Part IV: The Gospel of Love 

The Christian Life (12:1-15:13)

In this next section of Paul’s letter, his focus changes from instruction in the doctrine of justification to exhortation in sanctification.  These are not two independent doctrines.  Sanctification means becoming more Christ-like–the process of growing and maturing in Christ–which is dependent first on our justification in Christ. 

As a result of justification, we are born-again spiritually and “the Spirit of God dwells in you.” This close relationship is already evident in chapter 6, where Paul describes our union with Christ’s death, and resurrection must lead us to “walk in newness of life” and not to let sin “reign in your mortal body.”

Then in chapter 8, he again says, those who are justified “live according to the Spirit” and “set their mind on the Spirit.” The reason we are able not to sin is that the “Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you” and “gives life to our mortal bodies.”  However, it is important to remember, we are not “saved” from the “wrath of God” by sanctification but by justification; justification is being counted (imputed, credited) with Christ’s righteousness through faith in Christ, a faith which itself is a gift of grace from God.

So the power to live a victorious Christian life is granted to us by our union with Christ since we now have his indwelling Spirit. The primary way of a Christian is a life of love.  God is love, and to become like Christ is to grow and mature in love. This is only possible by the power of Christ’s Spirit within us.  As a result, Paul now urges us to demonstrate and live this power in our everyday lives.


Lesson 12: The Gospel of a Renewed Mind (12:1-21)

Transformation by renewing our minds (12:1-2)

v. 1

Paul begins this famous passage with “therefore,” which refers to everything he has said in the entire letter. It, therefore, lays the foundation of what he is about to say concerning the Christian life. Paul’s second word is “appeal,” but possibly a better word is “urge” (nasb, niv) or “exhort” (net).  The word implies not just a request but an authority coming from Paul, who was “called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” (1:1). His appeal is personal and relational in urging his “brothers” and sisters in Christ. These opening words are intended to make Paul’s readers pay close attention to what he is about to say.

What he is about to say is based on “the mercy of God.”  By God’s mercy, he sent his only Son to be the propitiation for our sins and through union with Christ to credit us with his righteousness. Because of God’s mercy, salvation has come to both Jews and Gentiles. Paul can urge his brothers and sisters in Christ “by” (or better “through”) the mercy of God; that is, Paul exhorts them because of God’s mercy.  The obedience to which Paul urges them is their appropriate response to this mercy. However, this is not “paying God back” for the mercy he has shown, because it is impossible to repay him (11:35). Just as God’s mercy is complete and sufficient, our response should be total.

So Paul describes this response as a “living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”[1] This is somewhat surprising language since Christ alone is the final sacrifice, so his followers no longer offer sacrifices. However, Paul is not speaking of a blood sacrifice for the remission of sins but, like Peter, a “spiritual sacrifice” (1 Peter 2:5). It is a “thank offering” (Leviticus 7:15) honouring God (Psalms 50:23; 107:21-23; Jeremiah 33:11; Hebrews 13:15-16). Still, sacrifice implies completely giving over one’s life to God. In other words, death to self. This reflects Christ’s words for his genuine disciples to “deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34-36). By “present our bodies,” he means our entire selves and lives. Salvation is a free gift of grace that, in this sense, costs the disciple everything. The word “present” was used five times in chapter 6, where Christians were urged not to present their bodies to unrighteousness but to God.  And the word “sacrifice” also implies a dedication to God despite any troubles or difficulties. This sacrifice is “holy”–set apart and dedicated without reservation to God. Such a sacrifice is “acceptable” or “pleasing” to God.

John Calvin, in his Institutes, wrote concerning this level of dedication, “We are not our own: let not our reason nor our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own: let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours. Conversely, we are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal.”[2]

Paul then states that such a complete dedication to God’s service is our “spiritual worship,” which means true and proper priestly service (1 Peter 2:5; cf. Philippians 4:8; Hebrews 13:14-16). Although justification is a free gift of mercy, our response to this gift demands all of us; Paul does not preach ‘cheap grace.’ Paradoxically, a “living” sacrifice is the opposite of death, which is normally associated with sacrifice. Instead, presenting ourselves to God means that we “have been brought from death to life” (6:13).

