Notes from an address preached by the Rev. Ronald M. Ward, B.D. Originally published in the September 1950 issue of Progress, the monthly magazine for Romford Congregational Church.
“Shall not God avenge His elect, which cry to Him day and night …?“ (Luke 18:7)
“Vengence is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.” (Romans 12:19)
In the story which we read for our lesson (Luke 18:1-8), a widow, a helpless and insignificant person, receives her justice from the hands of a judge. But the judge satisfies her for quite base and trivial reasons. He is not interested in the rights and wrongs of her case. He has no fear of God, caring nothing for eternal laws. He has no respect for man, and is unconcerned with what we should call human rights. But he becomes thoroughly bored with the woman’s tedious request, and he does what she asks to save himself unnecessary trouble.
Jesus concludes His parable with the words, “Shall not God avenge His elect?, meaning that justice, which in this case is wrung from the reluctant hands of a sinful human being, is always backed by the determined will and infinite resources of God.
This story is a reminder of important facts.
Thus Communism is a great evil. Its leaders neither fear God nor respect man, and are guided by selfish and brutal impulses. But God is not defeated by Communists. It may even be that some of His purposes are being worked out in history through their activities. The present regime in China, for instance, is not totally evil in all its effects. It is reckoned to be far less corrupt than its predecessor, and we need not hesitate to admit that a certain measure of justice has been achieved by it.
This, of course, does not justify Communism, any more than our Lord’s parable justifies the employment of judges who despise the law. Neither does it mean that we are at liberty to sit back and let evil men govern the world, hoping that God will make the best of things for us. But it does mean that righteousness must ultimately prevail, if not in this world then in the next. And we shall be wrong if we look for the fulfilment of God’s laws only through specifically Christian or “good” media. “Surely the wrath of man shall praise Thee” (Psalm 76:10).
But justice means more than the achievement of the good. It also means the punishment of the wicked. The unjust judge stands under the wrath of God, in spite of the service which he unconsciously renders to God’s purpose. The Communist system is most certainly doomed because it sets itself against Divine law, and must therefore be ultimately crushed by it. How God will do this we do not know. But He most certainly will do it. “Vengeance is mine, said the Lord.”
All this is very comforting. But danger is hidden in such thoughts. The word vengeance suggests an angry person getting his own back. And “getting one’s own back” is very far indeed from the vindication of Divine righteousness. Unfortunately, however, justice and revenge, two very different things, are so involved together in our minds that it is difficult to distinguish between them. This is particularly well illustrated in the Greek language, where the words for vengeance and justice have a common root. In an attempt to escape this unfortunate confusion, our text, translated in the Revised Version “Shall not God avenge His elect”, becomes in Moffat’s translation, “Will not God see justice done to His elect”. Ronald Knox translates it, “Will not God give redress to His elect”.
The difficulty, however, is more than linguistic. it is psychological as well. The most primitive notion of morality is identical with that of revenge. Injury must be paid for in blood, not only the blood of the person who inflicted the injury but perhaps that of his family and tribe as well.
These ideas become rationalised in the laws of a civilised State, but even there the same element persists. Capital punishment, for example, may become a sort of blood revenge. Criminals are sent to prison partly as a preventive measure, partly as a remedial measure and partly to uphold the law. But who can deny that people get a certain satisfaction out of the thought that a man who has been a nuisance and a source of fear now has to “pay” for his misdeeds. How easy it is to point a finger at the evil doer and say with immense satisfaction, “I told you so”, or “Serves you right”.
The same feeling has been projected into religion, and here it becomes most harmful of all. The belief that God will avenge His elect may become a source of satisfaction to those who have suffered at the hands of wickedness and are too weak to do anything about it. And in the moment when that happens the Christian spirit is banished from our hearts. We should rejoice that God’s righteousness can never be defeated. But we must never be glad in suffering which is the result of sin. In the Old Testament the idea that religious men may enjoy, in anticipation, the punishment of the wicked, is too clear to need illustration. “Just wait until God has finished with you” is the theme which persists through many a Psalm. But remember that the Psalmist lived before Christ, and we do not.
Confusion between vengeance and justice finds supreme expression in wrong ideas about hell. As soon as we begin to think about hell as a place where God “gets His own back” we are imagining something which does not exist. The thought that the blessed will enjoy the spectacle of the torments of the damned has actually been expressed by Christian writers in ancient times. No wonder Origen made his heretical protest that Christ remains on His cross so long as a single soul remains in hell. I do not believe this. But the spirit of the heresy is much more Christian than the spirit of orthodoxy has sometimes been. The text, “Vengeance is mine”, appears in the context of Paul’s pleading that we should do all in our power to do good to enemies; that is, to keep them out of hell, not to lock them in and put the key in our pocket with an expression of triumph!
Punishment and retribution are always in harmony with righteousness and love. It is impossible to understand this with the mind, but it must be so if God is God. Retribution is not the expression of something vindictive in God, it is the result of the perilous gift of freedom with which we are endowed. Hell is real, both in time and in eternity, but it is always something chosen. The pangs of hell are the result of evil choices, and thus vindicate the righteousness of a Holy God of Love. Hell is chosen isolation from God. Everyone has tasted it, if only in nightmare, when unredeemed depths of nature take control and thrust us out into irrational loneliness and despair.
We know that evil men who drag the world into misery to satisfy their own wretched ambitions must suffer unless the grace of God rescues them from themselves. But this should never cause rejoicing. This must never be an outlet for resentment. Still more must we apply the rule to personal relationships. Nothing is more unchristian than the notion that God will “take it out” of someone who has injured us. Satisfaction in the thought that God will cause the wicked to suffer is a ruse of the devil, the great unconscious blasphemy which endangers us all. Remember that the foundation of religions is this commandment: “Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is one: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength”. How often do we commit sin of worshipping not one God, but two? A God of love for ourselves. And a God of revenge for our enemies.