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John Murray Commenting on Romans 2:4

October 16, 2008

Murray:

2:4. In verse 4 we have another question introduced by “or”, and “despisest thou” is parallel to “reckonest thou” in verse 3. The purpose of this “or” is not that of proposing alternatives; it is rhetorical like the questions themselves. And the effect is to press home upon the Jew in crescendo fashion the impiety of which he is guilty. In other words, these are not alternative ways of interpreting his attitude but different ways of stating what his attitude is. And that the apostle entertains no doubt respecting the contempt offered by the Jew to the riches of God’s goodness is demonstrated by verse 5. Paul is dealing with a hardened Jew and with increasing intensity of derogation points him to the perversity of which he is guilty.

“The riches” of God’s goodness refer to the abundance and magnitude of the goodness bestowed upon the Jew. The strength of the expression indicates that the covenant lovingkindness of which the Jew was the partaker is contemplated (cf. 3:2; 9:4, 5). And the same holds true for “forbearance and longsuffering”. The word “riches” governs all three terms. The abundance of God’s “forbearance and longsuffering” to Israel was exemplified again and again in the history of the Old Testament but the apostle must be thinking particularly, if not exclusively, of the forbearance and longsuffering exercised to the Jew at the time of writing. For in the rejection of the grace and goodness manifested in Christ the Jew had given the utmost of ground for the execution of God’s wrath and punishment to the uttermost. Only “the riches” of forbearance and longsuffering could explain the preservation accorded to him. We must not press unduly and thus artificially the distinction between “forbearance” and “longsuffering”. Together they express the idea that God suspends the infliction of punishment and restrains the execution of his wrath. When he exercises forbearance and longsuffering he does not avenge sin in the instant execution of wrath. Forbearance and longsuffering, therefore, reflect upon the wrath and punishment which sin deserves and refer to the restraint exercised by God in the infliction of sin’s desert. It needs to be noted that the apostle does not think of this restraint as exercised in abstraction from the riches of God’s goodness, the riches of his benignity and lovingkindness. There is a complementation that bespeaks the magnitude of God’s kindness and of which the gifts of covenant privilege are the expression.6 It is a metallic conception of God’s forbearance and longsuffering that isolates them from the kindness of disposition and of benefaction which the goodness of God implies.

To “despise” is to underestimate the significance of something, to think lightly of it and thus fail to accord to it the esteem that is due. It can also take on the strength of scorning and contemning. The Jew whom Paul is addressing had indeed failed to assess the riches of goodness of which he was the beneficiary, and whenever God’s gifts are underestimated they are truly despised. However, when we think of the unbelief with which the apostle is dealing as that of a Jew who had rejected the revelation of grace in Christ, we must predicate of him contempt and scorn in the most express and direct fashion. It is in these terms that we shall have to interpret Paul’s question.

“Not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance.” This must not be understood as an extenuation of guilt. The apostle is not excusing the offence by appeal to the ignorance of the person addressed; he is rather expanding the base of his indictment. He is saying in effect, “You have missed the great lesson and purpose of the goodness of God as it bears upon your responsibility”. “Not knowing” has in this case the force of “not considering”7 and implies that the purpose of God’s goodness was so patent that failure to understand was totally unexcusable. “Repentance” means change of mind and refers to that transformation registered in our consciousness by which in mind, feeling, and will we turn from sin unto God. It is coordinated with faith as an activity which lies at the inception of the believer’s life and is unto the remission of sins and eternal life (6 Acts 20:21; Heb. 6 : l ; Mark 1:4; Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 11:18). The assertion that the goodness of God leads to repentance must not be weakened to mean merely that it points us to repentance. The word “lead” must be given its true force of conducting ( c f . 8:14; 1 Cor. 12:2; 1 Thess. 4: 14; 11 Tim. 3:6). The apostle is not saying that every one who is the beneficiary of God’s lovingkindness is led to repentance. The presupposition of his indictment against the unbelieving Jew is quite the reverse; this Jew was the partaker of the riches of God’s lovingkindness and forbearance and longsuffering and was nevertheless impenitent. Neither is the apostle dealing with that inward efficacious grace which brings forth the fruit of repentance. But he is saying that the goodness of God, including without doubt the forbearance and longsuffering, is directed to the end of constraining repentance (cf. 11 Pet. 3 : 9). And not only so. The presumptuous Jew interpreted the special goodness of God to him as the guarantee of immunity from the criteria by which other men would be judged and he claimed for himself indulgence on the part of God; the Gentile needed repentance but not he. What the apostle says is that the goodness of God when properly assessed leads to repentance; it is calculated to indue repentance, the frame of mind which the Jew considered to be the need only of the Gentile. The goodness of God has not only this as its true intent and purpose; when properly understood this is its invariable effect. And the condemnation of the Jew is that he failed to understand this simple lesson.


6For passages illustrating the meaning of chrestotes cf. M att. 1 1 : 30; Luke 6:35; Rom. 11:22; Gal. 5:22; Eph. 2:7; 4:32; Col. 3:12; I Pet. 2:3.
7Cf. Philippi, ad loc.

[Footnote values original.]

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