It a wonderful thing that, if you believe and teach the straightforward truths of the Bible, you will spare yourself and your children a hundred follies of each new generation. If you want to be useful for your generation, you don’t need to be an expert on the latest philosophical fad, or the latest progressive morality, or the latest psychological trend. A few Christians need to study these things and respond to them. But the great majority of Christians should simply be marching to the beat of another drummer.
What most ordinary Christians need to do is go deep with the Bible and believe and absorb and teach what it means and what it implies in its straightforward statements. If you do that—if you think your way down deep into the warp and woof of the Bible, and let it shape your mind and heart--you will be spared many trendy detours that sound so up-to-date, but end in the destruction of lives.
I think you will see this truth at work if we meditate for today on the second half of Romans 12:9. The whole verse says, “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” We looked last time at the words, “Let love be genuine [or without hypocrisy].” Today we focus on the words, “Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” My point is: if you will think and pray and obey your way down into this straightforward exhortation, you (and your children) will be liberated from many of the follies of this age—and every age.
Let’s do this together. I see five things to point out. You may not even be conscious of these things, and yet they can have a powerfully good effect on you. In other words, you don’t have to be an expository preacher to be transformed by the Bible. But it helps to have them pointed out from time to time and may hasten and deepen the transforming power of the text.
1. There Is Such a Thing as Objective Good and Evil Outside Myself
When Paul says, “Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good,” he is rejecting the notion that evil is defined by what I abhor; and he is rejecting the notion that good is defined by what I hold fast to. This is so simple and so obvious. Would you ever think to say this to your children? Maybe. But if you teach them verses like this often enough and deeply enough, they will absorb a whole biblical worldview for their great good.
That is, they will absorb the view that there is such a thing as good and evil, and that good and evil are realities outside of them. The good and the evil don’t depend on us or our children to become good or evil. They are good or evil objectively. Good is not what you want to be good. And evil is not what you want to be evil. Liking something does not make it good and hating something does not make it evil. There is reality out there. And then there is you. That reality is good or evil. You don’t make it good or evil.
How do we see this? Because Paul says, “Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” In other words, good and evil don’t change, we change. Our hearts can cling to things because we desire them, and our hearts can reject things intensely because we don’t desire them. Paul says, Here is good, and here is evil. Now bring your emotions and your will into conformity to what is objectively there. When you face the objective evil: hate it. And when you face the objective good, embrace it.
Now what makes good good? And what makes evil evil? In other words, how does it come about that there is such a thing as objective good and evil? Well, this verse doesn’t say. But we don’t have to look far for the answer. Verse 2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” The reason there is such a thing as objective good is that there is such a thing as “the will of God.” Or most simply, and most profoundly, the reason there is such a thing as objective good outside ourselves is that there is God outside ourselves. And most concretely and specifically, God has made himself known objectively and historically in Jesus Christ in Scripture.
If there were no God—if there were no Christ—then the good would be subjective, not objective. Good would be in the eye of the beholder, especially the strong beholder. Might would make right. But God does exist. And therefore might does not make right. The good and true and right and beautiful have objective foundation in God, and in his self-revelation, Jesus Christ. Which means that the simplest peasant in Russia or Jew in Germany or slave in Georgia or Christian prisoner in Rome can say to the most powerful Stalin or Hitler or plantation owner or Caesar: “No sir, this is wrong. And all your power does not make it right. There is God above you. And therefore right and wrong have objective reality apart from you.”
Oh, what a gift we give our children when we teach them the simple, straightforward teachings of the Bible. Their implications are vast beyond our knowledge. In this one phrase there is a world of precious truth.
2. Choosing Against Evil and for Good Is Not Enough; Inner Intensity Is Required
Notice Paul’s verbs: “Abhor (apostungountes) what is evil; hold fast (kollömenoi) to what is good.” He did not say “Choose against evil and choose good.” His words are very strong. “Abhor” is a good translation. “Loathe,: “Be disgusted with” (Liddell and Scott Lexicon) would also be correct. “Hold fast to what is good” means embrace it. Love it. The word is used for sexual union in 1 Corinthians 6:16.
In other words, God is not mainly interested in a willpower religion or a willpower morality. Choosing is not enough. It doesn’t signal deep moral transformation. Remember the meaning of hypocrisy--changing the outside with willpower choices. Now Paul says, Don’t just avoid evil, hate evil. Don’t just choose good, embrace the good. Love the good. The battle of Christian living is a battle mainly to get our emotions changed, not just our behavior.
Which leads us to the third observation.
