Commentators on the book of Romans have pointed out the many conceptual similarities between Romans 12:14–21 and the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:38–48, for example, covers many of the same themes that we have been reading about in our study of Paul’s epistle to the Christians in Rome. During His earthly ministry, Jesus told us not to repay others in kind for the evil they do to us, and that we should not simply endure suffering passively but actively love and serve our enemies.
These similarities are inevitable. After all, the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write his letter to the Roman church, and since the Spirit and the Son are both fully God, the Word of God through Paul is ultimately the Word of the Son of God Himself. In any case, the theme of doing good to one’s enemies is so important that the Apostle revisits it one more time in today’s passage before he moves on to other aspects of the Christian life. Capping off his explanation of genuine love in the context of our interactions with other people, Paul tells us, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21).
The Apostle likely has several ideas in mind here. First, in doing good to those who hate us, we keep ourselves from being corrupted by the world and its way of doing things, and so we grow in our sanctification. We will be tempted to love the world and its sinful approach to reality, which is why John tells us not to love the world or the things of the world (1 John 2:15). As we do good when others hate us, we are not conformed to the pattern of this world; instead, we evidence the transformation that the Holy Spirit is working in us (Rom. 12:2).
Second, doing good to those who do evil against us can bring about the end of their evil. This does not always occur, but as we saw in Romans 12:20, people who have done wrong are often shamed when we do not repay them in kind, and they stop mistreating us. The Holy Spirit can even work in this to bring about the repentance and conversion of our foes. John Murray writes in his commentary Romans, “By well-doing we are to be the instruments of quenching the animosity and the ill-doing of those who persecute and maltreat us.”
Finally, in doing good to those who hate us, we show forth the character of our Savior before the world. He loved those who hated Him so much that He gave up His life to save them. We cannot atone for sin, but we can imitate His love for His enemies by loving our foes, thereby pointing them to Christ Himself.