Interview with John Piper
Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org
Recently, I mentioned John Piper’s massive sermon series on Romans called “The Greatest Letter Ever Written” — 225 sermons in length, which took him 8 years and 8 months to complete. In that earlier episode, I played a clip from an early sermon from this Romans series. Today I want to fast-forward seven years and play for you another clip from the series. This one is from February 20, 2005, a sermon titled “Do Not Avenge Yourselves, but Give Place to Wrath.” It’s a sermon on Romans 12:16–20, specifically verse 19, where Paul writes, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” So how does faith in the future, vindicating justice of God settle us and stabilize us and make it possible for us to live with sanity in a world that will cut us deeply? Pastor John explains.
“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for” — this is the ground, the basis; this is the way you’re able to do it — “it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay’” (Romans 12:19).
Now, here’s what that implies: that little word for implies that one of the motivations in our hearts for why we can’t return good for evil; one of the motivations for why it’s so hard not to strike back, not to plan vengeance; one of the reasons it’s so hard is because deep down in our souls, there’s this warranted, justified desire that justice be done. And it doesn’t look like it’s going to be done if I just say, “Okay, I won’t count it anymore; I won’t think about it anymore; I won’t seethe with it anymore; I won’t hold a grudge anymore.” We feel like, “If I do that, nobody knows except me how bad that was.” That’s unbelief talking. God knows.
How does it work? Is this saying, “Oh, I get it: if you want to get your enemy, let God get him”? And you kind of rub your hands together, gleefully hoping that as you give the cup of water God will strike him with lightning? I don’t think so. Because listen to Proverbs 24:17–18:
Do not rejoice when your enemy falls,
and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles,
lest the Lord see it and be displeased,
and turn away his anger from him.
No, the way it works is this: All of you in this room — all of you — have been wronged in your life. Nobody has not been wronged. And many of you — let’s reduce it down a little bit now — many of you have been seriously wronged by people who have never apologized, nor done anything sufficient to make it right. And one of the deep hindrances to your letting hurt and bitterness go is the conviction that if you let it go, justice isn’t going to be done. And justice ought to be done.
“The fabric of the universe is going to unravel if I just treat this person like I treat everybody else, or even better than I treat everybody else. He’s got everybody deceived. Everybody thinks he’s a good guy. He’s a jerk, and nobody knows about it. He’s getting away with it. He’s getting away with it!” It’s one of the hindrances to forgiveness: we just can’t let it go.
That’s not the only problem we have in forgiving, but I’m just dealing with one here. We can’t do that: we can’t let this go, this wrong that we’ve been done. We hold on to the anger. We play the story in our mind over and over again: “It never should have happened. It never should have happened. It was so wrong. It was so wrong. And he’s just happy as can be, and I’m in misery.” I’m thinking about a divorce: “He’s got that young chick! The kids like going there for Christmas. I’ve got debts galore.”
This text is for you, all you who are carrying a seemingly legitimate grudge. You were wronged — massively wronged. Justice ought to mean the death of the other person. It ought to mean that. You feel that to let it go, to lay it down, would mean there’s no justice, or that he’s going to get away with it, or that there’s no vengeance in the world. And you’re wrong. This text is in the Bible for you, so that when you walk out of here, you can lay it down and know God’s going to pick it up. If you lay down your rage, your anger, your playing it over and over again in your head, if you lay that down, it doesn’t get lost; God picks it up. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” “Let me take care of it.” That’s huge.
Oh, how I want you, Bethlehem, to enjoy this liberty. Because you know what? In the liberty of a laid-down grudge, love can happen. You’ve been wondering, “Why can’t I love? Why I can’t I love? Why can’t I love like I ought to love? There seems to be a blockage to my love.” And one of the answers is that you just keep holding on to that wrong. You might even be making God the whipping boy, or a husband or a son or a business partner or an old boyfriend who just picked you up and dropped you like a stone — got you pregnant.
There are a hundred pains in this room of injustice that was done to you, and you can lay it down because God’s going to take it up. And as you lay it down, you can walk out of here with a huge burden lifted. And in that freedom, love can happen.
Let me close with a testimony, my testimony. In 1974, as many of you know, my mother was killed in Israel. And as I’ve pieced the story together from those who were there, she and my dad were in a bus, sitting in the first seat behind the driver, and a VW minivan full of drunken Israeli soldiers, with lumber on top, loosely tied, swerved out of their lane and hit the bus on the front corner. And the lumber came through like missiles. And ten days later, when she was flown back to Atlanta from Tel Aviv, and I read the death certificate, it said “lacerated medulla oblongata.” And I said, “Thank you at least that it was quick.”
I nursed my dad back to health for a month, taping with Scotch tape the lacerations on his back, pouring in hydrogen peroxide, pushing the wounds together, taping them with Scotch tape so they’d heal from the inside out. If you knew, as some of you do, the nature of my growing up years, with my dad away and my mom doing everything, you would know how big that loss was at age 28. But as a tribute to the mighty mercy of God, I can bear witness that I don’t hate those soldiers. I feel no hatred for them. I don’t wish them evil.
It occurred to me as I was thinking recently that most of them are probably about my age now. One was killed, I heard. Most of them are about my age, a little younger — maybe five years younger. I was trying to compute: I was 28, they were soldiers, so they were probably in their mid-twenties. So, they are now in their fifties, somewhere in Israel today. And it occurred to me that the gospel might reach them, and that they would be with me in heaven. And how do I feel about that? I feel really good about that. They would be with my mom in heaven, with me in heaven.
How do you feel about your adversaries? You know, if Christ got to them and saved them, they’d be with you forever. Are you relating to them now in a way that would make it hard to relate to them then? That’s not a good idea. It’s going to be so embarrassing to be caught up to meet the Lord in the air and then say, “You? I don’t like you. I’ve been mad at you all my life.” That’s not a good idea. You should be praying that God would save them.
So, I commend to you — as one who has lived since 28 not carrying that grudge — I commend to you this life. It is a free and wonderful life. And in the life of freedom, you say, “God, if there is some vengeance to be done there, I just hand it over to you. And if there’s salvation to be done there, I pray that you would do it. May the gospel reach these men, who, in their drunkenness, caused my mother’s death at age 28, so that she only knew one of my five children.”
Father, on this Lord’s Day morning, I ask that burdens would be lifted. I pray that you would take this amazing promise, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” and let every person in the hearing of my voice lay down every grudge, rage, anger, bitterness, resentment, story going through their head over and over — “It shouldn’t have been that way, it shouldn’t have been that way. It was wrong, it was wrong.” May they lay it down.
And would you give wonderful liberty? And in that field of liberty, would you cause great love to grow, so that we, from the heart, can give a cup of cold water to our adversary, in the hope that our light would cause them to glorify our Father who is in heaven? I pray in Jesus’s name, amen.John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Providence.