NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWELVE (Lesson XLV)
Martin Luther understands from what Paul says here that God is able to use us to convert those whom He wants converted by showing them goodness and mercy instead of anger and revenge. Sometimes, it’s not a sermon or a lecture that converts their heart and mind, but acts of kindness and love. Anyone who is converted by threat or out of fear is not truly converted. As long as they only go through the motions to be considered to be converted; instead of loving us they will hate us for manipulating them into being converted. But if anyone is converted through God’s love, then that person often burns with disappointment that they did not come to this realization sooner. But it is not necessary to put that person into some form of spiritual training camp where they are watched and demands are made of them to meet your expectations. Their love for God and His Word will teach them all the right things. That’s why Paul says that kindness shown to an enemy is like coals of fire on their head.1
John Calvin has a similar impression. Paul is trying to get us to see another way to fulfill the precepts he has proposed up until now. One is by not taking revenge or repaying evil for evil. In fact, we not only abstain from doing injury but do good to those who have done wrong to us. Otherwise, it can be seen as a kind of indirect form of getting even with them when we withhold our kindness from those who injured us. Paul calls them our enemy, not so that we look at them with hatred, but as someone who doesn’t understand us. And if we do something on a human level for them, such as help, assist, or give advice, their possible conversion becomes a greater possibility than if we insist on them receiving severe punishment.2 When we take what Calvin says here in light of today’s society where people are so easily insulted, it seems like something that is hard to do. But the principle will remain the same: Once you find out that someone is trying to undermine or sabotage your efforts in order to give themselves an advantage, let them know that you would be willing to work together with them so that both of you succeed. In that way, you transform a competitor into a co-associate.
Calvin then goes on to suggest that when we make the best out of every situation, then something good will most often follow. When we treat those who oppose us with calm kindness, it cannot but help impress them as much as having hot coals of conviction placed on their heads. When we think of it, those hot coals may cause them to bow their heads and ask God’s forgiveness so that the ashes of guilt are removed. Calvin admits that there are some who interpret these fiery coals being devastation which is placed on the head of our critics when we show them kindness that they don’t deserve, and deal with them in a manner other than what they deserve. By doing it this way, their guilt and dismay are doubled.
Others, however, prefer to take a different view. When our persecutors see themselves being treated so kindly instead of with anger, they are persuaded to love us in return. But we cannot expect the mind of our adversary to be turned one way or the other. Any kindness we show them may either softened their feelings of opposition, or it may harden into a savage which nothing you do can tame them. But don’t give up, they may end up being burned and tormented by the conviction of their own conscience when they become overwhelmed with kindness.3
John Bengel believes that what Paul says here holds true when faced by a bitter and violent opponent. The best way to end all vengeance is that an enemy finds repentance so that they are not delivered into the hands of an avenger. Bengel implies that a person may easily attain both objects if they treat their enemy with kindness. He finds both of these described in this remarkable phrase: “Sinners must not deny their sins. Those who say that they have not sinned against God and His majesty are only bringing fiery shame upon themselves.”4 If your enemy ends up being the property of an avenger; you will then have them entirely in your power and ready to do as you ask.5
Both Bengel’s explanation and quote from Esdras make his point somewhat foggy. But to put it another way, the one who opposes you may be in danger of being brought before a judge for harassing and embarrassing you. Therefore, it may be in their best interest to get you to drop any charges against them by asking forgiveness. However, even your willingness to be kind and absolve them of any guilt may not keep the law from making them culpable of their unlawful actions. In that case, as they stand in court waiting to hear their sentence, knowing that you have already forgiven them will only make their punishment even harder to bear.
When it comes to coals of fire on people’s heads, Robert Haldane believes that we should be open to contrition on the part of our enemies for their own good, not so that they may forgo any punishment. It is worthless to force the words inspired by the Holy Spirit to mean something they were never intended to imply. Paul is clearly asserting that the conduct recommending the feeding and giving something to drink to an opponent will increase the pain of punishment if they don’t repent. And although we should never rejoice in this having the effect as causing them more misery, it should please us that through this they will come to appreciate Divine justice over human justice. What they experience should be a warning to their enemies to abandon their wicked conduct. This will help them escape the fearful consequences which they cannot avoid if they insist on carrying out their hostility. There can be no doubt that such conduct from the Lord’s people if it does not overcome their enemies, will eventually add to their guilt and punishment.6
Albert Barnes also has something to say about “coals of fire” as a metaphor. He sees these coals of fire as emblematic of “pain.” But under no circumstances should they be misunderstood as believers calling down divine vengeance on anyone. The Apostle Paul is speaking of the natural effect or result of showing kindness to a critic or persecutor. Burning coals heaped on a person‘s head would be a symbol of intense discomfort. So it seems that the Apostle is saying that the “effect” of showing kindness to an enemy would end up producing pain if they don’t repent. The pain involved would result from shame, remorse of conscience, conviction and embarrassment over their bad deeds. And with this could be added the fear of divine retribution. Hopefully, this may lead to repentance. Barnes finds this approach as not only permissible but as desirable. If a person can be brought to true repentance, it should be a daily practice.
