Print

Romans 16:17-20

Have you ever wondered how your church leadership, and you as an individual, should deal with people in the church who are divisive? Should you just look the other way when someone comes to your church who is believing false doctrine, or do you have a responsibility to help solve this problem in your church? Paul gives some very clear instruction to the church at Rome concerning how to address this problem. Paul declared, “Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple. For your obedience has become known to all. Therefore I am glad on your behalf; but I want you to be wise in what is good, and simple concerning evil. And the God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen” (Rom. 16:17-20).
In verses 1-16, Paul has talked about the blessed servants who helped him in his ministry and greeted those in the church who were serving at Rome. Now Paul warns the church about those who are doing just the opposite, those who were working against him and the church by bringing in false teachings. In every church that Paul established there were always those who were doing a disservice to Christ by teaching false doctrine. These people were seeking to divide the church, not unite it. This is a topic that is truly essential for every believer to understand, because everyone of us will at some point in our walk with Christ encounter divisive people in our churches. But the question is, how will you deal with them?

Who were these false teachers who sought to divide the church?

There were many groups that Paul had to deal with throughout his ministry. One of the largest divisive groups were the Judaizers. They were given this name because they were Jewish people who believed that the Gentiles should keep the Mosaic Law, the dietary laws, the feast days, and essentially live like Jews. This group followed Paul relentlessly. When Paul moved on to another city to plant a church, these people would swoop in and teach against what Paul had just taught.

A second group were called the Gnostics. The word Gnostics literally meant, ‘the knowing ones.’ They believed they had a superior knowledge to everyone else. They would come in and begin to say to the people, “Well your pastor is really good teaching the basics, but we know the really deep things of God that will take you into a more in-depth relationship with God.” This group believed that Jesus did not come in the flesh, and had no actual physical form. They taught that when Jesus walked on the earth, He didn’t leave any footprints in the sand. They also believed in an extreme view of grace, in which you could sin and do whatever you pleased and God’s grace would excuse you. They taught that all God was interested in was your spirit, so you could partake in any sinful fleshly activity and that was acceptable with God. The Apostle John wrote his first epistle to combat these Gnostic teachers and fully refuted their false teachings.

It is important to note that these two groups are still around today, and are continuing to spread their lies and distortions of what the Bible teaches. There are pseudo-messianic groups that want you to keep the Mosaic Law, the dietary laws, and Sabbath day observance. There are also extreme grace groups that use grace as an excuse to continue in their sinful lifestyles. Paul warned about these groups when he said, “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:6-8). Jude also warned, For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 1:4). The Apostle John also wrote, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world” (1 John 4:1-3). In John’s second epistle he taught, Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds” (2 John 1:9-11). These teachings make it very clear that you need to watch out for people like this and refuse to greet them. Notice that you are to do the exact opposite of what Paul taught about greeting those who faithfully serve the Lord. Remember, the word greet means to welcome, embrace, or rejoice with another. We are therefore commanded to avoid and not welcome people who promote false teaching in our churches.

Do you realize that there are people who want to pervert the gospel and destroy your faith in the truth? Today there are over one hundred different groups in the United States alone that we call cult groups. A cult perverts the teachings of the Bible, and also adheres to extreme beliefs that are not found in the Scriptures. Most of these extreme groups believe that their human leader is either the Christ, or a prophet sent by Jesus to lead them. Examples of groups like this would be the Branch Davidians led by David Koresh, who died in a fire in 2009 near Waco, Texas, or the People’s Temple group led by Jim Jones, who all committed suicide at Jamestown, Guyana in 1978. There are also many well-known groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of Latter-Day Saints (Mormonism), Christian Science, Unity, and many others. This is why John warned the people about such groups, because they are extremely destructive to the church and its growth. When Paul taught the people to “note those who cause divisions,” he was saying to watch out or be on guard for people like this. The word note means to take heed and to watch out for those who would do them harm. This word note is also in the present tense which means that you need to continually be watching out for those who are teaching false doctrine, and those who are seeking to divide the church. Remember, false doctrine will always equal division in the church, this is why Paul couples these two issues together. 

How can you detect those who want to divide the church?  Vs. 17-18

Detecting those who are teaching false doctrine and those who cause division is really important to understand. My encouragement is to not trust the church leadership to know who is doing this, or to detect it when it is occurring. Why do I say this? Because most of the time the person sitting in the pew will be the first to be confronted by a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The wolf is not going to announce that he or she is here to teach false concepts or divide the church. They will always come in by stealth. Jude taught this very thing when he wrote, For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 1:4). Take note of the words, “crept in unnoticed.” This is how these individuals come to your church. I can’t count how many times people in the church I pastored for 42 years would come and warn me about people who were teaching false doctrine. Therefore, every believer should be watching and guarding the church from these ungodly individuals.

