Various admonitions, applicable to all; headed by inculcation of the all-pervading principle of love.
If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men. Avenge not yourselves, beloved, but give place unto wrath . The thought in Romans 12:19 seems to follow from what precedes. It may sometimes be impossible to he at peace with all; but at any rate, do not increase bitterness by avenging yourselves. Give place unto wrath ( τῇ ὀργῇ ) , has been taken by some to mean that we are to give scope to the wrath of our enemy, instead of being exasperated to resist it (cf. Matthew 5:39 , etc.). But there has been no particular reference to a wrathful adversary. Another view is that our own wrath is intended, to which we are to allow time to expend itself before following its impulse; δότε τόπον being taken as equivalent to data spatium in Latin; and this interpretation suits the usual sense of δότε τόπον . It is not thus implied that the falling of Divine vengeance on our enemy should be our desire and purpose, but only this—that, if punishment is due, we must leave it to the righteous God to inflict it; it is not for us to do so. And this interpretation suits what immediately follows. For it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord ( Deuteronomy 32:35 , quoted freely from the Hebrew, but with the words ἐκδίκησις and ἀνταποδώσω as found in the LXX . The fact that the same form of quotation occurs also in Hebrews 10:30 seems to show that it was one in current use). But (so rather than wherefore, as in the Authorized Version) if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink; for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head . This whole verse is from Proverbs 25:21 , Proverbs 25:22 , where is added, "and the Lord shall reward thee." What is meant by the "coals of fire," both in the original and in St. Paul's citation, has been much discussed. Undoubtedly, the expression in itself, in view of its usual significance in the Old Testament, suggests only the idea of Divine vengeance (see Psalms 18:12 ; Psalms 120:4 ; Psalms 140:10 ; and especially 2 Esdras 16:53. Cf. also Psalms 11:6 ; Habakkuk 3:5 ); and this especially as it occurs here almost immediately after "Vengeance is mine." Hence Chrysostom and other Fathers, as well as some moderns, have taken it to mean that by heaping benefits on our enemy we shall aggravate his guilt, and expose him to severer punishment from God. But it is surely incredible that the apostle should have meant to suggest such a motive for beneficence; and the whole tone of the context is against it, including that of Proverbs 25:21 , which follows. Jerome saw this, writing," Carbones igitur congregabis super caput ejus, non in maledictum et condemnationem, ut plerique existimant, sed in correctionem et poenitudinem." But if the "coals of fire" mean the Divine judgment on our enemy, there is nothing to suggest a corrective purpose. The view, held by some, that the softening effect of fire on metals is intended, is hardly tenable. Heaping coals of fire on a person's head would be an unnatural way of denoting the softening of his heart. More likely is the view which retains the idea of coals of fire carrying with it, as elsewhere, that of punishment and the infliction of pain, but regards the pain as that of shame and compunction, which may induce penitence. This appears to be the most generally received view. It is, however, a question whether any such effect is definitely in the writer's view. He may mean simply this: Men in general desire vengeance on their enemies, expressed proverbially by heaping coals of fire on the head. Hast thou an enemy? Do him good. This is the only vengeance, the only coals of fire, allowed to a Christian. Then follows naturally, Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good .
Now we come to the great central principle of the Christian life in its social relations among men—true love. And, as the apostle addresses Church-members, he paints this love, by a few vivid strokes, as they owe it to their fellow-members, and also to those that are without.
I. First, as members of Christ, they are to love one another.
1. The ethical character of this love. It is holy. Not a mere sentimental tenderness, but a love that abhors the evil, in whomsoever found, and cleaves only to the good (comp. James 3:17 , "first pure," etc.).
2. The manifestations of the love. Tender affection, as of the members of one loving family; self-sacrificing respect, so contrary to the spirit which asks, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"—zealous to practise this regard for others with a diligent industry; animated to this diligence by the fervour of the spiritual life; sanctifying the love and service by loving and serving them in Christ.
3. The supports of such love. The exultant joy of Christian hope, in view of that appearing of our Lord; the patient endurance of trial and pain, by the power of that hope; the abiding fellowship with God, which ever rekindles the hope and makes it holy.
