12:17-18—Don’t retaliate, and offend only when necessary.
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. Recall that in verse 14 Paul said we must bless those who persecute us. The Greek word bless literally means to speak well of someone. Now Paul moves from what we say to what we do in response to offense. If someone hurts us, we must not strike back at them.
Once again we encounter the verb phroneō (“give thought”), and it occurs so frequently we could call this the “thinking person’s” chapter. Whenever anyone offends us, Paul wants us to think before we act. If we ponder the situation, maybe there is something good we can make of it. Maybe, in fact, we can respond with such forbearance, integrity, and wisdom that even unbelievers will take notice of our behavior and consider it honorable. RC Sproul comments on this verse:
Sproul, R. C. (1994). The Gospel of God: An Exposition of Romans. Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications.
Peter had this same idea: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12). Jesus drew attention to the reason we should behave thoughtfully and honorably among all people: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
And here are a couple other places Paul wrote on the theme of not retaliating against those who harm us: “Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else” (1 Thessalonians 5:15); “When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it” (1 Corinthians 4:12).
If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. We can get along just fine with most people in this life, and that should be our goal. Maybe you have a neighbor, relative, or coworker who seems to thrive on conflict and controversy, or who is downright abrasive. Knowing that many people at times need help to get along with difficult people, I searched Google to see what advice I could find. What I found could well have been written by the Apostle Paul himself. The wide availability of such wisdom proves the point that most unbelievers can readily identify honorable behavior when they see it. Let’s hope they see it in the behavior of those of us who hold up the banner of Christ.
Notice that Paul placed a condition on peace seeking. Paul, who took many blows in his life from people offended by his message, knew that believers should go only so far in the effort to get along with people. We ought not to make peace a higher priority than faithfulness to the gospel.
Each of these verses sets an implicit boundary on our conduct: verse 17 warns against alienating unbelievers from the gospel; verse 18 warns against compromising our faith for the sake of a peaceful life. RC Sproul says this:
If you are offended by this message, please know that I could not avoid offending you, but at least now you know how to deal with it! For example, I would find it honorable if you would make me a lemon meringue pie.