Restraining or Renewing Grace?

In Volume 9 of The Works of John Owen, the renowned theologian and pastor talks about restraining and renewing grace. Restraining grace is that work of God that keeps people in “fear of shame, danger, death, and hell.” It is similar to what God told Abimelech in Genesis 20:6, “it was I who kept you from sinning against me.”

Renewing grace, on the other hand, “is faith and love,—faith working by love. A man who hath a spiritual understanding may examine himself, and find under what conduct he is.”[1]

The question for today’s post is simply this: Are you merely under the influence of restraining grace or have you experienced the power and hope of renewing grace? 

Restraining Grace

True, in the context of our Nation’s current cultural crisis, we see the walls of restraining grace crumbling all around us. Sins committed today were similarly, perhaps, committed 100 years ago. The difference is that today they are (literally) paraded down main street while in the last century they were done in secret. 

Of course, as technology has increased and the boldness of wicked men and women has increased, new sins are participated in today that sinners of past generations could not have even fully fathomed. 

Yet, in the mercy of God, restraining grace, at least some measure of it, still prevails in many places. That is, as wicked as our current culture is, it is not as wicked as it could possibly be. And there are many places around the country and the world where people, with the moral law of God upon their hearts and consciences (Romans 2:15), seek to try to live some sort of outwardly respectable life. 

In the midst of declining morality, there remain people who “by nature do what the law requires” (Romans 2:14). Paul does not mean they actually “keep” the moral law of God, but that there are times when it is clear their Imago Dei is showing. Their efforts at morality show that they know, at least in part, that God requires something of them. 

Renewing Grace

This circles us back to the point of today’s post. Restraining grace is not enough for a person to have true peace with God. Restraining grace may allow a person in their own sinfulness to suppress their guilt and feel worthy of heaven, but it will not bring a person to savingly surrender to our Lord Jesus Christ. 

For that, we need renewing grace. We need the grace of Ezekiel 36:25-27 whereby God does not merely “keep us form sinning” but goes beyond that to remove our hearts of stone and replace them with a heart of flesh. This is renewing grace. Grace that produces in us a total change. We must be born again. 

How do you know you’re born again? Because you love Christ. You believe on Christ. You walk with Christ. You have been transformed by the power of God in the gospel. You obey from the heart (cf. Rom. 6:17). His will becomes more important than your own. You seek to walk the ancient paths He has set before you (cf. Jer. 6:16).

This is the difference between restraining grace and renewing grace. Restraining grace keeps you from sin out of fear of cultural ramifications. Renewing grace keeps you from sin out of fear of God. The desire of the heart moves from seeking conformity to a standard of self or society to seeking conformity to the standard of God. 

Those under the influence of restraining grace may go to great lengths to justify themselves. They may regularly attend church. They may dabble in philanthropy. They may avoid more of the egregious sins so prevalent today. 

But it is only those under the sovereign influence of renewing grace who are savingly and lastingly converted to Christ. 

Examine Yourself

The Bible instructs us to examine ourselves (cf. 2 Cor. 13:5). We would do well to consider Owen’s categories, which I find to be biblical, and make serious effort today to contemplate whether we are under the control of restraining or renewing grace. 

If you find yourself only under the power of restraint, then I remind you of the words of that old hymn…

Dark is the stain that we cannot hide.
What can avail to wash it away?
Look! There is flowing a Crimson Tide,
Brighter than snow you may be today.

Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin.

Look to Christ today and find in Him, “wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).

[1] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 9 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 385.

Allen S. Nelson IV is the pastor of Perryville Second Baptist Church in Perryville, AR, where he resides with his wife Stephanie, and their 5 children. Allen is the author of From Death to Life: How Salvation Works and Before the Throne: Reflections on God’s Holiness . His other titles include blogger, rookie podcaster, and occasional conference speaker. Most importantly, he is a recipient of the undeserved grace of God.
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