Thomas Chalmers

Lectures on Romans

ROMANS xii, 14, 17 - 31 "Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not.... Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men. Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord, Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good."

Tha apostle does not satisfy himself with pressing home upon his converts the duties which they owe to each other; but in the verses now read, teaches them further how they should walk towards them who are without - and this, as Christians at that time formed a suffering and outcast society in the world,- was tantamount to telling them, how they should conduct themselves to enemies who heaped upon them all sorts of injury even to the length, if they could have achieved it of their extermination. The subject therefore of the passage before us, is the right treatment not of friends but of adversaries - that great peculiarity in the ethies of the gospels which conflicts most perhaps with the natural tendencies of the human heart; and by which it is most distinguished from all those moral systems which are of merely human origin.

This brings us to the consideration of what has often been advanced in argument, though not so much by speculative infidels as by worldly men, against what they deem to be the utterly romantic and impracticable morality of the New Testament - as if it were so transcendentally above the powers of our nature, that it were altogether hopeless to think of realising it in practice. It is not so much for a controversial object that we propose to meet this alleged difficulty, as for the purpose of doing away a certain mistaken sense of it in the minds even of honest and aspiring disciples, who are bent on the perfection of gospel obedience, but yet are paralysed in their efforts to attain it, by the felt impossibility of such precepts, or of such performances rather, as are here enjoined by the apostle; and had indeed been prescribed, and in still higher terms, by the Saviour before him, who bids us not only do good to our enemies, but even love our enemies - not only to render them acts of beneficence with the hand, but, far more arduous achievement, to mould our hearts into such a union with foes and persecutors, as to bear a positive regard or affection towards them - Thereby aggravating ten-fold the hardships of the Christian obedience, just as it is all the more difficult to command the sensibilities or emotions of the inner, than it is to command the movements of the outer man.

It is obvious that we shall not succeed in disposing of this objection to the morality of the gospel, but on the strength of such considerations as might serve not only for the adjustment or satisfaction of a speculative difficulty, but for the practical guidance of those who are pressing onward to the things which are before, through every obstacle in the work and walk of their sanctification. For this purpose it is not enough to tell us in the general, that what is impossible with man is possible with God - for that with Him all things are possible. Neither is it enough to tell us of the Spirit given to our prayers, that He might help our infirmities and enable us to do all things. Nothing can be more true and nothing more important than these announcements; and indeed they may be said to form the reasons of the apostle John for his assertion, that the commandments are not grievous - even that whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world; or, as he expresses it elsewhere, Greater is He that is in us, than he that is in the world - greater is the Spirit of God than the spirit which worketh in the children of disobedience. All this is most true; but then we are not to imagine of the Spirit, that in making man the subject of His operations, He thwarts or overhears the laws of man’s moral machinery. He does not make inroad and innovation on the order and working of the human faculties. In particular, He does not repeal the affinity which obtains in the way of cause and effect between the view of a certain object in the mind, and the counterpart feeling or emotion awakened thereby in the heart. He does not thus traverse the fitnesses of things. For example, did He wish to fill the soul with a sense of beauty, it would be by sights or images of beauty, and not by sights or images of deformity. Did He wish to excite our compassion, it would not be by turning our thoughts on a scene of enjoyment, but on a scene of distress. Did He wish to disarm us of our anger, it would not be by causing us to dwell in memory on the injustice that we had suffered, but by the power of other considerations - fitted, and let me add, naturally fitted, to call forth other and better sensibilities.
And so if He wanted us to love, even to love an enemy, it would be by the presentation to our notice of an object proper to be loved; and most certainly that object can never be moral turpitude - so as that we should look on the enemy who has evinced fraud or falsehood in the dealings that we have held with him, with aught like the love of moral complacency. These are still very general explanations; but general as they are, we hope it may appear already, that it is not a mere theoretical explanation on which we are now to enter - but such as might help to set you on the right way for carrying the precepts of our text into accomplishment, and direct you a.right for this purpose what you are to do and how you are to turn yourselves.

