A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 12:17-21. Our relationship to our enemies: not retaliation but service.
These verbal correspondences between what is written of God and what is forbidden to us make Paul’s point plain. The very two activities which are prohibited to us (retaliation and punishment) are now said to belong to God. 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. We are to ‘leave it to the wrath of God’, which is expressed now through the state’s administration of justice, since the magistrate is ‘God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment to the wrongdoer’ (13:4), and which will be finally expressed on ‘the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed’ (2:5).
If the first counterpart to ‘do not take revenge’ is ‘leave it to the wrath of God’, the second is the command to serve our enemy: *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’* (20; Pr. 25:21f.). Because in the Old Testament it is said that God will ‘rain fiery coals’ on the wicked (Ps.11:6; 140:10; cf. 2 Esdras 16:53), some take the coals here as a symbol of judgment, and even argue that to serve our enemies ‘will have the effect of increasing the punishment’ which they will receive. But the whole context cries out against the explanation, especially the very next verse and its reference to overcoming evil with good. Others suggest that the pain inflicted by the burning coals is a symbol of the shame and remorse experienced by an enemy who is rebuked by kindness. A third option is that the coals are a symbol of penitence. Recent commentators draw attention to an ancient Egyptian ritual in which a penitent would carry burning coals on his head as evidence of the reality of his repentance. In this case the coals are ‘a dynamic symbol of change of mind which takes place as a result of a deed of love’.
The two positive alternatives to revenge, then, are to leave any necessary punishment to God and meanwhile to get busy in serving our enemy’s welfare. These are not contradictory. Moreover, both are supported by Scripture. As REB puts it, ‘there is a text which reads, “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord…” But there is another text: ‘”If your enemy is hungry, feed him…”’ (19-20). Our personal responsibility is to love and serve our enemy according to his needs, and genuinely to seek his highest good. The coals of fire this may heap on him are intended to heal, not to hurt, to win, not to alienate, in fact, to shame him into repentance. Thus Paul draws a vital distinction between the duty of private citizens to love and serve the evildoer, and the duty of public servants, as official agents of God’s wrath, to bring him to trial and, if convicted, to punish him. Far from being incompatible with each other, both principles are seen operating in Jesus at the cross. On the one hand, ‘when they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate’. On the other, ‘he entrusted himself to him who judges justly’, in confidence that God’s justice would prevail (1Pet.2:23; cf. Ps.37:5ff.).
The fourth antithesis of good and evil, which is also a summary of Paul’s argument and the climax of the chapter, is verse 21: *Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good*. A stark alternative is set before us; no neutrality, no middle way is envisaged. If we curse (14), repay evil for evil (17) or take revenge (19), then because all these are evil responses to evil, we have given in to evil, been sucked into its sphere of influence, and been defeated, *overcome*, even ‘overpowered’ (JBP) by it. But if we refuse to retaliate, we can instead ‘take the offensive’ (JBP), and practise the positive counterparts to revenge. Then, if we bless our persecutors (14), if we ensure that we are ourselves seen to be going good (17), if we are active in peacemaking and peacekeeping (18), if we leave all judgment to God (19), and if we love and serve our enemy, and even win him over to a better mind (20), then in these ways we have *overcome evil with good*.
In all our thinking and living it is important to keep the negative and positive counterparts together. Both are good. It is good never to retaliate, because if we repay evil for evil, we double it, adding a second evil to the first, and so increasing the tally of evil in the world. It is even better to be positive, to bless, to do good, to seek peace, and to serve and convert our enemy, because if we thus repay good for evil, we reduce the tally of evil in the world, while at the same time increasing the tally of good. To repay evil for evil is to be overcome by it; to repay good for evil is to overcome evil with good. This is the way of the cross. ‘Such is the masterpiece of love’.
Tomorrow: Romans 13:1-7. Our relationship to the state: conscientious citizenship.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Romans: Christ the Controversialist. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.