01 September, 2016

Romans 2:4—“… the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance”

Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? (Rom. 2:4 KJV).

The argument that is made from this text is that God’s goodness, forbearance and longsuffering are shown to all men and express God’s desire to save them; yet they despise these manifestations of God’s love and grace towards them. The point of the defenders of a well-meant gospel offer is that the text speaks of God’s attributes, particularly His goodness, forbearance and longsuffering, as indicative of God’s love for all men, His grace towards them and His desire to save them. Louis Berkhof argues this very point in his book written in defense of common grace.


Prof. Herman C. Hanko

[Source: Common Grace Considered, pp. 198-200]

There are two things wrong with this interpretation. The first is that it clearly places the final decision for man’s salvation in man’s hands … [The] use of this text as proof that God desires to save all and thus to throw the final decision in man’s hands is blatantly argued here. There is absolutely no way one can hold to such a position without becoming Arminian in the fullest sense of the word.

The second thing wrong with this interpretation is that it changes the reading of the text. No man has a right to do this. The interpretation offered by the defenders of a well-meant offer deliberately change the text to read something which it does not say. These defenders say the text reads: “… not knowing the goodness of God desires to lead thee to repentance”but does not succeed in its desire. While the text says, “… not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance”and actually does so.

This alteration in the words of the text is inexcusable to a sincere student of Scripture, and shows a willingness to twist Scripture’s clear words in the interests of making a case for one’s own notions.

I am assuming, of course, that no one who uses this text as proof that God wants all men to be saved, actually believes that all men are saved, and that no one goes to hell. A universalist who believes that no one ever goes to hell is some other creature whose arguments are not relevant to the subject of the well-meant offer. A defender of the well-meant offer believes that many go to hell, even though God loves them and wants desperately their salvation.

One can, therefore, appeal to this text in support of a well-meant gospel offer and give it the meaning which the defenders of the well-meant offer give it only if one is a universalist, believing that all men will eventually be saved.

But no argument over a wrong interpretation of a text in Scripture is successfully refuted without a statement as to its true meaning.

The apostle is paving the way for his great teaching of justification by faith alone, without the works of the law. He is demonstrating that justification on the basis of the works of the law is an absolute impossibility. The keeping of the law cannot justify a man; it cannot justify any man. It cannot justify the Gentile; it cannot justify the Jew. The reason is that all are sinners under the just condemnation of God. Thus the whole human race is referred to in chapters 1 and 2, and in chapter 2, Paul directly addresses all men with this condemnation by using the general term “man” (verses 1, 3).

All men despise God’s goodness, forbearance and longsuffering. They even despise God’s goodness, forbearance and longsuffering when they know that these attributes lead to repentance, and thus salvation.

This fact that God’s goodness leads to repentance does not mean that God wants all men to be saved; nor does it mean that in fact God’s goodness always does lead every man to repentance and salvation. But it does mean that in fact, in the case of some, it is God’s goodness that leads to repentance, a truth that is evident on every page of Holy Writ. When the gospel is preached, the elect are brought to repentance. The wicked are witnesses of this great goodness of God that does save. But even though they see this, they still despise this goodness of God.

And, of course, we also despise God’s goodness, for we are included under the dire things Paul says about men. Thus behind the text stands the truth that God’s attributes, goodness, forbearance and longsuffering, are revealed in all His works, but men despise them. They are particularly revealed in His salvation of some. When some are led to repentance, it is the goodness of God that leads them to repentance, and not their works. Hence, the direct address is used here: “… the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance.” But they are nevertheless universally despised.

The text becomes very important, therefore, for the doctrine of total depravity; and this truth in turn prepares the way for the great truth of sovereign grace, namely that God justifies the elect through faith in Christ, apart from any works which man performs.



Prof. Herman C. Hanko

Romans 2:4 is also said to teach that longsuffering is an attribute of God towards the ungodly. The passage itself reads: “Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?”

But there are obvious problems with this interpretation. We call attention to the following.

