In preparation for a message this weekend on Romans 12:19 and following, I have been sharpening up on the terms and concepts that relate to this important passage. The verse goes like this: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written ‘Vengeance is mind, I will repay’ says the Lord.” It does seem that we have to be especially clear on the terms we use and what they mean in order to hear the passage from the Apostle Paul as intended. I have been helped by some words from R. C. Sproul in his helpful Commentary on Romans. I include them below,
“There is a fine line of distinction among three words that we use in our vocabulary frequently. We need to know the difference between ‘justice,’ ‘vengeance,’ and ‘vindication.’ In particular, there is a lot of confusion when the term ‘vindictive’ is used as an adjective, and is regarded as virtually synonymous with the word ‘vengeful.' A vindictive person is characterized by a desire for blood; to see his enemies suffer, to see his enemies crushed under foot. But vindication is not the same thing as revenge.
Justice means giving a person their due. If it is a reward that is appropriate, they are to be rewarded. If it is recognition, they are to be recognized. If it is punishment, they are to be punished. God promises to execute perfect justice in the Day of Judgment. Now justice is the broad category; vindication is a specific sub-division of justice. Vindication means to be shown in the right. God promises to vindicate his people when they are victims of false and unfair accusations.
Of course the person who can most look forward to total vindication at the final judgment day will be our Lord himself, because he was the only man who was totally innocent of any sin, and yet he was attacked, criticized, and even convicted by the law courts of this world, and executed. The resurrection was the first great step of vindication for our Lord. God declared him worthy of life and vindicated him by bringing him back from the grave. But God also promises to vindicate his people.
But let’s say that somebody accuses me of something that I didn’t do. I plead innocent and go on trial and the judge and the jury declare me to be innocent. I have been vindicated. At that point, I have no revenge against that person. He has not been punished for falsely accusing me. If the courts, in addition to declaring me innocent, would punish the false accuser, then that would be revenge. Revenge is when the person who has injured me is himself injured. I am vindicated when I am declared to be innocent; I am avenged when the person who hurt me is punished.
It is important to understand the difference because I am never allowed to be my own avenger. Because the Bible repeatedly says that we ought not to be vengeful, many have concluded that vengeance, considered in and of itself, is evil. But vengeance is not evil, it is a form of justice. Just punishment is when the severity of the punishment equals the severity of the crime, and when that just punishment has been exacted, vengeance has been accomplished…
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. We will be vindicated without our adding to sin ourselves. That outlook has to be our consolation in the midst of conflict and of persecution.”