Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10) We begin where we ended last time with the prayer of Solomon’s father, David. The word create means to bring into existence something that was not previously there. There’s more here than David...
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. (Romans 12:9-10)
Last week we launched our series, Overcoming Evil, from Romans 12.
We looked at God’s words to his people in the light of what was happening in Rome. God’s people had endured the ‘Caligula catastrophe’ and they were at the beginning of the ‘Nero nightmare’ when this letter was written.
We also looked at these words in the light of Romans 1-11. This first part of the book of Romans tells us what it means to be ‘in Christ.’ So, speaking against the grim background of life in Rome and the glorious background of life in Christ, God says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:21).
We saw the good news that the evil you have suffered does not need to define you. If you have suffered a great evil, you know how easy it is for that evil to overcome you, for you to be defined by it, for the evil that was done to you to dominate your life.
But God says: “You are in Jesus Christ. Don’t let that happen to you! Do not be overcome by the evil that surrounds you or by the evil that has been done to you! Something better is possible for you. You can overcome evil with good.”
The story of the church gives remarkable testimony to how this worked out. The light of the gospel did shine in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. 2,000 years later the Roman Empire is dead and gone. But the church of Jesus Christ is alive and well.
Over these weeks, we are going to look at everything that leads up to overcoming evil with good in verse 21. We begin with verses 9 and 10, and the question is: Where do you begin, if you want to overcome evil with good? Before we look at these verses together, I want you to imagine that you are chosen to serve on a focus group made up of first century Christians.
The facilitator enters the room and she says, “The challenge we face is to overcome the growing tide of evil that is all around us. None of us would have chosen to have Nero as our Emperor, but this is the reality we are facing, so the task we have in this group is to come up with some strategies for overcoming evil.”
“All of you have a pad of paper and a pencil; and I want each of you to write down what you think should be the top five strategies for Christians to pursue if we are to overcome evil in these increasingly dark days in which we live.”
What would be on your list? Here are some things I would include on my list:
- We need to pray.
- We need to raise up godly leaders in every sphere of life – in the schools, in business, in the arts, in politics, etc.
- We need to teach our children the difference between right and wrong. We need to get them grounded in the Scriptures.
- We need a new surge of evangelism and church planting.
All of these are good and necessary things, but none of them are what God says here in Romans 12.
Where to Begin If You Want to Overcome Evil with Good
Let love be genuine.
Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.
Love one another with brotherly affection.
Outdo one another in showing honor. (Rom. 12:9-10)
Christians loving each other would not have been at the top of my list of strategies for overcoming evil, so it is very striking to me that when God lays out the steps that lead to overcoming evil with good the first thing he says is, “Let love be genuine.” If you want to overcome evil with good, this is where you must begin!
Here is priority #1. This is what we must do, when evil is all around us. This is what we can do because we are in Christ. God says, “Do this and you will overcome evil with good: Let love be genuine.” In other words: “Love must be sincere.” It must be authentic! There must be no pretense – no play acting, nothing fake or false. Let your love be the real deal.
This kind of love is immensely attractive. We are all drawn to love. And we all want to be authentic. Authentic love, genuine love is where we must begin if we are to overcome evil with good.
The plain implication of, “Let love be genuine,” is that in the course of our lives, we may come across something that looks and sounds like love, but it turns out not to be the real thing. So what does genuine love look like? Our culture has a very clear answer.
What does genuine love look like?
1. The culture says, “acceptance and affirmation.”
“If you really love me, you must accept and affirm me as I am. Don’t attempt to change me in any way, because if you do that, you are not accepting me and therefore you do not love me.”
When we hear “acceptance and affirmation,” the natural reaction is to say, “Well, of course! What else would love be?” If we were all little paragons of virtue, a love that accepts and affirms would be entirely appropriate. But surely the state of the world today indicates that we are a long way from that.
The earth is not populated by little paragons of virtue who are quietly fulfilling all that God calls us to be. The reality of our position is very different. God says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
When Jesus came into the world, he used several different analogies to describe our position: We are like sheep that are lost. We are like patients who are sick. We are like captives who are bound. We are like offenders who are under a sentence of condemnation.
