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What Should a Christian Look Like? Romans 12:9-21

I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.


Introduction: Becoming Transformed to Christ'st Image

Adoniram Judson, who lived from 1788-1850, was a well-known American missionary who served in Burma for almost 40 years. At the age of 25, he became the first protestant missionary to serve there. One day, when his wife told him that a newspaper article likened him to some of the apostles, Judson replied:

"I do not want to be like a Paul...or any mere man. I want to be like Christ...I want to follow Him only, copy His teachings, drink in His Spirit, and place my feet in His footprints...Oh, to be more like Christ!"

Like Judson, the Christian who is growing in their faith should want to reflect their Savior, Jesus Christ. And as they mature they begin to care less and less about what others think, or about their own selfish interests, and care more and more about Christ, His agenda, and about His glory. And because of this, the growing Christian also begins to desire more and more to serve others whom Christ loves and for whom He died.

In earlier studies in Romans, we have learned that Paul's main interest in this book is to discuss the gospel of the grace of God. This good news includes receiving righteousness and salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ alone. We have seen Paul's theological understanding of these great truths in the first 11 chapters of this book. Now Paul has moved to the practical implications of all of this, starting in chapter 12.

In the first 8 verses of this chapter, we see that Paul is urging us, because of all the mercies of God, that we should become "living sacrifices." In other words, we need to give our lives totally to God because of all that He has done for us in our salvation and in giving us a new life. This is totally reasonable in light of the great sacrifice that Christ has made on our behalf and it is the way in which we truly worship Him (1)

In the process, we need to stop being conformed to this world-system which hates God and all that He stands for, but rather be transformed by the renewal of our minds. We must undergo metamorphosis by allowing the Holy Spirit to use the Word of God to change us more and more into the image of Christ (2). We know that this is the final end of the transformation from Romans 8:28-32 in which Paul states that we believers are predestined to be conformed to the image of Jesus.

This transformation then leads us to a sober assessment of ourselves. We don't think more highly of ourselves than we ought but see that we are nothing apart from the grace of God.

It further makes us think of the community into which we are placed and produces a desire to use our gifts, that the Spirit gives us, for the building up of the Church, the Body of Christ (3-8).

In verse 9 through the end of chapter 12, the Apostle continues his look at what the transformed Christian life should look like. He gives a list of characteristics which can be broken up into 4 separate categories. They include:

  1. Personal Duties (9)
  2. Family Duties (10-13)
  3. Duties to Others (14-16)
  4. Duties to Enemies (17-21)

Let's look at each of these and see if we can get a picture of the truly transformed Christian life.

I. Personal Duties (9)

Firstly, Paul begins this section with the supreme Christian virtue, which is agape love. This is that which God demonstrated when he loved the world so much that He gave His one and only Son to die on the cross for our sins (John 3:16). John Macarthur tells us this about agape:

"It centers completely on the needs and welfare of the one loved and does whatever necessary to meet those needs."

The Apostle tells us that this love should be without hypocrisy. That is the New American Standard translation of the Greek word. Another translation translates this same word as "sincere." In other words, we should truly love someone. It shouldn't be fake. We shouldn't have any selfish or self-centered motives but we should love people purely as Christ loved us.

The world says: "I love you because you are beautiful, or wealthy, or can do something for me." It says: "I love you because you have something that I want. This is a love that anyone can give. But only a supernatural type of love can love someone for their own sake, whether we can get anything from the relationship or not. Only a supernatural love can want the best for the other, sometimes at the expense of getting the best ourself.

When I think of God's love that a Christian should emulate, there is a poem by a lady named Ruth Harms Caulkin which I believe demonstrates this trait beautifully. It's called 'I Wonder'. She writes:

You know Lord, how I serve you,
With great emotional fervor
in the limelight.
You know how eagerly I speak for You
at a woman’s club.
You know how I effervesce when I promote
a fellowship group.
You know my genuine enthusiasm
at a Bible study.
But how would I react, I wonder,
if you pointed to a basin of water
And asked me to wash the calloused feet
of a bent and wrinkled old woman
day after day, month after month,
in a room where nobody saw,
and nobody knew.

If all Christians truly demonstrated this type of love, could you imagine what a difference we could make in this self-centered and hate-filled world in which we live?

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But Paul goes on to say:

"Hate what is evil; cling to what is good."

Some Christians say that we aren't to be involved in what they call "earthly" endeavors. We should be preaching the gospel and nothing else. The truth is that Christians should be both preaching and demonstrating the gospel by being the leading advocates of good causes in this evil world, for we are to be the salt and light.

For instance, we should hate the sex-trafficking that is going on in our world and do all that we can to help see that it is eradicated from our country. And we are to speak out against the abortion industry that makes money off luring young women into their "clinics" to kill thousands of babies each year. We must not only say that we hate evil, but we must do all in our power to rid it from our society. It will never be complete until Christ returns, of course, but that doesn't mean that we don't do our part to make this world a little bit better; a little more like God intended it to be.

In the same way, we must cling to the good by making sure that we are participating in programs that help to promote it. Homeless shelters, for example, help the poor and needy. Giving to organizations that help starving children may be another way to cling to the good. Or, maybe donating to causes that encourage adoption of orphans or help abused children. These are just a few suggestions of ways in which we can promote the good that exists in the world around us.

II. Family Duties (10-13)

But as someone has said: "Charity begins at home." This is what is in view in the family duties found in verses 10-13. In this case, the Apostle is not referring to the family unit of husband, wife, and children, but to the Church family of fellow-believers with whom we share our time and our worship.

