The desire for revenge is a natural, understandable impulse. But when wrongs need addressed, however, God’s intended approach for the Church is meant to be distinct from the world’s. Our role as individuals is distinct from the role of the governing authorities—and, as Alistair Begg explains, the challenge to live peaceably with all is a universal, practical one that applies to us personally.
I invite you to turn with me to the twelfth chapter of Romans—Romans chapter 12, which I think you’ll find around page 803 in the church Bibles. We’re going to read from verse 17. Romans 12:17:
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. 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.’
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Before we turn to the Bible together, we’re going to pray—going to use a prayer that was a prayer of Calvin’s routinely before he taught the Bible to his congregation:
We call upon you, our good God and Father, beseeching you, since all the fullness of wisdom and light is found in you, in your mercy to enlighten us by the Holy Spirit in the true understanding of the Word. Teach us by your Word to place our trust in you and to serve and honor you as we ought, so that we may glorify your holy name in all our living and edify our neighbors by our good example. May we render to you, O God, the love and obedience which children owe to their parents, since it has pleased you graciously to receive us in Christ as your children. Amen.
Well, as we near the end of this short series of studies in Romans chapter 12, it’s worthwhile, I think, just to remind ourselves why we even began the series in the first place. We did so in light of what we’re doing as a church in facing the future, and particularly in prospect of the building plans which are before us. We studied verses 1 and 2 with the express purpose of trying to think biblically about what it will mean for us to commit ourselves to the vision of reaching coming generations with the gospel. And on that particular Sunday at the beginning of January, you’ll remember, we thought with one another about what it might mean for us to be, as we put it in a phrase, “all in.” And we encouraged ourselves to ask of ourselves, “Am I all in?” and perhaps even, in a nonpresumptuous way, to announce to one another, “I am all in.”
We then went on from there, in verses 3–8, to consider what Paul was saying about ourselves—about having a proper estimate of ourselves and having a realistic perspective on what it means to live belonging to one another in the body of Christ, and particularly to recognize that the gifts that God gives, he gives not so that we might draw attention to ourselves but in order that we might build one another up.
And then, from verse 9, following on from there, we have been confronted by a series of divine imperatives as Paul has been urging upon his readers the intense practicality of genuine Christian love. And you will notice that he begins there, verse 9, “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; [and] cling to what is good.”
And some of us, throughout the course of these studies, have been helped by thinking in terms of “the divine righteousness applied.” If we have not been helped by that and we don’t know what it means, it shouldn’t unsettle us; we might want to follow up, though, so that we do. But we have been recognizing the fact that this is not a series of exhortations given, as it were, to the man in the street or to the sort of individual who’s interested in religion, as if somehow or another by the doing of these things that individual may commend themselves to God. But rather, Paul is writing to those whom he addresses as “saints” in 1:7—namely, those who have been set apart from sin and to God—and he is writing to those who are not only saints, but also “slaves,” as he puts it in 6:17: no longer “slaves [of] sin,” but now, he says, “slaves [of] righteousness.” And what will it look like for these individuals who have become enslaved to the freedom that is found in Jesus? Well, that’s really what he’s been working out in verse 9 and following.
And now, as we come to the section which begins in verse 17 and takes us through to the end of the chapter, Paul is exhorting his readers—remember, the first readers are in Rome, with all the prospect of persecution that is before them—these individuals are being exhorted to behave properly when they find themselves on the receiving end of evil. And he’s already introduced this in verse 14 with the encouragement to make sure that when they are on the receiving end of persecution that they respond properly.
So we’re only going to look at verses 17 and 18—we won’t go any further than that—and we’ll look at this section, these two verses, under these three headings: first of all, to consider what is an important distinction; then to look at what is a universal obligation; and then to make sure that we are making a realistic application of the principles contained.
First of all, then, this important distinction. There is an important distinction that runs all the way through, which is not what is in my mind at the moment; that is the distinction between good and evil, which Paul addresses again and again—a notion and a distinction which challenges the spirit of our age, where the idea of good and evil is up for grabs: “Who’s to know what good is? Who’s to know what evil is?” That’s the kind of discussion that ensues every day. But when we turn to the Bible, we find absolute clarity. And Paul is working these principles out in relationship to that.
