This sermon was preached at the Church in Waldo.
You can find the recording here, or read the manuscript below:
Romans chapter 12, verses 1,2, and 9…
1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable act of worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God: what is good and acceptable, and perfect.
Now verse 9… Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.
What is good. What’s good? Turn to your neighbor and say, “What’s good?”
Genesis 1 begins the whole bible by saying God made the world and everything in it, and called it all: good. Galatians 5:22 tells us that good-ness is a fruit the Spirit of God desires to grow in our lives. Ephesians 2:10 informs us that there are good works we have been created and saved to do. And the verses we just read reveal that God wants to renew our minds to discern and transform our lives to do His will, which is: good.
But…what is good? That’s a bit of a loaded question, don’t you think? Philosophically, this has been heavily discussed throughout history. The Greek philosophers talked about what they deemed to be the three essentials areas of life: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. In essence: what to know, what to do, and what to appreciate.
And goodness deals with what we should do—the question of Ethics; what determines Morality. But in our pluralistic, relativistic society today, determining what is good can be difficult because what may be seen as good in your eyes may not be considered good in the eyes of another. “Who are you to tell me what’s good; I should be able to decide what’s good myself.”
Romans 12:9 tells us to “cling to what is good,” but how are we supposed to do that if we can’t seem to agree on what good even is?
At times, raising a two year old can be like raising a little Dictator—girl has a will of her own. She determines for herself what’s good and what isn’t. And sometimes it feels like there are multiple kingdoms at war in our house, because she has an opinion on what she wants to wear, what she wants to eat, what she wants to do and when she wants to do it! Already, she’s quick to let you know what she judges as a good idea.
We’ll suggest something, or even request something, and she’s quick to respond: “That not sound good.” She’s got this new thing she’s been saying lately: “Youuuu go lay Wesley down. Aaaaaanie will watch a show…That sound like a good plan.”
The thing is, sometimes she’s right. Sometimes her thoughts of what’s good and what isn’t, are spot on. A popsicle is a good plan after dinner, but touching the grill when it’s hot isn’t a good idea. A little tv during the day is good, but grabbing your brother’s face and pushing him down to the ground like you’re Hulk Hogan isn’t good.
Working hard and making money so you have financial margin to give generously is good, but cutting corners and stealing from others isn’t. Forgiving someone who’s hurt you is a good plan, but sleeping with your neighbor’s wife isn’t.
But even in these examples, what authority do I have to state what is good and what isn’t? I can base it on personal choice, on personal experience, on beliefs, but really, what right do I have to claim to determine what’s good and what isn’t?
Anyone here ever seen the documentary “It’s a Girl”? The cover alone will haunt you: it’s a Pink balloon against a pastel blue sky, but the pink balloon is floating above a mound of dirt with a gray tombstone behind it.
In India, China, and many other parts of the world today, girls are killed, aborted and abandoned simply because they are girls. There’s this one scene where a mother admits to murdering her eight infant daughters—eight infant daughters—simply because they weren’t boys…and yet she explains all this with a smile on her face, because in her mind, this is good and proper behavior.
The UN estimates that as many as 200 million girls are no longer in the world today because of what’s called “gender-cide.” It’s all rooted in centuries-old tradition and sustained by deeply ingrained cultural dynamics and government policies.
Because to them, daughters are an inconvenience. They’re expensive and they can’t extend your family name. Sons can work for you and bring you wealth. They can have children and pass their legacy on, but girls are just “another mouth to feed.” And because of the utterly broken dowry system, a parent has to virtually pay a man large amounts of land, property, or animals in order to marry their daughters off to them.
This is completely unfathomable to us. But this is, in their minds, one logical conclusion on morality they’ve landed on in their society. In India and China, it’s acceptable to murder your daughters simply because they aren’t boys, but let’s bring it a little closer to home.
Since Roe v. Wade in 1973, over 55 million abortions have taken place in our country alone. In Kansas City, human trafficking occurs on such a large scale that we have become #4 in the nation for this modern day slavery. There’s a desire for it. It’s supply and demand. People want it, because they deem it good in their own eyes, even though it’s evil.
But where did this mix up on goodness all begin? It traces all the way back to Genesis. In the beginning, after God created all that there is, He created man and woman in His image, placed them in the garden and said, “You can eat from every tree, except from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
Well, you know what happens when someone tells you not to do something, right? Exactly. They didn’t listen to God, they didn’t like what he called good and evil, they wanted to decide for themselves what is good. So Adam and Eve ate that forbidden fruit, and you know what? They got exactly what they wanted, but it was more than they realized.
