Rom 12 - New Mind - New Relationships (2008)

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The Renewal of the Mind

Romans 12:3–16


Paul has just identified the transformation of the mind as a critical imperative for Christians. He now explains the meaning of such renewed thinking. The text unit is clearly defined by a play on the word think in vv. 3 and 16. Correct thinking is the frame or inclusio. It means: 1) that Christians are members of a body that simultaneously is characterized by great diversity and great unity (vv. 4–8), and 2) that Christians are to love without hypocrisy (vv. 9–15).


  A The Frame—think correctly, 12:3
  B To live as the body of Christ, 12:4–8
  B To love without hypocrisy, 12:9–15
  A The Frame—think correctly, 12:16


The Frame 12:3 and 16

Paul introduces the text unit with the authority of a teacher; he speaks on the basis of a grace that has been given to him. The concern for correct thinking is not his, but God’s, which Paul passes on: the Christians in Rome (to all the ones being among you) must learn to think differently about themselves. Translated literally, the opening words in v. 3 read: not to think more highly [hyperphronein] than it is necessary to think [phronein] but to think in order to be sound in thinking [sōphronein]. Verse 16 is similar: the same thing thinking [phronountes] among one another, not proud things thinking [phronountes] but associating with the lowly ones. Not become smart-headed [phronimoi] according to yourself.

Paul contrasts two kinds of thinking, “thinking beyond the proper bounds” or hubris thinking (hyperphronein) and modest or reasonable thinking (sōphronein). The first describes arrogant and ambitious thinking, the second pictures self-controlled thinking. Both kinds are used in political contexts to describe the relationship between people. The first creates conflict and destroys community, the second controls ambition for the welfare of the community.

The concern for “right thinking” opposed to “wrong thinking” picks up the language from elsewhere in the letter—the critique of “arrogant thinking” in 11:20 and the rejection of “conceited thinking” in 11:25, and introduces a phrase which will be repeated in 15:5, the same thing thinking among one another.

The problem among Christians in Rome is ambitious thinking, thinking arrogantly in v. 3 and proud things thinking in v. 16. The antidote to this communal poison is to think reasonable thinking in v. 3 and to associate with the lowly ones and not become wise according to yourself in v. 16. Correct thinking in v. 3 is based on a mean outside of the self, to each as God has measured a measure of faith. The gift of God to each person, not personal ambition, is the standard for self-assessment. The goal is defined in v. 16 as the same thing thinking among one another. The means is more radical than in v. 3; it is not keeping within the limits of what God has given, but the total reversal of associating with the lowly ones. The antithesis to the proud in v. 16 is the lowly, the people who lack honor and instead are characterized by shame. People in the church can think the same thing among one another only when the people of status and power associate with the shamed, the people with no honor and status. The unity of the community is threatened by arrogant thinking. The renewal of the mind calls for subversive thinking and behavior, choosing to give up power and status to become one with the lowly.

Paul can call for status reversal with integrity, because he practices it in his own ministry. He does not preach with eloquent wisdom lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power (1 Cor. 1:17); he surrenders all his rights in the gospel for the welfare of his churches (1 Cor. 9:15–18); he refuses to boast except in his weakness because when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor. 12:10); he willingly suffers the loss of all privilege for the sake of gaining Christ (Phil. 3:4–11). Paul practices status reversal and calls Jesus followers to such a value commitment and lifestyle because that is how Jesus lived. Jesus surrendered status for the weak and the lowly (2 Cor. 8:9).

To Live as the Body of Christ 12:4–8

Paul illustrates the exhortation to correct thinking by referring to the community as a body, a common metaphor in ancient political thought. A community or a city was compared with the human body to encourage cooperation and unity.

The first line of the metaphor speaks of diversity, many different members with different functions. The second line centers the diversity—the many are one body in Christ, which is further defined as members one of another. The third line exhorts the use of the different gifts given by God to each member. Seven gifts are identified. Prophecy denotes the spiritually inspired but rational ability to discern and declare God’s workings in the community and God’s will for the church. The value of the gift is determined by its origin in faith and by its capacity to strengthen faith (the measure of faith refers to the source of the prophetic word, i.e., a word from God, and to the results of the measurement). The gift of service provides acts of service to the community. The one who teaches passes on and interprets the teachings of the faith. The one who exhorts nurtures the practice of the ethical implications of the faith. The gift of charity from one’s own resources must be exercised with simplicity. The patron who provides financial support for those in need must demonstrate earnest dedication. The gift of mercy must be bathed in a cheerful spirit. Each gift is to be exercised faithfully for the benefit of the whole community (see 1 Cor. 12 and Eph. 4 for other gift lists with similar concerns for unity in diversity).

The point of the metaphor is that the sum is greater than the parts; the Roman Christians must learn to see themselves as interdependent parts of a larger whole. All parts are important and needed for the well-being of the whole. No part should think arrogantly about its importance or role. Thinking too highly of oneself is inappropriate, because each gift is defined by being members one of another. The churches are composed of interdependent people.

To Love Without Hypocrisy 12:9–15

The second form of correct thinking is defined by the opening phrase of v. 9, love without hypocrisy, which serves as the headline of the text unit. The linkage of love with unhypocritical is a uniquely Pauline phrase (used only here and in 2 Cor. 6:6 in the NT). Christians are to live authentically loving lives. They are not to be two-faced, e.g., talk one line and live a different one.

Paul spells out the content of love in two different ways. The first characterization of the life of love is detailed in a carefully constructed poem (a ring composition):

  A Abhorring the evil
  sticking to the good
  B with brotherly love loving one another
  with honor giving the lead  
  with zeal not timid  
  C in spirit zealous  
  in the Lord serving    
  B in hope rejoicing
  in tribulation bearing up  
  in prayer remaining constant  
  A to the needs of the saints partnering
  the love of strangers pursuing (usually translated as “hospitality pursuing”).