It is not that distinction, but this distinction which we must note—namely, the distinction which exists between the interaction of individuals, which is what is mentioned here, and the execution of civil jurisprudence or the rule of law, which is then mentioned in the opening verses of chapter 13. If you like, the distinction is between, then, the role of the magistrate in civil law, to which he’s about to come, and the role of the individual believer in relationship to people who oppose them, who are doing evil concerning them.
So if you have your Bible open, which I hope you do, you will notice that in chapter 13 he is referring to the authorities that “have been established by God,” thereby making it an offense to rebel against that authority because it is instituted by God—verse 2. “Rulers hold no terror for those who do right”—verse 3—“but for those who do wrong.” That’s why our fathers used to tell us, “You don’t need to be afraid of the policeman as long as you’re doing what’s right.” But you should be afraid of the policeman if you’re driving at sixty-five miles an hour in a twenty-five-mile-an-hour speed limit zone. And they’re there to execute the rule of law and to punish you. So you should understand that. They may commend you for doing good, they will punish you for doing wrong. God has instituted this.
And in verse 4, describing the magistrate, he says, “He is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing.” And that phrase there is almost inevitably an expression of capital punishment. He wasn’t bearing the sword in order simply to inflict surface wounds on individuals, but the state has been instituted with the responsibility of wielding the sword. To civil authority and government that role is entrusted—not to the man in the street. And, you will notice he goes on to say, “He is God’s servant”—still in verse 4—“an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer,” so that the execution of civil justice is not simply remedial; it is punitive. It is the execution of the judgment that rightfully falls on those who do evil.
Now, it’s not my purpose this morning to get into chapter 13. I’m not planning on going there. I could perhaps be teased into it, but it’s not my purpose. But I want you to notice the important distinction. And that is that the individuals that he’s addressing here in verse 17 are not to take matters into their own hands, as we’re about to see, because it is wrong to do so, and it is surely the worst of both worlds when the courts fail in their responsibility à la 13:4–5, and the individual citizenry then resorts to retaliation . When you have a civil society that loses its sense of oughtness—the oughtness which is there by conscience and the moral framework of God—and that society then responds to its citizenry by taking matters into his own hands—“I’ll get a gun and shoot the person if I need to myself, because,” says the individual, “there’s no point in letting it run into the courts, because they are no longer prepared to bring wrath to bear upon evildoers”—you have the worst of both worlds when you have a collapse of civil jurisprudence, and you have the collapse of interpersonal relationships whereby people determine, “We will simply address things, and it is payback time.”
Now, that is being addressed here by Paul—both aspects of it. In chapter 13, the civil execution of justice; in the end of chapter 12, how Christians then are to relate to evil when it is done to them. That’s enough on the important distinction.
Secondly, we go on to note what is a comprehensive or a universal obligation. And the universal nature of it is seen in the terminology. Verse seventeen: “Do not repay anyone”—anyone—“evil for evil.” The next sentence: “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.” Eighteen: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” “Anyone,” “everybody,” “everyone.”
This is what makes it so demanding, isn’t it? Because if we could just limit the list of those that we are supposed to treat in this way, then we could do what is instinctive to us with everybody else. And there is a natural tendency on our part to try and circumscribe a principle like this: “Well, tell me the people that I have to do this with, and then let me know all the ones that I don’t have to do it with.” Paul says, “This is a universal obligation. This is comprehensive. You can’t do that.”
Remember the man tried to do that with Jesus in [Luke] chapter 10, where he came to him and he asked Jesus, you know, “How do we stand before God?” and Jesus has said to him, “You love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.” And then the man, seeking to justify himself, said, “Who is my neighbor?” “Who is my neighbor?” What was he asking? He was saying, “Is there just a small group of people to whom this principle applies? Can I draw a circle around this group and make sure that I do this with this little group, and then I can do what I like with all the rest?” And remember, then, Jesus says, “Let me tell you who the neighbor is.” And he tells this story of the Good Samaritan. That’s the sting in the tale: “Are you a neighbor, the way the Samaritan was a neighbor to this man?”