1) Nowhere does the text say that the reprobate wicked are the objects of God’s longsuffering. The text merely asserts that men despise God’s longsuffering. It can perhaps be argued that if men despise such longsuffering, this must mean that they are the objects of it. But such is not necessarily the case. It is surely possible that the wicked despise this attribute of God even though they are not the objects of it. I may, e.g., despise the wealth of a man without possessing that wealth myself. Or I may despise marital love in general, and the specific instance of it I see in my neighbor without myself being married. This is the more plausible in connection with the longsuffering of God when we consider that the wicked always despise God with all their hearts. And, in despising God, they despise also all His attributes.

2) The argument that this text supports common grace is based on the statement that God’s goodness leads to repentance. But surely this does not prove an attitude of goodness on the part of God to all. The text, so interpreted, proves too much. The text does not say that God’s goodness wants to lead all men to repentance. Nor does it say that God’s goodness attempts to lead all men to repentance. It emphatically states that God’s goodness does lead to repentance. The interpretation of those who hold that this goodness is shown to all men proves too much. It says more than even the most passionate defenders of common grace want to say.

3) The passage is addressed to “man” in general: “Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man ...” (v. 1). “And thinkest thou this, O man ...” (v. 3). Paul is here including all men, whether Jew or Gentile, under the severe judgment of God.

When all are included under the just judgment of God, then does God’s grace towards His people become manifest. The following verses make that clear.

But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God; Who will render to every man according to his deeds: to them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life: but unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; but glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile: for there is no respect of persons with God (vv. 5-11).

Thus the point is that Jew and Gentile are treated alike, for all come under God’s just judgment. But to the contentious and those who do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, comes wrathwhether they are Jew or Gentile. And to those who work good, whether Jew or Gentile, comes blessing. These (that “worketh good”) are those, among the general “O man,” who are led to repentance by the goodness of God.



Rev. Angus Stewart

[Source: The Longsuffering of God—a survey of God’s longsuffering throughout Scripture; emphasis added.]

This does not refer to a “goodness” or “longsuffering” of God for the reprobate. First, the text does not say that Jehovah’s goodness or longsuffering merely tries (but fails) to lead the reprobate to repentance; it says that “the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance.” Second, the verse speaks not of merely a bit of common grace for the reprobate, as some allege, but of “the riches of his goodness.”

Romans 2:4 is not addressed to man as elect or reprobate but to generic and undifferentiated man. Thus he is addressed in the context as “O man” (1, 3). If we come to differentiation, God’s “forbearance” is for the reprobate, as in Romans 9:22; His longsuffering is for the elect (Luke 18:7) and is always salvific (II Pet. 3:15).


N.B.: To see the full article outlining God’s “longsuffering” throughout Scripture, click here:



“Despising God’s Goodness”

Herman Hoeksema (1886-1965)

[Source: The Standard Bearer, 15 April, 1997, vol. 73]

The heart of Romans 2:4-5 is undoubtedly expressed in the words, the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance. This is the undeniable truth around which the entire text in all its details is really grouped. It is the one certainty that can always be applied and always stands, to which there is never an exception: the goodness of God leadeth to repentance.

For this reason we must not change this statement, so as to fit our notion as to what the goodness of God ought to be. Poison kills; fire burns; bread nourishes; so, the goodness of God leads to repentance. We must not say, or think, or attempt to change the meaning of this statement into something like this: the goodness of God likes to lead you to repentance. This is not true. Or, the goodness of God tries to lead you to repentance. For this is not true either. Nor is it the meaning of the text. But we must leave this word exactly as it is, and say—just as we say, “poison kills,” “fire burns,” and “bread nourishes”—“the gaoodness of God leads to repentance.”

It does this always. We may know it or not, it makes no difference—the goodness of God leads to repentance. You may take poison or you may not, it makes no difference—poison kills. You may put your hand in the fire or you may not, it makes no difference—fire burns. You may feel the power of the goodness of God or you may not, it makes no difference—the goodness of God leads to repentance.

But there are those who despise that goodness of God. Despising the goodness of God, they treasure up unto themselves wrath. It is to those that the apostle calls our attention in the text.

Its Meaning

The apostle is still addressing the man of verse 1. He is not addressing any particular class. He is not addressing the Jew. Nor is the Jew excluded. The apostle has in mind to apply what he has said to the Jews in a special sense. But here he is addressing man. He is speaking in the singular. This man, the apostle has pictured in a very peculiar and realistic light. That is, he has pictured him just as he is. He has pictured this man as judging and condemning others, while doing the same things himself. He condemns the liar, and he lies himself. He condemns the thief, and he steals himself. When he condemns the backbiter, he becomes a backbiter himself. This is characteristic of sinful man. God lets him do it in order to make him say that he knows the righteous judgment of God, so that he will be without excuse in the day of judgment.