The translation is intentionally literal. It shows the heavy use of participles and prepositions to tie the whole together. The point of the poem is very clear—be active in loving in a variety of ways, e.g., shrinking from evil with horror, persisting in good, honoring, standing with, being partners with Christians in need, actively loving strangers. The unity of the church is built as people exercise love to each other in the spirit and in the Lord; the “C” at the center is clearly important as the ground to enable active loving.

The first “A” introduces a theme Paul will develop in the next text unit, 12:17–13:10, resist evil in all forms by pursuing the good and loving. To love without hypocrisy involves moral judgment, distinguishing good from evil and then pursuing the good. The discernment of the good here and in 12:17–13:10 expands on the same theme from 12:2. The transformed mind seeks the good. True love, like the will of God, involves discriminating moral choices.

The second characterization of the life of love is given in vv. 14–15. The construction changes abruptly from participles to imperatives—bless, bless, do not curse. The meaning of the previous poem is radicalized by means of two words—bless and pursue. To bless in biblical tradition means to call down God’s gracious power on someone, including prayers for leniency, or forgiveness, or salvation. The term pursue (diōkontes)—can also mean “persecute”—bless the ones persecuting (“you” is not in the best manuscripts). The love of strangers and blessing the one pursuing is a play on words (diōko in both phrases). Intentionally and actively loving strangers and blessing the ones pursuing or persecuting believers are flip sides of the same coin. Verse 14 may be a Pauline commentary on the words of Jesus about loving the enemy and praying for the persecutor (Matt. 5:44) or blessing the persecutor (Luke 6:28). The language and sentiment were also common in the OT (Ps. 36:22; Prov. 3:33; 30:10) and Judaism (Ecclus. 21:26–7; 33:12) so that Paul could be quoting a word of wisdom. To love means to ask God to bless even people who persecute; it certainly excludes the opposite, cursing the oppressors. Love means solidarity with people whether in joy or sorrow.

Comments and Observations

The transformed mind that Paul calls for involves a radical resocialization of the dominant mind set. The honor-shame code of Roman society is turned on its head. Christians are people who think differently about themselves and about others. They think honestly about themselves and give priority to the needs and well being of other people. Everyone is valued and loved as members of the same family. The less honorable, or the shamed, are lifted up and honored. Even persecutors or oppressors are blessed. Such counterculture behavior can occur only if the mind has been changed at its deepest center because of the mercies of God (12:1) and the service of Christ (12:11).

Many commentators suggest the audience shifts in v. 14 from people inside the church to those outside. The frame of vv. 3 and 16 hardly supports such a neat distinction. Christians can be persecuted and oppressed by fellow-Christians, especially in communities of diverse ethnic composition and socioeconomic distinctions, as well as by non-Christians in the society. The transformed mind must learn to treat fellow Christians of different ethnic origin and of high and low status as brothers and sisters. At the same time, as the next text unit indicates, distinct lines between “inside” and “outside” cannot be drawn. Loving behavior promotes the good and resists evil both within and outside the believing community.


Paul’s concern for the mind in this text is not out of character. He is the one early Christian writer who carries a concern for the mindset or worldview of his churches. Twenty of the 24 references to “mind” (nous) in the NT are found in the Pauline letters, 23 out of 26 references to “thinking” (phroneō) are Pauline. Paul is uniquely a pastor of the mind.

Importance of Renewed Mind

The mind and thinking are not neutral for Paul. They reflect a larger life reality that has consequences. People can have an unfit mind that is incapable of discernment, or minds that are hardened (2 Cor. 3:14), or blinded minds (2 Cor. 4:4), or thoughts that lead them astray (2 Cor. 11:3), or they can be futile in their thinking (Eph. 4:17). To let one’s mind be shaped by the value system of the flesh (Rom. 8:5) or earthly things (Phil. 3:19; Col. 3:2) displeases God and leads to death. In contrast, to let one’s mind be shaped by the Spirit (Rom. 8:5) or the things above (Col. 3:2) pleases God and leads to life. To think as a child reflects an immaturity that needs to be outgrown. The mind can be shaped by the thoughts of Satan (2 Cor. 2:11) or it can know the mind of the Lord (Rom. 11:34; 1 Cor. 2:16).

Renewed Mind and Relationships

Paul’s concern for the thought life of Christians and the church focuses on two issues. First, the way one thinks determines self-perception and thus relationship to others. The contrasts are thinking too highly or arrogantly versus thinking soundly or sensibly (Rom. 11:20; 12:3, 16; Col. 2:18). Paul’s concern here is honest self-assessment between different groups of people and between people of different socioeconomic strata in the church. The critical value at stake is the quest for honor in an honor-shame culture.

The use of the contrast thinking too highly (hyperpronein) and thinking soundly (sōphronein) is common in ancient philosophy related to issues of conflict within communities. It is political language designed to reduce strife and to help restore harmony and balance. “Thinking soundly” is the individual or corporate virtue which overcomes the vice of pride (hubris) that underlies the conflict. Hubris thinking is arrogance that leads to the violation of appropriate personal and social limits. It is caused most commonly by pride due to strength and wealth. Such thinking is especially tempting to people in power. “Thinking soundly” outlines a middle way to balance conflicting interests that disrupt the community.