v. 2

In this verse, Paul provides more detail about what he meant by “sacrifice.” Any zeal or dedication we have for God must be in accordance with his will.  He begins with two parallel statements, one negative and one positive. By “do not be conformed to the world” instead, Paul says we should “be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” The words “conformed” and “transformed” are similar but not identical. “Conformed” is passive and implies we easily fall into or become more like the world without even being aware of it.  The word “world” means this present evil age, contrasting the world to come. As Paul, in another letter, wrote: Jesus Christ “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Galatians:1:4). The word “transformed,” on the other hand, is the same word for metamorphosis. Mark uses this word to describe Jesus’ transfiguration (Mark 9:2).  In the same way, Christians are to be fundamentally transformed in their character and conduct.  Like metamorphosis, we are to change from accepting and participating in the present evil age and remade into the image of Christ for the age to come. Paul writes about this transformation in his letter to the church in Corinth.

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed (metamorphosis) into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18; compare with 2 Corinthians 4:4)

In this exhortation to the Corinthians, Paul again uses the same word for “transformed.”  And in the letter to Philippi, Paul writes:

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform (metamorphosis) our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:20-21)

Christians have been rescued from a perishing world of darkness into an eternal kingdom of light. We were spiritually dead in a perishing world but have now been made alive in an everlasting kingdom. God had already done this for us; our response (“be”) to such a great salvation is to be what we now are.

The means God has provided by which we are to be transformed is through “the renewal of the mind.” The word “mind” refers to our reasoning and moral consciousness.[3] The mind should be “set on the things of the Spirit” (8:5), which results in “life and peace” (8:6) and “joy” “abounding in hope” (15:13). The thought process, world view, and understanding of our meaning and purpose in life are set on God and the age to come; it is entirely different from a mind set on the flesh (8:5) whose purpose and meaning come from this present evil age. The Holy Spirit renews our minds; this is his work (Titus 3:5, the only other place “renewal” is used). A transformed and renewed mind is not replacing a do-not-do list with a to-do list; the works of the flesh are not replaced with works of the law but rather the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:19-22). To have a renewed mind is not just external behaviour but an internal transformation, a spiritual metamorphosis; as Paul says elsewhere: “be renewed in the spirit of your minds” (Ephesians 4:23). A Christian mind views the world differently; the spirit of our minds are transformed by the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 2:10; Ephesians 3:16). Our role is to pursue what brings glory to God (11:36).  And the foundation of this pursuit is to study his Word with spiritual eyes, searching for what glorifies God–his good, pleasing and perfect will. This too is our “spiritual worship” (12:1).

The reason we must have transformed and renewed minds is to be able through “testing” to “discern” what is “the will of God.” The “will of God” is a well-known phrase.  There are at least two biblical meanings. First, it means God’s sovereign will in which all things he wills will come to pass. This is often referred to as his hidden or secret will (8:27). However, God at times gives us an understanding of his hidden will (Isaiah 53:10; Matthew 26:39; Acts 4:27-28). The second meaning refers to God’s revealed will as given in Scripture, the greatest of which is to love God and our neighbours (Matthew 22:36-40). In this verse (v. 2), Paul is referring to God’s revealed will (see also Hebrews 5:14; Philippians 1:9-11). Christians are no longer under the Torah but under the “law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2; 1 Corinthians 9:21).  As Paul says later in this letter, “love is the fulfillment of the law” (13:8, 10). This is the law of love Jesus taught his disciples and John passed on to us: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34; cf. 1 John 4:7-12, 19-21). For those whose minds are conformed to this age, this will of God often does not come to pass (Matthew 7:21; 1 John 2:17).  It is through “testing you may discern” God’s revealed will. Paul is convinced the Christian–with a mind set on the Holy Spirit–is able to perceive and do the law of Christ.  Now in his letter (12:3 to 15:21), he will describe in practical terms what this love looks like within a Christian community and within the world.

The word “test” means to determine what is genuine from what is false through meditation and prayer on God’s written Word.  Through this process, a Spirit-filled Christian can “discern” God’s will; that is, to understand, agree with, and put into practice what is pleasing to God. The implication is that a non-transformed person does not and cannot discern God’s will, even though it is written in the Bible. Paul has already told us in 1:28, those who reject God, God will give a “depraved mind.” Paul also describes the will of God as “good, acceptable, and perfect.” The word “acceptable” means what is pleasing to himself.

