Rules of Engagement | Romans 12:17-21
Brian Hedges | May 16, 2021
Let me invite you to turn in your Bibles to Romans 12:14, 17-21, as we continue in our series “Christianity Applied.” Today we come to the last paragraph of chapter 12.
I recently read a fascinating book by Jim Mattis. The book is called Call Sign Chaos. Jim Mattis was a lifetime Marine, a four-star general, and of course the Secretary of Defense from January 2017 to January 2019. This was a fascinating look at leadership from a military perspective, with lots of things I found transferable and helpful for me as a leader.
One of the things that Mattis references many times in the book are the rules of engagement. The rules of engagement, of course, is a military term that defines the circumstances, the situations, the protocols, and guidelines by which it’s determined whether armed soldiers will use force. Mattis says that rules of engagement are what separate principled militaries from barbarians and terrorists. It’s very important that these rules of engagement are clear in the minds of soldiers.
This morning, I’d like to suggest to you that the last paragraph of Romans 12 provides us with rules of engagement for Christian interaction with the world, with outsiders, and especially when we are persecuted for our faith. These are the rules of engagement. We’re going to see it in Romans 12. Paul raises the issue in verse 14, and then expands on the principle given in verse 14 in verses 17-21. So let me read those verses.
Romans 12:14, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” Then verse 17, “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 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.’ To the contrary, if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him something to drink, for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
This is God’s word.
I think this passage gives us five rules of engagement to guide our interaction with outsiders. For Christians, it’s very clear that the use of force in personal or ecclesial context is never appropriate.
However, I do want to give two caveats. This passage is not meant to form policy for governments, and in fact, in Romans 13, as we’ll see in a couple of weeks, God has instituted government, and one of the purposes in doing that is to protect the innocent and to punish evil. Therefore there is a place for that; God has instituted that.
The second caveat is this: I don’t think this passage is meant to apply in situations where the defense of innocent people against criminal activity is involved. What it is, rather, is a set of guidelines for us when dealing with personal offense, with persecution for our faith, when we are reviled, mistreated, slandered, any way in which we are persecuted as Christians. This passage is to govern how we respond to those kinds of threats, and there are five rules of engagement.
1. Bless Those Who Persecute You
Again, verse 14, “Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them.” The first thing to notice about this is that Paul here is simply stating the teaching of Jesus. This is just exactly what Jesus taught in both the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain.
The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:43-45: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father, who is in heaven.’”
Then in Luke 6, the Sermon on the Plain, you have this teaching in a more expansive way in verses 27-29. “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies and do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either.” Verse 35, “But love your enemies and do good and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.” This is simply the teaching of Jesus, how we are to respond when we are mistreated.
Now, there are examples of how to do this in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. In the Old Testament, perhaps the greatest example is David and his response to King Saul. You remember that David was Saul’s son-in-law; he had played music for the king, he was in the king’s army, he had been loyal to Saul. But David had been anointed the future king of Israel, and Saul becomes very jealous when the people are singing that “Saul has slain his thousands, but David his ten thousands.” So Saul starts hunting David down.
David goes on the run, running for his life, and there comes a point in 1 Samuel 24 when David and his men are hiding in a cave, Saul comes into the cave to do personal business, we’ll say, and David then has the opportunity to take Saul’s life. His men are encouraging him, “Kill him right now!” And David will not do it. Instead, he trims the hem off of his robe, and only when Saul is a safe distance away does David reveal himself. Rather than cursing the king, David affirms that he has goodwill towards the king.
David is a wonderful example of someone who blesses those who curse him, blesses those who persecute him.
In the New Testament, think of the very first martyr of the Christian church, Stephen, in Acts 7. He is stoned to death, and while he is being stoned to death—you have to imagine this—the rocks are flying at him, hitting him in the face, bruising his body, crushing him, taking the life out of him. While he is being stoned to death, he says, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
We don’t have to wonder too much what the impact of that was, at least on one young man who was guarding the cloaks of those stoning Stephen, consenting to his death. This young man eventually converted and becomes the apostle Paul.
This is to be our response; when we are persecuted, we are to bless. To bless is to call down the blessing of God upon others. It is to bless with our words, in contrast to cursing with our words, which doesn’t just mean using cuss words, it also means reviling or slandering or in any way using our words to do evil instead of to do good.
