Rom_12:21. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.
THE writings of the Old Testament exhibit a system of morals incomparably superior to any that was ever promulgated by the wisest philosophers. In extent it equals the New Testament. It is quite a mistake to say that our Lord inculcated sublimer morals than ever had been revealed before: he only removed the false glosses by which the commands of God had been obscured, and enforced the observance of those commands by motives of a higher nature. Still however it must be confessed, that the New Testament brings the sublimer precepts more clearly into view, and expatiates upon them in a more authoritative and convincing manner. This appears in the injunction before us, which is as concise, as comprehensive, as forcible, as words could express it.
In discoursing upon this precept we shall endeavour to mark,
The “evil” here spoken of does not relate to sin, but to suffering; and comprehends all those injuries, whether real or imaginary, which we are called to endure. In reference to this, two questions arise:
When may we be said to be overcome by it?
[We are not overcome by evil merely because we are crushed by it; for St. Paul, when “pressed out of measure by his troubles in Asia,” “thanks God for enabling him always to triumph in Christ [Note: 2Co_1:8; 2Co_2:14.]:” and declares that while “we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter, we may be more than conquerors [Note: Rom_8:36-37.].” But we are then vanquished by it, when we are diverted by it from the path of duty.
Suppose on account of the trial being exceeding heavy, we are tempted to doubt whether it can, or will, be overruled for our good: then we are vanquished; because we question the truth of God, who has said, that “all things should work together for his people’s good:” our faith has failed, and we are overcome.
Suppose the injury done to us has irritated and inflamed our minds, so that we give way to anger and impatience: then also we are overcome; because we ought to “possess out souls in patience [Note: Luk_21:19.],” and to “let patience have its perfect work, that we may be perfect and entire, lacking nothing [Note: Jam_1:4.].”
Suppose, though no particular vehemence shew itself at the time, we yet are induced to harbour secret resentment in our minds against our enemy: then we are overcome; because we should love our enemies [Note: Luk_6:35.], and be more concerned for the evil which they do to their own souls, than for any thing which they do, or can do, to us.
Suppose, either through the fear of evil, or through actual distress, we are induced to relax our zeal in the Lord’s service, or to make any sinful concessions, then also we are vanquished: for we submit to sin rather than to suffering; we have failed in our integrity; we are overcome. We should value a good conscience more than life itself [Note: Joh_12:25.]; and when we make shipwreck of it, we shew that our enemy has gained the victory over us.
If we hold fast our faith, our patience, our love, our integrity, then are we conquerors, even though we die in the conflict: but if in any of these respects we fail, then are we overcome, even though we crush our adversary, and defeat his more immediate projects.]
How are we to overcome it—
[We gain a victory over it in part, when we do not suffer it to injure our souls. But we must not be contented with such a negative triumph; we should endeavour to overcome the hostility of our enemy; and this can be effected only by returns of good. “If he curse, we must bless; if he despitefully use us and persecute us, we must pity him and pray for him [Note: Mat_5:44.].” “If he hunger, we must feed him; if he thirst, we must give him drink;” with all the tenderness and compassion that we would to a querulous and untoward infant
means, ‘Feed him as an infant.’ Rom_12:20.]. We shall in this way “heap coals of fire upon his head,” to melt him into love [Note: Rom_12:20.]. It is true, many are so obdurate, that no returns of good can ever dissolve their hearts: yet the effect of such persevering kindness, is inconceivably great, and will sometimes extort confessions of our innocence, even from the most infuriated enemies. We can scarcely find in the annals of the world a more cruel or inverate enemy than Saul; yet David’s repeated exercises of forbearance and kindness towards him constrained him to confess his own wickedness, and the distinguished excellence of the person whom he persecuted [Note: 1Sa_24:10-11; 1Sa_24:16-18; 1Sa_26:21.]. Such a victory as that is greater than the most successful warrior could ever boast: and we should aim at similar conquests: we should strive, not to crush our enemy by force, but to overcome his enmity by love.]
We cannot dismiss such an important precept as this without endeavouring more distinctly to set before you,
The moment that the precept is presented to the mind we cannot fail of admiring its simplicity, and, at the same time, its depth. But that our views of it may be more distinct, we observe,
It counteracts all our evil propensities—
[When we are injured or insulted, what a tumult of passion is apt to arise in our breast; and how ready are we to render evil for evil! If we forbear avenging ourselves at the time either by word or deed, we still feel a disposition to retaliate, and are ready to wreak our vengeance upon our adversary by private complaints of his conduct, though from prudence or timidity we do not maintain a contest with him to his face. Long and bitter are the resentments of many, even while they appear to be reconciled, and perhaps delude themselves with the confidence that they have forgiven their enemy. But this precept lays the axe to the root of all secret animosity as well as open hostility. It goes not to the act merely, but to the principle; it requires that all the enmity that is in our hearts should be slain; and that love alone should reign there. Were this once effected, there is not an evil in the soul which would not have received its death wound: for “love is the fulfilling of the law.”]
