Romans 12:9–21 (ESV)✞: Marks of the True Christian
In verses 3–8✞ Paul talked about how various gifts should be used for the Church, and I see this passage as a continuation of that theme:
9 Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 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.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
There are a ton of smaller little nuggets here, in support of Paul’s larger point, so let’s go through them.
For the rest of this post, as I’ve been doing lately, I’m going to skip the verse numbers in my quotations and freely emphasise any text I want to call out, so just keep that in mind.
Let love be genuine.
Aww, Paul, why did you have to start there? You’re saying it’s not enough to put on a fake friendly face on Sunday mornings, but I actually have to love people?
Paul is indeed saying that! Notice that he doesn’t say, “don’t express love unless it’s genuine,” or, “only love people if you really mean it.” No, he’s telling us to love others, and to make it genuine.
Which raises the question: What if my love isn’t genuine? What do I do then?
Partially I’d say treat love the same way you treat faith: pray for more of it. But we should also remember that “love,” the way the Bible uses that word, is not a feeling, it’s a set of actions; it’s what you do. In all of your interactions with people, you should be asking yourself, what’s the best way I could possibly treat this person? How would I want to be treated in this situation?
And someone might be thinking that that still doesn’t answer the question; what if I’m just going through the motions, but it’s not genuine? What if I’m doing this because I have to, whereas Paul says I’m supposed to want to? And I would say it’s actually a very good sign that you’re asking the question – keep doing the loving acts, and pray that the genuineness would follow. It’s very commonly noticed that loving actions, even if performed without loving feelings (at least initially), will often lead to those loving feelings.
Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.
If something is evil, the Christian shouldn’t just avoid it, we should abhor it. Notice, however, that Paul doesn’t say “abhor who is evil,” he says “abhor what is evil” – when we say “hate the sin but love the sinner” it’s a very Biblical saying.
Sin isn’t “that really fun thing that I wish I could do but God won’t let me,” it’s something that’s bad in and of itself; it’s something to be abhorred.
OK, so what’s the flip side? We should hold fast to what is good. Psychologists have long been telling us that it’s pretty much impossible to give up a habit without replacing it with another habit; the trick is to replace a bad habit with a good one. If I have a gambling habit, and I kick that gambling habit by spending more time consuming pornography, I haven’t actually helped myself! I’ve abhorred one evil thing but just replaced it with another. But if I take the time I would have spent gambling and use it to attend a Bible Study, that’s holding fast to what is good.
A Christian who hates sin is a miserable person to be around; that person embodies all of the negative stereotypes people have about Christians as being people who hate joy and lead austere lives. And I’m not against austerity, per se, but a true Christian doesn’t just hate sin, a true Christian also genuinely loves the people around them, and enjoys the blessing God has given them. That, also, is holding fast to what is good. God Himself is good, so we should be holding fast to Him.
Any local church has a small group of people who tend to do most of the work; they’re always there, helping and serving. On some level, many people will pity them, because they’re spending all their time at the church instead of “living their life,” but those people are often the happiest. I’m not saying the best way to be happy is to spend all of your time at the church, but I am saying that we need to change our thinking about what makes a person happy.
Love one another with brotherly affection.
This goes back to the previous point about love being genuine; again, Paul is telling us to love and he’s not putting caveats on it; he’s not saying “love, unless the love isn’t genuine.”
He’s also telling us a bit about what that love should look like: I should love others like they’re brothers. In this case there’s no ESV footnote saying that the word “brotherly” means “brothers and sisters,” as occurs in other places when Paul talks to/about “brothers,” but I don’t think it makes a difference. It’s not like we love brothers differently from how we love sisters; we should love others the way we love, and show affection for, our own siblings.
There’s an additional point that I think applies more to the men than to the women, but when Paul says that we should love one another with brotherly affection it leaves no room for creepy sexual advances toward our sisters in Christ. There’s no place for the hugs that last a little too long, or the not-quite-but-almost sexual comments, or anything that we wouldn’t say or do to a flesh-and-blood sister.
Does that mean no romantic relationships in the Church? Of course not! The Bible highly encourages us to find our future spouses in the Church – but those relationships don’t start with sex, and they definitely don’t start with creepy sexual comments! (If you think the comments you’re making are sexual but not creepy sexual, you’re more than likely wrong.)
Treat your sisters as sisters. For the one sister who will one day be your wife, there will be time enough when you’re married to introduce sex, and enjoy that gift that God has given you. Until then, brotherly/sisterly affection is how you should be treating her, and everyone else.
Outdo one another in showing honor.
What fascinates me most about this nugget of wisdom is what Paul doesn’t say. He doesn’t say outdo one another in showing love, or in showing affection, he says in showing honour.
That person sitting in the pew beside me was made in the image of God – that’s worthy of honour! She or he has been given various gifts by God – that’s worthy of honour! I will one day see that person in a new, transformed body, reflecting the glory of God without any hindrance of sin – that’s worthy of honour!
And Paul isn’t explicitly limiting this to Christians—I’m just continuing on from the previous passage when he was talking about using our gifts—but a non-Christian is still made in the image of God, still has gifts from God – is still worthy of honour, just as much as the Christian.
Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.
This point hits me where I live, because, frankly, I’m lazy. But Paul won’t allow me to rest in my laziness; he wants me to be zealously and fervently serving God. And, similar to the point above, this means both in and outside of the Church; if there are talents I can be leveraging on Sunday mornings I should be leveraging them. If there are talents I can be leveraging to better the world I should be leveraging them.
Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.
I had to spend more time thinking about this sentence then I’d expected. Not that any of these individual points are complex, but the more I thought about it the more I was struggling to see why Paul had put these points together. I mean, ending with the exhortation to be constant in prayer makes sense regardless of what came before it, but why does Paul contrast tribulation with hope? Why doesn’t he say, “Rejoice in hope, be patient when things seem hopeless?” Or, “Rejoice when things are going great, be patient in tribulation?”
Are we to say that, from Paul’s point of view, the opposite of tribulation is hope? That doesn’t work for me, because I can’t imagine Paul thinking we shouldn’t be hopeful when in tribulation! So I don’t think this a contrast between “good times” and “bad times.” Or, if it is, it’s not one in the sense that Paul is treating it like an either/or kind of thing.
“Oh,” thought I, “but this is a great opportunity to do a side-by-side comparison; look at a number of different versions, and see what they say!” Unfortunately that didn’t help either; I looked it up on Bible Gateway in a number of translations (ESV, NIV, KJV, NKJV, NASB)✞, but every single one translated it as “hope” and “tribulation” except for the NIV, which used “hope” and “affliction” – which is the same concept, to my eyes.
So I didn’t clear up the mystery, but I can still rejoice whenever I’m feeling hopeful – or revel in my hope in the Lord whenever I’m rejoicing; I can still strive for patience when I’m in tribulation (or affliction); and I can definitely, regardless of whatever is happening in my life, be in constant in my prayer life.
Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
Paul says to contribute to the needs of the saints – does that mean we shouldn’t help non-Christians? No, not at all; but the Scriptures do say that we’re to prioritise helping our brothers and sisters in the Lord. For those of us in the West, I’m not sure how important this distinction is—we have more than enough resources to take care of fellow believers and help others as well—but Paul’s focus, in this section, is on building up the Church, so he refers to helping our fellow saints. If a fellow saint is in need and we don’t help them, we should be ashamed of ourselves.
But there’s also the second half of the sentence; Paul doesn’t just say that we should show hospitality, but that we should seek to show hospitality. We should be looking for opportunities to do so. In my household this is an example of where my wife does a much better job than I do; I’m more than happy to show hospitality, but she’s the one who would be actively seeking out opportunities to do so.
I should also mention, though, that when Paul talks about showing hospitality he’s not talking about inviting another family over for dinner – after which they’ll leave and go to their own homes. Over the timespan the Bible was written—Old Testament and continuing right through to New Testament times—there was no air travel, no taxi service, little in the way of professional hotels, no infrastructure whatsoever to help those who were traveling. This is why there are so many stories (more in the Old than the New, though the concept still existed, I believe) where someone shows up in a new town and just… sits down in the town square. The idea was that someone would see the person there and invite them into their home. This wasn’t just dinner, that guest would be there for days; however long they were staying in that town. That’s what Paul is talking about when he says “hospitality.”
We’re supposed to be willing—nay, to seek out opportunities—to show hospitality like that. The modern world doesn’t work like that, we’re not going to get people coming from out of town who need to stay in our houses—we really do have hotels now—but is there a college student attending your church who can’t afford rent while they’re at school? Think of the burden it would be to take that on! Think of the way you’d be serving not only that student, but the Church, and God Himself!
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
The New Testament keeps telling us this! Jesus told us to love our enemies, now Paul is telling us to bless those who persecute us! The fact is, it’s not easy to do. Jesus and Paul knew they were asking us to do something very difficult – very unnatural, actually!
So what does Paul—or the Bible in general—mean by “blessing” someone? Easton’s Study Bible says, “One blesses another when he expresses good wishes or offers prayer to God for his welfare.” Similarly, the KJV Dictionary defines bless as, “To pronounce a wish of happiness to one; to express a wish or desire of happiness.”
When someone persecutes me, how should I respond? By fervently wanting that person to do well! And how does that play out? I pray to God for that person/group – not about them, but for them! That doesn’t mean I can’t also pray for the persecution to stop, but it means that I’m as interested in the welfare of my persecutors as I am about my own.
Maybe I shouldn’t pick on Americans so much in this blog, but I’ll do so once again. Conservative media in America is full of the concept of the supposed “war on Christianity” being waged by “liberals,” but even if that were true, how should Christians react? By blessing those who are “persecuting” them – bless and do not curse them! If you attend a church where these beliefs are fervently held, how often have you had prayer meetings devoted to praying for “liberals?”
And… I should probably say the same about American Christian liberals, except… I don’t feel the Christian left in American feels persecuted by the Christian right in the same way the Christian right feels persecuted by the Christian left. But if the Christian left does feel that the Christian right are “enemies,” then I’d say the same thing: pray for them, don’t fight with them.
