Keeping the Peace

Wednesday: God’s Wrath

Romans 12:18-20 In this week’s study, we learn that being a peacemaker also means being willing to trust God to establish justice and mete out punishments and rewards hereafter.
God’s Wrath

“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” (v. 19). We see in this verse that an important point Paul has to make about keeping peace is forbearance. This is categorical teaching. It does not say, “Do not avenge yourselves except under the following three or four conditions” or “except under extreme circumstances.” It says, “Do not avenge yourselves.” That means never. Fighting back is not Christian. 

“But surely I have to stand up for my rights,” says someone. Do you? If you want to stand up for someone’s rights, I’ll tell you what to do: Stand up for someone else’s rights, fight for them. Do not fight for yourself, at least not if you are serious about obeying God and following Jesus Christ. 

This verse tells us something else we should do, however, but it is no more acceptable to our natural way of thinking than what I have just said. It says, “Leave room for God’s wrath.” 

In the Greek text of Romans these words are literally, “Give place to wrath,” which is how the King James translators rendered the verse. In other words, there is no specific reference to God, which means that there is some question as to what the verse actually teaches. It could mean four things: 

1. Give place to your enemy’s wrath. That is, step aside and let it pass by you. If there is to be wrath, let it be his rather than yours. 

2. Give place to your own wrath. That is, give it time to expend itself. Don’t do anything hasty. Let the pressure in you dissipate. 

3. Give place to the wrath of the civil magistrate. That is, let the case come before the courts. That is what they are for. 

4. Give place to God’s wrath. This is the view of the translators of the New International Version, who have added the word “God’s” to clarify what they believe the text is teaching. 

Of these four interpretations, the middle two can probably be eliminated quickly. The second, giving place to your own wrath, is just a modern idea. We speak of “letting it all hang out” or “getting it off your chest,” but that is hardly biblical. In fact, the point of this passage is the precise opposite. We are not to let our wrath out. We are to forego it. The third interpretation, giving place to the proper function of the civil courts, is not in view either. 

That leaves either the first or fourth interpretation: that we are to give place to our enemy’s wrath, allowing it to work; or that we are to leave vengeance to God. 

The choice here is difficult, because both are true and both have something to commend them. Those who argue for the first view note that stepping back to allow something to pass by is the natural meaning of the Greek verb. “Here we are being told simply to endure patiently the wrath of the man who does us wrong. If evil rushes toward us, we are to love the evildoer and stand aside while he strikes out in blind selfishness; for we know that he cannot hurt us in the citadel of the heart where Jesus Christ holds sway.1 Jesus’ command, “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:39), is along this exact line. 

On the other hand, since the verse goes on to speak of God’s wrath, saying, “for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord,” most commentators feel that the idea of giving place to God’s wrath is almost inescapable. John Murray says,

Here we have what belongs to the essence of piety. The essence of ungodliness is that we presume to take the place of God, to take everything into our own hands. It is faith to commit ourselves to God, to cast all our care on him and to vest all our interests in him. In reference to the matter in hand, the wrongdoing of which we are the victims, the way of faith is to recognize that God is judge and to leave the execution of vengeance and retribution to him. Never may we in our private personal relations execute the vengeance which wrongdoing merits.2 

The statement “It is mine to avenge; I will repay” is from Deuteronomy 32:35, but it is also quoted in Hebrews 10:30. It is an essential truth to keep in mind. But, oh, how difficult! Especially when we are under attack! Times of attack are a profound test of faith and of whether or not we really do have an “other-worldly perspective.” 

When we were studying the “pattern of this age” in our exposition of Romans 12:1-2, I contrasted the Christian worldview with that of secularism. Secularism rejects a “beyond” or a “hereafter” and sees life only as the “now.” So, for the secularist, to suggest leaving vengeance to God is utter foolishness. If the secularist is going to get what he wants, it will have to be now. And if justice is going to be done, it will have to be done in this life. Hence, retaliation is the response. It is only a person who sees beyond the now and is willing to trust God to establish justice and mete out punishments and rewards hereafter who can be forbearing and hence be a peacemaker. 

Remember these words: “‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” They are important. 

1Donald Grey Barnhouse, God’s Discipline: Exposition of Bible Doctrines, Taking the Epistle to the Romans as a Point of Departure, vol. 9, Romans 12:1-14:12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), 95. 

2John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968), vol. 2, 141-142. Murray has the best discussion of the four options.

Study Questions
  1. Why shouldn’t we take revenge?
  2. Whose rights should we stand up for? How do we know that Romans 12:19 is talking about God’s wrath?
  3. When we don’t take revenge, how are we exercising faith?
  4. How does the secularist’s response to unjust treatment differ from the believer’s response?

Application: Rather than standing up for your rights, you should leave room for God’s wrath. How can you do this in your day to day life? Our focus must be on eternal things, rather than this world’s troubles. What do you need to do to bring your heart and mind to the place of being ready and willing to leave room for God’s wrath, rather than taking your own revenge?

For Further Study: Download for free and listen to Richard Phillips’ message, “Grace and Peace to You.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)

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