Monday, November 30, 2020

Living in Light of the Day - Rom. 13:11-14


This is famously the text that led to St Augustine’s conversion.  After struggling helplessly for years with slavery to the lusts of the flesh, the future bishop one day heard the voice of a child next-door saying over and over again, “Pick it up, and read it.”  He took this as a commission from heaven to go to his Bible and read the first passage his eyes rested upon.  It was Romans 13:13-14.  He relates: “I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: ‘Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.’ I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.”[1]  Augustine never looked back. 

The story of Augustine’s conversion is very relevant for our day because the times in which he lived where in some ways much like our own.  Christendom had not yet been established and paganism was still the dominant worldview for many.  And sexual immorality was part of the warp and woof of daily life for many.  Augustine, though he had a godly mother, had left the faith behind as a young man and had devoted himself for many years to pagan ideas and the desires of the flesh.  But God rescued him from it in an instant, as his heart was opened to the truth of this passage from Paul.

Of course, as you read Augustine’s Confessions, from which the quote above is taken, it is clear that God had been working in Augustine for some time.  Why then this text as that which catapulted him from living in slavery to the flesh to living in unfettered devotion to Christ?  I think one reason is that it is because these verses spoke directly to the choice that daily confronted Augustine: you must either choose the flesh or Christ; you cannot have both.  And at the same time, it held out for him the lifeline which rescued him from the bondage from which he could not free himself: Jesus Christ.  For he is the only one who can truly deliver us from the chains of our slavery.

This is a text that we all need to hear as well.  For our times are programming us to think that it is not only okay to give into the lusts of the flesh, but that it is also wrong to be told that you should not give expression to those fleshly impulses which the Bible forbids.  We are told that it is oppressive for the church to tell people that they cannot live in a certain way.  So it is important for us to know exactly what Christ expects of those who claim his name as well as the reasons given for why we should abandon the path modern society is forging for what is now, to borrow a phrase from Robert Frost, the road less taken.

It is especially appropriate to consider this verse today (Nov. 29, 2020) because this Sunday marks the first day of Advent, that season on the Christian calendar when we consider our Lord’s comings into the world, both the first and the second.  Why is it appropriate to spend our time in this passage?  It is fitting because our Lord’s first coming inaugurated the Last Days.  And that reality explains why, though we live in what the apostle calls the night (12), yet we are to live in light of the Day – the day of our Lord’s return.  It was our Lord’s first coming that, so to speak, started the countdown to the Second Coming, that promises the end of the night in which we currently live.  And that is to affect the way we live.  In particular, it means that we are to live as hopeful people and as holy people.  So this text reminds us of both our Lord’s past coming to redeem his people and his future coming to complete our salvation.  It reminds us of the hope in which we are to live, of the fact that our hope is certain and near and bright.

In this text, we have the kind of life we are called to live as Christians clearly laid out before us, contrasted with the kind of life we are called to abandon.  The contrast could not be more stark: one is called light and the other darkness.  But that is not all the apostle does here, for he also tells us why we are to live this way.  In other words, we have the answers to two questions here: how we are to live, and then why we are to live that way.

How we are to live

The basic idea here is that we are to live at war with sin.  If you are not at war with the sin in your life and the sin all around you, then you are not living the kind of life to which the gospel summons us.  We see this in the language used in verse 12: We are to “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”  So I think it is entirely appropriate to form our thoughts around this passage in militaristic terms.  The life of the believer is not about being a nice neighbor primarily or being thought of as a good person by your friends.  The life of the believer is one of unrelenting warfare against the pervasive wickedness all around us and in us. 

And this also points us to the fact that this is a deadly serious business.  You don’t put armor on to go for a leisurely walk through the park.  You put it on because there are foes arrayed against you who want to destroy you.  That is the thought.  This is serious.  If you are not living this way, you are only endangering your soul.  Think about how the apostle put it to the Ephesians: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.  Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.  For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm” (Eph. 6:10-13).  “That you may be able to stand.”  That is the idea.  If you don’t put on this armor, if you don’t have this battle-ground mindset, you are inevitably going to fall. 

At the same time, we need to understand exactly what this means.  It does not mean that we are to go around literally trying to cut down everyone we meet.  It does not mean that we look at the lost as our enemies.  The enemy is the devil, not our flesh and blood neighbors.  We are fighting evil, not people.  But what then does it mean?

First, it means that we are to march in rank.  What do I mean by that?  Well, I am trying to unpack the meaning of the word “properly” in verse 13.  “Let us walk properly as in the daytime.”  The word means “decently, orderly.”  In ancient armies, it mattered that you kept in ranks.  The victorious army depended upon its soldiers being very disciplined, especially in the face of the enemy.  If you broke ranks and ran, you endangered not only yourself, but also your fellow soldiers.  You kept in pace with the others, and you kept to your assigned place in the formation. 

What does this look like for the Christian?  Well, Paul spells it out for us: “not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy” (13).  Think about the first pair.  People would go to these parties and eat and eat to gluttony and drink wine to excess.  The apostle says that we are not to do that.  We are to live with self-control.  I know that modern Western society is all about dieting, so it isn’t cool to eat to excess.  But what about drunkenness?  The culture tells us that it’s acceptable as long as you don’t harm anyone else.  But that is not what the Bible says.  The Bible tells us that your body is a temple of the Lord; it is not yours to do with whatever you want.  Drunkenness isn’t cool; it’s sin (cf. Eph. 5:18-19).  It is a soul-destroying sin.  If you give yourself to it, you are breaking ranks, you are abandoning your post and you are truly endangering not only yourself but those with whom you ought to be fighting. 

Drug abuse also falls into this list.  Drug abuse is everywhere, because people are trying to grapple with the problems of life without the Lord.  When a Christian does this, they are not only hurting themselves but also telling the world around them that Christ is not sufficient.  I’m not saying of course that there are not times for drugs and medicines!  But when we use drugs to give us the peace that we are only to seek in Christ, we are undermining our souls and the cause of the gospel among men.  You cannot do it and be a faithful follower of Jesus.

Then look at the next pair: “not in sexual immorality and sensuality.”  Look, the world will tell you that it’s normal to act out on your sexual urges in any way you want, as long as it doesn’t “hurt” anyone else.  What God’s word tells us, however, is that you cannot be immoral – which means having sex in ways that God’s word forbids, and in particular having sex outside of marriage – without harming yourself.  God has forbidden it, and you can be sure that you will harm yourself and others no matter how innocuous it seems.  Here is how the apostle put it to the Ephesians: “For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.  Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 5:5-6).  The world will mock you and call you prudish if you conform to God’s word on this.  But better to suffer the scorn of the world than the wrath of God.

In this regard let me point out that we should not only avoid the overt sin itself, but anything that would lead to that.  Our Lord tells us that it’s not just the act of adultery that is wrong; it is the lustful eye and heart that is wrong as well (Mt. 5:27-28).  Brethren, I have not warned against this the way I ought.  Be careful, friend, whether you are a man or a woman, that you do not dabble in things that provide occasions for your heart to be drawn to sexual lust.  Movies or books or magazines or websites that make provision for the flesh are to be cut off and fled from.  Pornography is not an innocent pleasure – it is a God-dishonoring, soul-shrinking, heart-numbing sin that objectives people and cuts us off from fellowship with God.  If we don’t repent of it, we can’t say that we are truly following Christ.  Again, this is serious business.  Don’t dally with this sin.  Run from it, as Joseph ran from this temptation.

