Sunday School Notes: Romans 12:17-18
17 Repay no-one evil for evil; consider what is good before all men. 18 As far as you are able, live peaceably with all people.
This week we continued with verse 17, talking about how the command to “repay no-one evil for evil” follows along the uniquely Christian theme of blessing your persecutors. Our society, and our nature, tends toward “survival of the fittest,” where self-preservation and self-promotion are the ruling motivations behind our actions. If someone wrongs us, our instinct is to pay them back. If someone acts maliciously to us, we want to even the score. But that is not how Christians should act.
Indeed, Paul goes on to say that we should “consider what is good before all men.” In other words, we should take into account what is good and beneficial for all. Notice that it says “all men”–not just Christians, not just people we agree with, or even people we like. Does this mean our actions should be dictated to by what the world says is good? Should we be bending over backwards to please the world, and make everyone happy?
First, we need to remember that our definition of good (or, for that matter, anyone’s definition of good) doesn’t come from the world. God is the one who defines what is good. And we were told in verse 2 that the purpose of being transformed by the renewing of the mind is to know God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will. So the good we do must ultimately be good in God’s eyes.
What we need to consider is what is good by God’s standard for all men. Putting this together with what has gone before, the way we live should: not think only of those we respect; not think only of those we like; not think only of those that are nice to us. Our lives and our attitudes should take account of all men, that all may benefit from the godly-good we do.
Paul’s intention here is clarified by the next verse. We are to live at peace, or live peaceably with everyone. We are to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), and primarily that means having peace with God. But I think Paul’s main concern in this passage is that we have a good relationship with those in the world. However we react to the world, it should not be in a way that incites further hostility, or unnecessary hostility. This is true not only in the world, but also within the church. Sadly, there are people in the church who like to stir up dissension and bad feeling. This is sin, and needs to be dealt with–firstly by not falling prey to it ourselves.
One danger of trying to live peaceably is the temptation to minimize, or downplay gospel truth so we don’t offend the world. This is not what Paul is saying. The gospel is good for the world, even if the world doesn’t want to know. The gospel is man’s only hope, and it is our duty and our desire to share that hope with a lost and dying culture. This attitude of living peaceably with all men, and looking out for their good, dictates how we communicate that gospel message. We need to cultivate relationships and goodwill that the gospel will at least get a fair hearing. We’ve talked before about living the gospel, and the more consistency there is between what we proclaim and the lives we lead, not only will this honor God, but it will help to silence the criticisms of the world, and maybe give us a platform to proclaim God’s truth.
Also, we need to make sure that the gospel is the offense, and not us. If people are going to take offense, let it be because of the gospel message, not because of the way we communicate it. I mentioned the fact that my good friend, Dr. James White, for 18 years led a team from his church to the General Conference of the LDS church in Salt Lake City to hand out tracts and witness to attendees. Then, close to ten years ago, some “street preachers” turned up waving placards, holding up LDS temple garments, and shouting derogatory, offensive, and belligerent remarks into megaphones (here’s an article about these people from James’s blog, along with video evidence). After a few years of this, James made the tough decision to stop going, since the “street preachers” indicated they had no intention of stopping their activity, and James didn’t want people associating his church and their ministry with the actions of these people. It’s a mystery what these “preachers” hope to achieve. James rightly calls them a scourge, because they are preventing people from hearing the gospel by their offensive words and actions. No committed Mormon is going to listen to them. We need to be sure that our words are gospel truth, but delivered in a way that shows respect for our hearers.
Paul adds an interesting caveat to his command: “As far as you are able.” This recognizes that the world will be upset with us anyway because of our gospel and our Savior. There’s not much we can do about that. Jesus told us in John 17 that the world will hate us because it first hated him. At some point we will have to face the wrath of the world. We don’t need to make it any worse for ourselves by throwing our own sinful attitudes on top. By not going out of our way to set the world against us, we make sure that the hatred of the world is solely because of Christ, and the gospel. It also helps us to keep focused, and not let the hatred of the world get to us.
As was noted by someone in the group, these words shouldn’t be used to excuse sin, especially in the church. Indeed, Jesus’s commands with regard to church discipline in Matthew 18 fit this model perfectly. By going to the offender first individually, you provide opportunity for private confession and repentance without the need for public shame. This maintains the integrity of the gospel and shows respect to the person. It’s only when the person shows themselves unrepentant or unwilling to submit to Christ’s command that the matter becomes public. And then, the good of the church and honoring God take precedent over the person’s feelings.
One person in the group brought up a specific situation concerning going out to eat with family members on the Lord’s Day, when some of those family members are not believers, and you have strong convictions about eating out on the Sabbath. Several suggestions were made as to how this could be handled without violating the person’s conscience, but also honoring the unbelieving family members. Perhaps the person with the conscience could invite the family members over to eat with them. Or maybe have discussion with the person regarding the nature of the Lord’s Day, the fact it was made for man, and whether it really would be a violation of the Sabbath principle to eat out with an unbeliever if it would help remove stumbling stones to the gospel. Jesus observed the Sabbath, but he also healed and allowed his disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath, recognizing that the Lord’s Day should be treated as a gift, not a burden.
Next time, we’ll look at the final section in this chapter, starting at verse 19.