How do you know an apple tree is an apple tree? It seems like a silly question to ask. The answer is, obviously, because it produces apples. You see the result: apples on its branches. But what if someone were to tie some apples to a pear tree? Would that make the pear tree an apple tree? Of course not! While it may appear to be an apple tree because of the fruit it bears, it remains a pear tree.
So it must also be with the Christian. The person who has been grafted into Christ will seek to do the will of God. Jesus said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15). The commandments require two things of us: love for God and love for one another, and in verse 9 Paul writes, “Let love be without hypocrisy.” Such love must be sincere and not a façade. The church-going person must not simply pretend to love. As Christians, we have been transformed to live lives that are renewed by the power of God’s love in us.
Such love spurs us on to love others and offer ourselves up as living sacrifices of thankfulness to the Lord.
After telling us that our love is to be sincere, Paul begins the last half of Romans 12 by giving instructions regarding how we are to show our love to fellow Christians (vv. 9–13). He concludes the chapter by telling us how we are to behave toward the enemies of God (vv. 14–21). In each case, we are to surrender ourselves to God, seeking to do his good, pleasing, and perfect will (v. 2).
Unfortunately, in our totally depraved state, we do not know how to love properly. Left to ourselves we would seek our own good, loving only with ulterior motives. How particular situations affect our lives would determine our actions. For example, because we are good church-going people, we would oppose abortion on every front. But for many Christians, abortion suddenly becomes an option when they are confronted with a severely deformed or handicapped child in the womb or their fourteen-year-old daughter tells them that she is pregnant. “That’s different!” comes the cry. I remember a few decades ago talking with a minister who had once been opposed to women in ecclesiastical office. Suddenly he changed his view and spoke in favor of opening all the offices in the church to women. When he was asked what had changed, his reply was simple: “My daughter wants to be a minister.”
Fortunately, God gives clear instruction as to what his will is in his Word. The Bible is clear about what God desires of those whom he has called out of the world and set apart to be his own. The law of love is detailed for us in the Ten Commandments. In very black-and-white terms, God tells us how we are to love him and our neighbors. Too often, we paint issues gray as we try to adapt the law to our desires.
Love for Our Brethren
The opening verses of this part of Romans concentrate largely on the love that we are to show our brothers and sisters in Christ: “Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality” (vv. 10–13). That is always the believer’s first responsibility. How can we show our love toward those who disagree with us if we cannot show it toward those who are in fellowship with us?
Christians must love God’s people because God loves them. Such love must be expressed regardless of social, economic, racial, or character differences that may exist between fellow Christians. We love them because they are chosen by the Father, redeemed by the Son, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. This love is to be exercised in our attitudes, deeds, and words.
God’s people are called to love one another and at the same time be uncompromising in keeping our spiritual fervor as we seek to serve the Lord. We promote that which is good in our neighbor and seek to correct him gently when he falls. This is not always easy, as we are apt to have disagreements with one another. When those disagreements are in conflict with God’s Word, we must be uncompromising in our desire to correct our erring brother or sister in Christ. When differences are based on traditions, cultures, and the like, we should be willing to compromise or accept those differences. When we are the victim of another Christian’s ill behavior, we must forgive them because God has forgiven them.
One way to determine if our love is sincere is to gauge our response to a fellow Christian’s success. Can we sincerely rejoice when a brother or sister in Christ prospers, gets a promotion, or receives some recognition for work accomplished? Are we genuinely happy when someone announces an engagement, the birth of a healthy child, or celebrates a milestone in life? Perhaps, instead, jealousy creeps in and prevents us from sincerely rejoicing with them and congratulating them on their happy occasion.
Love for Our Enemies
After encouraging us to love our fellow believers, Paul moves on to how we ought to treat those who do us ill: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (v. 14). He knew that Christians do not live isolated from this sinful world but are part of it. And he knew that the world would hate those who believe in Jesus Christ. The scope of our Christian love, however, is not limited only to our fellow believers. In this passage, Paul stresses a proper attitude toward those who hate and persecute Christians. To support his argument, Paul quotes from the Old Testament books of Deuteronomy and Proverbs:
“Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. 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.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (vv. 19–21)
Instead of treating our malefactors with contempt and seeking revenge, we are to repay their evil with expressions of goodness.
Christians cannot justify returning evil for evil. That is the spirit of the world and the tendency of our old nature. By doing evil in response to evil, however, we become objects of evil once again. Evil remains forever evil and wrong is always wrong no matter how great the provocation may have been or how noble the cause may be. It is never permissible to sin in retaliation for another person’s sin. Then we are no better than those who have sinned against us. If, instead, the Christian returns good for evil, the world will recognize the excellence of his conduct and may thereby be won over to Christ.
Vengeance is not only in conflict with God’s law of love, but it is exclusively the prerogative of God. It is His to avenge. The believer need never fear that justice will not prevail when he is wronged. God will take care of it. It is, then, in very good hands! In addition, the task of the Christian is never to even the score but to express a kindness, thereby heaping coals of burning fire on his head. Such kindness ought to perplex the mind of the persecutor so that he may begin to question his evil motives. The love of God the believer displays in spite of hardship may open avenues of ministry.
When living in peace with all people becomes impossible, the fault should not be on the side of the Christian. While we should not take the law into our own hands, this does not mean that the Christian can never pursue justice. Our legal system has allowed for times when petitioners can seek restitution when they are treated in an unfair manner. This is never to be done for the sake of vengeance. Our courts are full of people who have filed spectacular and outlandish lawsuits. However, when a person works to feed his family and does not get paid for his labors, he does have a right to use the means available to him to get what is rightfully his. It becomes wrong when we seek more than what is rightly ours.
Love in the Church
Within the church abides a great variety of people who are at various stages in their lives and Christian walk. Each individual has his own likes and dislikes, his own joys and burdens, and his own way of expressing himself. An old Dutch proverb translated to English says, “Every house has its own cross.” A dear retired friend often reminds me that there is a heartache in every pew. As Christians, we are to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep (v. 15). This is not just a pat on the back or expressing sympathy to a hurting brother or sister. We are to empathize with them and share with them the comfort of Christ. Our eyes and ears must be open to visible and hidden needs. When we detect a need, we must respond with generosity and hospitality that comes from the heart.
Also, within the church of Jesus Christ there is a great variety. There are different worship styles, different songs, and different traditions. Often when I hear people complain about a church, they complain over nonessential issues—a screen in the sanctuary, a praise team, the songbook, or the times the Lord’s Supper is celebrated.
Instead of getting bogged down in these differences, the true church of Jesus Christ must focus on the calling she has been given. Our one goal must not be that every church does everything the same way. The church’s calling is to proclaim Christ and him crucified; to lead one another toward spiritual growth; and to spread the glorious gospel message. In this we must be forever united! By doing this in a loving manner we seek to exemplify the love that the Father has shown to us.
Points to Ponder and Discuss
1. Must we love all people in the same way—both friends and enemies of Christ?
2. Why are rules and regulations necessary to exercise love as God has instructed us?
3. What are “situation ethics”? Have you or someone you know fallen prey to this kind of thinking? How?
4. How are we to settle differences among fellow believers?
5. Is the love we are to have for others limited to those within our own religious circles?
6. How are we to treat those who persecute us?
7. Can the believer ever pursue vengeance?
8. What does it mean to “be of the same mind”?
9. How can we overcome evil with good?