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Love: No More Sloppy Agape

Love: No More Sloppy Agape

Romans 12:9–21

The love that Paul wishes to see in the Romans is one that works in holiness and right living. Thomas Watson, a Puritan, spoke to that point, “Faith deals with invisibles, but God hates that love which is invisible.”

The rest of chapter 12 contains a number of injunctions to “deep, unaffected and practical love.” The commands are reminiscent of those in the Sermon on the Mount, and in this they form a link between the law of Moses as interpreted by the Lord and the “law of Christ” as interpreted by the apostle (cf. Galatians 6:2). Commentator Alan Johnson has entitled this section “The Law of Love Applied.” Of course, the kind of love that Paul sets forth is a far cry from the sentimental softness that the modern world calls love. In the biblical world love is in complete harmony with the divine righteousness and holiness, thoroughly consonant with the punishment of sinners. Love to be true love must be love “in the truth” (cf. Philippians 1:9; 3 John 1). Love to our world is gushy and mushy or, as radio preacher J. Vernon McGee is fond of saying, playing on the Greek word for love,

“I’m tired of sloppy agape!”

Biblical love has an astringent ruggedness about it, mixed with the tenderness of the deepest commitment of the will to the object of divine grace. It is holy love, free, distinguishing, and gracious.

The First Triplet: A Love That Can Hate

9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.

The believer’s response to the mercies of God, Paul says in 12:1–2, is the offering of our bodies as living sacrifices to God. Paul now expresses more specific exhortations, directed to accomplishing such sacrifice.

These are not random commands, but they are closely related to one another. The first of the exhortations reads, “Love must be sincere.” The apostle is speaking of a genuine love, not like that of people described in Scripture whose words are “smooth as butter,” but whose true feelings are “drawn swords” (cf. Psalm 55:21). Reflection on the extent of the divine grace manifested to us (“in view of God’s mercy”) in our lost condition ought to be sufficient to bring us to unfeigned love of the brethren (cf. 1 Peter 1:22). It is clear that if God has loved others and saved them as He has loved and saved us, we can and must love them too.

Paul then urges his readers to hate evil and cling to the good. Is this an irrelevant interruption? No. This is just as essential to the noblest love without hypocrisy as sincerity. Notice that the second precept, the clinging (or cleaving) to the good, is the ground of the first, for if we are to hate evil, we must love the good.

The apostle exhorts his readers to a familial love. Paul here speaks of a more restricted love for the family of God. The sentiment is similar to that expressed in Galatians 6:10,

Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

The Greek word rendered “be devoted” refers to family affection, like the love of a mother for a child, or of a father for a son, or simply the love that members of one family have for other members of the family, no matter how wayward they may be. Christians are to have kind affection for one another.

The Second Triplet: Wholehearted Service

Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. – Romans 12:11

Christian Diligence (Romans 12:11a)

The second triplet has to do with Christian diligence, fervency, and service. The apostle writes, “Never be lacking in zeal.” The Greek word means “diligence,” and it has its application not only to a person’s business but to all that he or she does.

It is true that many businesspeople are on fire for their business but are at the same time all ice for the business of the Lord. We spend long hours in business to get ahead, concentrate for most of our waking days on how to make our business bigger, go to sleep with plans for our work buzzing in our minds, but in the meantime reserve a few hours on Sunday for the most important work of all, the work of the Lord. We occupy ourselves with the temporalities and neglect the eternalities. May God enable us to be diligent in our work, diligent in our play, and especially diligent in the spiritual things of the Lord.

Christian Fervency (Romans 12:11b)

The apostle continues, “but keep your spiritual fervor” (the word “spirit” may be a reference to the Holy Spirit, in which case it should be capitalized, but the meaning is essentially the same, for all true fervency comes ultimately from Him).

The word rendered “fervent” comes from a root that means “boiling.” Paul refers to a fire below that makes the soul’s depths boil with fervent earnestness. Paul does not have in mind the indolent kind of emotion that emotes but does not lead to work for him. Biblical fervency is yoked to work for the Lord. How can one be “cool” in the light of the mercies of God? Those who understand God’s gracious salvation must be fervent in spirit. And if we are not, we must go over again those “mercies,” so wonderfully expounded in Romans 1–11.

Christian Service (Romans 12:11c)

Paul concludes this verse with “serving the Lord” — to think that we are serving, working for the Lord himself. What a privilege! And why should we be diligent?

Consider the greatness of the work, the greatness of the enemy of the souls of people, the brevity of the time in which we are able to work (the night soon comes when no one can work), and the extreme gravity of the issues involved, life and death. The personal reason for our diligent service is Paul’s word in Galatians 2:20,

the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.

The Third Triplet: The Inner Secrets

12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.

This final verse of the section is the only verse that refers to the inner secrets of the Christian life. First, the apostle asks for Christians to rejoice in the light of our hope. Joy is not a matter of temperament or of circumstances. Joy comes from faith in the promises of God, which remind us that we have an omnipotent Father, a divine continuing providence that guards our way (cf. Romans 8:28), the abiding presence of the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Matthew 28:19), and a heavenly home (John 14:1–3).

If joyful, then we can endure too (cf. Romans 5:2–4). And we will have tribulation in this world because we are related to Him whom the world hates. In fact, the world’s hatred of Christians is simply the continuation of its quarrel with Jesus Christ (cf. John 15:18–19; John 16:33; Acts 14:22). The Lord, however, has promised us peace and good cheer in the midst of the tribulations we face in the world.

Finally, Paul concludes with “faithful in prayer,” reminding us that we endure as we pray (cf. Acts 1:14; Acts 2:42; Acts 6:4; Ephesians 6:18; Colossians 4:2). It is a fitting way to conclude the three great triplets of Christian exhortation. We cannot help but be impressed with the contrast presented between the practices of modern Christians who so vociferously claim the experience of being born again and these precepts of Paul.

Editor’s note: The authors continue this section with:

The Fourth Triplet: The Law of Concern (Romans 12:13-14)
The Fifth Triplet: The Law of Selflessness (Romans 12:16)
The Sixth Triplet: The Law of Non-hostility (Romans 12:17-18)
The Seventh Triplet: The Law of Non-retaliation (Romans 12:19-21)


As we look over the chapter, it becomes clear that the apostle’s emphasis is on the necessity of being something first, and then of doing something.

Right conduct can flow only from right being and thinking.

Thus, the first step in the fulfillment of Romans 12:3–21 can be accomplished only by the “Christian offering” that Paul refers to in Romans 12:1, and the transformation of the believer by the renewing of the believer’s mind through the Word of God (set forth in Romans 12:22).

Excerpted with permission from Discovering Romans by S. Lewis Johnson and Mike Abendroth, copyright Zondervan.

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Your Turn

1. How does biblical love motivate us to action?

2. How is it possible to biblically love other people even if there are no emotional feelings toward the person or persons? Explain.

3. What are some ways in which Christians can stoke the coals of love for their Christian church family?

4. Name some specific ways believers can overcome evil with good?

Come join the conversation on our blog! We would love to hear your answers to the questions above!