Romans 12:17&18 “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.”
There are three commands here, one a negative prohibition and the other two are positive exhortations, and all of them are essential for a happy and useful Christian life. If we are to have any evangelistic success, if we are to make any impact on the world, if we are to show that God is blessing us then we will heed these three words: Do not repay evil for evil. Do what is right in the eyes of everybody. Live at peace with everyone.
- DO NOT REPAY ANYONE EVIL FOR EVIL TO ANYONE.
i] Let us look at this from the perspective of an individual. A man does something unspeakable; there is no excuse for it at all. It is simply unmitigated evil. Someone you love dearly is the victim and you are filled with grief and anger at this outrage. How could that man behave in that way? You dwell on it; it haunts your dreams and your waking hours. You talk over it with your family and friends. You become obsessed by it. How can we express our revulsion at this unspeakable evil? We must do something, and you think and talk and plan. “Stop!” says Paul.
It is a great word that addresses our behaviour at the very beginning, before it can become obsessive. Before patterns of behaviour build up and dominate our lives. When we feel the first stirrings of retaliation, “Stop!’ says the word of God. When we are tempted to gather around us some vigilantes, or plan some personal vendetta that will teach that man a lesson, “Stop!” God says. “Do not do that . . . do not repay anyone evil for evil. Anyone at all, the rapist, the biased soccer referee, the serial killer, the crooked politician – it is not your task to compound one evil with another. Do not hit back. You meet that man in ordinary every day life and you have not a word to say about it. You treat him like any other person on the pavement as if what he had done had never occurred. It is not the time or place for a showdown.
Of course Paul is setting before the Romans the teaching of our Lord in the sermon on the mount, those familiar awesome words, “But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:39). Peter heard that and looked at the other disciples; they were young men who had often been in disputes over fishing. There had been notable fights between the fishermen on the sea of Galilee – like the gang cultures of the big English cities today. Then Jesus told them,
“Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Did Peter shake his head? Did Peter roll his eyes at his brother Andrew? What crazy idealistic teaching! Absolutely impossible! Then he watched Jesus for three years doing just that. He never retaliated, but overcame men’s evil with good. Years later Peter wrote to a group of Gentile Christians and this is what he wrote, “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (I Pet. 2:23). “You must do the same,” Peter says. “You must not think that this is impractical. This is how you must live.” Then he writes to Christian slaves being abused by their masters. Does the Bible advocate slavery? No. Does it exhort those who can obtain their freedom legally to obtain it? Yes. The Bible sought to influence slaves and slave-owners until a better day came. This is what Paul writes; “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (I Pet. 2:18-21).
You notice this little comment on the life of a Christian slave, that “he is conscious of God” (I Pet. 2:18). Your master loses his patience with you and whips you cruelly, but you are conscious of God. Your mistress makes you work for her from dawn to dusk and calls you to her bedroom all through the night to fan her or remove a chamber pot and you never get a word of thanks, but you are conscious of God. You are getting to the point where you could purchase your freedom but your master does all sorts of tricks to prevent you obtaining it, but you are conscious of God, of his grace, of his peace, of his strength being made perfect in your weakness. Especially you are aware that your Saviour was treated far worse than you, but when he was being crucified he still prayed for his enemies. Fill your mind with God, walk in the Spirit, look to Jesus Christ day by day, maintain a growing relationship with the Lord, and then you can do what he tells you to do, not to retaliate, not to repay anyone evil for evil, but turn the other cheek. This is what Dr. Lloyd-Jones says,
“This attitude has often been the cause of much sarcasm on the part of men and women of the world who have
not only rejected the Christian message but have ridiculed it. A famous example was Thomas Paine who lived towards the end of the eighteenth century and was a well-known infidel. Tom Paine, in referring to our Lord’s teaching about turning the other cheek, said, ‘This is the spirit of a spaniel!’ The taunt that Christian teaching produces flabby, sentimental people, lacking in virility, has often been made and is found especially in this twentieth century with the whole cult of self-expression. ‘Believe in yourself!’ people say. ‘Exert yourself. Stand up for yourself!’ And because of this, Christian teaching has often been despised” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Exposition of Romans 12, Christian Conduct, Banner of Truth, 2000, p.472). Of course this refusal to repay evil with evil actions is not weakness at all, but incredible divine strength. The father of the girl killed by the IRA bomb refusing to speak evil of her murderers is displaying enormous self-control and extending such unbelievable forgiveness. God’s beloved Son, Jesus Christ, has had evil inflicted upon him, in recompense for your wickedness. He was paid the judgment that you deserved, and so how can you ever think of introducing into the treatment of your fellow men anything like the judicial response of God to Jesus when he was your substitute? He consented to suffer to bring you to God. Jesus never thought, “What’s all this about? I am having to endure his evil? I’ll get him one day for this!” Never! Then you be willing to suffer for him. Let him who did that evil escape your anger. Bear that evil, and don’t resent it.
