Sermon preached on Romans 12:9-21 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 3/24/2013 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“As Much As Depends On You”
The topic at our recent presbytery’s men’s conference was biblical reconciliation. When two people are in conflict with each other, they need reconciliation. This is a subject that’s so important because conflict is unfortunately so common in life. And that is what we’ll think about today, with regard to this passage. And I love what this passage contributes to the biblical teaching on reconciliation. This passage reminds us of the goal of reconciliation, that is, peace. This goal to live at peace with all men. But this passage then goes on to get us to think about what we can do to advance such peace. But, it also calls us to realize what we can’t do. That there are some conflicts you face that you can do only so much in seeking its peace; you may not find the peace that you seek in that relationship. And yet it’s this passage as well that can give us peace even when we don’t have all the peace that we want in each of our relationships.
And so let’s dig in. Today we’ll especially focus on verse 18 and so let me read it again. “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.” Let’s break this down by thinking first about the goal mentioned here. I’ve already mentioned how this passage talks about the goal of peace. We see that in verse 18. To seek to live peaceably with all men. This is a worthy goal. But the passage’s context shows that this is a peace that is sought amidst conflict. Verse 14, bless those who persecute you. Verse 17, repay no one evil for evil. Verse 20 mentions our enemies. And so we are talking about peace, not just in general. We are talking about seeking peace even with those people who persecute you, or treat you in an evil way, or in other words, have set themselves as your enemy. Realize when we talk like this, we aren’t just talking about a conflict you might have with someone in the world, a non-Christian, in other words. That is certainly one possibility. But this kind of conflict can, sadly, also come up among fellow believers. A lot of the Bible’s teachings on conflict resolution and reconciliation often address conflicts among God’s people. Peace and reconciliation should especially be the goal then. Of course, that’s often not our initial response or desire, even though it should be. Verse 19 talks about our likely desire for vengeance when people treat us like this, so that reminds us that the desire for peace might not be our initial response with such people. This means that this kind of peace is for the most part going to involve some kind of reconciliation between you and this “enemy.”
And so as we think about this goal of peace through reconciliation, remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:12-15. This is the parable of a hundred sheep and one goes astray. The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine other sheep and goes after the one lost sheep. That’s a parable that’s also recorded in Luke’s gospel, in Luke 15. As Jesus told it there, he seemed to especially bring out how that is like how Jesus goes and searches out for the lost and looks to save them and bring them back. But when he tells the parable in Matthew 18, the context is different. There, the context is more around our conflict with others, especially those who are part of the church. Immediately after this parable about the sheep in Matthew 18, Jesus talks about the steps you should do with a brother who has sinned against you. It talks about gaining your brother. The point is clear in Matthew 18. If someone is sinning against you, if someone is setting themselves against you as a sort of enemy, that’s a bad thing. But instead of focusing on our injury, we should focus on saving the other person. The attitude of the shepherd who goes after the one straying sheep is to be our attitude with the person who would be our enemy. And so I mention this parable here to make sure we understand what we are talking about when we talk about this kind of peace. This goal of peace with our enemies is not one where we just don’t argue any more. It’s not one where we just keep the peace by avoiding each other and being polite in public toward one another. No, there’s something deeper here. It’s about restoration and reconciliation. It’s about having those involved in giving evil to someone to turn from that. It’s about someone ultimately being set right in Christ.
So this is our goal. A goal for a real peace. Peace that will involve reconciliation and restoration. The greatest form of this peace will come when the opposing parties find such peace in Christ and the gospel of forgiveness and restoration. As we see together how God forgives us and restores us, that will help Christians in conflict to truly be at peace, reconciled, and restored. And yet, all this being said, verse 18 has these helpful and wise words: “As much as depends on you.” What an important dose of realism here. Your conflict may be with someone who is not a Christian, and could care less of how Christ and the gospel calls you two to be reconciled. Your conflict might be with a professing Christian, but nonetheless, they might in hypocrisy still refuse to pursue reconciliation with you. In other words, the other side in your conflict may not want to pursue this goal of real peace with you. Frankly, this is probably more common than not. What then to do in that circumstance? Well, you can’t control the other person. But you can control yourself. We each report to God over our actions. And so even if the other person doesn’t want peace, you nonetheless are to pursue it. As much as it depends upon you, pursue peace with that person. Yes, it doesn’t all depend on you. But as much as it does, pursue that peace.
