AUDIO: Essential Christianity (Parts 1 & 2 of 3)
Sermon by Alistair Begg
Sermon given on May 8, 2011
At one point or another, everyone comes to know the pain of hurt or betrayal. As Christians who experienced God’s mercy, however, our natural urge for revenge should no longer reign. Instead, we see others as people within reach of God’s love and should respond to opposition with blessing. Preaching on Paul’s reminder that vengeance is the Lord’s, Alistair Begg confronts us with a clear choice: Will we be overcome by evil, or will we overcome evil with good?
We’re going to read from Romans chapter 12. It’s page 803 in the church Bibles, if that is of use to you. And we’re going to read from verse 9 through to the end of the chapter. Romans 12:9:
“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
“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 everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary:
“‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Gracious God, please help us now as we look at these verses that are so difficult because we can understand them so clearly. “Show us ourselves, show us our Savior; make the Book live to us,” we pray, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Well, it is important, as we come to these closing verses—and that is the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first verse—that we keep in mind that what Paul is doing here in chapter 12, in this whole series of imperatives, is not issuing ethical directives to be picked up by people on the street, as it were, to be applied for the well-being of human society. He is not casting out a number of suggestions that, if people will pick them up and try and do them, everything will be much better for everybody. That would actually be true, but that is not what is happening.
And so it’s important for us always to make sure that we’re clear as to the recipients of the letter. And at the risk of annoying you, let me remind you of what we’ve said in each of these studies—namely, that Paul is writing to the “saints” in Christ Jesus. That’s Romans 1:7: “I’m writing,” he says, “to all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints”—“loved by God and called to be saints.” And then he gives to us the nature of what it means to be set apart from sin and set apart to God, and he points out in chapter 7 that these individuals are not only saints, but they’re also slaves.
Verse 18 of chapter 6, I should say. I’ll find this verse eventually. I couldn’t find it in the first service at all. I didn’t let them know; I just pretended that I could. But the fact is, I kept looking down at my Bible, I couldn’t find it. And also, in the first service, I had the name Epaphroditus in my mind. I couldn’t get it out of my mind, and I had no reason to have it in my mind at all, and every so often it just kept coming up again, “Epaphroditus.” The name I was looking for was Onesimus. And just to give you a little background as to what happens when I’m actually speaking to you, there are a number of things going on, and not all of them helpful—at least not all of them helpful to me. No more helpful than this little interlude has been to you.
But anyway, 6:18: “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” And on our way through Romans 12, we’ve said that in actual fact what we have in Romans 12 is the righteousness of God applied in the lives of believers. His appeal to his readers in chapter 12 has been on the basis of God’s mercy: “I urge you brothers”—brothers and sisters—“in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices … to God.” And his whole emphasis is that the lives of those who are his readers are to be lives that are pleasing to God rather than lives that are being patterned after the wisdom of the society and culture in which they’re living. They were once members of that community in terms of their thought forms and identity, but they have been removed from that and placed in an entirely new kingdom. They have a new King, and he’s called Jesus. They’ve been set apart from, set apart to, and the work of the Spirit of God within their lives is to make them like their elder brother, the Lord Jesus Christ. And God has given to us the Bible in order that, as the Spirit of God brings the Word of God home to the child of God, we then, the children of God, like those to whom he writes in this chapter, are conformed to the image of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, what we’ve been discovering is that this involves a radically different way of thinking—a radically different way of thinking. There’s no question that Christianity is a mind-altering reality. It changes the way we think. We ought not to be embarrassed by that at all. People say, “Well, it’s just you’re trying to manipulate people’s minds.” No, no minds are being manipulated; our minds are being renewed. They’re being transformed. We are no longer simply buying what the news broadcasts tell us; we are no longer simply accepting the lifestyle of our culture; we’re no longer accepting views of sexuality that are provided by the prevailing thought forms of our day. Why not? Well, because we’re being conformed not to that, but we’re being conformed to the image of Jesus, and that conformation to the image of Christ is directly tied to the transformation of our thinking. And some of us are peculiarly prone to a kind of “feel it” approach to Christian living, and we are constantly buffeted one way or another, and the antidote to that is not that we cease to feel deeply, but the antidote is that we learn to think properly and that we bring our hearts under the jurisdiction of our minds rather than allowing our hearts to rule our heads.