The language is used in this classical sense in the New Testament. “Thinking soundly” is the antidote to individual and group pride. The image of the body and its members in Romans and church divisions in 1 Corinthians indicates relations between individuals and groups in the community. The specific call to solidarity with the humble in Romans 12:16 indicates the political nature of the language in Romans. The identification of the gospel with the foolish, the weak, and the despised in 1 Corinthians makes a similar point. The same themes are found in Philippians 2:5–11—the unity of mind, brotherly love, not to seek glory for oneself but instead to give more glory to others. The call for “thinking soundly” in the pastoral letters is concerned with building the community of faith rather than the control of individual appetites and desires, as in most interpretations. Young men and women, older men and women, church leaders are called to “think soundly” for the well-being of the entire Christian community (Tit. 1:8; 2:2, 4, 5, 6, 12; 1 Tim. 2:9, 15; 3:2; 2 Tim. 1:7). The demoniac of the Gerasenes is able to participate in community life—sit attentively in a group—after Jesus casts out the demons and the man is in his right mind (Mark 5:15; Luke 8:35). Paul and other early Christian leaders link thinking and a subversive political order. Those with status are to seek out the lowly and lift them up, give them honor. The welfare of the whole is more important than the individual. Such subversive behavior can occur only if people’s thinking or worldview has been radically changed.

Common Mind

Paul’s second concern for the thought life is even more radical. He calls Christians to “a common mind,” the same thing thinking among one another (v. 16a). It is one thing to call for a worldview that reverses the basic patterns of thought and behavior in a given culture. It is quite another to ask that the Christians and the churches agree on such a radically new way of thinking and acting. But that is the meaning of the phrase to be of the same mind. Paul uses the motif of “one mind” six times (Rom. 12:16; 15:5; Gal. 5:10; 2 Cor. 13:11; Phil. 2:2; 4:2). These exhortations all call for “a unified mind,” especially among church leaders, when the church supports the weak (Rom. 12:16; 15:5–6) and when the church is torn by conflict (2 Cor. 13:11; Gal. 5:10; Phil. 2:2; 4:2). Unity is tested most severely when the church must deal with the weakness or shame of fellow-Christians and when there are differences of opinion. Paul exhorts unity in the church by calling people to discern a common direction, to agree about basic ideas and strategies, to have unity of mind. The model for developing such unity of thought is Jesus. It is possible only if people act like Jesus did, giving up personal ideas, preferences, and positions for the welfare of others and for the sake of the whole.

Paul’s focus on “the mind” of individual Christians and the church is ultimately a concern for community solidarity. Thinking soundly and unity of mind are indispensable for the unity of the Christian community.


A Radical and Concrete Ethic

The interpretation of Romans 12:1–16 (usually through 12:21) in the church is dominated by two themes: 1) Paul is outlining his ethics more systematically than in any other letter; 2) His ethic is an ethic of love. Luther opens his interpretation of this section with the sentence, “the apostle is about to teach a Christian ethic” (Luther, 1961). C. H. Dodd, 400 years later, suggests that Paul comes closer to “giving a systematic treatment” of Christian ethics in Romans 12–15 than anywhere else and that love is the center of that ethic (1932:197). Paul Achtemeier in a popular commentary for preachers focuses on love as the solution to problems of pride and overinflated egos (1985). This way of defining the theology of the text, of course, leads to struggles with the relationship of grace and ethics for many Protestant interpreters. Teachers in the church like Luther, Nygren, and Achtemeier go out of their way to emphasize that the concern for ethics here does not constitute a new law. Grace and ethical instructions are not incompatible, they assure us.

The dominant modes of interpreting this text make two problematic assumptions: 1) Paul is outlining a systematic ethic rather than giving instructions for specific issues in the house churches in Rome; 2) His ethical instructions are grounded in love. Romans 12 is simply a less poetic version of 1 Corinthians 13.

A more historical and radical reading of the text is required. Paul is addressing a specific set of values and behaviors among the Roman Christians. Further, he is calling for much more than love. He is talking about the mind, not the heart. He is arguing for a change of worldview, a fundamental shift of values. Love of the other and of the oppressor is an example of what this new worldview and value system looks like in actual church life. Paul is exhorting a resocialization of the Christian community that will make possible a love that will honor rather than shame Christians who are different.

A New Value System

The real challenge of this text for the church is to construct a worldview, a value system, which incarnates the gospel in ways that build unity and nurture solidarity among Christians of different racial, class, gender, and socioeconomic status groups. The call for thinking patterns that are consistent with the gospel and for “one mindedness” in the church, especially unity of mind among leaders, is far more radical than any love ethic. But such a radical sacrifice is precisely what Paul suggests constitutes the renewal of the mind so that individual Christians and the church can please God and discern the divine will.

What would a genuinely equalitarian worldview and value system look like in the church? How can the church “rehonor” people who have been shamed by powerful white male dominated structures, especially women and minority groups? Is it possible for church leaders to give up the quest for power and status for unity of thinking and action in the church? Paul calls for a real revolution in the church, one which is much more radical than “a love ethic.”

Repay Only the Good

Romans 12:17–13:10


Paul develops two themes introduced in vv. 9 and 14, hate evil and do the good (v. 9) and reject revenge against opponents or enemies (v. 14). A series of key words define the text unit—repay (12:17 and 13:7), obligation or owe (13:7, 8), evil and good (12:17, 21; 13:3, 4, 8), love (13:8, 10). The unit is tied together by the theme of obligation or repayment in relationship to evil and good. In a society where Christians are persecuted by fellow Christians and non-Christians, should they practice revenge? In a society where Christians are overtaxed and taxed unfairly, should they resist the taxing function of the state? Should Christians repay evil with evil? Paul’s answer to every question is “no.” Instead, he argues, Christians should repay evil with good, pay taxes, and love the neighbor. Paul makes his case with three commands.