How can you detect these people?

1. You first need to personally know what good doctrine is, and how to explain it to others.

The word doctrine simply means teaching. Good doctrine is based solely on God’s Word taken in context, and in agreement with the whole counsel of God. How can you learn good doctrine? You need to become a well taught student of the Word of God by reading it every day. If you don’t know what the Bible teaches, how will you be able to discern if someone you meet is believing false doctrine? You can’t discern the counterfeit without knowing the truth. Remember John said, Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds” (2 John 1:9-11). There is a correct teaching or doctrine about who Christ is. This is usually the best first question in your inquiry of what a person believes. Ask this person who they believe Jesus is. If they declare that Jesus is God come in human flesh, then you know that this person has a correct belief (John 1:1; 14; 1 John 5:20; John 8:24). But, if this person declares that Jesus was an angel, or an Indian guru, or just a good teacher, or some great prophet, you know that this person is believing false doctrine.

The next questions you should be asking are: do they believe in God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, how do they believe someone can be saved, do they believe in eternal life for those who believe in Jesus, and is there a final judgment of all mankind, and what is the basis upon which all will be judged? These are the basic issues you want to first understand yourself, and then be able to explain to others from the Scripture. One of the best books that you could purchase to help you understand these basic teachings of the Bible is, “What the Bible Teaches” by RA Torrey. He addresses all the fundamental teachings of the Bible by just quoting the passages where these doctrines are found. Then you can go and read them in their context and see they are correct.

2. Be watching for these people.

Some of you are thinking right now, If I don’t understand enough of the Bible to know if someone is believing false teaching, how can I be watching? Let me tell you a story from my own life to illustrate why I think you can discern false teaching even when you are a brand-new believer. When I was only a few months into my faith in Jesus, I was sitting in my house reading the Bible one day while waiting for a telephone repairman to come to install a new phone. The telephone repair man came into my house and saw me reading my Bible and said, “I see you are reading the Bible.” I responded, “Yes I just became a Christian.” Then he asked, “Can I talk to you about the Bible?” He began to share with me about his faith and where he went to church. But immediately I sensed something was weird or off about what he was saying. I couldn’t explain it, but a red flag went up in my heart. The man went out to his repair truck and came back in with some literature. I then took this material to my pastor and I said, “Would you take a look at this?” He immediately said, “Oh this is Mormonism. You don’t want to get into this.” Then I asked him to explain to me why it was wrong. He laid out some very simple principles contrasting what Mormonism teaches versus the Bible. It all made complete sense to me. At this point I realized that even as a young Christian, God had given me discernment that what this Mormon had said to me was wrong. The Holy Spirit had warned me in my heart that this was false teaching. This is why Paul said in verse 18, “By smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple.” In other words, this repairman was trying to deceive me, and the Holy Spirit was keeping me from error.

I believe that God wants every believer to know the truth and be kept in the truth. That is what the Holy Spirit is doing inside of every one of us. Jesus said of the Spirit’s work in John 16:13, “When He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come.” How much truth will the Spirit guide you into? All truth! If you have a question about what the truth is on some subject, pray and ask for His guidance, and then open your Bible and look at what the Scripture teaches on that issue. If you don’t know where to look, go and ask your pastor. I’m sure there is nothing he would rather do than help you understand what the Scripture teaches. The Holy Spirit will always bear witness in your heart to the truth. So, be on guard against false teachers! 

3. Examine the fruit of a person’s life, and test it against the testimony of Scripture.

The Bible is absolutely clear that you are to test all things. In 1Thessalonians 5:21 it declares, “Test all things; hold fast what is good.” The word test means to examine, prove, or verify all things. What is good, keep! What is not good or correct, or balanced; reject. This word test is also in the present tense which means you are commanded to continually test all things that come into your life. Jesus taught in Matt. 7:15-20, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.” From what Jesus taught in this passage, it is clear that He wants you to examine a person’s fruit, in order to discern correctly if they are true or false witnesses. Are they someone who unites people, or someone who seeks to divide?

What Jesus taught is very similar to what Paul is teaching here in Romans. False prophets look like sheep, they talk like sheep, they use smooth words and flattering speech, but inwardly they are wolves that want to destroy you and the church you belong to. To protect yourself, Jesus taught that you should examine their fruit. But what is fruit? What does Jesus mean when He used this illustration of fruit? Let me give you seven simple principles that define what fruit is and how to examine it.

