Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.
Paul in Romans 12:9–16 is discussing the necessary graces in the Christian life. In these tremendous verses, Paul is laying down imperative after imperative. In the 8 verses here, there are 20 different imperatives, 20 different authoritative New Testament demands. To any humble reader, it can feel a bit overwhelming. And thus, I feel compelled to make several introductory observations before we begin to analyze the text itself.
First, we must all freshly recognize that these graces are fruits following salvation in Christ. We do not work such things in our own lives in order to be saved, but these fruits follow the saving work of God in us. While affirming that, we don’t want to back off the fact that these graces are evidences of true spiritual life in Christ. If a person exhibits none of these graces, then that person isn’t in Christ.
Second, the picture Paul gives us here in Romans 12 is a life lived unto Christ having the “mercies of God” clearly in view—it is the normal Christian life. In the earlier years of my Christianity, before coming to embrace the doctrines of grace, I read a helpful book by Watchman Nee by this very title, The Normal Christian Life. The whole premise of that book is based on Romans 6:11. We must consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ. Brothers and sisters, that kind of “consideration”—along with the “be transformed by the renewal of your mind” as well as “let love be genuine”—is all a part of the normal Christian life. This is not some kind of super Christianity reserved for a few spiritual elites. This is for all who live godly in Christ Jesus—varying degrees, various strengths and weaknesses, and plenty of beautiful diversity—but this is the norm.
Third, the high calling of the normal Christian life simply can’t be worked up by the natural man. Sure, an unbeliever might be able to weep with one who weeps. But who among the worldly ones would ever bless their persecutors? Who among them serves the Lord with fervency? You see, Romans 12 is a non-starter for the unregenerate. This is only the result of a supernatural and inward change—a new heart!
Fourth, these graces Paul identifies in our text can only be done by the power of the Holy Spirit working in us and through us. Regeneration alone readies us to bear this kind of fruit. The Spirit of God then empowers us to bear this kind of fruit. Even the true Christian cannot work such works apart from the power of God—God working in him both to will and to work for His good pleasure.
Fifth and final, texts like this are supremely useful to us. They help us to see ourselves and gauge our progress (or lack thereof) more clearly. It is one thing to have a view of Christian graces in general, but it is altogether different to view into these particulars. We don’t want to be those that hide behind generalities like “I am a pretty nice guy.” We want to be those always striving to walk in the light. So, if pride is exposed, so be it; Christ has grace for proud men. If lovelessness is exposed, so be it; our Lord has plenty of love to give. Let these rapid-fire admonitions work their work in you. Fear not—God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and a sound mind. And freshly invite the Christ—who is love—to come to you and change you.
The Preeminence of Love
The text begins with the preeminence of love. Paul is quite purposeful in verse 9: “Let love be genuine.” Why start here? Why begin with love? Paul is only emphasizing and pointing to the very thing Jesus identified and taught. The ESV renders the Greek as a positive, “Let love be genuine.” The original language literally reads, “Let love be un-hypocritical”—or without hypocrisy. And that is how many of the modern translations render it. The NIV along with a few other translations render it this way: “Love must be sincere.” Again, this is stating it positively much like the ESV. Sincere in English is a transliteration of the Latin words sine cera, which mean “without wax.” It refers to the ancient practice of utilizing wax to fill in the cracks of a piece of pottery to hide its blemishes and give it the appearance of being in better condition in order to make it more valuable. The high-quality pottery would often be marked “sine cera” to certify it had not been tinkered with in any way. Thus, a sincere person is one who doesn’t hide his true self through hypocrisy. It is a person without wax. Genuine is a synonym of sincere. Authentic would be another. This is the biblical view of love—it has to be real. It can’t be feigned or hypocritical. It can’t be for show. There’s nothing counterfeit about it.
You don’t have to read very far into the pages of our New Testament to grasp this. Think with me for a moment of Scripture’s clear testimony to love’s preeminence. We begin with the decisive and deliberate words of Christ in Matthew’s Gospel:
And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”Matthew 22:37-40
Jesus also makes this profound statement: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35). The apostle Peter commands, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). And the apostle John says, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14). Now circle back to Paul, and hear what Paul says elsewhere about love: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13).
