"If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Both the fact that this is Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week, and the fact that Romans 12 is based on Romans 1-11, incline me to title this message not just “Overcome Evil With Good” as verse 21 says, but “Christ Overcame Evil With Good—Do the Same.” In other words, I want to stress that what Jesus Christ did in the last days of his life on earth (Holy Week), and the way Paul describes it in Romans 1-11 are the foundation and the model for how we overcome evil with good.
“We Are the Disciples of Him, Who Died for His Enemies”
One way to put it is this (I take it from a great commentary on Proverbs by Charles Bridges, p. 478): “We are the disciples of him, who died for his enemies.” Are you a Christian? Then you are the follower of one who died for his enemies. Are you not a Christian? Then you are being pursued by one who died for his enemies—Jesus Christ. In fact, your presence here is part of his design to overcome the enmity between you and him, and bring you to himself.
Paul’s call to us Christians to love our enemies (in Romans 12:20) and to overcome evil with good (in Romans 12:21) is based on what Christ did for us. Christ loved his enemies, and (in that way) he overcame evil with good. Not one of us would be a Christian if Christ had not loved his enemies and overcome our evil—our insubordination and willfulness and self-centeredness—with his great good—his death and resurrection.
Romans 5:10 makes this crystal clear: “If while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” Once there was enmity between us and God. It came from both sides, ours and his. Our hearts were willful and rebellious and insubordinate (Romans 8:7; 5:6, 8), and his wrath was on us because of our rebellion (Romans 1:18; John 3:36; Ephesians 2:3). He was justifiably angry with us, and we deserved his eternal punishment.
But then there was that trip to Jerusalem. That plan of God. That face set like flint to go to the inevitable, God-designed, horrible, glorious events of Holy Week. Three times Jesus predicted it and explained to his disciples why he was going to Jerusalem—indeed why he had come to earth. The third time was in Matthew 20 just before the triumphal entry in Matthew 21. Here’s what he said to his disciples: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day” (Matthew 20:18-19).
Only Christ Can Provide an Infinite Ransom for My Infinite Sin
But why? What was the point of it all? Jesus answers this question a few verses later just before the triumphal entry into Holy Week. He said in Matthew 20:28, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The meaning of his death—the meaning of Holy Week—was ransom. This was no ordinary death. This death of the Son of Man and the Son of God was ransom!—a payment made to set people free from the deadly power of sin. Christ overcame the evil of our sin with the good of his own death and resurrection. “While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” Reconciled by the payment of a ransom.
My debt to God was infinite. I had sinned against the infinitely holy and just and good God. For me to repay the debt of this offense would take an eternity in hell. Psalm 49:7-8 says, “Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice.” You can’t ransom yourself from sin, and no man can ransom you. This is the mistake of all the religions of the world. All of them try to find ways for man to ransom himself. God says it cannot be done. “Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life.”
But then in verse 15 that Psalm says, “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.” Mere man could never pay an infinite ransom. But God can. And now we know how God did it. He did it during Holy Week. He did it by sending his Son, who was man—yes, to be sure, a man—but Oh so much more than a mere man. He was the God-man. In him all the fullness of deity dwelled bodily (Colossians 2:9). He was the God-Man. And therefore he could, and he did, pay the ransom for all the sins of all the people who would receive him and his forgiveness.
Christ Overcomes Our Evil With His Good in Two Ways
And when Christ died as the ransom for all who believe, he broke the chains of sin and death that held them captive. He overcame evil with good. He overcame the evil of sin and rebellion and insubordination with the good of his death and resurrection. He didn’t overcome evil with persuasive words. He didn’t talk people out of sinning. He didn’t persuade people to change. This was not first a moral transformation. First, it was a legal justification. Because Christ paid what needed to be paid, the verdict came down from the Judge of the universe: Righteous! All debts paid. This was a legal transaction between God and the Son of God which we enjoy by faith.
And then, and only then, when we are declared righteous because of Christ, does the moral transformation begin. So Christ overcomes our evil with his good in two ways, and they happen in order and are not the same. First, he overcame our evil by doing for us what we could never do for ourselves—he satisfied the demands of God on our behalf. He paid our ransom. The perfect divine-human life has been lived and sacrificed. Because of that we are now righteous in God’s eyes. The debt is paid. The title to heaven is clear. And now—and only now—our moral transformation begins. This too is Christ’s work. By his Spirit he comes and on the basis of his blood he begins to liberate us from the evil of our own bad behaviors and attitudes.
That is the foundation of Romans 12:20-21. It’s all rooted in what happened in Holy Week—the climax and the killing of the perfect life as a ransom for his enemies. “We are the disciples of him who died for his enemies.” So now God says to his Son’s disciples, “’If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ (That’s a quote from Proverbs 25:22.) Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
So now we know that this is not a mere call from God to imitate Christ. It is a call to trust Christ for our own salvation, and then, in the hope and strength and joy and assurance of that salvation show it to others by the way we live. Point them to Jesus as the only possible ransom for their sins—the only one who can pay their debt and overcome their evil with the good of his own death and resurrection.
“Do Not Be Overcome by Evil, But Overcome Evil With Good”
So what does Paul mean when he says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good”? In the context, coming right after saying be good to your enemy, I think he means “Don’t let your enemy’s hostility produce hostility in you. But let your love triumph over his hostility.” Don’t be overcome by evil means. Don’t be overcome by his evil. Don’t let another person’s evil make you evil. Oh, how crucial that is.