Our first remark then is, that the apostle in these verses, does not, immediately or expressly at least, enjoin how we are to feel towards enemies and persecutors, but what we are to do for them. It is action, not affection that he here speaks of - not the dispositions of the heart, but the deeds of the hand; and if it be a more practicable thing that we should compel ourselves to right bodily performances, than call up right mental propensities - this might alleviate somewhat our dread of these precepts, as if they were wholly unmanageable or incompetent to humanity. Before then taking cognizance of what should be the inward temper of Christians to those who maltreat or oppress them, we would bid you remark that the outward conduct to them is that which forms the literal subject matter of the commandments here given. The disciples are in this place told, that, whatever the inward risings of nature might be against those who injure and oppress, they are to utter no imprecations, but blessings upon their head - praying for those who despitefully use them: And that however nature might incline them to resent, they are at least not to retaliate - recompensing to no man evil for evil: And that, hard as it may be under their cruel provocations, to keep unruffled minds and feel peaceably, they, as much as in them lies, are to live peaceably: And that, however nature might prompt the desires of vengeance, they must wholly abstain from the deeds of vengeance - leaving these to Him whose rightful province it is, and who hath said that He will repay. Nay they are wholly opposite deeds which we are called on to perform - to feed our enemy if he hunger, and give him drink if he thirst - So that while it may not be the tendency of nature so to desire, our bidden obligation is so to do - for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head.
Finally, we are not to be overcome of evil; but if his treatment of us have been evil, our treatment of him must be good. In short, these various duties are set before us, more as virtues of forbearance, than as so many virtues of forgiveness; and to understand the distinction between these, the one should be looked to as bearing more of reference to the heart, and the other to the conduct. Forgiveness to be complete must be. cordial, or rather if not cordial, it is not forgiveness at all. One can imagine forbearance from all retaliation by the hand, even while the heart tumultuates and suffers all the agitations of a fierce internal war under the brooding sense of wrong. This distinction perhaps might serve to allay in some degree our fear of being laid in this passage under a wholly impracticable requirement - seeing that in its first and most obvious aspect, it speaks not so much of the inward will that we should cherish towards enemies, as of something more under control, our outward walk and conversation towards them.

But we must not disguise that acts, when but looked to in themselves, and apart from the affections which may have prompted them, like mere bodily exercise, profit but little. Grant that the duties here set before us, when viewed literally, are nothing more than deeds of forbearance. Yet we must not forget, that in every Christian virtue there is a spirit as well as a letter, and that according to the moral estimate of the gospel, the letter without the spirit is dead. And indeed on this very lesson of forbearance, it is well that we can refer to the express quotation of "forbearing one another in love." There is something more then enjoined on the followers of Jesus, than a resolute abstinence from those deeds of hostility by which an injured man seeks to retaliate upon his adversary. He must not have the feeling of hostility against him. It is not enough that he worketh no ill. He must have the charity or love that worketh no ill; and not only that worketh no ill to his neighbour, but it must be in the spirit of love that he worketh no ill to his enemy.

But to come at once to the duty in all its extent and all its arduousness, the distinct requirement laid on us by the Saviour is, that we should love our enemies. If ere we can make this out, we must make war with the most urgent propensities of nature - it is a warfare from which there is no discharge; and the question still remains, not only by what power (for this can be answered generally, and with the most perfect doctrinal or theological soundness, by replying, the power of the Spirit,) but, more than this, by what process, by what series of mental exercises on the part of the disciple, is the high spiritual achievement carried, of love, real inward cordial love, even to our deadliest enemies, to those who hate and calumniate and oppress and betray us? To allege the doctrine of the Spirit in a merely general and unintelligent way, will not suffice for this explanation. It is no function of His to obliterate or confound the distinction between one virtue and another; and should we confound them in our thoughts, this might land us in a difficulty from which even He, so long as the misunderstanding continues, may not extricate us. That He can extricate us is a thing most certain - that He will extricate us is a thing to be hoped and prayed for. But then His very first step will be so to enlighten us in the knowledge of God’s will, as to remove this misunderstanding - so as that we shall not be unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is. To be fully equipped for the work of obedience, it seems indispensable that, in the language of the apostle, we should be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding - for then only shall we walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing. Even to begin aright the work of obedience, we must begin with knowledge - for ere we can do our duty, we must surely be first made to know what it really is; or ere we can rightly address ourselves to the work of practical Christianity, we must know what the things are which God actually requires of us.

