When Is It Right to Repay Evil with Pain?

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it1 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." 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

The pressing issue we have not addressed yet in dealing with Romans 12 is how the call for peace and patience and love and freedom from vengeance relate to those times and places in life when punishment and retribution seem right. Let’s get the big picture in front of us so we can see the question clearly:

  • Verse 9a: “Let love be genuine.”
  • Verse 10a: “Love one another with brotherly affection.”
  • Verse 14: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”
  • Verse 17: “Repay no one evil for evil.”
  • Verse 18b: “Live peaceably with all.”
  • Verse 19: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God.”
  • Verse 20: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.”
  • Verse 21b: “Overcome evil with good.”

The clear and uniform message here is that we should love our enemies, and that this love involves treating them better than they deserve, not returning evil for evil but blessing them from our heart and helping them when they need us. This teaching is the same as Jesus’ teaching when he said, for example (in Luke 6:27-31),

But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either.30 Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. 31 And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

Two Main Reasons Why We Should Love Our Enemies

There are two main reasons why Christians should act this way. One is that it reveals something of the way God is. God is merciful. “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10). “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). So when Christians live this way, we show something of what God is like.

The second reason is that the hearts of Christians are satisfied with God and are not driven by the craving for revenge or self-exaltation or money or earthly security. God has become our all-satisfying treasure and so we don’t treat our adversaries out of our own sense of need and insecurity, but out of our own fullness with the satisfying glory of God. Hebrews 10:34: “You joyfully accepted the plundering of your property [that is, without retaliation], since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” What takes away the compulsion of revenge is our deep confidence that this world is not our home, and that God is our utterly sure and all-satisfying reward.

So in both these reasons for loving our enemy we see the main thing: God is shown to be who he really is as a merciful God and as gloriously all-satisfying. The ultimate reason for being merciful is to glorify God—to make him look great in the eyes of man.

God Is More Than Merciful—He Is Also Just

But here’s the catch: God is more than merciful. He is also just. Verse 19 makes this crystal clear: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No wrong will go without punishment. The wrath of God will repay every wrong either in the suffering and death of Christ for those who repent and believe on him, or in hell for those who don’t. So when we return good for evil, it’s not only because God is merciful, but also because God is just. We display his mercy and we defer to his justice.

The question is: Does God ever intend for his justice—his right to punish wrong—to be shared by man in this age? Can we ever repay evil with pain because God calls us to share his authority in a limited way on earth, and to demonstrate his justice as well as his mercy?

I think the answer is yes. The main reason I believe this is because the Bible shows that this is the case. And the secondary reason I believe it is that the way the Bible shows it explains how it is not a contradiction. So let me give you five biblical illustrations of proper human retribution and then show how they are not a contradiction of the spirit of loving our enemy that we find here in Romans 12.

Biblical Illustrations of Proper Human Retribution

1. First, the Bible teaches us to discipline our children.

That is, it teaches us to mingle both mercy (Psalm 103:13) and justice in forgiving (Psalm 103:10) and punishing our children. Proverbs 23:13, “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die.” Proverbs 13:24, “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” Ephesians 6:4, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”

In other words, when a child dishonors his parents, the Bible does not simply say, “Bless the child that curses you, and turn the other cheek, and never avenge yourself.” Rather the Bible says, discipline the child and do not spare the rod. In other words, reveal the justice of God as well as the mercy of God.

2. Second, the Bible teaches, by way of extension from the family, that in education you should not reward lack of learning with good grades.

In other words, in the sphere of education assessment should proceed along the lines of justice: good performance in learning the assigned task is to be rewarded with a good assessment. This is simply another way of saying that the foundation in education is truth: excellence in work is called that with an excellent grade. Poor work is called that with a poor grade. The name for that is truth: you call work what it is. Another name for it is justice.

When that foundation is in place, it creates the possibility of mercy. When there really is such a thing as doing poorly and calling it that, a teacher can respond in mercy and go way beyond the demands of justice by staying after school to help the struggling student. But if the foundation of truth and justice are abandoned, then mercy has no meaning, because mercy means going beyond what justice requires.

3. Third, the Bible teaches that a laborer deserves his wages and a sluggard doesn’t.

If your employees will not work according to the contract they signed with you, then they may be fired, and God would approve. You may be very patient and go the extra mile over and over with delinquent employees. But in the end you are right to say, “The economic order God has ordained will not survive if one can take goods without paying for them, and if one can take wages without working for them. In both cases that is called stealing.”

One biblical illustration of this is found in 2 Thessalonians. Soon after Paul had founded the church at Thessalonica, somebody began spreading the idea that the day of the Lord was at hand. The result was that some people stopped working and began living a life of idleness. But apparently they expected to be fed by those who were still production workers. Paul wrote to remind them of an established principle: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12).

So when Jesus and Paul teach us that we should return good for evil, I do not assume they mean that we should violate this fundamental principle of justice in the economic order that you should get what you pay for and you should be paid what you work for. The opposite is stealing.