There are different interpretations of what it means that Adam and Eve ate from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Some think it merely means mankind became aware of evil (all they knew before was good, but now they know what evil is too). That’s an okay interpretation, and maybe that’s it, but I’m not certain that’s really what’s going on.
Several scholars agree with me on this: when mankind ate the fruit, they brought upon themselves a terrible weight—a heavy burden—that from that day forth, they would bear the responsibility of determining what is good and what is evil. And that’s precisely what happened, because when Adam and Eve did this (and we did it with them), we began this never-ending quest of deeming what we believe is good and evil in our own eyes.
And when you have a 7 billion people around the world—and consider all of history as well—all trying to bear the weight of determining for themselves what is good in their own eyes, it’s an extremely dangerous situation.
When everyone has an opinion on what makes a good mom, it can be hard to know whether or not what you’re doing is right (breastfeed or bottle-feed, stay at home or work outside the house).
Or here’s a personal example: when it seems everybody’s telling you what a good church should look like it’s difficult to feel secure in what you’re doing (“Worships needs to be louder! softer! more contemporary! more hymns!—Peter, you need to be funnier! less talkative! more personable!—the only thing everybody seems to agree on is shortening the sermon”).
I worry for my daughter so much already when I think of the countless voices in the form of magazine covers all trying to dictate what’s considered a good body type—it’s no wonder eating disorders affect our daughters and sisters and wives as much as they do.
A job description is a helpful thing. Whether you’re a plumber, an accountant, a teacher, or barista, whatever your job is, you want to know what’s expected of you. Otherwise, how are you supposed to know what’s good and what isn’t? How do you know if you’re wasting your time? How do you know if you’re making the right decisions?
Even the world’s greatest entrepreneurs who start their own businesses need job descriptions, because it explains what you’re expected to do and defines what a WIN is for a day’s work. Without an objective job description, you’re left trying to figure out yourself if something is worth doing, but what are you basing that on? How can you trust yourself to know what’s good?
Otherwise, you’re left to yourself to do whatever you think is good in the moment.
I remember going to a local diner with a friend when I was 17. And as we walked toward our booth, we noticed an empty table next to us with some leftover food on it. I’m talking half a grilled chicken sandwich, cucumber salad, and some soda. It was practically a full meal. So we just went on over there and started eating the food. What?! We were broke high schoolers?!
Well, as we’re stuffing our faces, I notice these two attractive girls approaching us…but with absolute disgust on their faces …Turns out they weren’t done yet. What? It’s their fault for going to the bathroom together.
It might’ve seemed good in my eyes at the time, but it was obviously a foolish thing to do. And if everyone operates without some sort objective standard of good in place, this kind of thing is bound to happen in much worse ways.
You see this in Judges 20-21. Israel was comprised of 12 tribes, and one of them was acting up, so the others ganged up on them. They pillaged the people and killed their women and children, only to realize later, “Oh no, if there are no women and children, then this tribe will die out since they can no longer procreate, and we’ll be at a disadvantage against the other nations.”
So they come up with a plan to steal 400 virgins from another group of people and, in effect, rape them and force them to bear children. It’s a disgusting story. It’s like…why is this even in the Bible? I’m convinced it’s the kind of story christian parents would ban their kids from reading if it wasn’t in the Scriptures. But at the end of the story, here’s what it says: Judges 21:25…“In those days there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
When there’s no moral absolute, if it’s all relative, this is in effect where society goes: Relativism. Chaos. Anarchy. Perversion. If there is not a set-in-stone standard from above—if everyone just gets to decide for themselves what’s right and good—then whether it’s Israel, or India and China, or abortion and human trafficking in our own City, these are small examples of how this reality can flesh itself out.
If trusting what society deems good and trusting what our own personal desires deem good leads us to wrong, then how can we can know and cling to what is good? What if I told you there’s a higher standard—a moral code, if you will—that God knows, that he chose for us when he placed mankind in the garden? That before Adam and Eve chose to bear the weight of deciding for themselves what was good, God had set in place a way to live that is good and he invites us to live within it?
Turn back to Romans 12 with me. We’ll spend the rest of our time working through v9-21. Before we start again with v9, let me reiterate v2 because it really sets the tone for us. God wants us to stop being conformed to the pattern of the world but instead to be transformed by the renewing of our minds so we can discern what God calls good.