John E. Toews points out the contrast between a transformed Christian described in these two verses with a non-believer in 1:18-32.[4]

                        1:18-32                                                           12:1-2

            the wrath of God                                            the mercies of God

            refuses to glorify God                                     thankful sacrifice to God

            dishonours the body                                       offers the body to God

            depraved mind                                               renewed mind

            rejects the will of God                                    discerns the will of God

The contrast between how believers and non-believer understand the world could not be clearer.

Unity in the body of Christ means a diversity of gifts     (12:3-8)

Paul now describes how a Christian’s transformed mind is capable of discerning and evaluating our identity in Christ, and the gifts Christ has given in order to build the church. Paul emphasizes two points: first, that Christians should not think too highly of themselves because we all work together in “one body in Christ.” But, second, Christians should exercise the work and gifts God has given to build the church.

v. 3

Before Paul begins his exhortation, he reminds “everyone” of his readers about the authority God has given him.  He states that he is qualified to write because of the “grace given to me” (cf. Ephesians 3:2). Paul uses the word “think” four times in this verse, clearly tying it to the transformed Christian mind.  Christians are intended to think as Christians; that is, to have the mind of Christ. The first thing Christians should have is “sober judgment” of themselves. This judgment should result in not thinking “more highly than he ought” when compared to other Christians. This instruction is similar to Paul’s teaching to the Philippian church:

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. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:3-5)

Paul states that this should be done by each Christian “according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” It is difficult to know precisely what Paul meant by “measure of faith.” Many commentators have understood this phrase to mean different Christians are given varying degrees of faith.  This may be possible given the diversity Paul mentions in the next verse.  However, “faith” often does not mean belief in the gospel, as if some have more belief in Christ and others less.[5] It is also possible to view the “measure of faith” as the accepted standard of the gospel; the gospel is then the measure to which everyone should evaluate themselves. Because everyone uses the same measure, one can assess themselves. However, “measure of faith” could have a special meaning; that is, it is a “faith” associated with different services necessary for building up the church. Faith, then, relates to gift and the way we apply the gift (Ephesians 4:7). Without faith, the gifts God has given us cannot be adequately exercised. Given the following verses, the later understanding may be correct (v. 6).

vv. 4-5

Another way Christians can assess themselves is by God’s gifts to them. The church of God is “one body in Christ,” but God has given individual members of this body different “functions.” Although there are individual members, we are “members one of another.” The emphasis is that we have unity since we are all together in union with Christ. Because of our union “in Christ,” we are one living body. The loss of any one member affects the whole. The church as a human body is a metaphor Paul uses regularly (1 Corinthians 12:12–27; Ephesians 1:23; 4:4, 12, 16; 5:30; Colossians 1:18, 24; 2:19).

The phrase “members one of another” implies the importance of every member of the body, even those considered “less honourable” (1 Corinthians 12:20-27). Likely Paul has in mind not only the local church but all Christians together – the universal church of God.

vv. 6-8

Paul describes these various functions as diverse “gifts” given by “grace.” He then lists seven of these gifts, which may be categorized as speaking or service gifts. There are three speaking gifts: prophecy, teaching, and encouragement. And there are four service gifts: service, contributing, leading and acts of mercy.

The first of these, prophecy, likely does not mean the Old Testament prophets or New Testament apostles.  It refers to those with the gift of prophecy as described in other letters of Paul (1 Corinthians 12:28-29). Although prophecy can include future promises (Acts 11:27-28; 21:10-11), it also means explaining and applying the gospel (1 Corinthians 14:3). Of course, this also implies there can be false prophets (2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 4:1). Prophecy also needs to be exercised “in proportion to our faith.” This is similar to “the measure of faith that God has assigned” (v. 3; cf. Ephesians 4:7).

The rest of the gifts to the church are more straightforward. The gift of “service” can be translated as “ministry” or even “administration.” All of these are part of the service to the body of Christ. The gift of “teaching” is similar to prophecy (Acts 13:1; Ephesians 4:11).  The final gift, “acts of mercy,” refers to providing care for those in need, particularly orphans and widows. Interestingly, Paul adds that these acts must be done “with cheerfulness,” meaning wholeheartedness and graciousness.  What is significant in all the gifts is that they come from God.  These seven gifts are not exhaustive (see 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4). All gifts offered to the church should be evaluated in how they build the church (1 Corinthians 14:12). It is also worth noting, after each gift, Paul adds a qualification. These qualifications should be viewed as exhorting both the church and the gifted member to use their gifts faithfully to bless the whole body of Christ.

