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Discerning Good and Evil: Read Rom 12:9-21
Where we’ve been in this 6 weeks of Romans: In Chs. 1-11, Paul was laying out his theology, such as the gospel of God’s grace for sinners, union with Christ and its benefits (i.e. adoption, justification, sanctification, glorification, and election).
Where Paul has gone in Chs. 12-16: transitioned from major theology and now he is giving practical advice or exhortations on how to live as Christians. He gives discrete units of thought and instruction, but they must be seen within the larger context of both his theology and his practical advice.
The ESV calls this section “Marks of the True Christian,” meaning these are characteristics that should be evident in the life of a believer. They are instructions for every believer. Some people will be better at these than others, the more we mature, the more we will see evidence of them all, but these are marks that all Christians should have or should be attaining to. We also know that this section is about good and evil because the book end verses of this section (12:9-21) are about good and evil. Verse 12: “abhor/hate what is evil, cling to what is good;” verse 21: “do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
What are some popular or cultural ideas of good and evil?
The popular TV show Grey’s Anatomy presents a view of good and evil in its season finale last week. The show begins with a man coming into the hospital looking for the chief of surgery, Dr. Derek Shepherd. He is looking and asking for Derek, but as people are too busy to help him, he gets frustrated and angry. At one point when a doctor blows off his request for help, the man pulls out a gun and shoots her in the head. Next he shoots another man just for walking in. We begin to see that this man is a killer on the loose with a mission and his purposes are definitely evil. From earlier in the season, we begin to remember that this man’s wife was declared legally brain dead, and per her advanced directive, she was not to be kept on life support. Derek and the hospital executed her orders and took her off life support. The man, however, was not ready to see his wife die, and so he saw Derek as killing her. He tried legally suing Derek and the hospital after her death, but it was unsuccessful. So now, he enters the hospital, clearly seeking revenge for his wife’s death. He is seeking justice and revenge for his wife’s death, and he is set on finding Derek Shepherd to exact his revenge.
Finally, the man finds Derek, and there is a showdown on a walkway. The man is pointing the gun at Derek, but he is shaking and clearly upset about his wife’s death. You can see his pain, but he is intent on killing. Derek, in a plea to save his life, says to the man, “You want justice—you want someone to pay…you’re a good man—I can see it in your eyes, can you see it in mine?” Derek appeals to the goodness in the man, trying to overcome the evil in him by appealing to what is good. This is an example of what the culture says is the difference in good and evil: how we choose one or the other, but that both reside in us and we have to choose which one to follow. We try to “well up” the good to overcome the evil.
Already, we can see a difference in this account and the biblical account. God’s people are not innately good- we’ve been studying this: Rom 3:12 “All have turned aside, there is none who does good, not even one.”- Only through God’s spirit and being reborn can we become capable of doing good.
The Biblical view of discerning good and evil
Go to the passageto see what the biblical view of good and evil is.
Verse 9: Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.
Paul starts with love. “Love must be sincere.” Love is a key component of discerning good from evil. The NASB translation says, “love must be without hypocrisy;” and the ESV: “let love be genuine.” This love is not the same as an emotional feeling you get when you’re around someone you like or are attracted to. This is a deeper, more genuine, more godly form of love. In the context of Romans, we see that in the next chapter (Rom 13:8), Paul says “to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” verse 10 says, “love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” Also, in 1 Tim 1:5, we see that “love [comes] from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” So, faith is an integral component of godly, biblical love. Only a renewed/reborn Christian can have this pure heart (one that is declared good in God’s eyes).
Next he says “Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.” How we love is going to show the difference in good vs. evil. Good and evil is a major theme in the Bible. If we go all the way back to the garden, in Gen 2-3, we see the serpent saying: eat from this tree and you will be like God, knowing good and evil; the serpent is a tempter. He doesn’t bring Adam and Eve to enlightenment, but rather he exposes them to evil. He presents the idea that we can be our own gods, or know as much as the true living God.; this is what “knowing good and evil” apart from God is like—it’s our own discernment, it is being wise in our own eyes.
