Much ink has been spilled over the identity of the restrainer of 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7: “And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. 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.” I will argue in this article that the best interpretation of the restrainer is the Roman Empire and the Roman emperor rather than the Holy Spirit or the church.
What is interesting about the restrainer is that Paul uses two different participles to describe this person or thing. In verse 6 he uses a neuter participle translated “what is restraining” to describe the restrainer and in verse 7 he uses a masculine participle “he who now restrains it.” This leads me to conclude that the restrainer is both personal in one sense and impersonal in another. Whoever or whatever the restrainer is, the Thessalonians certainly knew what it was and we know that the restrainer was active during the first century.
I believe that the best interpretation of the restrainer is the Roman Empire and its emperor in order to explain the neuter participle as the government as a whole and the masculine participle as a line of individual emperors who by their ruling presence prevent the rise of the man of lawlessness. When those entrusted with enforcing the law are removed (Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pet 2:13-14), lawlessness and lawless men arise to vie for power and exalt themselves. As long as the Roman Empire exists, the man of lawlessness cannot arise to a place of prominence because the emperor already holds that distinction. Paul does not say whether the restrainer is something positive or negative, only that it holds back the man of lawlessness. Even though the Roman Empire is evil because it opposes the lordship of Christ, it still has a positive role to play as ordained by God to suppress evil. We need both Romans 13 and Revelation 13 as Russell Moore has said.
Just as the mystery of Christ is at work in the world bringing salvation to the ends of the earth, the mystery of lawlessness is also present trying to stop the spread of the gospel by keeping men and women enslaved to false gods. When the restrainer is removed, the mystery of lawlessness will burst forth in a stream of deception and ungodliness upon those who are perishing. The restrainer must be removed and taken out of the way so that the man of lawlessness can arise. The restrainer cannot be the Holy Spirit because God is omnipresent and cannot be removed from something (Psa 139:7). The work of the Holy Spirit is essential for salvation since he is the one who brings about regeneration (John 3:3-6). If a person is not indwelt by the Spirit, he is not saved since he is still in the flesh (Rom 8:7-9; Gal 4:6).
The restrainer cannot be the church because the church will endure until the second coming and the Bible makes no distinction between the rapture of the church and the second coming of Christ since they both occur at the same time (see my theses on eschatology article for more detail). Jesus promised that his church would endure and that the gates of hell would not prevail against it (Matt 16:18). He prayed that his church would not be taken out the world, but endure to the end (John 17:15). The temple of God in verse four must be the church because no human temple could be described as God’s temple after the abolition of animal sacrifices by the death of Christ (Eph 2:21; Heb 3:6). That makes it impossible for the restrainer to be the church since the church would have to be in existence for the man of lawlessness to take his place in it and for “the apostasy” to occur. An apostasy implies the presence of the truth since there must be something for people to depart from. For these reasons, interpreting the restrainer as the Roman Empire and emperor seems to be the only valid option available by process of elimination.