Overcoming Evil with Good: Romans 12:21

overcome evil (2)

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d) Rom 12:21: Paul summed up this section of his letter (Rom 12:14–21) in this verse.[1]

He wrote, “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.”

The apostle used the present tense to indicate that we must consciously and persistently strive to achieve this goal.[2]

As we can see in novels, movies, and even on the road, a desire for revenge remains deeply embedded in human nature.[3]

When we choose to avenge ourselves, the evils done to us and those which emanate from our own hearts emerge as the victors. We become like the one opposing us.[4]

Such behavior fails to reflect that God has transformed our hearts and minds into the image of Christ (Rom 12:2; 1 Cor 2:14–16; 1 Pet 2:21–25).[5]

Paul calls us to do more than merely abstain from evil. Instead, we must actively pursue doing good.[6] By treating our enemies with kindness, they may respond by becoming our friends and allies.[7]

Even in our era, jailers of persecuted Christians come to Christ due to the demeanor of their captives.[8]



Many believers in Rome recognized this concept.[9]

In addition to Paul’s previous quote from Prov 25:21–22, the apocryphal Testament of Benjamin (second century BC) states, “And do ye, my children, flee evil-doing, envy, and hatred of brethren, and cleave to goodness and love.”[10]

The Testament of Joseph goes farther, saying, “And if any one seeketh to do evil unto you, do well unto him, and pray for him, and ye shall be redeemed of the Lord from all evil.”[11]



Furthermore, Polyaenus, a second century AD Greco-Roman historian, recounted this event from the third century BC Punic Wars:

Hamilcar, one of the ablest generals the Carthaginians ever had, was in command of their forces in Africa.

But after a series of great successes, he was opposed by a faction, who were jealous of his reputation, and they charged him with planning to undermine the liberties of the people.

Through their influence, he was condemned, and executed; and his brother Gesco was banished.

New generals were then appointed; but under their command, the Carthaginian armies met with nothing but repeated defeats, until their very survival became a matter of doubt. In these difficulties, what could they do?

They could not raise Hamilcar from his tomb. They therefore sent a contrite letter to Gesco, recalling him from exile and appointing him to be general of their armies.

They promised to hand over to him his own, and his brother’s enemies, for him to punish as he wished.

Gesco, on his return to his country, ordered his enemies to be brought before him in chains. He ordered them to lie down upon their bellies on the ground, and he thrice put his foot lightly upon their necks.

Then he said that, by this humiliation, he had taken sufficient revenge on them for his brother’s death. After this, he dismissed them, adding, “I will not return evil with evil, but repay evil with good.”

This conduct won Gesco the favor and ready obedience of all parties, both of friends and enemies; as someone who was both amiable and great.

And he soon brought them success in their public affairs; he conquered the enemy by his courage, and he gained the support of the vanquished by the sweetness of his nature.[12]



Despite the traditional nature of Paul’s admonition to overcome evil with good, he recognized that the presence of the Holy Spirit must enable believers to reach this ideal (Rom 5:3–5).[13]

However, even Christ—who perfectly overcame the world—did not see all his enemies become friends (John 16:33).[14]

We have no guarantee that loving others will result in a positive response from them.[15] Although people may continue to hate us, we can refuse to consider them enemies in our own hearts and minds.[16]

Love requires service, sacrifice, forgiveness, and seeking restoration to fellowship with us and with the Lord (Rom 12:9–13).[17]

It consists of an attitude which God commands us to adopt, rather than an emotion. By cooperating with the Spirit so that we live in love,[18] we demonstrate the reality of the transforming power of the gospel even to those who hate us.[19]

Image via Wikimedia Commons


Read Rom 12:21. How can you overcome evil? What practical steps can you take to love others well?





Go to Submitting to Governing Authorities (Rom 13:1)

[Related posts include Live in Peace (Rom 12:17–18); Leave Vengeance to God (Rom 12:19); Responding with Kindness (Rom 12:20); Submitting to Governing Authorities (Rom 13:1); Engaging in Anarchy (Rom 13:2); Do What is Good (Rom 13:3); Bearing the Sword (Rom 13:4); Blood for Blood (Gen 9:5–7); Transformed Minds (Rom 12:2); and Ancient Literature]

[Click here to go to Chapter 9: A Covenant with Noah (Genesis 8:20–9:17)]


[1]Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2:650.

[2]Dunn, Romans 9–16, 751. In Koine Greek, a present tense command indicates continuous or repetitive action.

[3]Moo, Romans, 417.

[4]Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2:650.

[5]Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 789.

[6]Moo, Romans, 417.

[7]Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2:650.

[8]Open Doors, “Iranian Jailer Transformed Because of Faithful Prisoner,” https://www.opendoorsusa.org/takeaction/pray/tag-prayer-updates-post/iranian-jailor-transformed-because-of-faithful-prisoner/.

[9]Keener, IVPBBCNT, Rom 12:21.

[10]Rutherford H. Jr. Platt, “The Testament of Benjamin,” in The Forgotten Books of Eden (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1926), 4.3. At http://www.sacred-texts.com/bib/fbe/fbe295.htm, the reference appears in 2.1.

[11]Rutherford H. Platt Jr., trans., “The Testament of Joseph,” in The Forgotten Books of Eden (New York: Alpha House, 1926), 18.2. At http://www.sacred-texts.com/bib/fbe/fbe293.htm, the reference is 2:68.

[12]Polyaenus, “Polyaenus: Stratagems – Book 5, Chapters 1–15,” 5.11, http://www.attalus.org/translate/polyaenus5A.html#11.1. Adapted from the 1793 translation by R. Shepherd.

[13]Dunn, Romans 9–16, 752.

[14]Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2:650.

[15]Dunn, Romans 9–16, 756.

[16]Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2:650.

[17]Gerhard Kittel, “ἀγαπη” (agapē) TDNT 1:21–55, 51.

[18]Moo, Romans, 416.

[19]Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2:650.