Abimelech was the king of Gerar. A wealthy nomad named Abraham moved into his city one day, bringing along his sister Sarah. When Abimelech saw how beautiful she was, he took her for himself.
Sometime later God came to Abimelech in a dream and told him the truth: Sarah was already married, and her husband was Abraham. The LORD said to him, “I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her” (Gen. 20:6).
Abimelech returned Sarah to Abraham, and no harm was done.
God Restrains Our Sin
Elsewhere in the Bible, we see that God “keeps” us from sinning too. We are born with wicked and deceitful hearts. If left entirely to our own designs, this world would be a far darker place.
But God is sovereign and merciful. He regularly restrains our sin so that we do not act on our sinful impulses all the time. There are at least three key ways he does this.
First, he has given everybody a conscience.
Romans 1–2 teaches that everybody has a conscience (Rom. 1:32; 2:14-15). The conscience is fallible. It can be deformed. It can be ignored. But everybody has, more or less, a basic understanding of right and wrong, and this conscience helps guide people toward right behavior.1Philosophers in the Western tradition like John Locke have often called this “natural law.” God in his mercy has given all of us a conscience that restrains our sinful impulses here on Earth.2At the same time, conscience is also a basis for God’s judgment. We know better, but we sin anyway. Therefore, we have no excuse and are judged (Rom. 2:1).
Second, he uses community to keep us from sinning.
Political society is one example. Romans 13 teaches that all authority is established by God. One of the purposes of government is to punish evil and reward good (Rom. 13:3-4). Government, then, is God’s mercy to us. He has instituted governments to restrain our sin and promote righteous living.
Family is another example. In Deuteronomy and Ephesians, parents are told to teach their children and bring them up in the way of the LORD (Deut. 6:6-9; Eph. 6:1-4). Proverbs also encourages parents to teach and discipline their children so they will know the right way to live (e.g. Prov. 6:20-23; 13:24; 22:6). The words, example, and discipline of our parents are a measure of God’s mercy to keep us from sinning.
Third, he has ordered the world in such a way that actions have consequences.
This is a major theme in Proverbs: foolish actions yield bad consequences, and wise actions yield good consequences. Be honest and people will trust you. Tell lies and you will lose friends. Much of the wisdom in Proverbs is of this sort (but much more profound and helpful).
There are exceptions to these rules. Sometimes the evil flourish and the righteous flounder, but generally speaking, the consequences of our actions are fairly predictable because of how God designed the world to function.
Much like government and family, God disciplines us through the way he has ordered the world, punishing evil and rewarding good through the consequences of our own actions. This is another way God keeps us from sinning.
These are some of the main ways God restrains our sin, but he is certainly not limited to these. In the case of Abimelech, the Bible doesn’t tell us exactly what God did to keep him away from Sarah. There may have been some special intervention in that situation. At any rate, the LORD revealed his sovereign hand and mercy to Abimelech in a way that was obvious to him.3Second Thessalonians 2 contains another very famous reference to God restraining evil: “For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way” (2 Thes. 2:7 ESV). As with the case of Abimelech, the exact means is ambiguous.
The Cross and the Holy Spirit
There is one final key way God keeps us from sinning, and it is the most important: he gives his Spirit to those who believe in Jesus.
We are born with wicked hearts that hate God. We are born with God’s wrath hanging over our heads. God in his mercy restrains our sin, but our good works cannot save us or change us. Only Christ can do that.
He bore the whole weight of our sin on the cross because of his great love. If you are not walking with Christ right now, you need to repent of your sin and believe in Jesus. Then he will forgive your sins. You will be saved from his impending wrath, and nothing will ever separate you from his great love.
Moreover, he will give you the Holy Spirit. You will still have conscience, community, and consequences to restrain your sin. But you will also have the Spirit, and the Spirit will create true goodness in your heart that pleases God.
Thank God For Speeding Tickets!
If you are already in Christ, give thanks to God when you get a speeding ticket. Give thanks to God when you get a grounding from your parents, when you feel an awful pang of your conscience, when you suffer the consequences of your sin in any and every way. Give thanks to him because this is his mercy to you to keep you from sinning.
Praise God also for the Holy Spirit. Praise him because he doesn’t just restrain your sin; he actually delivers you from it. Praise him for giving you the fruit of the Spirit, and live by the Spirit so that you will not gratify the desires of the flesh any longer (Gal. 5:16-26; Rom. 8:5-14).
“Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit” (Rom. 8:8-9 ESV).
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Notes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Philosophers in the Western tradition like John Locke have often called this “natural law.”|
|2.||↑||At the same time, conscience is also a basis for God’s judgment. We know better, but we sin anyway. Therefore, we have no excuse and are judged (Rom. 2:1).|
|3.||↑||Second Thessalonians 2 contains another very famous reference to God restraining evil: “For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way” (2 Thes. 2:7 ESV). As with the case of Abimelech, the exact means is ambiguous.|