ii] I have dealt with this on a purely individualist basis, but it is just as true on a church level. Think of the Roman church and the thousands of both men and women that their Inquisition condemned and killed. They dealt with what they considered to be the evil of heresy with the evil of being burnt alive. Of course they were not alone in this. There were the Protestant churches who tried and killed the Anabaptists. There was also a man named Servetus, someone who mocked the Trinity, and so Rome condemned him to death. He escaped the clutches of Rome and went to Geneva where he continued his blasphemous tirades against the Trinity and there he was arrested by the Protestants, tried and condemned to be burnt at the stake, and though Calvin pleaded that he be strangled before he was burned that request was turned down. They burned Servetus. It was a blot on Calvin’s name. They all considered Geneva to be a theocracy, a church-state like Israel in the Old Testament, and so they had a divine mandate to destroy blasphemers like Israel had under Moses. They repaid the evil of blasphemy with the evil of the stake, or the gibbet or the executioner’s axe. “Stop it,” says the word of God. Do not repay evil with evil.
It is the great evil of the Islamic jihad today, the holy war they launch against heretics. A Muslim hears the gospel and is saved by the Lord Jesus Christ (thousands of them are coming to Christ in these years). He becomes a Christian but his fellow countrymen discover this and condemn him and kill him. They repay what they dub as ‘evil’ with a real unspeakable evil. It continues to happen all over the Islamic world even in these past weeks and the men who call themselves ‘moderate’ Muslims are not vocal enough and self-sacrificial enough to condemn it. Jesus is beginning new covenant practice. He first says nothing when they want his confirmation that it is right for them to stone to death an adulterous woman. Then he speaks; “Let him that is without a sin cast the first stone,” he says. They are stopped dead in their tracks and walk away beginning with the oldest. Jesus tells the woman that he does not condemn her to death by stoning, but that she is to go and sin no more. He is introducing us to a new covenant situation where some sins are no longer to be considered as crimes. They are still sins, but Caesar is not to be called in to punish the sinner. There is a kinder church rebuke and discipline.
iii] So I have looked at this command on an individual level, and also on an ecclesiastical level and I do think it has something to say on political and governmental level. There is such an action as a just war. There is international police action, for example when a country is systematically murdering all the members of one race in its midst, for example, millions of Jewish citizens or the Tutu tribe. It is a just war for other nations to take action together, to warn, and threaten, and invade to save the lives of multitudes from such genocide. Now maybe this is rarely to be done, but we cannot say it is always wicked to engage in international police action like that. However in a just war the combatants influenced by the Christian faith are to maintain the highest levels of morality in seeking to preserve the lives of non-combatants and not use excessive force when this is unnecessary and all the time seeking to bring about a peaceful conclusion. We can debate whether the war with Iraq was a just war. We can ask whether high-tech weaponry is the way ahead to overcome the influence of the Taleban in Afghanistan. That influence certainly has to be defeated. I am simply asking whether high-tech weaponry might not be an example of overcoming evil with evil? I can’t pontificate about something of which I know little. If it is overcoming evil with evil then it is wrong. There have been many times in British history when the government’s actions were overcoming evil with evil and so we forfeited the blessing of God.
Those are the ways I have opened up this exhortation not to repay evil with evil. “But what of the evil done?” you ask. “Am I to do nothing when I am beaten up, or when my wife or daughter is abused, or when all my savings are stolen from me by a crook?” Of course you are to do something, but you are not to respond with evil actions. That is why Romans 12 is followed by Romans 13. Romans 12 deals with our private, individual, personal relations with one another. Romans 13 deals with the prerogatives and functions of the magistrate, and with civil, judicial and penal matters; this is not the response of some individual at all. This is the magistrate who has been given divine authority to arrest, take away a man’s money, and freedom and even his life. He is the one who is to avenge the evil-doer, not you. He must not abdicate his God-given prerogative and obligation to punish the murderer, the torturer, the rapist, the thief or the member of parliament who steals by fiddling his expense account. He may not do that. It is crucial that we maintain the distinction between what belongs to us as individuals in our private relationships with other people, and what belongs to the powers that be who act in the name of God.