The Pauline exhortations are principled and politically realistic at the same time. Paul does believe that Christians should do good and hate evil, that revenge should be left to God, that Christians should live by love. But he also knows he is addressing a minority group in a hostile environment. Any kind of explicitly revolutionary or culturally subversive activity by these people would be political and social suicide. To argue for non-retaliation, for payment of taxes, for life governed by peace and love is good political realism for a new and small group of Christians trying to live out the gospel in an alien context.


The First Imperative—Do not repay (apodidōmi) evil but overcome evil, 12:17–21  
  A 12:17a Do not repay evil (kakon)
  B 12:17a For evil (kakou)
  12:17b Think the honorable before all people    
  12:18 Live peacefully with all people    
  12:19 Do not avenge yourselves    
    Scriptural confirmation 12:20    
  B 12:21a Do not be overcome by evil (kakou)
  A 12:21b but overcome evil (kakon) with the good.
The Second Imperative—Be subject to the governing authorities, 13:1–7    
  13:1a Thesis—Command: be subject
  Theological reasons 13:1b–2  
  Practical reasons 13:3–4  
  Restatement of thesis 13:5  
  13:6–7 Application, specific commands
  Specific—pay taxes 13:6  
  General—repay (apodidōmi) everyone the obligation (opheile) 13:7  
The Third Imperative—Be obligated (opheilete) to no one except to love, 13:8–10    
  13:8a Thesis—Owe (opheilō) to no one except to love (agape)
  A 13:8b Reason—loving the other fulfills the law
      Scriptural confirmation 13:9a–e
      Scriptural interpretation 13:9f
  A 13:10 Reason —the love (agape) to neighbor not works evil (kakon) —love (agape) is the fulfillment of the law


Do Not Repay Evil But Overcome Evil with Good 12:17–21

The text unit has one theme—actively reject retribution in any form. The theme is stated three times, at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end: 1) repay no one evil for evil (v. 17), 2) never avenge yourselves (v. 19), 3) do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (v. 21). Paul rejects the moral code of the ancient world which justified paying back harm done to oneself or to loved ones (the lex talionis).

Paul exhorts more than rejection of retribution. He also counsels behavior that assumes a new world view or a new set of values: 1) take thought for what is noble in the sight of all people (v. 17), 2) if you are capable, live peaceably with all people (v. 18), 3) if your enemy is hungry, feed him, if he is thirsty, give him drink (v. 20), 4) overcome evil with good (v. 21). The first counteraction picks up the idea of right thinking, literally, thinking beforehand. Instead of retaliation give forethought to behavior that is beautiful and good before all people and act on the basis of these values.

The second counteraction picks up the peacemaking theme of Jesus (Matthew 5:9), actively engage in peacemaking or be a peacemaker. The qualification if you are capable (lit., if you have the power) recognizes that peaceful living takes two sides. In a context of oppression and persecution it may not be possible, or it may not lie within your power, to live peaceably. The verbal form (eirēneuontes) requires the supplying of a helping word in English, living, pursuing, building, and so forth. Making peace a verb, not available in English, connotes a dynamic element often missed in current discussions on peace.

The third counteraction is a quote from Proverbs 25:21–22. Do not respond to hostility only with passivity—leaving it to God—but with concrete acts of kindness. Such action Paul explains with the strategic metaphor of burning coals upon his head, signifying that it will confuse the opponent. It is not clear whether the metaphor connotes judgment in keeping with numerous OT precedents (Zerbe, 1992:182–84, 196–201), symbolizes contrition and repentance, as in such a custom in ancient Egyptian penitence and reconciliation ritual (Klassen, 1962:337–50), or fire-starting coals that are a friendship gift (Isaak, 2003:37). But the exhortation to act kindly is clear. Responding to evil with hospitality and kindness has a positive effect-it unsettles the enemy. The final counteraction uses the imagery of a Christian standing in the middle of a battle with the evil of the present age. Do not respond to the power of evil by using the means of evil, hostility or retaliation, but with the power of good.

The theological reason for the exhortation is given in the middle, leave it to the wrath of God (v. 19), supported by a word of Scripture, vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord (Deut. 32:35). The people of God are not to retaliate for evil done to them, because judgment is God’s business. Retaliation against the enemies of God’s people was both advocated and practiced by the Jewish Zealots in Paul’s day. The Zealot option may well have been a factor among Roman Jews and Jewish Christians (see the introduction to the commentary “The Pastoral Context of the Churches in Rome”). Paul, in agreement with a series of Jewish teachers (T. Gad 6:7; 1QS 10:17–18; CD 9:2–5; 2 En. 50:4), rejects revenge against opponents whether outside or inside the boundaries of God’s people, because such action must be left to God.

Comments and Observations

Several things are striking about this text. The first is the emphasis on public behavior—all people is repeated twice (vv. 17 and 18). The way Christians deal with oppression and persecution is observable and observed. The second is the pervasive teaching and spirit of the Sermon on the Mount. Evil is to be countered publicly with goodness and loving action.

Paul’s exhortation to overcome evil with good links this text to what precedes and follows. This entire section of Romans begins with the need to make choices between the ages. The text unit that follows anchors the call to live out of a different worldview in eschatology, in reality that the night is far gone, the day is at hand.

