Romans 12:1 starts off with the word, “Therefore,” which is typical of Paul after he’s written a lot of heavy stuff and then brings it all down to earth and applies it to our lives at street level. And Romans 12 is a classic example of that, because the previous chapters in Romans are loaded with vital information about the “spiritual life” that God would love us to experience, but how and where does it become real in our everyday lives?
Paul’s answer in Romans 12 is that if we truly want to learn and practice what all this heavy stuff means – or as he phrases it, “test and approve what God’s will is” to see how it works – it’s in our community of Christians where it all happens. It’s in our experience as Christians together.
And to help us in our quest, Paul offers us several practical ways in verses 9 to 21 that help us as Christians together see how “good, pleasing and perfect” God’s will – and the Spirit-filled life God would love us to live – is. God isn’t just expecting us to blindly obey like robots; he wants us testing and proving by practical, observable experience how obviously superior his ways are.
In Romans 12, then, Paul is setting us up to experience the supernatural, or the superiority of God’s ways, in very practical things we can focus on in the church that work to everyone’s obvious benefit when done well.
Like, for instance, “love must be sincere” in verse 9. To experience the spiritual life Paul is talking about in its supernatural reality and superiority, love must be utterly genuine, with no faking it to be loved, or to give the impression of being a nice person.
And wouldn’t you love to be with a group of people who genuinely love each other? Well, God is offering just that in the church through the love the Holy Spirit pours into us (Romans 5:5). We can, therefore, experience supernatural love – and how wonderful and superior it is – in our Christian communities, by the many practical ways we see the totally sincere love of the Holy Spirit being expressed. That’s what the Holy Spirit has been given to us for, so we as Christians together can test and prove how good the life God offers us is. We get to experience genuine love, and what a wonderful community it creates.
So what is genuine love? Well, for a start, verse 9, it means “hating what is evil,” where anything going on in the church that isn’t loving is dealt with so that evil doesn’t get a look in. In the church we “cling to what is good,” as Paul phrases it, and he gives at least twenty examples of what he means by “good” in the next twelve verses.
What’s “good,” for instance, is “honouring one another above ourselves,” verse 10. Imagine a Christian community that actually does that, where each person is looked upon as deeply valuable and needed, is therefore listened to respectfully, and is given open credit and appreciation when due. But that’s exactly what the Holy Spirit enables us to do, so we get to see firsthand how wonderfully it works.
That’s in contrast to what typically happens when people mix and meet together. And Paul was obviously aware that even in church there are problems, because he talks about “not hitting back” in verse 17, trying to get along with everyone (verse 18), and not seeking revenge (verse 19). All very difficult things to do, though, when you’ve been wronged in some way by a fellow Christian, of all people.
And Paul’s solution seems impossible too. He suggests doing something jolly nice to someone who dismisses your views as silly, or deliberately tries to wreck your reputation in public. But Paul believes it’s possible to “overcome evil with good,” verse 21, and it works much better when we see the good in a person, rather than getting so angry and resentful at someone that you can’t help expressing it openly (verse 14) – like, unfortunately, so much of the hurtful stuff people throw at each other on TV and in movies. Which, in turn, has created a nasty culture of deliberately destructive gossip and accusation that’s been driving people to suicide and violent public protest. And understandably too, when human dignity is being trodden on like a discarded cigarette butt.
The Holy Spirit, however, provides the antidote to all that, so that the poison of the culture doesn’t infect the church. And it’s ours to experience in the ever so practical, down to earth, street level relationships in our Christian communities. This is where we see what Paul is getting at in all this heavy stuff he’s been writing about in Romans, so we’re “able to test and approve” in such practical ways how “good, pleasing and perfect” – and vastly superior – the will and ways of God are.