines common to all people—can be overruled and replaced. In that regard, the conscience can be assaulted through misinformation. Some people have so twisted and distorted their consciences that they believe the right and moral thing to do is murder unborn children, attack police officers, or wear explosives into a crowded part of town to kill as many civilians as possible. History shows us just how susceptible the conscience is to propaganda and false teaching. 

The conscience is also assaulted through abuse. Go back to the analogy of the hot stove—if you ignored the painful warnings long enough, not only would you suffer severe physical consequences, the consistent abuse could cost you the ability to recognize the pain altogether. If you ignore your conscience long enough, eventually there won’t be any alert to ignore. When you repeatedly ignore the internal warnings and return to a particular sin, you’re searing your conscience and destroying its ability to function properly.

One of the great costs of removing the Bible from a culture is that people can no longer make sense of the conscience—both what it is and how it should be informed. What should be seen as a great gift from God is considered a curse—one that must be silenced or reoriented. Of course, our therapeutic society is quick to tell people not to listen to their consciences in the first place. Psychologists are happy to redirect feelings of guilt and shame somewhere else. When that doesn’t work, many people turn to drugs and alcohol to drown out a conscience that won’t shut up.

And when the truth of God’s Word is withheld and denied from the conscience for long enough en masse, you wind up back in Isaiah 5:20, with a culture that calls good evil, and evil good. You have a culture like ours.

Because man’s conscience is so easily corrupted, God has also instituted external restraints and authorities within society for reining in the destructive chaos sin creates.

The Family

The family is one of those restraints. Of course, the Bible instructs Christian parents to raise their children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). But even unbelieving parents have a restraining influence in the lives of their children. In that sense, the family is a divinely created institution for the formation of restrained sinners, who—through generations of morality, discipline, love, virtue, and obedience—become a benefit to society and enjoy God’s gifts with gratitude.

What we’ve seen in recent years is a comprehensive assault on God’s design for the family, and the subsequent short-circuiting of its restraining effect. Between the feminist movement’s subversion of male leadership, the explosion of divorce rates, and the widespread corruption of gender and sexuality, there’s significant confusion about what actually constitutes a family, let alone how it should function. When you consider the number of children born without both a mother and father in the home, combined with those who have lost that privilege through divorce, you can see why the family isn’t doing much to restrain sin and its effects in society today.

The breakdown of the family shatters God’s design for administering the love, discipline, and direction that little lives so desperately need. Today we see generations of young people who were never taught to respect and submit to authority, or to take responsibility for their actions and face the consequences. The Bible tells us, “He who withholds his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him diligently” (Proverbs 13:24). Parents are meant to be a threat to unruly, disobedient behavior—they’re meant to rein in their children and teach them how to live and function as productive members of society. Today we’re seeing the mayhem that’s unleashed when the restraint of family fails.

The Government

In those instances, God has established a separate authority to restrain sin. We can think of the conscience as a kind of personal authority, while the family represents parental authority. God has likewise established the government as a societal authority. The prime role of government is not material welfare—rather, as Paul describes, it is divinely appointed to bear the sword.

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. (Romans 13:1–4)

God uses imperfect means to restrain sin. Nobody’s conscience is perfectly informed and always accurate—no family is perfect, either. In the same way, God uses imperfect human governments—and imperfect agents of those governments—to hold back the chaos and corruption of sin. Imperfect though they may be, civil authorities were ordained by God, and anyone who opposes them opposes Him.

What we see today is a society full of people who were raised without the discipline, love, and stability of a family; people who have seared or silenced their consciences, and reject the notion that they need to submit to any authority. With catastrophic failures at the personal and parental levels, it’s left to the police to establish some order and sanity amidst the chaos.

Don’t miss the rhetorical question in verse 3: “Do you want to have no fear of authority?” Paul presumes an affirmative response, and answers his own question: “Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good” (vv. 3–4). The point is simply that there is no need for us to live in fear of the government’s authority—it’s not an inherent threat to those who abide by the law. Instead, it bears the sword and brings the wrath of God “on the one who practices evil” (v. 4). Their resistance and rebellion must be punished. Where the restraints of conscience and family might fail, the government represents a unique and potentially deadly threat against the chaos and corruption of evildoers. And just like the world’s attempts to destroy the family and quiet the conscience, the calls to defund and disband the police are another direct assault on God’s ordained means of restraining sin.

The Church

There is one more restraint God has placed in society—the church functions as its spiritual authority. God has called His people to be a righteous and sanctifying influence in this world. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ said,

You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:13–16)

We understand the effects of sin—how it has corrupted God’s creation and set it on a destructive trajectory. We understand the world is dark and decaying. But the Lord has established His church as the last line of restraint against sin’s influence. We are the salt that slows the decay and the light that diminishes the darkness. Through our Christlike influence—through our love, mercy, humility, kindness, compassion, and holiness—we’re called to restrain the corruption and chaos of sin. In that regard, the church is the most precious commodity in the world.

However, just as Christ warned, the effects of salt and light can be diminished. Salt can become impure and lose its taste. Light can be covered up and hidden. The tragedy today is that so many churches have failed to be a preserving, illuminating influence in the world. False teachers abound—charlatans promoting religious Ponzi schemes and selling phony miracles. Unholy and immoral leaders tarnish the church’s testimony. Worldly entertainments dominate, while hard truths are dulled or dismissed altogether. Whole denominations deny the authority, sufficiency, and inerrancy of Scripture. Others deny the deity of Christ. Too many churches don’t confront sin, don’t call for holy living, and don’t uphold the gospel as the only hope for salvation. What kind of restraint can a church like that provide?

We need to recognize the correlation between the state of the world and the state of the church. A weak, worldly, false church has no ability to restrain the chaos and corruption of this world. A church like that actually contributes to the problem.

God’s people need to be different. We need to be salt and light, and live holy lives that glorify the Lord and adorn His gospel.

(Adapted from Chaos Corruption and the Christian Response)