January 18, 2010

The Straw that Breaks the Sinner's Back

The kindness of God leads you to repentance.” So says the apostle Paul in Romans 2.4. ‘Okay, fine’ you reply. ‘I kind of knew that already.’ But actually, it’s not as obvious as one might think. For Romans 2.4 is tucked away inside 2 solid chapters worth of wrath, condemnation, and teaching on sin and sinners. Romans 2.4 is preceded by 18 verses worth of wrath. And it is followed by 44 more verses that are designed to make us see that Jew and Gentile alike are desperate sinners.

In other words, Paul spends the better part of 63 consecutive verses trying to convince us of how bad we really are. But, in the middle of it all (and quite surprisingly), he reminds us that it is actually “the kindness of God”– not just the wrath of God, the conviction of sin, or the desire to avoid hell – that leads us to repentance. Wrath, guilt, and fear, as the missionary Paris Reidhead said famously, all have their good office work in leading us to repentance. But none of them are the straw that breaks the sinner's back and brings him, finally, to his knees.

The anger of God, by itself, is not enough to bring us to repentance. Neither is our recognition of the reality of our sin. According to Paul, people are brought to repentance when they are told of “the kindness of God” (v.4) – His “tolerance and patience”; His mercy toward sinners; His longsuffering and delaying of the punishment that we deserve; and, ultimately, His sending of His Son to pay sin’s penalty on our behalf.

Now don’t read too much into what I am saying. I am in no way arguing that the wrath of God is an optional part of the gospel. We cannot choose to either take or leave God’s anger toward sin and sinners when we share Jesus with our neighbors. If we could, Paul would not have dwelt on the subject for 63 verses! Indeed, the Bible never envisions a person coming to Jesus for salvation without, at the same time, feeling sorry over his sin. And “the kindness of God” never seems nearly as kind as it actually is unless we first see just how much hell we really deserve. So I am not eschewing God’s wrath – not even for a nanosecond.

I am just pointing out that God’s wrath, while an indispensible part of the gospel message, is not the clincher. People will never get to heaven simply by believing that God is angry with them … or even by feeling really sorry for their sins. Hellfire and brimstone are not enough. People get to heaven; people are brought to true saving repentance when, on the heels of the message of God’s anger, they learn also of God’s super-abundant kindness toward them – when they hear of Christ dying on their behalf, of God’s free grace to the undeserving, of the promise of eternal life … even to the ungodly. That is what breaks the stubborn sinner’s will – the recognition of the immeasurable “kindness of God”. Why? Because it makes him feel even more ashamed for His sin – that he has ignored and shaken his fist in the face of this kind of God for so long. And because, as he senses the great kindness of God, even for “a wretch like me”, his heart is melted.

So yes … believe what Paul says, in the first three chapters of Romans, about the wrath of God. Soak in it. Allow it to sting like alcohol poured into an open wound. It’s supposed to. But in the midst of it all, don’t forget “the kindness of God” – toward you and toward your neighbors.

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