Now, this transformation in thinking, Paul has shown, is changing the way an individual thinks about himself or herself. So, verse 3: “[Don’t] think of yourself more highly than you ought, but … think of yourself with sober judgment.” In other words, you don’t get a view of yourself in Jesus by comparison with other people. We don’t use the advances that we’ve made or the failures that we’ve experienced to adjudicate on things, but rather, we find ourselves and our identity in the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s why he goes on to say, “[Don’t] be conceited”—hence the importance of this little book on humility.
Thinking radically differently about ourselves; thinking radically differently also about our relationships with one another. There’s no solo flying to heaven. We are members of the body of Christ , and—verse 5—“each member belongs to all the others.” And therefore, the devotion that we are to have in the Christian community is the devotion that is best exemplified in a nuclear family where there is genuine and sincere affection between the siblings; where they get on, where they enjoy one another’s company, where they’re glad to be together, where they can laugh together and cry together, where they can enter into one another’s lives in a way that makes it obvious to anybody who’s looking on that this is a family. And that is what Paul is addressing here. He’s addressing not a series of individuals—atomized individuals, living apart from one another—but communities in Rome that are identified with Christ and have been placed in Christ.
So it changes the way we view ourselves, it changes the way we view our relationships within the body of Christ, and, thirdly, it changes the way we think about those who oppose us. And it is this we’ve been dealing with, really, since verse 14, although it’s hard to tell in verses 14, 15, and 16 whether Paul has in mind persecution that comes from within the body of Christ or persecution that comes from outside of it. Nevertheless, whatever its source, there is a radically different way of thinking about things.
And when we got to verse 17, it was absolutely impossible for us to sidestep the clear imperative: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” And in verse 18, the categorical statement: “If it is possible, as far as it depends [upon] you, live at peace with”—and here’s the word, the killer word in the verse—“live at peace with everyone.” With everyone! If only he had said, “Live at peace with a selection of people that you choose,” it would’ve been so much easier, wouldn’t it? No, it’s so jolly difficult. We must not be the occasion for contention and the absence of harmony. If other people are not willing to live at peace with us, we can’t control that, but we can control our own reactions. And that’s the point that he’s making in verse 18.
Now, when he comes to verse 19, he builds on it. It’s almost as if he takes it up another couple of notches. And he says in verse 19, “Do not take revenge, my friends.” The word that is used there in Greek is a single word in Greek, from agape, and it’s agapatoi, which is simply “beloved” or “loved ones.” And the ESV, which some of you have begun to use—the ESV actually translates this opening phrase, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves.”
And again, it’s that “never” that’s the real kicker, isn’t it? If it said, “Beloved, sometimes don’t avenge yourself”… But no, we’re stuck with “everyone” and “never.” How hard is this? How totally impossible is this—apart from the indwelling work of the Spirit of God? I mean, if this is simply a call to moralism, it’s beyond our ability to cope with. Because as soon as we walk out the door, we’re aware of the fact that we cannot do this. We neither have the desire nor the will to do it. We don’t even want to. And when we decide that we might want to, then we can’t.
What is Paul saying here? “Attach these things to yourself, as if you were wearing the armor of Saul in going out to fight Goliath”? No, he’s not saying that at all! He’s saying, “This is why I’ve been telling you all the way through these chapters about the work of the Spirit of God within your life—that the Spirit of God is the one who enables you to call God Father, ‘Abba, Father’; that it is the Spirit who is able to intercede for you when you can’t even explain yourself what you’re on about when you kneel in prayer. And it is this same Spirit of God who works to make you naturally supernatural.”