If Jesus had embraced our culture’s definition of love, he would have come into the world and said something very different:
- “The truth about you is that you are lost. I accept that and I have come to affirm it.”
- “The reality of your condition is that you are very sick, and since that’s what you are, far be it from me to try and change it.”
- “The explanation of the conflict you experience in your heart and life is that you have been taken captive. I want you to know that, but it’s certainly not for me to interfere.”
- “You are under condemnation, and I simply want to affirm you in it.”
I am so glad Jesus did not embrace our culture’s definition of love!
- Jesus did not say, “I’ve come to affirm the lost,” he said, “I’ve come to save the lost.”
- He did not come to affirm sickness; he came to heal it.
- He did not come to affirm our captivity; he came to set us free.
- He did not come to affirm our condemnation; he came to take it away.
Christ came into the world to deal with something about us that was terribly wrong and to put it right. That’s what the love of God does. So the biblical understanding of love is very different from the understanding that has been embraced in our culture.
What does genuine love look like?
- The Bible says, “acceptance and transformation.”
The love of God is a love that accepts and transforms. Here is a love in which the lost are found, the captives are released, the sick are made well, and the condemned are fully pardoned. Jesus Christ doesn’t say, “Clean up your act and then come to me.” Jesus invites us to come to him, and when we come, he accepts us as we are. But, thank God, he never leaves us as we are!
3 Observations about the Genuine Love
That Accepts and Transforms
1. Genuine love hates what is evil.
Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. (Rom. 12:9)
To “abhor” is to have a horror of something. If you love what is good, you will abhor the evil that destroys it. If you love truth, you will hate lies. If you love peace, you will hate war. To abhor evil is part of loving what is good. Notice that God says, “abhor what is evil.” We are to “abhor what [not who] is evil.”
Peter Kreeft, a Catholic writer who I have found very helpful, makes the point that abortionists, homosexual activists, pornographers, school boards, and the media are not the enemy. They are the victims of our enemy. 
The Bible says, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). That is why we engage in the battle by putting on the full armor of God.
It would have been easy for Christians in Rome to think: If we could just get rid of Nero, we would have dealt with the problem. But the problem was not Nero. Behind Nero there were dark powers. The lyrics from the song “O Church, Arise” say this well:
Our call to war:
To love the captive soul
And to rage against the captor 
We are not called to rage against the captive soul. We are to love the captive soul and to rage against the captor – who is Satan, our enemy. That is our call to war, and it’s really important that we understand it.
It is very difficult to win people to Jesus if you have branded them as “the enemy.” Our calling is not to win some sort of cultural war. Our calling is to reach out to, and woo, and seek to win every person to Jesus Christ.
2. Genuine love begins at home.
Love one another with brotherly affection. (Rom. 12:10)
Notice the focus here is “who” we should love. Paul begins with the “what”: What does genuine love look like? It abhors evil and it holds fast to what is good. Now he moves to the “who,” and he says, “Love one another.”
Martyn Lloyd Jones said, “It is possible for someone to avoid doing evil things while having great pleasure in them in his mind and in his imagination.”  And Matthew Mead said, “It is less evil to do sin and not to love it then to love sin and not to do it.”  How easy it is for those who are committed to a chaste lifestyle to hate sexual immorality. And how easy it is for those who live a simple lifestyle to hate excess.
The real challenge is to love the people God places round you – the people in your home, at your church, in your workplace, and on your street. So look at who God has placed in your life. Your calling is to love these people well.
My generation said, “Love one another,” and they stuck a flower in their ear. My generation didn’t do a very good job of loving one woman for a lifetime. Will you love this man, this woman for a lifetime? Will you love this fellowship of God’s people?
Christ calls us to love all people, even our enemies. But loving your enemies is hard. So here’s where we begin: God calls us to cultivate genuine love within his family. Love “one another” with brotherly affection.
