Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. (Romans 12:19 NKJV)
“Vengeance is mine, I shall repay.” Paul is quoting from Deuteronomy 32:35, concerning God’s attitude toward those who turned away from him. But how shall we understand those words and Paul’s use of them? Is God a vindictive deity who cannot be satisfied until he has exacted retribution on those who have offended him? As we consider that question, let’s pick up just a little bit earlier in Paul’s letter:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12:14-18)Now ask yourself, who does that sound like? It sounds like Jesus, doesn’t it. He not only taught us to forgive but in the Sermon on the Mount he preached,
You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:43-45)It is important that we approach the treatment of those who persecute us in the way Jesus would approach them, and we should never suppose that God ever approaches them in a way that Jesus would not. For Jesus, we are told in Hebrews 1:3, is the “exact representation” of God, the “express image of his person” (NKJV). Jesus did only what he saw the Father doing and said only what he heard the Father saying. He taught the disciples concerning himself, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” and “The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work” (John 14:9-10). If you want to know what the Father is like, look at Jesus. If you want to know what the Father does, look at Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount, then, Jesus was not just telling us how we ought to be, he was telling us how God is. In other words, God practices what Jesus preached.
So now we come to Romans 12:19, where Paul says, “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” Is this about a vindictive God who hates his enemies, curses those who curse him and repays them evil for evil or blow for blow? That would go against how Jesus says we should treat them, and what Paul said just a couple of verses earlier in Romans 12. It would also go against the very nature of God, for God is love (1 John 4:8), and love is not vindictive.
How should we understand this, then, in view of Jesus and the gospel? I believe the key is Paul’s admonition, “but rather give place to wrath,” by which he means that we should leave it to the wrath of God. This is not the first time Paul has mentioned the wrath of God in this letter. He expounded on it quite a bit, right up front, in the first chapter. I wrote about this several months back in a post called, How the Wrath of God is Revealed. The upshot is that the wrath of God is not something God does to the wicked, but something to which he gives them over: He gives them over to their own sinful desires, shameful lusts, depraved minds — and natural consequences thereof.
However, God gives them over not as a retribution but as a correction, so that they might repent and turn to God. This is a recurring pattern in the New Testament (see He Gave Them Over, That They Might Return). God is love, so how he deals with evil will manifest love both for the perpetrator as well as for the victim. Retribution, or vindictive punishment, helps neither victim nor perpetrator. But a punishment that has correction as its purpose ultimately benefits both because it ultimately results in reconciliation. So God gives the wicked over to their own dark selves until, like the prodigal son when he was off in an alien country, far away from his father, they “come to their senses” and are reconciled to God and his people.