Many commentators suggest that Paul is addressing persecution by non-Christians or people outside the Christian churches. He may even be addressing the beginnings of the persecution of Christians by the government which resulted in the mid-60s persecution by the emperor Nero. Evidence within the text supports such a reading: 1) the one another language from 12:3–16 and 13:8–10 fades and is replaced by all language. In 1 Thessalonians 5:15 and 3:12 and Romans 13:7 “all” language refers to outsiders. 2) The word for persecution, diōkein, normally refers in Paul to hostility from outside the Christian community. 3) The placement of 13:1–7 within this context suggests relations with the larger culture. 4) The use of apocalyptic language— overcoming evil with good—is especially appropriate for relations between insiders and outsiders. On the other hand, the emphasis on public action (all people) and positive acts of kindness toward persecutors can fit internal tension between different ethnic and socioeconomic church groups as well. As the history of the church has demonstrated only too often and too well, persecution of Christians by fellow Christians can be as intense and brutal as persecution by non-Christians and/or the state. Whatever the source of persecution, Paul rejects retaliation and exhorts the counteraction of loving kindness.[1]


3 For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.

Romans 12:3

It is worth noting that in the previous verses Paul “beseeches” as a brother, but in the third verse he “says”—a strong word—”through the grace” given to him—a reference to his apostolic status, which is the gift of God to him for the church. There is a note of authority in his words as he reminds the Christians at Rome that they must be very careful in their evaluation of their own lives. This evaluation will come from a renewed mind, as opposed to the common secular evaluation. But it will also be in direct relationship to the particular calling of each Christian, which is discernible through “the measure of faith” that “God has dealt to each one.” By this expression Paul means that God equips each believer for a particular task and expects him to discover and fulfill his special role in the context of the believing community. Once this is understood, the believer is delivered from a number of potential miscalculations. He will not aspire to be more than God intends him to be, but he will not settle for being less than he was created and redeemed to be. Accordingly, he will be delivered from an arrogance which is destructive of harmony in the body of believers and will be content to make a “sober” evaluation of his own gifts and calling.

While it is not uncommon to think “more highly” than we ought, it is equally possible for some people to look at themselves in such a defeated manner that they do not think of themselves as highly as they should. Paul himself illustrates this by his insistence on his apostolic office—something for which he takes no credit, because it was a gift, but at the same time something which he will not deny for the same reason, that it is God’s gift! The reminder that all we have is ours through the grace of God is most appropriate to those who have a tendency to arrogance. Reminder that they are sons of God, gifted for His purpose that they might be to His glory, is equally appropriate to those who grovel in their own inadequacy under a cloak of false humility.

I came across a most unusual illustration of realistic evaluation recently. A friend of mine was singularly successful in launching a special ministry in the church of Christ in such a way that it became extremely beneficial in a very brief period of time. After developing the ministry for five years, however, he resigned his position as president, stating that he knew that his gifts were such that he could take the ministry only so far, that it had grown to such a size that he was becoming a hindrance to its development, and that he felt his former deputy was the man to take over. His decision was made in response to his own convictions, confirmed by his friends and colleagues who loved him and the ministry, and who were unanimous in their desire to see the work of the Lord continue and to see him functioning in the setting for which he was most suited. He was thinking soberly as God had dealt to him the measure of faith.


The apostle has spent much time in this epistle explaining how individuals can be reconciled to God and become recipients of the life of Christ in order that they might live in a new relationship to Him. Another important dimension in spiritual experience is related to the fact that if many people become related to Christ, they must develop their relationship with each other. When believers become heirs of God and joint heirs of Christ, they also become fellow heirs with each other. The environment in which these relationships operate is the assembly of believers—the local church. Paul, whose ministry to the Gentiles was characterized by the formation of churches, loved to use the human body as a striking analogy of the functions of the church:

4 For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, 5 so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.

Romans 12:4–5

On a recent visit to Brazil to speak to pastors and Christian workers, I took the opportunity to watch the National Soccer Championship Final between Sao Paulo and Gremio. Only one goal was scored, but it was a masterpiece of skill and execution. As the ball was centered high by the right winger of Gremio, the center forward, Baltazar, seeing his opportunity, slipped between two defenders. Leaping high in the air, he trapped the ball on his chest, dropped it on his left foot, flipped it on to his right, glanced at the goal, and with tremendous power shot into the far left corner out of the goalie’s reach. It would be interesting to know how many members of Baltazar’s body were utilized in scoring the winning goal in such superb fashion, but as I will never know, I am satisfied to enjoy his athletic skills, marvel at the wonder of the human body, and ponder the reality of the functioning of the body of Christ—the local church.

Our natural tendency to selfishness and individualism militates against the concept of the body of Christ, but the renewed mind produces a different attitude. Those who are instructed from the Word of God by the Spirit of God recognize the uniqueness of the believer’s position in the church and also are committed to being a part of the body of Christ. When Christ was on earth, He inhabited a body similar to our physical bodies and, accordingly, knew something of our physical limitations. But after His Resurrection, He was free to come again in the Person of the Spirit and inhabit numerous individuals who, together, would become the means of His continued activity on earth. So varied were the abilities and ministries of the Lord that it would be ludicrous to expect any one individual to begin to emulate His ministry. But when many people come together as His body, they can collectively begin to demonstrate the multiplicity of ministries which He longs to perform through their united efforts.

This basic concept of the church is quite different from many which govern the activities of the contemporary believer. Because we live in a specialized world, we have tended to form churches around the specialist and have encouraged the congregation to participate more as spectators and critics than as participants in ministry. This not only robs the church of her vitality and versatility, but also tends to produce a dull uniformity where there should be a cohesive, coordinated diversity.

Whenever differences of function, outlook, and ministry arise, there is always the possibility of friction. Perhaps it is because we have been reluctant to risk the friction and work on the differences that we have preferred instead to allow a few people to become dominant and the majority passive. It should be pointed out, however, that if the renewed mind is in control, there is no reason why we should fear diversity and give up on the coordination of a multiplicity of outlooks and ministries. And when the sheer delight of mutual support and inter-related gifts is experienced, there will be no desire to experience anything less than the special life of the body of Christ where the members are not only members of Christ but also “members of one another.” What is required to do this is the topic of the next section.


6 Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; 7 or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; 8 he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.

