Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21)
When Paul wrote these words to the members of a small church in Rome, he wasn’t merely imparting some sage advice. He wasn’t merely trying to inspire them with a platitudinal ideal to shoot for. These words came stained with the blood and tears of spiritual trench warfare. Paul was telling the precious saints in this church how to stay alive in an evil world. For if churches don’t overcome evil with good, they won’t survive.
I’m writing this out of some personal grief. In recent years, I have watched churches I love dearly fracture, and even break apart. And in the cases I have in mind, the breaks weren’t over doctrinal disagreements or gross immorality, but over offenses given and taken. Longtime friends, having lost trust in one another, could no longer fellowship together. Like most breakups, they’re complicated. Certain parties bear more responsibility than others. But the heartbreaking result is that once-vibrant worshiping communities have ruptured, sometimes leaving a remnant struggling to rebuild from the rubble.
And what I find particularly grievous is that Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). What do these breakups say about Jesus’s love? What do they say about his disciples?
Such relational breakdowns didn’t have to happen. But they illustrate a sobering reality: if we do not love one another enough to overcome evil with good, we will be overcome by evil. Paul’s instructions in Romans 12 on how to love one another with aggressive grace are critical to our churches’ survival. If we don’t understand that, we won’t survive as witnesses of the love of the Lord Jesus that overcame the world.
Most Potent Force in the World
As Christians, we know that love is the king of the affections and the queen of the virtues. It’s in a league of its own. For while every other righteous affection and virtue is an attribute of God, only one is twice said by the apostle of love to be at the core of the divine essence: “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16).
“Nothing is more offensive, violent, or destructive to the forces of darkness than love.”
We know from Scripture of love’s incomparable power. It encompasses all of the Law and the Prophets: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind . . . [and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37–40). And it was at the very heart of the most potent act in human history: Jesus’s death on the cross. Love moved the Father to give his only Son (John 3:16), and love moved the Son to lay down his life for his friends for the glory of his Father (John 15:13; 17:4).
And we know this supreme act of love did more than redeem lost people. It was also the most powerful act of spiritual warfare ever committed. For through it, Jesus overcame the hate-filled world (John 16:33) and set in motion the eventual and total destruction of the devil and his evil kingdom (1 John 3:8).
Therefore, nothing is more Godlike or gives God more glory and delight than love. Nothing is more morally beautiful, profoundly meaningful, and joy-producing in the human experience than love. And nothing is more offensive, violent, or destructive to the forces of darkness than love.
We know this.
But as Jesus said, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:17). Knowing isn’t enough. For the whole blessing of love is in the doing of love. Indeed, if what we do doesn’t proceed from love, we are nothing and gain nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1–3). But that’s not all: we can also wreak great damage in our churches.
Love with Aggressive Grace
Paul had seen this damage firsthand. He had grieved over it. And so his instructions to the church in Rome were full of urgency — urgency the Holy Spirit wants us to feel over our churches as we read them today. The Spirit, through Paul, wants us to love one another with aggressive grace.
I call it “aggressive grace” for two reasons. First, we are not called to love one another as we deserve to be loved, but as Jesus loved us — with shocking, remarkably gracious love (John 15:12). Second, it’s aggressive because it is a remarkably pursuing, persevering, selfishness-slaying, overcoming love. Such aggressively gracious love is otherworldly, a taste of heaven on earth.
What Love Looks Like
Listen to some of the ways Paul describes the love we are called to feel for and give to one another.
“Let love be genuine. . . . Love one another with brotherly affection” (Romans 12:9–10). It doesn’t take long before we realize what it requires for us to keep loving like this. We all sinfully stumble in many ways (James 3:2). Which means we repeatedly offend one another. It takes persevering graciousness to keep love genuinely affectionate.
“Aggressively gracious love is otherworldly, a taste of heaven on earth.”
“Outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10). Note the aggressive, even competitive, word Paul chose: “outdo.” Imagine a church’s culture so marked by the healthy humility of considering others more significant than ourselves and overtly making the case for it, that the sin-diseases of selfish ambition and conceit we all carry are held in check (Philippians 2:3). A foretaste of heaven. But this kind of humility is cultivated only by intentional, even stubborn, habitual practice.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). With the influence of our indwelling sin, we all know how challenging it is to actually obey this command. But if we’ve been on the receiving end of such love, we know how blessed it is.
“Never be wise in your own sight” (Romans 12:16). The more seriously we take this, the more carefully we will listen and respond to others. This alone would prevent many relational conflicts. But it is hard to die to the self-blinding assumption that we’re wise and don’t really need counsel.
“Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all” (Romans 12:17). Implicit here is that we each will sinfully wound each other. And we all know it requires aggressive self-control not to respond back in sin. “Give thought” captures the intentionality this love requires.
“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). How far is “so far”? This can be difficult to answer. But if we are to bear with and forgive one another as Jesus has with us (Colossians 3:13), “so far” is likely much farther than we naturally wish to go.
And, of course, Paul says so much more in Romans 12. But this sampling helps us see to some extent the aggressively gracious, costly Calvary love to which we are called as Christians. It is the love of Jesus, the love the world is meant to recognize in his disciples, the love that overcomes evil with good.
Overcome Evil with Good
Paul ends the chapter with the exhortation I opened with: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). It is the high calling of each church. And it is an admittedly hard calling, for “the way is hard that leads to life” (Matthew 7:14). It requires each of us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow in the footsteps of our Lord, who so loved us (Matthew 16:24; John 15:12).
The stakes are high. For if we will not overcome evil with good, we will be overcome by evil. If we will not love one another as Jesus loved us, we will not last together. The demonic forces know this and aim their fiery darts strategically. Which is why the demise of too many churches is due to internal conflict rather than external persecution. Which is why once strong churches can break apart.
This doesn’t have to happen. But our churches’ survival is staked on whether or not we, their members, love one another with the aggressive grace that comes from Jesus. We know these things. But knowing isn’t enough. Blessed are we if we do them.