MESSAGE FROM ROMANS 16:17-20 FOR NOVEMBER 19, 2000
One of the truths that comes out of this letter is the church in Rome at the time of Paul was a healthy church. We saw this in chapter one where Paul says in verse eight, “their faith is being reported all over the world.” We see this again in 15:14 where Paul says to the Romans, “I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another.” In 15:32 he describes Rome as a place where he can come and “be refreshed.” And again in our text this morning, the obedience of the Roman believers is heralded. There is very little by way of rebuke for this church in this letter because this is a strong body of believers at the time Paul writes to it. They were, as we saw last week, incredibly diverse racially, socio-economically and several other ways and yet they loved each other and were able to get past their differences to come together as the body of Christ. That’s what makes Paul’s closing section of the letter even more astonishing. Because in the closing of this letter, Paul does something he does not do in any of the other 12 letters we have from him in the New Testament. He issues a warning to the church of an enemy that threatens it
Why does Paul do this here? He has just written an intensely warm, affectionate section of personal greetings and typically here we would see a warm, affirming ending of the letter. Why does Paul warn a church that is so clearly very healthy? Why does he warn this church of a problem that, so far as we can tell from the rest of the letter, does not even exist in Rome at this time? This is at best, a potential problem. The reason is because this problem is perhaps unique in its capacity to wreak havoc and destruction on the church. In the Old Testament, the great sin the prophets railed against was idolatry, the worship of false gods. The New Testament corollary to the problem is the issue Paul treats here, false teaching by false teachers. It would be difficult to overstate the severity of this problem.
We’ve said many times that one way you can determine what is important in the Scriptures is to see what is repeated. By that measure, the problem of false teachers and false teaching is a problem we should all be intimately acquainted with. It is far easier to list the New Testament books where this issue ISN’T mentioned than to list the ones where it is an issue. We see this concern in every strata of the New Testament, the gospels, the history book of Acts, the letters Paul writes to the churches, the Pastoral Epistles, Hebrews, James, Peter, John’s epistles, Jude and the Revelation. We know from church history that false teaching was a huge problem after the apostles died and virtually every creed written by the church was written in response to false teaching—to clarify what the biblical position is on issues like the person of Christ, the Trinity and the resurrection. You would think with this deluge of biblical data, time after time, warning us against the profound dangers of false teaching and those who propagate it, the church would be ever vigilant, guarding against this menace with fierce resolve.
Instead, we have a church today in North America that is largely indifferent to doctrine. Last week, we quoted Paul in First Corinthians where he says if we had exhaustive knowledge of things like doctrine but no love, we are nothing and that is true. But if we don’t have correct doctrine, if we are not truth driven, how can we possible know what a valid expression of love is? It is doctrine that defines for us what love is and what love is not. We don’t want to be people who possess truth but no love, but if we are people who love without truth, we will soon degenerate into little more than little warm fuzz balls—driven by fallen human emotions rather than the truth. Paul calls us in Ephesians to “speak the truth in love.” Both elements are required and when truth is relegated to the back burner, falsehood will rush in to fill the vacuum.
The examples of this are only too easy to find on national, denominational and even local levels. One of the fastest growing religious organization in U.S. and the world is the Mormons. A recent article from U.S. News and World Report says since World War II they have grown 1000 percent. They outnumber Presbyterians and Episcopalians combined and if they grow at their current rate, in 80 years, only Roman Catholicism will be bigger among so called Christian bodies. Last year alone, they sent out over 58,000 missionaries. Beyond that, many of the television and media “Christian ministers” of the gospel spew a toxic blend of partial truth and heresy ranging from the word of faith movement, to the denial of the deity of Jesus Christ. Our own denomination as we know has been racked and polarized by the false teaching of Open Theism. False teaching is tragically often propagated in best selling Christian books and sits without opposition on the shelves of thousands of so called Christian book stores. Even our own Search Committee has seen evidence of doctrinal laxity during our recent search process. Several of the statements of faith from seminary students who are candidates for the pastorate were doctrinally sloppy and one seminary student even gave a heretical expression of the doctrine of the Trinity. Pastor Russell’s statement was a refreshing exception to this.
