On Romans 2:4 and the Will of God

In this sermon excerpt MLJ makes reference to Ezek. 33:11, Matt. 5:45, 23:37, Acts 14:17, 1 Tim. 2:4–6, and 2 Pet. 3:9

by Martyn Lloyd-Jones

There, then, is our second term, leadeth, and here we arrive at what has often proved to be a very difficult statement, which has often led to a good deal of discussion and debate and confusion. The Apostle’s statement is that God’s goodness leads them to repentance, and we need to know what he means by this. Why does he use this particular term? In Romans 8:14, he says, ‘For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God’, and that is exactly the same word as we have here, where we are told that the goodness of God ‘leadeth thee unto repentance’. Now this term does not, of course, mean forcing; it does not mean driving or bludgeoning. What is obviously means is a constraining influence. That is what you do when you lead a horse, or a dog, or any other animal. You are bringing to bear a constraining influence if you are holding the reins or the halter, or whatever it may be. There is no force of necessity, but there is a sense of constraint, there is an influence, a constraining influence, and what the Apostle says is that God’s goodness exercises this kind of constraining influence on men to bring them to repentance.

In view of that, then, we again have to ask what exactly he is teaching here. It is important that we should be clear about our terms, and the first thing we notice is that he is talking about unbelievers. These are the people who are not brought to repentance, therefore they are the unbelievers. And what the Apostle says is that they are without excuse because they are despising the goodness of God which was meant to bring them to repentance.

Now you see where the difficulty arises in the realm of theology. Here are unbelievers who die unrepentant, and yet the Apostle says that the goodness of God leads them, exercises this constraining influence upon them, to bring them to repentance. And it is not surprising that this has often been a bone of contention, and has engaged the attention of those who desire to have a truer understanding of God’s way of salvation and of how any single one of us ever does come to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.

So what do we make of this? We must go back again to 2 Peter 3, this time to verse 9. Is it not interesting to notice the parallel between these Apostles? Always where you come across a difficult place in Scripture the thing to do is to compare Scripture with Scripture, to find another one, a parallel statement, something that is similar, and here it is: ‘The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance’. You notice it is saying almost precisely the same thing. And do you know that there are other statements in the Scriptures which speak to the same effect. You will find in Ezekiel 33:11, for instance, that God says, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked’. And you will find other statements in the Scriptures in which God, as it were, appeals to them, to the nation of Israel, and beyond the nation of Israel to all people, with the word ‘Oh!’ And you remember how our Lord Himself wept over Jerusalem and said, ‘Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . . how often would I . . . and ye would not!’ [Matthew 23:27].

Now all these statements are parallels with the statement in this passage and therefore I must ask this question: What, then, is God’s goodness meant to do with regard to the unbeliever? For it is the unbeliever with whom we are dealing. There are people who have tried to evade this difficulty by saying that this statement means that God has shown His goodness to the unbeliever to render him without a single excuse; that He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends His rain on the just and the unjust, so that at the day of judgment they will have nothing to say. God’s goodness will be the answer to their every excuse. And yet, you see, we cannot accept that as an explanation, because if the Apostle had meant to say that, he would have put it in that way, and he would never have used the word ‘leadeth’. This word is too active and positive a word for that. If that had been merely God’s object, it would have had no effect upon them, it would not have been designed to have an effect upon man. But you cannot use the word ‘lead’ without getting the idea of a constraining influence. When you talk about somebody leading somebody else or of being led by a truth, it is very positive. That other idea just leaves it there on the wall, as it were, passive and negative, there merely to rob me negatively of any chance of excusing myself. But this is an active word.

What then, does it mean? It seems to me that there is only one conclusion we can come to, and that is that God’s goodness is meant and designed to bring men to repentance and salvation; and when I say ‘men’ I mean all men, unbelievers as well as believers. We are dealing with unbelievers here. The Apostle is arguing with men who will not repent and he says, even to them, that God’s goodness leads you, was meant and designed to lead you, to repentance. So the Apostle here is teaching that God manifests a positive favour even to the unbeliever – and that is where the importance of being clear about these matters comes in.

It is, as I have shown, a parallel with what our Lord teaches in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘. . . for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust’ [Matthew 5:45]. At this point, you remember, the Lord is talking to the disciples, and He tells them that they are to be perfect even as their Father which is in heaven is perfect; He tells them to love their enemies, and to do good to them that hate them. He says, you should do it because God does it. So we are to love our enemies as God loves His enemies. He loves the unbeliever and He shows that love in this goodness through the sun and the rain. There is the parallel.

We find the same again in Paul’s sermon at Lystra in Acts 14. But indeed it seems to me to be parallel also with what the Apostle has already been saying in chapter 1:20, where he says, ‘For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse’. So the teaching must be that this goodness of God is a manifestation of God’s grace to all men, sinners and unbelievers included. By these things He would lead all men to repentance and therefore to salvation. For as I have already quoted from 2 Peter 3:9, He does not wish that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.

Now then, where have we landed? ‘Does that mean’, says someone, ‘that  you are completely denying the doctrine of predestination and election?’ It sounds like it, does it not? But I am not. How, then, you may ask, do you reconcile these things? In this way: this is the manifestation of a grace of God, but it is obviously not efficacious grace; it is not effectual grace; it is not a constraining grace; it is not the irresistible grace. Because, although God manifests this grace to these people, it does not lead them to repentance. It is mean to, and it is designed to, but it does not do so. Why not?

