The Radical Love of Burning Coals (Romans 12:20-21)
To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by doing so you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. —Romans 12:20-21
So ends the section of character markers in Romans 12 that distinguish Christians from the rest of the world. The resounding theme, beginning in verse 14, is that we love our enemies. This way of living is emphatically drawn from the teaching of Jesus in explosive texts like Matthew 5:39, 44–45 and Luke 6:26–29.
Paul continues this theme by explaining—on the contrary of avenging ourselves (v. 19), and another way to bless those who persecute us (v. 14), and another way to not repay evil for evil (v. 17)—we should feed our enemy if he’s hungry and give him something to drink if he thirsts. He quotes Proverbs 25:21–22.
This is radical love. Undoubtedly, this kind of behavior is “honorable in the sight of all” (v. 17). It cuts against the grain of this world like nothing else. It is marvelous—and a little odd. What does the proverb (and Paul) mean by “burning coals” on the head of our enemies? If feeding our hungry enemy is heaping burning coals on his head is that really love? Or are we just thrown a curveball exception?
What Are the Burning Coals?
There are two possible readings for what is meant by Proverbs 25:22.
The first possible reading could be that the good deed to our enemy is a way to intensify God’s judgment on them if they don’t repent. The idea of “coals” and “fire” is regularly related to judgment in the Old Testament (The Epistle to the Romans, p. 788). Also, the idea of degrees of judgment is a truth found in the teaching of Jesus. Chorazin and Bethsaida will have a more severe judgment than Tyre and Sidon (Matthew 11:21–22). Why? Because they rejected a clearer witness than the two Old Testament cities. Jesus himself walked the streets of Chorazin and Bethsaida and they hated him.
Paul cites the same idea earlier in his letter to the Romans. By refusing to repent in the face of God’s kindness, people store up wrath for themselves (Romans 2:4–5). Impenitence in the world of grace piles up the judgment that waits ahead. The “burning coals” is the condemning end that our enemy experiences by means of our good.
The second possible reading is to understand the “burning coals” as bringing shame on our enemy that leads to their repentance. This reading fits better with the context of love. The point is that our radical love becomes burning coals of shame on our enemy that leads to their salvation (Old Testament in the New, p. 681).
I think Paul has both views in mind, as Beale and Carson suggest. In either case, the issue looks the same for us: we love. Love our enemy, which heaps coals of shame on their head, leading to either condemnation or salvation as God wills, as it is every time a witness to the gospel is uttered
Overcome Evil with Good
God will inflict vengeance where vengeance is due. Paul has said that (verse 19). God will also use our love to lead others to repentance. What we shouldn’t do is take his work into our own hands. Our call stands: overcome evil with good.
That’s what God did. We were his enemy. We rebelled against his glory and exchanged his truth for the lies of idolatry. We were evil. Evil. But what did he do? He loved.
“God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us,” Paul tells us in Romans 5:8. The most radical love we could ever show to our enemies is but a shimmer of the radical love that God showed us in Jesus.