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Long-suffering and Forbearance

Rev. Herman Hoeksema

In our last lecture, you remember, we spoke on God's sovereign dealings with the vessels of wrath and the vessels of mercy, according to Romans 9:22, 23: "What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory in the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory." The question we must ask this time is: how does God deal with the vessels of wrath and the vessels of mercy in time and in this world? These vessels of mercy and of wrath, that is, the elect and the reprobate, the godly and the ungodly, have all things in common in this present time. They are of the same human race; they live the same earthly life; they are fellow-citizens of the same country; they enjoy the same power and talents and make use of the same means; they occupy the same positions in the world. Moreover, they have the same experiences: God rains upon the godly and the ungodly alike, and He causes His sun to rise over the evil and over the good. They are alike in prosperity and in adversity, in sickness and in health, in war and in peace, in life and in death. And the question arises: what is God's attitude to these vessels of mercy and vessels of wrath respectively? How does He deal with them? Does the fact of these common experiences in this world show a certain common grace of God over the godly and over the wicked alike? That would in fact be quite contrary to all that Scripture testifies, for the Bible informs us very plainly that God hates the wicked every day and that even through their prosperity in the world He intends to send them to destruction, while according to the same Bible He is gracious always unto His people and causes all things to work together for their salvation and to lead them on to eternal glory. But the answer is rather plainly found in the words of our text, for our text tells us that He endures with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction; and that means undoubtedly, as we hope to explain, that He forbears the vessels of wrath while He is long-suffering over His people.

On the basis of Holy Writ we may certainly distinguish long-suffering from endurance. The latter is sustained and suspended, or inhibited wrath; the former is suspended or inhibited love. With a view to a certain end that must be reached God endures, tolerates, the wicked in time, until they shall have served His purpose. With a view to that purpose He does not immediately destroy them and empty upon them the vials of His wrath. This is endurance or forbearance. Again, with a view to a certain end that must be attained He bears the suffering of the vessels of mercy, He does not immediately deliver them when they cry unto Him, but surrenders them to the refining fire of suffering and tribulation, until the divine purpose with them, the perfect glory unto which they were afore ordained, is attained and fully realized. This is God's long-suffering.

To make plain the distinction that must be made here I wish to call your attention to an illustration. Suppose that for a certain purpose which you want to realize you find it necessary to take into your home a certain stranger. You support him entirely; you supply all his needs; he goes in and out among your family; he sleeps in your bed; he eats at your table; he buys with your money; he wears your clothes. But this stranger whom you thus support for your own purposes acts wickedly toward you and your family: he ignores you entirely; he tries to assume the position of lord in your home; he acts as if you were not there; for all you give him he never acknowledges you; he does not say "good morning" when he rises, nor "good night" when he retires; a word of thanks never crosses his lips. On the contrary, he curses you to your face; he slanders you with your enemies; he tramples your good name in the mud; he hates your children and persecutes them; he chases them out of your house, puts them behind prison bars, tortures and kills them. And you keep him in your house and feed him and clothe him until your purpose with him shall be reached. Your attitude toward the man is expressed by the word endurance. You tolerate the man; you restrain your strong inclination to throw him out of your house and punish him for all his wickedness, because you want to attain your end with him.

This may serve to illustrate God's endurance of the wicked. They are in God's creation, in God's workshop; and they must serve His purpose. He sustains them in their position; He feeds them and gives them to drink; He clothes them and gives them shelter; He causes His sun to shine upon them and gives them rain and fruitful seasons and fills their heart with food and gladness; He gives them their talents and powers and all the means to their subsistence and life. And they act as if God were never there; they refuse to acknowledge Him, to serve Him and praise Him and give Him thanks. They never mention His name except to curse Him; they lie about Him and slander Him, and they attack the honor of His name; they manifest their enmity against Him by violating His law, by persecuting His children, by touching the apple of His eye. And when He sends His only begotten Son into the world, they despise Him and spit in His face, buffet and scourge Him and nail Him to the accursed tree. And God does not make an end of them, for they must serve His own purpose, even unto the end. He tolerates them and endures the vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction.

