The book of Romans is about the gospel from first to last. It is either explaining why the gospel is necessary, what the essence of the gospel is, how the gospel is received, what difference the gospel makes theologically, the amazing benefits of the gospel, how Israel fits into the gospel or how the believer is to live life in light of the gospel. Chapter 12 falls into this last category. In chapter 12 Paul gives a series of instructions and commands that the believer, as a recipient of the gospel, is now able and eager to obey. It is because the believer has received the grace of the gospel and has been given gifts by the Holy Spirit that he is able to serve other believers and is able to spread the grace of God to the godless world in order to make Christ known. Chapter 12, then, begins the section of Romans that gives practical instructions about how to live a gospel life in a godless world. The delights of divine doctrine have been completed and the duties of devoted discipleship have begun.
Here I want to comment on Romans 12:17-19. The commands that the Apostle Paul gives here seem innocuous enough at first reading, but become quite severe when their true force is discerned. First Paul says, “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone (12:17).” Notice the categorical nature of this command (and yes, it is a command from the Apostle, not a mere suggestion). “Never . . . to anyone.” That means that there is not a situation that presents an exception to this. There is no, “Yeah, but . . .” The believer, when receiving evil and ill treatment from anyone, is simply not allowed to pay back like for like. For example, when someone says something about you that you know is a lie and it defames your character, you are not allowed to tell something negative about that other person. If your wife intentionally embarrasses you in a group of your friends, you are not allowed to repay her for that hurt. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, you are not allowed to slap them back, but you are instead to turn to them the left cheek (Matthew 5:39-41). Do you see how hard this is? There are many more examples of living out this behavior in everyday life and in all of these situations the flesh cries out that we need to pay the offender back. The flesh shouts, “That’s not fair and you have your rights! You don’t have to take that!” But the flesh seeks to create sin and the flesh always responds sinfully. The believer does not respond this way. Being controlled by the Spirit, any time that the believer receives evil from someone, he must remind himself that he is a follower of the Lord Jesus and that he is therefore not allowed to respond with evil. His King does not permit that response. The believer can NEVER pay back evil for evil and also be an obedient disciple of Christ. Instead of evil for evil, we are to imitate the Lord Jesus Himself by receiving evil treatment and responding with patience and compassion. This is done because the goal is not my importance or comfort or glory nor is it justice in my eyes, but the goal is to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ and to live a life that demonstrates His power to transform a life so that we are a living advertisement for the gospel of Jesus. (John 3:30; Acts 20:24)
Romans 12:19 reads, “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,’ says the Lord.” Again Paul uses that absolute word, ‘never.’ “Never take your own revenge.” This means that it is never appropriate for the disciple of Jesus to take revenge. Revenge and payback and vengeance are always inappropriate for the believer. These are acts of disobedience and are the behaviors of the old man. The world greedily seeks revenge and wants to get even and desires to retaliate, because those who are still in the world are driven to glorify themselves as those on the throne of their lives. By contrast the believer has died to himself and lives for Jesus Christ and so lives to glorify King Jesus who is now on the throne. The believer knows that God’s glory is displayed in submission, and so the believer refuses to take revenge and refuses to retaliate.
Notice several additional points here in Romans 12:19. Paul gives the instruction, “Never seek your own revenge, BELOVED.” Those who receive this instruction are beloved; but beloved BY WHOM? They are beloved by God! Believers obey because they are loved by God. Brethren, we are loved by God and so we choose to let Him be the Judge. He is the One who judges righteously (1 Peter 2:23).
The believer, then, is not allowed to retaliate or to get even. If another person cheats them or deceives them or takes advantage of them, they can acknowledge that wrong and can make it known to the one who wronged them, but the believer is not allowed to exercise his own recompense. All recompense and vengeance falls into God’s domain, because He is the only perfectly just judge. God is the only one who judges righteously. As the Lord Jesus refused to retaliate, but instead entrusted Himself to the One who judges righteously (1 Peter 2:23), so the disciple imitates his Master and likewise refuses to retaliate. This refusal to seek revenge teaches the believer submission and teaches the disciple to accept whatever the Lord allows. In this way we learn to trust when we do not understand. Do you see the power of this command? Do you see the benefits of obeying the Lord’s commands? Learning to submit; learning to accept whatever the Lord allows; learning to trust the Lord when we do not understand our circumstances.
1) The believer is aware of his personal responsibility for all his own actions to be just and free from evil. Never paying back evil for evil to anyone, the believer is not to initiate evil or introduce evil into the world. The believer’s personal sphere of influence is to be free from evil.
2) The believer is to strive to establish justice and honesty in the world around him by influencing others to act justly and to correct injustice where he can.
3) Ultimately the believer entrusts all judgment, all vengeance and all recompense to the Lord. The believer is convinced of God’s perfect judgment and justice. The believer knows that God will always render a perfect verdict and will always punish and duly recompense all injustice and wickedness and deceit. The disciple of Christ knows that while God may delay justice for His own sovereign purposes, all injustice will be justly punished. Let us refuse to repay evil for evil and never seek our revenge, but instead use all these as opportunities to trust the Lord ever more. RMB 4/2015