Love and Vengeance
And the terms of endearment are just wonderful, aren’t they? Paul is often regarded by people who’ve never really studied him as being a sort of officious character, with remnants of his monotheistic Judaism and his high intellect and his status in life, somehow or other as if he’s just bossing people around and passing out orders here and there. But when you read his letters, you know that’s not true. You remember, when he writes to Philemon concerning—Onesimus—when he writes to Philemon concerning Onesimus, he says, “You know, I could have been bold and sent you a big command. But I decided not to do that. I decided to appeal to you on the basis of love.” So when you read Romans 12, it’s not Paul saying, “Here’s the command.” Nor is it Paul saying, “Here’s a suggestion.” It is Paul in the tone of entreaty—of urgent entreaty: “I implore you, I beseech you, I encourage you.”
And what a wonderful juxtaposition of terminology here, when he introduces the notion of those who are the beloved: “Loved ones, don’t avenge yourselves.” Love and vengeance, within the same phrase! It’s masterful, really. Could those who are so peculiarly loved—not only by their pastor Paul but by the one who is their Lord and King Jesus—could those who are so wonderfully beloved be those who are the executors of vengeance? Those who wake up in the morning and say, “He will never do that to me again. When I get into the office, when I get back on Thursday, I will give him a piece of my mind.” And your wife says to you, “Be very careful, ’cause you don’t have a lot to, you know… you don’t have that much to play with, you know. So don’t give too much away.”
No, I want you to notice the tone, because tone is so important, isn’t it? It’s not a command. It’s not a suggestion. It is an entreaty. And the straightforward statement is so hard because it is impossible to misunderstand. We often say humorously that the bits of the Bible that are the biggest challenge to us are not the parts we find difficulty in understanding but the ones that are so easy to understand. And this is impossible to miss, isn’t it? “Beloved, never take revenge.” The standard is so contrary to human nature that this is actually, I think, one of the… I called this talk this morning “Essential Christianity,” because I actually think that this is one of the hardest, most striking things in the whole of Christian living. Because it is completely antithetical to the way in which things work.
Do you remember the last time you bumped your elbow on a ledge, and then you turned round to punch the ledge? What was that about? That’s an instinctive reaction: “Ow!” Children don’t need to be taught to retaliate. You don’t sit your children down and say, “Let me show how to retaliate.” You have to sit your children down, say, “Why were you pulling Penelope’s hair?”
“Because she pushed her thing in my pl—”
“Yeah, but you don’t do that.”
“Oh, okay. I didn’t know.”
And then, within another fifteen minutes it’s, “Well, why were you stealing Mr.—”
“Because she took my—”
You grow up. Let me tell you something: the law courts of suburban Cleveland are significantly populated with professing Christian people who refuse to do what the Bible says, and who bring a slur on the testimony of Christianity itself—because the straightforward, clear, insistent explication of the Scriptures is recoiled from, and in its place is embraced the spirit of the age.
Paul is not writing some kind of theoretical treatise here. He is writing in a context in which for Christianity to exist was to live with the reality of opposition and persecution. Therefore, when he writes in the way that he does, people would not be sitting around going, “Well, I wonder what he has in mind.” They would understand. For us, it may be somewhat different. Nevertheless, it is clear.
And if ever we were wondering about the application of the notion of not being conformed to the spirit of the age but instead being renewed in our minds, then this is a wonderful place to make application of it, isn’t it? Because the natural instinct of men and women is retributive. The natural instinct—our instinct by nature—is to retaliate. And it is the sanctifying work of the Spirit of God, as I say, to bring the Bible to bear upon our thinking in order that in obedience to it we may then commend the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s what makes it so hard.
