I used to think of myself as a patient man. Then I got married. Then I had a child. Then another one. And another one. Through those precious gifts, God has exposed me to me. I’ve seen just how thin my “vast patience” can run.
Recently, I lost it with my eldest son. He needed discipline, and received wrath instead. I felt the red-hot fringes of my patience. I yelled a sinful yell. Afterward, I needed to kneel down eye to eye, humble myself, and ask my son for forgiveness — and I did. And he forgave me.
As I felt my bloodstream cool, I considered my anger — offended by his lack of respect, inconvenienced by his disobedience, hurt by his defiance, and then seeking some form of vengeance. My raised voice tried to avenge my bruised ego. Even though I love my two sons more than any other boy on earth, and would gladly die for their sake, I was still somehow tempted to fight back, to take up arms and go to war.
As I explored that impulse, I wondered how much more intense it must be for those who’ve actually been injured — the betrayed spouse, the abandoned friend, the slandered church member, the persecuted coworker, the abused child. What flames must course through their veins? How easy must it feel to want to hurt like they’ve been hurt, to make the other person pay for what they’ve done? Have you ever tasted a warm and bitter thirst for vengeance?
Vengeance Is Not Mine
As the apostle Paul unfolds what an authentically Christian community will look like for the church in Rome, he weaves in several vital one-another realities: “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10). Contribute to one another’s needs and welcome one another (verse 13). “Live in harmony with one another” (verse 16). Then he says,
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. (Romans 12:17)
Followers of Jesus don’t retaliate. When we receive evil — real, shameful, painful evil — we don’t compensate the offender with another offense, but instead with surprising grace and mercy, with a warm meal and a cold drink (Romans 12:20). We respond to our wounds in ways that even the God-hating world can admire (“what is honorable in the sight of all”).
“Believing in hell breeds healthier, more Christian relationships.”
How could a betrayed spouse, an abandoned friend, an abused child possibly respond like that? Paul goes on to tell us two verses later: “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’” (Romans 12:19). Cravings for personal vengeance dry up and wither when held up before the fires of final judgment, when we remember that God will repay every evil against us.
The Relationally Practical Doctrine of Hell
When Paul writes of God, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” he’s reading from Deuteronomy 32, from the great song Moses sang to the people before he died. Why would Paul turn here when speaking to believers who’ve been sinned against? Because the new people of God, the church, still finds refuge, justice, and hope in the holy and unyielding wrath of God. Moses sings first of God’s righteous fury against the sins of Israel:
A fire is kindled by my anger,
and it burns to the depths of Sheol,
devours the earth and its increase,
and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.
And I will heap disasters upon them;
I will spend my arrows on them;
they shall be wasted with hunger,
and devoured by plague
and poisonous pestilence. (Deuteronomy 32:22–24)
But just before he might wipe out his chosen people for their defiance, he turns his wrath instead against the enemies of Israel, “lest their adversaries should misunderstand, lest they should say, ‘Our hand is triumphant, it was not the Lord who did all this’” (Deuteronomy 32:27). So, he says of those enemies,
“Vengeance is mine, and recompense,
for the time when their foot shall slip;
for the day of their calamity is at hand,
and their doom comes swiftly.”
For the Lord will vindicate his people
and have compassion on his servants. (Deuteronomy 32:35–36)
And why will God pour out such wrath against Israel’s enemies? Because the enemies of God’s people have made themselves enemies of God himself. Notice how their adversaries have now become my adversaries by the end of the song.
I kill and I make alive;
I wound and I heal;
and there is none that can deliver out of my hand. . . .
I will take vengeance on my adversaries
and will repay those who hate me.
I will make my arrows drunk with blood,
and my sword shall devour flesh. (Deuteronomy 32:39–42)
This isn’t only the God of the Old Testament. This is the God of the Old and New Testaments. The God who wrote the law and the God who wrote the gospel. The Beginning and the End. The God who shows us wondrous mercy in Christ will rain horrible wrath on all who reject and oppose him — a fire devouring the earth, a devastating famine, a poisonous plague, a sword soaked in blood.
Every unforgiven sinner will suffer that awful storm. And every unforgiven sin against you will face the same fate. This is how a betrayed spouse, an abandoned friend, an abused child can suffer harm and not retaliate. They know they will be vindicated and made whole again. Believing in hell, then, really does breed healthier, more Christian relationships.
The Cross as Vengeance
Not all sins against us will be repaid with hell, though. Because our own sins, in Christ, won’t be repaid with hell. God will punish every sin against you, either in conscious, eternal torment or in the crushing of his precious Son. John Piper says,
God will lift from you the suicidal load of vengeance and carry it to one of two places. He will carry it to the cross if the person repents, or he will carry it to hell where they will be forever. And you can’t improve upon either of those. If they’re in hell, you don’t need to add to their punishment. If their load was borne and forgiven and paid at the cross, you would dishonor the Lord if you didn’t share in the forgiveness. (“How to Battle Bitterness”)
Christ bore the horrors of Deuteronomy 32 — a fire devouring the earth, a sword soaked in blood, a crown of piercing thorns, a back ravaged by scourging, a cross of shame and agony — for all who would believe in him, even those who have hurt you. Would you try and improve on the vengeance of the cross? Do the sufferings of the sinless Christ seem somehow insufficient when it’s you who have been wronged? Christian, remember that God’s wrath once burned against you, his plague crept toward you, his sword stood high above you — and then Jesus bore that hell for you.
This resistance in us to entrust our injustices to God is why Paul goes after pride in the same verses: “Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil” (Romans 12:16–17). Why are we reluctant to relinquish justice over the sins against us? Why do we assume we’d be a better judge than God? Because of a coddling and corrupting pride. Because we gladly overestimate our own sense of wisdom and righteousness in these painful situations, and because we grossly underestimate our need for God’s forgiveness, understanding, and justice.
If the sins against us were left in our courtrooms, before our broken and impartial benches, they’d be woefully mishandled. But thanks be to God that he himself judges every last case, that each and every wrong will be repaid with flawless justice. He doesn’t overlook a single offense or lighten a single sentence. He will either nail the sin to the cross, or he will consume it in hell. Can you bear to believe that? Can you surrender your secret cravings to retaliate, the bitternesses you quietly sip and refill?
So Far as It Depends on You
One last thread deserves attention in Romans 12. When it comes to the sins people commit against us, Paul isn’t content with a merely defensive strategy (“leave it to the wrath of God”), but encourages the forgiven and soon-to-be vindicated to actively and persistently pursue peace — if possible, even with their offenders.
Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God. (Romans 12:16–19)
You can see how the two thick and colorful threads weave themselves together in this distinctly Christian love: let God enact your vengeance and do all you can to make peace. Don’t settle for a cold, distant truce when it comes to these offenses, but fight for the warmth of harmony.
And not only within the church, but strive to “live peaceably with all,” the apostle says. That means even the unbelievers — the neighbors, the coworkers, the friends, the parents, the children — who sin against you. The perfect justice of God — in hell and on the cross — makes this kind of miraculous peace relationally possible. We can hold out meaningful, heartfelt peace even to those who despise, harass, persecute, and harm us.
Very often, our enemies will not receive it (that’s why Paul says “so far as it depends on you”), but if they do, it just might be the day they, like you, are rescued from wrath and step into joy-filled peace with God.