Paul's Epistle to the Romans

 (45) Relationship to Unbelievers
Romans 12:17-21


17 Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.
18 If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.
19 Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.
20 Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.
21 Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good


When we are moved by the mercies of God, and when our minds have been improved so that we can understand His will and His word, all of our relationships become transformed through a process we call sanctification. This chapter of Romans deals with how we should handle those relationships (with believers and nonbelievers).
The most striking feature of this final section of Chapter 12, if we add verse 14 which can be tied to it, is that it contains four resounding imperatives:
1) ‘Do not curse’ (14).
2) ‘Do not repay anyone evil for evil’ (17).
3) ‘Do not take revenge’ (19).
4)  ‘Do not be overcome by evil’ (21).


17 Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.

Paul, in the preceding verses, charged believers with the duties of love, condescension, and kindness towards all men, but here in this passage and those that follow, he gives instructions on the matter of indulging a contrary disposition, especially if the spirits of retaliation and revenge are present.

The general idea found in the first clause is, not to retaliate; which is reminiscent of another command to “overcome evil with good.” Not only is the life that is transformed by the righteousness of Christ to be lived in love toward the brethren, but the second clause emphasizes that it is to be lived in honor toward those who are outside the church as well.

Recompense to no man evil for evil. 
Repaying evil for evil is not an exhortation simply concerning one’s enemies. It has to do with anyone who may act with animosity upon any occasion, and I am sorry to say that it is a common practice in the world. Men speak of giving tit for tat, of repaying in kind, or of giving someone what he deserves. But this delight in vengeance should have no place in the lives of those who have been redeemed. Instead, they should act honorably in the face of abuse and injury, as well as in all the other circumstances of life.

When we are wronged our natural instinct is to fight physically or verbally to right the wrong. But in the believer’s life there is no place for retaliation. This teaching is identical with that of [1]Matthew 5:43–48. There is stress on the words “no man."

Do not take notice of every little injury you may sustain; do not be touchy. Beware of too good a sense of your own honor; intolerable pride is at the bottom of this. The motto of the royal arms of Scotland is in direct opposition to this Divine command —Nemo me impune lacesset, of which "I render evil for evil to every man," is a pretty literal translation. This is both antichristian and offensive, whether in a nation or in an individual. We read, “Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not” (Romans 12:14) in the preceding lesson (44).
Provide things honest in the sight of all men.
The last words “all men” bear stress. This injunction is closely connected with the preceding one, though it is of general application. It is not always possible to control what “pops” into our mind, but we determine what our mind does with them, and the Holy Spirit helps us with that. He helps us to think about honorable things, and not only that, but to abstain from retaliation against evil, because that can mean a complete loss of our Christian testimony—we are thus advised to let our intentions be what men consider honorable. This dictate may be based on a quotation from Proverbs 3:4; “So shalt thou find favour and good understanding in the sight of God and man.” We have to live honorably and righteously before the world just as we must live godly before the Lord.

He, who secretly takes, food or clothing, when he has no probable means of paying for it, is a dishonest man. It is no sin to die through a lack of the necessaries of life when the providence of God has denied you the means to support yourself; but it is a sin to receive goods without the likelihood of being able to pay for them. Poor man! Suffer poverty a little; perhaps God is only trying you for a time. Work hard to live honestly; but, if God still appears to withhold his providential blessing, do not despair; leave it all to him; do not make a sinful choice; he cannot err. He will bless you even in your poverty, while he curses the ungodly man's blessings.

Provide things honest in the sight of all men. Our translation of this clause is not a very happy one. Paul does not mean to order us to provide for ourselves or our families in an honest manner, which is probably the sense commonly attached to the passage by the English reader, but to conduct ourselves in a way that would gain us the confidence and good opinion of men. In this view, the connection of this with the preceding member of the verse is  obvious. "We must not repay evil for evil, but act in such a way as to commend ourselves to the consciences of all men." i.e. let a regard for the honor of religion and your own character prevent the returning of evil for evil. Thus Paul [2](2 Corinthians 8:20, 21) says of himself that he wished others to be associated with him in the distribution of the alms of the church, “having regard to what was right, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men.”

