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." 20 To the contrary, "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." 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
(These notes taken during the session. After completing this message, listen to Piper's final summary and charge from the lecture series)
Verse 19: “Brothers, Never Avenge Yourselves, But Leave It to the Wrath of God”
One of the means of mercy is to be persuaded of the wrath of God. Don’t avenge yourselves; leave it to the wrath of God. Knowing that God is wrathful produces the kind of people who feed their enemies. It relieves you of the need to be wrathful. What a relief to know that if this wicked person never repents, God will take care of them. You don’t need to add any wrath to God’s. One of the great hindrances to us treating people with mercy is that we think it’s going to look like their wickedness is okay. It’s not okay. God will take care of every injustice. And if you try to take care of it you will mess it up. God knows exactly how to punish the wicked. In the end, every wrong will be set right. Every evil will be punished.
Every single sin of the smallest and biggest kind will be punished so I don’t need to punish them. For Christians, all of their sin is punished in Jesus. For nonbelievers, their sin will be punished in hell. So we can be indiscriminate in our mercy. We don’t have to think, “Now, where’s the deserving person.” Every single sin will be slaughtered—either slaughtered with the Lamb or eternally slaughtered in hell.
This mercy talk in Romans 12 is not sappy talk. The price for showing mercy is huge. Either the sin will be on Jesus or on the transgressor. Just lay your life down for people.
If you show mercy, you win—not matter what. The people you show mercy to will either repent and be united to Christ or they harden themselves against your mercy and don’t repent and justly suffer His everlasting wrath. You can only win if you show mercy.
Always and Only Mercy?
Now this mercy talk doesn’t work in every setting. In the business world? Should you pay an employee who’s always late?
Here’s a way: Ask this question—Does God ever intend that His justice, His right to punish, get shared with us? Can we give a student a D? Can we fire someone? The answer is clearly yes. This complicates matters. This is why this chapter begins with the renewed mind. There’s no list.
Here’s what helps me: In the Bible, we find five spheres where we shouldn’t show endless mercy:
- Punishing children (in the home). Spare the rod; spoil the child. Sooner or later you have to come down on continually disobedient children.
- Not rewarding lack of learning in education. Don’t tell kids they’re smart when they’re dumb. Don’t give them an A when they deserve a C.
- A laborer deserves his wages. 2 Thess. 3:10. One who doesn’t work shouldn’t eat. If your employee doesn’t show up again and again and again, you won’t break the bank for this guy. He needs to be fired.
- Civil authorities have the right to use force. It is not unbiblical to have jails and to have policeman who carry guns.
- Churches should discipline members who are intentionally and flagrantly sinful. They should be excommunicated.
These are five institutions in which there must be justice and not mercy only. These are five biblically mandated institutions: home, school, business, state, and church. These can only function in terms of justice. If you remove justice, these institutions collapse. In these just spheres, while you will flavor them with mercy, you must hold people accountable for what they have to do. And then in your personal life, you should be mainly merciful, tempered with justice. And if you say, “That’s muddy,” then welcome to reality. Welcome to Romans 12:2. The Christian life just won’t work with lists. It’s really complicated.
We’ll start with verses 8-10, then 11-14, then end on the institution of government (vv. 1-7). Romans 13:8-10:
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
What Does “Owe No One Anything Except to Love One Another” Mean?
No mortgages? Compare to this verse what was just said in verse seven. Verse 7: Pay what you owe: taxes, honor, etc. When Paul says, “Don’t owe anyone anything,” he means, “Pay up when it’s time.” When the bill comes, pay the bill. Don’t be a slacker. Don’t have people chasing you down for payment. This does not mean that all borrowing is sinful. Just pay up when you need to.
Why does Paul bring up the law in vv. 8-10? He says love is the issue. Why the law here? Why did he even think to say that love fulfills the law? Maybe because verse eight sounds so sweeping. If you do this one big thing—love—the law will be fulfilled. He doesn’t want to undermine the law. He says it’s satisfied in the life of love.
If this law is important enough to think of here and be mentioned here, why don’t you just say, “Owe no one anything but to keep the commandments?” Go to Romans 7:4-6. (When studying Romans to preach it from 1998 to 2006, studying these verses in Romans 7 may have been the most significant work God did on me during the series.) You died to the law, so that you might live to another—a person, Him who has been raised from the dead. You died to the law not to be joined to another list but to a Person! Our whole Christian lives should not be oriented on a list but on a Person—a living Person in this room right now by His Spirit. We belong to Him. Then comes the last phrase: “in order that we might bear fruit for God.” Which calls to mind the fruit of the Spirit—and the first is love. The Christian life doesn’t work by law. We don’t orient ourselves on a list. We orient ourselves on a Person. The effect of it is not “works” but “fruit.” Fruit grows on a tree seemingly effortlessly. We be, and apples happen.
