In the name of Jesus. Amen.
We’re going to be spending a lot of time in this sermon thinking about vengeance, but to do that we have to establish something very basic first. Sin is bad, and the affects of sin are bad. I don’t think anyone here would disagree with that. Sin is awful, and the results of sin can be hideous. When you sin against others and know the hurt and pain you have caused, you feel terrible, and you should repent and reconcile with the person you have sinned against. And when someone sins against you, you know the injustice and pain that accompanies that too. Of course, depending on the nature and circumstances surrounding sins committed against you, that injustice will bring various levels of anger and pain that you have in response to that sin.
For example, imagine you are in the grocery store and have a shopping cart full of items and a pile of coupons. You are just a few steps away from the checkout line when someone who has an item or two quickly darts in line in front of you. That person has sinned against you. But you are only slightly perturbed and can let something like that roll off your back. You console yourself thinking how you were going to offer to let them go first anyway. Sure, you’re annoyed, but you can let it go fairly easily.
Ok now, flip the script. You are the one with only a couple items and the person who barges in front of you has the full cart and a ream of coupons. Now, you are going to be angry. And if you’ve already had a bad day and your patience has been spread very thin, you might be really angry. Maybe you will make loud sighs when their coupon doesn’t ring up the way they think it should or even say something rude to them. You might let that moment stew in your mind for the rest of the evening and next day, thinking of all sorts of ways you could have responded that would have made them feel bad.
Those responses to sin – whether you are only slightly annoyed or are angry and stewing – those responses reveal something about the nature of sin. Sin ruins things. It throws things off in the world makes the entire universe off-kilter. This is clear because it only took the one sin in the Garden to bring pain, strife, and death to all creation. Now, we’ve only known what it is to live in a world that is filled with the chaos of sin. But it is important for us to remember that when we sin and when we are sinned against, it is an injustice that brings further chaos and disorder to creation. Someone cutting in line in front of you might only affect your small corner of creation, but when you sin in response to your sphere of creation being thrown off, those effects continue to spread.
One more piece in all of this: When we see sin, injustice, and the hurt that accompanies all of that, we want to fix it. Since we are made in the image of God, we are like God and want to restore the order and justice which has been disturbed because of sin. That is what vengeance is. Vengeance isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We’ve gotten so used to the word ‘vengeance’ being used in a negative way that we think vengeance is always evil. Yes, vengeance can be evil, but look, God Himself here says, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.” Paul there is quoting Dt. 32:35. The same verse gets quoted again in Heb. 10:30. Throughout the Scriptures, both in the Old and New Testament, we hear that God will execute vengeance on the wicked and restore justice. In Ps. 94 and many other places in the Bible, this idea is repeated. God is just and will punish sin and make creation right again.
With all of that in our minds now, we can consider this text. Here in v. 19, Paul says, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God.” Christian, that is what you are to do. When you are wronged and sinned against, it might seem like everything in creation is against you – depending on the nature, gravity, and seriousness of the sin. But you are instructed here to not avenge yourself because executing vengeance is, typically, not your job. Instead, you are commanded to leave it to the wrath of God. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God,” and then Paul uses a very important word – ‘for.’ In other words, here is why you are not to avenge yourself, “for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” Bringing order and justice back to a broken creation is not your responsibility. Vengeance belongs to God.
You already know this, but I’ll give you an example. Since, I had you imagining yourself in a grocery store earlier, let’s stick with that setting. When you are in the store and a mom is there with her little boy who is whining, kicking, and screaming because she said, “No,” to the treat he wanted, you aren’t going to go over to that boy and punish him. It isn’t your job. You can’t go over to that boy and tell him, “Because you are acting like this, you don’t get desert tonight and will be going to bed early.” You can’t enforce that punishment. And you will be arrested if you spank the boy – as you should be. It isn’t your office to bring vengeance, justice, and punishment in that situation.
Now, of course, if it is your boy doing the exact same thing, you can and should punish him. God has placed you in a position of authority over your children to train, guide, and direct their behavior and character. Exactly how you do that is up to you since you are placed in that authority by God. An important thing here is that right after our text comes Ro. 13, and I would highly encourage you to read this text along with Ro. 13 together. In Ro. 13, Paul will say that every authority that exists is placed in that position by God, and God puts people in positions of authority to bear God’s sword of vengeance – i.e. to be the hand of God that punishes people who sin and do wrong.
Now, this is a brief but important aside: There are times when the authorities that God has put in positions to punish sin do not use that authority as they should. Sometimes, they let the guilty off with minimal or no punishment, and other times they overstep their bounds and punish the innocent. That happens. But navigating those situations falls outside the scope of this sermon. I will say that is an important thing to think through. Just know that the authorities God puts in place are responsible to God for how they use that authority, and God will judge His servants and hold them accountable for any misuse of that authority (Ro. 13:4a; Mt. 24:45-51).
One more brief thing on this before we all get hammered by the Law: Depending on the nature of the sin against you, you can and should take legal action against others. But have your day in court. You can even ask that the court throw the book at them and punish them to the fullest extent of the law. If they do, God is working through them to execute His vengeance. Just remember that it is not for you to execute vengeance. You, Christian, are to forgive in your heart (Mt. 18:32-35). And, yes, you can forgive and ask that the authorities punish the wrong done to you (Ro. 13:3-4).
Christian, you are not to avenge yourself. Avenging ends up being idolatry of yourself. You put yourself in the place of God and try to usurp Christ from His throne. Yes, you have enemies who sin against you, but you are not to repay their evil with your own evil. By returning evil for evil, you become as evil as the person who sinned against you. Repent.
Instead, as far as it depends on you, live peaceably with everyone. If you really want to hurt the person who hurt you, love and care for them. “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink,” doing that will be like heaping burning coals on his head (Ro. 12:20). Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. In other words, Christian, be the non-avengers and leave room for God’s vengeance.
We often think that the reason we should be merciful and forgiving because God is merciful and forgiving. Scripture does teach that (e.g. Mt. 5:43-48), but not here. Here, Scripture gives a different motive for being merciful and kind to our enemies. The motivation is that God Himself will repay, and God’s punishment will far exceed any retribution and vengeance that you could ever dole out. Jesus described that punishment in our Gospel lesson (Mt. 8:1-13). Those who have done evil will be thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Mt. 8:12).
I know this is a difficult passage and teaching. It isn’t comfortable. I know that because it convicts me of my idolatry and desire to execute vengeance, and I hope and pray it convicts you as well. Texts like this make us squirm because of the pain we feel when someone sins against us. We want to hold grudges and be the avengers. And when Scripture forbids that, we recognize that we have sinned against our enemies by not being kind to them and that means we have sinned against God.
Well, take that sin of yours. Take that guilt of carrying out your vengeance and bring it to the cross. Because on the cross, God poured out His justice upon all sin – not upon you, but upon Jesus, your Savior. There on the cross, Christ drank the cup of God’s wrath against you. Every ounce of God’s righteous anger against you was placed upon Jesus so you can receive His mercy. Know that when you confess your sins God mercifully forgives you because of what Christ has done. God’s mercy does not negate or cancel His justice. When you confess your sins, God is faithful, and God is just to forgive your sins and cleanse you from all your unrighteousness (1 Jn. 1:9). For that, God be praised. Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.