___________verse 17 notes_______________
[1](Matthew 5:43-48) Jesus said, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
[2](2 Corinthians 8:20-21)Avoiding this, that no man should blame us in this abundance which is administered by us: Providing for honest things, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men.” Such men were selected so that no one would question how the funds were acquired or what was done with them subsequently. Providing for honest things, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men. Especially in financial matters, the apostle is scrupulously aware of his vulnerability to criticism.

18 If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.

Christians should not be needlessly confrontational or argumentative. The righteousness of God is not something that can be obtained by hostility and anger. We should love peace, make peace, and be at peace. When we have offended others, or when someone has offended us, we should work tirelessly for a peaceful resolution of the matter.

The exhortation to live peaceably with all men is unavoidably conditional. The word “you” gets the emphasis, and this indicates that the believer is to see that he himself is not responsible for breaking the peace. Peace is a mutual relationship that can be breached by either party. The preservation of it does not always lie within the believer’s control. Faithfulness to God must never be sacrificed for the sake of peace. On the other hand, we are to see to it that we do not cherish feelings of bitterness and retaliation. The responsibility for discord must never lie at our door.

If it be possible,
To live in a state of peace with one's neighbors, friends, and even family, is often very difficult. But the man who loves God must work hard to keep the peace, for it is indispensably necessary even for his own sake. A man cannot have fights and misunderstandings with others, without having his own peace significantly disturbed: he must, in order to be happy, be at peace with all men, whether they will be at peace with him or not. The apostle knew that it would be difficult to get into and maintain such a state of peace, and his own words make that point: “And if it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably.” Even if it is only barely possible, work had for it.

as much as lieth in you,
As much as lieth in you implies two things:
1) We are to do our utmost to preserve peace, and to appease the anger and spite of others.
2) We are not to begin or to originate a quarrel. So far as we are concerned, we are to seek peace. But then it does not always depend on us. Others may oppose and persecute us; they will hate religion, and may slander, insult, and offended us; or they may attack our persons or property. We are not answerable for their assaults; but we are answerable for our conduct towards them; and we cannot use them for an excuse to retaliate. It may not be possible to prevent them from going up against us and injuring us; but it is possible not to begin an argument with them; and when they have instigated strife with us, to seek peace, and to show a Christian spirit. This command, no doubt, extends to everything connected with strife; and means, that we are not to provoke them to anger, or to prolong it once it starts. (See [3]Psalms 34:14, [4]Matthew 5:9, [5]Matthew 5.39-41, [6]Hebrews 12:14 ). If all Christians would follow this command, if they would never provoke anyone to controversy, if they would injure no man by slander or by unfair dealing, if they would compel none to prosecute them in court for late payment of debts or for dishonesty in business, if they would do nothing to irritate, or to prolong a controversy when it is commenced, it would put an end to most of the strife that exists in the world.

Insofar as it is consistent with our obedience to God, the Christian is to labor in the utmost harmony with men of the world. We must live in good will toward men and attempt not to be offensive or obnoxious toward them, unless our offense comes through loyalty to God and our refusal to participate in those activities which are prohibited by God.
live peaceably with all men.
In some cases this is impossible, and sometimes those who have done their best to live in peace are unsuccessful; therefore, they might be tempted to think they caused the failure. But we are given the injunction to let nothing on our part prevent it! I wish that Christians, me included, were guiltless in this respect!

Since the preservation of peace is not always within our control, Paul limits his command by saying, if it be possible, so far as lieth in you. The cause of conflict must not arise from you. Your duty is to preserve peace. Due to the wickedness of others, this is often impossible; and Paul’s own example shows that he was far from thinking that either truth or principle was to be sacrificed for the preservation of peace. His whole life was an active and passionate battle against misunderstanding and sin. The principle, however, is clear, and the duty important. As far as it can be done consistently and does not violate the Lord’s will as revealed in His word, we must endeavor to promote peace, and to this end avoid offending others and avenging personal injuries. The retaliation for injuries necessarily leads to contention and strife, while peace is the natural result of a forgiving disposition. The command in this verse, therefore, is naturally connected with that contained in verse 17—we should do all we can to live at peace with all men.