If you want to know what is good, what God set as the standard of goodness, and how to hold fast and live within it in our everyday lives no matter what the culture or others say, this is it. As we read our passage, we’ll pause for comments along the way. v9…
9 Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. [What is good? Here it is:] 10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.
It’s good to love others. Look at this. Right out of the gate, here’s what God calls good: love. Love each other, and he adds, you’ll know you sincerely love each other if you’re trying to outdo each other in showing honor.
Don’t compete FOR honor, compete TO honor others.
Don’t fight to keep honor for yourself, fight to give honor to others.
We’re pretty self-interested, in general. Take Facebook. We’re convinced that we’re so important, that we maintain a living autobiography, updating it with tidbits of useless info like “just saw this cute cat video” or “wow, I got a free iced coffee today!” or “I just went to the bathroom!” under the impression that other people will find this worth their time and hit the like button. I’m not even kidding!
If Paul was writing to us today, I imagine it would’ve said something like, “Love each other like brothers, and outdo each other by liking their Facebook photos more than you seek for them to like your own.”
Another less silly example—though that’s very real still—if your buddy gets a promotion, don’t say, “Good job!” then in the next breath: “I got a promotion last year.” Ah, see? You took the honor away from them by turning the attention toward you. Paul’s saying you want to know what’s good? Love. And you’ll know you’re loving others if you’re willing to honor them above yourself. Learn to celebrate when something good happens to someone else, rather than making it about yourself.
v11…11 Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.
It’s good to be passionate and serve the Lord. There’s something to be said about passion. Paul says, “Don’t be lazy in your zeal, but be actively on fire for what you do for God.” Life’s short, be all-in. Make the most of your days. Give yourself to being creative. Do what you love and serve the Lord in the process.
Sometimes there are things we do where our passion is lacking, so we need to pray and ask God to give us passion. But sometimes, there are things we do where our passion is lacking, and I think this verse gives us license to say, “Okay, time leave this thing and do what God’s given me passion to do.”
So how do you know which is good for when? It says be fervent in Spirit, meaning, be in tune with the Spirit. It takes discernment. Discernment isn’t a choice between “do I go to church or do I rob a bank today.” It’s not a choice between good and evil; it’s a choice between good and almost good.
But wherever you find yourself regarding zeal, pray this: “God, give me a passion to serve you here, and a willingness to follow you wherever you want to take me.”
v12…12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
It’s good to rejoice. It’s good to be patient in the midst of difficulty, knowing that if we have God, we are never without hope. It’s good to pray, because it connects us to God in a powerful way—allowing him to fill us up with his love and send us out to express it to others. It’s good to meet the needs of others and be hospitable (we said it last week: If the Kindness of God changed us, then kindness will change the world.)
v14 continues to say “It’s good to…14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. [A lot could be said here, but we’ll come back to it later.]
v15…15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
Pause. Okay. Sometimes, it’s good to rejoice. And sometimes, it’s good to weep. Both are good, but both have their place, because timing is everything.
When you’re around someone who’s grieving the loss of a loved one, or mourning the death of a dream, the last thing they need to hear is anything that will trivialize their pain.
The story of Job comes to mind. After he lost everything (his kids, his house, his business), three friends come by offering their thoughts: “…Don’t freak out, it’ll all pass…” // “…just pretend everything’s alright…” // “…you must’ve done something wrong, that’s why this all happened to you…” Whether or not those things are true, doesn’t mean they’re most helpful to say when someone’s weeping.
A better response, and this Michael Card lyric summarizes it so well, is this:
“Don’t read me pointless poems, friend. Don’t diagnose, don’t condescend.
Though you may be right to disagree, I need someone to weep with me.”
When people around you are weeping, it’s good to weep with them. And while this can be challenging, you know what’s even more challenging? Rejoicing with those who rejoice…because when you’ve been working as hard as somebody else, but they get the promotion instead of you, or you’ve been wanting marriage or kids or recognition or success or church growth so badly but someone else gets it instead, rejoicing with those who rejoice can seem like an impossibility.
It’s good for our souls to rejoice when others rejoice…why? Because the alternative is having your soul eaten up with entitlement and envy. God is out for your good because he’s a good God. Rejoicing when others get promoted/blessed/favored/accepted is God’s invitation for us to flourish in goodness rather than be consumed with bitterness.
v16…16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be arrogant, but associate with the lowly. [That last phrase can also be translated as: “be willing to do lowly, menial work.”] Some of us want to change the world, but we’re unwilling to change a diaper. The absence of a servant-heart in a leader will corrupt the leader, no matter your level of skill. It’s good to be humble, it’s good to do the lowly work.
