Note: This is Post # 17 in the series titled “The Transformed Life” based on Romans 12. Please click here for previous posts: POST # 1, POST # 2, POST # 3, POST # 4, POST # 5, POST # 6, POST # 7, POST # 8, POST # 9, POST # 10, POST # 11, POST # 12, POST # 13, POST # 14, POST # 15, POST # 16.
This is the final post in the series of the transformed life that deals with Romans 12:17-21, “17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
What a fitting end to Romans 12 whose central theme is a call for believers to offer themselves to a lifestyle that increasingly looks like Jesus Christ due to the ongoing transforming work of the Holy Spirit [Rom 12:1-2]. What more than the subject of responding in a Christ-like manner to those who hurt us! Jesus’s entire earthly life was marked by responding to those who hurt him with nothing but good and all the while leaving all judgment into God’s hands. And that is precisely what we are called to in these verses as well: To refrain from retaliating against those who hurt us and at the same time doing good to them as we leave all judgment in God’s hands.
In these verses, we are given 3 specific things to do when someone hurts us: 1. Don’t retaliate 2. Do good to everyone and 3. Leave all judgment in God’s hands. Let’s look at each of them in detail. And the way we are going to do is not by going verse by verse in sequence, but by lumping verses and parts of verses under each point. The reason as you will see is that the same truths are repeated and it will be more helpful to see them organized in that manner.
1. Don’t retaliate.
This command is evident from the following verses, “17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil…19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends…21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” [Rom 12:17a, 19a, 21]. Not only does Paul teach this principle, but so does the apostle Peter, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult” [1 Pet 3:9].
This principle of not retaliating is found even in the Old Testament. For example, this is what we read in Leviticus 19:18, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” Solomon also warns us from displaying a vengeful attitude through these words, “Do not say, “I’ll do to them as they have done to me; I’ll pay them back for what they did.””
It’s clear from all these verses that we are clearly forbidden to retaliate against those who hurt us—be it toward other Christians or even non-Christians. No retaliation means no retaliation—within the home, the church or any other place for that matter. As much as our flesh may urge us to hit back, God forbids all kinds of retaliation. No tit-for-tat mentality. No violent or even non-violent acts of retaliation such as silence, sarcastic or angry speech, cold rejection, slamming of doors, gossip, slander, etc. No matter how seriously we have been hurt, the command is still clear: Not even a bit of retaliation!
But God’s Word does not stop with this command alone. Not only are we not supposed to seek revenge, i.e., be passive, we are also called to be proactive in our response by doing good to those who have hurt us. That’s the 2nd thing this passage teaches us.
2. Do good to everyone.
Paul says, “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone” [Rom 12:17b]. This does not mean we can break God’s moral laws to be found right in the eyes of people. But we must pursue doing what is honorable in the eyes of everyone. Doing good in response to evil finds approval in the sight of even unbelievers, for the most part, is Paul’s point.
He then goes on to say, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” [Rom 12:18]. As much as possible without compromising biblical commands, believers should strive to seek peace. After all, if our leader is called the Prince of Peace [Isa 9:6] and we are called to be peacemakers [Matt 5:9], then it is only right for us to seek peace as much as possible.
Paul, however, is a realist. He knows there will be instances where it is impossible to be at peace with some people. Even Jesus could not live in peace with the Pharisees! That’s why Paul adds the phrase, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you.”
He then goes on to say, “On the contrary: If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head” [Rom 12:20]. Verse 20 is a quote from Proverbs 25:21,22. Here is a clear command to do good to those who hurt us. Food, drink are practical things needed for life. Give your persecutors what they need, not what they deserve is the idea. That phrase, “you will heap burning coals” most likely refers to our love for our persecutors has the power to cause them to feel intense shame over their actions and cause them to turn to God in faith.
Finally, we are once again told NOT to allow the evil of others to dominate us, but that our good should dominate their evil as seen through the command, “overcome evil with good” [Rom 12:21b]. In other words, we are to practically seek ways of doing good to those who hurt us and not retaliate.
Jesus said the same thing in Luke 6:27-28 “27 But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” Other passages such as 1 Thessalonians 5:15 and 1 Peter 3:9 stress the same idea.
Joseph in the Old Testament book of Genesis comes to mind, doesn’t he? He did not seek revenge against his brothers who sold him into slavery but actively sought to do good to them during the years of famine that came much later. And that is what we too are called to do. Overcome our tendencies to retaliate and actively seek to do good to those who hurt us.
We are not done yet. If you thought these 2 are hard enough, Paul has one more thing to say. And that is probably the hardest thing to do.
3. Leave all Judgment in God’s hands.
After saying that we are not to take revenge in verse 19, Paul goes on to say, “but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, “It is mine to avenge, I will repay,” says the Lord” [Rom 12:19b]. A quote from Deuteronomy 32:35 where Moses encouraged Israel to rest and rejoice in the truth that God will execute justice in his time on those who persecute his people. Solomon said the same thing as well in Proverbs 20:22, “Do not say, “I’ll pay you back for this wrong!” Wait for the Lord, and he will avenge you.”
This means we don’t take judgment in our hands. We are to wholeheartedly trust in God to execute judgment in his time and in his way. Judgment belongs to God alone, and we dare not take that which belongs to him. When in our impatience, we execute judgment on those who hurt us, we are essentially saying, “God, I’m not sure you can be trusted to judge rightly.” Such behavior does not please God. It is a sign of unbelief in the God who has said he will avenge. True faith takes God at his word and waits on him to deal with those who offend us.
In the meantime, if the one who offends us, repents, then we are to forgive the offender immediately. Our Lord makes it clear in Luke 17:3b-4 “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” According to these verses, we are to confront those who sin against us, and if they genuinely repent, we must forgive them. God’s word is clear.