_______________verse 18 notes___________________
[3](Psalms 34:14) “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.” Depart from evil means to go away from evil, to avoid it as one would avoid a plague. Positively, once one has departed from evil, he may do good. It is not simply enough to lack evil; one must possess good. In addition, seek peace, and pursue it. Peace is not a magnet that seeks out the hunter; it is a commodity woven in the fabric of distress which must be tirelessly extricated by its seeker.
[4](Matthew 5:9) “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.” Peacemakers are the ones who are themselves at peace with God and live in peace with all men (cf. Rom 5:1). They are called “the” peacemakers for these are not social reformers, but rather the ones reformed by the regenerating power of the gospel. They are peacemakers because they themselves are at peace with God. They have entered into the peace of Christ and thus are able ambassadors of God’s message of peace to a troubled world. Hence, they shall be called the children of God. These only shall be called the sons of God! Throughout the Beatitudes Jesus clearly underscores that only those who have the life-changing qualities herein described are citizens of His kingdom.
[5](Matthew 5:39-41) But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.
[6](Hebrews 12:14) “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” To follow more precisely means to pursue. This is not a passive role that one just lets happen; it is an active concept that one must strive for. They must pray for a life of peace with both other believers and the world (I Tim 2:1–2); they must labor for it, too. Yet this must not be peace at any cost. We are to strive for peace and holiness, for without holiness no man can see the Lord. This holiness has been imputed through Christ to those who have made Him their Saviour and Lord (10:10–14; II Cor 5:21; I Pet 2:24). Man’s righteous acts can never attain to this holiness (Isa 64:6; Mt 5:20).

19 Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.

Dearly beloved,
This expression of tenderness was peculiarly appropriate in an exhortation for peace. It reminded them of the affection and friendship which ought to exist among them as brethren. But even greater than that is the awareness that you are the children of God, and he loves you; and because he loves you he will permit nothing to be done to you that he will not turn to your advantage.

What follows is a repetition and amplification of the previous injunction, not to recompense evil for evil.

avenge not yourselves,
This exhortation is an extension of the previous one which indicates one way of living, as much as in us lieth, at peace with all men. The command is plain, and forbids any mode of retaliation. Self-vengeance has no place in the Christian life; never take the law into your own hands; but rather suffer injuries. The Son of man is come, not to destroy men's lives, but to save: Christian, be of the same spirit. When he was reviled, he reviled not again. It is the role of a righteous mind to bear up under unwarranted disgrace; little minds are touchy and cantankerous.

To avenge means to find satisfaction for an injury received by inflicting punishment on the offender. To take such satisfaction for injuries done to society is lawful and proper for a magistrate—“ For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (Romans 13:4). The officer of the state is ordained of God to minister that which is good. Therefore the town mayor is as much a minister of God as the local pastor, but in a very different way. We ought to have as much respect for a good mayor as we do for a good minister. For he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God. God has granted human government the power of enforcing itself and therefore this verse unquestionably provides New Testament justification for capital punishment. The divine directive was established in Genesis 9:6, “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” The hands of good government should never be so tied that they cannot execute good judgment and the wrath of God upon those who do evil.

And likewise, to take action against the offender for injuries done by sin to the universe is the jurisdiction of God. But here the apostle is addressing private individual Christians. And the command is, to avoid a spirit and purpose of revenge. But this command is not to be understood to mean that we may not seek for justice, in a regular and proper way, before civil courts. If our character is attacked, if we are robbed, if we are oppressed contrary to the law of the land, religion does not require us to submit to such oppression and injury without seeking our rights in an orderly and regular manner. If it did, then the effect would be to reward iniquity, to tolerate wickedness, and to require a man who becomes a Christian, to abandon his rights. Besides, the magistrate is appointed for the praise of those who do well, and to punish evil-doers, (See[7]1 Peter 2:14).

