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What does it mean when God says, “Vengeance is mine” (Romans 12:19)?

vengeance is mine

When we’re hurt, abused, humiliated, or treated unjustly, we naturally want the offender to experience what we felt. We demand our “pound of flesh” and may not rest till we get it. This is the crux of many Hollywood movies and seems like the right thing to do. If someone shows us kindness, we’re often eager to repay him or her. Why shouldn’t we repay the wrong that is done to us, too?

Scripture has a different view, and God says, “Vengeance is mine.” While accepting our human desire for “payback,” Paul gives us a better path than what we see in many crime movies. In Romans 12:19–21, he writes,

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.

The NKJV translates Romans 12:19 as “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.”

The message of Romans 12 flows from the previous text, where Paul established the principle of righteousness by faith. Romans 1—8 covers why Jesus had to be sacrificed for our guilt and how we’re made righteous by faith (Romans 3:22). Chapters 9 to 11 are an aside on the Jews, after which Paul introduces chapter 12 with the sentence, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” Every other verse in that chapter details how we should live as recipients of God’s mercy.

The command for Christians to not avenge themselves results from the fact that we were saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8–9). Our righteousness is a gift from God received by faith, not by works (Romans 3:21–26; 4:5; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Philippians 3:9). As people forgiven by God through Christ, we’re commanded to emulate God’s nature by forgiving others who have wronged us (Colossians 3:13; Ephesians 4:32). Jesus further stresses the need for forgiveness (Matthew 18:21–22), and His standard is love toward our enemies (Luke 6:27–28; Matthew 5:43–45).

What about retributive justice? Who will satisfy that need? That’s where God comes in. Paul quotes from Deuteronomy 32:35 to tell us who’s ultimately in charge of payback. God is. Vengeance belongs to God, not to us.

The problem is not our need for retributive justice, per se. It is good to want to see justice done. But we have a sinful nature, even as regenerated believers; hence, the struggle within us (Galatians 5:17). It’s impossible for us to seek vengeance with absolutely pure motives. When avenging a wrong, we usually trade in our altruism for animosity, and our desire for righteousness is mixed with self-righteousness. Just as with every other normal desire, the desire for vengeance can become a dungeon of pain and bitterness.

The only One who can carry out true justice without the taint of impure motives is God. He’s the Ultimate Judge, answerable to no one, set to “repay everyone according to what they have done” (Romans 2:6; cf. Psalm 62:12). This knowledge should give us comfort when we are wronged, as well as the freedom to let go. Jesus is our example in this: “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).

What should we then do to those who wrong us? Follow Paul’s instruction in Romans 12:20, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him” (cf. Proverbs 25:21–22; Matthew 5:43–44). This way, we won’t be engulfed by evil, but rather we will overcome evil by doing good. This is done through the power and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.

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What does it mean when God says, “Vengeance is mine” (Romans 12:19)?
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This page last updated: May 4, 2023