5. Restraining Grace a Great Privilege
Edwards poses a critical question: “If all natural men are God’s enemies, what would they not do, if they were not restrained?” Chief in Edwards mind is the bondage to sin that each natural man faces. Indeed, anyone who commits sin is a slave to sin (John 8:34). So with the dominion of sin in the background, Edwards demonstrates the glorious work of God’s restraining grace in the lives of the unconverted: “In hell, God lets the wickedness of wicked spirits have the reins, to rage without restraint; and it would be in a great measure upon earth as it is in hell, did not God retrain the wickedness of the world.” He proceeds, then, to show how God prevents the carnal man from falling prey to the “highest acts of sin.”
First, whenever men are withheld from sinning by the common influence of God’s Spirit, they are withheld by restraining grace. Essentially, Edwards argues that the unconverted would commit sin in the most heinous degree were it not for God’s restraining grace.
Second, all the restraints that men are under from the word and ordinances, is from grace.
Third, when men are restrained from sin, by the light of nature, this also is of grace.
Fourth, when God restrains men’s corruptions by his providence, this is from grace.
Edwards closes this section by turning his attention to regenerate men and urges them to consider their need for his restraining grace as well: “Let not the godly therefore be insensible of their obligations to the restraining grace of God. Though they cannot be said to be enemies to God, because a principle of enmity does not reign; yet they have the very same principle and seed of enmity in them, though it be mortified. Though it be not in reigning power, yet it has great strength; and is too strong for them, without god’s almighty power to help them against it.”
6. Why Natural Men Are Not Willing to Come to Christ, and Their Dreadful Condition
Edwards states the obvious here but personal experience teaches that many people (even Christ-followers) refuse to see it: “Hence we may learn the reason why natural men will not come to Christ. They do not come because they will not come (emphasis mine). Edwards appeals to John 5:40 which states the principle clearly. His assertion goes to the heart of the problem of freewill, namely, natural men are free to come but they are unwilling to come. They freely choose to reject Christ. Edwards adds, “They see nothing in Christ wherefore they should desire him; no beauty nor comeliness to draw their hearts to him.”
Conversely, Edwards argues that when sinners come to Christ, they do so freely: “When men are truly willing to come to Christ, they are freely willing. It is not what they are forced and driven to by threatenings; but they are willing to come, and choose to come without being driven. But natural men have no such free willingness; but on the contrary have an aversion. And the ground of it that which we have heard, viz. That they are enemies of God.”
So in a few sentences, Edwards summarizes the natural inability of sinners to come of their own freewill. It is not for lack of invitation; it is not for lack of opportunity. Rather is it because they freely turn away from the gospel. Simply put, they are free to come – but they are unable to come apart from a divine work of grace. Such an understanding of man natural inability appears to be missing in many churches. That is to say, the semi-pelagian view of the will has gained the ascendency and as a result the gospel is weakened in hearts of many.
Edwards urges sinners to consider their ruinous path:
First, if you continue in your enmity a little longer, there will be a mutual enmity between God and you to all eternity. Edwards draws the eschatological line in the sand and demonstrates the misery of anyone who opposes the rule and reign of the Lord Jesus Christ: “If you should die an enemy to God, there will be no such thing as any reconciliation after death. God will then appear to you in hatred, without any love, any pity, and any mercy at all. As you hate God, he will hate you … If you be not reconciled so as to become his friend in this life, God never will become your friend after death.” Edwards repudiates the notion of “so-called second chance evangelism and annihilationism in a stroke of the pen.
Second, if you will continue God’s enemy, you may rationally conclude that God will deal with you so as to make it appear how dreadful it is to have God for an enemy. Edwards proceeds to show how God will manifest his holy justice on unrepentant sinners (Deut. 32:40-42). “He will render vengeance to his enemies, and reward them that hate him … this is the terrible manner in which God will one day rise up and execute vengeance on his enemies.”