Sermon preached on Romans 16:17-20 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 6/30/2013 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Back in chapter 14 Paul talked about two groups in the church: the strong and weak of faith. There he had advocated a spirit of charity between these two different groups, despite their different convictions. They were to be united with one another, and accept one another, even on these differences. Now, however, when we get to this passage, we realize that Paul’s call for unity does not always apply in every circumstance. There is a time for unity and diversity. But there is also a time for division and separation. True believers must be united and in matters of indifference love each other despite different cases of consciences. That’s what chapter 14 addressed. But true believers must not unite with false prophets and heretics. I had mentioned that even back in chapter 14. How Paul in some of his other letters addressed issues that at first might have sounded somewhat similar to the issues of chapter 14. Issues about eating certain foods and the observance of certain days. Yet in chapter 14, he commended a spirit of tolerance on these issues. But in some of his other letters he did not advocate tolerance on what may at first have sounded like similar issues. But we saw then that the reason for Paul’s different tone elsewhere is because the issues weren’t really the same. That in the other letters, Paul was addressing people who were making issues of food or days into salvation issues. Those false teachers were displacing the gospel with false doctrines, and so such could never be tolerated at all. Well, this then is what Paul turns now to address briefly in this letter. Right at the end, he makes it clear that there is a time where the church has to discriminate against and judge against certain false teachings and false teachers.
Begin with me then in verse 17. He warns the Christians at Rome about a certain type of people. They are described here in verse 17 as people who cause divisions and offenses. The word divisions here talks about making factions in the church. People who separate and divide the church into different parties. It’s clear from verse 17 that it’s because they bring contrary doctrines, that this results in the multiple parties or factions in the church. The word for offense here is sometimes translated as a stumbling block. The point here is that these false teachers are bringing something theologically offensive that could trip you up; it could cause people to stumble over it. Think of how Jesus said in Mark 9:4 that it would be better for someone to have a millstone tied around their neck and be thrown into the sea than for them to make someone stumble. That’s addressing a similar concern. You don’t want to be the false teacher who causes divisions and stumbling because of your false doctrines.
Notice how Paul further describes these people that he’s warning them about. Look at verse 18. They deceive. They use smooth words and flattering speech to deceive. This makes them sound like charlatans and swindlers. And notice particularly who they deceive. It says they deceive the simple. Who are the simple? Well, the book of Proverbs helps us to understand them because it uses that language too. In the book of Proverbs, you tend to find two big groups mentioned. The wise, and the fool. But there is another group mentioned from time to time that is somewhere in between. It’s the simple. In fact that’s essentially to whom the book of Proverbs is written. Proverbs 1:4 says that the book of Proverbs is to give prudence to the simple and to the young man knowledge and discretion. And so the simple here is someone who innocently is looking to do the right thing, but needs to grow into greater maturity and wisdom. The simple, in other words, are more prone to fall to the deceptions of these false teachers and heretics. The other way to look at it, is that these false teachers are essentially preying on the young and the weak.
Paul further explains his reasoning here for why we should be so concerned about these false teachers. In verse 17, the clear point is that this is all contrary to the doctrine which they had learned. The literal grammar in verse 17 is saying something to the effect that these false teachers are bringing something alongside the right doctrine that they had already learned. Many people today seem to have a low regard for doctrine, even among some who profess Christianity. People tend to judge someone’s religion based on whether it apparently makes that person appear to be more ethical and more joyful. But the Bible thinks doctrine is so important. Paul says in Galatians 1:8 that if even he himself, or an angel, came and preached to them a different gospel, let him be accursed! We as Christians must not compromise on the fundamentals of the Christian doctrine. We must insist on safeguarding the gospel from those who would set up contrary truths alongside it. Doctrine is important. That’s at the heart of the issue with these false teachers. And so look at how Paul describes their service: verse 18, they are not serving Jesus. Instead they serve their own bellies. That is likely referring to their motivations, and not so much a comment on what they were teaching. In other words, this is likely exposing their true intentions. They were looking to make money by coming in to this newly formed church and trying to steal away some of its young exuberant followers and extract money and benefits out of them. They bring their strange doctrines in order to deceive, with the intent of making money. That’s a horrible thing.