When you let your adversary make you evil he is the victor. If you let a person’s sin govern your emotions so that your sinful anger or your misery or your depression is owing to their evil, then you are being overcome by evil. And Paul says, You don’t have to be overcome that way. Paul is addressing here the whole victim mentality of our day—people who feel or do evil things and then blame it on someone else’s evil. They let themselves be overcome by someone else’s evil so that they now do evil also. And then they blame the other person.
But Paul says, Don’t be overcome by evil. Don’t let another person’s evil provoke you to evil thoughts or evil attitudes or evil deeds. Don’t give them that kind of power. You don’t have to. Christ is your king. Christ is your leader, your champion, your treasure. Christ governs your life, not those who do evil. When someone does evil to you, you should say, “You are not my Lord. I will not be controlled by you. I will not have my attitudes and thoughts and actions dictated by your evil. Christ is my Lord. Christ dictates my attitudes and thoughts and actions.
Oh how different this is than the way most people react. We let our emotions and our thoughts and our actions be reflexes to what people say and do to us. And the corollary is that we can then blame them for our evil—our anger, our bitterness, our discouragement, our depression, our vengeance. But Paul says, No. When Christians encounter evil, they don’t merely respond to evil, they respond to Christ who deals with the evil. He died for it, or he will punish it in hell. Christ is the dominant reality in our lives, not other people’s evil. Therefore, do not be overcome by evil. Do not be governed by it. Do not let your enemy’s hostility make you hostile.
Rather overcome evil with good. Which, in the context means “let your love triumph over your enemy’s hostility.” But what does that mean? Does it mean that, if you give him water when he is thirsty and food when he is hungry, he will always repent and become your friend? No. We know Paul doesn’t think that. Jesus’s enemies do not all respond positively to his love for them. One thief on the cross repented and the other cursed. Peter repented. Judas hanged himself. The centurion said, “This was the Son of God.” The Pharisees said good riddance. The love of Christ does not produce repentance in everyone. And your love won’t either.
Paul says in verse 18, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” In other words, you will do everything you should, and still some will not make peace.
“Overcome Evil With Good”
So what does “overcome evil with good” mean? It means either you triumph through the repentance of your enemy or you triumph through the judgment of your enemy. In other words, if you will love your enemy, and bless those who curse you (v. 14), and not return evil for evil (v. 17), and not avenge yourselves (v. 19), you will be the overcomer, the conqueror, the victor no matter how your enemy responds.
We saw this in verse 19 (“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’”), and we see it again in verse 20 in the words, “coals of fire.” “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”
“You Will Heap Burning Coals on His Head”
What does this mean, “you will heap burning coals on his head”? There is no evidence that I am aware of that would suggest burning coals heaped on the head is a symbol of blessing or repentance (which is the way most people take it). I have heard people talk about a custom in Bible times of going to your neighbor when your fire goes out and borrowing glowing coals and carrying them in a basket on your head back to start your fire. I can find no evidence of such a practice in Bible times at all. It seems to me that someone probably made that up to solve this problem. Nor is there any use of the phrase to refer to remorse or repentance.
On the contrary, every use of terms like “coals of fire” in the Old Testament and outside the Old Testament is a symbol of divine anger or punishment or evil passion. The only reason that so many interpreters give it the meaning of repentance or remorse is because they believe it fits the context better. So the question is—and you can answer it as well as a scholar can—is that true?
Verse 14 is clear. Yes, our aim in loving our enemy is to bless him not curse him. “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” Our first and most urgent longing for our enemies is that they be blessed—that they repent and that they trust Christ and that his ransom pay all their debts and give them salvation. Yes, that is the goal. It’s the goal of this whole chapter. Live so as to lead people into an enjoyment of the mercy of God.
But that’s not the whole picture. Because we saw in verse 19, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” This means that when you love your enemy and they don’t repent and receive the blessing of your love, evil does not triumph. God’s justice triumphs. “I will repay says the Lord.” You don’t need to be the judge. God will. You don’t need to win on earth. God will win for you in the last day.
So when we get to verse 20 and we hear that loving our enemies will bring “burning coals on their head,” there are two realities in this context, not just one. One is mercy and blessing if they repent. And the other is justice and wrath if they don’t. I am saying that “you will heap burning coals on his head” refers more naturally to the justice reality, not the mercy reality.
Here is a passage that helps us see the way love works with judgment, Romans 2:4-5. Watch the effect of God’s love for his enemies when it is rejected. The result is very much like coals of fire.
Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.
This is the way God’s love works for his enemies, and it is the way our love works for our enemies. Our desire is that they would repent and come to a knowledge of the truth. But if they don’t, the very love that we are showing increases the weight of wrath on their head. The more of God’s mercy that people reject, the more wrath they heap up upon themselves.
And so it is with you and the enemies you love: the more mercy they reject, the more coals of fire will be heaped on their head. This not our desire or our aim. Our aim is in verse 14: Bless and do not curse. Pray for your enemies. Be like Paul in Romans 10:1, “My heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.”
For this we are willing to lay down our lives—that our enemies will be saved. Thousands of missionaries have done it. But what verse 20 is saying is this: If it looks like your love has failed, and instead of converting your enemy, your enemy kills you, be assured, you have overcome evil. It has not overcome you. God will have the last word. Not your enemy. You will be vindicated in the resurrection of the just. For this Christ died and rose again. For this there was Holy Week, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and especially Easter Sunday.
Be strong, Christians. Don’t be overcome by evil. Overcome evil with good.