Then there is the last pair: “not in quarreling and jealousy.”  I think the danger here is to demote these sins to something less serious.  But you cannot follow Christ and be given to these sins, any more than you can follow Christ and be given to sexual immorality.  Listen to the way the apostle James puts it: “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.  This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.  For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (Jam. 3:14-16).  We should not only beware of the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes, but also of the pride of life (1 Jn. 2:16).  These are the things we are not to do. 

But positively, we are to wear the uniform of Christ into battle and to find our identity as belonging to Christ.  “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (14).  What does it mean to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ”?  The word “put on” refers to putting on a garment.  Paul sheds light on his meaning here in the Galatian letter, where he writes, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27).  In other words, just as a uniform identifies a soldier, baptism identifies us as a follower of Jesus.  However, clearly here Paul is not necessarily referring to baptism as such, since he is writing to Christians who have already been baptized, and this is a command that they are still to do.  Nevertheless, the idea is the same: we are to find our identity in belonging to Christ, and to put him on in faith and obedience, in love and loyalty, taking him as our example and relying on him for strength (cf. Jn. 15:1-5). 

I cannot think about what the apostle is telling us to do here without thinking about the last words of Spurgeon in the pulpit:

If you wear the harness of Christ, you will find Him so meek and lowly of heart that you will find rest for your souls. He is the most magnanimous of captains. There never was His like among the choicest of princes. He is always to be found in the thickest part of the battle. When the wind blows cold, He always takes the bleak side of the hill. The heaviest end of the Cross lies ever on His shoulders. If He bids us carry a burden, He carries it also. If there is anything gracious, generous, kind and tender, yea lavish and super-abundant in love, you always find it in Him.  His service is life, peace, joy. Oh that you would enter on it at once!  God help you to enlist under the banner of JESUS CHRIST.

To put on Christ doesn’t mean merely to identify as a Christian in name only, but to truly give ourselves to him, as a soldier puts himself entirely at the disposal of his superior officers.  This is no mere verbal commitment; this is a commitment of the heart and soul to Christ, and to find in him our Lord and our Savior, and to look to him and to trust in him and to obey him.  It means that we aren’t trying to scrape out an identity for ourselves but find our identity completely in Christ.  It means that we rest in him alone for our righteousness before God.  It means that we see in him the fullness of God and find our completeness in him.  It means that we believe his words and obey his voice.

That is what we are to do and how we are to do it.  But then the next question is this: why are we to live this way?

Why we are to live this way

Note how the apostle begins the passage: “Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep” (Rom. 13:11).  In other words, there are vast multitudes of people who are totally oblivious to certain eternal realities.  They are like people who are asleep.  They are completely unaware of something.  That something is the Day of the Lord.  But the Christian, unfortunately, can also fall asleep.  We can become people who start living as if this life is all there is to it.  This is especially dangerous in our time, because of the way modern society trains us to think.  It trains us to think only in terms of the material world, in terms of the here-and-now, in terms of bricks and mortar and dollars and cents.  The apostle is, as it were, grabbing us by the shoulders and shaking us to wake us from our sleep.  It is “high time” to awake from such sleep (cf. Rom. 13:11, KJV). 

This is the reason we are to live in the ways we described above.  We are to live that way because we are “in the daytime” (13).  We do not belong to the night when people sleep, but we belong to the day, and we are to “put on the armor of light” (12).  People who belong to the day aren’t asleep; they aren’t unaware of these eternal realities.

How does Paul describe these things?  First of all, he describes it as “our salvation” (11).  Now that might seem strange to some because the apostle is ostensibly writing to Christians.  Aren’t they already saved?  Well, yes, in a real sense they are.  By grace believers “have been saved through faith” (Eph. 2:8).  But there is also a sense in which we haven’t been saved yet.  Why?  Because our salvation will not be complete until we are glorified with Christ – which will happen when he returns at the Second Coming.  Though it is true that there are certain aspects of our salvation that are complete – like our justification – there are other aspects that aren’t.  Our sanctification is ongoing and our glorification (which we will experience when our purified souls are reunited with resurrected bodies) is completely in the future.  This is what Paul is referring to here: “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believe” (11). 

So many people are seeking salvation in the here and now.  But it will never come.  The only salvation we can hope for is the salvation that Jesus is bringing with him at his return.

But more importantly, he describes these eternal realities in terms of “the Day” (12).  This day is the coming age, which is contrasted with the night, by which Paul clearly is referring to the present age.  It also is tied to the OT term, “the Day of the Lord,” which was a reference to God coming to rescue his people and to judge the nations.  Here it is the final, climatic Day when God will finally once for all put an end to all the enemies of his people and give them eternal rest.  It is the day of judgment (1 Cor. 3:13), the last day (John 6:39, 40, 44), the day of wrath (Rom. 2:5), the day of the Lord  (1 Thess. 5:2), the day of God (2 Pet. 3:12), the day when the Son of man will be revealed (Luke 17:30), the day of Christ (Phil. 1:6).  It is in light of this Day that we are to live.

Because of what the Day is

It is preeminently a day of judgment.  And this does not just have reference to the ungodly, but to God’s people as well.  We will have to give an account for our lives: “For we will all stand before judgment seat of God . . . . So then every one of us will give an account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:10, 12).  People do things at night because they don’t think anyone will catch them.  But our Lord reminds us that there is coming a day when the secrets of our hearts will be made manifest to all (Lk 8:10; cf. Rom. 2:16).  “The eyes of the LORD are in every place, beholding the evil and the good” (Prov. 15:3, KJV).  We cannot think that we can live in contradiction to God’s commandments and get away with it.  As Paul would remind Timothy, “The sins of some men are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later” (1 Tim. 5:24).  In other words, sooner or later your sins will catch up with you.  Our sins will find us out! 

Someone may ask how this is consistent with the fact that at the Final Judgment, God’s people enter into their eternal rest.  I think it is easy to miss what the apostle is getting at here.  All stand before the Lord in Judgment (Mt. 25:31-46), both sheep and goats.  But the reality is that there are many who now think they are okay with the Lord but who are speeding towards eternal judgment.  The Day of Judgment will reveal who truly belong to the Lord and who are just fakers.  When exhortations like this are addressed to the church, it is to arouse us to the fact that we cannot hide behind a profession of faith, that we will all appear before Almighty God who is not fooled by religious pretense.  You can claim to be a Christian and live in the ungodliness the apostle mentions in verse 13, but your claim will wither before God’s prefect judgment.  Don’t shrug off warnings like this, especially if you are living in these sins which God’s word forbids.  If you claim to be of the day, don’t live like you belong to the night.  Otherwise, the Day will expose your hopes as the flimsy spider’s webs that they are.

But it is not only a day of judgment; it is also preeminently – for God’s people – a day of reward.  It is, after all, when our salvation will be complete.  It is the day when we will enter into the joy of the Lord (Mt. 25:23).  We therefore willingly deny ourselves now temporary pleasures which will only lead to eternal rottenness for a life of faith (however hard it may be) which will lead to ever increasing happiness and joy and peace.  Our treasure is in heaven, where neither moth nor rust can corrupt nor thieves break in and steal (Mt. 6:19-20).  It is very easy to lose sight of this because our culture trains us to think in terms only of this life.  It is especially at this point that the Christian hope is very counter-cultural.  Our hope awaits us, not in this life, but in the next.  It is not on earth but in heaven, not in our present triumphs but in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

It is, finally, a day which is imminent.  This is a day which is “at hand” (12).  It is in light of this that we are to put off the works of darkness (13,ff). 