And so realize that Paul is not warning the church about the various confused saints in their midst who may struggle with some specific point of doctrine and are peacefully working through those. Such “confused” people need discipleship and training. No, he has in mind those savage wolves among the sheep. The New Testament repeatedly warns us of such false prophets and false teachers. And so Paul tells the church at Rome how to respond to such evil people. Two responses. Note them, and then avoid them. When he says “note” them, this is the night watchman type of idea in the Greek. They need to be on the lookout for people such as these. They need to be on guard and looking out for the wolves that would come to prey on the sheep. They need to find them and identify them. And then they need to avoid them. The word to avoid them here in verse 17 can also be translated to shun them. It means that you purposely avoid association with them. If that sounds serious, you must remember that these are the people that would come into the church, not as an innocent inquirer. These are the people who would come with malicious intent to cause trouble and pull away followers. The church is called to identify such people and not give them a venue for their evils.
So our first point today has been to understand how Paul calls us to note and avoid those who cause divisions and offenses in the church. The next point I would like to turn to today has to do with Paul’s bigger goal for the Roman church. In verse 19, Paul says that he would have them to be wise in what is good, and simple concerning evil. And so our next point will be to think further about that goal: being wise in terms of what is good and simple in terms of what is evil. Notice first in verse 19 that Paul begins with commending the Romans. They have in fact been doing good. Their obedience has become well known. Paul’s encouraging them here. He’s making it clear that his strong language here about noting and avoiding these false teachers is not because there is some major failing that has happened in the church. No, in fact, as a young church they evidently have a good reputation. At the same time, Paul seems to be doing some preventative education here. Paul has seen these false teachers come in and wreak havoc in other congregations. He knows they are out there. Paul wants to warn them ahead of time of this threat.
And it’s in this warning, and in their response to this warning, that they will grow in wisdom with regard to the good. You see, this is what the simple need. The young in the faith may be doing good, but they may not be that wise yet in the good. Wisdom is something to pursue and grow in. Because when a false teacher comes to you he is going to present his false teachings as good. The young in the faith may be more easily tricked because of a lack of wisdom with regard to what is good. They hear the persuasive words of the false teacher and is tricked into thinking some false doctrine is good. Wisdom is a safeguard, particularly wisdom with regard to what is truly good or not. This is what Paul is saying he wants them to grow in. Yes, they are already doing good. But surely many of them are babes in the faith. They have a certain innocence about them in their newfound faith, similar to how a young child might have a certain innocence about them. Or when a youth leaves home they might have a certain innocence about them with regard to the ways of the world. Such are more prone to the deception of religious swindlers and spiritual charlatans. Again, Paul wants them to instead be growing wise in the good. And this will start by them realizing that there are some people out to get them, spiritually speaking. That their growth in wisdom needs to know that there is a real and present threat against them presented by these wolves that might come in sheep’s clothing. This is similar to the warning Jesus gave his disciples.
The other side of this, of course, is Paul says here that he wants them to be simple concerning evil. This word of simple here in verse 19 is different than the one in verse 18. This word for simple in verse 19 most literally means without mixture. In other words, he wants them to not be mixed partially with evil. That’s the sense of simple here in verse 19 — that spiritually they are a simple solution of good, including good doctrine, versus a complex mixture that includes some good and some evil, some good doctrine, and some evil doctrine. You see, they are on a good track right now. They are growing in the faith and in obedience to God. But when the false teachers come through they threaten to mix in some bad. The false teachers could work in a little false doctrine here and there and a little ungodliness here and there. The result would be this complex mixture of truth and error. And we know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump, Galatians 5:9. A little mixing in of some evil, a little mixing in of some false doctrine, can have disastrous effects.