Now, this runs all the way through the instruction of Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount he says the same thing: “If you love those who love you, what reward is there in that?” That’s natural! That’s natural. You know, if you go—I was going to say, “If you go in an English pub,” but it’s pretty hard to do over here—but if you go in an English pub in Yorkshire, you will find this tremendous camaraderie, wonderful interpersonal relationships, a sense of solidarity. If you go down to Chagrin Falls as the sun begins to shine and find all the Harleys lined up outside Starbucks, you’ll find a tremendous sense of camaraderie—a sort of unity of affection for one another, a combined willingness to unite to oppose anyone who would inflict injury on this little group. They all seem to really love each other. But that’s entirely natural.
And so, people then translate that into the Christian church, and they say, “And that’s then what happens in the Christian church—that you just, you know… you folks love these songs, apparently, and you love these talks or whatever, and so you love one another, and that’s it.” No! To do that is entirely natural. “That’s what sinners do,” Jesus says. But to do what is said here—“Do not repay evil for evil, but live at peace with everyone”—that requires a power which is not natural but which is supernatural. And what he is giving to us here is not an option, it’s an obligation.
And it challenges what is inside of every one of us. By nature, every one of us has an inborn retributive tendency. Our tendency is to retribution. Our tendency—our natural tendency—is to retaliation. You say something that’s unkind to me, I can say something that’s just as unkind to you! I may be able to even up you one, you know? And then you come back with a better one, and so we go on. Back and forth it goes. That is entirely understandable. We instinctively want to get our own back. But what Paul is saying here to the church in Rome is, “This isn’t an option for the child of God.”
He says the same thing when he writes to the Thessalonians. First Thessalonians 5:15: “Make sure … nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.” See? That removes the loophole. If it was a full stop after “other,” then we would say, “That’s okay. So you just have a little group that you hang around with, you try to be nice to them, and then you can just be as vindictive as you want to anybody else. You can retaliate and do all kinds of things.” No! It is universal. And it’s not simply enough to obey the negative aspect of this. We are to set about seeing that we are the instruments not of retaliation but that we are actually the instruments of reconciliation. That’s the significance of living at peace with everyone.
Now, let me say three things about this universal obligation. First of all, it is practical. It is practical. It’s not simply theoretical. You will notice the verbs: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right.” In other words, it’s about doing what is right. It’s about doing what is good. And the word which is translated here “right” is also translated “good” elsewhere in our English Bibles. And the word that is translated “good” here is not the word for intrinsic goodness, which is agathos, but it is the word for a goodness which is not only intrinsic, but it is also attractive. It is the word kalos. And so what he’s saying is, “I want you believers in Rome, in the face of everything that is going against you…” And remember, the pressure was mounting in Rome for these Christians, the reality of evil being done to them; within a short period of time, many of them would be thrown to the lions. Within a short period of time, many of them would undergo some of the most cruel oppression. This is not some kind of theoretical high ground. No, he says, “I want you to make sure that you are doing that which is not simply intrinsically good, but that you are living in such a way which is attractively good.” It is practical.
Secondly, the obligation is principled. It is a principled obligation. In other words, he’s urging them to operate out of principle, not out of passion—not responding to the evil that is done in kind, in a way that simply allows our temper or our natural tendency to spill over and to abuse those who have abused us. The phraseology here in the second half of verse 17 is what gives rise to my saying this. “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody”—it doesn’t really get to what is in the Greek. In the King James Version, it’s something like “Provide everything honorable in the sight of all men.” And what he’s saying is this: “You’re gonna have to think this out. You must think properly about this.”
In fact, as we’ve seen since verse 2, the whole exposition of Romans 12 is an exposition of learning to think properly about things, being “transformed by the renewing of [our] mind[s]”—verse 2—so that we think differently as a result of the power of God. Therefore, we think differently about the notion of how to respond to those who do evil. It’s natural for people to respond kindly to those who are kind to them. It’s natural for people to respond in retribution to those who oppose them. This is where the supernatural power of God comes in , and this is where the clarity of the instruction of the Bible comes in. It is a call to establish this response as a principle of conduct.
Those of you who fly on those little Embraer jets know that sometimes, if you’re close enough to the front, you can hear the preflight routine, because the door is still open, and the pilot and the copilot are talking to one another, and they’re going through that that three-ring binder: “Flaps. check. Engine one, check. Check, check, check, check, check.” I like to hear the sound of that! I don’t want to go in there and hear them just sort of playing their favorite radio station and just like, “Hey, hey!” you know. “Do you want to prepare?”