If an individual took on himself the power of punishing, or on the other hand if the magistrate said, “No, I am a Christian. I turn the other cheek. I cannot take away a man’s freedom,” then there would be a terrible distortion of their different functions. Think of a Christian who happens to be a magistrate; now as any individual person he or she treats domestic disputes and violence within his or her family or outside his front door in the light of this text and not repay any evil done to him or her by evil. But a Christian magistrate sitting on a bench and hearing all the evidence and the verdict of the jury has the authority to punish, to take away a man’s money, or liberty or even life in very extreme cases. So this is the first exhortation, not to repay evil for evil.
- DO WHAT IS RIGHT IN THE EYES OF EVERYONE.
“Be careful to
do what is right in the eyes of everybody” (v.17). This is the first time in the chapter that Paul mentions the impact their lives ought to be making on non-Christians in the city of Rome who are watching them. We are being reminded to behave ourselves before the watching world in a manner that gains their approval. I want the neighbours on my street to approve of my morality and my neighbourly kindness. I aim that the people I study with, or those whom I work with will speak well of my personal and family life. I want those members of my family who are not Christians to give me even grudging recognition that I not only talk the talk but walk the walk. We can see the importance of this is underlined in two ways:
i] Notice how Paul phrases it, “Be careful to do this” in other words, take care . . . be thoughtful about this . . . bring it into your sphere of discourse . . . aim at this . . . seek this . . . be aware of this fact, that men who are not Christians see you day after day. Someone acts in an evil way towards you, and the danger is to react instinctively, automatically and hit out, but Paul cries, “Stop! Before you do anything, think about what you are going to do.” This is not going to be a one off incident that you may react to on the spur of the moment. No. There is a pattern here of worldly opposition. You must put it in that larger context of a world which did evil to your Lord, a world-system which does not change, which he has warned will do evil to you too. So we are careful. We are prepared.
Paul is indicating that we are being watched and judged as to how we live, and we must be careful to do what is right in their eyes. Now it is obvious that we’re not to be carried along with them in all that they approve of. I worked in an open-plan office for the national Coal Board for a year and there was little disapproval of girly calendars on the wall – some of the older folk didn’t like that. Every Friday lunchtime the men went down the pub and had a drink together. Every Derby Day they ran a sweep on which horse would win the Derby. There were couples who went off for the week-end together. They mostly thought that doing things like that was all right. Paul is not saying to us that our standards for what are right are to be set by, say, the soldiers in the same platoon as ourselves, or the rest of the football team, or how our neighbours spend their Sundays. The world does not prescribe norms of conduct for us, but we are all painfully aware that the world will quickly point out any inconsistency in our conduct. We Christians are all ashamed at the foolish angry words that have slipped out under pressure.
There was a day or two in my last year in school – over fifty years ago – when I wanted to slip out half an hour early and get to the railway station for the hour long train journey home to Barry Dock, so that I would be there by 5 and not 6.30. It was against school rules to leave before 4 p.m. But I had no classes and I got away once or twice, slinking off out of school. Then once I compounded my behaviour by this; “If the head comes and notices that I’m not here,” I said quite guiltily to the little group of sixth formers reading and writing in our tiny room, “say that I’ve just gone out.” “Ah,” someone properly and smilingly say to me, “You’re a Christian and you are saying that?” Fair enough. I couldn’t take that. I was too sensitive and I only did it once! Our conduct must be seen to be honourable in the forum of men’s judgment. They make no profession to be Christians, but still they have the work of God’s law written on their hearts and they know what is right or wrong. We profess to be religious, that pleasing God is important to us, and yet we are acting in a deceitful and inconsistent manner? Shame on us! So one concern of our text is to be careful about this matter. If you ignore others of these exhortations don’t ignore this.
ii] Then I also want you to see that what is stated so plainly here is also underlined elsewhere in the New Testament. Let me draw your attention to some other similar exhortations.
