Rev. VanOverloop is pastor of Byron Center Protestant Reformed Church in Byron Center, Michigan.
“Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.
If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.
Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.”
We who are saved by grace alone through faith alone without any works are called to live in a way that harmonizes with this salvation. Instead of being “conformed to this world,” we are to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind” (v. 2). When it comes to unkind neighbors, we are to “bless them which persecute you, bless and curse not” (v. 14).
In addition to blessing them, we are to exercise the strength to turn the cheek. We are to “recompense to no man evil for evil.” We must heed the command, “avenge not yourselves.” Only those saved by grace alone know how to carry out such a command.
It is our sinful nature to respond in kind to those who hurt us. Instinctively and impulsively we return evil for evil. So our heavenly Father, knowing us so well, comes to us and calls us not to pay back with evil those who do evil to us. Then He repeats this negative admonition: “avenge not yourselves.”
People will do evil to us. Since the fall of Adam into sin, the human race is full of hatred and anger, envy and jealousy. Sinful men treat each other evilly. In addition, Christians suffer persecution. Salvation enables us to be lights in the midst of the darkness of this world; and the darkness hates the light. Because we do not conform ourselves to the world, the world hates and condemns us. In their anger, they hurt us. Christians will receive evil in this world.
Our natural desire is to return evil for the evil received. This desire is a seeking of justice and retribution for the wrongs and evils done to us. We do so because we are thinking about ourselves and our hurts. We love ourselves. The root of the desire for revenge is love of self. As soon as we feel that we have been injured by someone, we are ready to respond in kind. Sometimes we even think that God is slow to execute His justice, or it seems that He does not care. We are eager and ready to take care of justice for Him.
The evil we return for the evil done to us can be physical. For children it is almost always that. But the evil can also be words directed to the one who hurt us or about them to others. Or the evil can be harboring a grudge. Resentment burns within as we dwell on the hurt done to us. As a result we think of the evil we want to happen to them, or we delight when evil does happen to them.
God comes to those He graciously saves and calls us to be transformed by the renewing of our mind. The realization that we are justified by grace alone is a powerful restraint. By thinking about the fact that God never pays us back with evil for our evil against Him, we will be restrained from recompensing evil for evil. Dwelling on the conduct and example of our Lord moves us more and more to “follow His steps” who, “when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously” (I Pet. 2:21, 23).
God commands us to prepare ourselves for the next time evil is done to us. “Provide things honest in the sight of all men.” “Provide” means to make provision ahead of time; take thought in advance. Aware of our sinful instincts, we are to make preparations, so we can respond in an “honest,” that is, honorable, or good, manner—in a Christian way. We are to take thought in advance and work out a response.
Another reason we are to be careful how we respond to evil done to us is the fact that we live our lives “in the sight of all men.” Others are watching us. When we are treated evilly, we must not think only about ourselves, but also of the effect our response has on others. Remember that others judge our God, the Bible, the gospel, and the whole of the Christian message by our conduct. Let us let others know that we are different, in that we do not return evil for evil. May our concern for the honor of the Christian faith, of Christ, and of God move us not to avenge ourselves.
One wonders whether Paul was remembering the example he witnessed when Stephen responded so graciously even as he was being evilly treated (Acts 7:58-60).
Instead of recompensing evil for evil, those saved by grace alone through faith alone are to “live peaceably with all men.” Being justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Having this wonderful peace we are called to be and are enabled to be peace-makers (Matt. 5:9). We have been delivered from sin’s folly and have been given the wisdom that is from above, which “is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits” (James 3:13-17). This wisdom is not first peaceable, but first pure, then peaceable. Thus it is not peace for the sake of peace, or peace at any price. But we are to see that wisdom is at the same time pure andpeaceable. We learn that, while contending for the truth, we are to be careful that we not contend for ourselves. We are to speak the truth in love (Eph. 5:15), with patience, striving to help others understand.
The calling to live peaceably with all men is further explained: “if it be possible, as much as lieth in you.” Christians sometimes face those who rise up against God and take His name in vain (Ps. 139:20, 21). Because the wisdom that is from above is first pure and then peaceable (James 3:17), the making of peace must not sacrifice the honor of God. So there are times when the Christian must admonish. While this admonition must be given, and even sharply, it must be delivered graciously (Col. 3:6)—those saved by grace alone will seek to live peaceably even when admonishing.
It takes two to fight and it takes two to have peace. Sometimes there are those who are contentious, and it is impossible to live peaceably with them. Let us be sure that if peace is not possible, it is not because of us. If the other refuses peace on our terms, then we are not responsible for the lack of peace. We did everything that lies in us to live peaceably.
Three reasons are given in our text for why we are not to avenge ourselves. The first is that we are to “give place unto wrath.” Literally we read that we are to make room for “the wrath.” This is not our wrath. We may not indulge our wrath. Rather, this obviously speaks to God’s wrath. Instead of executing personal vengeance, we are to make room for God to execute His wrath on those who treat us evilly. “Give place” means that our desire for revenge is to be set aside as we patiently wait for the wrath. The wrath will come.
The second reason we are not to recompense evil for evil is: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” This is a quote from Deuteronomy 32:35 (cf. Ps. 94:1). God declares plainly and powerfully that He alone has the right and the ability to execute vengeance.
It is God’s prerogative to judge because all sin is ultimately committed against Him and Him alone (Ps. 51:4). And, as the Creator of all, He alone set the standards for right and wrong. Therefore to Him belongs the right to determine whether His standard is met, as well as the right to execute just rewards upon those who fail to meet His standards and upon those who meet them. He is the Judge of the whole earth.
And God alone is able to execute vengeance. Sinful humans do not have the ability to avenge themselves because they always seek personal vengeance. We are self-centered and biased and very limited in our perspective. True vengeance is the exercise of justice—the giving of just reward and punishment. God’s wrath is always judicious, the execution of perfect judgment. It is never a vindictive passion. His wrath is always just, righteous, and holy. He “judgeth righteously” (I Pet. 2:23). He judges and avenges (Luke 18:7, 8; Rev. 6:10).
God promises that a day will come when He will open all the books and demand payment for every evil done. Those who have troubled and hurt His children will surely pay for all the evils they have done. In the Judgment Day God will avenge all His children for all the evils done to them. At the same time, God will wipe every tear from our eyes, while escorting us into the kingdom prepared for us. We do not need to avenge ourselves. God surely will.
The third reason we must refrain from recompensing evil with evil is because of who we are in God’s eyes. When someone does evil to us, then we are called to remember that we are God’s “dearly beloved.” No one even touches one of His dearly beloved without touching God. A desire to seek vengeance is restrained by the knowledge that we are God’s dearly beloved.
To live in the knowledge of God’s powerful love is to live as more than conquerors. God’s dearly beloved are justified by faith alone without works. Any evil done to one of God’s beloved by the ungodly is totally undeserved from God’s perspective. Upon those who do that evil to His beloved shall fall the fullness of His righteous and holy wrath. When faith grasps the knowledge of God’s love, then faith has the victory—also over the sinful desire to avenge ourselves.
Beloved of the Lord, faith is the victory!