Well, the answer is – and here we come up against a great mystery which we shall never solve in this world – there is clearly a difference between what God desires and what God wills and brings to pass. What God wills He performs and brings into being. But – and this is the astounding things that we are told – God does not wish that any should perish. He wishes that all should come to repentance. There are some who are brought to repentance, there are some who are not. It is God who brings to repentance, for no man left to himself would repent – this text proves that once and for ever with an unusual clarity. Though God manifests His goodness and His forbearance and His longsuffering, men despise it, they use it to serve themselves, their own ends, and their sins. They pass it by, they do not trouble to look at it. Though God has manifested His grace, and though He meant it to bring them to repentance, it does not do so. No one would repent if God did not bring us to repentance by an act of His will and by His constraining and effectual grace.

Now let me try to elaborate that a little, because it is important if we want to be clear about the Scriptures we are studying. We shall find the same thing again as we go on in this Epistle – it is at the very heart of chapter nine. It is there, as we have seen, in 2 Peter 3:9, it is in 1 Timothy 2:6, and so on. It is in many places in the Bible, and it is our business as Bible students and those who are anxious to glorify God, to come to an understanding of these things.

So consider yet another example of this in Acts chapter seventeen. The Apostle Paul, preaching at Athens, said, ‘The times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent’. That is an absolutely universal statement; you cannot imagine anything more all-inclusive than that. In other words, the gospel is to be preached to all creatures. The offer of salvation is to be made to everybody. Not to some, but to all.

Now if you want to know what hyper-Calvinism means, it is the teaching which says that the gospel is only to be offered to some. And I have had the distinction of being called a dangerous Arminian by people who hold that belief, because I say that the gospel should be offered to all. God commandeth all men everywhere to repent, which means that if you repent, then you come to salvation, it is the first step in it. Yes, and therefore the offer of salvation, the offer of Christ and His perfect work, should be preached to all men without distinction. And that message is to be preached in order that men may come to know God’s goodness and in order that they may yield to it. I say, therefore, that God wishes that all men should come to repentance and to salvation, but it is equally clear that He does not will it. Then that leads me to say that this extraordinary statement here in the second half of Romans 2:4 gives the lie directly to all who try to argue that what the gospel does it persuade us to repent. It is an absolute proof that we cannot be persuaded. God has manifested His goodness, His forbearance, His longsuffering. He has commanded that all men everywhere should repent. There is all the moral suasion that you can ever get.

But what is leads to in the case of the unbelievers is that they despise it. That is what the natural man does with it. Moral suasion will never save anybody. No man is saved simply by the influence or the general effect of the appeal of the gospel upon him. No man can repent or believe until he has a new nature. He must be born again, because ‘the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned [1 Corinthians 2:14]. The natural is enmity against God; it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So when God commands such a man to repent, he defies God and says he does not want to repent. When God showers His goodness upon him to lead him to repentance, he despises it. It is God alone who saves, by the mighty operation of His Holy Spirit in the depth of the soul and of the personality.

If ever a text, which on the surface seemed to be saying the opposite, proved that, it is this text – the goodness of God is designed to lead men to repentance. It does not do so. It never has done so. Man will always use God’s goodness to serve himself. He will trade on it. He will make merchandise of it. The last thing he does is so to see it that he repents. That is not what makes a man repent. It is the operation of the Holy Spirit in giving a man a new mind, a new outlook and a new understanding. The first proof that a man has been born again is that he repents and believes the gospel. That is the order of salvation. I commend to you the wisdom of working out this text again. Study it, take it with its parallels, and I think you will see that it will bring you to that inevitable conclusion.

D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Romans: An Exposition of Chapters 2:1–3:20, The Righteous Judgment of God (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1989), 51–56.
In studying this verse, we have not only been handling a rather difficult subject, but have been looking into something marvelous and wonderful, something inscrutable, something, I take it, that we will never fully understand throughout eternity, and it is this: how God, being who and what He is, could ever show any grace or love or kindness to those who have not only sinned and rebelled against Him, but whom He knows will remain finally impenitent. But He does so, and He addresses them like this, ‘Oh that ye had known!’ I do not pretend to be able to put these things into such intellectual order that no difficulties are left. There are difficulties. But, my dear friends, we are talking about God and we are but human beings! We are looking into the eternal, the character of God, and our business is to accept our Scriptures, not to try to evade a problem like this by saying, ‘Ah, it is just there in order to render them without excuse’. No. The word ‘leadeth’ is active and positive, we have had to face it. And there, it seems to me, is the only answer – He wishes the salvation of all, but He does not will it, for what God wills He brings to pass. But here, to me, is the mystery – that He wishes this, that He wishes their salvation and proves it by His goodness and forbearance and longsuffering. He wishes that even those who are impenitent should finally have repented and come to salvation. ‘Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!’

Let us therefore, my dear friends, tread carefully. Let us approach these high and great and abstruse matters with reverence and with godly fear. Above all, let us be careful of passing judgment upon God and what He does. That is what these people do who are without excuse, these despisers of His goodness. Let us, then, in a spirit of adoration and worship look at the words that the Holy Spirit gave to the Apostle, let us give them their full content, and let us always beware of pressing any statement by our own logic beyond its own meaning and its own context. But above all, let us always be careful to compare Scripture with Scripture, lest in our ignorance and haste we be guilty of so describing God as to make Him contradict Himself, and, indeed, of having a contradiction at the very center and heart of His own life and eternal being. What a privilege to be allowed to look into these things! Let us thank God.

Ibid., 57–58.


original audio here

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