In verse 9, he then says that we hate what is evil/abhor it (NAS), and cling to what is good. The idea is repeated in 1 Tim 1:5- “test everything, hold fast what is good.” We can’t just assume that things are good or evil, we must test them, we must have a standard by which to judge them (God), and then we hold fast to them. Heb 5:14 says “[our] powers of discernment [must be] trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” We need constant practice- it’s not: believe, then know forever good from evil; not: read bible once and get it, not: go to church 5 years when younger and get it, but we all need constant practice… We’re too bombarded by culture and their view of good and evil. We need to be practicing learning discernment. We may see glimpses of God’s truth in the culture, but they can’t be taken in isolation from God. So we must learn to distinguish good from evil, then learn to actively choose the good in all situations in our life. And later in v. 21- it’s this good that will overcome evil.
In the following verses, Paul will lay out some aspects of positive Christian ways of behaving and negative ones—ones that are not to at all be characteristic of a Christian. We’ll see in this passage how the biblical view of good and evil is different from the popular cultural way of seeing good and evil.
What are some of the positive ways Paul lists that are considered “good”?
Verses 10-13: 10Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
These are positive actions that Paul wants God’s people to do. These are all considered good. These are characteristics that God’s people should have. We should strive towards these (we most likely don’t excel in any of these). They are a part of our growing in holiness, growing to be more like Christ, they are a part of our sanctification, our being made holy. [v. 10a] We are to be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Brotherly love or Christian love is this: it’s about friendship, community, caring for others genuinely. Paul in the letter to the Thessalonians (1 Thess 4:9) says “you are taught by God to love one another;” we are taught by God, not by Grey’s Anatomy or Gossip Girl or Oprah. We have to be taught how to love each other in this way- it’s not innate, we’re not born knowing how to love in this way. [v.10b] We are to honor one another above yourselves. To honor is to show respect for someone’s authority or worthiness- all believers are worthy of your honor. We need humility to do this.
Then (v. 11), we must be active in our affections, in our zeal, in our love, we must have fervor or spiritual intensity- this is how we serve the lord. We serve God, again, with humility, just as we serve and honor our brothers and sisters.
We are to (v. 12) Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. We are patient in affliction- or the NASB says, “persevere in tribulation.” After coming to faith in Christ, Christians will experience persecution from others (especially if came to faith later in life). For example, one might receive subtle looks fro others, or people don’t understand why want to go to bible study and hang out with “those people,” or maybe you lose friends because you don’t want to go out late or drink just to get wasted anymore. Maybe you are called names like “bible banger” or “holy roller,” or there may be more overt acts, such as shunned from certain groups. This also means that non-Christians will have different ideas of how life should be lived, you live by different standards, even your idea of good and evil can be different. We need endurance as we struggle through these things. Where do we find the endurance??
And we are to (v. 13) share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. We are also to share with God’s people who are in need: this means serving the needs of others (Rom 15:25), devoting ourselves to ministry and to ministering to each other (1 Cor 16:15; 2 Cor 9:1; Heb 6:10), engaging in living life with Christians. We must share our struggles, share our material blessings, and share emotional love and support. W must be a community to one another. Finally Paul says practice hospitality. From the mouth of Jesus (Matt 25:35), we hear: “For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in;” Hospitality isn’t about who’s house is cleanest or biggest, or who serves the best meal or has the fanciest china, but it’s about meeting needs, basic needs: hunger, thirst, shelter. Jesus’ discourse on meeting these needs is concluded with “as you did to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Hospitality is about so much more than just being a good hostess of parties. It’s an encounter with Christ. These are all things that are part of God’s definition of “good”- notice that serving the lord and being in prayer are a part of this, we must be near and following the Lord to be truly good. If we just take one of these good characteristics in isolation from God, we distort the meaning and it is not good in God’s eyes then.
See how a nonbeliever is unable of fulfilling these? They may be doing good in their own eyes, but God wants service, prayer, love, patience, etc.
Verses 14-16 set up some contrasts between good and evil behavior. What it means to be “wise” in God’s estimation, in God’s eyes. 14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.[c] Do not be conceited. First, we bless those who persecute you and do not curse them. This is counter-intuitive. Maybe we know it from hearing it in church, but it’s not the way we want to respond. When someone cuts me off, or doesn’t like the way I do things , Or if someone attacks my character , I want to say “who cares what they think anyway”- or I think I know better anyway, but Jesus says “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute [or mistreat (Lk 6:28)] you” (Matt 5:44).
Even rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn can be counter-intuitive. Paul’s not necessarily saying, “empathize with others,” or be compassionate (that’s a part of it), BUT rejoice when you don’t want to rejoice (ie. friend’s job promotion, able to afford more than you, when your younger sister gets married before you do), and mourn when you don’t want to, like when you rather think positively so you don’t get down, or a friend has been depressed for so long that you don’t want to deal with her anymore. Weep when she weeps.
