12:19—Vengeance belongs to the Lord.
The remaining three verses of this chapter continue Paul’s instruction about the proper response to an antagonistic world. This verse gives us a godly view of vengeance. What precisely does this word mean?
RC Sproul differentiates the meaning of three related words (I added the highlighting):
“Revenge is when the person who has injured me, is himself injured.” Revenge, the desire to “get even,” is absolutely forbidden for a Christian.
“I am vindicated when I am declared to be innocent.” If we are attacked, falsely accused, or even wrongly prosecuted by the state, God promises that we will be vindicated. Vindication might not come about in this lifetime, but it will come.
“I am avenged when the person who hurt me is punished.” Vengeance is not wrong or evil. It is a form of justice, Sproul points out.
The evil Paul warns against is to execute justice ourselves, because it is the prerogative of God. Says Sproul, “The comfort here is that God’s promise to avenge his people should be enough for us to know that we will be avenged perfectly.”
Charles Swindoll states, “Unlike our Creator, our desire for justice is fueled by pride, fear, hatred, and selfishness. Therefore, we are unqualified. Paul calls us to surrender our desire for justice and to seek blessing for the offender instead.”
Support for pacifism?
We also need to understand what Paul is not saying, because some people may see this verse as supporting passivity and nonresistance in the face of violent attack. The state has the right to defend its territory and protect its citizens. As Swindoll says, “This is not a proof text for pacifism. Paul wasn’t writing about the foreign policy of a nation. These are instructions for individuals who find themselves the target of another’s evil deeds.”
God is still the avenger
Paul’s phrase “leave it to the wrath of God” means “give room for it to work. Do not get in its way, as you will do by taking vengeance into your own hands” (Marvin Vincent). Paul derived his quotation from Deuteronomy 32:35, where God promises vengeance to vindicate his people from their enemies’ cruelty and derision.
This promise carries over to the New Testament. The timing of God’s wrath will coincide with the return of the Lord Jesus when he “is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thessalonians 1:7-8). The martyrs who have been slain for their faithful witness will then have the answer to their question: “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10).
We are undeservedly loved
Finally, ponder the verse’s opening word, Beloved. How did we, who were once his enemies, get to be so loved by our Lord? “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Only because we have been justified by the blood of Christ will we be saved from his wrath (5:9), which will be visited on everyone outside of Christ.
This grace that we have received is all the more reason to have compassion on everyone who does wrong to us. Perhaps if we pray for them, they too will be converted from God’s enemies to his loved ones.