My job as a pastor mainly is to so display Christ so that this happens. People want to know Him. And fruit then happens seemingly effortlessly.
Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. 12 The night is far gone; the day is at hand.
Verse 11: “Besides this...”
“Besides this” denotes another argument. More motivational factors. Beside this, you know the time. 1) Love is motivated by the time in which we live. And surprising thing about the time is that it’s positive, not negative. The hour has come to wake from sleep. The world is asleep to God. The time is for wakefulness. 2) Salvation is nearer now than when we first believed: Don’t forget it’s coming. 3) Night is far gone; the day is at hand. All these are meant to give hope and hope is the source of love.
So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
If you trust Jesus, it’s like putting Him on. Wear the Lord Jesus. In the context, the most immediate suggestion is to wear Him like armor. Armor is protection. The least I would say is, “He’s with me and will take care of me and I’m His and I want everybody to know it.”
The alternative to planning flesh time is putting on the Lord Jesus Christ. You get up in the morning and you have in your mind, “I mustn’t make provision for my flesh. What’s the best way to not make provision for the flesh?” Not just negations, but the positive: Look to Jesus. Fill you mind and soul with positive content: Jesus. If you’re satisfied in Him, then you won’t make provision for the flesh. We fight mainly positively.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
Government Is God’s Gift
First, let’s say some positive. Verse 4: Government is God’s servant for your good. Government is a glorious blessing for your good. What an awesome gift any government is. Imagine your city when 9-1-1 does not answer. No policeman. No firemen. Only mobs—and they do what they please with no one to stop them. Then you would have any dictator in a minute. Violent mobs are heart-stoppingly scary. We take government and obedience for granted everywhere. Thousands of laws make our country work. Government is a remarkable gift. Thank you, God, for government. It’s a gift of God, given after the Fall, as a dam against human sin. Anarchy is worse than any government.
Why Such Absolute Statements?
Second, Paul, how can you speak in such absolute statements? Chapter eight says that some Christians are being put to death—killed all day long, regarded as sheep to be slaughtered. Christians were killed regularly for officials, as well as mobs. For the first three centuries to become a Christian was to officially risk your life. Today: China, Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea. Evangelism is illegal. And doing it will bring down the opposite of verse three. Paul, what do you mean? My answer, just one suggestion: Paul knew what he wrote in chapter eight. He could write this in a qualified way. Paul knows that he’s writing to Roman Christians and that Caesar’s household is going to read this letter. Enemies will read this letter. So Paul writes in a way that communicates one thing to the church and one thing to Caesar and his household. To Caesar: You are under God, and there’s a moral law you’re obliged to reward. To the church (who hears it a different way, as an imperative): Rulers should do what they’re supposed to do.
Christian Civil Disobedience?
Last question, when you do disobey rulers? What’s the place of civil disobedience? Ever? There are numerous biblical instances of God-approved civil disobedience: Acts 5:27; Dan. 3, 6; Exod. 1. The question is when. Here’s one suggestion about when: If the law of the land commands or forbids contra to God’s commands or what He forbids. But that doesn’t cover it. It doesn’t cover situations in which laws create an atmosphere in which circumstances occur which are contrary to love. Situation like: Sit at the back of the bus. Or: Don’t drink from this fountain. The day came for a flashpoint and Martin Luther King led peaceful civil disobedience. When do you do this? When do you just sit down and say no with your body? Abortion is a horrific evil in our country. And so is racism.
Here’s my effort for some criteria:
- The grievousness of the action sanctioned by law. Is it a traffic pattern? Or is it the killing of millions of children?
- The extent of the unjust law’s effect. Does it affect one or two? Or a million?
- The potential for civil disobedience for clear and effective witness to the truth. What carries the day is suffering. We haven’t had this in the cause of life. We’ve been too mean. Too much like the world, and the world isn’t very impressed with itself. We will carry the day morally when we seized the moral high ground of suffering, not nimble, quick-witted radio talk.
- There has to be a spirit of encouragement among God’s people so that a flashpoint arrives. The movement. A speech sets it aflame, like MLK’s speech in Washington. It was the moment. Things crystallized in God’s timing.
A Closing Exhortation
When you say no, what spirit should you have? Vindictiveness should be gone. Concern for your personal safety should be gone. We love people on both sides. And show mercy on both sides. We want our enemies' salvation. Most people change through being personally loved, not through protests. A tone and a demeanor not strident, not rock-throwing; we are people of the cross. We are called to take up our cross and do the same. First taking the log out of our own eyes. And when we take the log out of our eye, there are tears—and the tears are what the world needs to see.