4. The practical working of this love in the matters of the life that now is. Relief of needy ones, as being the needy ones of God's household; hospitality to all who for the Lord's sake have left their home and rest.
5. The forbearance of this love. When, unhappily, even Christian brethren misunderstand and strive and persecute, they are still to be loved and blessed; not for any provocation is cursing to be rendered back.
6. The sympathies of the love. A real and manifested joy, in sympathy with rejoicing ones; a real and manifested sorrow, in sympathy with sorrowing ones.
7. The unity of love. Of the same mind.
8. The humility of love. Not high, ambitious aspirations, but willingness for lowly work; and to this end, not serf-conceited wisdom, but the heart of a little child.
II. Secondly, as showing forth Christ to men, they are to love even those that are without.
1. No revenge to be allowed. Think of their temptations to old habits and practices.
2. Honourable conduct to be strictly maintained. Yes, even with the emphatically " heathen " man.
3. Peace to be sought with all. On our side at least it is possible, and so the sanctities of the Christian's own heart shall not be violated.
4. Again, no vengeance towards those whose crimes may seem to cry for vengeance upon them. No, not even in the way of justice, for a higher One is Judge, and all wrath must be left to him, whose very wrath is love; and, in truth, our rising wrath itself must be transformed to love, a love which shall even feed and give drink to the enemy in his distress. And shall not this shame his heart? and his shame may be to him for salvation. So shall the evil not conquer us, but be itself conquered by the good.
"Who is sufficient for these things?" The high perfection of this Christian love seems far beyond our reach. But it has been shown forth once, in him who said, "I have overcome the world." Yes, its evil was vanquished by his sacrifice of love. And, through him, we may conquer too. May the living Christ be ours, and his grace shall be sufficient!—T.F.L.
From Churchmanship, which was discussed by the apostle in the preceding verses, we now pass to the Christian in society; and our endeavour will be to appreciate the Christian socialism which Paul here inculcates. The great error of the Christless socialism which prevails, alas! in many lands, is that it tries to do from without and by mere material manipulation what can only come from within through the Christian spirit. Into the various forms which socialism has assumed it would be improper here to enter; but any who wish to get some idea of the subject will do well to get the late Dr. Roswell D. Hitchcock's powerful and compendious treatise on 'Socialism,' where, after treating of "Socialism in General," "Communistic Socialism," and "Anti-Communistic Socialism," he reaches his climax in expounding the meaning of "Christian Socialism." £ Our duty just now is to appreciate the spirit of love which Christianity infuses into society, thereby securing all that socialism could possibly reach by its coarse materialistic methods, and infinitely more.
I. CONSIDER THE CHARACTER OF LOVE . ( Romans 12:9 , Romans 12:10 .) For this is the one thing needful ( 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 .). Well, the apostle tells us it is not to be hypocritical ( ἀνυπόκριτος ); not to be a profession, but the reality of love. It is from this loving spirit that Christianity proceeds to the regeneration of society. If, then, we start with a genuine spirit of love, we shall not be found rejoicing at evil, but always abhorring it; while to good at all costs we shall ever cleave. Thus "pure Christian love manifests itself in two phases—the ethical recoil from moral evil, and the cleaving to moral good. The former, full as much as the latter, evinces the sincerity of the affection. Indifference towards sin, and especially an indulgent temper towards it, proves that there is no real love of holiness. The true measurement of a man's love of God is the intensity with which he hates evil (cf. Psalms 97:10 ). The ethics produced by the sentimental idea of God and of moral evil, is 'easy virtue'" (so Shedd, in loc. ) . Such love, then, will bloom into the intense "brotherly love" ( φιλαδελφίᾳ ), which is the great evidence of the Christian spirit ( John 13:35 ). And when brotherly love is entertained, instead of a selfish race for honours, there will be a pushing of worthy brethren forwards—a contest not for the first rank, but for worthier men than we are to put therein. How striking a Christian spirit becomes in presence of the severe competition going on around it, when it is seen exerting itself to honour others rather than to honour itself! It is this self-effacement which the world cannot understand.