If that wasn’t clear and concise enough, consider this, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love” (Galatians 5:22). What Christian grace, what fruit of the Spirit, comes first? It’s love. And one last pairing of verses, though many others could be cited. See how the apostle Paul makes the connection back to what Jesus said in Matthew 22, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:14)? And the Galatians citation has its own parallel in Romans: “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8).
This kind of love—a love without hypocrisy, a love that is genuine—this is the very kind of love our Savior so fully manifested in His life and death. And we must bear this in mind. Jesus Christ loved exactly this way. He didn’t just talk the talk of love for His bride. He actually laid down His life for her. As J. V. Fesko said, “Christ’s words and actions were inseparably bound in a holy union of love and integrity.”
By God’s powerful grace, we are to be imitators of Him. We mustn’t view this call as merely a moral ideal to aim for but rather the life of Christ in us—imaging Him to the world around us. You see, naturally, every one of us was selfish and unloving. But the Christian is a new creature. We aren’t slaves to sin any longer. Thus we are to live and walk in light of “Christ in me.” Then and only then can we begin to love as Jesus loves.
In summary, love is the necessary starting point here in verse 9. Without it, everything else is a non-starter. Without it, the car sits on empty and goes nowhere. Without genuine love, none of these other graces even exist.
The Manifestations of Love
Now let’s consider 10 admonitions from Paul in Romans 12:9–16.
1. A Holy Love
Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. (v. 9)
So many in our day and age know nothing of genuine love, a love that loves what is righteous and hates what is evil. The kind of love flaunted in our day is so sick and twisted, it refuses to call much of anything evil and is willing to embrace whatever someone feels is right. This is not love at all. Rather, it is unloving and destructive.
Paul is aiming to be very clear in what he says here. He utilizes a very strong Greek verb in “abhor.” We could say “utterly abhor” or “detest.” He isn’t content to say “avoid what is evil,” though we must. He goes a level beyond this—because this is the very character of God. Paul tells us to abhor evil. Christians are to increasingly feel what God feels toward evil. The man who truly hates his laziness will radically labor to cut it out of his life. The brother who detests pornography will continuously work to eradicate it from his life. Isn’t this so clearly visible in the life of Christ?
I’m reminded of the opening chapter of the book of Hebrews. Speaking of the Son, of Christ, Hebrews 1:9 says, “You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.” (The writer of Hebrews is quoting Psalm 45:7 here.) And this is the character of the Messiah in total perfection!
The rest of the verse 9 of Romans 12 reads, “Hold fast to what is good.” Other translations render it “cling to what is good.” I like both. It literally means “to glue” or “to bond to.” Isn’t that lovely? Another form of this very verb is used in Matthew 19:5 about husbands and wives: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
This abhorring and clinging is much of our sanctification. More and more, as we grow in grace, we will hate evil. And more and more, as we mature in Christ, we will love good. Genuine love is always a holy love. As radical as it is to begin to hate the sin you once loved, this is exactly what the power of the cross can do in you and me. This holy love sees evil as evil, calls a spade a spade, and deeply detests it. At the same time, it sees good as good and holds fast with all its might.
2. A Familial Love
Love one another with brotherly affection. (v. 10)
One man translated this as “Love the brethren in the faith as though they were brethren in blood.” That captures the sense of the text well. You see, on the day of our birth into this world, we became a part of a physical family. But even more significant than that, on the day of our spiritual birth—our regeneration—we became a part of the family of God with the people of God as our brothers and sisters. Jesus highlights this in responding to Peter in both Matthew and Mark. Jesus said,
Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.Mark 10:29-30
The fact is that the redeemed have been brought into the greatest family on earth, an eternal family. We will one day dwell together in glory as just ones made perfect. There we will perfectly love one another to all eternity. The here and now is where this proves difficult at times. And yet, this genuine love will prove to be a familial love, a love that day by day and week by week is laying down its life for brothers and sisters in Christ.
What will you, believer—God with you and in you—not sacrifice for your siblings in Christ? “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. Do good to one another, brothers” (Galatians 6:10). Behave like siblings. If you don’t know each other, get to know each other. Cultivate relational depth; don’t stay in the shallow waters with your floats on. You can’t do this with every brother and sister everywhere, of course, and not even in the local church. But you can do this. Loving like Christ loves, you will pursue this. Genuine love is familial love.
