Right Living at All Times

Monday: Believing in Right and Wrong

Romans 12:17 In this study, we are reminded of the need to live according to God’s standard of right and wrong.
Believing in Right and Wrong

Not long ago I came across an elaborate poll on the values and conduct of Americans. It appeared as a book called The Day America Told the Truth, and it was described as “the most massive in-depth survey of what Americans really believe that has ever been conducted.”1 The survey was based on a sampling of more than 2,000 people in one week, each person answering over 1,800 questions, and there were follow-up interviews with thousands more. 

A survey of this scope reveals a lot of things, of course. But one of the dominant findings—perhaps the most important of all—is that America no longer has a sense of right and wrong. “A letdown in moral values is now considered the number one problem facing our country,” the pollsters wrote.2 “Only 13 percent of us believe in all of the Ten Commandments. Forty percent of us believe in five of the Ten Commandments…. There is absolutely no moral consensus in this country as there was in the 1950s, when all our institutions commanded more respect. Today there is very little respect for the law—for any kind of law.”3

The number one rationalization for lawless and immoral behavior is that everyone else is doing it. “If everybody else is doing it, why shouldn’t I?” is our argument.4

Right or wrong? Making that distinction rightly is what civilization—not to mention right religious behavior—is all about. But that is what we have lost in America. We do not believe in right and wrong. Therefore, it is against that serious national problem that we come to Paul’s challenge to Christians in Romans 12:17, where we read, “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.” 

The verse has two parts: 1) “Do not repay anyone evil for evil”; and 2) “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.” 

If you are familiar with the King James Version of this verse, you may recall that it seems to say something very different. It says, “Provide things honest in the sight of all men.” That sounds like a command to support your family, to see that they have food to eat and a place to live, to pay the children’s college tuition. That is not what the KJV translators meant, but the problem arises from the fact that the key word in this verse has several meanings. The word is kalos, which one Greek dictionary defines as “good,” “right,” “proper,” “fitting,” “better,” “honorable,” “honest,” “fine,” “beautiful” or “precious.” The older translation selected the word “honest.” The New International Version picked the word “right.” 

This does not mean that either one or both of the translations is mistaken, however. It is just a case of the Greek word being bigger or more inclusive than any one of our many English terms. 

The way to understand kalos is to know that it was the word used by the Greek philosophers, especially Plato, to describe the goal of sound thinking. Usually we think of this goal as “the good,” which Plato proposed as the right pursuit of all rational beings. But if we are working in the area of aesthetics, the “good” that we are pursuing becomes “the beautiful.” In philosophy it is “the truth.” If we are thinking of morals, it is what is “right.” If we are thinking of character, it is what is “honorable.” 

The point is that this is what all people should aim at. So when Paul told the Romans that they were to “be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody,” he was saying that Christians are to lead the way in good or right things, and they are to do this always. We are to be known as those who always pursue the very best in all areas. 

Leon Morris puts it in other terms. He says that Paul “is calling on them to live out the implications of the gospel. Their lives are to be lived on such a high plane that even the heathen will recognize the fact. They will always be living in the sight of non-Christians, and the way they live should be such as to commend the essential Christian message.”5

1James Patterson and Peter Kim, The Day America Told the Truth: What People Really Believe About Everything That Really Matters (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1991), 4. 

2Ibid., 8. 

3Ibid., 6. 

4Ibid., 31. 

5Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, and Leicester, England: InterVarsity, 1988), 452.

Study Questions
  1. Name the primary rationalization for immorality.
  2. What is Paul calling Christians to do in Romans 12:17?

Application: What are some practical ways for you to pursue the very best? List ways you can live out the implications of the Gospel in the following areas: school or work; family relationships; entertainment; financial budgeting.

For Further Study: Download for free and listen to Philip Ryken’s message, “The Law and the Gospel.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)

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