“No, we’ll deal with it when it comes! No, no. We’ve been doing this for a long time now. No, we don’t… The binder? I don’t even know where the binder is, for goodness’ sake. No! Have you seen that binder?”
“No. I thought the girl with the peanuts had it, but she’s not got it either. I don’t know we’re gonna…”
No, no, no, no. No. Preparing in such a way so as to be able to respond in a moment in accordance with agreed upon procedure—to be able to respond in a moment in accordance with agreed upon procedure. Here is the agreed upon procedure: “Do not render evil for evil.” That’s an obligation. So we have to sit down, and we say in the cold light of dawn, “When evil comes my way, here’s the principle: I am not to respond with evil. I’ve gotta think about this, I’ve got to obey this, and I’ve gotta ask for God to help me in relationship to this. I mustn’t leave to the heat of the moment my reaction, because if I do, I will almost inevitably respond in kind.”
And you remember this? You’ve been somewhere, somebody says some miserable, horrible thing about you or about somebody else, and you’re so floored by it you can’t think of anything while you’re there at the party. But as you’re driving home, you can think of a million things. And you just can’t wait to see the person again so that you can give them the benefit of your follow-up thinking. No.
What he’s saying here is what Peter says here in 1 Peter 1, when he says, “Prepare your minds for action.” “Prepare your minds for action.” Appoint the moral sentries, if you like, in the cold, rainy Tuesday morning, so that when in the heat of the moment you are tempted to react in this way, the principle which you have both understood and asked for God’s help to apply now comes to the fore.
I often use that little phrase “Prepare your minds for action”—1 Peter 1:13 and following—with young people when I’m talking to them about sex. I tell them, “If you don’t prepare your minds for action when it’s pouring rain on a Tuesday morning, don’t tell me you’re going to figure it out on it’s a beautiful sunny evening on a Friday when your father let you borrow the car. If you don’t get your head around principled conduct, it’ll be like a steam train going 185 miles an hour coming right at you.”
“Well, I didn’t feel—”
“But I didn’t feel—”
We’re not talking about feeling. We’re talking about thinking. That’s why that preflight manual is crucial. And the plane that went down last winter with the young pilot and copilot on it went down because in the moment they didn’t fly the book. They didn’t fly the book. ’Cause they felt differently. And they flew it on the strength of how they were feeling, not on the strength of what needed to be done. We daren’t do that—or we’ll just be like everybody else.
So it’s practical, it’s principled, and thirdly, it’s public. Notice, “in the eyes of everybody.” Justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done. So when we’re on the receiving end of evil, slander, hatred, physical assault, the way we react matters. Why? Because the world is watching. And the way we react matters. Why? Because none of us lives to ourself or dies to ourself. Verse 5: “Each member belongs to all the others.”
That’s why the way in which you react to your spouse who abuses you and treats you poorly matters not simply within the framework of your kitchen, but it matters within the context of Parkside Church. Because Parkside Church is your family, and what you do affects your family, and what I do affects the family. So people will have every legitimate right to say, “I saw Begg. He said that. Isn’t he one of yours? Therefore,” the deduction is obvious. That’s the point that Paul is making. Philips paraphrases it, “See that your public behaviour is [beyond] criticism.” We’re not responsible for people’s actions, but we are accountable for our reactions.
Thirdly and finally, if we’re going to come to terms with this, there needs to be a realistic application. Look at the final phrase in verse 18: “Live at peace with everyone.” It’s not difficult to understand, is it?
And then he gives two qualifications. First of all, “if it is possible”—the inference being that it may not always be possible. That’s why I’ve used the adjective realistic. There needs to be a realistic application. “If it is possible…’
Now, in using the phrase “if is possible,” he’s not providing a loophole. He’s not saying, “If you can manage to control your temper. However, if you can’t, then just go ahead and do what you were going to do in any case.” No, the impossibility to which he refers is not, I think, subjective; it is, rather, objective. What makes it impossible is the action of the person who’s doing evil towards us. “If it is possible…” It may actually be impossible. Why? Because those who hate us and revile us and are opposed to us and say evil against us are so implacable that no matter what we do, we can’t sort it out. And so it isn’t possible.