Because is it not the case that when we stand before the Scriptures and it says, “Beloved, never take revenge,” our minds immediately go to the times when we have taken revenge, the times that we’ve already got planned when we will be taking revenge? And we find ourselves saying with Paul in Romans chapter 7, “I find that there is a law at work within me that when I want to do right, the evil lies close at hand.” The problem is not that I don’t know what the Bible says. The problem is that the temptation for me is to fall down on the wrong side of the very clear choice: either I will be overcome by evil, or I will overcome evil by good. And when we fail—when we succumb to the temptation to default to our fists or to default to our fierce speeches—then we have every legitimate reason to be ashamed.
I’m going to leave you to make much of the application for this on your own, because the danger is that if I seek to apply it in specific ways, I may actually fail in the way in which it would be best applied. But I want us to think as a church about whether this church family has a tone of entreaty, whether this church family has a tone of grace. Or whether this church family has a tone of vengeance, of retribution, of recrimination. Whether, when people just slip in and listen to the conversations, whether they hear the kind of language that seems to be distancing itself—deliberately, consistently, purposefully—from a spirit of vengeance.
And beyond that, when you have another wee while to think, ask yourself this question: whether in all honesty we can say that the picture of whatever is evangelical Christianity in the public arena—whether that picture in the public arena is a picture of people who apparently are taking seriously the phrase “Loved ones, never avenge yourselves,” or whether it is a picture of people who have decided to sidestep that and take matters into our own hands.
I’m not making a judgment. I’m just asking you to think. Because remember, what Paul is doing here is he’s not giving suggestions to the man in the street as to how he might be a better man. He’s not addressing an individual as to how he might be a better individual Christian. He is addressing a church and he’s saying, “Here is what has happened to you people. On account of the mercies of God, your lives have been radically changed. You don’t deserve anything of God’s grace; you’re the beneficiaries of his mercy. Now, that mercy ought to mold the way you think about everything—not least of all, the way you think about being on the receiving end of evil and of persecution and of that which is opposed to the rule and the will of God. Are you going to be just like everybody else in Rome? Are you going to embrace the most litigious society in the Western world, America? Or are you going to be a Christian?” That’s really what he’s saying.
Spurgeon preached on this passage in  to his congregation in London, and he said to them somewhat humorously, he says, “If, however, we decide that we’re going to meet insult with insult and evil for evil and that we’re going to avenge ourselves,” then, he says, “there’s no need to pray to God in the morning to help us to carry out our plan.” We don’t have to get down on our knees and say, “God, help me to give somebody a really good one today. Help me to think of something vitriolic to say as soon as I get into the office. Help me to treat my wife the way she treated me last night. Help me to wake up with a really good one.” You don’t need to ask God for help in that. He’s not going to help you. It’s entirely opposed to everything that he’s conveyed.
God Will Right the Wrongs
So what are we to do? “Never avenge yourselves, loved ones.” What shall we do? “Leave it to the wrath of God.” In the NIV, “Leave room for God’s wrath.” Why? Because it is the responsibility of God to right the wrongs . God will right the wrongs.
Now, we can’t go through all of this this morning. He rights the wrongs in part by the establishment of civil government. That’s the distinction between 12, which has to do with interpersonal relationships, and 13, which has to do with civil jurisprudence—that the governments have been established by God in order to prevent total anarchy from ensuing in the earth. Whether they’re good governments or bad governments, nevertheless, there they are, and the reason they’re instituted is so that evil may be punished and good may be rewarded. But at the end of the day, God will right all the wrongs. “There is a higher throne than all this world has known,” and at that higher throne, one day, all of the jurisdictions, all of the executions and failures of judgment, the miscarriages of justice from a human perspective—these things will be righted then. You can read about it in Romans chapter 2.
So Paul is not suggesting in this some kind of mamby-pamby approach to things where evil should not or will not be punished. Clearly, evil should be punished, and evil will be punished. But what he’s saying is this: it’s not our department. It’s not our department! “Never avenge yourselves. Leave it to the wrath of God.”
