What does a Christian look like? How should every-day, normal Christianity appear in this world? To answer these questions, we need look no further than our passage. For a Christian is not just someone who holds to a certain set of beliefs but also someone who lives a certain way. And though we must and should affirm that good works do not make us part of God’s people and do not merit salvation and eternal life, yet at the same time good works are the necessary evidence of grace in the heart of God’s people. In that sense, yes, good works are necessary for eternal life – not as the ground but as the evidence of it. When God plants good trees they bear good fruit. And if you lack good fruit you show that you are not a good tree planted in the soil of God’s grace in Christ.
However, it is not enough to affirm the necessity of “good works” in the abstract, but we must make concrete what we mean by good works. Our culture has an idea about what good is and what bad is, and yet this is often exactly backwards from what the Bible says. Too often people call evil good and good evil, put light for darkness and bitter for sweet. We have to be precise as to what we mean by good works and what holiness looks like in the life of the Christian. And that is exactly what the apostle Paul does here. This is why passages like this are so important. They keep us from hiding behind generic claims to goodness and love and force us to look at ourselves in light of these very specific patterns of conduct and behavior.
Before we begin to look at each of the following moral imperatives, I want to make a few general observations. First, I think it is important for us to realize that what Paul is describing here is normal Christianity, not some sort of “super Christianity” for only the exalted few. This was one of the problems of medieval Christianity, which sorted Christians into classes in such a way that there were different levels of expectation, spiritually, from each class. If you really wanted to be holy, you became a monk. And there was, I think, this sort of idea that unless you belonged to one of the holy orders, you could leave being devoted to God to the inhabitants of the monasteries. But what Paul is saying in these verses is that if you are a Christian, if you claim the name of Christ, then the things he is describing here ought to describe you, or at least describe the trajectory of your life. If these things don’t describe what you are right now, they at least ought to describe what you are becoming.
The second general observation I would make is that what is commanded in these verses involves and requires not merely outward behavior and conduct, but rather inward change. In the passage, you have commands like these: “let love be genuine” – “abhor what is evil” – “be fervent in spirit” – and so on. You see, God is not just the Lord and master of our bodies (though he is that, and let’s not forget it), but also of our hearts and spirits. One of the reasons for this is that the heart ultimately determines the conduct. Our Lord said, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Lk. 6:45). And Solomon wrote that we are to “Keep your heart with all diligence, for from it flows the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23). Great sins that are manifest to all always begin as a seed in the affections. It grows in the evil soil of our heart till it becomes too big to be contained in the realm of thought and bursts out into overt acts of wickedness. Like a volcano that appears dormant, sin is boiling within the heart until what seemed dormant suddenly becomes destructively active. The apostle James put it this way: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (Jam. 1:13-15). Where does sin begin? It begins in the realm of desire. In other words, it begins in the heart. And that is why what the apostle commands in these verses must begin in the context of our hearts and desires. And this is why we should constantly watch for those things that turn our hearts away from God – that take our affections off eternal things (Col. 3:1-3). We need to guard our hearts, and to do that we must guard the inlets to our hearts: the eyes and ears (cf. Job 31:1).
And that leads to a third observation. It is this: what is commanded in these verses cannot be done apart from the power of the Holy Spirit. The reason of this is precisely because what is commanded in these verses involves the heart and the affections and desires, and not just our actions. It is the easiest thing in the world to get people to change what they do; but it is outside of our power to completely change our affections. Another reason for this stems from the radical nature of the things commanded. It goes against our nature and the bent of our hearts to do these things, like blessing those who persecute us.
So what is required before any of these virtues can be truly realized in our lives is the new birth, and the ongoing work of the Spirit in our life. This is why, in other places, the apostle calls this the fruit of the Spirit and walking in the Spirit and being led by the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-25; Rom. 8:14). The law is weak in the flesh (Rom. 8:3-4), meaning that God’s holy and good commands on their own will never penetrate into our hearts to bring about active obedience in the strength of depraved flesh alone. It take the grace of God to bring about lasting change. Now that doesn’t mean that we should be negligent or that we should be lethargic with respect to the pursuit of holiness. God does command that we make ourselves new hearts and new spirits (Ezek. 18:31) while at the same time recognizing that only God can make this a reality (Ezek. 36:26-27). What this means is that we should constantly be looking to the Lord Jesus for help. It is befitting, then, that in the midst of these commands is the command to “be constant in prayer” (Rom. 12:12).
With these general observations in mind, let us now consider each of the following imperatives in order. In the list that Paul gives, I see 10 distinct patterns of conduct and attitudes that we are exhorted to follow.
