In the aftermath of a tragedy, the unbelieving world is always quick to voice their spiritual skepticism with the question, “Where was God?” The underlying accusation is that God must not be so good or powerful if He can’t hold back wickedness and restrain evil. Even believers in moments of deep suffering and pain can give into the temptation of such thinking.
But the truth is that, aside from those brief moments of crisis, the world is aggressively and constantly kicking at the restraints the Lord has put in place to hold back sin and the effects of evil.
In the heart of every person—from the most wretched sinner to the most disciplined saint—the Lord has written His law (Romans 2:14-15). We’ve all been given an internal warning system in the form of our conscience. In an article titled “God’s Emergency Warning System,” John MacArthur describes the conscience this way:
Just as searing pain warns you of physical danger to your body, your conscience screams at you about a violation of a moral law.
But your conscience alone can’t save you. It’s only a mechanism—a warning device. And unless it has been guarded and trained, it won’t be able to alert you to spiritual danger. A malnourished, confused, and twisted conscience won’t be able to protect you—in fact, it could actually lead you to sin and corruption.
The world wants you to ignore your conscience. Or better still, render it useless by aligning it to the world’s false system of morality—the one grounded in the rampant selfishness, blame shifting, indignation, jealousy, and vengeance we see so prevalent today. Those false priorities and wicked motivations are direct assaults on God’s restraint of sin.
Another one of God’s restraints is built into His design for the family. In his sermon “Hope for a Doomed Nation,” John MacArthur explains the restraining influence of the family:
God has designed that fathers and mothers operate well-ordered families and pass on righteousness, goodness, kindness, and truth to the next generation. And the weapon they have, according to the Bible, is the rod; and they use that rod to discipline children, to spank children, if you will, in order to inflict pain on them when they violate the law, to train them to go the right way.
Scripture is clear about the vital importance of parental discipline: “He who withholds his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him diligently” (Proverbs 13:24); “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; the rod of discipline will remove it far from him” (Proverbs 22:15; cf. Proverbs 10:13, 19:18, 23:14). Especially at a young age, physical discipline is often the only way to help children understand the consequences of their sin.
But the world’s passive approach to discipline—undergirded by the lie that everyone is essentially good—has created a culture of suspicion for anyone who would dare to discipline his or her child. Fearing the approval of their peers and the threat of government intervention, many parents—including many Christian parents—spare the rod with their children, removing God’s built-in restraint.
The Lord’s third restraint against sin belongs to the government. In a sermon titled “How God Restrains Evil in the World,” John MacArthur explains the divinely-ordained role of civil authorities.
Biblically, the prime duty of civil authority—if you look at the Bible, the Old Testament and New Testament—it’s not charity, it’s not economics. The primary duty of civil authority is the moral well-being of its citizens. It is restraining sinners and rewarding those who do good so that we can be civilized, and enjoy a measure of peace and joy in life and God’s creation.
Paul’s words in Romans 13:1-4 describe how the Lord sovereignly uses civil authority to reign in the wicked.
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.
Contrast that submissive mindset with the aggressive anti-authority attitude that dominates our culture today. Society is cannibalizing itself as it tears down leaders and authority structures, preferring chaos to the prospect of submission to God’s restraint through His appointed authority.
There’s one final level of restraint the Lord has instituted: the church. God’s people are to be salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:13-16), standing apart from the corruption of the world as a testimony to God’s transforming work. As Paul explains, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). And through our transformed lives, we are a living rebuke to the world and its sin (Ephesians 5:11; Philippians 2:15).
Whereas the other restraints—the conscience, the rod, and the sword—can outwardly modify behavior, only the gospel can transform a person from the inside out. As John MacArthur explains in “How God Restrains Evil in the World,” the gospel is God’s ultimate weapon for the restraint of sin.
The real cure for the problems in the world is to change human beings from the inside because that’s where all the sin comes from. And that’s what the gospel of Jesus Christ does. . . . Salvation of God makes new hearts. The power of God then comes from the inside, overpowering that corruption. Not that we’re perfect, but we have new desires, new longings, new aspirations, new hopes, and new direction. The church then offers the ultimate restraint, a transformed heart. The work of God in salvation is the great restraining work.
However, the world wants nothing to do with God’s transforming truth. Through false religion and psychology, sinners are able to pacify the longing of their souls for redemption. They substitute self-righteousness for true transformation, and ignore the clear teaching of God’s Word in favor of satanic lies.
At every level, the world is aggressively kicking at the restraints God has put in place to hold back sin. In spite of the warning signs, it is sprinting to hell and inviting God’s judgment. And as we’ll see next time, this world bears all the earmarks of a doomed society.