Paul say do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. He wants people to get out of their comfort zones in associating with people of low position, and not just one Saturday a year. This is why we make it a point to be involved in PCPC’s mercy ministries, especially Union Gospel mission. He wants us to love and be friends with people who have less than we do- this is godly wisdom.
Finally, verse 16 says never be conceited. the NAS translates this as “do not be wise in your own estimation.” Don’t be wise in your own eyes (that’s what Adam and Eve were trying to be), from your own learning or understanding, but learn to be wise in God’s eyes, we must learn to discern, practice and be trained in godly wisdom, in discerning good from evil. This summer our study is going to be on godly character. It’s a further way to learn to discern character as we’re taught in the media from what is true biblical character. We must learn from God, sit at his feet and listen: hear his love for you. Being truly wise is clinging to the good. Clinging to God.
Verses 17-21 speak to ways we are naturally tempted to respond, but to which we must use godly wisdom, which can be unconventional, in responding. We must use wisdom discerned from following God, not from what we learn around us. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. 18If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Verse 17 is like verses 14 and 16, instead of naturally wanting to return evil for evil, we are to bless those who wrong us. We must be careful to do what is ultimately right in God’s eyes, but here, even in the eyes of greater mankind. So if a friend is telling you to respond in one way, and it seems like a good idea or it feels right, question whether everyone else would think this was the right way to respond, and test if it’s the way God would have you respond.
19Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”[d]says the Lord. We must wait on the Lord (Prov 20:22). We can’t repay that person what we think they “deserve,” and we can’t do to someone else what they did to you (Prov 24:29). In Grey’s Anatomy, the killer said “an eye for an eye” (he quotes the Old Testament). He says, “I came here for justice.” But, he missed the message of Jesus though, who said “not an eye for an eye” but rather turn the other cheek. See how he misses the context and full story of the Bible and God’s redemption through Jesus Christ? This is an example of how the culture distorts God’s message. It sound biblical, because he’s quoting the Bible, but he’s quoting only one piece in isolation from the rest of God’s word. This man’s revenge is his only resort in a world without God—it’s his only resort and only hope for justice. He wants someone to pay- he’s repaying evil for evil.
But, in Deut 32:35 (which is also in the Old Testament, and near what passage the killer was quoting), we see that God says “it is mine to avenge” or “vengeance is mine.” Verse 19 is a quote of this Old Testament passage. “I will repay,” God says. In the following verse says that the Lord will “vindicate his people and he will have compassion on his servants.” It’s not that God doesn’t see or care what this person has done, but that repaying one’s deeds is God’s job alone. He is the judge, he is the avenger. He loves his people, and he has compassion on them. As Christians, we know God cares deeply, he will take care of any revenge for wrongs committed against us.
The passage follows: 20On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Verse 20 sets up a contrast to how we respond (it’s an elaboration of verse 14). This verse is also quoting an Old Testament Proverb (Prov 25:21) word for word. And, these were the same words Jesus used in telling others how to live in an unjust world. He says to pray for those who abuse you. The book of proverbs is about learning godly wisdom, learning to discern, good from evil, what is right and just. A favorite passage in Proverbs for many is Ch. 3:4-5- “Trust in the LORD with all your heart; and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” The very next verse says: “Do not be wise in your own eyes.” That’s what Proverbs is about, not being wise in your own eyes, but in God’s eyes. That’s also what this passage in Romans is teach. They both say that we must learn to be wise in God’s eyes and not in our own eyes. Our own judgment is not reliable.
Finally, we come back to the same idea which began this passage: 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. We are not to let this evil overcome us: it could if we aren’t discerning, aren’t practicing, aren’t learning from mistakes. We need to be asking for forgiveness and moving toward God. With practice, we can learn to test what is good and evil and overcome evil with good. Now, there are many situations where there may seem to be no clear right or wrong. This is why we must learn to turn to God, his scriptures, and our community to grow in our ability to discern good an evil in a situation.
Flip to Romans Ch. 16, verse 19 (we’re using the context of Romans 12-16 to help us understand this passage): “19Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I am full of joy over you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.” Paul knows that the Romans are heard to be good people (he is satisfied with their goodness as believers), they are obedient to Christ and to the gospel (they are filled with all knowledge and able to help teach one another- Rom 15:14), and he is overjoyed at the news. He still wants to write to them about these things because there are false teachers among them, and people trying to teach doctrines that are different from what Paul laid out in Chs. 1-11, so in Chs. 12-16, he wants to teach them about the truth of what is good.