Furthermore, our Lord Jesus did not surrender his rights, (See [8]John 18:23); and Paul demanded that he himself should be treated according to the rights and privileges of a Roman citizen, (See [9]Acts 16:37). The command here not to avenge ourselves means, that we are not to take it out of the hands of God, or the hands of the law, and to inflict it ourselves. This is well expressed by the author of the book of Ecclesiastics, 19:17: Admonish thy neighbor before thou threaten him, and, not being, angry, GIVE PLACE TO THE LAW OF THE MOST HIGH (Ecclesiastics, 19:17)

It is well known that where there are no laws, the business of vengeance is pursued by individuals in a barbarous and unrelenting manner. In a state of savage society, vengeance is immediately taken, if possible, or it is pursued for years, and the offended man is never satisfied until he has imbrued his hands in the blood of the offender. Such was eminently the case among the Indians of this country. But Christianity seeks the ascendency of the laws; and in cases which do not admit or require the interference of the laws, in private assaults and quarrels, it demands that we bear injury with patience, and commit our cause unto God. “Therefore every one that eateth it shall bear his iniquity, because he hath profaned the hallowed thing of the LORD: and that soul shall be cut off from among his people. (Leviticus 19:18).

but rather give place unto wrath:
We must resist the tendency to avenge wrongs that are done to us. The expression give place to wrath has been understood in various ways. We may notice three:
• The first of these would mean that the injured person, instead of indulging his wrath, is to abstain from exercising it and so to let it pass. But the original will hardly bear out that meaning.
• The second would mean that the injured person is to allow the wrath of his enemy to be expended upon him. This is a possible meaning of the original. But this explanation does not fit with the context, because the evil inflicted is not necessarily a matter of wrath. Nor does this interpretation find support from the succeeding context.
 The third explanation seems to be the right one. It suggests that the apostle assigns as a reason why the believer is to give place unto wrath instead of avenging himself is that “It is written, Vengeance belongeth unto Me; I will recompense, saith the Lord.” Moreover, the apostle has constantly spoken of the wrath of God in the preceding part of the Epistle (see 1:18; 2:5, 8; 3:5; 4:15; 5:9; 9:22), and so far he has been consistent regarding wrath and vengeance; he has not mentioned any other way, but His way. Both retrospectively and prospectively, therefore, the word points to that which it is God’s prerogative to exercise. The believer is not to usurp God’s authority. Nor does the injunction suggest that he is to desire that the wrath of God would be inflicted upon his injurer. In giving place to God’s wrath he simply leaves the matter to Him who will deal with it according to His perfect wisdom. Compare with the following proverbs:
a. “Say not thou, I will recompense evil; but wait on the LORD, and he shall save thee” (Prov. 20:22). Never seek to repay evil done to you (Deut 32:35). God’s man can make no greater mistake than to vigorously pursue vengeance. Such a pursuit violates the orders of our divine Commander who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” Yahweh will save all who practice trust. We are to be in submission to His workings in our lives, trusting the power of His hand to deliver us.
b.  “Say not, I will do so to him as he hath done to me: I will render to the man according to his work. (Prov. 24:29).

for it is written,
The reference is to those things written in the sacred books of the Old Testament.

Vengeance is mine;
The apostle introduces the quotation from Deuteronomy 32:35 that Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Vengeance is God’s prerogative. We should not interfere with what is His right. In light of this, and quoting from Proverbs 25:21, we are to treat our enemy kindly and not vengefully. If he is hungry, we are to give him food; if he is thirsty, we are to give him drink. For in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. There are two main lines of interpretation to this phrase. One is that this quotation from Proverbs 25:22 reflects an Egyptian ritual in which a man showed his repentance by carrying a pan of burning charcoal on his head. This was a dynamic symbol of the change of mind which had taken place in his life. The meaning would then be that our act of love in giving him food or drink would bring about a change of attitude toward us. The prevailing view, however, is that heaping coals of fire on the head refers to the sense of shame, punishment, or remorse which is produced in the mind of our enemy when we show kindness to him. Whichever meaning is to be held, it is obvious that verse 21 is closely linked with it. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good. As believers we must resist the impulse to retaliate, but rather, we promote our sanctification by doing good to those who do evil to us. Therefore, we exhibit our life of transformation before a watching world.

