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God’s Longsuffering and Forbearance

Herman Hoeksema


In Romans 9:22, the concept “longsuffering” occurs in close connection with the concept “forbearance”: “What if God, willing to show His wrath, and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction.” In the Old Testament, the same term אֶ֥רֶך אַפַּ֖יִםְ (e-rek appa-yim—long or slow of anger, patient) is used to denote not only an attitude of God toward His people and the operation of His love and mercy toward them, but also an aspect of His fierce wrath toward His enemies. Longsuffering in the sense of God’s fierce wrath toward His enemies appears to be the meaning in such passages as Nahum 1:3: “The LORD is slow to anger (אֶ֥רֶך אַפַּ֖יִםְ), and great in power, and will not at all acquit the wicked: the LORD hath His way in the whirlwind and in the storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet.”

However, in the New Testament there are two different terms for longsuffering and forbearance. The words μακροθυμεῖν (makrothumein—to be longsuffering) and μακροθυμία (makrothumia—longsuffering) express God’s longsuffering, the attitude of His mercy toward His elect. God’s forbearance is expressed by ἐνεγκεῖν (enenkein—to endure) and ἀνοχῆ (anoché—forbearance), denoting His suspended judgment over His enemies. In Romans 9:22, these two terms occur together: God “endured” (ἤνεγκεν) the vessels of wrath “with much longsuffering” (ἐν πολλῇ μακροθυμία). It would seem that at least in this passage, the term “longsuffering” is used to denote an attitude of God toward the wicked.

However, this is not necessarily the case, and in view of the fact that in other passages of the New Testament “longsuffering” is uniformly used to denote God’s attitude of mercy toward His people, we prefer another interpretation in this instance. God bears the vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction, and He does this with much longsuffering. We may note here that the phrase “with longsuffering” is circumstantial: while God bears the vessels of wrath, He also reveals His longsuffering; while He is longsuffering over His people, He bears the vessels of wrath. Longsuffering and forbearance, therefore, occur together. The reason is that God’s people live in the midst of these vessels of wrath, and they oppress and persecute God’s people. This was plainly the case with the people of Israel in Egypt, a situation that the apostle has in mind according to the context of Romans 9:22. It follows then, that while God bears the vessels of wrath who cause His people to suffer in the world, He must reveal His longsuffering over His people. He will, indeed, speedily redeem them and quickly avenge them, but He is longsuffering over them with a view to the end.

Not so easy to interpret is Romans 2:4, where the two terms, “forbearance” and “longsuffering,” also occur side by side: “Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?” The text does not seem to convey any definite notion of the term “longsuffering.” It is merely mentioned here as one of the virtues of God that is despised by the impenitent. Longsuffering and forbearance are mentioned here in the same breath, as if they are simply synonyms, have the same object, and spring from the same motive in God. The text appears to lend support to the theory of common grace and has been quoted in proof of common grace. It appears that the goodness of God is intended to lead man to repentance. Yet the result does not correspond to the intention, for He who is supposed to be led to repentance despises the goodness, longsuffering, and forbearance of God and knows not that His goodness should lead man to repentance and salvation. God’s purpose is apparently frustrated by the unbelief of man.

This interpretation, as well as any other Arminian exegesis of the text, is excluded by the passage itself. We dare not overlook that the text does not speak of an intention of God that is frustrated by man. In that case it should have stated that the revelation and operation of the virtues of God that are mentioned here “should” or “ought” to lead man to repentance as far as God’s intention is concerned.

However, Romans 2:4 states a fact: “the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance.” Therefore, the question is, How can it be said of the same subject that God’s goodness actually leads him to repentance, while yet that subject is ignorant of this effect of God’s goodness upon him, despises it, and thus heaps up for himself treasures of wrath? The answer is that “thee” (or “man”) in the text does not refer to a particular individual, but rather to a class, to man in general. The apostle is not addressing a particular individual, but man in general. It makes no difference whether the apostle has in mind the Jews, or both the Jews and Gentiles. Of this “man” it may be said that God’s goodness actually leads him to repentance, as is clearly evident in the case of the elect. Yet it may also be said of “man” that he despises the goodness of God and does not know by actual experience that it leads him to repentance, as is evident in the case of the reprobate who rejects the gospel and thus aggravates his condemnation. This may also explain why the term “longsuffering” and “forbearance” are used here in close conjunction with each other.

Interesting for our understanding of the concept “longsuffering” is James 5:7-9: “Be patient (μακροθυμήσατε) therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience (μακροθυμῶν) for it, until he receive the early and latter rain. Be ye also patient (μακροθυμήσατε); stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh. Grudge not one against another, brethren, lest ye be condemned: behold, the judge standeth before the door.”

It is evident that this passage does not speak of the longsuffering of God, but of believers in the world. Nevertheless, the idea of longsuffering is here most clearly and beautifully set forth in a very direct manner.

God’s people are oppressed, defrauded, condemned, and killed. They are admonished to endure their suffering with a view to the end, the reward that shall be theirs when the Lord shall come for their final redemption. This coming of the Lord is presented as near, for the Lord will speedily come and avenge them. The idea of longsuffering is also set forth by the figure of the husbandman and his attitude towards the fruit of the earth. He longs for the day when he shall be able to gather in the harvest. But he permits it to be exposed to the yearly and the latter rain, and he waits until the harvest is ripe. Here God’s people are exhorted to imitate God’s own longsuffering. He is longsuffering over them with a view to their final salvation; they, too, must endure until the end and be patient that they may receive the inheritance.

God’s Longsuffering and Forbearance Defined

We may conclude, then, that in the scriptural conception of God’s longsuffering there are the following elements. First, there is an object which the longsuffering God has in mind, the attainment of which is the final goal of His longsuffering. This object is the full realization of the promise, the final glory in all its riches of perfection, the inheritance which God has prepared for those who love Him and which is a reflection of His own infinite perfection. Second, there is the divine mercy, the constant, eternal, and unchangeable affection and will of God to lead His people to that highest perfection of glory. Third, there is the measure of suffering which God’s people in this world must fill before they can enter into the glory of the inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that never fades away.

We may define the longsuffering of God with respect to His people as the perfection of God’s love and mercy, according to which He constantly and unchangeably wills the final perfection of their glory in Christ, even in the way of their suffering, and wills their suffering as a necessary means unto that final perfection in all its fullness.

The question might be asked whether there is a basis for this longsuffering in God Himself, or whether we can at all conceive of longsuffering as a virtue in God apart from His relation to His people. In answer, we may postulate that there must be such a basis of longsuffering in the eternal one. God is self-sufficient. He is the unchangeable one. He does not become anything by His relation to His creature that He is not of Himself eternally. It is another matter, however, whether we can conceive of this. It stands to reason that the notion of time must be eliminated from the concept of longsuffering conceived absolutely. God’s slowness to anger, His longsuffering, then becomes an eternal and unchangeable passion. God never grows weary of His perfect delight in Himself. The divine archetype of His longsuffering as revealed to us in time is the unchangeable delight in the infinite fullness of His own perfections.

Of this longsuffering of God with respect to His people in the world, His forbearance is, strictly speaking, the very antithesis. It is that perfection of God according to which He wills the complete destruction and desolation of all who deny Him, in the way of their sin and of their prosperity in the world as a means for their ultimate damnation. The vessels of wrath are fitted to destruction. The wicked flourish that they may be destroyed forever. In His forbearance, He sets them on slippery places that they may come to desolation as in a moment (Rom. 9:22; Ps. 73:18; Ps. 92:7).

(Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics [Grand Rapids, MI: 2004] Vol.1, pp. 169-174)