by John Piper
Scripture: Romans 12:9
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.
Let’s begin with some biblical thoughts about how to read the Bible in a way that changes us deeply. Especially, how are we supposed to read passages like this that have piles of short exhortations? The five verses from Romans 12:9 to 12:13 contain 13 exhortations:
1) Let love be genuine. 2) Abhor what is evil; 3) hold fast to what is good. 4) Love one another with brotherly affection. 5) Outdo one another in showing honor. 6) Do not be slothful in zeal, 7) be fervent in spirit, 8) serve the Lord. 9) Rejoice in hope, 10) be patient in tribulation, 11) be constant in prayer. 12) Contribute to the needs of the saints and 13) seek to show hospitality.
Suppose you get up in the morning and have set yourself to read several chapters of the Bible before you enter the day. And suppose that one of them is Romans 12. So you read through the chapter. Now what do you remember from those 13 exhortations? What will you remember in two hours? And what effect did they have? After three minutes reading this chapter, how are you changed in your love, and hate, and brotherly affection, and honoring others, and zeal, and fervency, and service, and hope, and joy, and patience, and prayer, and generosity, and hospitality? Did mentioning these 13 exhortations in your mind for a total of about 15 seconds transform your heart and mind so that all 13 of them are fired up and growing? Surely that’s why this was written.
But it doesn’t usually work that way. Reading over texts like this once, and quickly, has little effect to produce all these beautiful things in our lives. So what are we to do? What would make these things happen?
Paul’s Goal for Us from Romans 15
Paul gives us guidance in chapter 15. In Romans 15:15-16 he says . . . (keep in mind he is writing mainly to Gentiles, that is, non-Jews in Rome and he is explaining how his ministry of writing this letter helps him accomplish his aim of transforming Gentile sinners into a worship gift to God):
“On some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”
Notice several things:
His aim is that the Gentiles be an “acceptable offering” (v. 16)—just like he said in Romans 12:2 that we prove what is good and “acceptable”: the will of God.
His means of preparing the Gentiles—us—for God as acceptable living sacrifices of worship (Romans 12:1) is to write to us and remind us boldly of things we may already know (15:15).
But the writing alone does not produce the holiness and the newness and the love that Paul is aiming at in us, so he says at the end of verse 16, “sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”
So now we know Paul’s goal for us when we read Romans 12. He writes to us boldly to remind of some things that we already know with the aim that we be transformed in our hearts and minds and begin to embrace the acceptable will of God, and that this all happen by the power of the Holy Spirit. Neither can be excluded from Paul’s strategy: the word and the Spirit. Not the word without the Spirit, and not the Spirit without the word. The 13 exhortations of Romans 12:9-13 are written so that the Holy Spirit may take them and make them the means of his transforming, sanctifying work.
Implications for How We Read Romans 12
The implication this has for how we read Romans 12 is threefold (at least).
It means we will pray as we read. We will ask God to pour out his Holy Spirit to make the Word effective in our lives. We will admit our need for him and be conscious that mere reading will not produce godly lives. We will depend on his work in us to make the word produce what it commands. We will say with St. Augustine: Command what you will and grant what you command. We will pray.
We will consciously look to Jesus Christ as the one who died for us and rose again so that we could be forgiven for all our failures to live this way, and have any hope that God would look with favor on us to help us. We also look to him as the one who lived perfectly like this as our perfect example. And we look to him as the one we hope to glorify by living this way.
The reason we look to Christ as the foundation and model and goal of the Romans 12 way of living is that the Holy Spirit is sent into the world to glorify Jesus Christ (John 16:14). If we try to live like this for our glory—even with the help of the Holy Spirit—it will not work. The Holy Spirit is not sent to give us glory, but to give Christ glory. So we pray for the help of the Holy Spirit, and we look away from ourselves to Christ for the purchase and the example and the goal of this new way of living. When we look to Christ, the Holy Spirit empowers us to live the Romans 12 way.
We meditate on these exhortations and do not breeze over them. We linger over them. We ask what they mean, and we think about that in relation to the other Scriptures. We ask what difference these exhortations would make in our lives, and we think about practical situations where they affect us. We slow down. We don’t just fly at 560 miles an hour in our 747 36,000 miles above the grove of fruit trees and look down and say, “My, what an impressive grove of fruit trees.” Instead, we land the plane and walk through the grove of trees and stop here and there and pick the fruit and eat it and savor the beauty and the sweetness of this grove. In other words, we meditate on these words. We don’t rush over them.
All of that I think is implied in Romans 15:15-16. So that is what we want to do now. We will begin our walk through the grove of trees. We will pray earnestly as we go that God will transform us by what we see and what we eat. We will look away from ourselves in a kind of self-forgetfulness that focuses on Jesus Christ as the one who died for us that we might live this way (Titus 2:14), and who satisfies us with all that he is and promises. And we will linger over these words rather than rushing through them.
The First Exhortation: Let Love Be Genuine
So our focus first is on the first exhortation in Romans 12:9, “Let love be genuine.” Literally: “Let love be without hypocrisy.” In a sense we begin a new section here at verse 9, and in a sense we don’t.
We do in this sense. Verses 4-8 have been about the use of our spiritual gifts, and now Paul turns from the focus on gifts to the focus on the more general way of love in the church. This is just what he did in 1 Corinthians 12-13. Recall that 1 Corinthians 12 is all about spiritual gifts. But then Paul says at the end of chapter 12 in 1 Corinthians 12:31, “But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” So Paul moves from spiritual gifts to the more general and more excellent way of love. He does that in 1 Corinthians, and he does it here.