But how is it imminent, in light of the fact that 20 centuries have come and gone since Christ?  We can say that it is near, for three reasons.

First, it is imminent because Christ’s first coming inaugurated the “last days” in the sense that there are no other great historical redemptive events between the first and the second comings of our Lord to this earth.  This is the reason we are in the last days (cf. 2 Tim. 3:1,ff), not because our Lord’s return is going to happen next week but because it is the next thing on God’s Redemptive Calendar.  Second, it is imminent because each day brings us closer to The Day (cf. Heb. 10:25).  I think, especially in light of eternity, our lives here will have seemed so fleeting.  And when ten thousands of ages have marched by in the Eternal State, the Day will look like it had always been right around the corner.  And third, it is imminent because this present life determines how we will stand on the Last Day (Heb. 9:27).  Again, since our life is so short, in that sense the Day is near and getting nearer each day.  In light of this, we ought to live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world (Tit. 2:12). 

How will you live?  As we enter into Advent Season, let us not live as if Christmas were the only reality.  For our Lord’s incarnation points to our Lord’s future return.  For those of you who have read C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series, you will remember the oft-repeated refrain that the Lion is not tame – he’s good, but not tame!  When you are only willing to consider Jesus in a manger but no more, you have tamed the Lion.  But he is not a Lion to be tamed.  He is coming again the second time to complete the salvation and vindication of his people.  We are to live in light of that reality, in light of the Day.  Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not make provision for the flesh to fulfill its lusts!

Have you?  Have you put on the Lord Jesus?  Have you embraced him by faith, have you received him as the Lord and Savior that he is?  May you do so today, for you will not find a better Captain, a better Savior, than Jesus Christ!



[1] https://faculty.georgetown.edu/jod/augustine/conf.pdf

The Obligation of Love – Romans 13:8-10

 

Love is a moral debt, an obligation that we carry throughout our lives.  In this context, it is a debt that we owe to our fellow men, a responsibility that we carry by virtue of our being made in the image of God.  God is love – and so those who are made in his image are meant to reflect that in their own lives.  This is the point of Matthew 5:43-48; we are to love even our enemies and the reason is that this is the way our Father is.

Paul has already mentioned several ways in which the believer is in debt.  We are in debt to the lost (1:14) – though the apostle says this specifically about himself, it seems clear that by virtue of the Great Commission we share this debt.  We are also in debt to the Spirit (8:12).  Again, this is not explicitly said, but the contrast – “we are debtors, not to the flesh” – begs the question, to what then are we debtors?  The answer is clear: we are debtors to the Spirit through whom we put to death the deeds of the body (8:13).  And now in the text before us we are debtors to love others.  But before we proceed with its exposition, there are come clarifications that need to be made.  What exactly does the apostle mean by saying that law is a debt?

I know that the well-known pastor and author John Piper has spent a lot of time inveighing against what he calls a “debtor’s ethic,” but it’s pretty clear that Paul had some sort of debtor’s ethic.  However, with Piper we must affirm that the apostle is not saying by this language that the Christian is to “pay God back” with good deeds, as if we have any spiritual resources on our own that don’t first come from the grace of God.  We cannot pay God back. 

Perhaps at this point someone may point out that this is not a debt to God but to people – “Owe no man anything” (13:8 KJV, and the reference to second table of the Law in verse 9).  However, like the debt of 1:14 this is a debt to our fellow man because God is the one who obligates us.  I am indebted to others because I am first indebted to God.

But again, this does not mean that we are to be trying to put God in our debt by fulfilling our responsibility.  We cannot earn God’s favor by our obedience.  That is clearly not what Paul means here.  He simply means that we have this obligation to our fellow man and this obligation is not something that we will ever rid ourselves of since we are eternally the servants of the Most High God.  As long as God is love, so must we be.

Nor is this language of debt meant to convey the idea that the requirement of love is an uneasy burden.  As the apostle John puts it, “[God’s] commandments are not burdensome” (1 Jn. 5:3).  To carry the yoke of Jesus can be hard at times, but God gives grace to carry it, and he gives us joy in the journey of faith and obedience that will ultimately blossom into lasting rest and joy and peace in the eternal and unbroken fellowship with God in heaven.

One more clarification before we dive into the text.  “Owe no one anything” does not mean that it is always wrong to take out loans.  In the OT, there were laws governing loaning and borrowing, but they did not forbid loaning and borrowing.  This is significant because the apostle grounds his exhortation in the OT law.  Although I think a case could be made that we should avoid borrowing money from others whenever possible (one thinks of the warnings in Proverbs), yet saying that we could avoid them whenever possible is not the same thing as saying there is never a time when it is right to do it.  What it does mean is that it is wrong to fail to repay them, and it is wrong to use our bankruptcy laws as a way to steal from others. 

Very well, what is the apostle getting at here?  He has already given us a portrait of love in 12:9-16, and we must keep this in mind and not import our culture’s definition of love into the text.  What he does now is to give us three more characteristics of Biblical love, that can be broadly categorized as the when, who, and why of love. 

The When of Love – the unending obligation of love.

“Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (8).  The apostle does not mean, of course, that we are not to pay the debt of love.  He is not saying that we are to pay our debts except the debt of love.  What is does mean is that we can never completely repay it – it is an unending obligation.  Love in its very nature cannot be repaid; love is an act which cannot be performed with the intention of cutting itself off from its intended recipient. 

To the Corinthians the apostle wrote, “Love never ends” (1 Cor. 13:8).  We owe love even when we don’t feel like it.  Modern society of course tells you that the exact opposite is true.  It tells you that you only love those whom you want to love.  It tells you that the one you need to be true to is yourself.  But God’s word tells us that no matter how we feel about it, we are obligated to love others: our spouses, our children, our extended family, our friends, our neighbors, our enemies.  You can disagree with God’s word; but you need to be honest with the fact that if you put your feelings above this obligation, that is what you are doing.

We are therefore to love people even when they are unlovable, and when we think they don’t deserve it.  Maybe someone has hurt us; does that end our obligation to pay this debt?  Not according to the apostle.  Paul does not say that our debt to others ends when they do something despicable.  He simply tells us to pay the debt of love.  Again, it is important to remember that our indebtedness to others does not depend upon the other; it depends ultimately upon our relation to God as creature to Creator.  That relation does not end, and therefore neither does the obligation to love.

Moreover, think about how God loves us.  How it is described in the Bible?  He loves us with an everlasting love (Jer. 31:3).  Over and over again in the OT, we are reminded that God’s love is steadfast love (cf. Ps. 36:7).  This despite the fact that we continually let God down.  This despite the fact that God began to love us when we were his enemies (Rom. 5:10).  This despite the fact that every sin that we sin is a slap in the face of God.  Why is this important?  It is important because this is the way we are to love others: we are to love as God loves us.  “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.  And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1-2).  “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.  Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.  In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we have love God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.  Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 Jn. 4:7-12).

1 Jn 4:12 is significant because the apostle is reminding us that the way we make God visible to others is by loving others.  The best apologetic for God is our love.  Not our love to the lovely, which anyone can do; but by loving the unlovable.