I will repay,
He will repay at the proper time and in the proper manner. It may appear to us that the offender has gotten away with his offence or sin, since we may never know how or when he was punished. Our Lord gives the sinner space to repent, and this longsuffering leads to salvation. Lenski writes: God has long ago settled the whole matter about exacting justice from wrongdoers. Not one of them will escape, since there is a final judgment that awaits all men. Perfect justice will be done in every case and will be done perfectly. If any of us interfered, it would be the height of presumption.

This is said in a similar way in Deuteronomy 32:35, 36. “To me belongeth vengeance, and recompence; their foot shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste. For the LORD shall judge his people, and repent himself for his servants, when he seeth that their power is gone, and there is none shut up, or left.”

THE Lord’s words, “I will replay,” are designed to assure us, that those who deserve to be punished will be; and that; therefore, the business of revenge may be safely left in the hands of God. This assurance will sustain us, not in the desire that our enemy will be punished, but in the belief that God will take the matter in his own hands; that he can administer it better than we can; and that if our enemy ought to be punished, he will be. We, therefore, should leave it all with God. That God will vindicate his people is clearly and abundantly stated:
1) in 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10. Seeing it is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you; And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power; When he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired in all them that believe (because our testimony among you was believed) in that day.
2) in Revelation 6:9-11.
And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held: And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellowservants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled.
3) in Deuteronomy 32:40-43.
For I lift up my hand to heaven, and say, I live for ever. If I whet my glittering sword, and mine hand take hold on judgment; I will render vengeance to mine enemies, and will reward them that hate me. I will make mine arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour flesh; and that with the blood of the slain and of the captives, from the beginning of revenges upon the enemy. Rejoice, O ye nations, with his people: for he will avenge the blood of his servants, and will render vengeance to his adversaries, and will be merciful unto his land, and to his people.

saith the Lord.
Paul may have written the Epistle to the Romans or he may have dictated it, but the author was none other than “Thus saith the Lord.” When we read our Bibles, we seat ourselves at the feet of Jesus, as Martha did on the occasion of Him coming for dinner. Let’s listen to every word, and do what He says.

___________________verse 19 notes______________________
[7](1 Peter 2:14) Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.
[8](John 18:23) Jesus answered him, If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil: but if well, why smitest thou me? 
[9](Acts 16:37) But Paul said unto them, They have beaten us openly uncondemned, being Romans, and have cast us into prison; and now do they thrust us out privily? nay verily; but let them come themselves and fetch us out.

20 Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.

Christianity goes beyond non-resistance to active benevolence. It does not destroy its enemies by violence, but instead it converts them by love. It feeds the enemy when he is hungry and satisfies his thirst, thus heaping live coals of fire on his head. If the live coal treatment seems cruel, it is because this figure of speech is not properly understood. To heap live coals on a person’s head means to make him ashamed of his hostility by surprising him with unconventional kindness.

Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him;
Do not withhold mercy and kindness from any man; you have been God's enemy, and yet God fed, clothed, and kept you alive: do to your enemy as God has done to you. If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink: for God has dealt with you in the same generous way. That is, instead of avenging ourselves by returning evil for evil, we must return good for evil. The expressions, feed him and give him drink, are obviously not to be confined to their literal meaning; they are figurative expressions representing all the duties of benevolence. It is not enough, therefore, that we prevent an enemy from perishing; we must treat him with affection and kindness.

This verse is taken from Proverbs 25:21, 22, which without a doubt supplied the basis of many of those lofty precepts contained in the Sermon on the Mount: “If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink: For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the LORD shall reward thee.” A high ethical standard is set here for dealing with one’s enemies. The emphasis here is more concerned with practical results than with theories and principles. Historical evidence, as well as personal experience shows that if you return evil for evil, the battle will escalate and harm will come to all parties. Kindness to an enemy will bring a fire to his soul that may soften angry feelings and melt a destructive resolve : “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). How does one love an enemy? Notice that the passage makes it clear that he does not have to attempt to work up an artificial feeling of love. The quality of love commanded here is expressed by giving. Bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that persecute you. Loving an enemy involves doing good toward that enemy in order to win him over to the cause that you represent. The message of the kingdom, therefore, is that we will win over those who oppose us more readily with love than with hatred. It is not in the divisiveness of contention that we win our greatest converts, but in the application of the heart of the gospel and the love of Christ. Regardless of its effect, the Lord will reward this discipline.