II. LIFE IN EARNEST . ( Romans 12:11-13 .) Now, when a Christian declines honour, and seeks to put the better man thereinto, it is not that he may shirk work. For, as a matter of fact, hard work and honour are not inseparably associated in this world. Hence the Christian can show his "zeal for the Lord" while setting no store by honour for it. The next element, therefore, in the Christian life and spirit is earnestness. As Luther puts it, "In regard to zeal, be not lazy." The Christian will show a zealous spirit in all legitimate lines of effort. £ His life will be intense. And to maintain it in intensity, it will require to be "fervent in spirit," and in all "serving the Lord." The serving of the opportunity, as in some ancient manuscripts, is not so likely, nor so emphatic, as "serving the Lord;" for the Christian is one who has learned to serve God in everything—to "do everything as unto the Lord, and not unto men, knowing that of the Lord he shall receive the reward of the inheritance as he serves the Lord Christ" ( Colossians 3:23 , Colossians 3:24 ). Moreover, with this fervent, faithful spirit there will come a buoyancy and hopefulness which is most important in all Christian work; a patience too in tribulation; a prayerfulness at all times; a liberality towards the saints; a hospitality towards all men. The Christian keeps "open house" because he is open-hearted. Now, if such an earnestness were infused into all Christian living, society would soon be regenerated.
III. LIFE MAGNANIMOUS AND SYMPATHETIC . ( Romans 12:14-16 .) Jesus set the great example of magnanimity. He blessed his persecutors; he prayed for his murderers; he converted some of them at Pentecost. Hence, if we would carry out his spirit, we must bless them that persecute us; we must meet the weak spirit which descends to intolerance and persecution with the one weapon of blessing. The Christian martyrs have crushed the opposition to the gospel by blessing their persecutors. But we must show sympathy as well as magnanimity, prepared to congratulate those in joy, to weep along with those in tears. Sympathy adds largely to the experience and benefit of life. £ And this sympathy is to be genuine all round; we are to be "of the same mind one towards another." We are not to be selecting for our sympathy those in good positions, but we are to "condescend to men of low estate." This is, indeed, the luxury of the Christian spirit to be able to take men up in a low condition, and treat them as God has treated us. We are also to avoid being "wise in our own conceits." In this way the Christian will exhibit large-heartedness; there will be nothing small or petty about his movements; he will be the noble brother-man in his little sphere that Christ has been and is in the wide sphere of the Church.
IV. LIFE LOVINGLY AGGRESSIVE . ( Romans 12:17-21 .) We pass, lastly, to love encountering opposition, yet triumphing over it. And first we are not to take the law into our own hand and recompense evil for evil Now, the world cannot well understand this Christian spirit. It can appreciate better "the blow for blow" which characterized the early ages. "Thomas Paine, in reference to our Lord's injunction to turn the other cheek to the smiter, charges Christianity with the 'spirit of a spaniel,' asserting that it destroys proper self-respect, and renders man indifferent to insult and affront" (see Shedd, in loc .). But when the Christian is charged to "provide things honest in the sight of all men," the meaning being "things honourable" (Revised Version), then it couples with forbearance true Christian dignity. £ In strict accordance with this Christian dignity is to be our living peaceably with all men, if possible. It may be necessary by Christian testimony sometimes to provoke and exasperate worldling; but, at the same time, pugnacity will be seen not to belong to the Christian spirit. And as for vengeance, let us leave all that with God. He will do justly at last. Meanwhile it is our prerogative to feed and give drink to an enemy; and by every means in our power to heap coals of fire on his head. The only vengeance allowed in the code of love is to kill our enemy with kindness. As the king was directed by Elisha to feed the Syrian soldiers and send them home in peace, and as they came not in that generation into Palestine again, so we are to avenge ourselves by kindness. £ The apostle leaves us here in the last verse with the great principle in the aggressive Christian life. Evil can only be overcome by good. We are not to be exasperated by the enemy; we are to turn the tables on him by love. And has not this been God s own plan? Is not his government and administration to overcome evil by good? Even "everlasting punishment will be covered by the principle of good. May we entertain and practise the Christian spirit in all our intercourse with men!—R.M.E.