An unending obligation of this kind of love surely demands the unending practice of prayer.  There may be many impediments to carrying out the Biblical requirement of love, including the seeming impossibility of finding the resources within us to love the unlovable.  But we do not have to find the resources within ourselves, for God gives grace to those who draw near to him.  We are to look to him, who is almighty and with whom nothing is impossible.

The Who of Love – the universal scope of love.

Who are we to love?  This question is much like the lawyer’s question in Luke 10, “And who is my neighbor?” (Lk 10:29).  The answer to that question is that he is my neighbor who falls within my sphere of influence, no matter who they are – and no matter how unlikeable I find them to be.  To often we are like the Levite and the priest in the parable who find excuses not to love someone.  But the apostle says we are to “owe no one anything, except to love one another” (Rom. 13:8).  There is nothing limiting the scope of the obligation here.  This means that I do not get to choose who I want to love, just as I do not get to choose when I get to love.  I like the way Cranfield put it: “Fulfillment of the law involves not just loving someone other than oneself, but loving each man whom God presents to one as one’s neighbor by the circumstances of his being someone whom one is in a position to affect for good or ill.  The ‘neighbor’ in the NT sense is not someone arbitrarily chosen by us; he is given to us by God” (Romans (ICC), 2:176). 

So we are to love the brethren, as we are commanded in 12:10.  But we are also to love our enemies, as commanded in 12:17-21.  And in our text: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (9), a quote from Lev. 19:18, a verse which reads in its entirety: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him.  You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”  In other words, the command to love your neighbor is not given in the context of the friendly neighbor but in the context of the neighbor who is hard to get along with.  We are explicitly commanded, in fact, to love our enemies elsewhere in the NT (Mt. 5:44; Lk. 6:27, 35). 

This of course does not mean that we turn a blind eye to sin.  It does not mean that we don’t hold people accountable for their sins.  It doesn’t mean that we don’t confront folks in their sin.  But it does mean that what motivates our relationships with others is not a grudge or vengeance but love.  It means that even when we have to confront sin in someone it is with the intent for repentance and restoration and that we never give up working and praying for that.

The Why of Love – the Biblical foundation of love.

In verses 8b-10, the apostle goes on to give the Biblical foundation for the obligation of love.  We have this debt of love because this is the way we obey God’s law.  God have given us his commandments, and the way we fulfill his commandments is by loving others.  “For the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet, and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” 

How is love the fulfilling of the law?  It is so for two reasons.  First, because the moral norms of the law are specific instances of loving our neighbor as ourself (9).  We don’t just need to be told to love others; we also need to be told how to love others.  Because of the reality of sin, if we are left to ourselves, we will end up redefining love in selfish and self-serving ways.  That’s what our culture has done.  It is (more often than not) the reason why people fall “out of love” with each other.  We have defined love in terms of what makes me feel good, which makes it impossible to truly love difficult people. 

But this is where God’s law comes in.  It tells us that love is worked out in these very concrete ways.  If you love someone, you are not going to commit adultery – not against your spouse or not with someone who is not your spouse.  You may think you are “in love” in an adulterous relationship, but God says that it is the very opposite of what godly, pure, and holy love is all about.  You are not going to take someone’s life and you are not going to live with a hateful grudge against someone who has wronged you.  You are not going to take something wrongly from someone else; you aren’t going to steal.  You won’t lie; you tell the truth.  And so on.  As we go through the law, we are meeting with specific examples of what it means to love others.  If you want to know what it means to love your neighbor as yourself, this is what it means.

There is an attitude out there that says that it is legalism to say anything more than, “Love your neighbor,” and that requiring anything more than that is to put burdens on people.  Now we don’t want to do that.  But it is not legalism to get specific.  People who aren’t willing to get specific aren’t avoiding legalism; they are embracing antinomianism.  The Bible gets specific and so should we. 

By the way, when the Bible tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves, is this a command to self-love, as is sometimes affirmed?  No.  It is assumed that we love ourselves, and this command summons us to love others similarly (cf. Eph. 5:28-29).  We need to beware of taking a command which is meant to focus our attention on others and use it as a way to justify self-absorption.

The second reason love is the fulfilling of the law is that love is the principle from which obedience to God’s commandments flow.  This is what the apostle says in Col. 3: “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (14).  It is out of love to God and our fellow man that we obey God’s commandments.  It is why our Lord said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15). 

So we see that love and law work together in complete harmony.  Law provides the channels in which love is to flow, and love provides the current that moves us to obedience.  As John Stott put it in his commentary on this text, love needs law for direction, and law needs love for its inspiration.  Love without law degenerates into mere sentimentality, emotionalism, hypocrisy and selfishness, and law without love produces harshness and joyless religion.  We need our love to abound more and more, but the only way this is to be done is with knowledge and discernment (Phil. 1:9), both of which come from the moral norms of God’s law.

And here we need to shout out loud a principle that is often disputed in today’s churches.  It is the principle of the enduring nature of the law of God.  Some folks want to argue that law only applied to the OT dispensation.  But that is not the case.  Here we have the apostle Paul explicitly grounding Christian obedience in the law of God given to Israel on Mount Sinai in the Ten Commandments. 

But some will ask, “Isn’t it true that we are no longer under the Old Covenant?”  The answer is, of course, yes.  But that doesn’t mean that there are not aspects of that law that still apply.  The God who gave the law on Mount Sinai is the same God that we serve today.  And he never changes in terms of his character and nature.  His holy nature which stands behind the moral law still stands behind the moral law.

I know that it is often alleged that the distinction between moral, judicial, and ceremonial aspects of the law is not appropriate because the law itself does not make that distinction, but this is a stupid argument.  We read the OT in light of the NT.  And when we look at the NT, we see that the moral norms of the law of God continue, whereas the ceremonial and judicial aspects do not.  This text is a clear example of this.  Paul appeals to the second table of the law not only as an illustration of what it means to love others, but also as its ground and foundation.  How do we know which is which?  We distinguish between the various aspects of the law in light of the coming of Christ, in light of his fulfilling the law (cf. Mt. 5:17-18).  We no longer sacrifice animals or perform the rituals of the Mosaic law because Christ fulfilled them.  This is the argument, for example, of the book of Hebrews, especially chapters 5-10.  It is the argument of the apostle Paul in Col. 2:16-23, where he says, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.  These are shadows of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (16-17). 

The same is true of the judicial law.  The judicial law functioned as the law of the theocracy of the nation of Israel.  But with the coming of Christ, God’s visible rule is manifested in this world primarily through the church.  The theocracy has been replaced with the church.  And though the moral norms of the law are still in place, the penalties and sanctions are different.  This is clear in the way Paul advises the church of Corinth to act with reference to the man who had taken his father’s wife.  Under the OT law, the man would have been put to death; in the church, he is to be put out of the fellowship and given over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh so that he might be saved in the end (1 Cor. 5). 

The upshot of all this is that the Law of God, even as it is expressed in the OT, should motivate the believer.  After all, God sent “his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin . . . in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:3-4).  Beware of those whose teaching would lead you to neglect your OT Bible.  We must never forget that the Bible of the first century church was the OT!  The places from which the apostles and elders would preach the gospel would come from all the books between Genesis and Malachi.  It was from Isaiah 53 that Philip preached the gospel to the Ethiopian eunuch.  We must never be ashamed or embarrassed or ignorant of our OT Bibles!

