The Goodness of God Leads to Repentance
We all believe in being nice and polite and kind. Few people enjoy being mean or see merit in being rude. We know the old adage is true: You can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar. The Bible itself teaches us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to love even our enemies, to practice the Golden Rule, to treat others as we want to be treated, to put others first, and to be kind, thoughtful and considerate. 2 Timothy 2:24-25 tells us that as God’s servants we must not strive or be quarrelsome or contentious (to fight, war, quarrel), but instead we must be gentle and kind to everyone, even mild-mannered, peaceful, and inoffensive (mild, kind, affable). Paul goes on to say that we should be able to teach others with patience, humility, gentleness, and courtesy (a deep-seated humility, first towards God and then towards others).
However, even in this context, the kindly disposed Christian must “correct” those in error and encourage them to repent and accept correct beliefs. The very use of the word “repentance” implies that wrong attitudes and actions must be condemned. Sometimes we get the impression that Christians should seldom if ever condemn or criticize anyone. Jesus certainly did not teach or practice such a notion; he clearly condemned often, criticizing some very sternly, as in Matthew 23. Repentance was at the heart of his preaching as he began his public ministry, a message that implied disapproval (Matt. 4:17). As kind as he was, he nonetheless condemned the immoral life of the woman at Jacob’s well (John 4) and told the adulterous woman in John 8 to “go and sin no more.” Even in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explicitly condemned murder, adultery, divorce, self-righteousness, and materialism. He condemned disobeying the “least” of the commandments. In Matthew 7 he condemned false teachers, calling them “ravening wolves” and also said that anyone who did obey him was “foolish” (Matthew 7:15-20; 24-26). He “upbraided” entire cities for not believing in him and repenting, telling them they were worse than Sodom (Matt. 11:20-24). In general, the people of his day were “evil and adulterous” (Matt. 12:39). He told the Pharisees they were children of the devil (John 8:44). He explained that the world hated him precisely because he did condemn evil (John 7:7)!
Of course, even more could be said of Jesus’ kindness and of scriptures instructing God’s people to be kind. But the point is, in addition to being kind, we must stand up for truth and godly living. The Bible is replete with passages telling us to rebuke those who are wrong. Paul criticized the Galatian Christians and asked them, “Have I therefore become your enemy because I tell you the truth?” (Gal. 4:16). He told the Ephesians to “have no fellowship with unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them” (Eph. 5:11). He even told Timothy to rebuke people publicly: “Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear” (1 Tim. 5:20). He told Timothy to “reprove, rebuke, exhort” (2 Tim. 4:2). He told Titus that the mouths of false teachers must be “stopped.” Paul himself condemned the Cretan people in general, accusing them of being “evil” even calling them “liars” and “lazy gluttons.” He then told Titus to “rebuke them” and to rebuke them “sharply” (Titus 1:10-13).
One passage that is sometimes misunderstood in this connection is Romans 2:4, which says that the “goodness” or “kindness” of God “leads” people “to repentance.” Some take this passage to mean that we should seldom if ever condemn anyone. But that’s a careless misunderstanding of the verse, because, first of all, the scriptures repeatedly tell us to rebuke others. Secondly, the goodness and kindness of God leads people to (notice carefully) “repentance.” Again, the very idea of repentance is that sin is to be condemned and renounced. Thirdly, this verse is right smack-dab in the middle of three chapters that are nothing but condemnation! Okay, that is a bit of an exaggeration, as there are some opening, introductory remarks in Romans 1, and there Paul does point out that the gospel is the power of God to salvation. But beginning at that point (Rom. 1:18), all through chapters two and three, Paul does nothing but condemn and condemn and condemn! And he does it in the strongest, sternest language possible! The whole point of these three chapters is that we are condemned—we are all sinners and stand in need of the gospel.
Finally, this idea that goodness and not condemnation leads people to become Christians is not what Romans 4:2 is saying, because it is saying the exact opposite! Just read the passage for yourself. God’s goodness had been shown to the Jews, over and over, and yet God’s goodness had not lead them to repentance! God’s goodness should have led them to repentance, but it hadn’t because they were stubborn! They instead were showing “contempt” for the “riches” of God’s “kindness, tolerance and patience.” God’s goodness was “meant to” (RSV ESV NRSV TLB NIrV) lead them to repentance; it was “intended” (HCSB Amp NLT CJB TNIV) to lead them to repentance. But it hadn’t led them to repentance, not because of any failing on God’s part, but because of their own stubbornness. It took men like Paul in the book of Romans and Peter on Pentecost (Acts 2) to cause people to come to their senses by clearly and convincingly pointing out their sins; in other words, by condemning them.
How can people draw a conclusion about Romans 2:4 that is just the opposite of what the passage is saying? The answer is simple. Either people are reading the Bible carelessly, or they are simply not reading it; they are reading about it. They are reading commentaries and other books about the Bible, but reading very little of the Bible itself.
Does God’s goodness lead people to become Christians? It should, and sometimes it does, but often it does not. Paul often preached on the goodness of God, as he did in Iconium (Acts 14:17), but the people there ended up trying to stone him to death. He spoke in Athens of God’s goodness (Acts 17:25), again pointing out that God’s goodness should lead people to follow him (v. 27), but the Athenians as a whole spurned Paul’s message, some even making fun of him (vv. 32-34).
In conclusion, let us, (1) by all means, be kind people always, (2) let us gently correct immoral behavior and erroneous beliefs, and (3) let us diligently and fairly study God’s word, not drawing quick and superficial conclusions.