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).