Our Relationship to Enemies: Loving Non-retaliation and Good Deeds – Romans 12:17-21
Pastor Mark Hardy November 17, 2013
One summer afternoon a long-haul truck driver stopped his eighteen wheel Peterbilt truck at his favorite diner on his route to eat lunch. After he had received his meal four members of a motorcycle gang rode their Harley’s into the parking lot, got off, and stomped into the diner. The leader immediately noticed the truck driver who was sitting alone and began to harass him. “Well, who is this little sissy?” he sneered. But the truck driver merely remained silent and continued eating his lunch.
The gang members proceeded to form a circle around him and started snapping their fingers in unison. Unperturbed, he never looked up but just sat there and ate his lunch. Then one of the gang members picked up the truck drivers iced tea and poured it over his head. The man quietly dried off his face with his napkin, got up, paid his bill and left. The leader of the gang just laughed and remarked to the waitress, “What a wimp! That guy sure isn’t much of a man!”
She paused as she looked out the window. “He isn’t much of a driver either,” she answered. “He just ran his rig over four Harley’s on his way out.
That’s a good example of revenge. Revenge is the act of retaliating or taking vengeance on others to get even, punish or injure them for the wrongs or injuries they have done against us. This is never right, as we will see in the passage we will be looking at this morning.
Last time we saw in Romans 12:9-16 where Paul called all of us as believers to sincerely love our fellow believers in a variety of ways. Now as we come to vv. 17-21, he shows us what sincere love looks like toward non-Christian enemies. Turn in your Bible to Romans 12.
In Romans 12:17-21 we see eight commands that reveal how every believer is to lovingly respond to his or her enemies.
The first command is:
I. Don’t ever Indulge in Retaliation toward Anyone
A. Look at the first part of v. 17: Never pay back evil for evil to anyone.
1. Although some Christians have enemies because they lack love and are downright offensive, the believer who seriously seeks to obey the Lord and be a faithful witness is going to have enemies. Jesus said in John 15:18-19, “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.”
2. Now Paul’s focus in vv. 17-21, as it was back in v. 14, is the way we as believers are to respond to non-Christian enemies, those who are hostile against us and who threaten or harm or in other ways do evil to us. Quoting Micah 7:6, Jesus said in Matthew 10:36 that even, “…A MAN’S ENEMIES WILL BE THE MEMBERS OF HIS HOUSEHOLD.” (Matt. 1021)
3. Although Paul is primarily talking about non-Christian enemies here, this does not mean that fellow believers cannot make themselves our enemies by terribly sinning against us and harming us, so the commands here can apply to both.
4. Now whenever we have been treated unjustly, persecuted or harmed in some way by others, the natural, sinful inclination within everyone is to fight back and get even. The motto of human pride worldwide is: “No one treads on me unpunished!”
5. And yet, as born-again believers who have been given a new nature and the indwelling Spirit of God, we are called to respond in a different way. Jesus said in Matthew 5:43-44, “You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
6. And in Luke 6:27-28 He says, “…love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
7. This is why Paul gives here in v. 17, like he did in v. 14 and will do again in vv. 19 and 21, four prohibitions against retaliation and revenge. Look again at what he says in v. 17, “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone.”
8. The one Greek word translated “pay back” (apodidontes) here means to return in kind, to retaliate, to be vindictive. And “anyone” (medeni) is emphatic in the Greek, meaning that this is to be done “to no one” at all.
9. Now there is a place for the just punishment of evildoers in the civil courts (Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:19-20; Deut. 19:21), which we will see next time. But personal retaliation by injuring those who have injured us is always forbidden.
10. As Christians, we are to be characterized by God’s agape love, and this genuine or sincere love never “plays God” or repays evil for evil to anyone (Lev. 19:18; 1 Thess. 5:15; 1 Pet. 3:9). For 1 Corinthians 13:5 says that love “does not act unbecomingly; it does don’t seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered.”