To make this plain by an example, let us recur to the two virtues already spoken of - those of forgiveness and forbearance. By forbearance I understand that we abstain from all retaliation on an enemy, whether he repents or not - whereas forgiveness, as I understand it, presupposes repentance. It is true that in many places of Scripture, forgiveness is enjoined briefly and absolutely, without any express notice of repentance as the condition or necessary accompaniment thereof. But then one part of Scripture qualifies another; and as to be spiritually wise we must compare spiritual things with spiritual - so to be scripturally wise, we must compare scriptural things with scriptural. If thy brother trespass against thee rebuke him, and if he repent forgive him. This establishes the need of repentance in him whom we are required to forgive; and in so doing it alleviates our sense of difficulty - just as in another case, when we are told by one evangelist that they who obtain riches shall hardly enter the kingdom of God, there is a certain sense of relief from a feeling of the unattainable and the hopeless, when told by another evangelist, that they who trust in riches shall hardly enter that kingdom - a distinct and additional relief from that which we experience in the general announcement of both evangelists, even that though impossible with men, it is possible with God. It is a great matter to be precisely informed both of the actual thing to be done, and of the circumstances in which, as a duty, it is required of us.

Now in the grace of forgiveness there is something more than an abstinence from revengeful deeds, or even from revengeful inclinations. Forgiveness from the heart implies more than this - not only that we should forget the injury, but that we should have the same feeling towards its author, be restored to the same state of mind in regard to him, as if the injury had never been committed. That the forgiveness be complete, that it be perfect and entire wanting nothing, we should look on him, not merely with the same sense of security, but even with the same moral complacency as if he were a faultless man - viewing him just as we should have done, that is, with the same confidence and esteem, as if the offence had been blotted altogether out of our recollection, or as if he himself had never been an offender. Now to feel thus on our part, we should hold repentance upon his part to be wholly indispensable - or that repentance is as indispensable to forgiveness, as the element of light is to vision. The Spirit, in the working of miracles, might cure a man of his blindness, but we never expect that He will enable him to see in the dark; and no more should we expect that He will enable us to rejoice over the resolutely and contemptuously impenitent - just ar we might rejoice, after we had fully readmitted him to friendship and respect, over the sinner who hath repented. We might abstain from the acts of retaliation, even under all the provocations which in the state of his hardihood and defiance, we suffer at his hands. But this is forbearance only - not forgiveness. To have the full affection of forgiveness, such a forgiveness as the father of the returning prodigal extended so promptly and freely to his son, the hardihood must be dissolved and done away, the defiance be no longer persisted in. There is a difference between forbearance and forgiveness; and in adaptation to this, there is a counterpart difference between the objects of these two virtues. And the whole difference seems to lie in this, that the one has not repented - the other has, or at least stands with the profession and the aspect of repentance before us. We do not think that even the Spirit, who is given to help our infirmities, ever helps or enables us to forgive in any other circumstances than these. His great office is that of restoring us to the likeness of God, or making us perfect, even as our Father in heaven is perfect.

Now though He be a God ready to forgive, His forgiveness is only to the penitent. Under the economy of grace, the forgiveness of the Sovereign and repentance of the sinner are never separated. And on this footing also are we required to forgive one another, to forgive as God does - so that repentance in every instance is presupposed, when called on, as we are by the apostle, to forgive our fellow-men, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven us. Now the like explanation applies to the duty of forbearance, or to all the duties of the passage now before us, which too might be done, we apprehend - not with that violence to our moral nature which is figured by many, and which leads them to view a performance as impracticable - but done sweetly and spontaneously and in the spirit of love. One can imagine a fixed, resolute, and dogged abstinence, if I may so call it, from all the deeds of retaliation - even under provocations and insults the most galling to nature which can be thought of; and this were forbearance in act, or literal forbearance. But in these circumstances to forbear in love, is that which looks so hard of execution, so incongruous with the very frame and constitution of the heart, as shall amount to a moral or mental impossibility. If the Spirit, in acting on the possessor of this heart, do not overbear its mechanism or the law of its workings - then to do away the sense of a difficulty insuperable, when called on to forbear one another, though even our deadliest enemies, in love, something more would require to be said, than merely that what we cannot do of ourselves the Spirit can do in us and for us - something more specific than the bare generality, that though with men it is impossible, with God all things are possible. And so we have always deemed it a great alleviation of the felt and the feared difficulty, when, attending to the distinction between- various kinds of love, we come to understand what the love of forbearance really is.