But how do we determine what are the moral norms of the law, what are its enduring aspects?  We determine them by looking at the ethical teaching of the NT apostles.  The epistles, like Romans, are filled with exhortations to holiness.  Even in Galatians, where the apostle is waging war with false apostles who want to bring believers back under the law as a way to be justified before God, even there he appeals to the law, not as the basis for justification, but as the motivation and means for sanctification (cf. Gal. 5:13,ff).  There simply cannot be an absolute break between OT and NT, because the God who gave us the former gave us the latter.  It is Marcionism to deny that.

Let me end with one final question.  How do I become a more loving person?  It is possible, and even to be expected for believers (cf. 1 Thess. 4:9-10). 

First of all, we must be converted to Christ.  Love in the sense of which the apostle is writing is a mark of the Christian  (1 Jn. 5:1).  That doesn’t mean that unbelievers can’t be loving in any sense.  Of course they can.  The nonbeliever can often make a great friend.  I have several good friends who are not Christian.  That is not the point.  The point is that the love commanded here is a love that is unique to the Christian, for it is a love that embraces other believers because they belong to Christ, and loves unbelievers and our very enemies because of the love of Christ within.  It is the grace of God that empowers obedience, grace that comes to us through Jesus Christ.  So first and foremost we look to him for grace.  We embrace God’s love in Christ and that gives us all the resources we need to show love to others.  But we must first be connected to Jesus and that means that we are trusting in him and looking to him for strength and life.

Second, I must be paying attention to God’s law in his word, both old and new (1 Jn. 5:1-3), and be praying it into my life.  It is through fellowship with God, fellowship maintained through careful obedience to his word, meditation on his holy character, and prayer, that we grow in love.  May the Lord give us continued grace to fight the selfishness within, and then to use the opportunities that God gives us to do good to others.

Submission to the State – Rom. 13:1-7


I think it is important to begin this morning with some overall guiding principles.  These principles are true of any text, but this is especially needed when we come to passages like this one, given the times we live in.  On the one hand, we don’t want to treat this text as if it is all the Bible has to say about the relationship that the Christian has to the state.  If you do that, you are going to end up denying or suppressing other things in Scripture.  This passage, taken absolutely, would lead to a church that panders to the state, even when it is commanding things that are in direct opposition to God’s word.  But we know there are times when the follower of Christ must say, “We must obey God rather than men.” 

But we must also be careful to avoid the opposite mistake.  Some people are so careful to balance this text with other texts in Scripture, that they end up nuancing the meaning right out of the text.  They add so many qualifications to Romans 13 that Romans 13 ends up having nothing really to say about the relationship of the Christian to the state.  Sometimes, when I hear someone say, “Well, you can’t just wave Romans 13 at everything,” I get the distinct impression that they don’t want to listen to what the apostle has to say here.  But if we believe this is as much God’s word as any other part of the Bible (and I hope that you do), we must listen carefully and obediently to Paul’s words in these verses.

Keeping hold of these two principles, and avoiding these two extremes, doesn’t make all difficulties go away.  There are always going to be problems and situations that aren’t black and white and require a good amount of humility and patience with others who differ from us on them.  Take the current situation involving COVID-19.  In some parts of the country, churches are still under orders from the authorities not to meet face-to-face.  Some churches have chosen to obey this without question, others have obeyed while fighting the restrictions in the courts, while still others have chosen the course of civil disobedience.  I know good people in every one of those groups, and they are all appealing to the Scriptures for the reasons why they have acted the way they have acted.  Because of the pandemic, it’s hard for me to be too dogmatic.  In the absence of a pandemic, the course would be more obvious: if the state commands the church not to meet because the state doesn’t approve of the church as such, we must clearly obey God over men.  But my point is that the pandemic makes reasoning through this a bit more difficult and this is seen in that good Christian people fall in different camps on this issue.

My desire in dealing with this text is not to answer every question or to deal with every problem that we might encounter in our relationship to the state.  Rather, I want to stick with the clear principles that are articulated here, because obedience to what is clear in Scripture is the first step to discernment in those cases that are less clear in the Bible (less clear in the sense that they are not dealt with directly).  Let’s be clear on those things on which Scripture is clear and let’s be unified around those things to which Scripture speaks more directly.

Now, I do think that we must be aware of the political situation in which the Christians at Rome found themselves.  This is important because someone might look at this and argue that if the state is not just in every respect, it need not be obeyed.  But that was not the case in Rome.  It can hardly be argued that the Roman Empire was just in truest sense of just – it was under the authority of the Roman Empire, after all, that Christ was crucified and that a lot of Christians were suffering persecution!  It is true that the persecution was not as hot at that time as it would be come later, but we know that Paul spent quite of bit of time in prisons all over the Roman Empire, just because he preached the gospel (cf. Rom. 12:14, 17-20).  The Roman Empire was not Christian, and would not be for another 300 years; it was decidedly pagan.  It was at that time ruled over by Nero who would make the worst politician you can think of today look like a Boy Scout. 

Nevertheless, the first century was part of the time that historians have come to call the pax Romana – the Roman peace, a 200 year period in which the Roman Empire for the most part sustained peace and stability throughout the empire.  It was generally a time of law and order (as defined by the Roman government of course!).  So it is these two things we must keep in mind as we read this passage.  The state, to which the apostle refers, was not just in every respect – and it certainly did not adhere to what we today know as the Judeo-Christian ethic.  Nevertheless, it did for the most part maintain stability throughout the empire, which is important for any community, including the church, to flourish.  Thus Paul asks Timothy to encourage believers to pray for an extension of this pax Romana  - “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim. 2:2). 

The over-arching command here is obedience to the state: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (1).  Under this command, there are basically two things the apostle speaks to with respect to submitting to the governing authorities.  First, he speaks to the issue of the authority of the state (1-2), and then to the issue of the activities of the state (3-7).  The first point is important because it tells us why we are to obey; the second point is important because it tells us in what respects we are to obey.

The Authority of the State

Why are we to be subject to the governing authorities?  We are to do so, “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.  Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (1-2).  The point is that the state receives its authority and right to govern from God.  Note how the apostle emphasizes this again and again.  “There is no authority except from God.”  The governing authorities “that exist have been instituted by God.”  To resist the state is to resist “what God has appointed.”  They are called, in fact, the servants and ministers of God (4, 6).  The bottom line here is that Scripture teaches that what ultimately legitimatizes the authority of a government is not the consent of the governed but rather the consent of God.  This is true even though earthly governments could be said to be under the grip of the evil one (cf. Mt. 4:8-9).

There are two realities which undergird statements like this.  The first is that God is the one who instituted government.  We find this back in Gen. 9:5-6, when the Lord institutes the death penalty for those who commit murder (note that Paul says this is one of the main functions of the state in Rom. 13:4).  In that institution is the foundation of the state.  Sometimes it bothers me when I hear well-meaning Christians talk about government as if it is inherently evil.  There is nothing in Scripture that would support that.  God is the giver of government.  And though it may only be necessary because of the presence of sin in the world, yet it is a good institution because it is given by God.

The second reality is that God is sovereign over all things.  There is no king or president or dictator or whatever who was not in some sense put there by God.  Our Lord said to Pilate, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (Jn. 19:11).  This is true even of pagan kings like Cyrus (Isa. 45:1) and Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 2:21, 37; 4:17, 25, 32).  God puts kings on the throne and he removes kings.  Bad kings and rulers, no less than good ones, are subject to God’s overruling providence and purpose and power.