Love: The life of a Christian (12:9-21)

Paul’s primary focus in this passage is Christian love.  He first describes how Christians should love one another (12:9-16).  He then addresses how a Christian should love those outside the faith (12:17-21).  Up to this point in the letter, “love” was always about God’s love for us. Paul begins the letter by writing, “To all those in Rome whom God loves” (1:7). Then, in 5:5 and 5:8, Paul describes God’s love to redeemed sinners: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” and “God showed his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” In 8:35, he asks: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” And so, in 8:37, he says: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”  Paul concludes from all this:

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (8:38-39)

It is most appropriate that Paul begins with God’s love for us. For it is only in union with Christ that Christians are able to love others.  As the apostle John teaches:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:7-11)

Loving one another (vv. 9-16)

At first, it seems Paul is listing exhortations in no particular order.  But a closer look reveals he is building and expanding on his imperative to love within the Christian community as well as those who express opposition.[6]

v. 9a Be genuine

Christian “love” should be sincere and not just words. As John writes, “ let us not love in word or talk but in deed and truth” (1 John 3:18). Paul describes in great detail what love should and should not look like in 1 Corinthians 13.  This is a practical love that does no harm (13:10) but seeks to help and be useful to others.

v. 9b Be discerning

The words “evil” and “good” likely refer to moral or social good and evil. We are to “abhor” (loathe, hate) one and “hold fast” to the other. Given the reference to love, we should be revolted by anything which would hurt or damage others and, instead, strive to be beneficial.

v. 10a Be affectionate

Paul clarifies what genuine love means by stating there should be “brotherly affection.” There should be an inherent family kindness, concern, and devotion towards other Christians (1 Thessalonians 4:9; Hebrews 13:1; 1 Peter 1:22).

v. 10b Be honouring

This maxim implies we can often view other people as competition to our honour.  Instead, Paul says we are to prefer others over ourselves. This is similar to what Paul said to the Philippian church: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3; Ephesians 5:21).

v. 11 Be enthusiastic

Moreover, Paul says, love should be enthusiastic (“zeal,” “fervent”), which is opposite to laziness (“slothful”). This kind of love “serves the Lord.” We should exercise the gifts given us by God (vv. 6-8) to serve the body.

There is some question about whether “spirit” means human spirit or the “Holy Spirit.” Commentators seem equally split.  If it refers to the Holy Spirit, then Paul says our zeal should be “aglow with the Spirit” (rsv).  However, it more likely refers to an enthusiastic, hard-working devotion in service to the Lord in love.

v. 12 Be hopeful

In this verse, Paul describes Christian “hope,” which is a joyful, patient and consistent expectation of God’s promises. Hope looks forward to a time when all believers experience “adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved” (8:24). Paul has already pointed out believers should persevere in hope despite the sinful world in which they live (5:3-5). Believers can do so because the Holy Spirit enables us to pray, and he even prays for us (8:26-27).

v. 13 Be generous and hospitable

Believers should be generous in contributing to the needs of those facing difficulties. Of course, we are to be generous to all people in need, but particularly to our brothers and sisters in Christ; i.e., “saints” (Galatians 6:10). The word “contribute” means to have fellowship (koinonia) in the lives of others (Matthew 25:35).  “Hospitality” is a specific kind of fellowship. Paul says we are to “seek” hospitality; meaning we are to be actively looking for ways in which we can share with guests, visitors or even strangers (Hebrews 13:2).

v. 14 Be a blessing

This verse anticipates the next section (vv. 17-21). Still, to bless rather than curse requires a transformed mind.  This is not a natural human reaction to those who “persecute you.”  Christian love even extends to those who want to do us harm.

v. 15 Be caring

Paul’s directive in this verse is to share in the joys and sorrows of members of our church community. These are specific and practical ways in which we love one another. This is particularly true where the social status varies considerably within the church.  In Rome, the socially elite members were to embrace the joy as well as the sorrow of the slaves in the church.  And the slaves were to rejoice and participate in the sorrow of the ‘elite.’ Interestingly, Paul mentions rejoicing together with sorrow.  It can sometimes be more difficult to rejoice with another’s blessing than to feel sorrow in their grief. Envy and jealousy often hinder us from rejoicing with others.

v. 16 Be in harmony means to be humble

This verse emphasizes how we consider or think of others and how we think about ourselves.  Three times the same root word “think,” “consider,” or “mind” is used. The maxim: “how we think is how we act” is true. To be “in the same mind towards one another” (kjv) means we consider, understand and appreciate one another's views and opinions. This does not mean we need to agree with their views, but our appreciation and actions towards others are considerate. This, again, reveals our love for one another.