On the other hand, let us also use an illustration to elucidate the idea of long-suffering. It is that of a surgeon who is called to operate on his own child. The condition of the child is such that no form of anesthetic can be applied. Yet, the life of the child depends entirely upon the operation. The father-surgeon binds the child on the operating table; he takes the knife, and with a firm hand cuts into the living flesh of his child. The child cries and moans, beseeches him to stop; but the father, although the pitiful cries of the child pierce his heart, and although he suffers more than the child of his love, continues his work, apparently paying no heed to the urgent prayers of his child, until the operation is finished and the child's life is saved.

That is a good illustration of God's long-suffering over His people. More than once the Word of God speaks of this long-suffering of God over the vessels of mercy. The parable of the unjust judge is concluded by the statement: "And shall not God avenge His own elect, which day and night cry unto him, though he bear long with them?" Luke 18:7. The clause "though he bear long with them" should be translated "though he is long-suffering over them," for the same word is used in the Greek that is elsewhere, also in our text, translated by "long-suffering."

Mark: God is long-suffering over His elect that cry unto Him day and night. The same idea is expressed in II Peter 3:9, where Scripture assures the people of God that God is not slack concerning His promise, but is long-suffering over them, not willing that any should perish. Also there the fundamental idea is that the people of God grow impatient, as in the midst of suffering they look for the realization of the promise and God leaves them in their suffering until His purpose is reached. They are the objects of His love, and He would lead them to glory. But they are in the midst of suffering and tribulation in this world, and they cry unto Him for the final deliverance. But He seems not to heed their cries. Why not? Because the time is not yet. The end is not yet attained. All must wait until the whole Church can be glorified in the day of Christ. God is long-suffering over the objects of His eternal love.

But you will probably say that in our text from Romans 9 the vessels of wrath are presented as being the objects of both God's long-suffering and His endurance, for the text tells us that God endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction. However, if you will look more closely at the text, you will discover that this is nevertheless not the meaning. The text does not say that God endures the vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction and that He is long-suffering over them, but that He endured them with much long-suffering. Now, what does this mean? This may very well signify, and to me undoubtedly does mean, that the long-suffering of God over His people is the positive reason and the motive in God for His forbearance of the wicked. Why, in other words, is God tolerating the wicked even unto the end? The answer is that at the same time He is long-suffering over His people until they shall attain unto His glory, unto which He hath afore prepared them. Were God not long-suffering, He would not be enduring. But the power of His long-suffering He is enduring and He tolerates the wicked in the world. But, if we understand this, there can be no objection to apply the word long-suffering also in the words of our text, as in other parts of Scripture, to God's attitude toward His beloved people. And we may well render the text thus: By the power of His long-suffering over His people He endures the vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction. The real strength and power, the reason and motive of His tolerating the vessels of wrath lies in the long-suffering of God over His people.

This interpretation fits the actual facts. In history God's endurance of the wicked and His long-suffering over His people are always concomitant: they always go together for the simple reason that the people of God live in the midst of the wicked world and they constitute with them an organic unity from a merely natural viewpoint. They are created in Adam, fall with the whole race in Adam, are subject to death and the suffering of this present time because of Adam's fall. Why? Because God determined to lead His people to that higher glory, which was attainable only in Christ and only in the way of sin and death and redemption through grace. God is long-suffering over them from the very beginning of time. Still more. They are in the same world with the vessels of wrath. These vessels of wrath, that is, the wicked, hate them; they persecute them, chase them into dungeons and holes of the earth, deny them a place in the world, fill them with reproach and shame, torture them, saw them asunder and burn them at the stake. Did not Paul, when he wrote the words of our text, still have in mind the example of Pharaoh to which he had referred in the context? God's people were in Egypt when it was said to Pharaoh that God had raised him up that He might show His power in him. And Pharaoh persecuted the people of God, subjected them to hard bondage, killed the covenant children, was bent upon the destruction of the people of God. And the children of Israel cried unto Jehovah their God, and He seemed for a time not to heed their cries. He endured the vessels of wrath, Pharaoh and his people, with much long-suffering over Israel that cried unto Him day and night.