There is no assurance, however strong, of aids and influences from on high, which would ever make us believe it possible, that we should love the man, who in hatred to ourselves does with all falsehood and cruelty inflict upon us every species of wrong, with the love of moral esteem or moral complacency. To suppose for a moment that the Spirit, in effecting the work of our renovation, would so change our nature as to make us love our enemy thus, were just as great an outrage on the possibility of things, as to suppose that He would change the nature of virtue, would turn evil into good and good into evil. That we ahould be required to take into our esteem the man who stands palpably before us in the character of a treacherous friend or a bloodthirsty persecutor, is just as conceivable as that we should be required to love the iniquity which God hateth - an achievement this no more to be attempted or thought of, than to hate the righteousness which God loveth. And likeness to Him is the great object of that regenerative process which, under the economy of the gospel, we are made to undergo - so as to make it very sure, that when we suffer from the hand of an enemy, whether he be the calumniator who falsely and ungratefully asperses our name; or the wily practitioner in business or in law, who has designs upon our property; or finally, the blood-thirsty persecutor who lays violence upon our persons - Then we need not try, for really we are not bidden, to love that man with the love of moral complacency.

Still we are required to love even such a man, and if not the love of complacency, what love is it? There is a love distinct from this, even the love of kindness - which when felt towards one in distress, is modified into the love of compassion. Of its operation in the breast, apart from the love of moral esteem, we have a high example in the breast of the Godhead - when He so loved the world, as to send His only-begotten Son into it. What then precisely was that love of which the apostle speaks, when he says - " Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins?" It could not be the love of moral complacency, for it was love to a world lying in wickedness. It was the love of compassion, and of compassion on creatures arrayed in enmity and lifting up the cry of rebellion against Him. - Because of their wickedness it could not possibly be the love of complacency; but because of their wretchedness it was the love of pity: And the enquiry is - Whether; while there is a like impossibility in our regarding with aught of moral esteem a dishonest or a despiteful adversary - whether still there might -not be a something about him fitted to engage our sympathies on his behalf, so as not only to restrain our hand from all mischief against him, but so as that we could not find it in our heart to do him harm - nay so as to make it abundantly possible that we should both pity and should pray for him.

And now that we have got clear of this impracticable element, for we really cannot love morally a wicked adversary - the thing with man is impossible, and though with God all things are possible, yet this most assuredly is an impossibility over which even His Spirit will not help us - but now that this difficulty has been sot aside, and it is granted that in the case of a deceitful and malicious enemy, there is nothing in his character because of which we can love him morally - still might there not be something in his state because of which we can love him kindly, love him compassionately? It might be true that we cannot at present forgive - for as yet there might be no symptom of repentance on his part; but in the career of a resolved impenitence may he be fully set, either on the artifices of a hostile policy or on the cruelties of a hostile violence against us. And it might also be true, that in his present state, we can find nothing to compassionate - for he might be prospering in his way, and in the hey-day of success be rejoicing in his iniquitous triumph over us.

But though there be nothing palpable to the eye of sense which can move our pity, it is for the Christian to look onward and with an eye of anticipation to the things, which, if he be not previously visited with the spirit of repentance, shall happen to him shortly - to the agonies of his coming death-bed, when, a helpless and a prostrate creature, all triumph shall be gone - Or to the still more awful day of his last reckoning, when he shall stand a naked and a trembling culprit before the dread judgment-seat - Or, looking on him in the light of eternity to the never-ending period of that vengeance, which it is for God alone to minister, and from which therefore He bids us refrain our own hand. Did we but realize all this, then should we find, that though we cannot yet forgive, yet even now might we forbear, and that in the midst of cruellest provocation - forbear in love too, for though to the tyrant or the tormentor the love of complacency might be impossible, yet is it possible to love even him with tenderest compassion, as we behold in perspective the sentence and with it the tremeiidous sufferings which await him.

Thus at all times, and even in the worst imaginable case, might the love of forbearance and pity be practicable; and there are even cases, though not of conscious or resolved iniquity, yet of blind infuriated violence, in which an outlet is given for the higher love of forgiveness. There are cases of ignorance. It was on this ground that Paul obtained mercy though a persecutor, because he did it ignorantly and in unbelief. This too was the palliation which Peter alleged for the murderers of our Saviour - " And now, brethren, I wot that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers" - "for had they known it," it is said elsewhere, "they would not have crucified the Lord of glory." It is in striking accordance with this - and it serves to establish on the highest authority the need of certain prerequisites in the objects of forgiveness - that our Saviour prays thus amid the agonies of His crucifixion - " Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." But the duties of our present text are those of forbearance; and though it should be forbearance in love, yet is there no incompatibility between the object and its counterpart emotion. For we are expressly bidden look forward to the vengeance which awaits our persecutors, when we are bidden abstain from all vengeance ourselves; and there is no such incompatibility, we repeat, between the sight of a creature in torment and our love of pity, as there is between the sight of a creature doing palpable iniquity, and our feeling as complacently towards him as we should towards an innocent or deserving man.