What does this look like? Well, it looks like a lot of things. Let me propose some ways in which we should express this pursuit of peace. A big first step in pursuing peace in as much as it depends upon you is this: Examine yourself. Examine yourself. Make sure you are not contributing to the conflict and the problem. If you are in some way, any way, responsible for the conflict then confession and repentance is in order. And I don’t mean just to God. Yes with God. Confess to God how you sinned against this other person. Ask for God’s forgiveness. Really seek to repent, turn, from that sin. But also go to that person and do the same. Acknowledge what you have done to contribute to the conflict through your sins. Tell them your sin against them. Ask for their forgiveness. See if there is something you can do to make things right. Don’t miss that part of it. If you broke something of theirs, offer to replace it. If you said something wrong about them to others, commit to go and correct your statement to the other people. This is called bearing fruit in keeping with your repentance. It’s like how when Jesus visited Zaccheaus, Zaccheaus became a believer, and repented of the way he as a tax collector had stolen from people. As fruit of Zaccheaus’ repentance, he vowed to pay back four-fold; well, that was the Old Testament provision for how much you should pay back to people you steal from. Zaccheaus’ repentance wasn’t just lip service. He really was repenting. Well, that must be how we begin to seek peace with an opponent, as much as it depends upon you. If you have contributed to the conflict, real confession and repentance is in order. It’s like the idea we see of Jesus saying that if you are going to help someone with the speck in their eye, you have to first remove the log from your own.
And so we need to do some self-examination in the midst of a conflict. Now if you do that self-examination and can’t find any way in which you’ve contributed to the conflict, what should you do then? Frankly, you should look again. How truly rare it is, in my experience, that a conflict is truly only one sided. Even if the conflict is largely, primarily, the fault of the other person, it seems highly unlikely that you still haven’t contributed to the conflict in some way. Seek that out with prayer, counsel, and the Word. By the way, it’s very important that if you seek counsel on a conflict like this that you don’t inadvertently gossip or slander about the person you are in conflict with. Be very, very, careful here. Such counsel at that stage, will probably have to be a lot more generic and not sharing identifying details or making accusations about your opponent to others.
So then, after having done this step of self-examination, confession, and repentance, what can you do next to pursue peace, “as much as it depends upon you?” Well, then there are several related things that all work toward peace with them. First, give good for evil. That is said here in several ways in this passage.
We talked last week of the general command in this passage to return good for evil. Verse 14 says that you respond to persecutors by blessing them. Verse 20 says that we give hungry enemies food, and thirsty enemies something to drink. In other words, be kind and thoughtful to the person who would be your opponent. Show love and concern for them. This is where Jesus’ teaching about turn the other cheek and go the extra mile comes in. It means that you don’t treat the enemy with an attitude of where you will extract from them eye for an eye justice. No, it means you trust in God who says vengeance is mine, I will repay. By the way, that sometimes happens in this life. And it sometimes happens through civil courts or church courts. The eye for an eye principle is actually a true principle, but it’s given to state and church governments to use as a principle in judgment and justice. It’s not given for individuals to go out in their conflicts and become the judge in their own conflicts. No, that’s what judges are for — to judge between you and another when you have an unresolved conflict.