But in another sense this is not a new section, because Paul is still unfolding what it means to have a transformed mind from verse 2 and what it looks like when we are not thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought but are thinking highly of Christ with the measure of faith that we have as verse 3 says.
In fact, I am not sure Paul felt that there should be any pause at all between the list in verses 6-8 and exhortation for love in verse 9. Remember, Paul was saying in verse 8 that contributing should be generous, and leadership should be zealous, and mercy should be cheerful. And now he simply adds, Love should be without hypocrisy.
Think of it. Of all the things he could have said that love should be (Let love be great, earnest, joyful, constant, bold, etc.) he says, “Let love be without hypocrisy.” Why is that even on his mind? I think it’s on his mind because it is the dead opposite of verse 3. Verse 3 says not to think of ourselves too highly, but to think with faith, that is, to think with our minds and hearts looking away to Christ for our peace and satisfaction. Verse 3 is about a wonderful self-forgetfulness in the service of Christ. And the exact opposite of that is hypocrisy, because the hypocrite is totally concerned with himself. How will I appear? is his driving question. How can I create a good impression of me? is the consuming desire.
So Paul has not left his theme. By the mercies of God in Christ he is working for transformed minds that are not conformed to this age but are renewed, and that means first and foremost do not make much of themselves but make much of Christ. There is a lifestyle that shows the worth of Christ-exaltation over the worth of self-exaltation. That is what he is after. And now he is calling for it generally in love. Let love be without hypocrisy.
So let’s linger here and meditate on what hypocrisy is and why people do it, and what love would look like without it.
Two Manifestations of Hypocrisy
What is it? Hypocrisy shows itself in two ways. One is that it tries to make the outside look better than the inside. We put forward what looks like a loving behavior that does not really signify what we feel inside—just as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13:3, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” So you can do some remarkable external acts of sacrifice and not have love.
The classic statement of this form of hypocrisy is Matthew 15:7 where Jesus said, “You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” External lip-praise was not accompanied by internal heart-praise. Jesus called this hypocrisy.
Few things brought down his wrath like hypocrisy. For example, in Matthew 23:25, 27 he said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. . . . Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.”
So the first way that hypocrisy shows itself is when we hide internal sin by putting up a moral, external front.
Here’s the other way that hypocrisy shows itself. We hide our own flaws (sometimes even from ourselves) by drawing attention to other people’s flaws so that ours don’t show up so clearly. This I would suggest is found most frequently in marriage troubles. But not only there; for example, in Luke 6:42 Jesus said, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.”
So Paul is saying: real love doesn’t act this way. Let love be without hypocrisy. It isn’t love if it is hypocrisy. He said in 1 Corinthians 13:6 that love “rejoices with the truth.” But hypocrisy is all about falsehood, concealment, and deceit, cloaking, misleading, and hiding. Hypocrisy is the opposite of loving the truth. So it is the opposite of love. So, Paul says, Let love be without hypocrisy. Let it be genuine.
Two Aims of Hypocrisy
So we have seen two ways hypocrisy shows itself. Now ponder where this evil comes from. What is going on? Why do people do this? Why do we do it? There are at least two aims of hypocrisy that I see in the New Testament.
First, there is the aim to get and keep the praise and approval of other people. Hypocrisy is driven by the craving for other people to make much of us. For example, in Matthew 6:2 Jesus said, “When you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” And in verse 5 he says, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”
In other words, they craved the reward of men’s approval and praise. They got it, and that is all they got. Love is not like that, Paul says. It is not hypocritical. It does not crave the praise of men. It is has been set free from that bondage. In fact, that is close to the essence of love: It doesn’t think highly of itself—it doesn’t think much about itself at all. It is riveted on Christ and all that God is for us in him. The command to love without hypocrisy is really a command to know Christ and love Christ and find your satisfaction in Christ so that you do not crave the praise of men any more.
But there is another evil that hypocrisy sometimes aims at. Most commonly we think of hypocrisy aiming at the praise of others. So there is a kind of posturing and posing. But there is a more subtle aim, namely, to cover sins that may have nothing to do with how we are posturing and posing.
For example, in Luke 13 Jesus heals a woman who had been bent over for 18 years. It was the Sabbath. So the ruler of the synagogue was angry and said, “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” Then the Lord Jesus answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it?” (v. 14-15).
Jesus called this man’s zeal for the Sabbath hypocrisy. Why? It wasn’t so much that he was seeking the praise of men. He was a hypocrite because his religious zeal was hiding something. What was this man concealing? “Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey . . . and lead it away to water it?” Bottom line: money! (See Luke 16:14). You don’t give a rip about this woman! But you care about your ox and your donkey! Your zeal for the Lord’s Day is sheer hypocrisy.
Liberal Hypocrites and Fundamentalist Hypocrites
Oh, Bethlehem, beware of making our religion a cloak for worldliness! There are liberals who do this—talking endlessly about the poor and about peace and about the environment—and sleeping around on the weekend. And there are fundamentalists and evangelicals who do this—talking endlessly about the cesspool of modern culture and the godlessness of secular humanism—and hiding away in their safe suburban (or urban) homes, with their surround sound entertainment centers, driving their $25,000 cars, and not lifting a finger for the poor, or the catastrophic needs of the world.
It cuts both ways. You can be a liberal hypocrite, and you can be fundamentalist hypocrite. But love is not that way. Love doesn’t put up artificial fronts. Love does not dwell on the flaws of others. Love does not crave the praise of men. And love does not act religious to hide sin.
Love forgets itself and looks to Christ and overflows with joy in him to meet the needs of others. So let us look to Christ for everything we need.