I have labored here a bit to help us see this is a huge problem which is why our text for this morning is as valuable as it ever has been. Let’s see this warning as we read Romans 16:17-20, “I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. 18For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people. 19Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I am full of joy over you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil. 20The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.”
We could group all of Paul’s statements here under the statement—False teaching is deadly to the life of the church. Even though Paul almost certainly had some group of false teachers in mind, he is very generic in his comments here about what these people were teaching. What Paul does do here is very neatly answer four questions about false teachers and false teaching in the church. The first question he answers is WHY is false teaching such a bad thing for the church? We see this in verse 17 where Paul tells us just what false teachers do in the church. He says they “cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned.” Paul lists two things false teaching does. First, they cause divisions. Division in the church is a wicked, evil thing because anything that happens in the body of Christ reflects on Christ. When the Corinthians were dividing up into camps, Paul points to the heart of why division in the church is such a despicable occurrence. In 1 Corinthians 1:13, he simply asks, “Is Christ divided?” Do you see that when the church is divided as a result of something like false teaching, that caricatures the character of Christ. If the body of Christ is divided, then that reflects on Christ—begging the question, “Is Christ divided?” If his body is divided, that allows people to think Christ is in some way divided—that he possesses more than one opinion on an issue of truth. Division in the church drags our Lord’s character in the mud and that is an abomination.
False teaching polarizes groups of believers because some of the people receive the teaching and others reject it. And because it is different than what has been previously taught those who reject it are separated from those who receive it. We see this tragically often, even locally. A local evangelical church was only several months ago torn by the presence of false teaching. A local Christian radio station, using horrendous judgment and exercising zero discernment, broadcast a program called “Prepare for War,” a program which teaches multiple heresies and which thankfully is no longer broadcast. A certain group of people within this local church accepted these heresies, injected them into church sponsored Bible studies, attracted a following, and rent the church. The church leadership handled the matter as well as they could have, but the false teaching had done its damage. This happened locally in an evangelical church. As I mentioned, our own denomination continues to suffer from the painful division caused by a failure of the leadership to call the teaching of Open Theism what it is, heresy.
One of the oldest strategies known in military science is “divide and conquer.” Unity brings strength and division greatly weakens a group. Satan loves to employ this strategy on the church and perhaps his most potent weapon to divide the church is the injection of false teaching. So here is the church in Rome, which had a unity that was clearly only possible because God was powerfully at work among them. They had, we have seen a God-instilled unity that could not be split by racial, socio-economic or gender differences. But Paul looks at the ugly specter of false teaching looming on the horizon and says in effect, “if you let it, this can tear even you into little pieces.” False teaching is toxic because it brings division into the church.
A second reason why we should exert great care to protect ourselves from false teaching is because it can destroy people spiritually. Paul uses a powerful word in verse 17 when he says false teachers “put obstacles in your way.” The key word there is more literally “stumbling blocks” and Paul has used it three times before in Romans. In two of those instances in 11:9 and 14:13 it is used of obstacles that can potentially bring damnation to a person. The fact that false teaching can spiritually destroy a person should not surprise us. Paul is crystal clear about this in Galatians. You’ll recall the Judaizers had come into the church and were teaching a person had to keep the law of Moses to be saved. Paul says in 3:10, “All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” The folks in Galatia were in danger of being accursed because the false teaching they were influenced by was contrary to the gospel of grace.
When we hear the truth about the Mormons and other cults, we must understand that if those people believe the doctrine their organizations teach, they will go to hell. No matter how nice they are, no matter how sincere they are, no matter how zealous they are. Niceness, sincerity and zeal do not set you free from the penalty of sin. Only the blood of Jesus Christ of the Bible, the Christ who is the second Person of the Holy Trinity, fully human, fully God, co-equal with the Father, resurrected in bodily form and coming back to earth again—only the blood of THAT Jesus sets people from their sin. If your Jesus is different than that Jesus as he is revealed in the Bible, then you are still in your sins irrespective of how nice or sincere or zealous you may be. False teaching can and does divide the church and destroy people spiritually.