1 Peter 3:9 states the same principle in slightly different words. “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.” It means that our response with our words when we are mistreated is always to be one of blessing, not one of cursing.
However, I do think a caution needs to be stated here. We do need to beware of developing a persecution complex and acting as if we are being persecuted when we are not.
Anybody remember the 2015 Starbucks cup controversy? Do you remember this? Ed Stetzer tells this in a wonderful book called Christians in the Age of Outrage. Here’s what happened: Joshua Feurstein posted a Facebook message saying, “STARBUCKS REMOVED CHRISTMAS FROM THEIR CUPS BECAUSE THEY HATE JESUS,” and he tagged media to attract attention. The outrage began.
In reality, Feurstein was simply trying to boost his platform by tapping into Christian outrage, and as the story really came out, this is what had really happened. He had twisted the truth. One report quoted by Stetzer says, “Feurstein’s most blatant untruth is the implication that Starbucks at one time had printed the word ‘Christmas’ on its holiday cups and is now stifling itself from doing so. In the past six years, Starbucks has never put the words ‘Merry Christmas’ on its holiday cups. They weren’t boycotting Christmas, they were not telling their employees that they couldn’t say Merry Christmas. There was nothing anti-Christian about their response at all, and yet [at least some] Christians seemed to respond with outrage to this perceived persecution.”
Brothers and sisters, let us not do that. That tarnishes our witness. It is not helpful in the least for us to claim persecution when no persecution is intended.
For example, we should not think that government-required masks are persecution of the church. You may not like to wear masks; I don’t particularly like them either. You might feel like it’s government overreach, and we could have a debate about that. But whatever it is, it’s not persecution directed towards Christians, so let’s not claim that it is.
Here’s the principle: If we are called to bless and not revile when we are actually being persecuted, how much more must we use our words to bless in ordinary circumstances where there is perhaps disagreement or misunderstanding, but something far short of persecution. Whatever is coming at us, the response is to bless, not to curse. That’s the rule of engagement number one.
2. Refuse to Retaliate
Here’s number two: Refuse to retaliate. Look at the first half of verse 17. “Repay no one evil for evil,” and then verse 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,” quoting Deuteronomy 32:35.
See the connection there. We are not to repay evil for evil because God is the one who repays. We are not to take vengeance because God is the one to whom vengeance belongs. In other words, Paul here is grounding the call to non-retaliation in our trust in the justice of God. God is a just God; vengeance is in his hands. He will always do what is right, therefore we do not take justice into our own hands. We can trust that God is just, and God does execute his justice.
There is such a thing as the wrath of God against injustice, and that wrath can be seen in temporal terms. In fact, I think one of the implications of the first seven verses of Romans 13 is that God does punish wickedness through the divinely instituted authority of the state. And then there is, of course, God’s final justice, which will come on the day of judgment, the day of wrath, as Romans 2 talks about. We can have the confidence that every act of sin and evil, injustice and oppression, will be fully and finally punished, either in hell or it’s already been punished on the cross. Therefore, it is not for us to take justice into our own hands; instead, we trust God.
Once again, we find wonderful examples of this in Scripture, and the supreme example is, of course, the Lord Jesus himself. Do you remember this, that in Luke 23, when Jesus is being crucified, dying on the cross—the nails through his hands, the thorns in his brow, breathing out his final breaths—what does he say? He says, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
A wonderful contemporary example of this is John Perkins. Perhaps some of you know the story of John Perkins. He dropped out of school in the third grade, but he became a pastor and the founder of Voice of Calvary Ministries in Mendenhall, Mississippi. He’s received national recognition for his leadership in race relations, honorary doctorates from Wheaton College and many other schools. He served on a presidential commission for inner city problems under President Reagan, and was awarded the Daniel of the Year Award by World magazine last year, in 2020.
Here’s his story. This is recounted by James Montgomery Boise in one of his sermons on Romans 12. On February 7, 1970, a Saturday night, a van of black college students who had been taking part in a civil rights march was pulled over by highway patrolmen from Brandon, Mississippi, and the students were arrested. Perkins and two of his associates went to the jail to post bail, but when they arrived, they were surrounded by five deputy sheriffs and several highway patrolmen, who arrested them and began to beat them.