11. The second command that reveals love to our enemies is to:
II. Insure your Conduct is Right before Everyone
A. Look at the second part of v. 17: Respect what is right in the sight of all men.
1. The word “Respect” (pronooumenio) here means to think of beforehand and to be careful to do. And the word “right” (kala) refers to that which is intrinsically good or proper, honest, noble, and honorable.
2. In other words, our conduct as believers toward our enemies who hate or harm us is to be visibly right, proper and honorable “in the sight of all men” or everyone.
3. John Murray said, “…the norms of behavior governing Christian conduct are norms that even unbelievers recognize as worthy of approval and that when Christians violate these canons they bring reproach upon the name of Christ and upon their own profession. This does not mean that the unbelieving world prescribes norms of conduct for the Christian but only that the Christian in proving what is the good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God must have regard to what can be vindicated as honorable in the forum of men’s judgment. We may never overlook the effect of the work of the law written on the hearts of all men (2:15) as also how alert the unbelieving are to inconsistency in the witness of believers.” (pp. 138-139)
4. Even unbelievers recognize that refraining from retaliation and getting even with those who harm us is a good thing, though it goes against the natural inclination within them. Therefore, we as believers must be concerned about our testimony before everyone, lest unbelievers say about us, “Those Christians are no different than we are” (Prov. 3:3-4; Matt. 5:16; Lk. 2:52; 1 Cor. 10:31-32; 2 Cor. 4:2; 8:21; 1 Tim. 5:14; Tit. 2:10; 1 Pet. 3:16).
5. The third command that reveals love to our enemies is to:
III. Strive for Peace in All your Relationships
A. Look at v. 18: If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.
1. Jesus Himself called us in Matthew 5:9 to be “peacemakers” and urges all His followers in Mark 9:50 to “be at peace with one another.” However, although He commands us to “…be at peace with all men,” this does not mean peace at any cost.
2. Preserving the peace is never to be at the expense of truth, principle, or holiness. For to sacrifice or compromise those things would be no true peace at all.
3. Notice the two important qualifications that Paul makes: First he says, “If possible.” This is because making peace with all people is not possible in every situation.
4. Second, he states, “…so far as it depends on you.” This is because since in relationships there are two or more people involved, peace doesn’t always depend on us because the other person can be stubborn, unreasonable, or opposed to getting along.
5. The lack of peace among fellow believers can also take place although they have the same indwelling Spirit of God and authoritative Word of God. This is because the Holy Spirit can be grieved and quenched by their sin, and God’s Word can be twisted or not obeyed resulting in conflict and personal harm.
6. But regardless of what other people do to us, we are responsible at all times to do everything within our power to “be at peace with all men.”
7. The fourth command that reveals love to our enemies is to:
IV. Never take Justice into Your own Hands
A. Look at the first part of v. 19: Never take your own revenge, beloved, (Stop there)
1. Since Paul understands just how difficult it is to resist the temptation to strike back when someone harms us, notice that he calls believers “beloved” (apapetoi) to remind us that we are the beloved people of God who have personally experienced the undeserved love of God.
2. Thomas Schreiner says about this, “Even though believers are severely mistreated by others, they should never forget that they are dearly loved by God and chosen to be His own. Rejection by others is a deep wound, but the salve of God’s love for us is the best healing for it.” (672)
3. Paul makes it very clear here that no matter how unjust or hurtful people may treat us, it is never right to take justice into our own hands. We are never to execute revenge on others for what we believe to be a just and deserved punishment for what they have done to us.
4. Remember that “revenge” (ekdikountes) is the act of retaliating or taking vengeance on others to get even, punish or injure them for the wrongs or injuries they have done against us. This can be done in all kinds of different ways.
5. A college professor answered his phone at 3:00 am to hear,
“This is your neighbor, Mr. Smith. Your dog is barking and keeping me awake.” Then he hung up. The next morning Mr. Smith’s phone rang at exactly 3:00 am, where the caller said, “This is the professor. I just wanted you to know that I don’t have a dog!” Click! That’s revenge!
6. It is never right to do wrong, no matter how good it may make us feel in the moment. It is not our place to take our own revenge on those who have wronged us.