Now the apostle asks this man (and this is the connection with verse 1), “How do you explain your attitude? How do you come to assume the attitude in which you condemn in others what you do yourself?” 

How must this be explained? The apostle knows of but two possibilities. The first possibility is expressed in that first question in verse 3: “Thinkest thou this, O man, that judgest them which do such things, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God?” Is this the explanation? If this is the case, his attitude is explained.

Or—and this is the other possibility—is this attitude rooted in the sinful contempt in which you say, “I know that I shall be in the judgment, but I don't care”? As verse 4 puts it, “Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness ... not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?”

In the original, four words are used, whereas in our English translation of verse 4, there are but three. The text, therefore, should be read this way: “Or despisest thou the loving-kindness, forbearance, long-suffering, and goodness of God?” As to the meaning of these various terms, they are so related that “goodness” includes all the other virtues. God’s loving-kindness is His goodness manifest. God’s forbearance is His goodness manifest. God’s long-suffering is His goodness manifest.

What is God’s goodness? In the first place, God’s goodness is that virtue of God by which He is in Himself infinite perfection. This is the background of all other goodnesses. God’s goodness does not mean that He is our benefactor (i.e., that He “bestows good upon us”). God’s goodness means, in the first place, that He is good in the sense of perfection. Because God is good in Himself, He also does good. God does good to all creatures. There is no exception. He does good to all creatures, organically considered and individually considered. God always does good. He does good to the wicked and to the righteous. When God blesses the righteous, He does good. When God curses the wicked, He does good. God would not do good, if He blessed the wicked. God is in Himself good and the overflowing fountain of all goodnesses.

For this reason there is in the text mention of a threefold manifestation of God’s goodness. These three are also related. God’s loving-kindness is the first manifestation of His goodness. God’s loving-kindness is His inmost desire to bless the righteous. The goodness of God so works and reveals itself that there is in God the eternal desire to bless the righteous. You can never say that of God’s attitude toward the wicked, however. Then He would not be good. There is in God never a will, a desire, to make the wicked happy. We must understand this. The central thought of the text is to emphasize that it is impossible for God to bless anyone, unless he comes to repentance. As long as he does not come to repentance, and as long as he despises and does not know the goodness of God, he cannot taste the blessing of God. We must understand, therefore, that the loving-kindness of God is that manifestation of God’s goodness according to which it is His eternal desire to bless the righteous. This is why the natural man despises that loving-kindness of God. Man will never despise a general grace. But he despises that God blesses the righteous.

The other two terms, God’s long-suffering and forbearance, are again manifestations of the goodness of God as revealed in time. God’s long-suffering is His desire to deliver His suffering people, but His waiting until all things are ripe. If I have my child on the operating table and that child begs me to stop, but I keep right on cutting into the live flesh until the operation is completed, I am long-suffering over that child. So, God’s long-suffering is His purpose finally to bring His people to glory, while permitting them to suffer until the time is ripe.

God’s forbearance is the antithesis of long-suffering. It is His will to destroy the wicked in the day of judgment, while allowing them to prosper until that day. God’s forbearance is this: I have a man in my home who eats my bread, drinks my water, wears my clothes, and sleeps in my bed. That man ignores me and abuses my children. I forbear from putting him out of my house until the time is ripe. This is God’s forbearance. The forbearance and long-suffering of God are manifest.

The apostle asks the sinner, “Despisest thou the loving-kindness, and forbearance, and long-suffering of God; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?” To “despise” a thing presupposes that we come into contact with it to the extent that we know that which we despise. The apostle means, therefore, that in some way, to some extent, man always comes into contact with this threefold manifestation of God, the heart of which is that the Lord blesses the righteous.

Despisest thou this?

It is emphatically in the church, where the goodness of God is bestowed, that the goodness of God is despised.

To despise a thing is to think nothing of it. To despise a thing is to judge it worthless, not to want it. Therefore, when the testimony is, “The Lord blesses the righteous,” we simply ignore it and continue to walk in sin. Do you not see that the sinner, going on in his own way, despises the goodness of God?

