This famous chapter from Paul’s letter to the Roman church reminds us we ought not to take from God what belongs to God. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.
And so the Christian is not to seek revenge against against people who have committed wrongdoings against him or her. The anger is not supposed to seethe and boil over for the child of God. In place of that, God’s people are to sit with the hurt with patience and to leave the settling of things to the wrath of the Almighty.
But not only that, the Christian is to take pity on his or her enemies. The Christian is not supposed to turn a cold shoulder against them. Rather, if one’s enemy is hungry, the Christian is to feed him. If one’s enemy is thirsty, the Christian is to give her something to drink. In other words, when bad things come to Christians, those Christians are to try to return those bad things with good things.
At that point, it is up to one’s enemies to decide how to respond – when kindness is shown in the face of evil. Surely, if the enemy of the love-filled Christian were to continue doing evil in such circumstances, he or she would indeed be compounding the sin – and the judgment. Burning coals are no fun.
But all of this, mind you, is a matter of leaving the business of God in God’s hands. And vengeance is God’s business. God is the judge.
Perhaps this is what it means to live by the mercies of God that Paul mentions at the beginning of this chapter.
The mercies of God became for Paul the incentive to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God. We don’t throw ourselves, body and soul, onto the altar as a sacrifice – giving up our own lives and desires and wills – without good reason.
No, we throw ourselves down on the altar because we are moved to do so by the mercies of God. Christians are saved by grace and the will of God – not by works.
Gentile Christians really ought not to be saved because they existed outside God’s chosen people. But they were saved anyway – grafted into the nation of Israel. God’s chosen people, meanwhile, ought not to be saved because they had the promises and commands of God and yet they were stiff-necked and disobedient. But Paul showed the open the door to salvation for them as well. “All Israel will be saved,” he said.
These are the mercies of God – at least some of them. And in response to these mercies of God, we offer up our bodies as living sacrifices to God – holy and acceptable sacrifices. And by the mercies of God, we don’t allow our minds to be conformed to the ways of this world. Rather, we allow our minds to be renewed day by day. And we come to learn the will of God.
And in this, we learn our place.
We sit under the mercies of God, not over them. We are humble partakers in grace, not deserving guests at the table. If we are in the kingdom at all, it is because we’ve been granted pardon, amnesty, or clemency. We don’t belong here, and yet because of the mercies of God, this is our home now. And so we live with thanksgiving and the utmost humility.
And as we learn our place, and as our minds are renewed, we learn not to take away from God the things that belong to him. Things like vengeance. Or credit.
Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, Paul wrote. Again, we may be taking something away from God by stealing from him the credit. The spiritual gifts he entrusts to us are not of our own making. To say my gift is better or more important than yours is to take something away from the gift you were given from God. It is to take something away from God.
And so we humbly receive what God gives, and we serve as he’s trusted us to serve – or we prophesy or teach or exhort or give or lead or show mercy. These things aren’t ours. They belong to God and are to be given away.
We do not take as our own something that belongs to God. Not vengeance. Not credit. And not ourselves.
This may seem a stretch, but I don’t think it is. To love one another with brotherly (or sisterly) affection, to outdo one another in showing honor, to contribute to the needs of the saints – this is about how we live within the church, about how we live in the kingdom of God. As it turns out, as our minds are renewed, we come to see that we are not our own. We have an obligation – to God and, yes, to his church.
If we don’t love sincerely, if we don’t show honor to one another, if we don’t contribute to the needs of the saints, we are denying the fundamental fact of our Christian existence, which is that we are living under the mercies of God and have been swept into his New Covenant people. And with that comes new gifts to use and new obligations to use them.
We don’t belong to ourselves any more. This body of ours belongs to God, and he has placed us into this new body, the church – to love, to share, and to serve our brothers and sisters in Christ.
And so, yes, this famous chapter in Paul’s letter to the Romans reminds us we ought not to take away from God the things that belong to him – vengeance, credit, and our very lives. We have a wider calling right here.