4 Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? – Rom 2:4 NASB
Kindness and Repentance at War
We tend to view kindness and repentance as two warring sides of a battle we are having with God. As we judge a teaching, we either think it is too kind and soft and antinomian, just letting people get away with sin, or else we think that it is too harsh and demanding, pushing for repentance without kindness. We tend to view kindness and repentance as mutually exclusive warring factions. We think that we should either be kind and not push for repentance, or we should be unkind and push for repentance. In fact kindness and repentance are warring factions the way we usually approach them – we can’t imagine kindness which isn’t wholly accepting of our behaviors. We can’t imagine a call to repentance which isn’t difficult and convicting and confrontational.
(To be clear, I think the context here in Romans 2 indicates that Paul is thinking of repentance in the traditional sense of changing sinful behavior – not a transition from unbelief to belief. That argument is for a different post, but here I am using the word ‘repentance’ in that sense.)
Which Comes First?
We imagine that repentance leads to the kindness of God. But this is exactly reversed. God’s kindness precedes our repentance. The kindness of God is established towards you before you have repented of anything. God takes the initiative in being kind in the face of our sin and lack of repentance. God knows that there is no harshness, no confrontation, no dressing down, and no anger which will inspire someone to repent. The cross of Christ says, you can be so unkind to God that you would kill His only begotten Son, and He will still raise from the dead and find you and bless you. In the most dramatic way possible, He has declared that there is no mean-spirited judgement and no harsh demand which is ever going to help someone along the way. It just doesn’t work. It is kindness that leads to repentance. It is unwarranted kindness which undoes us. It is the warm and accepting embrace, it is affection and joy in someone’s presence, that invites them into repentance. The forcefulness of what Martin Luther calls “right-handed power” does not work. Left-handed power, the apparently weak force of affection and kindness and forgiveness, is far more efficacious in leading us to repentance. That is what this verse is teaching, and that is what my experience teaches as well.
Now, because we have this dichotomous notion of kindness and forgiveness, we bristle at the suggestion that we need to repent at all. We imagine that harshness and joylessness lie down that road. Thus we rebel. But it is hard to imagine that the thing that is borne out of kindness of the Almighty is leading to joylessness and groveling servitude. His kindness is leading us to joy, to stability, to safety, to substance, to a banquet, to a wedding feast. His kindness knows that if we arrive at the party unrepentant we still bring all of our emotional sinful turmoil. He wants us to come to enjoy, to love, to shed our sin and enter as a child in beauty and playfulness. We imagine our plan to hide under a bush and sew fig leaves will lead to kindness.
Kindness and Repentance in Relationships
This is also the dynamic in our relationships. We imagine that when others fail to meet our expectations and demands, that if we withhold kindness, if we enforce our boundaries and threaten consequences, it will lead them to repentance. But this never ever works. All it can do is lead us all to greater isolation and alienation. Perhaps this is what hell ultimately is: people judge themselves and judge God into complete isolation. Nevertheless, we war against the purposes and heart of God when we demand repentance as a condition for relationship. We love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). But remember, you are not under the pressure to love well. You are under the pressure to believe strongly that He first loved you. He will lead you to repent of your selfishness and hatred and criticism when you come to cherish and believe in His kindness. But in that belief, at His behest, we do love!
God is Leading Us
Here is something else that is immensely comforting from this verse in Romans 2. God is leading us. Our repentance is not our own. I don’t need to create a repentance agenda. His presence is real, and He is leading us with immense tenderness and affection. We might think quite harshly of ourselves that we need to lose weight, stop lustful thoughts and behaviors, become more disciplined, or whatever. We might think similar things about someone else. Certainly all of this is probably true. But God in His kindness loves us. He looks upon us with deep knowledge and wisdom, with a long-term perspective we could never imagine. And in the midst of the turmoil, in the midst of our unrepentant train wreck lives, His agenda is better. It is not our agenda. Perhaps the key to everything we struggle with is a small stronghold of wrong belief, an idol of self-trust and inward narcissism. We think it is nothing, we have bigger fish to fry. I can’t worry with that until I conquer these huge sins. But God knows us. His beautiful kindness cleanses us in deep ways that lead to luscious fruitfulness.
So we can enjoy this confidence: God is leading us in kindness to repentance. His grace, which is greater than our selfishness and rebellion, is cleansing us of sin. We can rest in this assurance. When we prove to have very stubborn and habitual sin, we can still hold dearly to this confidence: He loves us. His way will prevail with us. We can believe that for ourselves and we can believe it for each other. I will see these chains fall. In a real way, not just a theoretical way, the Son will set me free (John 8:36). If I do not seem so free now, if I am still embroiled in hurts and habits and hangups, His love and His kindness is consistent and persistent. I do not need to repent to ingratiate myself to God. His kindness does not depend upon my behavior. I am not His God, He is my God. He is far more faithful and kind than I could ever be.
We think Lightly of Grace
And so we come around to the first half of this verse. The secret beating heart to our terrible problems lie here. We think lightly of God’s kindness and tolerance and patience. We don’t know that His kindness is leading us to repentance. We think His kindness is letting us just stew in our sinful juices. We think He just isn’t really kind at all, that He is mean and judging and harsh. We don’t care about His patience and forgiveness – we think His salvation is simply a springboard into our self-directed repentance. And we have the gall to call this “sanctification”! We neglect so great a salvation (Hebrews 2:3). In sermon after sermon, conversation after conversation, day after day, we press the judgement. We criticize. We place all of our confidence in the right-handed power. We make ourselves the controller of God by thinking that our repentance will coerce His kindness. Like Jacob, we wrestle with God when the promise has already been established. What fools we are! But God is not swayed! There is no shadow of turning with Him! He stands firm, unphased, unmoved by our foolishness. He is constant in His grace. He is rich in mercy. His kindness is always constant, and is always leading us to the beauty of repentance.