Romans 12:6–8

While Paul does not state explicitly that his apostleship is a gift, it is clear that he regarded it as such when we note that he uses the phrase “the grace that is given” both to describe his own position and that of the other believers who had received the gifts of the Spirit. The grace (charis) of God which brings salvation through faith also brings gifts (charismata) to the saved believer which he must utilize in the context of the body of believers. That these gifts will differ from each other is as fascinating as it is challenging. The fascination comes from the understanding that in a normal, healthy group of believers we can reasonably expect to discover a variety of capabilities specially imparted by the Holy Spirit for the good of the body and the ongoing of the work of the Lord. The challenge comes from the necessity to respect and encourage those whose gifts and personality may, because of their differences, threaten our position or draw attention from our ministry.

It is noteworthy that Paul does not spend time describing the functions of the different gifts and the corresponding responsibilities but rather concentrates on the spirit in which the gifts are exercised. His overriding concern is that the believers utilize to the full the grace of God in their corporate life. To do this, they must overcome all potential attitudinal problems. The only way for this to happen is through the individual believer’s accepting the apostolic injunction to behave in a manner that befits the renewed mind.

After apostleship, the ministry of prophecy heads the list. Considerable discussion concerning the exact nature of the prophetic gift in New Testament times and in the modern era has led to some confusion. Shedd quotes Philippi as follows: “The New Testament idea of the prophetic office is essentially the same as that of the Old Testament. Prophets are men who, inspired by the Spirit of God, remove the veil from the future; make known concealed facts of the present, either in discovering the secret will of God, or in disclosing the hidden thoughts of man, and bringing into light his unknown deeds; and dispense to their hearers instruction, comfort, exhortation in animated, powerfully impassioned language going far beyond the ordinary limits of human discourse.”1

If Philippi is right, it is plain to see why the apostle warns against believers thinking more highly of themselves than they ought, for such a man with such superlative gifts would need to guard carefully against using his remarkable powers for his own advantage. The safeguard, as we saw earlier, is to exercise the gift of the Spirit with a deep sense that it is a gracious gift attributable to the Giver and, therefore, something for which the recipient can take no credit.

Paul appears to suggest that other believers may abuse their gifts by simply not using them. There is little doubt that, because of the unfortunate tendency of churches to underemphasize the truth of the giftedness of all believers, there are many who have no concept of their gifts while others who know their gifts are given little or no encouragement to exercise them. It is the responsibility of the believer to see that if his gift is “ministry” (diakonia) or teaching or exhorting (paraklesis—an obvious relative of the beautiful name “Comforter” which our Lord gave the Holy Spirit) that he be actively involved in serving, teaching, comforting, and encouraging, and not allowing the gift of the Spirit to be a buried talent.

The attitude in which the gift is exercised is also important. There are those who have a special gift of giving—presumably because they have a particular gift for producing—and they should take extraordinary care to see that their special ability is exercised in above-average giving. Leaders can become casual and careless, but if they see their abilities as divinely granted gifts and their charges as the flock of God, they will lead with diligence. Those who are particularly endowed with the ability to show mercy should not become disgruntled by the heavy demands that will be made on their time and energy when their beautiful gift becomes known. They should cheerfully respond. When Churchill cabled Roosevelt and said, “Give us the tools and we’ll finish the job,” he was echoing the cry of the church of Christ which so often feels inadequate for the demanding task of being Christ’s body on earth. But the church should be reading the Scriptures as if they were the cabled response from the Throne: “I gave you the tools (the gifts); now finish the job.”

Chapter Nineteen—Good and Evil

Romans 12:9–21

Scripture Outline

Good, Evil, and Fellowship (12:9-12)

Good, Evil, and Stewardship (12:13-16)

Good, Evil, and Hardship (12:17-21)

The cosmic struggle between good and evil as it relates to mankind’s relationship to God has been graphically portrayed by Paul in the doctrinal sections of the epistle, but once he turns his attention to practical application of doctrine, the apostle quickly reminds believers that the conflict still rages.

The series of staccato, ethical instructions that he presents are built around a framework of statements relating to “good and evil.” “Abhor what is evil.” “Cling to what is good.” “Repay no one evil for evil” “Have regard for good things… .” “Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.” In summary, the believer is required to make a decision about good and evil and to come down firmly on the side of good and in opposition to evil. (The words “cling” and “abhor” are powerful.) This takes away from the believer the commonly held assumption that those who suffer evil are free to respond in kind. Moreover, the believer’s commitment to “good” will require that his weapons for the fray, both in terms of defense against and opposition to evil, will always be “good” and never “evil.” This attitude, the product of the renewed mind, is succinctly described in verse 9 as “love without hypocrisy.”

Love as an attribute of God, manifest in His relations with man through Christ, has figured prominently in the epistle, but now the love of which Paul speaks is a response to God worked out in the crucible of human relations. Without “hypocrisy” translates the Greek anupokritos, which means literally “without play-acting or pretending” and, accordingly, “genuine.” In a nutshell, to combat evil with good is genuinely to love—a response of a renewed mind which has grasped something of the genuine love of God.


The characteristics of this love are to be shown in the fellowship of believers in the following ways:

9 Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. 10 Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another;
11 not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; 12 rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer;

Romans 12:9–12

Paul’s reminder to believers that they are not free from evil leads to another intensely practical thought—that there is no lack of opportunity for evil to triumph in the fellowship of believers where only good belongs. The Greek word philostorgos reminds us of our family relationships as believers and of the need for special attention to filial love, without which all manner of evil attitudes and tensions will inevitably arise. More often than not, trouble erupts in the fellowship because people are offended when they perceive, rightly or wrongly, that their positions have been usurped or their personhood has been slighted. The insistence on position and rights rather than privilege and responsibility is the seedbed in which a variegated crop of evil flourishes. But where love is expressed in glad acknowledgement of the achievement of others and genuine appreciation of the deficiencies of ourselves, it is hard for evil to triumph. A simple formula to follow requires the reversal of the natural tendencies and the institution of the supernatural, as follows: “Concentrate on his good points and my bad points rather than on my good points and his bad points.”

