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
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
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
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
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
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
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).