If there’s a need in Kids Church (which there is by the way), and you’ve been on the fence about helping out or even flat out said no, question your motives for why. By the way, if you want to find out more about how to serve in kids church, be sure to talk with Bethany after the service today and she’ll get you connected. Moving along.
“…Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.” [No matter how badly someone treats you, don’t react with malice or contempt. That means no gossip, no rumors, no stealing, no silent treatment, no murder, you get the idea.] Then Paul says this in v18… “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
Do whatever you can in your own power to live at peace with others. In the words of Jesus, “Be a peace maker.” But I love how Paul adds this caveat: “If possible, as much as it depends on you,” because sometimes, no matter how hard you may try, you will not find peace with some people. And that’s hard for the people pleasers among us.
Some people just want conflict. Some people thrive on drama. Paul says, “It’s good to have peace with everybody, so do whatever you can. But otherwise, just leave it be.”
This summer I’m teaching music to elementary students and at the end of the day, we all get to go outside to the playground. If you’ve ever been around a group of kids long enough that are playing together, and something happens that one kid doesn’t like very much, you’ve probably heard this before: “Hey! That’s…not…fair!”
There’s something inside all of us that cries out, “No fair!” We want to see justice, especially when the unfair things are directed toward you… but look at v19…19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
Let me say this, I think the whole “that’s not fair!” attitude is placed in us by God. It’s true, at times we may distort and misuse it, but really, it’s a God-given mentality. The horrible things that have been done to you aren’t fair. They’re not right. They’re not good. But we trust in a God who promises to make all things new one day.
He is coming back to restore order and bring about justice for the oppressed. He will avenge. He will right all wrongs. He will return for those He loves! The sense of injustice you feel… God. feels. that. too.
All wrongs will be paid for in one of two places: either by Jesus on the cross or by that person for eternity. God will settle it all. That means that I… don’t.
We often think retribution changes things, but it’s grace that changes things!
God didn’t change me by paying me back… His kindness leads us to repentance.
Paul goes on to say this in v20…20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink…
Instead of vengeance, we’re called to show goodness! We’re called to go out of our way to outdo each other in love and good deeds. God might change the other person someday, but right now he wants to start by changing us. And in the meantime, it’s good to leave it in God’s hands, because He will settle it.
Now, there’s a final statement in this verse that we need to explore a bit. v20 starts by saying “if your enemy is hungry or thirsty, meet his need” then it continues: …for by doing so, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
That line seems to come out of nowhere. Heap burning coals? Is this a sort of future payback? Am I suppose to show goodness, knowing that God will drop hell’s fire on their heads at a later time? Is that really what’s going on here?
In moments like this, we need to pause and do the hard work of trying to understand what the writer and audience would’ve understood this phrase to have meant before we try to quickly apply it to our own lives.
In the 1st century, there was no air conditioning, so cooking inside the house was typically a bad idea. The tops of the houses were flat so they’d often cook on their rooftops. Since there weren’t gas stoves back then, they used to cook over hot coals. And so, sometimes when a neighbor saw you were cooking, they’d ask if they could borrow your coals since they were still hot.
You’d heap the burning coals up in a basket, and they’d carry the basket from your place to their place—get this—on. their. heads… then they’d be able to use the hot coals for themselves. With this historical context in mind, it seems that heaping coals on someone’s head has less to do with a delayed retribution, but was simply a cultural illustration of what showing goodness looks like.
That’s how I’ve come to understand this passage. Some may interpret it differently, maybe you do, but if so, let me ask you this: if this notion of overflowing goodness—even toward your enemies—upsets you, is it possible there are places in your heart where you’ve allowed your former way of thinking to determine what’s good, rather than allowing God to transform you to discern and grow in what he calls good?
Bring back v14 where it says to bless those who hurt us. When dying on the cross, Jesus said, “Father forgive them” to the ones who nailed him there, and Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies…why? Because something strange happens to us when we do.
When you open yourself in prayer to the God who loves the people that you don’t love, you triangulate the relationship—now it’s not just you and that person, because you’ve brought God into it. And since God loves that person and he’s for their good, and you’ve opened yourself to God about that person you don’t love, something will begin to happen in you, if you allow it: you will begin to love that person too.
Like Stephen, who was being martyred for his faith in Acts 7, he could echo the forgiving words of Jesus and plead, “God, don’t lay this sin against them.” This is the transforming power that God wants to work in your life too, if you let him. That, as Paul says to close out this entire passage on goodness in v21, we would “…not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
That’s Romans 12. That’s a list of what’s good, and if you live this out, you will overflow in goodness. Now here’s my challenge to you this week. Pick one—just one—of these statements, think of a particular area of your life, and begin to apply it.
