Some statements in Scripture seem so forthright and simple, so immediately understood to a significant degree, that we may fail to give them the meditation they deserve. And like the chance observer who notes a little sparkle in the sun and picks up a small gold nugget that has broken the surface of the ground, pockets it, and walks away, we find ourselves content with the immediate discovery and fail to dig any deeper to expose the rich vein of gold beneath the surface. Such may be the case concerning our text today: “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21).
This verse concludes a short passage that discusses how a believer should behave toward outright sinners, especially those who are his enemies because of the believer’s righteousness. Paul offers several specific responses to various implied affronts and offenses. “Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest [“Respect what is right”—NASB] in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men. . . . Avenge not yourselves . . . . If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink” (vv. 17-20b). Our text provides the overarching principle from which those specifics derive. Having read the passage, having understood the specifics, and having realized the concluding sentence sets forth the clear capstone for this line of thought, we feel ready to move on. If someone mistreats us, we should not respond in kind but should manifest the charitable character of the Lord—maybe not easily done, but easily understood.
But with a little digging, we realize that this verse offers more than a “How-To” in response to evil and enemies. It also tenders a powerful promise. “Overcome evil with good,” Paul writes. In so saying, he records God’s assurance that Christians have at their disposal something more powerful than evil, something effective against it, something that will defeat it. The word overcome means “subdue,” “conquer,” “defeat.” The Greek word, nikao, has been Anglicized and adopted as the name of a company—Nike—that makes sports apparel and equipment marketed as merchandise that will prepare the user to “overcome.” The same word is used in Revelation to speak of Christ’s unequivocal conquest of the satanic federation under the Beast during the Tribulation. John prophesies that “the Lamb shall overcome them: for he is Lord of Lords, and King of kings” (17:14).
Our text, then, reveals that a believer has available something stronger than evil, something with the power to overcome it. Paul calls it simply good. The Greek word suggests both a quality that is “inwardly” and “morally” good and also something that is “practically” good. In other words, when a believer genuinely manifests the character of Christ in His grace, mercy, longsuffering, kindness, generosity, and love toward a sinful enemy, he overcomes that evil. We should not misunderstand Paul’s meaning here. He is not suggesting that every enemy of the believer will be saved as a result of the goodness he is shown, nor that he will cease behaving in an evil manner. Nor is he saying that the believer will experience no harm whatsoever. Assuredly, those things will happen from time to time. But the greater truth is that when a Christian answers evil with genuine Christ-like good, the evil is always overcome in at least two ways. First, the injury the evildoer hoped to inflict is mitigated by the charitable response because it fails to irritate, annoy, anger, or otherwise make the believer miserable. Second, the sin that Satan hoped to elicit from the believer in response to the evil done toward him (and thus defeat him) does not manifest itself so that Christ is magnified and Satan’s purposes thwarted. As Paul assures us elsewhere: “Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors [an intensified form of nikao] through him that loved us” (Rom. 8:37). We need not be destroyed, defeated, or even permanently damaged by the evil others intend against us.
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