One of the great Biblical illustrations of this truth is in the way David related to King Saul.  Even though God anointed David to be the king of Israel and even though Saul unjustly attempted again and again to take David’s life – even after all of that David refused to kill Saul when he had the chance (more than once).  As he put it, “Do not destroy him [Saul], for who can put out his hand against the LORD’s anointed and be guiltless? . . . The LORD forbid that I should put out my hand against the LORD’s anointed” (1 Sam. 26:9, 11).  David recognized Saul’s authority because he fundamentally recognized God’s authority and God’s sovereignty over all things, including the throne of Saul.  And this attitude was reflected in the way he restrained himself and others from acting in ways that would undermine the authority of Saul.

We need to be reminded of this – especially those of us who live in a democracy.  Just because I didn’t vote for those who are presently in positions of power and leadership does not mean that I do not have to respect the authority that they possess.  For it is ultimately derived from God.  In the words of verse 7, we are to show them respect and honor. 

Another good example of this is found in Paul’s response to the Jewish high priest Ananias.  When he was rebuked for calling him a “whitewashed all” (Acts 23:3), Paul responded, “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written [here he quotes Exod. 22:28], ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people’” (Acts 23:5).  This is significant because Paul is being unjustly persecuted here.  And even under those circumstances, the apostle was careful to show the proper deference and respect to those in positions of power.  And note that he didn’t do it out of fear or out of convenience; he did so because this is how Scripture commands us to act.

We cannot but at the same time pause to reflect on the comforting reality that God is sovereign and rules in the heavens and among the inhabitants of the earth.  The reason the state receives its authority from God is because God is sovereign over all.  This does not change no matter how the elections go in our country.  Thank God for the truth of Proverbs 21:1: “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.”

The apostle draws two conclusions from this, from the fact that the state receives its authority and power from God, and these in turn serve to further motivate submission to the state.  First, whoever resists the authorities, resists God.  We are to be submissive to the authorities because this is part of our submission to God.  This is no light thing.  This is not a matter of convenience or a matter of pragmatism.  It is part of our obedience to God.

Second, those who resist will incur judgment (KJV has “shall receive to themselves damnation”).  Paul is implying that generally (there are qualifications to this) whatever punishment a man receives in breaking the laws of the state, it is just, it being an extension of God’s rule.  The apostle is not just stating that if you break the law you will be condemned as a matter of course; he is saying that we will be condemned because we are breaking God’s law, and God will not hold us guiltless when we break his law.

Are there exceptions to this?  Are there times when the judgment of the state is contrary to the judgment of God?  Of course there are.  Look at the way Peter handles it.  He puts it this way: “But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler.  Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name” (1 Pet. 4:15-16).  In other words, suffering because you break the laws of the state is only commendable and righteous when it means suffering as a Christian – suffering in obedience to Christ.  Breaking the law in any other way is not only not commendable, but it also damages our witness to our fellow men and it is in direct conflict with God’s will for his people.  On the contrary, these suffering saints are to “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Pet. 2:13-14).

This passage is certainly no carte blanche for a “divine right of kings” or a command to obey every decree of a godless government.  There are many instance in Scripture of what you might call “civil disobedience.”  For example, the apostles in front of the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:18; 5:29), the Hebrew midwives (Exod. 1:17), Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Dan. 3), and Daniel himself (Dan. 4).  All these Biblical examples illustrate the following principle: if the ruling authorities enact laws that are contrary to the laws of God, it is both right and our duty to disobey. 

Why?  Because we only obey them out of submission to God.  When governments constrain disobedience to God, they forfeit their right to be obeyed.  In other words, the overriding principle here is the authority of God.  Because God has given authority to the governing authorities, we must obey them.  But the moment they require us to disobey God, we can no longer submit to them, indeed, we must not submit to them.

This does not men, however, that we have a right to disobey just because governments are at times bad and oppressive.  Paul makes no such qualifications.  He is not calling us to obey only “just” governments.  As we’ve already pointed out, the Roman government, though it did have an overarching commitment to what it considered justice and though this did overlap with some of what the Bible says is just, yet the reality is that the Roman government did a lot of really bad things.  But the apostle does not reason from this that the Christian could therefore flaunt the authority of the emperor.  We must not reason that way, either.

The Activities of the State

Paul does not give a full manifesto on the responsibilities of the state, and this is important to remember.  Rather, the apostle touches on those aspects that related to the relationship of the government to the believers in Rome.  In particular, it has been noted by scholars that there had been unrest in Rome over taxation (here we see there is nothing new under the sun!).  Tom Schreiner relates that “Suetonius records that taxes were exorbitantly high, and Tacitus comments that in AD 57 or 58 complaints surfaced over the extortionary practices of some tax collectors.”  Apparently, Nero even considered repealing indirect taxes, was in the end persuaded otherwise.  We must not think that it would have been beneath the Roman Christians to be grumbling about their taxes.  How should they think about this?  Paul gives them an answer.

He will come to the issue of taxes, but before he does this, he deals with another responsibility of the state.  So there are basically two things that the apostle highlights with respect to the responsibility of the government.  They are (1) to praise the good and punish the evil, and (2) to collect taxes.

With regard to the first, the apostle writes, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.  Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority?  Then do what is good and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good.  But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain.  For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out [God’s] wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:3-4).  Again, Schreiner reminds us that “even oppressive governments, by their very nature seek to prevent the evils of indiscriminate murder, riot, thievery, as well as general instability and chaos, and good acts do at times meet with its approval and praise.”  Government is good not only because it has been ordained by God but because it serves for our good: “he is God’s servant for your good.”  Government is good because it protects us from anarchy and chaos.  Government allows us to live quiet and peaceable lives (1 Tim. 2:2).  From this we see that Christians are to be neither vigilantes (Rom. 12) nor are they to be anarchists (Rom. 13).  “God is not the author of confusion but of peace” (1 Cor. 14:33), and so God has given us governments so that order may be maintained.

One of the ways that order is maintained in society is by the sword (4), which is a reference to capital punishment.  It is the right of the state, for example, to deprive murderers of life.  Some Christians throughout history have maintained that capital punishment is never right, but God’s word bases it on the fact that human are made in God’s image and to strike one of God’s image-bearers down in death is to deprive one’s right to life.  Now it is certainly true that at times the state has overused the sword.  And we should never be against safeguards against its abuse.  But nowhere does Scripture indicate that it is a more just society which refrains entirely from capital punishment.  It is in fact a necessary bulwark against the evil in resides in the hearts of men.

The other activity of the state to which the apostle refers is the collection of taxes: “For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.  Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (6-7). 

Note that Paul does not debate the merits of the tax system.  He simply says to pay your taxes.  Paul even goes into detail about what kinds of taxes we are to pay, for “taxes” refer to direct taxation (like property taxes), although Roman citizens would have been exempt from these (however, not all who were in Rome would have been citizens of Rome).  Then “revenue” would have referred to indirect taxes (sales tax, for example, would fall under this category).  Other than that, the apostle makes no distinction.  They are to pay them all.

Verse 5 sums up the argument nicely: “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.”  Now the word “God’s” is not in the original text, and I’m not sure that I agree with it.  I think what the apostle is saying is that our obedience to the state is not to be merely a pragmatic thing – doing it just to avoid getting caught and punished.  Rather, we are fundamentally to obey the state because it is a conscience thing – in other words, it is part of my obedience to God.

