One of the great paradoxes of the biblical portrait of God is the uneasy balance between the demands of His justice and the depth of His mercy. That paradox comes into stark contrast in Romans as Paul identifies God’s “kindness” as the key to holding back His wrath.
“Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off” (Rom 11:22).
1). Look up the Greek Word
More Than Mere Kindness
Let’s start by examining the Greek word behind “kindness,” which, according to the ESV English-Greek Reverse Interlinear, is chrestotes (χρηστότης). Once we know the Greek word, we can look it up in a Greek dictionary. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) tells us that when chrestotes is used in reference to God, it’s usually translated as “mild,” “kind” or “helpful”—in His attitude toward humanity.
2). Contextualize the Word in the Book
Patience Is God’s Virtue
TDNT also helps us sort out this paradox by leading us to Romans 2, where Paul equates chrestotes with God’s forbearance and patience—forming a triad of terms that show His longsuffering nature.
Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness (chrestotes) and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness (chrestotes) is meant to lead you to repentance? (Rom 2:3–4).
God is patient with sinners—suffering through their denial of Him and rebellion against Him. In Romans 3, Paul quotes a psalm that—in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament—uses chrestotes to describe what people are not by nature: “All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good (chrestotes), not even one” (Rom 3:12, quoting Psa 14:3). While a malevolent deity would simply punish disobedience, God shows gracious restraint toward sinners who have broken His Law—keeping with His nature.
The kindness of God presupposes His righteous judgment, patiently waiting on our repentance. God’s kindness restrained His wrath until His grace could be made available for the repentance of all people. This kindness is conditional on that repentance, and God will not postpone judgment indefinitely. Paul gives a warning in Romans 2:5: “You are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” The warning extends to all—even believers who need to “continue in his kindness” (chrestotes) to avoid one day being “cut off” (Rom 11:22).
When we back up a few verses, we see this in Paul’s description of the body of Christ as an olive tree:
But … some of the branches [Jews who could not keep the whole Law] were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot [Gentile believers], were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree (Rom 11:17).
3). Compare the Usage to Other New Testament Writings
Kindness That Restrains Anger
Paul says that goodness is one of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5. God alone has chrestotes, but if we live by the Spirit, we will share in it.
TDNT tells us that Paul is the only New Testament writer to use chrestotes in relation to God. There are other more common Greek words for “good,” like agathos (ἀγαθός), indicating absolute goodness (Matt 19:17). So why does he go out of his way to use chrestotes in Romans 2 and 11? Paul may be emphasizing the relative, rather than the absolute goodness of God by using chrestotes. Relative to God, our goodness could never compare. Showing (or possessing) chrestotes is an indication that He is acting rightly or according to His nature.
4). Connect the Dots
God’s work of salvation through Christ provides the means to perfectly balance His kindness and severity—a benevolent God whose goodness allows Him to accept those who deserve punishment. Even those who have been cut off are given time to turn back: For “if they do not continue in their unbelief, [they] will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again” (Rom 11:23). God’s undeserved kindness toward sinners allows Him to patiently wait for repentance.
Biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).