The requirement here laid upon us inflicts no jar, or felt infraction on any law of, our nature. True, it calls for a strenuous effort, but this is mainly and properly an effort of consideration, which as being on things future and unseen, is an effort of faith. It is the effort of a mind looking forward to the day of retribution, to the dread realities of a coming judgment and coming eternity. That in the strength of this faith we can forbear and love and pity and pray for even our deadliest enemies, and are thus enabled to lay an arrest on the most urgent propensities of aggrieved and suffering nature - is a glorious verification of’ the power ascribed to faith in the New Testament.

It is in truth our great instrument by which to achieve the sublimest moralities of the gospel. For not only doth it work by love, but overcometh the world. "This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith." It is not overcome of evil, but gains the noblest of all victories over a world lying in wickedness, by overcoming its evil with good.

We must now quit the general argument; and finish our lecture by a very few explanatory remarks on the two or three verses of this passage which seem to call for them. In the 17th verse it may appear somewhat out of place, as not altogether in keeping with the subject-matter of the other precepts, when the apostle tells his disciples to provide things honest in the sight of all men. But the truth is, that nothing is more graceful in the eyes of others than the grace of forbearance; and nothing more fitted to engage the sympathy of by-standers, than a mild and patient demeanour under injuries, more especially if it be the obvious effect of conscience and not of cowardice, not a pusillanimous surrender of oneself to the insolence of oppression, but an act of obedience to the high behests of principle. It is thus that in early times, the Christian religion was indebted for much of its progress to the gentleness of converts under persecution; and so among the other sustaining forces which upheld in the breasts of these devoted men, the charity that endureth all things, was there the exalted motive of adorning the doctrine of God their Saviour, that it may find a growing esteem and readier acceptance in the world.

In the 18th verse it is evidently supposed that it might not be possible even for the best of Christians, and that it might not lie within the capacities of his moral system, to live peaceably with all men. He must first be pure and then peaceable; and till the first object is secured, it is his part not to acquiesce but to contend earnestly. And then as to what lies in him, let me state, by way of one example, that it is not in him to look complacently on moral evil. He cannot though he would; and neither will the Spirit help him to this, or put this in him. And thus he might forbear, though he cannot justify - even though his enemy should seek for more than toleration, should seek an express approval or vindication at his hands. This he cannot do with truth or honour, and therefore will not do at all; and hence a contest which he cannot heal, or one case among others which could be named in which peace is impossible.
In the 19th verse we are told to give place unto wrath - not to our own wrath, for this we are forbidden, just as elsewhere we are forbidden to give place unto the devil. We must not give range or licence to any resentful feelings of our own; but the meaning is - either that we give place to the wrath of our enemy, not resisting but rather giving way before him : Or, that we leave the matter to God, and do not preoccupy by any vengeance of ours, that vengeance which it is for Him alone to inflict - and so commit ourselves to Him who judgeth righteously. - And lastly, by heaping coals of fire on the head of an enemy, we should understand, that in returning him good for evil, and persisting in this till we shall have heaped our kindnesses upon him - it will either melt his spirit into another and a gentler mood; or, failing this, it will aggravate his condemnation.

In conclusion let me observe, that persecution may again revisit these lands; or though not, that still in ordinary life, under the domestic roof, or amid the familiar dealings of human society, there is ample scope for the wrongs and the heart-burnings of most grievous injustice, and therefore full and constant opportunity for the exercise of those virtues which are here prescribed to us. By the sacrifice of our natural interests, or what is still more difficult, as being at times well nigh uncontrollable, by the sacrifice of our natural resentments, we prepare the way for those highest of all conquests in the world, the conquests of principle. We set forth the graces of personal Christianity, and exhibit it to men both in the most sublime and the loveliest of its aspects. It is not when we are buffeted for our faults and take it patiently, but when we suffer for well-doing and take it patiently - it is then that the glory of religion is advanced upon the earth. Then it is that we are both acceptable to God and approved of men.

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