3. An Appreciative Love
Outdo one another in showing honor. (v. 10)
This has always been a fun verse to me. It gets me thinking and smiling. Here is holy competition—but the kind of competition where the winners don’t want or need human recognition. This competition involves doing “nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility counting others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). That is the undergirding necessity if we are to exemplify appreciative love.
This kind of sincere love despises jealousy and instead aims to build others up. It genuinely wants what is best for the brethren even when it means that others excel or enjoy what they themselves don’t have. This is entirely rooted in Romans 12:1, “by the mercies of God.” The Christian who takes in the multiplied mercies of God they’ve received is then liberated to spend the rest of their time and energy blessing brethren and appreciating God’s work in them. “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). Genuine love is appreciative love, edifying love, and it will express itself with words of affirmation and encouragement and mercy again and again and again.
4. An Ardent Love
Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. (v. 11)
Here is a significant pairing of admonitions all pointing to the fact that sincere love is ardent love. It is fervent. It is constant. The Greek word translated “fervent” in the text is most helpful. It literally means “to boil,” so the image is that the Christian is one who is boiling over in love and zeal and service. We are to be living vigorous lives. We are to live as those truly alive. The Christian should resist every temptation toward a lackadaisical attitude or laziness. We are to be careful, not careless.
The Word of God calls us to such a life, and the Spirit of God empowers it in us. “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7 NIV) The Spirit of God is a Spirit of infinite power and infinite energy and infinite willingness. Think no little thoughts of the Spirit of the Almighty God! It is by this great power that God works in us that we are to regularly rouse ourselves out of lethargy and also spur one another on to love and good works.
Quench not the Spirit, brothers. Fan fervency into a flame! Believe what Scripture says—things like 1 Corinthians 3:16, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”; Colossians 1:29, “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me”; and Ephesians 6:10, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.”
I appreciate what John Murray says here: “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.” It reminds me of the account of Count Zinzendorf and the experience he had as a result of looking at a painting of Christ on the cross. As he looked at the painting, it was as though it spoke to him, “I have done this for you—what have you done for me?” This is part of what inspired his zeal in “serving the Lord.” Christ died for you. Will you not live for Him? The text is telling us that genuine Christian love is an ardent love. It is love aflame.
5. A Durable Love
Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. (v. 12)
These three admonitions are woven together in a way that if any one of them fell away, the rest would soon follow. Who can be patient in tribulation apart from being constant in prayer and rejoicing in the glorious hope of Christ to come?
And so, the Christian is one who “rejoices in hope.” We live today in light of that eternal day. We look for the city whose builder and maker is God. We embrace tribulation today knowing that pleasures forevermore come tomorrow. We know Christ is with us, even to the end of the age, and in this our hope is fixed. “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf” (Hebrews 6:19–20). This hope undergirds our patience in tribulation. A Christian’s hope so informs his thinking amid his pain that he can view such tribulations as “light momentary affliction” (2 Corinthians 4:17), as something “not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
All of this is undergirded by a life of prayer. Continual communion with God, a regular receiving from Him. Luke 18:1 says, “[We] ought always to pray and not lose heart.” Genuine love is a durable love. It perseveres to the end.
6. A Generous Love
Contribute to the needs of the saints. (v. 13)
Maybe the clearest and best comment here is one we’re already familiar with:
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. By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him.1 John 3:17–19
When I consider this admonition, I can’t help but think of the way Paul uses the back-to-back examples of the church of Macedonia and Jesus Christ. He powerfully persuades the Corinthian church working from the lesser example (which is quite amazing) to the greater example in Christ.
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints.2 Corinthians 8:1-4
Isn’t that something? In extreme poverty, they gave beyond their means. They wanted to! They begged earnestly for an opportunity to “contribute to the needs of the saints.” How is this with you and me? This is the stuff of the early church—Acts 2 and 4.
Paul gives one further example and argument, the picture of Christ’s giving, in 2 Corinthians 8:9: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” No giving like this giving—ever. Christ’s sacrifice was total sacrifice. He put it all on the table. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
Don’t you see it? Genuine love is generous love. There is an infinite gulf between Christ and stingy!