Once evil is hated rather than treated with courteous civility, and good is firmly embraced rather than regarded merely as a desirable concept, all possibility of casual Christianity evaporates and in its place a life that is “not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit” takes over. Both expressions denote an all-out attack on anything that savors of lethargy or lukewarmness and present the exciting picture of zealous, white-hot believers acting lovingly out of firm conviction and deep commitment.

“Serving the Lord” could just as easily be translated “serving the times” in the sense of grasping the opportunities that present themselves. Both, of course, are true and necessary and in a real sense need to be combined in the life of the believer. “Rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation” are further instructions that relate clearly to the teaching of the earlier chapters of the epistle. “Continuing steadfastly in prayer” is a command that believers are to obey in light of the special understanding Paul has given concerning the ministry of the Spirit in times of difficulty.

It is impossible to estimate the potential of a fellowship in which believers take seriously the injunctions outlined by Paul. But we can be sure of the serious intent of Scripture in this regard, and also we can be certain that the evil which so often rears its ugly head in the family of God can only be banished when it is overcome with good—the good of genuine love demonstrated in tangible actions and attitudes.


The list of instructions continues with more powerful requirements:

13 distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. 16 Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion.

Romans 12:13–16

The resources with which we have been supplied can be the means of blessing or cursing, the instruments of good or evil. The determining factor is whether we regard our resources as our personal possessions to be used as we desire, or as gracious gifts entrusted to us to be used for God’s glory and man’s benediction.

To be aware of the needs of others, particularly the “saints,” and to fail to share is the essence of evil. Not only does it demonstrate hardness of heart but it clearly shows deficiency of understanding of the true nature of possessions. What is true of possessions, in general, is particularly true in relation to the use of homes. To be “given to hospitality” means, literally, “to pursue strangers with love.” The emphasis is on the glad sharing of the resources of home and family with those in particular need of shelter and succor. The need for this was particularly apparent in the days of the early church. Those who traveled with the message of Christ were totally dependent on the generous hospitality of others if they were to be able to carry on. The infant churches were dependent on homes being open to them as places of worship, and those who became ostracized from home and family because of their newfound faith in Christ were in danger of destitution unless the generous spirit of believers opened both heart and hearth. While the circumstances have changed, the readiness to regard our homes as places of support and strengthening for those in need rather than as castles reserved exclusively for our own pleasure is one of the most obvious acts of stewardship and one of the greatest aids to evil being thwarted and good being done.

One of the Christian’s greatest resources is the unique example of the Master. He, “when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten…” (1 Pet. 2:23). This example, like that of homes and wealth, is to be used judiciously for the well-being of those among whom we live. To hit out in reflex action against those who hit out at us is to perpetuate problems rather than resolve them. The history of the human race is so full of illustrations of this principle that it is clear that the world has not benefited from Christ’s example; neither, for that matter, has the church in many instances.

Human beings are equipped with a great capacity for giving and receiving love. Even the hardest heart melts before the innocent smile of a child or the antics of puppies and lambs. But this capacity for love, sympathy, and empathy is often strangely locked up in the confines of selfishness. This may be because genuine, loving, empathetic involvement is debilitating and costly. To weep when you are more interested in having fun or to appreciate another’s gain when you are suffering loss is hard, but necessary, if the evil of selfishness is to be overcome by the sheer goodness of selflessness.

Another precious resource is the gift of uniqueness, of our individuality. Created by an intelligent God for an intelligent purpose, only one of each of us exists. To believe this is to be introduced to the possibility of living a life that contributes uniquely to the fulfilling of the divine purpose and sensing the special value of the individual in the eyes of God. But the abuse of this resource can lead to untold evil. When the thinking of the individual becomes individualistic, tensions arise, schisms develop, and relationships are fractured. The drive of the highly motivated individual, which of itself can be the means of great progress, may easily be directed into channels of personal ambition and self-aggrandizement which do all manner of evil to the underprivileged and the needy. And should the highly talented individual become enraptured with his own ability to the extent that he disregards the abilities and sensitivities of others, great harm results. The only answer to the potential abuse and the resultant evil of the God-given resource of uniqueness is the humble submission of uniqueness to the equally humble oversight and direction of the community of believers. When that community is operating properly, the potential for evil—schism, division, estrangement, conflict, and destruction—is avoided and the blessing of cooperative and balanced living is ensured.


Having briefly mentioned the unpleasant possibility of having to deal with persecution, the apostle returns to his subject in more detail:

17 Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. 18 If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. 19 Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 Therefore

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;

If he is thirsty, give him a drink;

For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.”

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:17–21

The realistic practicality of the apostle’s instructions concerning conflict in human relations should be carefully noted. Evil will persist and Christians will not be exempt from its painful encroachment. But while they are subject to the same attacks as the rest of society, they are not free to handle them in the manner common to that society. “Getting even” is a natural response but according to Paul— and, of course, his Master, as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount—something better than “getting even” is the spiritual response. Two factors need to be underlined—one negative, the other positive. The former is the Christian’s refusal to regard an evil response to an evil action as legitimate. While the spontaneous response or the reflex reaction may move in that direction, the Christian has settled in his mind that he will “repay no one evil for evil.” The positive response comes from a commitment to doing what is good in the sight of all men. There is not agreement in our society as to what exactly constitutes good, but there is a deep-rooted sense of what is fair and decent, even though these values may not always be prized or maintained. But the Christian has a keenly developed sense of fairness and rightness which, at its lowest level, is at least as high as the commonly held “good,” and to this he has committed himself in the bundle of his commitment to the Son of Righteousness.