Perkins had not been speeding, he wasn’t taking drugs, and he did not resist arrest. He didn’t even have a police record. All he had done was go to jail as a pastor to post bail for the students, but he was a black leader and he was hated. He was beaten most of the night, along with some of the others. They stomped on him, kicked him in the head, the ribs, and the groin. One officer brought a fork over to him and said, “Do you see this?” Then he jammed it up his nose. After that he shoved it down his throat. For part of that terrible evening, Perkins was unconscious, and so mutilated that the students who were watching over him in his cell thought he was either dead or dying.
What’s beautiful about this story is Perkins’ response and how this whole experience changed his life. He describes it.
“I remember their faces, so twisted with hate. It was like looking at white-faced demons. For the first time, I saw what hate had done to those people. These policemen were poor, they saw themselves as failures. They only way they knew how to find a sense of worth was by beating us. Their racism made them feel like somebody. When I saw that, I just couldn’t hate back; I could only pity them. I said to God that night, “God, if you will get me out of this jail alive,” and I really didn’t think I would; maybe I was trying to bargain with him, “I really want to preach a gospel that will heal those people, too.”
Perkins, of course, did recover, and now for 50 years has been a strong evangelical Christian voice, a voice for the gospel and the power of the gospel to heal racial division. Perkins said, “Now that God had enabled me to forgive the many whites who had wronged me, I found myself able to truly love them. I wanted to return good for evil.”
It’s a remarkable story of someone who has applied the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of Paul in the face of unjust persecution and oppression, and we are called to do the same: refuse to retaliate.
3. Be Intentional in Doing Good to All
Instead (here’s principle number three), be intentional in doing good to all. Look at the second half of verse 17. “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.” The word “honorable” is the word kalos; it means that which is good, as the New English translation has it; or that which is right, in the NIV; or that which is noble, New Revised Standard Version. It’s a word that carries the idea of that which is good and beautiful and helpful and useful.
What Paul is saying here is that we should give deliberate and intentional thought to doing good to all people, not just to fellow Christians. We are to do good to all, including outsiders, including even those who persecute.
Listen, there are some things that Christians and non-Christians can agree on. I think everybody pretty much agrees on things that are good. This is where there’s common ground. We agree that things such as feeding the hungry, giving to the poor, educating children, caring for the elderly, helping our neighbors, showing dignity to the handicapped—these are good things, and Christians should be known for doing these kinds of things. This is the way we are to live.
In fact, the early church did live this way, and as the sociologist Rodney Stark has shown, this is one of the factors that contributed to the growth and the flourishing of the early church. Rodney Stark, in his book The Rise of Christianity, says, “To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished Christianity offered charity as well as real hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachment. To cities filled with widows and orphans Christianity offered a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by ethnic strife Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. I am not saying the misery of the ancient world caused the advent of Christianity. People had been enduring for centuries without the aid of Christian theology or social structures. I am arguing that once Christianity did appear, its superior capacity for meeting human problems soon became evident and played a major role in its ultimate triumph, for what Christianity brought was not simply an urban movement, but a new culture.”
Brothers and sisters, we are called to embody this new culture, a culture that is so rooted in the love and the teachings of Jesus Christ that we are constantly and creatively thinking about how to do good in our communities; how to bless our neighbors, serve our schools, care for the vulnerable, meet the needs of the poor. This is a rule of engagement: be intentional in doing good to all.
4. Be a Peacemaker
Right along with that, number four is, be a peacemaker. Look at verse 18. “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
There are two qualifications to this command. First of all, Paul says, “If possible . . . live peaceably with all,” because sometimes it’s not possible. There are some people with whom no peace can be found. There are some people you just can’t live peacefully with, no matter how hard you try. Paul recognizes that, but he says, “If possible . . .”
The second qualification, “. . . so far as it depends on you.” In other words, do everything within your power, use all the influence you have, to be a peacemaker. That’s our job. Our job is to pursue peace.
Once again, this is the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. This is the invariable teaching of the New Testament. Let me give you three examples.
James 3:17-18: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, and sincere; and a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
Or 1 Peter 3:9-11. Nobody really expands on this principle more than Peter, because he’s writing especially to Christians who are facing persecution. Peter says, “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary bless. For to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. For whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit. Let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it.” He’s quoting from Psalm 34.
Or just remember the words of Jesus in the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:9. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” Are you a peacemaker?
