Why God's Kindness Leads to Repentance

What we thought would be a routine procedure dragged out to three days in the hospital. The surgeon was amazingly kind, as were the nurses who meticulously cared for us. On the second day, when I began to realize that we might have a longer stay ahead, I went down to the store for some “possibles” we would need. When I filed into the checkout line, there was a woman ahead of me with as many items in her hands as I had. She smiled and said, “Why don’t you go ahead of me.” Little did she know the minefield she had just stepped into.

“Oh, I couldn’t do that,” I said. “My mother didn’t raise me to break in line, and what’s more I was always taught to let girls go first,” I said jokingly, but also kind of serious.

She patiently smiled, but insisted again that I go ahead: “I have some questions, and I don’t want you to have to wait on me.”

“But I would be glad to wait,” I said, still trying to be considerate, kind, my mother’s son, and so on.

Then she said something that suddenly brought tears to my eyes. There are tears in my eyes at this moment as I write these words, though I’m not sure I completely understand why.

Reciprocal Kindness

“Why won’t you let me be kind to you?” she said.

Why wouldn’t I? In my mind, apparently kindness counted only when I did it for someone else. In that small encounter I learned a new lesson. If you truly love hesed as Micah 6:8 says, you should love having it shown to you as much as showing it to others. As Paul says, it’s a pathway, and it can be traveled in more than one way.

Perhaps something like this is in view when Paul asks why we sometimes despise the riches of God’s kindness. Why would we question him in the garden? Why would we refuse to enter the Promised Land? Why would we say no to his extravagant offer of loving us through his Son?

His kindness is a path that leads us to repentance, that leads us to Jesus.

Hesed: The Path to Repentance

Paul is not the systematic theologian he is sometimes made out to be. He is a church-planting pastor, overpowered by the grace and mercy of God. Though Paul had been a persecutor of the church, ungrateful, even wicked, Jesus forgave him and enlisted him to become one of its most influential apostles. Paul had become a sure recipient of hesed, and he remained amazed by it for the rest of his life. He offers encouragement and deals with problems in his letters. And like the other New Testament writers, he thinks in Hebrew and writes in Greek.

We do not consult the letters of Paul like a theological answer book. Rather, we go to Paul to find the answers to problems and conflicts in the church and in our lives. That was the original purpose of his writing. He was writing to encourage the young church as it faced impossible obstacles. If he has a theology (and certainly he does), it is what William Lane calls a “task theology.”

To be honest, hesed as we have sought to define it is not prevalent in the writings of Paul. Twice he quotes Old Testament passages but frustratingly stops just before the word hesed appears (Rom 15:9, 10). Scholars cannot even agree on what Greek word he used when he was talking about hesed. Some say agape (love), while others argue for charis (grace).

But understanding hesed is not a matter of settling on one single term. Its semantic range is simply too vast. Grace, mercy, and love are central to Paul’s understanding of God’s free offer of forgiveness. In his writings, they are less technical theological terms and far more about describing the heart of God.

The Kindness of God

There is another term Paul uses that often describes the character of God and belongs in the world of hesed. It is the Greek word chrēstotēs usually translated “kindness” (see Rom 2:4; 2 Cor 6:6; Gal 5:22; Col 3:12; Titus 3:4).1 We have seen that this idea falls close to the center of the semantic range of hesed. The word most often appears in the midst of the “chain sayings” Paul (and Peter) was so fond of. In Ephesians 2:7 Paul speaks about the immeasurable riches of God’s grace being displayed through his kindness (chrēstotēs) to us in Christ Jesus. But two passages in Romans speak most clearly of God’s hesed as Paul seems to understand it.

We are not certain when the church in Rome was founded. There is no attribution to a single apostle. When Paul communicates to the believers in Rome, it is clear they have already been gathering for some time, perhaps as early as AD 40. When he arrives in the city he is greeted by a strong group of the followers of Jesus from an apparently well-established church that demonstrates remarkable hospitality (Acts 28:13- 15). In his letter to the Romans, Paul comments that they are known all over the world (Rom 1:8). But a crisis overshadows the church.

Suetonius wrote about a riot in the city in AD 49 over someone he referred to as Chrestus. It is a slave name that means “good one.” Historians agree that it is, in fact, a garbled form of the name Christos. As a result of the disturbance, Emperor Claudius ordered that all the Jews be banished from the city. This would include Jewish Christians as well. As a result the Roman church was divided. The Jews were sent away, while the Gentile believers remained behind.

From the beginning Jesus had been worshiped in Hebrew as Messiah; then as the remaining Gentiles filled the leadership vacuum he was celebrated in Greek as Kurios, or Lord. In AD 54 Claudius died, and as was the custom his edicts were canceled. The Jews returned to Rome (see Acts 18:2), and tension in the church began to rise. Before the expulsion, leadership was primarily Jewish. In the gap caused by the edict, Gentiles had taken up leadership. They had been shaping the church for five years. This is the central problem Paul is dealing with in the letter to the Romans. There are leadership struggles and disagreements in the body as to who Jesus is and how he should be celebrated. Believers are judging one another and factions are forming.

Kindness Leads to Repentance

In his letter Paul gives two reasons for writing. First, he has been trying to come to them but has been prevented thus far (Rom 1:10, 13). Second, he wants to encourage them and be encouraged by them (Rom 1:12). Paul begins in chapter 1 with a discussion of sin. He goes on to encourage the church to not get caught up in the sins of paganism and to also avoid the sin of passing judgment on those who do.

The context of Paul’s allusion to hesed in Romans 2:4 is the previous discussion of sin in the Gentile world. In the opening verses of chapter 2 he is insisting the church, given the pagan environment, must also keep from the sin of being judgmental, for when they judge others they are really judging themselves. In that context he makes an extraordinary statement that relates to the hesed character of God: “Or do you despise the riches of his kindness, restraint, and patience, not recognizing that God’s kindness [chrēstotēs] is intended to lead you to repentance?”

The best motivator to keep the Roman Christians, both Jew and Gentile, from becoming mired in their sinful pagan surroundings, and also to keep them from judging each other in the process, is to remember the revelation of God’s character that goes all the way back to Exodus 34. He is a God of hesed. It is not fear that drives us to him, but rather his unexpected and extraordinary kindness that provides a pathway along which we are drawn to him.

Taken from Inexpressible by Michael Card. Copyright (c) 2018 by Michael Card. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Michael Card has recorded over thirty-one albums, authored or coauthored over twenty-four books, hosted a radio program, and written for a wide range of magazines. A graduate of Western Kentucky University with a bachelor's and master's degree in biblical studies, Card also serves as mentor to many younger artists and musicians, teaching courses on the creative process and calling the Christian recording industry into deeper discipleship. Card lives in Tennessee with his wife and four children.