You see how challenging this is? Do you know how many divorces in our church would have been dealt with, before ever they happened, if people would just take this verse? “Don’t avenge yourself.”
“Well, he did this, she did that, they did the next thing.”
“I understand! Don’t avenge yourself.”
“Well, I want to get it sorted out now. I’m not prepared to live with this.”
How’s it going?
Now, the quote that is here—and it is a quote. Paul is quoting his Bible; the quote’s from Deuteronomy. You can find it yourself at your leisure in Deuteronomy chapter 32. And he makes the point straightforwardly: “It is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay.’” So if you take from verse 17 through to verse 19, you see the way in which it is set up. Verse 17, “Do not repay”; verse 19, “God says, ‘I will repay.’” Verse 19 says, “Do not take revenge”; 19b, God says, “It is mine to avenge. Don’t you do it. I’ll do it.” It’s wonderful, isn’t it, that we would be relieved of a responsibility for which we are actually totally incompetent? We’re incompetent! Because when you hit back, you never know how hard to hit back, do you? And often, when we hit back, somebody says something, they didn’t mean to say it, we say it back much worse, we put the cat among the pigeons, we cause a riot that lasts for fourteen generations in your family. Because we had to get back immediately at that. We got that sorted out right now: “Let me just tell you…” And it was an overreaction. We thought that we would overcome evil by more evil, and what we actually did was we simply catapulted the evil. So it’s intensely practical. “You can’t do this,” says God. “You shouldn’t do it. It’s wrong for you to do it. And furthermore, even when you try to do it, you won’t do it right. So don’t do it.”
You think about it. Don’t you see your own sins best in other people? I do. And I’ve found that I am incredibly indulgent with my own sin and incredibly intolerant of that same sin when I find it in whoever it might be—that I am tremendously capable of maximizing the offenses of others in relationship to x and minimizing my own offense in relationship to the same issue. Only God is perfect. Only God is perfect in his judgments and in his justice. So there is an intense practicality about it. And we daren’t go wrong.
Turn Your Eyes on Jesus
Now, let me finish in this way, because there are two places here where it is distinctly possible for us to go wrong, and I’ll point them out. One of them we’ll have to come back to this evening. The second one is the “heap[ing] burning coals” on someone’s head. If you have any notion in your mind like “heaping burning coals on someone’s head,” you know—if you’ve got that, like, “Well, I’m not going to do this, but I’m gonna…,” you know—then you need to come tonight, ’cause we’ve gotta get that sorted out.
But also, in the same way, if you think that what is being said here allows us to use God’s execution of justice as a cloak for our own vindictiveness, then we’ve got that wrong as well. What do I mean by that? The idea that we say to ourselves, “Well, I’m not gonna do anything about it. I’m gonna let God do something about it, and he’s gonna do something much worse than I could have done, ha ha ha! That’s what you’re gonna get, yes.” So we go away saying, “No vengeance on my part, no. Get him! Get him, God! Get him good! Please!” Right? “I’m just applying the Bible! That’s what it says: ‘Do not take avenge; leave it to God.’ Go on!” No, then we completely misunderstand.
It’s never, ever, ever right for us to wish anything other than the salvation of our enemies. The salvation of our enemies! Those who have reviled us, who have worked against us, who have undermined us—bless them. What does it mean to bless them? To pray for their salvation, not for their damnation. Therefore, when he says, “Leave it to God’s wrath,” it leaves us no space for saying, “Well, I hope that the punishment they get from God is a really good one. I’m not going to do anything about it now; I’ll let him take care of it then.”
Well, let me tell you how to fix that: just turn your eyes on Jesus. Turn your eyes on Jesus—who, when he was reviled, did not revile in return; who, when he suffered, he didn’t threaten, but he committed his cause to “him who judges justly.” That’s 1 Peter 2:23. That’s how he overcame evil. He overcame evil as the perfect one dying in the place of those who reviled him.