It assimilates us to Jesus Christ—
[To what an extent has our blessed Lord carried this principle! When we were his enemies, yea, when the whole universe were up in arms against him, he did not execute upon us the vengeance we deserved, but came down from heaven to convert and save us. And by what means did he propose to save us? Was it by a mere act of power? No: it was by bearing our sins, and dying in our stead. What astonishing love was this! But further, when he had come into the world, and his people with one voice had put him to death, still, so far from bearing resentment against them in his heart, he, after he had risen from the dead, commanded that his Gospel should he preached first of all in that city where he had been crucified, and that the offers of salvation should be first made to the very people who had imbrued their hands in his blood [Note: Luk_24:47.]. And how glorious were the triumphs of his love! By the very first sermon that was preached in his name, three thousand of his enemies were convinced of their wickedness, and brought to repentance. Similar to this was the mercy he vouchsafed to the persecuting, blaspheming Saul: he appeared to him in the midst of his mad career, and, by this transcendent act of love, changed a bitter and cruel enemy into a holy and active Apostle. Thus he overcame evil with good; and in proportion as we imitate his conduct we shall be transformed into his likeness.]
It would make a very heaven upon earth—
[What a very hell is this world, where the passions are let loose, and men are left to perpetrate all that is in their hearts! Even under the restraint of wholesome laws there are so many quarrels generated, and so many resentments harboured, that there is scarcely a society or a family in which real harmony prevails. But if this precept were universally obeyed, how different a world would this appear? From the combating of evil with love, there would soon be no evil to contend with: for certainly they who rendered nothing but good unto their enemies, would never render evil to their friends; or if any unintentional evil were done, the very remembrance of it would be quickly lost in returns of love. O blessed state! When shall the happy time arrive, when “the wolf and the lamb shall thus dwell together, and the child shall have no ill to fear when playing on the hole of the asp, or of the cockatrice den?” Surely this may well be called, “The reign of Christ upon earth;” for it will be the brightest image of heaven, or rather heaven itself come down on earth.]
As a further improvement of this precept, we shall.
[We are not to imagine that this precept requires us to renounce our civil rights; for St. Paul, on proper occasions, asserted his rights as a Roman citizen [Note: Act_16:37; Act_22:25; Act_25:10-11.]: nor does an obedience to it preclude the exercise of legitimate authority; for the magistrate would have been invested with power to no purpose, if he were not allowed to exercise it in the support of virtue and the punishment of vice [Note: Rom_13:4.]. Parents, masters, ministers, must exercise the authority committed to them. It is the vindictive disposition that is forbidden, and the unwearied exercise of love that is inculcated — — —]
[Many arguments will arise in our corrupt minds against the discharge of this sublime and self-denying duty. ‘The persons who have used us ill, do not deserve kind treatment; and the exercise of continued kindness to them will only encourage them to proceed in their injurious conduct; whereas a proper display of spirit on our part will tend to intimidate and restrain them.’ This may appear to be just reasoning; but it is directly contrary to God’s command. We are not to consider what others deserve to suffer, but what we are required to do. As to the use that others will make of our kindness, that is no concern of ours; we have only to obey God, and leave all events to him. To yield, to turn the left cheek to him that smites us on the right, and to return good for evil, may sound to us as “hard sayings;” but they are the path of duty, of honour, and of happiness — — —]
Give directions for the performance of it—
[Get a deep sense of your own vileness.—When you are thoroughly sensible how many talents you owe to your Heavenly Master, you will not very readily take your fellow-servant by the throat for the few pence that he may owe to you.
Contemplate frequently the mercy which Christ has vouchsafed, and is daily vouchsafing, to you.—How will this put you to shame, when you feel the risings of anger or revenge against even your bitterest enemy! Surely you will fall upon your knees before God, and pray for grace to “forgive others even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you:” and that not thrice, or “seven times, but seventy times seven.”
Be much in prayer to God for the assistance of his Holy Spirit.—Without his aid you can do nothing: but there is nothing so great, which you shall not be able to do through Christ strengthening you [Note: Php_4:13.].]