7. A Hospitable Love
Seek to show hospitality. (v. 13)
Seek to do this. Pursue hospitality, as several translations render it. This isn’t a passive activity for the Christian; the term Paul uses is a strong term. It is the very word Paul uses when he says, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14) We want to be eager, even zealous to show hospitality. Especially toward the saints, but also toward those outside the faith, even strangers.
Christian, we ourselves have been brought in! “He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love” (Song of Solomon 2:4). And it is our privilege now to go and do likewise. The Christian should be both warm and inviting. Don’t we see this in the life of Christ? He attracted the multitudes—there was just something about Him. There should likewise be something attractive about our lives too. The whole of our demeanor should cause the watching world to wonder “What is different about that person?” Genuine love is a hospitable love.
8. A Merciful Love Romans
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. (v. 14)
Remember the high call of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount—“Love your enemies.” We aren’t those who just love those that love us. Even the worldly ones make an ugly attempt to do that. We are to love and even bless those who hate us, who persecute us, who would kill us.
Again, this is impossible to do apart from the grace and power of God. But the Christian has the grace and power of God, don’t we? We do! And we see this kind of merciful love in Stephen, the church’s first martyr.
And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.Acts 7:59-60
As Christ did from Calvary’s cross, so did Stephen outside Jerusalem. And so must we. This isn’t merely the restraint of not cursing. This is the act of blessing those who despise you and want to harm you. It is as though Paul is saying, “Call down God’s blessing upon those who would harm you instead of calling down God’s curse upon them.”
This is radical, I get that. But the way Christ “blessed” you is far more radical! Do you remember in Luke 9 when James and John were ready to call down fire from heaven to consume the people who didn’t receive Jesus? See how Jesus responded—it’s short and sweet! “But Jesus turned and rebuked them” (Luke 9:55).
Genuine love is a merciful love. Because of the “mercies of God” we’ve known, we show mercy.
9. A Sympathetic Love
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. (v. 15)
It has been noted by several commentators that Paul begins with “rejoice with those who rejoice” because it is the harder thing to do. Even unconverted men and women can be moved to show compassion or sympathy toward a mourning one. Tears move us—naturally. And yet to rejoice with someone rejoicing, well, that requires real humility. The natural inclination of the sinful heart is to be envious or jealous. And much like the preceding verse, Paul isn’t calling us to merely resist jealousy. He is calling us to actually rejoice with the one rejoicing. Good news has come to a person, and we are to celebrate it with them, to be joyful with them and for them. Using the picture of the body of Christ being like parts of a human body, Paul says it this way: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:26).
All this points to the fact that the Christian life is a communal life. The Christian isn’t independent and must never become isolated. We need each other and we must feel for each other. If I hurt, you hurt. If you rejoice, I rejoice with you. Genuine love is a sympathetic love.
10. A Humble Love
Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. (v. 16)
Humble love endeavors to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). I love Acts 2:44, “And all who believed were together and had all things in common.” What a beautiful snapshot from the life of the early church. They were given to the same things, the same loves, the same pursuits. And they all had each other’s welfare in mind. There was “genuine love” among them.
This verse should remind, too, of Paul’s warnings from the previous chapter, Romans 11. “So do not become proud, but fear.” “Lest you be wise in your own sight.” This is the path to real unity in the church, the way of real body life among us. No class distinctions, no cliques, no factions. Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it this way:
This is the only thing that matters to Christian men and women. They do not care whether people are rich or poor, high or low, intelligent or unintelligent—whatever the world may say. No, their question is: Is this person a Christian? Are these people rich in faith? Are they children of God? If so, I belong to them and I like talking to them; I like meeting them.
We need a great deal of this humble love in our day. Away with posturing. Away with hypocrisy. Have this humble mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus. Genuine love is a humble love.
This was a marathon. You read these 20 admonitions, and you almost feel winded. That is much of the point, I think. Brothers and sisters, we are entirely dependent on He who is in us and with us! Never forget it! None of this love in a Christian exists without Christ being present in us.
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.Galatians 2:20