Back to the Grey’s Anatomy story: so we can’t look in a man’s eyes and just see that he’s a good man. Derek is trying to appeal to the killer’s shared humanity with him, but this isn’t what good is: it’s not a sparkle in your eye, tenderness because his wife died, but goodness is following God and having relationship with him. We can’t listen to popular culture and their view of good and evil, because they are teaching us false messages. The culture is going to teach a false view of good and evil if it’s separated from who God is—that’s why Paul writes these things in Chs. 12-16. Paul wants them to be innocent about what is evil. “Innocent” can also mean “blameless” “free from guilt.” He wants them to move from being easily tempted by it to being free from falling into its traps. He wants them to live in light of their justification (being declared innocent in God’s eyes). He wants them to learn to be “wise” about the difference between good and evil.
The next verse speaks of the ultimate defeat that is coming: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.” This is why we don’t worry about taking our own revenge right now—we know evil was defeated at the cross, and Jesus will soon ultimately crush it—but we need God’s grace to live in the tension of feeling the evil now and waiting for it’s ultimate destruction. So then if this good we discern from God is capable of overcoming evil, then what is this ultimate good? It is God himself – overcome evil by clinging to what is good—to God. To Christ: look at Rom 15:3: “3For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” It’s not that evil is ultimately happening against us (though we feel it), but it’s ultimately against God—that’s why it’s God’s job to avenge. Don’t repay evil for evil: God will settle it and he already has on the cross. Overcome evil by clinging to what is good- to God. To be truly wise means to cling to Jesus Christ for our understanding of good and evil and for the power to discern the good.
Question- How do you find this to be hard to live up to? If so, how?
We want to be careful to not read this passage in isolation from its context (we need to read the surrounding passages). An isolated reading can lead to moralism. Strive harder to choose good over evil, work harder, try to please God by excelling in these things. This is moralism. We must read this passage in context and understand how God is telling us to live our lives. We must read it in light of the gospel and what God has done for you in Jesus’ death, his taking on himself the insults that come against us, and ultimately crushing Satan.
The good news for living this way is this: Rom 15:4-5- “4For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. 5May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus.” Scripture teaches us, God, through the scriptures, gives us the endurance and encouragement of scripture to endure the suffering, the evil that comes our way. Our hope is this: that God gives us this endurance and through knowing Jesus and being united to him, we are able to learn true good from evil.
How do we live this way then? We must recognize where we fall short or bear the evil traits. where we want revenge or just to “warn” people against someone who has hurt us. We need to ask forgiveness (and truly repent) when stumble. This may mean seeking someone out and telling them that what they did hurt you. We need to see true reconciliation modeled for us in our community. We must ask to be shown where our hearts seek after these evil things, or want revenge, or to gossip about someone. We must also seek to see where we think we instinctively know what is good, and ask for true discernment.
Remember God’s truths of who you are- you are a new creation in Christ, God has promised his spirit to guide us, he has given his word and his church community for us to discern good from evil. Meditate on his promises, such as that he has taken on himself the insults that come against us. Pray that you will remember who you are in Christ: you have moved from death to life, we’ve moved from the good/evil schema of the world, to understanding the truth about good and evil, that God is truth, God is good, and we cling to this…
Pray for the Holy spirit to fill you and to help you practice where you are weak, even where you don’t feel like you do a good job; we are able to do it because it is already true of us in God’s sight. Pray that you will be able to move toward the “good” described in this passage. We must discern good (need to be in an active community, learning God’s word, being fervent in prayer), then actively choose good over evil. Pray for the strength to change which comes through the Holy Spirit. Eph 3:20 says “20Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.” The power at work in us is the Holy Spirit, teaching us all that Christ taught us—we have this power now.
In Conclusion, we learn from this passage and from the context of Romans, and from Jesus’ life that: Unlike popular ideas of good and evil, and how to live life, to be truly wise means to cling to Jesus Christ for our understanding of good and evil and for the power (through the Holy Spirit) to discern the good.
Questions for Discussion & Application:
● What are some other cultural ideas of good and evil? How do you struggle in knowing the difference in what God says is biblical good and evil?
● How do you struggle to grow in some of these positive ways of biblical “good”? Give examples.
● What are other ways you can grow in learning biblical discernment? Give specific ways that relate to your life.