When we began, I said that I wanted to stick to what is clear.  From that perspective we can use our discernment when the waters get a bit more murky.  What then are those principles in the text which we can say are clear?

First, it is clear that God’s sovereignty grounds the sovereignty of the state and that my obedience to God requires submission to the state.

Second, it is clear that my obedience to the state, being a part of obedience to God, does not require me to obey the state when its laws are contrary to God’s laws.

Third, it is clear that it is the responsibility of the state to provide social stability and protection from chaos and anarchy.  It does this by rewarding the law-abiders and by punishing the law-breakers.  And it finances its ability to do this through the collection of taxes.

Fourth, it is clear that it is our responsibility to pay taxes.

Fifth, it is clear that, the state being ordained by God, it is not improper but even right and good for Christians to hold positions of political leadership in the state.  They are God’s ministers (for examples, consider Daniel, Erastus, etc.).

That much is clear, it seems to me.  There are other questions one could consider, but I will leave you to work out the answers in light of these principles.

The last thing I want to say is this: if this text teaches anything it is that our submission to God is to extend into every area of our lives.  It is not to be bottled up at church.  It must permeate every area of our lives – at home, at church, at the workplace, at the court house, in our relationships to each other and to the state.  The secular dimension of our lives is to be filled up with the spiritual.  Why? Because God is ultimately sovereign over all the universe!

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Vengeance belongs to God – Rom. 12:17-21

 

In our day, we find people who are either all about justice or all about mercy, but it’s very difficult to find people who are about both, and who are pursuing both in a balanced way.  If this passage tells us anything, it is that we are to be about mercy and justice.  For we are to show mercy while longing for God’s justice.  But how do we become people who long for justice and yet are able to forgive and to overcome evil by good, who do not repay evil for evil but who seek to live peaceably with all?  In some sense, what the Christian is asked to do is more difficult than at first appears.  For we are never asked to give up on justice even as we are commanded to not pursue revenge.  We are committed to both justice and mercy – but again, how do you show both?  For it would seem that justice would undercut mercy, and that showing mercy would prevent the achievement of justice. 

This text shows us how to be committed to both mercy and justice.  We need people committed to both.  For if you are exclusively about justice and not mercy, you are never going to give people the chance to change.  But if you are only about mercy and not justice, you will never work for the change that needs to happen.  Because the Christian is committed to both grace and righteousness, he or she gives people the chance to change as well as patiently working for the change that needs to happen.  This is part of the beautiful balance of godliness, and the Christian ethic shows us how to become this kind of person and the reasons why we should be this kind of person.

And we need to hear this.  Because if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that it is so easy to be vindictive.  Even as Christians, we often lapse into anger and want our pound of flesh.  We are certainly prone to sin in this way. 

Paul knew his readers needed to hear this because they were being persecuted.  It was not easy to live the Christian life in first century Rome, or in any other part of the Roman Empire at the time.  The apostle himself spent days and years in prison, and many believers shared his fate or worse.  Followers of Christ were routinely discriminated against, disenfranchised, mocked, mistreated, or even killed.  In the midst of all this injustice, one can understand the tendency to strike back and take one’s revenge on their enemies.

We are not persecuted in all the same ways as they were, but if you’re faithful to the Lord, you are going to be persecuted in some way.  And when that happens, how will you respond?  The question is, will we respond in a way that is worthy of Christ?  The verses we are considering this morning help us to respond in a Biblical, God-honoring way.  In fact, we are given five reasons we are not to seek personal revenge.

Because it is evil (17a).

The apostle begins, “Repay no one evil for evil.”  In other words, when we seek revenge on those who wrong us – on those whose acts toward us are nothing less than evil – we are told that the act of striking back and giving them what they have given to us is also nothing less than evil.  When we seek revenge, we are not righting a wrong, we are only continuing a wrong.  We are fanning the flames of evil, not putting them out.  It is always reprehensible and against the express rule of Scripture as individuals to do evil and to harm others.

If our Lord tells us that the second to the greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mt. 22:39), then to render evil for evil is not only to sin against our fellow man; it is also to sin against God.  We cannot whitewash what we are doing; it is straight-up wicked.  This does not mean that wanting to see justice is wrong.  God is a God of justice.  But as the apostle will point out, that is just the point.  It is not our purview, it is God’s.  When we pursue revenge we are not only harming our fellow man, but we are also playing God.  And that is at heart of almost every sin.  It is evil.

Because it ruins our witness among men (17b)

He goes on: “but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.”  The translation in the KJV, “provide things honest in the sight of all men” is not right.  The word here is not “honest” but “good” or “honorable” (Greek word is kala).  In other words, we are to be concerned and to take thought for our actions as they appear before men.  We are to make sure that our lives reflect the good to which we say we are committed. 

This was a particular concern of the apostle’s.  He always sought to “take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man” (Acts 24:16).  As he would put it to the Corinthians, “But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways.  We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2).  It is the reason behind the standard of ministry the apostle introduces in 1 Tim. 3:7 – “Moreover, he [the overseer] must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” 

Now Paul is not saying that we are supposed to kowtow to the culture.  He is not saying that we must always act in such a way that the world admires us.  Of course a world which is under the power of the wicked one cannot be pleased without displeasing Christ.  However, that does not mean that unsaved people can’t recognize what is honorable or dishonorable.  The point that the apostle is making in all these passages is that we are not to put stumbling blocks in the way of unbelievers and give them a reason to write off the claims of Christ upon their lives.  We are not to be governed by the norms of the culture, but we must acknowledge that even unbelievers have God’s law written upon their hearts and can recognize inconsistency in the believer.  And when we seek to exact revenge on those who wrong us – this is such a contradiction to all that we claim to believe that the unbeliever can’t help but notice the contradiction and be turned off by the hypocrisy. 

Because we are to seek peace with all men (18)

“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”  We are to pursue peace, not payback.  Peace is a state of being that is contrary to the seeking of revenge.  I cannot seek peace with men and at the same time be looking for ways to get back at them. 

Peace is supposed to be a definitive mark of the Christian.  We are, after all, disciples of the Prince of Peace.  Our Lord blessed the peacemakers (Mt. 5:9).  In James 3, we read, “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.  And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (Jam. 3:17-18).  In Hebrews we are told to “Strive for peace with everyone” (Heb. 12:14).  As a result of these spiritual realities that define the Christian, we are to be characterized by reconciliation, not revenge, by forgiveness, not fury, and by amity, not animosity.

This ought to be the case because God has made peace with us (cf. Eph. 2:11-22).  We are fundamentally people who were at enmity with God but who have been made by sheer grace and mercy at peace with God.  As recipients of this mercy, it is only fitting that we show mercy to others – and this means striving for peace.  The command to live peaceably with all men is meant to be a reflection of the peace that we have with God through Christ.  Which means that this is a gospel issue.  When we fail to be concerned for peace, we are demonstrating that our grasp of the gospel is not that great. 

It may not be possible of course, and the apostle is being wise here when he adds that condition.  However, the impossibility ought not to lie in the Christian and in some inability to restrain himself or herself.  Rather, it is an objective impossibility arising from the hostility in those who have no faith.  This arises from the fact that it is always our duty to resist wickedness and error.  The call to be at peace with others is not a call to be wishy-washy in matters of righteousness.  It does not mean that we back down from a commitment to truth or stop holding it up before men because it is offensive.  The gospel will always be offensive to the lost.  We cannot help that.  And sometimes, because of that fact, we cannot help it that some people are going to hate us because we love Jesus Christ.