3. The Bible Commands That Our Emotions be Changed Even Though We Don’t Have Immediate Control Over Them
You can’t make yourself immediately abhor what you like. But when Paul says, “Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good,” he is commanding our emotions to be one way and not another way. Don’t ever fall for the argument that God does not require that our emotions be one way and not another, as if God only has requirements for body or the will. God commands not only that we choose the good but that we love it, and not only that we choose against evil, but that we hate and abhor it.
But what if your heart is in such a condition that you love the evil and hate the good? How will you obey this command? The answer is that we must be born again. That which is merely born of the flesh loves the things of the flesh. That which is born of the Spirit loves the things of the Spirit (John 3:3–7; Romans 8:7–8; 1 Corinthians 2:14–16).
Or to use different biblical terms: the new covenant, purchased for us by the blood of Christ (Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25), must be fulfilled in our lives, if our emotions are going to conform to God’s view of good and evil. Ezekiel 36:26, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you.” God must give us a new heart if we are going to hate and love as we ought. The way we get for ourselves a new heart (Ezekiel 18:31) is by despairing of self-change and crying out for mercy from God in the name of Christ that he would take out the heart of stone. And when Christ has given us a new heart that begins to see the world the way he sees it and feel the way he feels it, we must go on fighting for daily transformation: “Beholding the glory of the Lord, [Jesus] we are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Christian living is not mere choosing. It is choosing with intensity: Abhor what is evil, embrace what is good.
4. Objective Moral Good Is Good for Us, and Objective Moral Evil Is Bad for Us
I see this mainly in the relationship between the two halves of this verse. First, verse 9 says, “Let love be genuine.” And then, without starting a new sentence (in the original Greek), it goes on to say, “abhorring what is evil; holding fast to what it good.” The link between the command to love and the command to abhor evil and embrace good is very close. It looks as if Paul is saying something essential about love.
Everyone agrees that love means, at least, doing things for people that are good for them, not bad for them. So when Paul says, “Let love be genuine, abhorring the evil and embracing the good,” I take him to mean that it will be loving thing to do if we abhor the evil and embrace the good. Which means that what God calls evil must be bad for people, and what God calls good must be good for people.
It’s not the other way around. We don’t decide what is good for people and what is bad for people and then define love that way. God decides what is good and what is bad and we follow that and call it love, because what God says is good is good for people, and what God says is bad is bad for people.
You can see this very clearly in 1 John 5:2. John writes, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.” How do you know you are loving people? By loving God and keeping his commandments. His commandments are the expression of objective good. And his prohibitions are the expression of objective evil. And therefore objective evil is bad for people, and objective good is good for people.
But let’s be explicitly Christian. The ultimate objective good is the God-Man, Christ himself. He is our good. And so you can see most clearly that the ultimate objective good is good for us. Nothing is better for us than Christ. He is infinitely good and infinitely good for us. In him the good and the good-for-us become perfectly one. All other good things are good for us indirectly. They are good for us because they lead us to him. He alone is the good which is directly and supremely good for us.
Which leads us now to the fifth and last observation.
5. Genuine Love Must Hate
If there were a universe in which there was no evil that hurt people or dishonored Christ, there would be only love and no hate. There would be nothing to hate. But in a world like ours it is necessary not only that we love and hate, but that our love include hate.
Paul says, “Let love be genuine, abhorring what is evil.” One commentator calls this abhorring “an intense inward rejection.” It is rejection. It is inward. It is intense. And my point is that in this world love has to feel hate for evil. Since evil hurts people and dishonors God, you can’t claim to love people while coddling evil.
Don’t make the mistake of saying: the evil I cherish only hurts me, and so it is not unloving to others. That’s absolutely false (see 1 John 5:2 above). You were made to display the worth of Christ to others. That is what is good for them. That’s what it means to love them. But if you do things to yourself that damage your delight in Christ and your display of Christ, you sin against others and not just yourself. You rob them of what God made you to give them.
So I say again, love for others must hate evil. Because evil hurts others directly, and evil hurts others indirectly by hurting you. Evil obscures the beauty of Christ. And Christ is our greatest good. Our greatest joy.
As Christmas approaches and you think of gifts, remember one of the greatest gifts now and to the next generation is to believe and teach the simple, straightforward Word of God. “Abhor what is evil and hold fast to what is good.” Oh, what a world of precious truth there is in those words. And the sum of all truth and all good, and the triumph over all evil is Christ. So this advent season, hold fast to Christ, and abhor everything that dishonors him.
© Desiring God 2004. Used with permission. See original sermon manuscript here.
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