A second question Paul answers here is: Who are these false teachers? As we said, though Paul doesn’t give any specific doctrines they teach, he does characterize them in verse 18. He says, “such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites.” Paul here paints in broad strokes and his point is this; one difference between a teacher of truth and a false teacher is the motive for their service. Those who teach truth are (at least in some way) serving the Lord Jesus. They are not in it for themselves fundamentally, they are doing what they do for Christ. In Second Corinthians, a book where Paul defends his ministry against the charges brought against him by the false teachers, Paul labors to show that he is motivated by Jesus Christ. He contrasts his motivation which is Christ-centered with the false apostles and exhibit “A” of the selfless, Christ-motivated character of his ministry is his refusal to take money from the Corinthians and his willingness to suffer for them in the gospel.
Paul says in chapter 11 in effect, “my motivations should be clear to you because I didn’t take a dime from you and I have suffered greatly for the sake of you and this gospel.” Paul served at great personal cost to himself—he is selfless in his service and that was a stamp of authenticity on his ministry. False teachers, by contrast are in it for themselves. Paul uses this expression “their own appetites” which is probably a broad idiom for any selfish, fleshly motivation. In other places in the New Testament, we know that many were in it for the money. They also exploited women. It gave them power and influence. Peter says, “Their idea of pleasure is to carouse in broad daylight.” It is no mere coincidence that many of the false teachers who claim to be Christians have been exposed as sexual predators. That’s who these people are—they are in it for themselves—to satisfy their lustful appetites whether it be for money or power or fame or lust. One appetite seen in the tamer, false religions like Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses is the appetite for self righteousness. These systems of religion teach you get to heaven by what you do. A person involved in these cults are drawn to it by their fleshly appetite to be righteous in and of themselves. That’s a more socially acceptable appetite than the thirst for money or power, but it is equally wicked in God’s sight.
A third question Paul answers is How do false teachers operate? In verse 18b, Paul tells us not only what methods they employ, but also who they target. He says, “By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naïve people.” Their main method is deception and there can be no deception if there is not some appearance of credibility or likeability or some outward appeal. If a person is as rough as a cob, slow of speech and dumb, no one is going to believe them. They’re not going to deceive anyone. No, these false teachers may very well be brilliant and well educated, perhaps even with degrees from evangelical institutions. There is something about them that is very attractive and often even winsome. And an evangelical church that is so conformed to a culture that values image and appearance and congeniality over everything else including the truth is easy prey for these folks.
Beyond their personal appeal, they have learned how to argue their cases very well. They are articulate, and above all, believable. These are not oafs. They are smooth as silk and their arguments are often complex and difficult to unravel and they know their material backwards and forwards. It is a tragic commentary that most believers in the church today would be hopelessly outclassed in a theological discussion with a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness over the deity of Christ because they are much better informed than most people sitting in the pews. They can tie far too many believers into pretzels and they know that.
They find success in their deception by influencing “the minds of naïve people.” Perhaps the most personally disgusting characterization of these false teachers are those they target. The word “naïve” is good here. It could also be translated “innocent” or “unsuspecting.” The people who are taken in by these people are not necessarily vulnerable because of some sin in their life. In fact, these people may have a genuine spiritual hunger, but in some way, they are like babes. There is a sense of need within them but instead of being led into truth, they are pounced on by these opportunists. These naïve people just don’t suspect that anyone would lead them astray and they don’t know enough to prevent it. They’re a little like these Senior citizens you see on the news who are conned out of their pensions by crooks who perpetrate convincing frauds. Those folks generally aren’t greedy, they just don’t have the discernment to know when they are being taken for a ride. It is a similar dynamic with the people who fall prey to false teachers. They find people who are in need and try to get them to have that need met by their false religion. This is where you see so clearly the satanic nature of this. Satan doesn’t typically waste his resources picking on the strong—he goes after the weak, the unsuspecting, the naïve.