A biblical example of how not to do this is the friendship that existed between the kings Jehoshaphat and Ahab.  The former was a godly king; the latter was a despicably wicked man.  But because Jehoshaphat was apparently so eager for peace between Judah and Israel, he went too far in his relationship with him.  As a result, he was almost killed in battle and later lost some of his men in a failed seagoing expedition with the northern kingdom.  Also, his son was married to the daughter of Jezebel and this had devastating consequences for the southern kingdom.  So yes, we are to be at peace with men, but never at peace with evil.  And if that costs us some relationships, so be it.  As Thomas Watson put it, the balance comes in like this: “We are to be civil to the worst but not twist into a cord of friendship.”

Because vengeance is the right of God, not the individual (19)

“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”

In other words, as an individual I don’t get to decide how judgment is meted out or on whom judgment is meted out.  That is God’s business.  I am to leave it to him.  Another way to put this is that God’s word does not leave room for vigilante justice.  When I become judge and jury, I am taking upon myself what belongs to God.  I am robbing God.  And that is surely a mistake. 

I do want to point out that this does not mean that the state cannot yield the sword of justice, as the apostle will go on to point out in the very next chapter.  Some people have arrived at the wrong conclusion by not regarding what the Bible says about spheres of responsibility.  Public justice, for example, does not lie within my sphere of responsibility as an individual.  And the reason it does not is because God has not put it there.  But he has given that responsibility to the state, to the governing authorities.  Paul is not saying that justice is always to await the Final Judgment.  What he is saying is that vengeance belongs to God, and as such we can only pursue justice against others in ways that God allows.  And again, he does not allow vigilante justice.

Note the way Paul puts this: “never avenge yourselves.”  There is just not a situation when it would be okay.  Revenge is never okay.  There isn’t a wrong committed against us that makes is right to exact vengeance. 

However, that does not mean that we cannot defend ourselves or our families.  The call not to exact revenge is different from the call not to protect yourself.  Those are two different things.  If someone breaks into your home at night and you shoot them, you are not violating this text.  But suppose that someone has murdered a friend and you go after them and shoot them.  That is different; that would be seeking revenge.  You cannot help the fact that your friend has been killed.  At that point, you let the authorities do what they are supposed to do and leave the results to God.  You forgive the murderer and seek to live at peace with them.  But Paul is not saying that you can’t prevent the murder of your friend if you are able.  Again, that is a very different situation, and it is important that we see the distinction.

Because God will surely right all wrongs (19-20)

This gets to heart of how we are to obey this command.  The call to not seek revenge can be very hard to obey, especially if the degree of wrongness committed against us is especially evil.  How do you become the kind of person who doesn’t seek revenge?  We can be that kind of person when we realize that justice will always be done. 

On the other hand, when we go for revenge, we will almost always make things worse.  Our seeking justice will not end in justice but in more wrong and evil.  If you don’t believe what the apostle Paul is saying, you are only going to perpetuate endless cycles of revenge and counter-revenge.  In fact, I think we are beginning to see this very attitude starting to percolate through our own society.  The Biblical witness is so important because this perspective is really the only way to ensure a just society.  And that perspective is a perspective of a holy God who will infallibly make all things right.

So Paul writes, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’  To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’”  Now in the KJV, verse 19 reads, “rather give place unto wrath.”  This might sound like Paul is saying that we are to put away our own wrath.  But that is not what Paul means.  The ESV is correct when it translates it is “leave it to the wrath of God,” for at least three reasons.

First, “give place to” does not mean “put away” but “make room for.”  That being the case, he cannot mean for us to make room for our wrath, because that would play into the hands of those who seek revenge.

Second, “wrath” in Paul almost always means God’s wrath – pervasively so (cf. Rom. 2:5, 8; 3:5; 5:9; 9:2; Eph. 2:3; 1 Thess. 1:10; 2:16; 5:9).  So even though the apostle doesn’t explicitly refer to God’s wrath, there is a presumption in favor of God’s wrath in terms of the usage of the term in Paul’s writings.

Third, the Scriptures quoted in support of the apostle’s argument point definitively in this direction (Deut. 32:25; Prov. 25:21-22).  This is especially true of the Deuteronomy passage which is all about God’s wrath upon those who forsake his law.  The vengeance spoken of here is not our vengeance and wrath but God’s vengeance and wrath.  We are not told here to make room for our wrath but to let God’s wrath have its place in the punishment of the wicked.

The phrase “heap burning coals on his head”(20) points in this direction as well.  Paul is not saying that we will shame our enemies when we do good to them instead of returning evil to them.  The phrase “coals of fire” in the Bible is very often a metaphorical allusion to the wrath of God, as in the following passages (2 Sam. 22:9, 13; Ps. 140:10).  In other words, our deeds of kindness only further serve the judgment of those who sin against us.

So we are to let God make all things right.  And we can do this because he will.  He has promised to do so.  This is as much a promise for the comfort of God’s people as it is a threat against those who are opposed to God’s people.  Again we are pointed up to the fact that for the Christian, we are to rest upon our hope in the character and promises of God, not upon our present circumstances and situation.

Now some may push back and argue that it is hard for them to do this because it doesn’t seem that God repays the wicked at all.  So much wrong seems to go unpunished (cf. Ps. 73 and Job 21).

The answer of the Bible is that God’s promises of wrath are as certain as his promises of blessing.  But just as the fullness of the blessing that comes to the righteous is laid up in the future, so the doom of the wicked is reserved for the future.  This is the way the NT authors argue (cf. Jude 14-15; 2 Thess. 1:6-10).  It is the “essence of piety” (John Murray) to put our trust in God and to commit our cause to his hands, especially when we suffer wrong, even as did our Lord (1 Pet. 2:23; 4:17-19).

What kind of effect should this truth have upon us?  (20-21)

It should free us to do good, even to our enemies.  When our enemies hunger, we feed them; when they thirst, we give them drink.  There is no need to take judgment into our own hands, because we know God will do it.  And so we are free to show them mercy.  We are free to overcome evil with good instead of being overcome by evil by giving into the impulse for revenge. 

Now this does not mean that we can outwardly be kind to our enemies yet harbor vindictive desire against them (cf. ver. 14).  Rather, the fact that God will plead our cause should free us to love them, as in verse 19.  As Thomas Schreiner puts it, “Believers are also to pray, of course, that God would bless those who persecute them (Rom. 12:14).  This means that we pray for the salvation of our oppressors, hoping that they will turn from their evil and be rescued from the wrath to come.  Nonetheless, we need to know . . . that those who do not repent will experience judgment.”  As counterintuitive as it might seem, a firm belief in God’s wrath makes unconditional love to our enemies possible.

This ought to help us see also how to read the imprecatory Psalms.  They are not meant to be expressions of our designs upon those who hate us now, but to be expressions of our hope that God’s justice will ultimately prevail upon all men and women who refuse to repent of their hostility against God and his people.

So Paul’s exhortations are founded upon God’s promises of future grace to those who trust in him.  We are not called to be nice for the sake of being nice.  Rather, we are to do good and not retaliate because we believe in a God who is the Judge of all the earth, and who will always do what is right (Gen. 18:25).

A Better High Priest (Heb. 5:1-10)

In Hebrews 5:1-10, our Lord is compared and contrasted with the Aaronic priesthood. In the first four verses, we have a description of this ...