3. God’s Wrath Guarantees that All Wrongs Will be Righted
19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.
– Romans 12:19-20 (ESV, cf. Psalm 109)
All injustice will one day be addressed, yet what do we do when injustice gets personal? Some of the most troubling passages in Scripture for us in the West are the “imprecatory” passages, those where God’s people pray for judgment to fall upon their enemies (e.g., Ps. 109) or are instructed to act in such a way that makes judgment worse (Rom. 12:19-20). Part of our discomfort surely results from a genuine desire to see the repentance of our enemies, something that reflects God’s heart.
Such a heart is commanded by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:38-48). Yet this leaves us in an uncomfortable place. How can we love someone and not seek justice from them when the God we worship cares passionately about justice (e.g., Ex. 34:7)? To love our enemies and seek their welfare is not to surrender justice and to stop caring about the wrongs they have committed, but to entrust judgment to the only one worthy to judge.
To say “I forgive you,” to relinquish the chance of retribution, is—in part—to trust that God will make right the wrongs committed against us. If the wrongdoer repents of their sins and turns to Christ, we have assurance that all their wrongs were thoroughly paid for on the Cross. If they do not repent, we have assurance that all their wrongs will be truly paid for before the throne of God in final judgment. God’s wrath is our assurance that justice will be served. Forgiveness is, in part, entrusting justice to God.
Is Psalm 109, when David cries for God to afflict his oppressors, he was doing exactly what he was supposed to do. Instead of taking personal vengeance, David surrenders justice to God and asks that the sins of His oppressors receive their due reward. As we pray to God his promises for our salvation, asking for Him to finish His work in us as He has promised (e.g., Phil. 1:6, 1 Pet. 1:5), David is praying to God his promises of justice, that He will by no means clear the guilty (Ex. 34:7).
This perspective is evident in Romans 12:19-20. Here Paul draws on a side of the Christian proclamation not commonly taught. In Jesus ministry, the preaching of the good news was a two-edged sword. For those who responded—who were called—it was the means of God’s salvation. Yet, for those hard of heart, the very message that was to be their salvation was a means of further condemnation (Matt. 13:10-17).
This pattern is exhibited throughout the Old Testament as well (cf. Isa. 6:8-13). For example, in Habakkuk’s ministry the Chaldean invasion was a means of both salvation and judgment (Hab. 1:1-4, 5-11, 12; 2:3-4; 3:12-13, 18). That the Gospel is both a means of salvation and judgment explains why the Apostles’ Gospel messages could quickly transition from salvation to proclamations of judgment (e.g., Acts 13:16-43, cf. Matt. 11:1-30). In Romans 12:19-20, Paul considers this judgment side of Christian proclamation.
We usually consider the purpose of good works and the Gospel proclamation the means of leading people to salvation: this is true! (E.g., 2 Tim. 5:24-26.) But Paul doesn’t want us to forget the other side. If the good works we perform and the message we preach only hardens the hearts of those to whom we minister—as it did in Isaiah and Jesus ministry—we are partaking in God’s judgment.
We “heap burning coals on his head” (Rom. 12:20), leaving those rebelling against God to the vengeance He will one day give (Rom. 12:19). The ministry of the Church is preparation for the ultimate righting of all wrongs: for those who repent, justice has been served on the Cross and will be demonstrated on the day of Judgment (Rev. 20:11-15, cf. 13:8). For those who continue in rebellion against God, the message of the Gospel and the good works of God’s people prepare the way for the day when all the sins of man not dealt with on the cross will be dealt with in Hell (Rev. 20:11-15).
God’s wrath culminating in Hell is, therefore, the guarantee that all wrongs will ultimately be righted. We can praise God for His wrath because it gives us hope that the wrongs committed against us will not be left unaddressed.
Andrew Walton @w_andrew_j (instagram) on Unsplash