Sometimes all this means that when someone sins against you, you simply overlook it and move on. The Bible says that love covers a multitude of sins, 1 Peter 4:18. If we confronted a person every time they sinned against us, we’d surely have little time for anything else. We are going to offend people because we are sinners. Most of the time, the best thing for peace is to just overlook it. Sometimes, however, overlooking a matter is not the best thing for peace. If you find the offense so hurtful that you really struggle overlooking it, then that is probably a sign that this is not a sin to just overlook. Other times you see the destructiveness of this particular sin in the other person’s life and you know Christian love means you need to confront the other person. Because it’s hindering their usefulness and blessing in Christ’s kingdom. In other words, you think of that Matthew 18 parable about the sheep and realize that the matter is serious enough that it can’t be overlooked, but you see the need to help restore that person. Then don’t just overlook it. Then pursue reconciliation with the person in conflict. And to clarify, if ever they still perceive conflict with you, even if you are fine to overlook a matter, then you can’t just overlook it. You have to deal with the conflict. This is where the process of Matthew 18:15-20 comes into play. You go to them privately and try to be reconciled. If that still doesn’t work, then you go to them with one or two witnesses and again attempt reconciliation. Finally, you bring the matter to the church, via its elders, and seek reconciliation again in all of that. In that process, be open to what we said earlier, by the way. That the witnesses or the church elders may find some fault in you that you will need to confess and repent of.
Okay, so these are some broadly stated things that you can do to pursue peace with someone. More could be said, for sure. But this hopefully gives you a starting place in this pursuit. Well, at this point, it’s helpful to remind you again of the words that start out verse 18. If it is possible. If it is possible. You might do all these things we just said, and more, and still find that you have not achieved peace with the other person. Again, it’s what we said, this doesn’t all depend upon you. What do you do then? Do you just give up on verse 18? You’ve done that, and now the relationship is a loss? Well, no. Keep living out verse 18. What I mean is that you periodically make clear to the other person that you still desire for reconciliation. You make clear that the door is always open, so to speak. You approach them in this with love and a forgiving attitude. Now of course wisdom will have to dictate how often you make this known to them. Sometimes the other person just needs some time to cool off, and some space to do that. Throughout all of this, by the way, you need to be praying. Praying for yourself to handle the situation biblically. Praying for the other person for their reconciliation with you. And praying especially that if the other person doesn’t know the Lord, that even through all of this, they would yet come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. Even through how you are looking to handle this situation.
But I have to say, I love the words “if it is possible.” There’s a comfort in those words. Because some conflicts you just won’t be able to resolve, at least not for the moment — things might change, of course. But sometimes we need to be reminded of these words. That you are doing everything that depends upon you, and still no peace is found. You may hurt and long for that peace. It might be with someone you so desperately want a good relationship with. Some family member or long time close friend, or whomever. But find peace that sometimes these things aren’t under your control. Find peace with this humility to recognize that. To trust God in it all.
Brothers and sisters, this can be a difficult teaching. When someone really wrongs us and hurts us, our initial response so often is not for peace. Oh, we might say it is, but what we might really be wanting is justice. We want that personal vengeance where the other person comes and makes things right. We can feel so burned, so ripped off, that we don’t want the kind of peace that might be involved here. Peace that radically and graciously forgives. Peace that is pursued by you showing unwarranted kindness, goodness, and love to someone who’s just treated you so poorly. If we do that, we are afraid we’ll feel stepped on, taken advantage of, like a door mat. We say, yes, we want to show grace, but we don’t feel right about the other person “getting away with it”. And yet, again, this is where verse 19 comes in. That God says vengeance is mine. That we need to leave room for God’s wrath it says. You see, this is about trust. Can we trust God? Can we trust that God will make it right? Can we trust God that even if our opponents are out there laughing at us for how they think they got away with it, that God will have the final laugh, Psalm 2:4? And of course, we have to remember how God might bring about this justice for our opponents. He might pour out his wrath against their sin by having nailed it to the cross of Jesus Christ. And so remember how Matthew 18 ends. That we have been forgiven of so much, through the cross of Christ. We should not think it wrong if someone else’s sins, even sins that were against you, find their atonement on the cross as well.