But we need to quickly acknowledge, in light of the next phrase, that any ongoing conflict should be in spite of us, not because of us. Look at the next phrase: “[Be] at peace with everyone”—“if it is possible”—and “as far as it depends [upon] you.” Might not be possible to prevent our opponents from harming us, but it will be possible for us not to fight them back. The responsibility for ongoing animosity must never be traceable to reluctance on our part. Love must always take the initiative.
I was just reading, in between the first and second services, a children’s book on Irenaeus, who finally was put to the lions in Rome. And as I read all the way through, I was struck again by the fact that he didn’t mount some kind of civil insurrection as he moved inexorably towards his death. He didn’t start to call down curses, as it were, on the jurisdiction of Rome. No! They did him evil; he committed his cause to “him who judges justly.”
Let me finish with one final distinction—and I can only mention this, and then leave you to work it out for yourselves—and it is this: that this pursuit of peace is not peace at any price. There are some people who have a natural tendency in this direction, and it’s not a strength in them; it is a weakness in them—that they’re just prepared… it’s just like, “Anything for a happy life. If we can only just be peaceful. If we can only just have peace. Let’s just have peace. Whatever is involved, let’s… Just give me peace!” That’s a cop-out, where truth is involved, where honor is involved, where righteousness is involved, where purity is involved.
It’s not peace at any price. If it were, then Jesus’ words would just ring out in such a way that we would find them completely bizarre: “I didn’t come to bring peace on the earth,” he says in Matthew, “but I came to bring a sword. In fact, if people understand me and my kingdom and begin to follow me, they will find that they’re opposed by other people.”
“Make every effort,” says the writer to the Hebrews, “to live in peace with all men and to be holy”—so that we can’t settle for peace minus holiness. We can’t settle for peace minus truth. Peace can never be at the expense of truth. We always have to be prepared to pursue a peace that is compatible with holiness, with truth, and with right.
Let me give it to you in John Stott, in a sentence, and with this I will close. This is how Stotty puts it: sometimes it isn’t possible to fulfill this, because either “people … are not willing to live at peace with us, or [they] lay down a condition for reconciliation which would involve an unacceptable moral compromise.” That encapsulates it perfectly. “If it is possible…” But it may not always be possible. Why? One, because of the implacable nature of people’s opposition, or two, because the attempted settlement involves our setting aside righteousness, truth, holiness, or that which is morally demanded of us in the Bible.
Don’t you love how intensely practical all of this is? How it actually affects the way we live our lives, the way we serve, the way in which Christianity has to be brought to bear on our everyday existence? It won’t be five or ten minutes into tomorrow, or even maybe into this afternoon, before we have an opportunity to put verse 17 into practice. In fact, I would wager that there’ll be quite a few that will not be able to get out of the car park without an opportunity to deal with verse 17.
Well, that’s our study for today. An important distinction—an important distinction between personal interaction and civil jurisprudence. A universal obligation that is practical, principled, and public. And a realistic application which means there must be no lack of effort on our part and no sacrifice of truth on our part.
Father, thank you that we can have our Bibles to go away and ponder these things and think them out. We want to be a church that is shaped by grace, but we know how natural it is for us to retaliate rather than to pursue reconciliation. We thank you for your mercy in our lives that has restored our warfare—first our warfare against you, the Living God, that you’re an initiative-taking God, that you’ve come and pursued us; and then the way in which you’ve helped us when warfare has arisen in our hearts, or in our homes, in our marriages. And we’re able to look back and see that while it would’ve been perfectly natural for us simply to retaliate and to walk, but somehow or another, supernaturally, you made it possible for us to pursue reconciliation. And now we have a platform when people say, “But surely the right thing or the obvious thing would’ve been just to fold us up.” And then we can say, well, yeah, that was our initial thought. But then the Bible came to bear upon our minds, and the Holy Spirit began to work upon our hearts, and suddenly our thinking became framed by the mind of Christ our Savior. Then it all became so very different.
Help us, Lord, to work these things out, day by day, so that the world might see that there really is a difference. And we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
 Elsie Ann McKee, trans. and ed., John Calvin: Writings on Pastoral Piety (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 2001): 112. Text altered and adapted by Alistair Begg.
 Luke 10:25–29 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 5:46 (paraphrased).
 1 Peter 1:13 (NIV 1984).
 1 Peter 2:23 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 10:34 (paraphrased).
 Hebrews 12:14 (NIV 1984, emphasis added).
 John Stott, The Message of Romans, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994), 335.
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.