Two examples: maybe for you, it’s time to start rejoicing with those who rejoice… specifically: at work or school. Rather than turning to jealousy when your colleague gets praise, start learning to celebrate the joys of others.
Here’s a personal one. Where it says “Outdo one another in showing honor,” I’m going to start working toward that in my marriage. Rather than wait for my wife Grace to serve me, I’m going to try to out serve her. Not because I’m trying to be a better spouse, but because I’ve seen just how much Jesus served me, so I want to serve her better now as a result.
Take one statement on what God calls good, pick a particular area of your life, and begin to apply it this week. Then the following week, pick another one and do the same thing. Then again. And again. Got it?
But now, a word of caution. Being a good mom, being a good husband, being a good student, being a good employee, a good friend, a good christian, none of those things are enough. Don’t chase goodness. You won’t find it. Well, you might, but it won’t be enough.
Here’s my fear. Some of you will look at this list, adopt it, and try to maintain it in your power. Just one big To-Do list, and I’m telling you: it won’t work. You know who else tried to do that? The Pharisees. They took all the laws of God—added a BUNCH MORE of their own so they wouldn’t accidentally break the real laws—and tried to find goodness that way. You know what Jesus had to say about them?
Matthew 5:20…Jesus said, “Unless your goodness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
The Pharisees were so serious about doing what’s good, and it still wasn’t enough. Don’t chase goodness; you won’t find it. Chase God, and goodness will find you.
Psalm 23 starts by saying “The Lord is my shepherd” and it closes with how, “goodness and mercy will follow” you for all of the days of your life. If you want goodness, you need to follow God. As you follow God, goodness will follow you. That’s why goodness is a fruit of the Spirit, not a requirement for the Spirit. Goodness won’t get you the Spirit, but getting the Spirit will give you goodness.
If you want to know how to live a good life, it starts with God. You can make all these surface level changes—you can serve the poor, you can honor others, you can heap prayers and burning coals of kindness on the heads of your enemies—but none of it is enough. It’ll never make you right with God. Goodness, on our own, is like Adam and Eve trying to cover up their nakedness with a fig leaf religion.
The foundation of our Goodness is the Goodness of God. This is what sets christianity apart from every other religion and worldview. Every other religion is built on the premise that you must do good things in order to attain God’s mercy, but look at Romans 12:1 again, which says…“1 I appeal to you therefore…in view of God’s mercy…”—then it goes on to talk about all the good things we do. Do you see that?
I appeal to you, in view of—NOT in lieu of—but in view of God’s mercy!
The world and all religion is built on the view of doing good to earn God’s mercy, but the God of the Bible says, “NO! You already have it! Now, walk in goodness.”
You could either do all of these things from a place of fear (where you fear you’re unworthy and you’re just trying to make it all up to God or your spouse or your friend or boss), OR you can do these things from a place of being loved, where you know God accepts and welcomes you in as a Son or Daughter.
Do you see how valuable you are to God? You are so valuable that he sent Jesus to die for you. You are so valuable that Jesus came—not to be served, but to serve—and gave his life as a ransom for you. You are so valuable to Jesus that even when all of sin, and death, and hell converged on him like a perfect storm, he overcame it with Good. You are so valuable to Jesus that he met us in our lowliest place so he could raise us up to the heavenlies and seat us with himself.
Do what is good, in view of God’s mercy. This really is the foundation of it all. Chase goodness, and you’ll miss God, but chase God, and you’ll find both.
This is what we see in communion—which we will celebrate together in a moment—that our goodness is not found in who we are or what we do, but in who Jesus is and what he has done. So now as we take this bread and dip it into the cup—visual reminders to us of his broken body and shed blood—we remember that because of Jesus, our goodness is no longer a requirement for God’s mercy, but a result instead.
As the band comes up, I want to speak this prayer over you…
I pray that your heart would rest in Jesus.
You no longer need to justify yourself
for in Christ you have been justified.
You no longer need to strive toward status
for in Christ you have been raised to heavenly places.
You no longer need to work to gain the approval of others
for in Christ you have the smiles of the Father,
the love of the Son, and the seal of the Spirit.
And then, in view of God’s mercy—on the foundation of Christ’s finished work—may you walk in the good works he has prepared for you to do as unto the Lord.
For He has gone before you, He is with you, He is in you.