Paul also tells us love means not thinking arrogantly but appreciating those with less economic, social, political, authoritative or educational status.  Someone with a low standing may have a closer relationship with Christ than someone who is viewed by the community or society as an elite. One only has to look at the uneducated, and economically disadvantaged apostles in comparison to the religious elite of their day, the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

And for a third time, Paul tells us not to think of ourselves as “wise” in our own estimation.  Given the repetition, Paul clearly thinks this is an issue for some Christians.

Loving our enemies (vv. 17-21)

Paul began this chapter by stating Christians should “present their bodies as a living sacrifice” and not be “conformed to this world but be transformed” (12:1-2).  He gives practical advice when interacting with those who are not fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, including those who are unfriendly or confrontational.

This passage from verses 17 through 21, including verse 14, has four negative imperatives instructing Christians on what not to do when encountering hostility towards them. Paul also follows each of these negatives with positive exhortation.

v. 14 Do not curse but bless

Paul’s directive in this verse is for Christians who face personal opposition. It is similar to Jesus’ instruction in Luke 6:27-28, “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”  In the Roman society in which Paul wrote, cursing one’s enemy was all too common.[7]

vv. 17-18 Do not repay evil for evil but be honourable

This teaching, again, reflects Jesus’ teaching:

To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either.

But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.  (Luke 6:29, 35)

To “repay evil for evil” is an overwhelming desire within our fallen human condition. Only those who “set their mind on the things of the Spirit” (8:5) can overcome.

But even more than passively avoiding evil, we are to “do what is honourable” to those who do us evil. Part of such behaviour is not only to avoid evil but also not to rejoice when evil or misfortune is done to our enemies. This type of honourable response should be recognized by “all”; that is, not only Christians but society. 

Paul summarizes the spirit of this teaching in verse 18. Christians should delight in peace and be saddened by division. Of course, Paul is practical enough to know that this cannot always be done. But the onus is on the Christian. When a Christian acts in the way of love, he pleases God and then it is even possible for an enemy to be at peace with him (Proverbs 16:7).

vv. 19-20 Never avenge yourself, but help your enemy

After encouraging us to live peaceably, Paul now warns us not to avenge wrongs. Surprisingly, he begins the admonishment with the word “beloved.” He wants first to remind us that God loves us and sees all the harm done to Christians. And as a loving Father, he will not permit such harm to go unpunished. That evil needs to be judged and punished is fundamental to the justice of God–particularly evil done to his children.

However, as individual Christians, we should never become the judge, jury and punisher ourselves; that is, inflict harm on someone who has harmed us. Instead, we are to leave the right to avenge wrongs to God alone. When Paul says, “give place for wrath” (kjv), he means the wrath of God (2:5, 8; 3:5; 5:9; 9:22). This refers primarily to the end-time judgment of God but can also mean judgment now. To “give place” (kjv) means to leave the judgment to God. Paul provides biblical support for this by quoting Deuteronomy 32:35 (see all Psalm 94:1; Proverbs 20:22). Paul is applying an Old Testament promise of God to New Testament Christian; to both Jews and Gentiles.  This promise is, God will bring greater justice than we ever could. If we trust God for this promise, we are assured, God’s perfect justice will right every wrong.  This means punishing the wrongdoer or, if he repents, then Christ has taken the wrongdoer’s punishment on himself.

Therefore, what is suggested here is that our desire for retaliation cannot be overcome without trusting God will hold the evildoer to account. As Schreiner comments, “Believers can leave the fate of their persecutors in God’s hand, knowing he is good and just and he does all things well.”[8]  And elsewhere, Paul taught the suffering Thessalonians:

This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering—since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10)

v. 20

Still, Christians must also keep verse 14 in mind.  Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, intensified Elisha’s instruction to the king of Israel (2 Kings 6:15-23). We are to “bless” and to pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:43-44).  This means we are to desire their salvation. In this age, we are to treat our enemies as our friends, to feed them when they are “hungry,” and to give them “something to drink” when they are thirsty.  This is the practical work of blessing our enemies.

