Meditations on Practical Christianity

Romans 12:19‑20  •  6 min. read  •  grade level: 7
Verse 19. " Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath; for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord." This is a kindred precept to the previous injunction, not to render evil for evil: still, it is varied and amplified. The Christian, under any provocation, must never avenge himself; we must leave that matter to God, who, in His own good time, will certainly avenge His " dearly beloved." Nothing can be more touching and beautiful than these terms of endearment. Just when provoked and excited to retaliation by wicked and unreasonable men, the voice of tenderest love is heard rising above the strife of human passions: " Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath." Retire from the scene; give place to my government, because of the injury you have received. It is my prerogative to punish. " Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord." See Deut. 32:3535To me belongeth vengeance, and recompence; their foot shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste. (Deuteronomy 32:35).
The knowledge of God, as the avenger of His people's wrongs, is not intended to awaken in our hearts the smallest desire that the divine vengeance should overtake our enemies. This we must watch against as a secret desire, for we are prone to count on the divine vengeance falling on those who have injured us; and such expectations are closely allied to the hope that it may come. This must be guarded against; it is natural to us, and bordering on the principles of the world. It is a most unhappy thing to be dwelling, either in our own minds, or in conversation with others, on the injuries—supposed or real—which we have received. How much happier to forget them, and commit ourselves and all our affairs into the hands of the Lord. To advance in arms against our enemies; to watch for their halting; to wait our opportunity to give out what we have been nursing within; to exaggerate their failures, that they may receive double for their sins; to rejoice inwardly when we think they have been repaid in their own coin, is to indulge a spirit entirely contrary to the mind of the Lord in the passage before us, and to the whole genius of Christianity. To the Lord alone rightfully belongs the prerogative of vindicating the innocent, and of punishing the guilty.
If this be the true meaning of our precept, and the word of the Lord can never be broken, what shall be the vengeance of God, ere long, on those who are constantly injuring, slandering, and persecuting the children of God—-who make them the butt of their ridicule and the objects of their jest and reproach? The injuries which they have sought to inflict on the unoffending disciples of Christ shall recoil upon themselves ten-thousand fold. How little such people think of the awfully solemn fact, that wrath and vengeance belong to God!
But thou hast first to look to thyself, my soul; for who amongst us can say, No malice dwells in my heart; no desire to see an enemy fall; no secret rejoicing at the humiliation of a rival; no tendency to be my own avenger? Ah, no, these things are all deeply rooted in thy natural heart, and nothing but the faith that commits all into the Lord's hands can keep them from being openly manifested. What, then, am I to do with an enemy when he is before me? Hear the word of the Lord.
Verse 20. " Therefore, if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink; for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head" The true Christian, notwithstanding his inoffensive walk, may have enemies, but he must not be the enemy of any man. Such is his position of grace in this world. He is called by the loftiest motives to be the true friend of all mankind. Instead of being his own avenger, he bends before the storm, looking to God, and seeks to render good service to his enemy in his need and distress. " If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink." He not only abstains from vengeance, he manifests love. How truly sublime is the standard of the grace of God for His children's ways! He returns good for evil, kindness for injury, blessing for cursing. The expressions, feed him and give him drink, are figurative of all the duties of benevolence. By these means he seeks to conquer the enmity of his persecutors, and even change them into his friends.
" For in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head." Amongst the many interpretations which have been given of this somewhat difficult passage, we accept the one most generally received, and which best suits the whole context. To heap coals of fire on an enemy's head is to care for him, feast him, and treat him kindly, as the most effectual means of subduing him, of melting him down. Whoever conquered an enemy's heart by revenge? How many have been conquered by love? What was it that dissolved the hardness of our unyielding hearts? A Savior's love. " Let the effort be tried," says Charles Bridges; " surround the intractable metal beneath and above; not only putting it over the fire, but heaping coals of fire upon it. Few hearts are so obdurate as not to melt under the energy of patient, self-denying, burning love. If thine enemy will not recompense thee for all the good done to him, concern not thyself with that. The Lord shall reward thee. The God of love will honor His own image in His own children."
Few hearts, we believe, in ordinary life are so hard as to be able permanently to resist the influence of such love: but those who have read the exterminating wars of the papacy, and the rooting out of heresy by fire and sword, know well that the heart of Jezebel knows no relenting, but only grows harder and colder in the presence of beseeching, weeping, bleeding love. The hearts of the men of Jezebel, as one has said, " are sheathed in the triple iron of pride, cruelty, and bigotry;" and, we may add, can never be penetrated by the most overwhelming scenes of human love or suffering. But as the burning coals of returning good for evil, and the most patient kindness, have failed to melt them, they must answer to God, to whom wrath and vengeance belong. Those who refuse to be subdued by a love that burns like coals of fire, must suffer the burning wrath of God forever. " Upon the wicked he shall rain snares, fire and brimstone, and an horrible tempest. This shall be the portion of their cup. Let burning coals fall upon them: let them be cast into the fire: into deep pits, that they rise not again." Psalm 11:6; 140:106Upon the wicked he shall rain snares, fire and brimstone, and an horrible tempest: this shall be the portion of their cup. (Psalm 11:6)
10Let burning coals fall upon them: let them be cast into the fire; into deep pits, that they rise not up again. (Psalm 140:10)
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Thus we see that true christian kindness brings matters to a point. If the persecutor is softened, broken down, by the grace of the persecuted, so much the better for both; the end is gained; all is happy. But if he harden himself, and despise the patience and love that returns good for evil, his guilt is increased, and his judgment is of God.