A final question Paul answers here about false teachers is How are we to respond to the false teachers? Paul gives three answers to this question. In verse 17 he says we are to “watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way.” The NASB is more literal when it says to “keep your eye on those…” The verb is in the present tense and implies that we should be constantly monitoring the landscape for false teachers and zooming in on those whom we suspect of false teaching. There is a vigilance here. We are to be on the alert at all times. That is, we are to be on the look out for these folks and their teachings. That implies we are to know the truth well enough to be able to look with educated eyes that can be able to spot a phony. You can’t keep an eye on false teachers if you don’t have an eye educated by the truth. We must study doctrine. There are several good resources here. We have for months stocked copies of “The Baptist Catechism” in the foyer. This is an excellent resource and one parents can learn right along with their children. I noticed this morning we are out of them, but we’ll order more.
In addition to keeping our eyes on false teachers, we are to (verse 17) “keep away from them.” We are called to (more literally) “turn away from them.” Again, the verb is in the present tense so this turning away from them is to be a continuous activity. The point is here for us that we are not to give ear to what these people say. We are to be (verse 19) “innocent in what is evil.” That is, we are not to flirt with this evil, we are remove it from us. If false teachers are on television or radio, turn it off. Don’t let the fact that they are personally dynamic and full of charisma draw you in. If a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness comes to your door, unless you are equipped to deal with them, know their arguments and the Scriptures needed to refute them, do not let them into your home. Its interesting that in the entire New Testament the mandate with respect to false teachers is to turn away from them, not to evangelize them. That’s not to say that its always wrong to do so because the mercy of God is unquestionably deep, but unless we feel a strong pull of the Spirit in that direction, we need to feel no other obligation before God than to pray for them. Peter says of the hardened, career false teachers, “Their condemnation has been long hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.” Later, “…they are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, Born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish.” Sadly, for some of these we must understand it is too late. We can’t make that judgment, but God already has in the case of some of them.
Now, we must distinguish between false teachers who teach heresy that is potentially lethal to us and those people within the body of Christ with whom we happen to disagree about a lesser point of doctrine. We are not to turn away from or break fellowship with those believers who have differences of opinion on non-essential matters. There is room for more than one view on end time matters, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, women in ministry and other non-essential issues. This diversity in the body can enable us to show forth the power of God to unify people who, on certain issues disagree, but who love one another in Christ and want to be with one another.
A final response to these false teachers is in verse 20 where we see this incredibly curious statement, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” A final response to false teaching is to trust in God’s ultimate victory. The statistics I gave on Mormonism earlier are sobering, but we must trust that God will ultimately crush Satan and his malevolent lies circulated through false teachers. The false teachers will not have the last word. Verse 20 is a unique baffling text because it speaks of God, through the church CRUSHING Satan under their feet and I am just not sure what it means in totality. Given the context, it probably means in part that the false teachers, who are clearly inspired by Satan, will be defeated, even pulverized by the church as the church clings to God in humble dependence.
The concept of the church “crushing” Satan is not well developed because this is the only text that speaks of it. We know from James we are to “resist Satan” and from Jude that we are to call on the Lord to “rebuke” Satan. From Ephesians six we know that by prayer and the word and faith and truth and righteousness we are engaged in a constant battle with Satan wherein we are called to “stand firm” against him. But crushing him is another concept. However, this idea is not inconsistent with other texts. Paul has in chapter eight calls believers “more than conquerors through Christ.” We know from Ephesians one and two that believers in Christ are seated in the heavenly realms with Christ “above all rule and authority, power and dominion” which would place Satan positionally under our feet all the time. We must be careful however that we understand we only defeat Satan when we walk in humble dependence upon Christ. Paul does not say that the CHURCH will crush Satan, he says GOD will crush Satan THROUGH his church and the only way for us to appropriate this pulverizing grace of God is when we are, in humility, depending upon Him for the victory.
The church must understand the scourge of false teaching especially in our day and age. Both 2 Timothy 3 and 2 Peter 3 indicate that in the last days these false teachers will increase in number. We must ALL be on the alert. Notice that Paul warns the entire church at Rome, not just the elders. God expects the elders to be on the front lines protecting the church against false teaching, but we are ALL warned here to be watchful and to turn away from false teachers. May God give us the grace to know the truth, love the truth and cling to the truth so that falsehood will not overtake us.
Page last modified on 1/1/2002
(c) 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 - All material is property of Duncan Ross and/or Mount of Olives Baptist Church, all commercial rights are reserved. Please feel free to use any of this material in your minstry.