12:21—Good overcomes evil.
Not only is this verse the summary statement of Paul’s teaching in the latter part of this chapter, it expresses a key principle of God’s kingdom. Doing good to an evil doer is intrinsic to God’s nature in this age of grace, and it exhibits the transformed character of his people (12:2).
The supreme example of this principle is the cross of Christ—God’s goodness poured out on an evil world. According to Charles Swindoll, this verse can be considered a mission statement for “the master plan of salvation.” “By returning good for evil,” he says, “we do as God does and we become active participants in His great plan for the world.” There is an expiration date on this principle, however. Judgment for our evil fell on Christ, but it will eventually fall on those who do not trust in Christ.
We live in a Hatfield and McCoy world. Retort begets retort (observe our political campaigns); violence begets violence (observe the Middle East, or inner-city Chicago). Evil is self-propagating, and it has the power to corrupt our own moral integrity if we don’t respond rightly. We can succumb to evil by returning evil or we can conquer evil by returning good.
Tracing this principle in Christian ethics
Good overcoming evil is a principle embedded in the ethical teaching of Jesus and the apostles. We’ve seen in this chapter how it guides our response to a hostile world. It also governs our victory over personal sin (the evil inside us) and our relationships in the community of faith.
What does the Bible say about getting rid of a negative habit? It says to replace it with a positive habit. Near the end of Ephesians 4, Paul says we stop lying not by taking a vow of silence but by telling the truth. The thief reforms by doing honest work so he can share with others. Words that encourage and build up others replace gossip and slander. We let go of anger and bitterness by being kind, forgiving, and compassionate.
Love for Jesus replaces love for the world. To not carry out the deeds of the flesh, we walk by the Spirit (Galatians 5). What we sow we reap (Galatians 6); the virtues we sow will crowd out weeds of evil. Service to others heals two common diseases of the soul: introspection and the quest for self-fulfillment. When we encounter trials, we rejoice (James 1:2).
Responding to evil with good is so counter to our sense of justice and our pride that we can carry out this command only with a renewed mind and by the power of the Holy Spirit. When evil targets us, therefore, our first response ought to be to pray for strength of mind and the filling of the Spirit.
Just do it!
The noun form of “overcome” can be seen on many people’s feet. It’s the Greek word nike—victory. When evil comes our way and we run to the good, we are overcomers.