And so Paul would have them to grow in wisdom as to what is good, so as to not fall prey to the mixing in of such evil. This is Paul’s desire for them then. Growth in spiritual maturity. Maturity that means they are more able to discern truth from error. That they become experts in the good and have nothing to do with the evil. Jesus said something similar in Matthew 10:16. Jesus said, “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” And so in all of this, we are again commended to wisdom. Wisdom that will give us prudence and discretion. Wisdom as the book of Proverbs commends, and frankly all of Scripture.
Well, in our final point for today, I want us to realize what it going on behind all of this. At the end of the day, the warning of this passage serves to remind us that we are part of a spiritual battle. Good versus evil, yes. But more specifically, God and his people, versus Satan and his demonic forces. In case we didn’t realize that this is what is going on with these false teachers, Paul points it out bluntly for us in verse 20. He encourages them that the God of peace will soon crush Satan under their feet. As soon as he says that, we see the connection. These false teachers are not on our side. Remember, it said here that they don’t serve Jesus. They are not part of his kingdom. They don’t vow their allegiance to the Christ. Well, whether they realize it or not, that means they are on the other side. They are on the side of Satan. Surely Satan is at work to influence them in their false teachings. That is why these false teachers commend false doctrine. And this means that when these false teachers come trying to deceive us, they essentially come as literally as ambassadors for Satan. They are like apostles of Satan in our midst.
Sound too harsh? Well, besides the explicit mention of Satan here, observe the imagery Paul uses here. There is a subtle reflection back to the Garden of Eden with the temptation the devil did to Eve in that first sin. In Genesis 3:1, we are told how crafty and cunning the serpent was. In verse 18 we are told of the cunning and craftiness of these false teachers. In Genesis 3, we see Satan giving out false doctrine, first questioning what God actually said, and then contradicting God, saying, “You will not surely die,” referring to how God said they would die if they ate of the fruit from the forbidden tree. That is the point of verse 17 here, that these false teachers set up doctrine contrary to the true doctrine from God. And then in Genesis, what did the serpent promise Eve if she ate? That she would grow in knowledge, knowing good and evil. And then what did Eve do? She looked at that tree, and it says in Genesis 3:6, that she saw that the tree was to be desired to make one wise — and so she took and ate, and gave it to her husband too to do the same. Well, she did grow in one sense wiser in the knowledge of good and evil that day, but as we see Paul saying here, we don’t need to grow wise in the evil. We need to grow wise in the good, and simple with regard to evil. Even the reference here to the false teachers serving their own bellies seems to allude back to this Genesis 3 event — for after the fall, the serpent was cursed by God to have to move on his belly from then on — same word for belly used here as in the Greek translation of Genesis 3.
The point I’m making here is that in this entire passage, we should recognize the spiritual war behind it all. This is all part of the age old battle from the beginning. The Devil is out to deceive us with false doctrine into evil. He looks to oppose God. In the Garden of Eden he came as a serpent. Today he may come via influencing people to become false teachers. These false teachers that are out there then, are just another of his tactics. We need spiritual vigilance. We need wise discernment. We need to avoid these charlatans and deceivers.
But we are encouraged here. God is on our side. That’s why Paul can say that the God of peace will soon crush Satan under our feet. Think about that for a moment. Break that down. This God is a God of peace. He wants to bring peace to this battle. And yet he will do that ultimately with his power of crushing Satan. He will be crushed. And notice how he says he will crush Satan — by our own feet! In other words, in this cosmic battle, God uses us in the victory. And he says that this will happen shortly. Soon! I think we should understand this in a short term and a long term way. Here and now, we already find various victories over the enemy. Every time we oppose false doctrine, that’s a victory. Every time we stand up under temptation, that’s a victory. Every time we help a straying brother turn back to the truth, that’s a victory. And the ultimate victory will come at the end, when God casts Satan into the eternal lake of fire.