4. Fourth, the Bible teaches that the civil authorities have the right to use force to punish wrongdoers.

That is, police have the right to forcibly arrest criminals, and judges have the right to imprison people for felonies and fine them for misdemeanors. Policemen should not turn the other cheek when they are functioning as representatives of state authority. We see this in Romans 13:2-4:

Whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. . . . 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.

So even though Romans 12:19 says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” it does not exclude the truth that God shares that right with duly appointed state authorities.

5. Fifth, the Bible teaches that the church should discipline its members who are intentionally and persistently sinful.

For example, it says in 1 Corinthians 5:4-5, “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” And in 2 Thessalonians 3:14 it says, “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.” In other words, there is such a thing as church discipline which is not turning the other cheek. It involves treating a person with some rejection or some harshness with a view to saving him in the long run.


In summary, then,

  1. The Bible teaches us to discipline our children.
  2. The Bible teaches that in education you should not reward lack of learning with good grades, or good learning with bad grades.
  3. The Bible teaches that a laborer deserves his wages and a sluggard doesn’t.
  4. The Bible teaches that the civil authorities have the right to use force to punish wrongdoers.
  5. The Bible teaches that the church should discipline its members who are intentionally and persistently sinful.

In each of these cases we do not have the kind of behavior that we find in Romans 12:20, “If you enemy is hungry feed him.” The point of these five instances is not “treat people better than they deserve,” but “treat them as they deserve.” That is what justice does. These five instances underline that justice among men is part of life and should be part of life. All does not function on the basis of mercy. Some things function on the basis of justice.

Why Are These Examples of Retribution Not a Contradiction of the Call for Mercy?

So now the question is: Why are these five instances of biblical retribution not a contradiction of the call for mercy in Romans 12?

I think there are two answers. One is that all five of these illustrations involve institutions, not just individuals. They deal with how we act as representatives of a God-ordained institution, not just as single persons accountable to God. The other answer is that the motive of showing justice should be the same as the motive for showing mercy.

Let me explain these two answers a bit more.

1. These five illustrations come from God-ordained institutions which demand a foundation of human justice.

Each of these five illustrations come from institutions: family, education, business, state, and church. It is plain from the Bible that each of these is an institution that God wills to exist. They are not merely human creations. They are ordained by God for the good of creation.

Here’s the key: In general, the life of these God-ordained institutions demand a foundation of human justice. That is, they demand that the normal way of relating in the institution be in terms of justice—treating people according to what they deserve. There can be merciful exceptions. But if everything becomes an exception to the rule of justice—the rule of just recompense—then there would soon be no institution. It would collapse. The life of an institution depends on fulfilled expectations (doing the work, getting there on time, making the goods, providing the service, getting the pay, etc). Here and there an expectation that’s not met may be forgiven. But if failed expectations becomes the norm, the institution collapses. If God wills the institution, he wills the justice that makes it possible. And God does will these institutions. They are a revelation of his own way of relating to the universe. Justice must be upheld.

So when we act as representatives or integral parts of an institution, we operate mainly in terms of justice. This relates to mercy in two ways: one is that both mercy and justice reveal truth about God. He is both merciful and just. And second, the foundation of justice in these institutions create the backdrop on earth for defining mercy. If there were not just expectations, mercy would be unrecognizable as going beyond those expectations.

2. Both mercy and justice should flow from the same root motives.

The second answer to the question why these patterns of justice are not contradictory to the call for mercy in Romans 12 is that both mercy and justice should flow from the same root motives. Neither acts of mercy nor acts of justice should flow from a fearful, dissatisfied, greedy, insecure, spirit of revenge. Rather they should flow from a heart that is deeply secure and content in God, and a heart that delights to display the character of God—both his mercy and justice—and a heart that submits to God’s authority. It’s God’s authority that calls us to show mercy as individuals, and it is God’s authority that calls us to show justice as parts of an institution. In both cases our aim is to make God look great.

Summary: God Calls Us to Be Merciful, to Uphold Justice, and to Trust Christ

So here’s the sum of the matter.

God calls us to be merciful—returning good for evil and treating our enemies better than they deserve—and all this to show people what God is like in his mercy and how he frees us from vengeance and greed and fear.

And God calls us to uphold justice as part of the God-ordained institutions we belong to—and all this to show people what God is like in his justice, and how he frees us to do justice without a malicious spirit.

And God calls us above all to trust Christ, because without his transforming power we can’t navigate the ambiguities of being both a merciful individual and a just member of an institution. These overlap and intertwine, and the path of wisdom is sometimes unclear. Oh, how we need the mind-transforming (Romans 12:2) power of Christ.

And God calls us to trust Christ because without his death for our sins, we would be overwhelmed with guilt and paralyzed in life because of all our failures to love as we ought.

So pursue justice, and pursue mercy, and above all hold fast to Christ.