if he thirst, give him drink:
This verse is taken almost literally from Proverbs 25:21,22. Hunger and thirst here are representing want in general. If your enemy is in need in any way, do him good, and supply his need. This command is given in the same spirit as the Matthew 5:44, command of the Lord Jesus, “Do good to them that hate you," etc. These words are easy to read, but difficult to practice. Surely, we must pray and ask God to give us love that would allow us to do it. Will they take advantage of us? Will they hate us more? Only our Lord knows. Our task is not to protect ourselves but to obey the Lord and leave the results to Him.

for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.
Coals of fire are no doubt symbolic of pain. But the idea here is not that by helping the man we may call down Divine vengeance on him; but the apostle is speaking of the natural effect or result of showing him kindness. Burning coals heaped on a man's head would be expressive of intense agony. So the apostle says that the effect of doing good to an enemy would be to produce pain. But the pain will result from shame, remorse of conscience, a conviction of the evil of his conduct, and an apprehension of Divine displeasure that may lead to repentance. To do this, is not only perfectly right, but it is desirable. If a man can be brought to reflection and true repentance, it should be done. In regard to this passage we may remark,
1) That the way to promote peace is to do good even to enemies.
The way to bring a man to repentance is to do him good. God is continually acting on this principal. He does good to all, even to the rebellious; and he intends for his goodness to lead men to repentance; “Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?” (Romans 2:4).
2) Men will resist wrath, anger, and power; but they cannot resist goodness; it finds its way to the heart; and the conscience does its work, and the sinner is overwhelmed at the remembrance of his crimes.
3) If men would act on the principles of the gospel, the world would soon be at peace. No man would allow himself to be overwhelmed many times in this way, with coals of fire. It is not human nature, bad as it is; and if Christians would meet all unkindness with kindness, all malice with benevolence, and all wrong with right, peace would soon pervade the community, and even opposition to the gospel might soon die away.

If you will allow me, I would now like to say a few things to you, my readers. Hasn’t a sense of his goodness and long-suffering towards you been a means of melting down your heart until you repent, and show gratitude, and love towards him? How do you know that similar conduct towards your enemy may not have the same gracious influence on him that it did on you? Your kindness may be the means of creating in him a sense of his guilt; and, from being your committed enemy; he may become your real friend!

It is very likely that this particular clause, “thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head” is a metaphor taken from smelting metals. The ore is put into the furnace, and fire put both under it and over it, so that the metal may be liquefied, and, leaving the slag and dross, may fall down pure to the bottom of the furnace. This is beautifully expressed by one of our own poets, in reference to this explanation of the present clause and verse:—

"So artists melt the sullen ore of lead,
By heaping coals of fire upon its head.
In the kind warmth the metal learns to glow,
And pure from dross the silver runs below."

The common and natural meaning of the expression, to heap coals of fire upon any one, is to inflict the greatest pain upon him, to punish him most severely:
• Psalm 140:10, “Let burning coals fall upon them: let them be cast into the fire; into deep pits, that they rise not up again.”
• Psalm 11:6, “Upon the wicked he shall rain coals, fire and brimstone, and an horrible tempest;”
• Ezekiel 10:2, “And he spake unto the man clothed with linen, and said, Go in between the wheels, even under the cherub, and fill thine hand with coals of fire from between the cherubim, and scatter them over the city. And he went in in my sight.”
• 2 Esdras 16:53, “Sinners must not say that they have not sinned; for God will burn coals of fire on the head of everyone who says, “I have not sinned before God and his glory.”