So, the question is, are we going to take matters into our own hands and try being God for a little while—which, if you remember from that Jim Carrey movie with Morgan Freeman, he thought that would be real easy to do—or are we going to recognize that the essence of sin is to try and place ourselves where God is, and the essence of piety is to bow down before his wisdom?
With this I close. When I fall foul of this, three things are definitely true of me. One, that I have taken my eyes off Jesus. It is impossible for me to look at Christ upon the cross and hear him say, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,” and for me then to execute a spirit of vengeance, either in a letter or a phone call or in whatever way it is. I have clearly taken my eyes off Christ.
Secondly, when I fall foul of this, I have now ceased to view myself as “a debtor to mercy alone.” I have forgotten how the grace of God amazes me. I’ve forgotten what I am by nature, what I have become by grace, and what one day I will be when he finishes the work that his goodness has begun. Every time that I seek to execute my unrighteous vengeance and wrath on someone else, I have lost sight of Jesus, I have lost sight of who I am before Jesus.
And thirdly and finally, I have begun to live as if now is all that matters. In other words, I have lost sight of eternity. I want everything fixed now. I don’t want to wait for some higher throne and some other day. I want her to know right now. I want them to know right now. I want to fix them right now.
Where can we retreat, except into the active righteousness of Christ, when we think about how overwhelming are the times in our lives, however short or long, where we have absolutely violated the clarity of this imperative?
Spurgeon to his folks says, “How will your hard speeches and fierce actions appear when viewed from your dyingbed?” When my children gather around my deathbed, how will my stupid outbursts sound then? When my pride was offended, when I jumped to my own defense, when I said, “I’m gonna fix all this and fix it now,” how will it sound then? “Will railing, … fighting, and law-suits be sweet memories there? … Can we ever thank the God of love for enabling us to avenge ourselves?” Well, he says, “If we cannot pray about it, or praise about it, let us [leave] it alone.” If you can’t pray about it or praise about it, leave it alone.
Now, you say, “I know, Begg. You use rhetoric all the time. You just say things for effect.” Well, maybe I do, maybe I don’t, but I can tell you that my comments about litigation in the Greater Cleveland area I didn’t clutch out of the air. Someone who is a mediator in the law courts of Cleveland spoke to me after the first service, and this is what I was told: she said, “The worst cases that I have to deal with in terms of mediation and seeking to settle them before they get to a jury—the worst cases,” she said, “involve Christians, and not least of all, Christian pastors.” So I said, “Well, thank you for your encouragement.”
What a testimony. Huh? What a testimony, when the pagans, on the basis of pragmatism alone or finance alone, are prepared to walk away, and the believer—stiff-necked, against the clear imperative of Scripture—fights on and on and on: “I want vengeance.”
“Loved ones, live at peace with everyone. And beloved, never avenge yourself.” Come back to it tonight. It gets better or worse, depending on how you want to look at it.
Gracious God, we thank you for the Bible. We thank you for the privilege that we have of having it in our own language and free access to it. And as a church family, Lord, this morning, we want to confess our sin to you, our fierce and fiery outbursts, our pride, our seeking to climb up onto your throne and play God. What a hypocrisy, what a tragedy, what a mess, what a disappointment, what a horrible testimony to the world as it looks on. Are we really going to have to go back to the civil rights movement to teach us what it really means to say, “We shall overcome”?
Lord, we need your help in this, one day at a time, one issue at a time—that you would build us as a community that is shaped by grace, please; that increasingly looks like Christ, sounds like him, has the tone of tenderness. We are insufficient for these things. We can’t apply them from without. We need “the expulsive power of a new affection.” Work then in us, Lord, we pray, to fashion us to be like Jesus.
And may the grace of the Lord Jesus and the love of God our Father and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with each one who believes, now and forevermore. Amen.
 Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “Overcome Evil with Good,” The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 22, sermon no. 1317, https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/sermons/overcome-evil-with-good#flipbook/. Paraphrased.