7. The fifth command that reveals love to our enemies is to:
V. Trust the Lord to Right all Wrongs
A. Instead of taking our own revenge, we are told in the second part of v. 19: …but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord.
1. Paul command here to “…leave room (or give place) for the wrath of God” is because only God is qualified to mete out perfect justice on evildoers. John Stott correctly states, “The reason the repayment or judging of evil is forbidden to us is not that it is wrong in itself (for evil deserves to be punished and should be), but that it is God’s prerogative, not ours.” (pg. 336)
2. Since only God is infinitely knowledgeable of everything that’s happened, He alone can judge perfectly, which is not too lenient or too severe. God may execute His “wrath” () or judgment right now in various ways (1:18) and even use civil authority (13:4) to carry it out, which we will see next time.
3. But ultimately “the wrath of God” will be executed in the future final judgment when one day He is going to right all wrongs (Nah. 1:2; Matt. 16:27; Rom. 2:5-6; Col. 3:25; 2 Thess. 1:6-9; Rev. 20:11-15).
4. Paul then supports this in his paraphrase of Deuteronomy 32:35, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord.
5. The word “repay” (antapodoso) here is an accounting term. In other words, God is saying that He is going to one day perfectly balance all the ethical books to the penny.
6. Now being able to trust God to one day in the future right all wrongs, helps us to leave the fate of our enemies in God’s hands and not fall prey to vengeful retaliation in the present.
7. And by doing this, we are able to follow the example of Jesus. For in 1 Peter 2:23 we read, “…you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, WHO COMMITTED NO SIN, NOR WAS ANY DECIET FOUND IN HIS MOUTH; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously.” We follow Jesus’ example when we trust the Lord to right all wrongs.
8. The sixth command that reveals love to our enemies is to:
VI. Meet the Needs of Enemies with Kindness
A. Paul says in v. 20: BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD.”
1. This is a partial quotation of Proverbs 25:21-22a. Now merely not repaying evil for evil and not taking our own revenge does not fulfill our responsibility before God concerning our enemies.
2. To withhold vengeance is one thing; it requires only doing nothing. But here God is actually commanding us to do something positive by returning good for evil.
3. Now when we are told about our enemy to “feed him” and “give him a drink” these commands refer to more than merely sustaining his physical life but doing all kinds of good deeds that meet his needs.
4. For example, if we see him standing outside his car on the road with a flat tire we don’t just drive by him as fast as we can, making sure we swerve to hit the mud puddle he’s standing by to drench him as we go by. No, we stop and help him, for to fail to do good to our enemies in need when it is in our power to do it is a kind of indirect retaliation.
5. When we have truly forgiven those who have deeply wounded us, which we are commanded by God to do, then we will be free from bitterness and the desire to harm them back. Only then will we be open to meet their needs and for reconciliation under certain circumstances.
6. Now this doesn’t mean that we will like or respect our enemies, want to go out to lunch with them, or when we see them pretend that everything is fine since they have never acknowledge their sin against us, repented of it, or sought our forgiveness. But when we see them in need we will lovingly meet their needs with kindness.
7. Remember from last time that agape love is predominately volitional not emotional. It is a choice, an act of our will to do what is best for the other person; it is not a feeling.
B. Now notice that showing this loving kindness acting toward an enemy, Paul says will “heap burning coals of fire on his head.”
1. There are various interpretations as to what this means, but I believe the best view is to take this as a metaphor for “the coals of shame and remorse that burn the conscience of our enemy when we show unexpected kindness to him.”
2. Now sometimes meeting their needs with kindness is God’s means of causing them to be ashamed of their conduct toward us, and leading them to repentance and saving faith in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the best way to get rid of an enemy is to turn him into a friend by our deeds of love, but there are no guarantees.
3. A good example of this principle is David’s refusal to kill King Saul on two occasions when it seemed that God had delivered Saul into David’s hands. Listen to what Saul said to David in 1 Samuel 24:17-19, “You are more righteous than I; for you have dealt well with me, while I have dealt wickedly with you. You have declared today that you have done good to me, that the LORD delivered me into your hand and yet you did not kill me. For if a man finds his enemy, will he let him go away safely? May the LORD therefore reward you with good in return for what you have done to me this day.”