Well, as much as we talk about how God uses us in the crushing of Satan, don’t forget that Genesis 3 garden imagery. This will set our focus correctly. This language of crushing Satan reminds us of the promise God gave in Genesis 3:15 after the fall into sin. He told the serpent in the presence of Adam and Eve, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.” That was a promise that one of Eve’s descendants would ultimately crush Satan. Well, we know which descendant that was. Jesus, the Christ, while being struck in the heel, so to speak, by Satan at the cross, was actually simultaneously dealing a crushing blow to Satan. Though the final destruction of Satan is yet in the future — promised in Revelation 20:10 — at the cross the victory was secured.
This then, is why God will soon crush Satan under our feet. It’s why we can have all the victories over Satan even along the way. It’s like what we find in Revelation 12:11. There is a vision of the great dragon fighting against the saints. He’s identified as the serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan. And in Revelation 12:11, it talks about how we overcome Satan, saying, “And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death.” So, do you see the point? God will crush Satan under our feet. But that crushing will happen as we cling to the blood of the lamb. Christ is the ultimate seed of the woman who crushes Satan. In Christ, we overcome Satan. Some of us are surveying the book of Revelation on Wednesday nights, and this is the overarching message of the book. In the midst of false teachers and Satan’s various attacks, will we overcome? We will overcome if we are in Christ. If we continue to cling to the blood of the lamb and in our testimony that our hope is in the Lord. This is our call again today.
And so that is why it is so fitting how verse 20 ends. With a reminder of our need of grace. The last part says in verse 20, the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you. This is Paul’s benediction to them. Realize this is not a hope or a wish. Paul’s not saying I hope the grace of Christ will be with you guys, because you need it. No, he’s announcing that is with them. God will crush Satan; be encouraged. And how? Why? Because the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ is with you. We need the grace of Christ to overcome Satan. But if Paul is positive that God will crush Satan under our feet, then surely he has no doubt that the grace that we need is ours as well.
Brothers and sisters in the Lord, this then is our encouragement today as well. Yes, we still have the threat today of false teachers and false prophets. We need to be on the alert for them. We need to be prepared to identify them, warn them, but if they won’t turn from their evil ministry, ask them to not come back. We need to grow in wisdom to know right doctrine from wrong doctrine. To know righteousness over wickedness, even on the areas that might sometimes seem gray. We need to grow in spiritual maturity in other words. But the encouragement in all of this, is to grow this way in Christ. It’s in Christ we’ll have the power to overcome Satan. If Satan accuses us of our sins, we stand firm on the atonement of Christ. If Satan tempts us to false doctrine, we stand firm in the truth which Christ revealed. If Satan tempts us to ungodliness, we seek God’s grace to further conform us to the image of Christ, looking to see Christ formed more fully within us. If Satan comes craftily and various deceptions, we look for the wisdom from above to guide us, wisdom which was revealed in Christ who came to this world as one greater than all the wisdom of Solomon. In Christ, we will overcome.
And so we acknowledge the battle that we are in. And this passage calls us to grow in spiritual maturity. That’s an application I hope each of us will leave with today. We all should see the encouragement that as a Christian we are commended like Paul commends them in verse 19. A Christian should rejoice in their salvation. At the same time, we all have room to grow more in the Lord. Some of us may be but babes in the faith. Others may have been growing in the Lord for many years. Yet, let each of us see the call of wisdom to grow more and more. All of us can see room for greater spiritual maturing. In fact, recently I heard some reports from some here that people they had looked up to in the Lord for many years, had fallen into some serious false doctrine and these people even started then teaching that false doctrine themselves. That’s heartbreaking when you see that happen. Realize that Satan is behind that. Realize that the battle rages on. So let us all be on the alert. Cling all the more to Christ. Look to keep growing in wisdom concerning the good and simpleness concerning the evil. God will have the victory in Christ, and he will use you in the process. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ is with you, dear saints. Amen.
Copyright © 2013 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.