2 Corinthians 8:21 “For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of men.” You see how scrupulous Paul is. He was evangelizing amongst the Jews with Timothy, and he had not been circumcised. Paul saw this as a barrier to gaining a hearing for Jesus Christ among the Jews. He wanted to do what was right in their eyes though he knew that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision meant anything; what counts is a new creation. For him it was only a medical or cultural matter; it had nothing to do with religion, and so as he was working in a team with Timothy he took pains – or Timothy took the pain – to remove that stumbling block. It was all done to gain the approval of the eyes of men. It was that important. He has written to them in his first letter these words, “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God – even as I try to please everybody in every way.” (I Cor. 10:32&33). That’s the Christian goal.
2 Corinthians 4:2 “We have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” This is rather different. Paul deplores the religious tricksters who went from town to town claiming to be prophets of God. They gained a bad name for religion, and so he was careful that there was no jiggery-pokery in his meetings. He didn’t pay someone to come to the meeting claiming to be blind and then when Paul laid hands on him he would open his eyes and cry loudly, “I can see!” None of that. He did not use deception. He did not use the Scripture to support his own cranky views or to get a big offering. There was no distortion of the word of God. He simply set forth the message of the Bible. “Listen to this . . . now understand me please . . . hear this . . .” And men’s consciences were stirred and they came to trust in Paul. They were moved by his sincerity and integrity and honesty.
I Timothy 3:7: An overseer “must also have a good reputation with outsiders.” Paul is talking about church leaders, and if a man is a bit of a shady character, with some kind of dubious reputation, inconsistent and rather dishonourable, then a congregation must not set him apart to become a church officer. The judgment of the world must not be ignored. We are not to say, “We can ignore what the men who work with him think of him.” No. If they would laugh if they heard he had become a deacon then something’s wrong. The church has made a mistake.
I Timothy 5:14 “So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander.” Paul is concerned that young Christian women without husbands are wandering around, getting involved in tittle-tattle, and maybe even in flirting and gossiping. That does not give a good impression of what Christianity is all about. God puts the solitary in families. Paul says, “I don’t want the enemy of Jesus Christ to say, “You know why those single women go to church and visit one another’s houses don’t you?” Nod, nod; wink, wink. So they were to be conscious of the impact of their lifestyle on those who were watching. Nothing we do should hinder men and women from believing in God.
I suppose they should be especially noticing as they hang around and watch us whether we love one another in a Christ-like way. Jesus spoke to his disciples and he said to them, &
ldquo;A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn. 13. 34&35). There is a famous sermon preached forty years ago by Francis Schaeffer on those words. He says,
“The church is to be a loving church in a dying culture. How, then, is the dying culture going to consider us ? Jesus says, ‘By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.’ In the midst of the world, in the midst of our present dying culture, Jesus is giving a right to the world. Upon his authority he gives the world the right to judge whether you and I are born-again Christians – on the evidence of our observable love towards all Christians.
“That’s pretty frightening. Jesus turns to the world and says, ‘I’ve something to say to you. On the basis of my authority, I give you a right: you may judge whether or not an individual is a Christian on the evidence of the love he shows to all Christians.’ In other words, if people come up to us and cast in our teeth the judgment that we are not Christians because we have not shown love towards other Christians, we must understand that they are only exercising a prerogative which Jesus gave them. And we must not get angry. If people say, ‘You don’t love other Christians,’ we must go home, get down on our knees and ask God whether or not what they say is true. And if it is true, then they have a right to have said what they said” (Francis A. Scaeffer, ‘The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century’ Norfolk Press, 1970, p.166). So there is this obsession in the New Testament to be aware that men and women are watching us all the time, and that we are to be utterly consistent in our lives, not only in what we don’t do, never deceiving them or taking advantage of them, but in the love we show to one another. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.
- LIVE AT PEACE WITH EVERYONE.
Again, notice how he phrases it, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (v.18). There were the Pharisees heaping huge burdens on the back of the common people – and not bearing those burdens themselves. Hypocrites! They preached a message of works obedience to men’s traditions. Jesus could not live at peace with them. He needed to counter their errors to save the people. Again when a similar problem came into the congregation at Galatia in Asia Minor and the Gentile Christians there were being urged by heretics to get circumcised and keep the Jewish food laws to be saved then Paul could not say, “I must be silent and live at peace with them and their opinions. They have as much right to teach this in the church as I have of preaching grace along and faith alone in Jesus alone for redemption.” Thank God he did not say that. What he said was this, “If we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!” (Gals. 1:8). Those false prophets made it impossible for Paul to live at peace with them. As far as it depended on Paul he could not declare a truce while they still were proselytizing their wretched hearers.