4. A loving, forgiving heart will meet the needs of enemies with kindness. The seventh command that reveals love to our enemies is:
VII. Don’t allow Evil to Prevail over You
A. Paul then summarizes his argument in v. 21. First, he gives the negative command in the first part of v. 21: Do not be overcome by evil,
1. The word “overcome” (niko), used twice in this verse, is the word from which we get our English word “Nike,” which means “to conquer, to prevail over, to carry off in victory.”
2. Whenever we are unjustly treated, persecuted, or harmed in any way by others, we must not let the evil they have done to us to prevail over us, so that we fall prey to evil. For if we curse them (v. 14), pay back evil for evil (v. 17) or take our own revenge (v. 19) upon them, then we have been overcome by evil.
3. We have allowed evil to force us into attitudes and actions that are not loving and Christlike. Our enemy has succeeded in bringing us down to his own level.
4. An example of being “overcome by evil” is a particular wife in Columbia, Tennessee who responded vengefully to her husband’s lack of concern for her and carelessness regarding his smoking in bed. Regardless of her constant warnings and requests that he stop, on February 13, 1999 he fell asleep with a cigarette in his mouth and burned a small area on the bed. With a heart of angry retaliation, the next day which ironically was Valentine’s Day, she lit a cigarette, laid it on their bed, and then left their house.
How dumb! When her husband returned home, he found their house completely destroyed by fire. The police detective arrested his wife and later told reporters, “She admitted to intentionally starting the fire. She said she was going to show him what could happen if she didn’t catch it.”
5. Evil will never be overcome by equal or greater evil, but will only bring harm to others and to yourself. Booker T. Washington had it right when he said, “I will not allow any man to make me lower myself by hating him.”
6. Love does not allow evil to prevail over us! The eighth command that reveals love to our enemies is to:
VIII. Conquer other’s Evil by Doing them Good
A. Paul then gives the positive command at the end of v. 21 saying: but overcome evil with good.
1. C.E.B. Cranfield said about this command, “The Christian’s victory over the evil consist in his refusal to become a party to the promotion of evil by returning evil for evil and so becoming himself like the evil man who has injured him, in his accepting injury without resentment, without allowing his love to be turned into hate or even only weakened. . . By so doing he will be sharing in the victory of the gospel over the world and setting up signs which point to the reality of God’s love for sinners; he will be living as one who is being transformed by the renewing of the mind.” (pg. 650)
2. We “overcome” or conquer evil with good as believers when we truly respect what is right (v. 17b), actively seek peace with all men (v. 18), allow God alone to right all wrongs (v. 19b), and lovingly meet our enemy’s needs. And in so doing, we reduce not add to evil in the world.
3. And even if our enemy is not ashamed by our kindness and does not repent , we have still experienced God’s love in our own hearts and are growing in God’s grace and Christlike character. Douglas Moo comments on this saying, “By responding to evil with ‘the good’ rather than with evil, we gain a victory over that evil. Not only have we not allowed it to corrupt our own moral integrity, but we have displayed the character of Christ before a watching and skeptical world.” (pg. 790)
4. Beloved, to “overcome evil with good” is truly to be like the Lord Jesus Himself. For before our salvation when we were the enemies of God He demonstrated His love for us in Christ’s atoning work on the cross.
5. To this Frederick Godet so eloquently declared, “Such is the masterpiece of love.” (Stott pg. 337)
In closing, in contrast to “being overcome by evil” by cursing our enemies, repaying evil for evil, or taking our own revenge upon them, we are to “overcome evil with good” by respecting what is right, actively seeking peace with all men, allowing God alone to right all wrongs, and lovingly meeting our enemy’s needs.
But we can only respond in this loving, Christlike way, which is totally contrary to our natural (sinful) inclination, when we are fully depending on the Holy Spirit and allowing Him to control our lives. Only He can give us the supernatural power to be victorious over the evil done to us by others and the evil of our prideful response in return. May we all obey these eight commands to lovingly respond to our enemies in a way that truly brings glory of God.