One of the most compelling, yet often misunderstood, arguments for pretribulationism relates to the Holy Spirit's role to the church and the tribulation period. Most holding to the pre-trib position believe that 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7 refers to the restraining ministry of the Holy Spirit through the agency of the Church. Thus, when the church is raptured before the tribulation, that ministry of the Holy Spirit will be removed as well. If this interpretation is correct, then it is a strong argument for pretribulationism.
I have been building a theological case for the pre-trib rapture. I presented the four foundational issues: consistent literal interpretation, premillennialism, futurism, and a distinction between God's plan for Israel and the church. Next, I brought forth six reasons for pretribulationism: contrasts between comings, an interval needed between comings, imminency, nature of the tribulation, nature of the church, and finally the work of the Holy Spirit in this article. In future installments I will present some concluding arguments and show the practical implications that flow from pretribulationism.
I believe the correct interpretation of this passage understands the restrainer to refer to the Holy Spirit as He functions during the present church age through the baptism of the Holy Spirit and indwelling of believers. This cryptic reference to the Holy Spirit's present work explains the unusual grammar employed in the passage. In verse six "the restrainer" is in the neuter gender (to katéchon) while in verse seven "the restrainer" is masculine (o katechôn). The significance of this grammar and how it relates to the Holy Spirit and the rapture is explained by Dr. Robert Thomas below.
Key to the above scenario is whether the Holy Spirit is the restrainer. After surveying various interpretations of the passage, Dr. Thomas concludes:
To one familiar with the Lord Jesus' Upper Room Discourse, as Paul undoubtedly was, fluctuation between neuter and masculine recalls how the Holy Spirit is spoken of. Either gender is appropriate, depending on whether the speaker (or writer) thinks of natural agreement (masc. because of the Spirit's personality) or grammatical (neuter because of the noun pneuma; see John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13, 14) . . . This identification of the restrainer with deep roots in church history . . . is most appealing. The special presence of the Spirit as the indweller of saints will terminate abruptly at the parousia as it began abruptly at Pentecost. Once the body of Christ has been caught away to heaven, the Spirit's ministry will revert back to what he did for believers during the OT period . . . . His function of restraining evil through the body of Christ (John 16:7-11; 1 John 4:4) will cease similarly to the way he terminated his striving in the days of Noah (Gen. 6:3). At that point the reins will be removed from lawlessness and the Satanically inspired rebellion will begin. It appears that to katechon ("what is holding back") was well known at Thessalonica as a title for the Holy Spirit on whom the readers had come to depend in their personal attempts to combat lawlessness (1 Thess. 1:6; 4:8; 5:19; 2 Thess. 2:13).1
Dr. Gerald Stanton cites six reasons why this passage should be understood to refer to the Holy Spirit's restraining ministry through the church.
(1) By mere elimination, the Holy Spirit must be the restrainer. All other possibilities fall short of meeting the requirements of one who is to hold in check the forces of evil until the manifestation of Antichrist. . . .
(2) The Wicked One is a personality and his operations include the realm of the spiritual. The restrainer must likewise be a personality and of a spiritual order, to resist the wiles of the Devil and to hold Antichrist in check until the time of his revealing. . . .
(3) To achieve all that is to be accomplished, the restrainer must be a member of the Godhead. He must be stronger than the Man of Sin, and stronger than Satan. . . .
(4) This present age is in a particular sense the "dispensation of the Spirit," for He works in a way uncommon to other ages as an abiding Presence within the children of God. . . .
(5) The work of the Spirit since His advent has included the restraint of evil. The Spirit is God's righteous Agent for the age, and there are many reasons to be grateful for His restraining hand upon this world's iniquity. None but the Lawful One could restrain this world's iniquity. . . .
(6) It is not difficult to establish that although the Spirit was not resident on earth during Old Testament days, whatever restraint was exerted was by the Spirit. . . . (Isa. 59:19) . . . The wickedness of Noah's day and the fact that life went on as usual in blindness to impending destruction is used of the Spirit in vivid portrayal of careless and wicked men upon whom Tribulation judgment shall fall. . . .
In light of this Scriptural parallel, it is exceedingly significant that in the days immediately preceding the destruction of the flood, the restraining work of the Spirit is emphasized. . . .2
We search the prophetic Scriptures in vain for any reference to baptism of the Spirit except in regard to the church, the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). While, therefore, the Spirit continues a ministry in the world in the tribulation, there is no longer a corporate body of believers knit into one living organism. There is rather a return to national distinctions and fulfillment of national promises in preparation for the millennium.3
Even though pretribulationists believe that many unique aspects of the current work of the Holy Spirit will cease at the rapture, it is not correct to say that we believe the Holy Spirit will not be present during the tribulation. Just as the Holy Spirit will engage in some ministries during the tribulation, relating to the 144,000 witnesses and the two witnesses, that are not occurring during the current church age, so there will cease certain ministries unique to the church which will enable the man of sin to come onto the stage of history.
2 Gerald B. Stanton, Kept From The Hour, 4th. ed., (Miami Springs, FL: Schoettle Publishing Company, 1991), pp. 99-102.
3 John F. Walvoord, The Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Co., 1958), p. 231.
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