In addition to this, we must also seek full reconciliation. Often, we are guilty of forgiving and then keeping a distance. That defeats the purpose of forgiveness which is reconciliation. When God forgives, he always reconciles us back to himself [Col 1:22; 2 Cor 5:17-19]. And we should pursue the same as well!
A word to the one seeking forgiveness: If we are the ones who have offended and then we must not only go back to seek forgiveness by saying, “I am sorry for what I did,” but we must also strive for reconciliation with the one we have offended as well. Sometimes, we just say, “Sorry” to make ourselves feel better and then stay aloof! That’s a wrong attitude.
Again, the end goal of seeking and granting forgiveness is reconciliation. Whether the other person wants to pursue it or not is in our hands. But we must do what we can to seek full reconciliation—whether we are the ones seeking forgiveness or we are the ones granting it to those who repent.
How to respond when the person who has hurt us does not repent?
What if the person who hurts us is unrepentant? What if he or she does not feel their actions are wrong? In such a case, are we to forgive them as well? Many feel that is what we should do. After all, aren’t we supposed to forgive everybody? Didn’t Jesus himself forgive his enemies while on that cross? Let’s look closely at these questions.
Let me start by first reminding that we are never to seek revenge and we are to seek to do good—no matter whether they repent or not. However, when it comes to forgiveness, it’s a different issue.
The very fact that Paul here by saying we are to leave judgment in God’s hands by quoting Deuteronomy 32:35 is telling us that those who are unrepentant do face judgment and that may even include hell if they continue to remain unrepentant.
If we are to be like Christ and imitate God, then we must forgive as God forgives. Right? That’s why we must pause and ask this question: Does God forgive everyone or does he forgive only those who repent? If we say, he forgives everyone unconditionally, then all are going to heaven. That’s the heresy of universalism. And that is not what the Bible teaches. Jesus himself said twice in Luke 13:3, 5, that unless we repent, we will perish. No repentance, no forgiveness. In fact, repentance from sin is the call throughout the Old and New Testament. The unrepentant will not inherit heaven. The conclusion then is that God forgives only those who repent and turn to his Son in faith.
Even on the cross, the same Jesus who pronounced forgiveness to the repentant criminal could have quickly pronounced the same forgiveness for others too. Remember, Jesus on earth had the authority to forgive sins [Matt 9:6] and pronounced forgiveness for many. But on the cross, his words, “Father, forgive them” [Luke 23:34] was not an act of forgiving everyone. It was only a prayer to God asking him to forgive them meaning that they may be moved to turn to God, repent of their sins, put their faith in Christ and thus be forgiven. Jesus did not actually forgive them himself because they had not repented. Only one person was forgiven by Jesus on the cross, and that was the thief who genuinely repented [Lk 23:42]!
The same with Stephen who as he was being stoned prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” [Acts 7:60]. He did not forgive them but prayed for Jesus to forgive them. Even Saul [i.e, Paul] who was one of his persecutors was not forgiven until he repented on the road to Damascus!
The same Paul who wrote Romans also wrote in other places, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you“ [Eph 4:32] and “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” [Col 3:13]. Notice in all these statements the common thread is to forgive as the Lord forgives. And the Lord does not forgive apart from repentance!
So, if we are to imitate God in the matter of forgiveness, we too can forgive only when there is true repentance. We must always be willing and ready to forgive and thus keep the door to reconciliation always open. But we cannot pronounce forgiveness when there is no repentance. If we do so, we fail to imitate God in this matter and also fail to warn the unrepentant person about the justice of God and the fact that unrepentant people will not enter heaven.
It is true that we should not be overcome by bitterness and hatred. But it is also equally true that granting forgiveness where there is no repentance is unbiblical. We must not confuse refusal to retaliate and doing good to the one who hurt us and entrusting that person into God’s hand as equal to forgiving them. They are separate issues.
Also, we must not also confuse if we don’t forgive, then the only other option is bitterness. Either I forgive, or I get bitter. That’s not true. We should not look at this as an either/or proposition. We cannot forgive when there is no repentance and at the same time not get bitter—that’s the call. And we must also always be willing to forgive. That’s the spirit that must be cultivated.
Yes, where there is no repentance, it is a fight to protect our hearts from getting bitter. But, with the strength of the Holy Spirit, we must keep on striving through prayer and meditating on the Scriptures to protect our hearts from getting bitter. It’s a battle—even a life-long struggle in some cases. Yet, we have to refuse taking judgment in our own hands. We have to leave it in the hands of our just God who can do no wrong [Deut 32:4]! At the same time, we are to keep doing as much good as possible to those who have hurt us.
By the way, as a side note, I’m not at all saying that we should seek repentance for every little sin that people may commit against us. We must learn to overlook the little things. That’s part of Christian maturity—to bear with tolerance the weaknesses of others. For we too are prone to failures. When the sin is something serious enough or if it is a pattern, then we must lovingly confront the one who committed it to turn in repentance.
So, we need to be ready to forgive and not give into bitterness as we leave all judgment in all God’s hands. That’s the point of this 3rd thing that Paul wants us to do in this passage.
(Note: For a more detailed treatment of this subject concerning “How to respond when the person who has hurt us does not repent” listen to this SERMON.)
As we wrap up, let’s remember the 3 things we are to do in response to those who have hurt us: 1. Don’t retaliate 2. Do good to everyone and 3. Leave all judgment in God’s hands.
That’s what being Christ-like in the ultimate sense really means for that’s what Jesus himself did, “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” [1 Peter 2:23]. And all the while, Jesus was doing the highest good for his enemies—paying the price for their sins!
Let’s seek to imitate him by relying on the Holy Spirit who alone can transform us into the image of Christ.