When Peter was in Antioch the apostle Peter himself started teaching the importance of keeping Jewish food laws and so on, and that made it impossible for Paul to live at peace with him. He had to withstand him to his face. Do you understand the principle behind all this? We may never compromise the truth of the gospel, not for the sake of peace. We have no rigth to do that, as it is not ours. We declare it whatever the consequences. We are not to modify it, or leave portions out or add to it. We declare it as it is. On all parts of Christian truth we are to be as uncompromising as Paul was with Peter or with the Galatian Judaizers.
However, with regards all other matters we are to be as patient and helpful as we can, We are not to be awkward and unyielding and bigoted. As Dr. Lloyd-Jones says, “The way in which we assert and declare the truth is all-important. ‘Speaking the truth in love’ [Eph. 4:15] that is the teaching, and you must not leave out any one part of that statement. ‘Speaking the truth in love’. We cannot help it if the truth offends people, but we must always make sure that it is the truth that is offending them and not us. As a preacher, I must be careful that if there is offence, people are offended not by me, not by my person, not by my behaviour, not even by the way in which I speak and preach, but only by the truth itself. If it is the truth that is offending them, I am innocent, I cannot help it. I am anxious to be at peace. I have done my best to be persuasive, to present the truth in as attractive a manner as I can. So if they still resent it and reject it and react quite violently because of it, it is not my responsibility. I must declare the truth always but I must always declare the truth in love” (ibid, p. 482).
Consider how the Lord Jesus lived at peace with everyone as he grew up and lived for thirty years in Nazareth. We are told that he increased in favour with men, in other words, our Lord got on with people; he was interested in them; he was well disposed to them; he was, in today’s tired cliché, a good communicator. He is set before us quite deliberately as a social and sociable being. It is tremendously important because here is something that we commonly tend to depreciate. It is in fact a skill which some religious people conspicuously lack, yet our Lord had this graciousness, so that we can say that people in Nazareth spoke well of him as a boy, and as a teenager and as a man. He was the one who fixed their doors and put in their rafters and beams and repaired the wheels of their carts. They enjoyed him calling and working in their homes and on their smallholdings. He was highly esteemed by the people; he had a definite affability; there was social ease and grace in this all-round portrait of our Lord.
He was not like John the Baptist who was a hermit and a recluse, who spent his life in the wilderness and was unsociable. He was stern and forbidding to an eminent and high degree, but Christ was not like that. The problem can arise when John the Baptist is made the model for religious men as if they ought to be detached and remote, as if they were to live their lives in isolation. It seems to me to be tremendously important that we face up to this and make sure that such an unsociable spirit – which is so alien to the ethos of our own congregation – should be refused a toehold here. There are those who rarely smile, who do not join in the hymn-singing, who are so critical of anything of which they disapprove, showing it in their stony faces and downcast eyes. Our Lord is set before us as one who got on with people. Live at peace with all men.
Now I’ve got to qualify that quite obviously because the day came when they despised and loathed him. The hour arrived when the mob chanted, “Crucify! Crucify!” How do I explain that? I say it is taught here very plainly that it was not because our Lord had not sought to live at peace with all men. Jesus had not been deficient in humaneness, in humanity, in courtesy, in kindness, in social skills and graces. It was not for any of those reasons that men shouted, “Away with him! Release unto us Barabbas.” But a day came when it was incidental to his pubic ministry that he must tread upon the prejudices of men. He must condemn, and he must expose their sins, and it is at that point that his social grace was insufficient to get him immunity from their hatred and barbarism.<
As the writer to the Hebrews exhorts them to follow peace with all men, and holiness without which no man shall see the Lord. Follow peace; be on the best terms possible with your fellow men, and the limiting condition is holiness. Don’t follow peace to the extent that holiness is compromised. Don’t cultivate social graces and the favour of men beyond the point where you are embarrassed to do what you are doing in the presence of the Holy One.
So it is important to instill in our children all these graces and social skills – “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.” Then they can mix freely, communicate and form stable relationships. They must learn to co-operate with others, to lead, to tolerate and to function as members of a team, to control their egotism and aggression without losing a normal drive and competitiveness, to compete fairly, to lose graciously and to win magnanimously, and to do all that without compromise in a moral or spiritual sense. They must have cultivated in them from the earliest age an interest in other people, a concern for other people which submits their own interests to the interests of others, other children and adults.
24th May 2009 GEOFF THOMAS