How clearly this is also illustrated in the suffering of Christ. To be sure, according to the eternal counsel and foreknowledge of God the vessels of wrath were instrumental in crucifying the Christ. And Christ was the apple of God's eye, the Son of His love, His ever faithful Servant, in Whom above all He was well-pleased. And the wicked laid hands upon Him and bound Him and led Him away prisoner. And they performed all their evil will upon Him: they spit upon Him; they reviled Him, blasphemed and mocked Him, beat Him and bared His back to the lashings of the bloody scourge, led Him to Golgotha and nailed Him to the tree of shame. And the Son suffered; He was writhing in bitter agony already in Gethsemane in anticipation of that terrible night of suffering that was before Him. He cried unto the Father with bitter tears and supplications: "Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me." But the Father did not seem to hear, except for the only answer that was given to the Son in His bitter agony of soul by strengthening Him to His suffering through the means of an angel from heaven. Presently, on the cross, He descends into the depth of suffering and agony and shame. Darkness envelops Him and the accursed tree, and agonies of hell take hold of the obedient Servant. And again He cries: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" And again the Father does not seem to heed the cries of His beloved Servant. Heaven seems closed, and the enemies are sustained even at the cross by the Almighty, so that they finish their wicked work. And the lightnings of God's fierce anger do not flash through the darkness to destroy the wicked enemies and deliver the Son of God. God endured the vessels of wrath, even at the cross, with much long-suffering over His Son, His beloved, in Whom was all His good pleasure. And why? Because on the one hand, these vessels of wrath must finish the work God had for them to do, and on the other hand, it was His divine purpose to glorify the Son with the glory which He had with the Father before the world was. And with the Son the Church of His eternal love must be redeemed and glorified.

And thus it is always. God's sovereign dealings with the vessels of wrath are ever such that He tolerates them with much long-suffering.

Thus it will become evident that in all this it is the purpose of the living God to make known His power and His righteous and holy wrath on the vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction, and to reveal the riches of His glorious mercy on the vessels of mercy that have afore been prepared unto glory.

For the wrath of God is His holy anger against all the workers of iniquity. And the holiness and the righteousness of God's wrath must become manifest, and will become manifest especially in His judgment over the wicked who hated and persecuted the righteous, with Christ in their midst, throughout the history of this world. For this very reason the righteous must suffer till the very end. And when the measure of iniquity shall have been filled by the ungodly, and antichrist shall have raved against Christ and His people to the very end, and when, at the same time, the measure of suffering shall have been filled by the righteous, then the end of God's forbearance of the ungodly and His long-suffering over the righteous will be reached; the theodicy,. the self-justification of God, shall have been attained, and forever the power and the righteous wrath of God as well as the glory of His mercy shall be revealed and adored by all creation.

Then also it will become perfectly evident that all the powers of darkness, the devil and his angels and all wicked men, shall have served the purpose of God in making known the riches of His glory upon the vessels of mercy. As the chaff serves the wheat, so the reprobate serves the elect. If sin had not come, grace would not have been revealed in all the beauty of its splendor. If death had not come, the riches of God's glory in the resurrection would not have been manifested. If the wicked world, whose prince is the devil,, had not crucified our Lord, the blood of redemption could not have been shed and the glory of God's love in Christ would never have been revealed. If the enemies of the Church had not kindled the fire of tribulation, had not persecuted the people of God, they would not have been cast into the crucible that refines them unto the praise and glory and honor in the day of Christ; they would not know the way of tribulation to patience, to experience, to hope; they would not know how to glory even in tribulation. If all the darkness and suffering and death of this present time had not come, all the glory of the heavenly bless would never have been revealed. God endures the vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction until they have served His purpose and He shall have fully made known the riches of His glory to the vessels of mercy afore prepared unto glory. As we said, His glory is always God's glory; but this glory must be revealed. It is His purpose to impart it in the highest possible way, in all its blessed riches, unto His people in Christ. They shall know it, because they shall share in it, because it shall be in them, because they shall taste it and rejoice in it forever.

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