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23). Do you see these character qualities in a person whom you are questioning, or do you see the opposite? Paul said that the works of the flesh are, “Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery [from the Greek word pharmakeia where we get our English words pharmacy or pharmacology. Sorcery is the use of drugs for non-medicinal purposes], hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19-21). So, when the Holy Spirit rules inside of a person’s life, you should see the fruit of the Spirit in them. You should see love, joy, and the peace of God in their lives. They should be individuals who are kind and self-controlled, and not contentious, selfish, and prideful. These are critical character qualities that you should observe. 

Paul taught that the fruit of righteousness was the proof that God was at work within a person. This was Paul’s prayer for the Philippian church when He wrote, “This I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ, being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Phil. 1:9-11). The fruit of the Spirit will naturally bring forth the fruit of righteousness and enable you to overcome the works of the flesh. When you see someone proclaiming their faith in Christ, but they are living in an ungodly way, that should be a red flag to you. It should make you think, Wait a minute, there is something wrong here. Ungodliness is the exhibition of the works of the flesh.

Paul warned Timothy, his son in the faith, about those who would come and cause divisions in his church. He wrote and told him, “If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself. Now godliness with contentment is great gain” (1Tim. 6:3-6). Notice, Paul gave the same counsel to Timothy as he did to the Romans, that he should withdraw himself from teachers like this. Why? Because these false teachers were proud and just wanted to dispute and argue over words, but did not have the fruit of godliness. Throughout my ministry I have met many false teachers trying to persuade me to their beliefs. They all have had a similar attitude of arrogance about them. They always think they know more than you, but in reality, they know very little. Humility is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, so if you don’t sense humility, watch out - that should also be a red flag to you. 

One of the clearest indications of a false teacher is their concentration on money. As Paul declared in the verse above, they see godliness as, “a means of gain” (1 Tim. 6:5). Peter taught the same thing when he wrote about false teachers and said, By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words; for a long time their judgment has not been idle, and their destruction does not slumber” (2 Peter 2:3). The next time you listen to a radio or TV preacher and they spend the first 15 minutes of their 30-minute program talking about how much you should be giving to them, that should alert you that something is wrong. When you feel like you are being manipulated, you probably are.

Some of the best false teachers are the smoothest talkers I have ever heard. This is why Paul tells us right here in our text in Romans to beware of teachers like this. They can talk a good game, but they are in reality deceivers!

False teachers all have a way of drawing people after themselves in such a subtle way. They make their focus all about them. Paul warned the Ephesian elders that, “For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears” (Acts 20:29-31). These teachers use smooth words motivated by pride to draw you after themselves. When your eyes are fixed on a man and not Jesus, you are in the process of being deceived. Be careful!

False teachers will always slander and backbite the leaders of your church. Watch for this, because it is a sure sign of a false teacher. Every church split that I have ever witnessed began with someone talking to others and saying, “Your pastor is not teaching the deep things of God.” Or, “Your pastor doesn’t care about you, and I don’t like what they are doing. They are so mean, harsh and unloving.” These words are motivated by personal bitterness in their heart, which is a work of the flesh, and this attitude always divides the church. When you hear things like this being said, don’t participate in it, because conversations like this are something that God hates. You should reprove people who speak this way as Solomon wrote in Proverbs 6:16-19, These six things the LORD hates, yes, seven are an abomination to Him: a proud look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that are swift in running to evil, a false witness who speaks lies, and one who sows discord among brethren.” If God hates these behaviors, I hope you hate them too. Always let your pastor know about what is going on behind his back.

What should you do if you think someone is into false teaching and being divisive?

You may be thinking right now, But should I do something? Shouldn’t the leadership take care of these problems? The answer is yes; you should do something. At the very least you need to make the leadership of your church aware of what a divisive individual is saying. Why? Because they can’t resolve an issue when they don’t know that there is a problem. However, I would encourage you to do more than this.

Why must this harsh measure be used toward a person involved in false teaching? There are several reasons. First, because people who are very settled in their false beliefs are usually not going to change these beliefs. No matter what you say or what verse you show them, they are convinced they are right and you are wrong. The second reason is one I have already mentioned of the effect they will have on other young believers. Let me give you an example. Several years ago, after a service I had taught, a man came up to me asking questions about keeping the Sabbath and the Old Testament dietary laws. I answered his questions, and he walked away. The following week a woman came asking the same kinds of questions. I responded by showing her what the Scripture taught and why we were not to keep the law or try to make ourselves righteous. The next week a third person came up asking the same question. At this point I asked this man, “Is someone trying to persuade you in this belief?” The man said, “yes, it was _____ who was talking to me. I then went back to the previous two people who had asked the same questions and found out that it was the same person who was trying to convince them to follow the law. We then went together to talk to the two men who were spreading this false teaching. They were both completely unreceptive to what I showed them in the Scripture, and they became hostile and argumentative with me. They were convinced that I was deceived, and did not understand what the Bible taught about keeping the law. At this point, I explained to these two men that I cared about them, but that we had two completely different understandings of what the Bible taught. I encouraged them to find a church that believed the same way they did, because this church was not going to abandon the teachings of the grace of God and begin following the Mosaic Law. They moved on to another group in the area that believed as they did. So, sometimes parting company is your only option.