1. CHARITY. Let love be genuine (9a). The word for “genuine” literally means “without hypocrisy” (KJV has “without dissimulation”). It is not enough to pretend to be loving, we must be actually loving. It is easy to put on a façade and to deceive ourselves that we are what we are not. Putting on a smile and saying nice things does not make you a loving person. You can do that while having hate in your heart. It is so easy to deceive ourselves. We know we are truly loving when being inconvenienced or upset by someone does not destroy our commitment to labor for their good. It is what the apostle John is getting at when he wrote, “By this we know love, that he [Jesus] laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 Jn. 3:16-18). What does it mean to have hypocritical love? It means to love only in word and talk. What does it mean to have genuine love? It means to love in deed and in truth, and that means selfless service to those whom we love.
It is often noted that Paul begins with love. It is no mistake that Paul does so, because love is the preeminent virtue, the grace that brings all the other virtues into operation (cf. 1 Cor. 13; Col. 3:14). Without love, none of the other virtues inculcated would be possible. Everything flows from love to God and love to man. It is the great commandment (Mt. 22:34-40). Evil is fundamentally the failure to love both God and man, and on the other hand, where evil is abundant, the love of many will grow cold (Mt. 24:12).
2. PURITY. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good (9b). Note the contrast – love of the brethren and hatred of evil. Love is not real if it is not accompanied by an abhorrence of sin. We are told to abhor sin; this is important. Paul does not merely tell us to abstain from evil but to abhor it. We must love the good and hate the evil. I think one of the reasons why we so often have a hard time in expunging bad habits is that we focus only on the habit itself without seeking the heart change without which the habit will not go away. It’s like pulling a sticker plant without getting at the root. If you don’t turn your heart against the sin in your life, you are never going to fight it successfully. Men who are mired in pornography stay that way if they never learn to detest it and hate it. As long as it appears attractive to you, you are going to keep going back to it.
But how to you learn to hate what you once loved? You do so by loving its opposite. This is what Thomas Chalmers meant when he talked about “the expulsive power of new affections.” And this is why Paul doesn’t only say, “Abhor what is evil,” but follows it up with “hold fast to what is good.” This is very similar to a word that Paul uses in Eph. 5:31 with reference to the marriage relation. Just as a husband is to cleave to his wife, the saint is to cleave to and love and delight in holiness and good. And of course what ought to make holiness so attractive to the believer is the fact that holiness is one of the key attributes of the Lord who saves us. We love him, and loving him we love what characterizes him, and that means loving holiness.
This is an especially necessary exhortation in our time and culture. We live in a time and place that embraces evil (cf. 12:2), and it is easy to end up adopting our culture’s stance towards evil without even realizing it. If there has ever been a time when the church needs to hear the call to holiness, it is now!
3. COMMUNITY. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor (10). One of the ways the love commanded in verse 9 is manifested is in a family spirit among believers. Out of this love for one another as family members springs all the care that believers ought to have for one another. Believers should not be strangers but in each other’s lives!
Another way this is manifested is in showing honor to each other. And if there is any competition, it is a competition in putting others before one’s self. This is not a community of people who spend their time moping and complaining that they weren’t treated like they would wish. They aren’t focused on themselves at all; they are focused on blessing others. Paul’s exhortation echoes others he gives in various letters. For example, in Phil. 2:3-4, he writes: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (note the example of Christ which follows). Or consider what he says in 1 Cor. 13:5 – Love “does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.” Again, if we really consider ourselves the recipients of the mercies of God, we have everything we need – and so we are freed by grace to spend the rest of our time blessing others and showing mercy to them.
4. FERVENCY. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord (11). These three things go together. The first two tell us how we are to serve the Lord. Negatively, we are to be to “weary in well-doing” (Gal. 6:9). Positively, we are to be fervent in the service of Christ – the word suggests boiling over in our spirit.
There is some debate whether or not “spirit” here refers to the Holy Spirit or to the human spirit. I think the latter, because as the zeal in the previous phrase is located in the human spirit, so by parity of reasoning is the fervency. But that does not mean that we can do this apart from the Holy Spirit. If we are fervent in our spirit as we serve the Lord, it is only because – as some translate the phrase – we are “aglow with the Spirit.”
This is illustrated by Apollos, who was said to be “fervent in spirit” as “he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus” (Acts 18:25). As a result, “he greatly helped those who through grace had believed” (ver. 27). Like Apollos, we are to be highly motivated people, not for the things of this world, but for the kingdom of God and its advancement. We must be, for the nature of the truths we believe and the glory of the God we serve demand not a half-hearted, lethargic response, but the full measure of our lives. As John Murray so well put it in his commentary on this verse: “When discouragement overtakes the Christian and fainting of spirit as its sequel, it is because the claims of the Lord’s service have ceased to be uppermost in our thought.”
5. CONSTANCY. I think the next three things go together as well. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer (12). We cannot be patient in tribulation if we are not rejoicing in hope and being constant in prayer. On other hand, those who are rejoicing in the hope they have in Christ will pull through those times when they are pressed down by the world and will not stop praying and trusting in the Lord. These three exhortations are all in some way or another exhortations to remain steadfast in trial and are the equipment the Christian needs to do so.
