Earthly service in the Lord’s kingdom is never without opposition.
While Christians are graciously justified in the sight of God through
faith in Jesus Christ, we face constant threats from the world, the
flesh and the devil. However, we are called to holy living, and that
requires us to walk cautiously but victoriously in Christ.
In his letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul urges those justified by
grace through faith to present their bodies “a living sacrifice, holy,
acceptable to God” (Rom. 12:1). This is not possible unless we allow
God’s truth to transform our minds. Otherwise, we will be conformed to
the world by fleshly desires and be an ineffective servant. Only as we
are daily sanctified by the Word of God can we demonstrate the “good and
acceptable and perfect will of God” (12:2). And it is this pursuit of
God’s will which draws the opposition of all that rebel against Him.
The apostle has made a passionate call to sanctified Christian service.
He has emphasized the unity of the Body of Christ motivated by sincere
love and faithful obedience. The chief end, of course, being to glorify
God (12:3-15:13). That is the Lord’s purpose for the Church as His
representation on earth. Paul’s perspective of his own ministry — and
that of his fellow servants — reflects this (15:14-16:16).
Here in Romans 16:17-20, Paul is compelled to issue a note of caution to
the Church. He knows that unity is not only compromised when we fail to
pursue sanctification, but it is also threatened by that which attacks
the source of our sanctification. Tolerating false teachers and their
followers can and does lead to disunity and sin. And that is precisely
the intent of the demonic influence behind them. Christians must,
therefore, always be on guard against the enemies attacks on sound,
biblical doctrine — knowing that God’s purpose ultimately prevails.
A Note of Caution (16:17-20)
Avoid False Christians (vv. 17-18)
Paul wanted to “urge” these Christians (“brethren”) to diligently watch
for “those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine
which [they] learned” (v 17). That is, from their knowledge of
Scripture, they were equipped to identify (“note”) those whose teachings
and practices led Christians astray.
False teachers and those who listen to them do not follow the doctrine
of the apostles (Acts 2:42). The New Testament (given by Christ to His
Church through the apostles) is the basis for Christian ministry. To
proffer anything else, however similar it might be (“contrary” – Gr.
para; i.e. “beside or near”) was and is incapable of sanctifying the
believer. It not only creates disunity (“divisions”), but it produces
conduct that is sinful (“offenses”). Both dishonor God and thwart the
mission of the Church.
So Paul urges the Church in Rome to identify such so-called Christians
“and avoid them.” This means exactly what is says (cf. 2 Tim. 3:5; 2
Jn. 7-11). When it comes to knowing and doing God’s will, there is to
be absolutely no tolerance for substitutions. Anyone who claims to know
God’s will, but without repentance teaches that which is contrary to
Scripture, is someone to be shunned. And if there is any doubt as to
their legitimacy, simply look at the way they live. Their conduct will
not be set apart in service to God. Unity with other Christians around
the clear and immutable doctrines of the Bible will not be important to
them. Selfless love for God and other believers will not be their
Paul points out this very thing in the next verse: “For those who are
such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly…” (v. 18a).
They are relentlessly driven by their fleshly desires because they are
not born again by the Holy Spirit of God (Jn. 1:12-13). Their professed
Christianity is merely religious talk, and their way of living is
without restraint in regard to the flesh. The are initially careful to
hide their true beliefs and desires, but ultimately they are exposed as
anything but doctrinally sound (Lk. 6:43-45).
Jude warns us about apostate Christians and their leaders. He
identifies them as a hidden danger to the Church, who have only their
own self-interest in mind. They boast of their benefit to God’s people,
yet they fail to deliver anything but disappointment (Jude 12-13).
The apostle Peter likewise cautions the Lord’s Church about the
destructive, depraved and deceptive doctrines of false prophets. And
with Jude, he also pronounces the Lord’s judgment on such (2 Peter.
2:1-22; cf. with Christ’s warnings in Matt. 17:15-23, etc.). In fact,
we are constantly warned about the dangers of false doctrine throughout
the New Testament. So Paul’s cautionary note to avoid such people is in
harmony with the rest of Scripture.
We must unsympathetically shun false teachers and those who ardently
follow them. Yes, we are certainly to pray for their salvation, but we
are to hate their sin and not associate ourselves with them if they fail
to repent (Matt. 18:15-20). We must not allow ourselves to become
stained by their corrupting doctrines and practices — calling them to
Christ with the truth (Jude 20-23). Not confronting false believers in
the Church only creates disunity and hinders our sanctified service. As
Paul says here, “by smooth words and flattering speech [they] deceive
the hearts of the simple” (v. 18b). But those who know sound doctrine
are equipped to avoid deception.
Avoid Sinful Conduct (v. 19)
And if we avoid their deception, then we can avoid the sinful conduct
their corrupt doctrine produces. The Christians in Rome had a
reputation for “obedience” to the apostle’s doctrine. Their faithful
ministry had “become known to all” the churches, and Paul was “glad on
[their] behalf” (v. 19a).
