Doing Right When Wronged (Romans 12:17-21)
The world cares very little about our Christian beliefs, but they cannot argue with a life beautifully lived. In Romans 12:17-21, the Apostle Paul shows us what a beautiful life looks like. He does so by giving us three instructions for when we’ve been personally wronged. But first, a caveat because this is one of those texts that gets over-applied by some people, under-applied by other people, and mis-applied by a lot of people.
When we look at the whole sweep of biblical teaching, there were three realms of response when it came to handling various wrongs that could be inflicted on people in a fallen world. The first realm was in times of international aggression (e.g., sieges, invasions, captivities, atrocities, etc.). God’s people were to seek divine guidance through their national security council (prophets, priests, and kings). Hostilities de-escalated when God’s people trusted him to give their national leaders an appropriate response.
The second realm was in times of criminal activity (e.g., thefts, kidnappings, rapes, murders, etc.). God’s people were to seek justice through their established legal system (laws and judges). Hostilities de-escalated when God’s people trusted him to give their judges his wisdom for a just settlement or resolution to a serious issue.
The third realm was in times of personal offense (e.g., slights, insults, disputes, insensitivities, etc.). God’s people were to seek relief through their own reconciliation efforts, beginning with extending personal forgiveness. Hostilities de-escalated when God’s people trusted him to give them the emotional support they needed to move beyond the offense. God wanted his people to handle these kinds of situations themselves and not clutter up the legal system with them. He modeled forgiveness for them, and he wanted his people to follow in his footsteps.
Romans 12:17-21 and other similar passages are meant to address personal offenses, not international aggression, or even criminal activity (cf. Rom 13:4), though reconciliation is always the goal. Paul says more about those kinds of situations in the next chapter—the state bearing the sword to punish wrong-doers, etc. But the passage at hand addresses personal offenses, not international aggression or even criminal activity.
Paul’s instructions in the case of personal offense are as follows. First, we do not try to settle the score ourselves. Second, we find ways to be kind to our offenders. And third, we trust that God will make things right in the end. This is how Jesus responded to the wrongs done to him when he was on the cross. Indeed, believers are never more like Christ than when we respond to personal offenses like Christ. When we live like this, we live beautifully, and we give the gospel credibility in this generation.