The Third Sunday after Epiphany
January 27, 2019
“The Vengeance of God”
Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion. Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay," says the Lord. Therefore "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:16-21
False teaching is poison to the soul. It may look like a harmless opinion, but when it is taught as truth, internally digested, and taught again, it poisons the entire body. False doctrine kills Christians and churches dead. All false doctrine is from the father of lies, the devil. False doctrine is the playground of the proud. Pure doctrine is received by the humble. Those who are wise in their own opinion teach doctrines that glorify themselves. The pure teaching glorifies God. Those who will not humble themselves before God are both the targets of and the agents of Satan’s assault against the pure and wholesome doctrine of God’s holy Word.
St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth: “For I determined not to know anything among you except for Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2) The crucifixion of Jesus is at the heart of our Christian faith. This is why Christians display crosses and crucifixes. Our faith is centered in a violent act of vengeance. We believe, teach, and confess that when Jesus died on Calvary, he bore God’s just vengeance against all sinners. God says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” He said it through the prophet Moses. He said it through the Apostle Paul. God means what he says. He said he would repay and he did. He repaid. He punished. He poured out his divine wrath. He worked vengeance. Upon whom did he avenge himself? Upon the world! When and where and how did God wreak vengeance upon this world? When Jesus died on the cross and bore in his body the sin of the world, God carried out his just punishment of all sinners. Justice was done. Only on Calvary is justice done. We call this the vicarious atonement, because Jesus vicariously (that is, as our substitute) made peace between us and God by taking away our sin. We call it the vicarious satisfaction, because Jesus, as our substitute, satisfied the demands God made of us all. He satisfied God’s justice, both by obeying the law in the stead of all sinners, and by bearing in his body the punishment of God against all sinners. The vicarious atonement or vicarious satisfaction is the heart of the gospel that we Christians believe, teach, and confess to the world.
This is a very precious truth, but it offends people. Theologians have been attacking it for a long time. They say it is a barbaric doctrine. Only a cruel God would punish his innocent Son. They say that this teaching contradicts what we believe about God’s love. They say that a loving God would not require satisfaction for his anger to be appeased. So they deny that God punished Jesus in our stead. They deny that Jesus bore God’s wrath and turned it away on Calvary when he died.
They will say that Jesus died for us, but they don’t mean that he suffered the punishment we deserved. They mean that he demonstrated his love for us by joining us in suffering. He expressed solidarity with us. He faced death as one of us. They say many pious sounding things about the death of Jesus Christ – many of which are true – but they deny that God punished his innocent Son for the sin of the world. That offends them.
Let’s pretend that they are right. The vicarious satisfaction never happened. God didn’t pour out his wrath on his innocent Son who took our place on the cross. Jesus was not punished for our sins. God is not vengeful. He does not punish. What do you think of such a god? Is God now nicer, less violent, more peaceful, and more loving? Would you rather have a god who does not do vengeance than the God who poured out his vengeance on Jesus? Could you trust a god who doesn’t punish more than a God who punishes? Are those who deny Christ’s vicarious atonement preaching a kinder and gentler God than the One we worship? Are they teaching a kinder and gentler way of living than are we who are determined to know nothing except for Jesus Christ and him crucified?
No, they are not. Denying the vengeance of God does not take away vengeance. Denying the truth doesn’t make it go away. The word the Bible uses for vengeance is a form of the word for justice. Justice requires vengeance. Crime calls for punishment. Sin pays off in death. We know this. We know this before we read the Bible. We know this before we know how to read!
Little Johnny hits little Jimmy. Mom asks, “Why did you do that?” What does Johnny say? He says, “He hit me first.” That’s justice. God spoke through Moses:
But this principle didn’t begin with Moses. God revealed this basic principle of justice to Noah after the flood as a defense against the taking of innocent human life. God said:
This is not only taught explicitly in the Bible, it is written within the conscience of all people. This is why Johnny can justify hitting Jimmy even though he knows nothing of Noah, Moses, or the Apostle Paul.
This is why we avenge ourselves against those who do us wrong. Whether a violent lashing out or a quiet burn within, we hold the sins of others against them. They have done us wrong. They should suffer for it.
Ask yourself: have you ever been angry at someone who did you wrong? Did you want him to pay for what he did that hurt you? You did your best to make peace, live at peace, and just get along. You didn’t ask for trouble. He brought it to you. You didn’t provoke it. What can you do with such a person?
Bless him? Do good to him? Pray for him? Yeah. Right. And this will turn him into a decent person, right? It may only embolden him to be an even bigger bully than he’s so far been. You cannot overcome evil with good. All you do is to encourage the evil.
But is this really true? Is our Lord’s teaching that we should turn the other cheek to the one who strikes us only a blank check to abusers to abuse all the more? There are few things Jesus taught that have evoked such mockery as his words about turning the other cheek and blessing those who curse us. Besides, how can we let bullies get away with their bullying? Isn’t that wrong?
First of all, nobody gets away with anything. There is a saying: “The wheels of justice turn slowly, but grind exceedingly fine.” The neighborhood thug who gets away with one violent act after another suffers a violent death. The liar is exposed as a liar. The cheater is cheated. You don’t need to be a Christian to see that what goes around comes around. The law of karma, taught by Hindus and Buddhists, is the natural knowledge of the law common to all people. You reap what you sow. Nobody gets away with anything. When God tells us not to seek vengeance, but to give way to wrath, he is talking about leaving it to him. We don’t take vengeance personally, because we know that God governs through the civil authorities who punish criminals. God does vengeance through the civil government. It doesn’t do a perfect job, but in the long run the wheels of justice do grind very fine.
But how can we set aside our natural desire for revenge? How can we be content with letting God avenge us? Isn’t it a part of us to want to exact retribution against those who have hurt us and those we love? How can we forgive those who aren’t even sorry for the pain they’ve caused?
We look to where God did justice. We look to where God wreaked vengeance. We look to where God paid back. When Jesus suffered on the cross, he was punished for the wrongs that people have done, are doing, and will do against you. The unfaithful spouse, the lying coworker, the snotty know-it-all who elevates himself at your expense, the kid who bullies your kid and get away with it, the rapist, the murderer, the thief, and the perjurer – all of their offenses received just retribution on the cross when Jesus died for the sin of the world.
And so did yours. God poured out his anger against you on Jesus. He punished Jesus instead of punishing you. Jesus bore it so that you wouldn’t have to bear it. Jesus, who is true God and true man, faced the vengeance of God and bore it patiently and willingly. Why? Because he loves you. Why? Because he loves the fellow who has wronged you. You can give place to wrath – give it over to God – because God has met the demands of his own justice.
We don’t need to seek what God has already found. The crucifixion of Jesus is where justice was done. Your sins and the sins done against you; the hurt you have caused others, and the hurt others have caused you; God repaid. He punished. He forgives. So do we.
How? We cannot run back to Calvary or stand at the empty tomb and grasp onto Jesus with our hands. But Jesus says the word and we are forgiven. What he achieved two thousand years ago is given to us right here and now. He turned away divine anger, bore all sin, met the demands of justice, all by his death on the cross. He rose from the dead and gave his church the authority to forgive sins. He exercises this authority wherever his gospel word is proclaimed. He said the word and the Centurion’s servant was healed. He says the word and we are forgiven. We believe what his forgiving word says and we have it. We are forgiven. We forgive those who have done us wrong. God overcomes evil with good.
Rolf D. Preus