I’m not saying that Christian conservatives or liberals are actually persecuting each other – but I am saying that, if you consider them your enemies/persecutors, that is the correct response. “God, please have them stop persecuting me – but in the meantime, please bless them, and their children!”
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
This pairing seems more obvious than some of the others. If my brothers and sisters are rejoicing, I should be happy for them and rejoice with them; if they’re broken-hearted then I should weep with them.
There is one area that we might want to think about, though: the death of a fellow Christian. There’s a line of thinking that leads some Christians to feel that you shouldn’t mourn when a Christian dies; after all, the thinking goes, they’re with Jesus now! And it’s true the person is now home with the Lord; and it’s true that that fact should give their friends and loved ones comfort; but it’s not true that that means we shouldn’t mourn. Death is still a tragedy; it’s still true that that person’s friends and family now have to go on without them in their lives.
But even if you believe you wouldn’t be sad if a loved one died, when others are weeping at the loss of their loved ones, it would be heartless and cruel not to feel their pain with them, and weep with them, and comfort them however you can. Telling them not to cry because their loved ones are with Jesus isn’t speaking the truth in love; it isn’t loving at all, even if you believe it’s true.
Actually… I guess it’s worth addressing the “rejoice with those who rejoice” part, too, because that leaves no room for jealousy! If someone at my local church gets a promotion at work, with a nice fat raise, I should be happy for them. If someone at my church gets a promotion and a raise while I’m having a terrible time at my low-paying job, it shouldn’t change my joy for them at all! If someone at church gets engaged while I’m single and lonely, I should still be genuinely happy for them, and rejoice with them.
Live in harmony with one another.
I think I can be quick on this one—this post got way longer than I’d expected it to!—but this one is quite easy to understand. Is it easy to do? Not at all! All in all, it might be one of the harder commands in the list – but it’s easy to understand!
Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.
I feel like this is probably still a problem for Christians, though I don’t see it at my local church; we’re not, in general, a very wealthy congregation, so there’s not a lot of opportunity for us to disdain each other for being “lowly.” Though I suppose people can get haughty—and/or consider others to be lowly—for reasons other than financial ones; those with better vs. worse gifts, for example. (Obviously I mean gifts we perceive to be better or worse; the Bible is clear that there’s no such thing.)
Given that I’m a sinner, saved by Grace, that I don’t deserve all that God has given me, there should be no place in my worldview to consider others to be lowlier than myself, or to get haughty.
Never be wise in your own sight.
Oh, this one is another difficult one! Not difficult to understand, but difficult to carry out! How do I know if I’m being wise, or just wise in my own sight? Especially since some of us really are wise!
I don’t have any hard and fast rules on this one. In general, if you find people tend to disagree with you on many of the things you say, perhaps you’re not actually wise, just wise in your own sight? “Ah,” you might be thinking, “but that’s just because I’m so much wiser than everyone else that they don’t ‘get it’ the way I do!” And that is technically possible, but quite unlikely. In general, someone who is wise will be recognised as such by their peers, by church leadership… just generally recognised.
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 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.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
I left this big section together because it’s all interrelated – but it’s also summarising some of the points Paul has already covered.
The only potentially confusing point is about heaping burning coals on someone’s head; what’s that about? It’s a quotation from Proverbs, and here I’ll quote from the ESV Study Bible on this point:
Rom. 12:20–21 Burning coals is quoted from Prov. 25:21–22. Most interpreters think Paul is teaching that the Christian is to do good to people so that they will feel ashamed and repent, and that sense is possible. But in the OT “burning coals” always represent punishment (2 Sam. 22:13; Ps. 11:6; 18:8, 12–13; 140:10), so another interpretation is that Paul is repeating the thought of Rom. 12:19: Christians are to do good to wrongdoers, recognizing that God will punish them on the last day if they refuse to repent. Overcoming evil with good will ordinarily include acts of kindness toward evildoers, but it may sometimes also include the “good” (13:4) of the civil government stopping evil through the use of superior force (military or police), as Paul explains in 13:3–4. …
ESV Study Bible
Since this is a quotation from Proverbs, let’s look at the original:
21 If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat,
and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink,
22 for you will heap burning coals on his head,
and the LORD will reward you.
And let’s look at the ESV Study Bible notes from that passage, too:
Prov. 25:21–22 Although interpreters differ about the meaning of the metaphor of heaping burning coals on the enemy’s head, it is likely an image for leading him to repentance or shame, suggesting that he will feel inward burning pangs of guilt for his wrongdoing. In any case, the message is clearly to repay evil with good (see Rom. 12:17–21). The image of “burning coals” does not imply something that harms the enemy, because it further explains the bread and drink in Prov. 25:21, which do him good, and also because Proverbs forbids taking personal vengeance (see 20:22). Finally, the LORD will reward you (25:22) implies a good result from these “burning coals,” which is most consistent with leading the person to repentance.
ESV Study Bible
Personally, my advice is to ignore the burning coals part; if I’m trying to help my enemy as some kind of Machiavellian attempt to harm them, then I’m not following the spirit of what Paul is trying to teach. I should feed and clothe my enemy because it’s the right thing to do, because I’m commanded to bless them. Anything else is up to God.