Paul adds an interesting result to such Christian behaviour: “for by so doing, you will heap burning coals on his head.” This is a quote from Proverbs 25:21-22, which goes on to say that by so doing, “the Lord will reward you.” It is quite challenging to know precisely what Paul had in mind. Within the Old Testament, the metaphor of burning coals concerns God’s judgment (2 Samuel 22:9, 13; Job 41:20-21; Psalm 140:10). Taken in this way, then, Christians are motivated to do good to their enemy so that God will punish them more severely.  However, nothing in this passage would suggest this; neither does Jesus teach his followers to have such motivation.  For this reason, most Bible commentators have rejected this interpretation.

Recently, interpreters have understood the phrase as an Egyptian cultural idiom meaning kindness is the best way to turn an enemy into a friend. This certainly is a Christian response to evil.[9] However, it is doubtful Paul would have quoted an Egyptian saying.

Many other interpreters view “burning coals on his head” as a metaphor for shame. A Christian responding with love and compassion will result in one’s enemy recognizing their sinful conduct and being ashamed of what they have done. The exhortation then is motivated by kindness leading to repentance and salvation.  The challenge for the Christian experiencing oppression is not to do anything but actively respond in love and mercy to one's enemies. Although this interpretation takes away the sting of the metaphor, the Old Testament metaphor itself always reflects God’s judgment.

It seems reasonable, therefore, to return to the interpretation that “burning coals” means God’s judgment. However, we do not have to conclude, the motivation for being kind to an enemy is for our enemy to incur God’s wrath. Instead, returning to verse 19, believers can only overcome feelings of revenge if they know God will deal justly with their enemies. This knowledge frees the Christian to offer kindness (food and drink) to an enemy because he knows God, as his Father, will ultimately judge the evildoer.

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

Paul summarizes verses 17 to 20 by commanding Christians “not to be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (cf. Luke 6:27-31).  The evil Paul is talking about is the evil of the oppressor and not the evil in the human heart of the Christian. Paul’s warning is not to become like the oppressor. We are to conquer evil by doing good; this is the meaning of the word “overcome.” This is what Jesus himself did.  And we are to be imitators of Christ. This can only be done when “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good” (8:29).  Peter’s instruction also points us to Jesus:

For to this, you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example so that you might follow in his steps.  He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.  When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:21-23)


Questions for Reflection

Study it

1. [12:1] On what basis does Paul urge and encourage the Roman Christian? What does “present your bodies as a living sacrifice” mean?

1. [12:2] Explain what “conform to the world” and “transformed by the renewal of your mind” mean. What is the difference between “conform” and “transform”? What does “mind” mean? How is a Christian’s mind “renewed”?

2. [12:2] What is the will of God mentioned here?

3. [12:3-8] List and describe each of the gifts.  Why does Paul add a qualification? How does this teaching reflect Paul’s teaching about Gentile and Jewish Christians?

4. [12:9-16] What does “love to be genuine” mean?

5. [12:14, 20] How do v. 14 and v. 20 fit together? 

6. [12:17-20] What was Paul getting at when he said, kindness to an enemy results in heaping burning coals on his head?

7. [12:21] What does the word “overcome” mean? How does it relate to the chapter?

Live it

1. How much time and energy do you spend on the renewal of your mind to be transformed into the image of Christ?

2. What do you understand by the “will of God”? How do you discern the will of God?

3. In verses 3 through 8, Paul teaches what Christian humility and unity look like. And in verses 9 through 21, what love means.  Assess one’s attitudes and behaviour in comparison to what is taught.

4. How do you view people in your church?  Those with many observable gifts and those with few?

5. What gifts do you bring to the church for its benefit?  Do you experience these gifts? Are you encouraged by the church to use these gifts?

6. Describe a time when you were harmed or opposed by someone.  How did you feel?  How did you respond?  How does this teaching on loving your enemy challenge you?

7. How is it possible for a Christian not to be overcome by evil? Relate your own experience or the experience of someone you know.

[1] The words “living”, “holy” and “acceptable (pleasing) to God” all modify “sacrifice.”

[2] Calvin, Institutes, Book One, 690.

[3] Moo, Letter to the Romans, 775.

[4] Toews, 300.

[5] Although this is what some commentators believe. They base their argument on 4:19-20 and 14:1.

[6] Stott, 330.

[7] Schreiner, Romans, 648.

[8] Schreiner, Romans, 654.

[9] Utley, Volume 5, Romans 12:20.