It is vitally important that Christians arrive at a specific position with regard to their response to evil when it attacks their lives. It is equally important that they take active steps to work out the practical ramifications of their position. There is no real difficulty in arriving at positions that may be totally idealistic and thoroughly unrealistic, but to deal with hardship in a uniquely Christian manner is one of mankind’s greatest challenges.

Paul’s advice is most helpful. First, steps should be taken to “live peaceably” with everyone. No doubt, when the Roman believers read the apostle’s words, there was a similar reaction to the one elicited by contemporary readers—“How can I be expected to live at peace with those who are intent on making war?” The answer is, “You are not expected to do the impossible. You are to do what ‘is possible, as much as it depends on you.’” In other words, we are all responsible for our own actions but cannot be held responsible for the actions of others. Therefore, do what you can, attempt what is possible, and leave the consequences of the other person’s reaction to God. Second, we are to recognize that, while evil actions must be punished, that does not mean that we are the punishers. The key thought is expressed by Paul’s quotation of Deuteronomy 32:35. “‘Vengeance is Mine, …’ says the Lord.” The temptation to take matters into our own hands and to see to it that evil is repaid with evil must be resisted at all costs.

This thought was expressed by one of the former hostages when she was released from Iran. Asked about the actions she proposed to take against Iran, she answered that she proposed no action but preferred to leave matters in the hands of the “One to whom vengeance belongs.”

The third practical step is to look for ways to “overcome evil with good.” This requires more than a willingness to walk away from what many people would say is our right of recompense. It introduces an obligation to look for steps to work actively for the good of the one who did the evil action. Recently I read of a middle-aged couple who over a period of years worked for the rehabilitation of the young man who had raped and killed their daughter. This remarkable story of loving forbearance and gracious ministry reflected nothing less than the love of Christ in the power of the Spirit.

The apostle quotes a striking passage from Proverbs to underline his point, and it is interesting to note that this particular proverb probably originated in Egypt in the “teaching of Amenhotep.” Derek Kidner writes, “If Proverbs is the borrower here, the borrowing is not slavish but free and creative. Egyptian jewels, as at the Exodus, have been re-set to their advantage by Israelite workmen and put to finer use.” The “finer use” reminds us that when a reaction that promotes good is made in response to an action born of evil, the evildoer has “coals of fire” placed on his head, which, while unpleasant at the time, are much to be preferred to the possibilities of burning condemnation at a later date. Better the flame of shame today than the blast of judgment tomorrow.

There is an unusual tenderness in the way Paul reminds his readers of their special responsibilities as Christians, particularly in their response to evil, and this explains his use of the rather uncommon “Beloved.” We are not to feel that there is any degree of insensitivity on the part of the inspired apostle as he instructs the disciples of the Lord in the practicalities of the life of the renewed mind. On the contrary, he knew what it meant, as did his Master, to feel the heat of adversity and so to use it that the dross in his own life was burned up and the melting power of the Spirit moved in the hard hearts of evil men. No doubt in later years many a hard soldier of Rome would know firsthand what it meant to be literally chained to a man who repaid their evil with good and who contentedly committed himself to the One to whom the final judgment belongs.[2]

! Register of Non-Retaliation

Press release 19 February 2003

More than 100 Bristol Quakers say 'no' to retaliation

Many people believe that violence breeds violence, whether it takes place in the playground or on the world stage. Sadly, reactions since the horrific events of September 11 2001 have only served to underline this belief. How is it possible to break free from a circle of violence?

Local Quakers - and others - have thought long and hard about this. A number of us have asked ourselves this question:

How would I want my loved ones, the press and politicians to react if I died as the victim of a terrorist attack?

We have decided that revenge could never be the answer.

To emphasise this, Bristol Quakers have started a 'register of non-retaliation'. This gives individuals the chance to record their intention that, in the event of their falling victim to terrorism they would not want any violent retaliatory action to be carried out against those responsible for the attack. Already more than 100 Bristolians, mostly but not all Quakers, have added their names to the register.

We believe that this is a positive way to show that there are alternatives to violence. We hope that more and more will join our register and that other groups will decide on similar initiatives.

If you want to know more or decide to establish your own register please write to:

Eddy Knasel, Clerk to Bristol and Frenchay Monthly Meeting (Quakers) at 13 Morley Square, Bristol, BS7 9DW.

Bristol Quakers will not use the information given on the register for any other purpose.

Quakers are available to give interviews on this subject to the local press and broadcasters.

Eddy Knasel
Clerk to Bristol and Frenchay Monthly Meeting [3]

"Christianity goes beyond non-resistance to active benevolence. It does not destroy its enemies by violence but converts them by love. It feeds the enemy when he is hungry and satisfies his thirst, thus "heaping live coals of fire on his head. If the "live coal treatment" seems cruel, it is because this idiomatic expression is not properly understood. To heap live coals on a person's head is to make him ashamed of his hostility by surprising him with unconventional kindness."


vv. verses

v. verse

NT New Testament

e.g. for example(s)

OT Old Testament

[1]John E. Toews, Romans, Believers church Bible commentary (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2004), 302.

1 1. Derek Kidner, Proverbs (London: The Tyndale Press), p. 24.

[2]D. Stuart Briscoe and Lloyd J. Ogilvie, vol. 29, The Preacher's Commentary Series, Volume 29 : Romans, Formerly The Communicator's Commentary, The Preacher's Commentary series (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Inc, 1982), 216.


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