Question for Schuyler:

Does the Holy Spirit work in the reprobate, that is, internally in their hearts and souls and minds, to use them for his purposes, and especially to restrain sin? See John 14:17. See also 1 Samuel 10:6 , 10, which seems to say that the Holy Spirit came upon wicked Saul, in connection with 1 Samuel 16:14, according to which the Spirit departed from him, implying that he once possessed it. If the Spirit does not work internally in the reprobate, how is God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart to be explained?


The work of the Holy Spirit is indeed a deep mystery. We know that the Holy Spirit regenerates God’s elect people (John 3:8) and that the Spirit dwells within our hearts and gives us Christ and his comfort (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 20). But the question concerns the Spirit’s work in the reprobate. Understandably, we want to be careful here. If we teach that the Spirit works in the reprobate, will we not be agreeing with the Three Points of Common Grace? In those points the Christian Reformed Church teaches that “God, by the general operation of his Spirit, without renewing the heart of man, restrains the unimpeded breaking out of sin,” and that “God, without renewing the heart, so influences man that he is able to perform civil good.”

As far as restraint of sin is concerned, the Bible teaches that God restrains sin, but not by a gracious operation of God’s Spirit. A common illustration is a muzzle on a dog: the muzzle stops the dog from biting, but it does not cure it of its vicious nature. Even the devil is restrained this way: Christ binds the devil so that he cannot deceive the nations (Rev. 20:3), but that does not make the devil even a little bit better. God restrains the wicked in various ways, but they never become anything less than totally depraved.

However, the Bible teaches that God works by the Spirit in the wicked. The controversial issue is with the internal work of the Spirit in the reprobate. Perhaps we are more comfortable with the idea that the Spirit works on (externally upon) the reprobate. In 1 Samuel 10:10 we read about Saul that “the Spirit of God came upon him,” enabling him to occupy the kingly office, and even to prophesy (see also 1 Sam. 11:6). That gift (anointing, enabling) of the Spirit was temporary: “the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul” (1 Sam. 16:14). Clearly, however we understand this work of the Spirit in Saul’s life, it did not bring him the blessings of salvation. Saul perished in his sins.

But there are other passages that teach that the Spirit works in the reprobate wicked. Probably the clearest is Hebrews 6:4–5. There the reprobate come into very close contact with the Spirit: they are “enlightened” (v. 4); they “tasted” (vv. 4–5); they “were made partakers of the Holy Ghost” (v. 4), but “they fall away” (v. 6). They are very similar to the hearers in Matthew 13 who hear the gospel and receive it “with joy” (v. 20). Their joy is superficial and short-lived, however: they never truly believe or bear fruit, and thus they perish. The people in Hebrews 6 were church members and had certain spiritual experiences, but they only tasted without ever digesting and profiting from the Gospel.

Then, of course, there is the work of the Spirit in hardening the wicked. Hardening must be an internal work of the Spirit, because the Spirit hardens the heart of the wicked. There are other examples of God’s working in the hearts of wicked men. For example, God “stirred up the spirit” of Cyrus, king of Persia, so that he made a decree permitting the Jews to return to Jerusalem (Ezra 1:1). And indeed the king’s heart is in God’s hand (Prov. 21:1).

Perhaps we are nervous and reluctant to confess the internal work of the Spirit in the reprobate because when we hear “common” or “general” we think “common or general grace.” But we must remember that God works by his providence in all men, although not graciously in all men. The confusion of providence with grace is a serious error, but we must not overreact. Otherwise we are in danger of another error, a denial of common providence. God works upon, through, and even in the wicked by his Spirit to accomplish his sovereign purpose and good pleasure. The wicked are not at all outside of the operations of God. Of the wicked we can say that in God they too live and move and have their being (Acts 17:28).

How blessed we are that God has been pleased graciously to work in us to give us faith in Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins in his blood. “But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his” (Rom. 8:9).