Ed Stetzer in this new book, Christians in the Age of Outrage, which I highly recommend (it’s on our book table), says that over one third of evangelicals (that’s 35 per cent) say they disagree with their friends and family up to half the time.
Pause for a minute. They disagree with their friends and family up to half the time! Thirty-five per cent.
So Stetzer says, “We have to learn how to disagree winsomely, or our witness and relationships will suffer.”
Let me ask you, what if you entered every conversation in peron or online with this mentality: “How can I be a peacemaker in this relationship or on this platform or in this conversation?” When you do find yourself at odds with someone and you are disagreeing with them about politics or current events or race or theology or an interpretation or application of Scripture or how to handle any kind of decision in family, friendship, or church, ask yourself the question, “Am I being a peacemaker or a peace breaker?” How do we become peacemakers? What are the attitudes, the practices, and the skills that we need?
I think Scripture is very clear, and in fact, the passage I just read, James 3:17-18, is one of the most under-obeyed passages in all of Scripture. Listen to it again, as James gives us seven attitudes or skills that are necessary for peacemaking. “But the wisdom from above is first pure.” Number two: peaceable. Number three: gentle. Number four: open to reason. Number five: full of mercy and good fruits. Number six: impartial. Number seven: sincere. “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace?”
How do you make peace? You have those attitudes; you apply those principles in every relationship, in every discussion, in every social media post, in every response to whatever’s going on. That’s a rule of engagement. We are called to be peacemakers.
5. Serve Your Enemies
Here’s number five: Serve your enemies. Look at verses 20-21. In verse 19, Paul has already said, “Don’t avenge yourselves; leave it to the wrath of God. For it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” Then he gives the contrast. “To the contrary [rather than retaliation], 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. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
What Paul is doing now is he’s taking this general principle of blessing your persecutors, of doing good, of being a peacemaker, and he is making it intensely practical and concrete. He’s saying, “This is just how far you take it. If your enemy is hungry, it’s your responsibility to be sure he’s fed. If your enemy is thirsty, you give him a drink.” That’s the principle—you serve your enemy.
It’s a quotation from Proverbs 25:21. This last part of the verse is the most controversial, hard to understand part of the whole passage. What does he mean that “you will heap burning coals on his head”?
Very briefly, there are three options here. It could mean either this will intensify the judgment of God, because often burning coals in the Old Testament are a metaphor for the judgment of God. If that’s the case, this is simply parallel with, don’t take vengeance yourself, but leave it to the wrath of God, because vengeance belongs to him.
But many commentators think this is not in line with the overall spirit of the text and suggest another meaning. Some say that the coals here suggest the burning coals reflect a symbol of shame and remorse that’s experienced by the enemy who’s rebuked by kindness. That’s essentially John Stott. The idea here is that when you do good to those who do evil to you, the effect is likely to be that they will feel ashamed, and the burning coals are kind of a metaphor for that. As with Saul, who no doubt felt some shame in the way that David responded to him.
Then the third option is that the coals here are a symbol for repentance. Some commentators have pointed out that in the ancient world there was a ritual in ancient Egypt in which penitants would carry—they had a clay or earthen pot or something—they would carry over their head burning coals as a symbol of their repentance. The idea then would be that if you respond in this way, God might perhaps lead a person to repentance, so that they are actually converted.
Whatever the actual meaning is, the principle is clear, that we are to serve our enemies, we are to do good in practical, concrete ways to those who have done evil to us. As verse 21 summarizes the whole passage, we are to not be overcome by evil, but we are to overcome evil with good.
We are not to be overcome by evil. That is, when evil is done to you, you do not respond in evil—that is to be overcome by evil—instead, you respond by doing good.
I remember the story of a soldier years ago who was a Christian man living in the barracks with the other soldiers, read his Bible, prayed every night; and there was one unbelieving soldier in particular who antagonized him, persecuted him, would laugh at him, insult him, mock him. One night this antagonistic soldier threw his muddy boots across the room at this Christian man.
The next morning, the hostile soldier was surprised to see that his muddy boots had been cleaned and shined and were sitting at the foot of his bed, because this Christian had cleaned the boots of his enemy. That’s the idea here. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
These are the rules of engagement. Let’s look at them one more time in summary. Bless those who persecute you, refuse to retaliate, be intentional in doing good, become a peacemaker, serve your enemies.
