Question: "What does it mean that we are to repay no one evil for evil (Romans 12:17)?"
Answer: Romans 12:17–21 addresses the idea of revenge and begins by commanding, “Repay no one evil for evil” (verse 17, ESV). This instruction goes against all natural tendencies. If others dump unpleasantness into our lives, we instinctively want to shovel it back at them. But the Christian is not to repay evil for evil. See Proverbs 20:22 and 1 Thessalonians 5:15.
Paul the apostle wrote the letter of Romans to the saints in Rome. He states gospel truths regarding the sinfulness of man, justification, sanctification, future glorification, and God’s plans for Israel in chapters 1—11. Throughout these chapters, Paul never gives a command to the church but simply states the realities of the gospel. In chapter 12, Paul begins providing applications of the gospel truths he presented and continues to do so through the end of the letter. One of those applications of the gospel is to let vengeance be the Lord’s. We are not to repay evil for evil.
Paul wants the Roman believers to repay evil with good, instead of evil for evil. In fact, in the following verse (Romans 12:18), Paul implores the Romans to be at peace with all people, as far as it is up to them. If at all possible, be at peace. To retaliate in kind as an act of revenge won’t bring peace. To steal from someone who stole from you is not an effective strategy for producing peace with that person. Paul lays out a different plan, quoting Proverbs 25:21, “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head” (Romans 12:20, NASB).
Meting out retribution for an evil act is simply not our responsibility. It is the wrath of God that will enact judgment on evil. God will give vengeance and ultimately judge the works of mankind (Romans 12:19; Revelation 20:11–15; Hebrews 10:30). It is our role is to “do what is right” (Romans 12:17) and “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
The overcoming of evil with good can be seen in the gospel. We are by nature children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3), hostile to God (Romans 8:7; Colossians 1:21). God will certainly judge those who remain in this state (Revelation 20:11–15). However, God is merciful, kind, and gracious in that He provided a way for us to become children of God (Ephesians 2:4–7; Colossians 1:21–22). The evil we had committed (Romans 5:12) is worthy of God’s wrath, but God has responded with a gracious avenue to reconciliation and adoption (Romans 5:9). Jesus is the way.
The Lord Jesus is the perfect example of how we are not to repay evil for evil. “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). All through His trials, scourging, and crucifixion, Jesus never lashed out against His tormentors. No retaliation, no threats, no getting back at anyone. He simply left the matter of justice to His Father in heaven. And on the cross He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). The One who taught us to love our enemies practiced what He preached (see Luke 6:35).
There is certainly a place for God’s wrath, and it will come to those who don’t obey the gospel of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1–7). But vengeance belongs to the Lord, not to us (Hebrews 10:30). We are to be characterized by grace, kindness, mercy, love, and peace, not revenge.
“Repay no one evil for evil” (Romans 12:17a, ESV) is the command, but no one says obeying that command will be easy. In fact, human nature desperately wants to repay evil for evil. We use proverbs like “revenge is sweet” and “revenge is a dish best served cold.” However, in the power of the Holy Spirit, we can set those worldly proverbs aside and “give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all” (Romans 12:17b, ESV).
The author of Hebrews provides a way to overcome the desire to repay evil for evil: “Consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:3, NASB). We must keep our focus on Christ, following His example of mercy and forgiveness.