Its Cause

How is this possible? The apostle says that the deepest cause is in the sinner’s impenitent heart. “But after thy hardness and impenitent heart,” the text says. The heart is the center of a man’s life from a spiritual point of view. From the heart is the life of man as to its spiritual direction. An impenitent heart is a heart that cannot repent. It is not a heart that does not repent. An impenitent heart is a heart that cannot repent; neither is it a heart that cannot be brought to repentance. It is a heart that cannot repent of itself.

To “repent” is to change, so that our judgment of our own sin is as God’s judgment of our sin. An impenitent heart is the very opposite. It is a heart that loves sin, that seeks sin, that walks in sin.

That impenitent heart, the apostle says, is hard. It is not hardened. It is hard. “After thy hardness,” says the apostle. Hardness is the characteristic of the impenitent heart. That heart is hard, so that it is not receptive for repentance. When that impenitent heart sits under the influence of the word of God, even before that word comes, it makes up its mind not to repent. An impenitent heart is always hard. It is not that the impenitent heart is first soft and that gradually that heart hardens. That heart is hard from the beginning. Every impenitent heart is hard.

It is true that there is a hardening of the heart in a natural way, but not in the spiritual sense. Even a hard, impenitent heart can become hardened in a natural way. When first that hard, impenitent heart comes under the influence of the word of God, there are the pangs of conscience, a certain fear, a trembling before that word. But under the influence of the goodness of God, that impenitent heart becomes hardened. We can see, often to our deepest sorrow, how the impenitent heart becomes hardened. With an impenitent heart, one does not know that the goodness of God leads to repentance. This is the immediate result.

The Arminian distortion is that God is good in the sense of being gracious to all. He is good in the sense that He likes to save all. Because He likes to save all, He tries to lead all to repentance. When He does so, there are some who resist that goodness of God. This is the Arminian distortion of the text.

But this is not the expression of the text. The text does not say, “the goodness of God tries to lead you to repentance.” The text makes a statement of fact. The text says that the goodness of God leads you to repentance. It is impossible, if you leave the text in its context, to elicit from it a general grace. Instead, it is a general statement of fact: The goodness of God leads to repentance.

This becomes manifest in those who come into contact with this fact. It is as though I would say, “Don’t you know that fire burns you?”—meaning, of course, as soon as you come into contact with it. Or, “Don’t you know that poison kills you?”—meaning, of course, when you come into contact with it. So the apostle says: “Don’t you know that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?”—meaning, as soon as you come into contact with it.

The natural man does not know that the goodness of God leads to repentance. Does he not know the fact? He does. This is not the meaning. But he does not know it in the sense that he does not experience and taste that the goodness of God leads to repentance, and in the sense that he despises it. He despises the goodness of God as it becomes manifest in His loving-kindness, forbearance, and long-suffering, not knowing, in the sense of not experiencing, that the goodness of God leads to repentance.

Its Result

Is this the case? If it is, then there is but one result: the man who so despises the goodness of God treasures up wrath against the day of wrath and judgment.

There comes a day of the revelation of the judgment of God. The passage warns, “After thy hardness and impenitent heart, treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath, and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.” We must not say that there comes a day of the judgment of God. This judgment is always present. But there comes a day when this judgment shall be revealed.

This judgment is now frequently covered up. It is so covered up that frequently we would say that God’s judgment is not righteous. The wicked seem to prosper, and the righteous are in trouble. We would say that God’s judgment is not righteous. This judgment is so covered up that men have come to the conclusion that there is a general grace. God’s judgment is now covered up, but there comes a day when that cover will be taken off. That is the day of the revelation of the judgment of God.

That day will be a day of wrath. For whom? For that man. It will be a day of wrath; that is, it will be a day of nothing but wrath. And that man treasures up wrath. He lays up wrath as one lays up a sum of money in a bank. He piles up wrath. He lays up wrath in the bank of God’s judgment. He does that in all his life. He is always increasing his capital of wrath. He treasures up wrath against the day of wrath. You may call that “grace” if you please, but the apostle knows nothing of that.

What shall we say then?