Learn to love well by loving your brothers and sisters in Christ. Other believers stand beside you in grace and one day they will stand beside you in glory. When the world gets darker, Christians get closer. Let the relationships in the church be an incubator of love, so that when we go out into the world where it is more antagonistic, we know something about love.
These things do not always happen in the church, but often they do. I have been moved by seeing how the early Christians in Rome worked this out in practice.
Some years after the time of Nero (c. 165AD), Rome was hit by a series of epidemics.  A sociologist by the name of Rodney Stark made a study of these epidemics, in which he says that at one time 5,000 people were dying each day in the city of Rome alone.
Many cities lost a third of their population to these epidemics, and some lost as many as two thirds of their entire population to the contagious diseases that swept through those communities. Imagine your street and 2 of every 3 homes is empty because of the epidemic.
Stark quotes a description of the heroic nursing efforts of early Christians from a letter of Dionysius, a bishop (c. 260AD):
“Most of our brother [and sister] Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never thinking of themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors, and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead…”
“The heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease.” 
“When the days get darker,” God says, “here is what you must do: Overcome evil with good! And here is how you do that… you begin with love, and it must be genuine.” That’s what the early Christians did. It became obvious where there was love and where there wasn’t, and it made an incredible difference. And people began to see the difference because of the incredible darkness of those days.
In the Roman Empire there was also a low value placed on human life. Stark describes the grim early attempts at abortion, which of course, often took a woman’s life, as well as the life of the child she was carrying. For that reason infanticide was more common than abortion because it didn’t risk the life of the mother. Again, I quote from Stark:
“It was common to expose an unwanted infant out-of-doors where it could, in principle, be taken up by someone who wished to rear it, but where it typically fell victim to the elements or to animals and birds. Not only was the exposure of infants a very common practice, it was justified by law and advocated by philosophers.” 
Let me quote to you from a letter written by a man named Hilarion (probably a Roman soldier) to his wife Alis, who was carrying their child. It shows an extraordinary contrast between Hilarion’s obvious love for his wife and for the son she hoped he would bear, and his complete callousness toward the possible birth of a daughter:
“Know that I am still in Alexandria. And do not worry if they all [other soldiers] come back and I am still [there]. I ask and beg you to take good care of our baby son, and as soon as I receive payment I shall send it up to you. If you are delivered of a child [before I come home], if it is a boy keep it, if it is a girl discard it. You have sent me word: ‘Don’t forget me.’ How can I forget you? I beg you not to worry.” 
That was early Rome. It was not unusual for babies, and especially baby girls, to be left in the streets. And when that happened, it was Christians who often took them in, loved them as their own, and raised them.
3. Genuine love lifts other people up.
Outdo one another in showing honor. (Rom. 9:10)
This relates to the way in which we speak to one another and the way that we speak about one another. We live in a culture that thrives on putting other people down. But God says, “Let it be different among you!”
With all the good that has come with social media, and the way it helps to connect people, social media has also given a new platform for anger. We live in the world of the attack ad and the attack website. Every time you put something on social media, even if you never meet the person face-to-face, remember God knows and God knows your name.
The church is called to something different: Our calling is to lift up who Jesus is! When that happens, people who may have little in common in this world are brought together. Christ calls us to be a community of people who lift each other up in a culture where people pull each other down.
Does the church do this outstandingly well? Not always. Too often it becomes about us and what we want. And when that happens, we end up being a mirror of the world. But Christ says, “Here is what you are called to, especially as the world gets darker: Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.”
 Peter Kreeft, How to Win the Culture War, p. 27-28, InterVarsity Press, 2002.
 Keith Getty/Stuart Townend, from the hymn: O Church, Arise, ThankYou Music, 2005.
 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans Chapter 12 Christian Conduct, p. 343, Banner of Truth, 2000.
 Matthew Mead, The Almost Christian Discovered, p. 34, Soli Deo Gloria, 1993
 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, p. 165ff, Princeton University Press, 1996.
 Ibid., p. 82-83.
 Ibid., p. 118. Stark notes that both Plato and Aristotle recommended infanticide as legitimate state policy.
 Ibid., quoted on p. 97ff.
© Colin S. Smith
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