However, they were not immune to the problems that false believers can
produce. While true Christians may not necessarily follow after false
doctrine, tolerating it can negatively impact their ministry. Paul
simply did not want their service in the Church to become stained with
the lies and immorality of these religious hypocrites.
“Therefore” the apostle says, “…I want you to be wise in what is good,
and simple concerning evil” (v. 19b). That is, by careful study and
practice of the truth, they could be certain to do God’s will. In this
they could and would effectively demonstrate His will in their lives as
His justified and sanctified servants. And in so doing, they would be
innocent (“simple”) in regard to that which is opposed to God’s will
Paul’s love for fellow believers and the mission of the Church motivated
this admonition to a group of Christians he had never met in person.
This is a clear view into the heart of one of God’s most faithful
servants. It reveals total devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ and His
Anticipate God’s Victory (v. 20)
Paul has in mind the ultimate victory of God’s kingdom, where the Lord’s
will is always done (Matt. 6:10). Paul’s teaching about the Church and
Christian service is rooted in God’s plan and purpose for redemption.
In grace, our Redeemer has chosen and called out of the world with the
Gospel a people to serve Him for eternity.
The Lord Jesus Christ is at the heart of all that God is doing. The
sacrificial death of Christ on the cross is not only the means by which
God brings us into His kingdom, but His resurrection and ascension into
glory ensures our hope of the fullness of eternal life with Him (cf.
15:7-13). This has been but one of several threads forming the fabric
of this letter (e.g. 8:28-39; 11:33-36; 13:11-14).
And so Paul reminds the Christians in Rome that “the God of peace will
crush Satan under your feet shortly” (v. 20a). Chief among those who
oppose God’s will and His kingdom is none other than the architect of
sin and the deceiver of humanity, the devil (1 Jn. 5:19; Rev. 12:9).
But the evil personality behind false doctrine and all false religion —
who seeks to undermine the work of God in and through the elect — will
never prevail. He may wound God’s chosen as they serve Him, but he will
never destroy them.
The devil will tempt us with the weakness of the flesh and with worldly
allure (1 Jn. 2:15-23). He will persecute us through the ungodliness of
men (Jn. 16:33; 2 Tim. 3:12-14). But he will never have the victory!
Christ will ultimately judge and punish Satan in hell for eternity (Rev.
20:10); those who believe his lies will receive the same (Rev.
20:11-15). But as the apostle John said, “We know that whoever is born
of God does not sin; but he who has been born of God [is guarded by
Him], and the wicked one does not touch him” (1 Jn. 5:18).
True believers persevere in faith because they are the elect of God, but
the devil perishes. To “crush” simply means to break in pieces, and it
hearkens back to Genesis 3:15. There God promised that the chosen Seed
of the woman (i.e. Christ) would overcome the deceptions of Satan to
redeem a remnant of humanity for God. Christ Jesus our Lord is
ultimately victorious — delivering the crushing blow to Satan and his
Despite the opposition to our service in God’s kingdom, we can take
heart in knowing that our Lord guarantees victory. Our labor is not in
vain (1 Cor. 15:58). The devil and all who rebel against God will meet
a just end. The need for the Church to battle against false doctrine
will cease when the Lord destroys His enemies once and for all. It will
be a speedy end when the day comes, as indicated by Paul’s use of the
Until then, we are to rest in our relationship with God. Note that the
apostle once again refers to God as the “God of peace” (cf. 15:33).
Peace is the short-term and long-term result of our reconciliation to
God through Christ. Paul is saying that our peace with God is secure.
This is true, both in our present sufferings and in God’s final victory
on our behalf over the the world, the flesh and the devil. The “grace”
of God shown to us through “our Lord Jesus Christ” is essential in all
of this. Not only has God justified us by His grace, but He also
sanctifies us and helps us persevere. Paul prays for continued grace
for these believers (v. 20b).
Paul’s note of caution is as relevant for the Church today as it was in
the first century. False doctrine and those who espouse it have always
been a threat to our mission. We must be aware and on guard, and we
must shun without hesitation those who believe and live the lies of the
devil. They may claim to follow Christ, but their sins expose their
true nature. Avoiding them helps us to avoid the blight of their evil
practices (1 Cor. 5:6; Gal. 5:9). We must remain focused on unity in
the faith as we represent our Lord’s kingdom. And we must keep our eyes
on His final victory over all sin, knowing that we are secure in His
Do you distance yourself from those who falsely claim to be Christians?
Are you immersing yourself in the sound doctrine of Scripture as it is
taught by those who teach it without compromise? Are you discerning
when it comes to biblical doctrine and the unbiblical practices of false
Christians? Are you resting in the grace of God and His assurance of
complete victory over sin?
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