I will conclude with the same words which I started: “The goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance.” If you have not come to repentance, you have never known the goodness of God. If in the midst of those men who despise the goodness of God you become a penitent sinner, what then? Is there any hope? I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ: this, the apostle still has in mind. “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ. For in it is revealed the righteousness of God, which is by faith in Christ Jesus.” The righteous shall live by faith. Living by faith, they say this: “Being justified by faith, we have peace with God” (Rom. 5:1).



Rev. Herman Veldman (1908-1997)

[Source: The Standard Bearer, vol. 25, no. 21 (Sept. 1, 1949), p. 493]

This text is also superficially quoted in support of a general goodness or longsuffering of God. Addressing the wicked, unrepentant Jews, concerning whom the apostle declares in the following verse that “after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God,” the apostle tells us in verse 4 that they despise the riches of God’s goodness and longsuffering and forbearance, not realizing that this goodness of God leads unto repentance. We should notice, however, that the text does not teach that the goodness of the Lord would lead these wicked Jews unto repentance. It does teach us, however, that the goodness of God leads to repentance. Not that it would lead us, but that it actually leads us unto repentance. If, therefore, we take this text at its face value, and apply this particular word of God to all men, head for head, then surely it declares too much. The apostle, then, would have us believe that the goodness actually leads these people to repentance; and, yet, in the following verse we are told that they are treasuring up for themselves wrath in the day of the revelation of the righteous judgment of the Lord. This “common grace” interpretation of the text is, therefore, obviously impossible.

The true interpretation of Romans 2:4 must be as follows. The goodness of God leads men to repentance. This is an undeniable fact. However, these wicked Jews did not know this. This does not mean that they were not acquainted with this fact as such, but that they did not know this in the spiritual, experiential sense of the word. The riches of God’s goodness, longsuffering and forbearance, they despised. We must bear in mind that these riches were revealed unto them. Organically they belonged to the church of God in the midst of the world. Hence, they were fully acquainted with the riches of this goodness of the Lord. It had been proclaimed unto them time and again, and, besides, that the people of God were the objects of this goodness was known and observed by them. However, they despised this goodness of God, trampled it under foot, revealed in all their activity that they loved the darkness rather than the light, and trampled the goodness of God under foot as swine trample pearls under their feet. In this revelation of God the goodness of God reveals itself as longsuffering over His people, and as forbearance toward the ungodly. But the carnal element comes organically into contact with this goodness of God, which leads unto repentance, despises it and tramples it under foot, and will be held accountable for their profane attitude toward this goodness of the Lord, which is only upon the elect, but is also revealed unto them.

The longsuffering and forbearance of the Lord have this in common, that both refer to a Divine restraint, a Divine checking or holding of Himself in check. However, the longsuffering of God is an activity of Divine love; the forbearance of the Lord is an activity of Divine wrath. God is longsuffering toward His people, elected and loved in Christ Jesus. He restrains His desire to save them out of all the afflictions of their enemies because He seeks their welfare and would save all the elect even unto the end of time. And the Lord’s forbearance is toward the reprobate wicked. He restrains His desire, His passion, to destroy them, because their full measure of iniquity must be filled, and also because they must serve the elect. Using them as instruments in His causing of all things to work together for the good and salvation of His people, He checks Himself, His inner passion, to consume them in His righteous anger and love for His own, until they shall have served His purpose and contributed their part in the eternal salvation and glory of His elect church.



Prof. Robert D. Decker

[Source: The Standard Bearer, vol. 72, no. 2 (Oct. 15, 1995), p. 35]

The text does not say that it is the intention of God to lead to repentance, but that God’s goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering actually leads to repentance. The apostle is addressing the “O man” of verses 1 and 3, and “man” here cannot be understood as an individual, for then the text would be saying of the same man that God’s goodness leads him to repentance, while that very man does not know this, despises that goodness, and gathers to himself treasures of wrath. This is impossible. If God’s goodness leads a man to repentance, that man does not despise that goodness. And, if a man despises the goodness of God, surely that goodness of God does not lead him to repentance. We must, therefore, understand “man” as a class, collectively. It is true that the goodness of God leads man, that is, elect man, to repentance. It is also true that man despises the goodness of God and gathers for himself treasures of wrath, not knowing that the goodness of God leads man to repentance. This is true of the ungodly, reprobate man.



More to come! (DV)

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