Barnes also sees several teaching points that arise out of Paul’s instructions here. First, the best way to promote peace is by being kind and understanding even to our enemies. Secondly, a good way to bring anyone to repentance is by treating them with goodness. Using this principle allows God to be continually involved. People resist wrath, anger, and power, but they find it hard to resist goodness because it gets to their heart. Then when their conscience goes to work, they feel even greater remorse over their wrongful ways. Thirdly, if all believers did things God’s way according to the principles of the Gospel, there would be greater peace in the world. That’s because those with malice in their hearts would be overwhelmed with so many fiery coals of kindness being poured on their heads. Even human nature at its worse finds it hard to resist when Christians greet unkindness with kindness, all malice with goodness, and wrong with right. Under those circumstances, even opposition to the Gospel might soon fade away.7
Charles Hodge has much to say about this part of Paul’s narrative, especially heaping coals of fire on our enemy’s head. He notes that there are three leading interpretations of this interesting clause. The first, and perhaps the oldest, is that Paul means to say that our enemies will be punished much more severely if we leave it up to God than if we try to do it ourselves. Hodge finds this a revolting interpretation and out of character with Paul’s intentions. We should never think of any opponent of the Gospel being treated this way as if we are wishing to draw down the full force of divine wrath on them. It actually means that such may be the consequence if they feel no remorse or grief for what they’ve done to God’s children. Hodge feels we must connect this clause with what precedes it. By doing all we can do to show kindness and compassion, this will put more pressure on them to reconsider their opposition to the cause of Christ.
There is a second interpretation that Hodge brings up and that is: by heaping coals of fire on their head it will embarrass them and cause them grief, namely, the pain of remorse and shame. Then the third interpretation is that by being kind and compassionate we are using the most effective method of quieting them down. When hot coals are dumped on anyone, it is a punishment which no one can bear. Thus they must yield to it. Kindness is no less effectual; the most determined enemy cannot always withstand it. This is the true and Christian method of subduing an enemy by overcoming evil with good. This interpretation, fits the whole context so well that it doesn’t seem necessary to add the hot coals. However, the sentiment expressed by this interpretation is also more in harmony with the spirit of the Gospel.8
Charles Spurgeon preached on this subject and asked that the audience notice that this text instills not only a passive non-resistance on the part of the believer, but it also teaches that active acts of kindness can help to overcome opposition. That is if any person has done you wrong, not only should we be willing to forgive them, but add to it by doing them a favor. Spurgeon cites Dr. Cotton Mather, a New England Puritan minister, as never being content until he had bestowed a benefit on every person who had in any way done him wrong. If anybody has slandered you or treated you with disrespect, go out of your way to offer them help. Someone might say, “Well, I feel sorry for them, but really they are such a nuisance I could never bring myself to help them out.” Yet, according to this Scripture, they are the very type of person you are encouraged to feed. If they thirst, don’t say, “Let somebody else help them, I wish them no ill will but I’m not going to go out of my way to give them anything to drink.”
As Spurgeon sees it, this is just the kind of person our Lord commanded us to satisfy their hunger and quench their thirst. Hurry up to the well with your pitcher and quickly give them water to drink. Do it at once, don’t hesitate. We are not only asked to forgive but to let go. Spurgeon encouraged everyone to impress upon the malicious mind of their enemy the blessed sin-killing wound of their cordial and practical goodwill. In other words, offer them a blessing instead of a curse, a hug instead of a punch, a favor instead of disrespect. “Oh,” someone might exclaim, “that’s asking too much! I can’t bring myself to do that.” Don’t count God out as your Helper in doing things the right way. “It’s too difficult,” you might complain. But God does not accept such a lame excuse. His Spirit says try it, if it fails then you have your excuse. Remember, the word “impossible,” does not exist in God’s vocabulary.
1 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 178
2 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit, loc. cit.
3 Calvin: ibid.
4 2 Esdras 16:53 – Good News Translation w/Apocrypha
5 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 345
6 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 574
7 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
8 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 623-624