Sep 27, 2023
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21)
For the past number of years preceding Tim Keller’s death this past May (and even since), there was much controversy over his approach to being a Christian in a secular culture. Keller’s detractors all seemed to agree that he was a good and kind man who, “as far as it depended on him, lived at peace with everyone.” In fact, that was part of the problem that both the conservative and liberal ends of the spectrum had with him. His kindness covered up the injustice of his conservative positions according to liberals, and it was just plainly too weak and accommodating for conservatives.
The reaction of both ends against him suggests that Keller walked in the middle—an increasingly lonely place to be in a polarized world. But there’s more to this middle than staking out a position. Whatever ones’ agreement or disagreement with Keller on various matters, what I’m getting at here is something different. Jesus is not only the fulness of life, and not only the embodiment of truth—Jesus is also the way. It is this way of Jesus that Paul speaks to here across these verses of Romans 12 and it is this way of Jesus that Keller so beautifully attempted to imitate himself.
In a world that continues to deepen and harden in its polarization, such a Christian witness to the way of the Prince of Peace is hard to come by. In order to live in this counter-cultural way of the Kingdom, a few things are required of us that this Romans 12 passage speaks to.
The first is a submission to God. Paul tells us not to take revenge, but to leave that to God. There is a strong undercurrent in current evangelical conversation that suggests that we can no longer be nice—we need to take the gloves off and fight, using whatever means necessary to achieve the ends we seek for the sake of Christ and the church. Paul speaks against such notions by reminding us that God, as God, can take care of himself just fine without us. Not only that, but he can take care of us too. We are to wait in submission on God to do the judging and avenging. Our work is to submit and so live in a posture of peace.
The second thing we are called to do is perhaps less obvious in this text: we are called on to suffer. If we are not permitted to fight back by “repaying evil for evil,” then what we are invited to do instead is to bear that evil as we wait for God to do the repaying. This is the way of Jesus on the cross. He does not fight back, nor he does not call forth a legion of angels. Instead, he submits himself to God the Father and bears the suffering of the world in the form of all its sin and evil as it’s pounded into his hands and feet. “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also,” Jesus said. Why should we get up in arms as if this is a strange thing? We are called to bear the sin, evil, and suffering of the world as we take up our cross and follow Jesus.
Thirdly, however, a strange thing happens as we submit ourselves to God and bear the suffering of this world by taking up our cross. In the cross of Jesus—the suffering, sin, and evil we bear begins to die and a strange new life begins to appear. A new, Spirit-fired life arises that enables us to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, even to feed, refresh, and forgive them as we serve them with kindness. And in this way—the way of Jesus—the world is slowly transformed from death to life, from evil to good, from sin to forgiveness.
It is through the cross of Christ—through this way of Jesus—that we are able to overcome evil with good rather than being overcome by it. This is what we see in the lives of those Christian saints, like Keller and so many others, who have imitated the way of Jesus well.