“Serving the Lord” in the previous verse reminds us of the kingdom of God and the fact that the kingdom has yet to come in its fullness. For the believer, the full measure of the blessing of God is yet to be experienced, and it is this which is the Christian’s hope. And this begets, where it is truly believed, joy in the present. And this in turn gives the believer perseverance in trial. The word “tribulation” here carries the connotation of being pressed down by something. But when we are rejoicing in hope, this hope begets endurance. (And on the other hand, endurance also begets hope, Rom. 5:3-5.) Perseverance is the mark of the saint.
Suffusing everything is the spirit of prayer. Those who have this hope pray. Why do we not pray? Perhaps it is because we are so self-confident. But the nature of these commands should convince us of the utter folly of such an attitude. Or is it not almost always because we just do not believe that our prayers make any real difference? But do the Scriptures not emphasize just the opposite? (cf. Lk. 18:1-8). In fact, we are told over and over in the Bible that God hears the prayers of his people (e.g. Exod. 8:13). Let us therefore approach the throne of grace that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Heb. 4:16).
6. HOSPITALTIY. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality (13). Another way that love manifests itself is in providing for the needs of believers, and is also a mark of genuine faith (1 Jn. 3:17-19; Jam. 2:14-17). The KJV translates the second part of verse 13 by “given to hospitality” which I think carries the sense a bit better. The word translates dioko, which means to pursue (and even to persecute). Helping the saints and showing hospitality is not something we do just when we get around to it, it is something we are to pursue.
Though I think this is something given first to other believers, hospitality does not stop short with the house of God. John Stott notes that “Philadelphia (love of sisters and brothers) has to be balanced by philoxenia (love of strangers).” As the author of Hebrews put it, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb. 13:2). Especially in our day, we will often only be able to win the trust of our unbelieving friends when we are willing to welcome them into our lives. And in the context of trust won through hospitality the gospel becomes a more believable message.
7. DOCILITY. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them (14). Though I know the word “docility” can have negative connotations to it, and indicate a sort of cringing servility, clearly that’s not what I intend here. Docility originally referred to those who were teachable, and that certainly is a very positive trait. What I mean here is the character quality of the Christian which makes them meek and loving towards their persecutors. They are to be “harmless as doves” (Mt. 10:16). We are required not only to love those who love us (which is easy) but also to love those who hate us (which is impossible apart from the grace of God). It is what our Lord was getting at when he said, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be the sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 5:45).
This sheds some light on how we should look at the imprecatory Psalms. When our Lord came to earth on his redemptive mission, he said that he had not come to condemn but to save (Jn. 3:17). But there is coming a time when the impenitent will be condemned at the Final Judgment by the Savior. If you will not have him as Savior now, you must have him as your condemning Judge later. As Matthew Henry put it, those who will not come to Christ to be saved must depart from him to be damned. In the same way, we are not now to curse those who persecute us (imprecation is a spoken curse). But there is coming a day when we will judge the world (cf. 1 Cor. 6:2) and in that day the imprecatory Psalms will be justly on the lips of all of God’s people. But at the present time, we are not only not to curse our enemies, but we are also to bless them. Our words are to be words of gospel hope for today is the day of salvation.
This is important because this is often the very time when our witness is most effective. It is no coincidence that “martyr” comes from the Greek word for witness. Our Lord said that it is precisely when “they will lay their hands on you and persecute you” and deliver “you up to the synagogues and prisons” that “this will be your opportunity for witness” (Lk. 21:12-13). Church history bears witness to this fact. It is our blessing for their curse that often precedes their reception of the gospel.
8. SYMPATHY. Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep (15). This is another aspect of loving our brothers and sisters. When we can be glad with them in their triumphs and when we can grieve with them in their tragedies, then we are showing love to them. Commentators have noted that rejoicing with those who rejoice is put first because this is often the hardest for us – the opposite of our desire to be first. It is incompatible with a spirit of jealousy and envy. Oh that all believers were more like this!
9. HARMONY. Live in harmony with one another (16a). Christians who have a renewed mind (12:2) should also have a common mind (Stott). Note Jesus’ prayer in John 17. There is a real unity in that we are all part of the same body, and we should show it (cf. Eph. 4:1-3). This, again, is the outworking of the fruit of love in our hearts and lives, as it is worked out in Christian community.
10. HUMILITY. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight (16). Finally, we come to humility which is the final fruit of love which the apostle mentions here. The KJV here has “condescend to men of low estate.” This is an unfortunate translation because condescending carries with it today the idea of patronizing others. But word Paul uses here means to be “at home with humble people” (John Murray) and imitates him who said, “I am meek and lowly in heart.” A corollary to this attitude is that the people of God are, or ought to be at any rate, approachable people. Unapproachable people have no place in the kingdom of God and the church of Christ.
As those who have received the mercies of God, let us meditate on these things, let us pray them into our lives, and let these be the goals which we set for ourselves. And if you have not received Christ, by whom we are partakers of God’s saving mercies, may you seek him and find him by faith today.