One of Paul’s conclusions to his discussion in Romans 9-11 is that “God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that He may have mercy on them all” (v. 32). If you’ve been reading through Romans you wouldn’t be too surprised by this statement because the letter is saturated with grace, mercy and forgiveness. Neither is it a surprise when Paul calls on his readers to present themselves as living sacrifices as their response to God’s mercy (12:1). And with this he has come full circle as the idolatry driven by ingratitude of 1:18ff is supplanted by “true and proper worship” that flows from overflowing gratefulness.
If God is full of mercy and that mercy is to be at the heart of our life, then we are to live as people of mercy. In 12:14 he tells us them to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and curse not.” His words are few but their significance is staggering. In the face of mistreatment they are to bless. The word used for bless is where our word “eulogy” comes from. In a eulogy you find good things to say in reference to the deceased. When the innocent Jesus was hanging from a Roman cross with His mother standing in front of Him, He didn’t rail to His tormentors that their day was coming. He asked that God would forgive them. This is the kind of behavior the cross calls us to.
Paul develops this further in v. 17-18 where he contrasts two ways to live: returning evil for evil versus doing what’s right and pursuing peace. The headlines are full of those who repay evil for evil: ISIS, Al-Qaeda, gangs, etc. Their rationale is that if you do them wrong, they’ll do you even more wrong to show how tough they are and that you can’t mess with them. This approach leaves us in a world of escalating retribution, where each side tries to have not the last word but the last wound. Might ends up determining “right.” It’s not a good world to live in.
N. T. Wright notes that “Revenge keeps evil in circulation.” If we wish for a better world then the cycle has to be broken. It takes courage and heart to do so, but if we are going to live as salt and light this is one of the ways that we do it. If this seems radical, it is. But if we only choose to follow only those teachings of Jesus which are more in line with our liking and culture, we’re in danger of losing the seasoning ability that the world needs us to have.
In all of this we’re not to understand Paul to be eschewing justice or suggesting that evildoers should suffer no consequences—that wouldn’t be helpful or right. His discussion of governing authorities in 13:1ff that immediately follows his words here inform us that such people “are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (v. 4). But in this context Paul is speaking from the vantage point of personal relationships rather than from a legal/civil perspective.
His concluding words set forth the governing principle of the section: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (v. 21). This is not just good advice—this is gospel. This is the way that God dealt with the world and the way we are called to as well.