This is of course what it’s all really about, isn’t it? This goal of peace, and how we are to strive for it, is all because of Christ. Because of what Christ has done for us. We were the sheep who had gone astray, and Christ sought us out. We were the servant forgiven of a debt we could have never paid back. Christ has sought and saved that which was lost — us! You see, Christ had this goal of our peace and reconciliation and restoration. And that is what he has accomplished.
Remember, we had set ourselves as God’s enemies. We were not at peace with God. His wrath was rightly turned against us. We were in this conflict with God. We were continuing to do evil, heaping up more wrath upon ourselves. This is what Romans 1-3 talked about. That all humans, both Jews and Gentiles, had shown themselves to be sinners and lawbreakers. All of us were needing this peace. In that situation, the conflict was completely one sided. God was not at fault in any way. It was all our wrongdoing. Now if God chose the attitude we would tend to want to take in that situation, we’d all be in trouble. If God just simply said, well, they will have to atone for their sins and seek out my reconciliation on their own, then all of us would still be damned eternally. Thankfully God didn’t just wash his hands of us like that and wait for us to come to him. Because the Bible is clear, none of us would have.
Instead, what did God do? Well, he really did live out this line of “as much as it depends upon you,” didn’t he? Of course, even then he didn’t do this in a minimalistic way. God could have listed out many things that he’s done in the pursuit of peace with man, that still would not have been enough for us. He could point out how he stayed the judgment on mankind, having much patience with us. God could point to how he instructed mankind on righteousness and repentance and atonement over and over again via the prophets. God could point to how he showed kindness throughout all of this, kindness to his enemies, by all that he does in his common grace toward humans. God could have pointed to all of that, and said that he had done enough to affect our reconciliation and peace with him. God could have said that anything more would violate his sense of justice. Anything more would be like we were just getting away with our sins. That if he allowed himself to be wronged like that and our sins not be punished, that it would be a horrible offense to justice. It would be a denial of his very essence, since God is a God of justice. If God were to have stopped there and said that, we could understand.
And yet God didn’t stop there. Evidently, the idea of “as much as it depends on you” meant even more to God. If there was no way for justice to be served and him to further pursue peace with us, then he would bear the brunt of justice himself, in our place. This is why Christ triumphantly road into Jerusalem on a donkey on that first Palm Sunday. That is why he knowingly went to the cross. As must as it depends on you meant for Jesus to go to the cross. That Jesus took on our guilt. He offered himself as an atonement for our sins. So that our sins were addressed. So that no one could say that our sins went without punishment. And yet, in grace upon grace, God in Christ paid the punishment himself. That is what our Christian life is all about. God reconciled us to himself in Christ, by paying our debt himself. So that we could have real peace with God. So we could be reconciled. So we could be restored to usefulness in his kingdom. This is love. This is grace. And what a wonderful, radical, example of showing what it means to pursue peace “as much as it depends on you.”
Saints of God, let us put on Christ in this way. Look to see Christ formed in you even in this way. You see, this is what we are talking about today. Having been forgiven in this way, this is the kind of peacemaking we are called to. Blessed are the peacemakers. So then pursue peace the way God in Christ has pursued peace in us. That means that we may have to take on the burdens ourselves. We may have to personally bear the cost of someone else’s sins. Our pride will say we are getting ripped off and they are getting away scot free. But in humility, we recognize what more has been given to us in Christ. Let us live Christ in this way. That we have a maximalist view of this phrase “as much as it depends upon you.” The world will say this is crazy. But be not conformed to the worlds thinking, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
And in all this, trust God. Trust that God is at work in it all. Trust him if your radical grace and love brings about a wonderful reconciliation. Even if you bear much cost in it all. And trust him if all your efforts fail to bring about peace with the other person. And most importantly, pray that God would use your peacemaking efforts to bring people into reconciliation not only with yourself, but especially with God. That they might see your peacemaking efforts as grace from above. That they might crave that too. And that they might find that peace with God through Christ and the gospel. Amen.
Copyright © 2013 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.