There are three leading interpretations of this interesting clause (for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head:)
1) The first, which is perhaps the oldest, and the most popular, is that Paul means to say that our enemies will be much more severely punished if we leave them in the hands of God, than if we undertake to avenge ourselves. ‘Treat your enemy kindly, for in so doing you secure his being punished by God in the severest manner.’ The revolting character of this interpretation, which every one must feel, is alleviated by the remark, that the enemy is not to be treated in this way from any wish or intention of drawing down the divine wrath upon him; it is only meant that such will be the consequence. But I do not believe this interpretation fits the context.
2) The second interpretation is, that by heaping coals of fire on his head, is meant, you will cause him pain, i.e. the pain of remorse and shame.
3) The third, which seems to be the most simple and natural, is, ‘for in so doing, you will take the most effectual method of subduing him.’ To heap coals of fire on any one, is a punishment which no one can bear; he must yield to it. Kindness is no less effectual; the most malignant enemy cannot always withstand it. The true and Christian method, therefore, to subdue an enemy is, to “overcome evil with good.” This interpretation, which suits so well the whole context, seems to be rendered necessary by the following verse, which is a repetition of the previous injunctions in plainer and more general terms. The sentiment which the verse just explained expresses, is also more in harmony with the spirit of the gospel.

21 Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.

The evil refers to what the evildoer does. The good is that which the one who suffers from it is to show.

If we act in a spirit of vengeance, the grace which should work in our hearts is suppressed. That gives a twofold victory to the one who has done us wrong. If we return good for evil we subdue the antagonism of our foe, and then his attitude in general and his opinion of us specifically will improve. There are, of course, cases where kindness only hardens, but these are exceptions, and are not in view here.

Be not overcome of evil,
The apostle has given us another exhortation—be not defeated or subdued by an injury done by the hand of others. Do not allow your temper to get the best of you (i.e., to be provoked to indulge a spirit of retaliation,); your Christian principles to be abandoned; your mild, good-natured, kind, and benevolent temper to be ruffled by any opposition or injury which you may experience. Maintain your Christian principles in the midst of opposition, and in this way you will show the power of the gospel.

Darby explains this part of the verse as follows: “If my bad temper puts you in a bad temper, you have been overcome of evil.”  The great black scientist, George Washington Carver, once said, “I will never let another man ruin my life by making me hate him.” As a believer he would not allow evil to conquer him. I would add my thoughts to what these men have said—do not allow yourself to be overcome by evil, for then you are the conquered party and have precisely the same character which you condemn in another.

but overcome evil with good.
Subdue or vanquish evil by doing good to others. Show them the loveliness of a better spirit; the power of kindness and benevolence; the value of a friendly, Christian demeanor. By doing that, you may disarm them of their rage, and be the means of improving their disposition.

It is characteristic of Christian teaching that it does not stop with the negative prohibition but goes on to the positive exhortation. Evil can be overpowered with good. This is a weapon we should use more frequently.

Stanton treated Lincoln with venomous hatred. He said that it was foolish to go to Africa in search of a gorilla when the original gorilla could be found in Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln took it all in stride. Later Lincoln appointed Stanton as war minister, feeling that he was the most qualified for the office. After Lincoln was shot, Stanton called him the greatest leader of men. Love had conquered!

“He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city” (Proverbs 16:32). A man who can control his temper is a greater hero than a military conqueror. Victory in this area is more difficult than capturing a city. If you don’t believe it, try it! Peter the Great, although one of the mightiest of the Czars of Russia, failed here. In a fit of temper he struck his gardener, and a few days afterwards the gardener died. “Alas,” said Peter, sadly, “I have conquered other nations, but I have not been able to conquer myself!”

This is a magnificent sentiment and it can only be found in the Christian religion. Nothing like it is around today; and nothing like it ever existed among pagan nations. Christianity alone has brought forth this lovely and mighty principle; and one of its aims is to advance the welfare of man by promoting peace, harmony, and love. The idea of overcoming evil with good never occurred to men until the gospel was preached. It never has been acted on except under the influences of the gospel. On this principle God shows kindness; on this principle the Savior came, and bled, and died; and this principle should be the basis for how all Christians treat their enemies, and in bringing the world to the knowledge of the Lord Jesus. If Christians will show kindness, if they will send forth proofs of love to the ends of the earth, the evils of the world will be overcome. Finally, the nations will not be converted until Christians act on this great and most important principle of their religion, on the largest scale possible, to "OVERCOME EVIL WITH GOOD."


As children of God, we must live on the highest level—returning good for evil. Anyone can return good for good, and evil for evil. The only way to overcome evil is with good. If we return evil for evil, we only add fuel to the fire. And even if our enemy is not converted, we have still experienced the love of God in our own hearts and have grown in grace.

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