The question is, where do we get the power to live like this? Because this is impossible. This is a high, high standard. How in the world do you become a person who responds like that to mistreatment and to persecution? Of course, the answer is the gospel, because as Paul writes this, he writes this to believers who have experienced the gospel, he writes this to believers for whom he has now spent 11 chapters expounding the glories of the gospel, and begins in chapter 12 with this resounding call to surrender themselves to God because of the mercies of God revealed in Jesus Christ in the gospel; and then to not be conformed to this age. The spirit of this age is to retaliate, the spirit of this age is to repay in kind; when evil is done to you, repay in kind. That’s the spirit of this world. Paul says, “Don’t be conformed to this age, but instead, be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” It’s through the gospel that we get the power to live this way.
Once again, the apostle Peter I thik gives us the most explicit connection between the gospel and the way Jesus lived and what he did for us and then how we are to live in response. Listen to this, 1 Peter 2:21-24.
“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return. When he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. For by his wounds you have been healed.”
The gospel is exactly what gave John Perkins the power to forgive his assailants, and I want you to listen to his words. “The Spirit of God worked on me as I lay in that bed.” He’s talking now about when he was in the hospital recovering, and it took him some time to recover. “The Spirit of God worked on me as I lay in that bed. An image formed in my mind, the image of a cross, of Christ on the cross. This Jesus knew what I had suffered. He understood, he cared, because he had gone through it all himself. He, too, was arrested and falsely accused. He, too, had an unjust trial. He, too, was beaten, then he was nailed to a cross and killed like a common criminal. But when he looked at the mob who had crucified him, he didn’t hate them; he loved them, and he prayed, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ His enemies hated, but he forgave. God wouldn’t let me escape that. He showed that however unjustly I’d been treated, in my bitterness and hatred I was just as sinful as those who had beaten me, and I needed forgiveness for my bitterness. I read Matthew 6:14-15 again and again in that bed: ‘For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your heavenly Father will not forgive your transgressions.’ To receive God’s forgiveness, I was going to have to forgive those who had hurt me.” Now listen to this. “As I prayed, the faces of those policemen passed before me one by one, and I forgave each one. Faces of other white people from the past came before me, and I forgave them. I could sense that God was working a deep, inner healing in me that went far beyond February 7, 1970; it went clear back to my earliest memories of childhood. God was healing those wounds that had kept me from loving whites. How sweet God’s forgiveness and healing was!”
How do you need to apply the rules of engagement in your own heart and life and relationships this morning? Have you been cursing those who oppose you, or maybe just people you disagree with? By cursing, I don’t just mean swear words, but do you slander or revile? Are you derogatory, sarcastic, mean, or insensitive? Or do you bless?
Are you actively seeking the good of others, not just in the church but in the community? Are you a peacemaker? What do you leave in your wake online, in relationships, in family gatherings, in church? Is it peace or conflict?
Have you been persecuted, mistreated, or oppressed? Are you tempted to retaliate? Instead, heed the teaching of Jesus Christ. Follow the example of Christ himself, the example of John Perkins and Stephen the martyr and many others who’ve gone before, and bless those who persecute you. Let’s pray.
Our heavenly Father, this passage gives us a high calling, and there’s no way in which we can receive it rightly, much less apply it to our hearts and lives, apart from the power of your Holy Spirit. So I pray right now that your Spirit would come and convict us where we need to be convicted. I pray, Lord, that we would see in these words a reflection of the beauty, the glory of Jesus Christ, the man who died for his enemies, and in fact died for us when we were his enemies. As we are transformed by the love of Christ for us, may it then lead us to live lives of love and blessing and peacemaking in the world around us.
Lord, work what is pleasing in your sight into our hearts this morning. If I’ve said anything amiss, Lord, I just pray that would drop from everybody’s minds; but whatever is true, whatever is your word, may it pierce us, convict us, and may we receive it not as the word of men, but as is the truth, the word of the living God.
As we come to the Lord’s table this morning, I pray that we would come with faith and with our hearts stirred by remembering the suffering of Christ on our behalf. This is how much he loved us, that he went all the way to the cross, poured out his blood, his body crushed and beaten and broken for us. May we see Jesus as we come to the table. I pray in Jesus’ name, amen.