Despising God's Goodness
Rev. Herman Hoeksema
(Originally published in the
Standard Bearer, 15 April, 1997, vol. 73)
Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness
and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing
that the goodness of God leadeth thee to
repentance? 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 (Romans 2:4-5).
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
goodness 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 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
you attitude? How do you come to assume the
attitude in which you condemn in others what you
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 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?
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.
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"