We are to be devoted to one another in brotherly love. This kind of love is like the love of a family which isn't supposed to be based upon personal attraction or any other worldly desirability. We may have different interests, different likes and dislikes However, we have one thing in common. We all love and seek to serve the Lord Jesus Christ who is our common Savior.

We are to give preference to one another by showing a genuine appreciation and admiration for each other. We put the needs of our fellow Christians above our own and care for one another. And we are to genuinely honor each other.

Verse 11 tells us that we are not to lag behind in diligence, "fervent in spirit, serving the Lord." By that Paul is telling us that whatever is worth doing is worth doing well and with all of our hearts and souls. God certainly is worth it and our fellow-believers are worth it as well because God thinks that they are.

We do all this while rejoicing in hope, probably the hope of Jesus' soon return. Even when going through tribulation we persevere, being devoted to prayer He probably means prayer for the saints here because he continues by saying that we are to contribute to the needs of these same saints.

Finally, in this section, Paul tells us to practice hospitality. The Greek word literally is translated as "pursuing the love of strangers." This is referring to the practice in New Testament times of taking in travelers and doesn't mean merely entertaining friends. In the New Testament time, travel was dangerous. Also, Inns were evil, scarce and expensive if you could find one. So, the early believers in Christ would often open up their homes to people, especially if they were fellow believers in Christ. In the same way, we who are believers today should think of ways to open up our homes and lives to those who are in need.

III. Duties to Others (14-16)

This brings us to the understanding that everyone that we come in contact with is our neighbor. Therefore, we have to understand that our duties not only include those to our fellow-Christians but to everyone in the rest of society as well. And although this is one of the hardest things we will ever do, we must be good to those who would persecute us too.

Also, a mature Christian has empathy for everyone. They feel the pain of others and wish to be with them in good times and bad. This passage tells us to:

"Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep" (15).

No matter what our neighbor is going through we must genuinely care for them and, if it is within our power, help them take care of their needs.

This is to be done no matter what the social status of the person in need. As a matter of fact, in Christ, there are no social statuses. We are all one in Him. That is why the passage here says:

"Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own estimation (16).

It is a sin to think that you are better than someone else because you have a higher place in the world community, or have more money and power, or even knowledge and wisdom. Everything that we have is a gift from God. To think you are better is called pride, and that sin is not to be tolerated among God's people.

Without Christ, we are all sinners on our way to a Godless eternity. And in Jesus, we are now all sons and daughters of the living God. None of us can boast on our own before the living God. So our love and concern should be for every person and not just those who are considered great by others in the world community.

IV. Duties to Enemies (17-21)

And not only are we to love and care for those who love us, but we are also commanded to care for our enemies as well. Paul is just following the teachings of Christ here. Jesus said:

"But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

"If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' do that (Luke 6:27-32).

This doesn't mean that we must be punching bags for hateful people and it doesn't mean that there isn't room for self-defense if someone is trying to harm us or our family. What it does mean is that we are to treat our enemies with the grace with which God has treated us. And we will learn later, in the next chapter, that God has set up the government as His representatives to take care of the evil-doers of this world and to punish their evil deeds.

In the meantime, we as individual Christians are never to pay back evil for evil. We are to respect what is right in the sight of all men. By that is meant that we are, to be honest, and have the right behavior, especially in front of unbelievers (17).

And as much as lies in our power, we are to be at peace with all men. Of course, not everyone will be at peace with us. We can't help how others feel about or treat us. All we can do is make sure that we are not the cause of the continued fight, and do everything that we can in order to bring the war between us and our enemies to an end. The rest is between God and the one who refuses to make peace.

For those God tells us that we are not to take vengeance. Paul quotes other Scriptures when he says:

"Never take your own vengeance, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' says the Lord. But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.' Don not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (19-21).

This idea of burning coals refers to the ancient Egyptian custom of people in which a person, in order to show public contrition, would carry a pan of burning coals on his head. This pan of coals represented the burning pain of his shame and guilt for what he had done. So what Paul is saying is that when the Christian pays back good for evil, this should cause his enemy to feel shame for treating the Christian in such a manner.

When it comes down to it, good will always triumph over evil. Whether in this life, or the next, God will win. And if He wins, we who follow Him will win as well. So every time we do good to those who mistreat us, we are demonstrating our faith in a loving God who will ultimately give us the victory over all our enemies.


As we conclude this chapter of the book of Romans, we can see that many of us have some growing to do in order to reach complete spiritual maturity. I just thank God that I am a little closer to this spiritual ideal than when I first began my journey.

It was Bill Morgan who told this story which illustrates what a mature Christian ought to be like. He writes:

"On a wall near the main entrance to the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, is a portrait with the following inscription: "James Butler Bonham--no picture of him exists. This portrait is of his nephew, Major James Bonham, deceased, who greatly resembled his uncle. It is placed here by the family that people may know the appearance of the man who died for freedom." No literal portrait of Jesus exists either. But the likeness of the Son who makes us free can be seen in the lives of His true followers."

It reminds me of the little boy who was in kindergarten and was asked by the teacher to draw a picture. When the teacher came up to him she wasn't sure what the picture was. So she asked the little boy what he was drawing, and he said: "I am making a picture of God!" The teacher replied: "But nobody knows what God looks like." Then the boy proudly told her: "They will when I'm done!"

It is my prayer that people will be able to look at all of us, Christ's followers, and say: "So that is what God looks like!" Indeed that would be the highest honor to give us and the greatest compliment that anyone could make about us; to say that we are a people who reflect the glory of Christ. May the Lord make it so in each of our lives!

© 2019 Jeff Shirley

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