Remember, this is why you should always try to take the first three options, because as Paul taught earlier in this epistle, “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men” (Rom. 12:18). If it is possible to restore an individual to believing correctly, you want to lovingly try to do so. But, sometimes, because of a person’s attitude or their unwillingness to listen to the Scripture, it is not possible to co-exist in the same church. The reason you can’t abide together is because false teaching is like poison to the rest of the body of Christ, and the church will be stumbled by people spreading error. When Luke wrote the book of Acts, he noted that there were Jews who followed Paul, trying to undermine his ministry. He wrote, “But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brethren” (Acts 14:2). Remember, false teaching is like poison to a believer’s spiritual health.

Paul’s command and his assurance.  Vs. 19-20

In these last two verses Paul gives a command and a wonderful assurance. These two issues are simple and encouraging to all believers.

The command.

Paul declared, “I want you to be wise in what is good, and simple concerning evil.” The word wise means to be skillful in what is spiritually and practically good. The word simple means to be pure or innocent concerning evil. In other words, you don’t have to be wise in what is wrong in this world, just be spiritually and practically wise in what is good. Once you are wise in what is good, then what is evil and wrong in this world will be obvious to you. Remember, Paul has already explained what goodness is in this epistle. He has also spoken about not despising the goodness of God, which is His mercy toward us (Rom. 2:4). He taught that there is no one who is good; but that we must pursue God’s character of goodness, which will transform our hearts and which will also enable us to overcome evil in this world (Rom. 3:12; 2:7; 12:21). Thirty-three times Paul addressed this topic of goodness in this letter to the Romans. Being wise in what is good means that I must know the only One who is good, and know His Word that teaches us how to practically be good. Paul promoted this theme over and over again throughout his epistles. In 1 Thessalonians 5:15 Paul wrote, “See that no one renders evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good, both for yourselves and for all.” Note that it is the pursuing of what is good which is the key. How can you do that? Pursue the God who is good, and pursue the Word of God, so you can learn how to practically be good. This must be the focus of your life, and you will become wise in what is good!

The assurance.

Then Paul immediately declared this powerful promise and assurance, And the God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen.” (Rom. 16:20). The word crush literally means to break in pieces or to overcome completely. If there is anything that crushes and overcomes the works of Satan in people’s lives, it is loving and doing good to them. When you lovingly share the good news of the gospel with others, this crushes the lies of Satan, and releases them from his hold on their minds. When you do good to others instead of evil, it overcomes and stops the cycle of evil in this world one person at a time. However, the only way you can do what is good in the first place, is because Satan has already been crushed under the feet of Jesus. This point that Paul makes clearly alludes to the assurance God gave to Satan that his authority would be crushed by the Messiah, who was the promised Seed of the woman found in Genesis 3:15. God said to Satan, “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.” It is important to remember that you are not going to crush Satan under your feet; the God of peace will, and has, already done that work. Jesus has destroyed Satan’s hold on you forever! This is God’s work, and not any work that man can accomplish. In Hebrews 2:14 it declares, “Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death that is, the devil.” The word destroy in this verse means to render useless, abolish, or to put a stop to his power. What a glorious truth this is! Satan has no power over me or any believer anymore! The reason you are a Christian today is because Christ has crushed Satan’s authority over you. He has set you free from the Devil’s lies, and given you the opportunity to come to Jesus.

But, how does God crush Satan under your feet? This is what the verse declares God will do. How does He do this work for you? God does this work by coming to live inside you and to abide in those who believe. The One who conquered the wicked one, now lives in you to overcome the work of the enemy in your life. Scripture declares that Jesus has given each believer authority to stop the enemy’s work. Jesus said, “Behold, I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions, and over all of the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you” (Luke 10:19). Don’t miss these words, “all of the power of the enemy.” We have authority over all the power of the enemy! The word power in this verse is the Greek word dynamis, which means supernatural power. Do you realize that Jesus has given you complete authority over all the supernatural power of the enemy? I don’t have more supernatural power than Satan and his demons, but I do have authority over his supernatural power in the name of Jesus. What is the difference between authority and power? Let me give you a simple illustration to explain this truth. If a police officer stands in the middle of the street after a car accident, and holds up his hand, what do the cars do? They stop! Why do they stop? Is it because the officer has more power than the cars passing by? No! It is because the police officer has a uniform and a badge on his chest that declares his authority to control the traffic. He has the right and authority to say, “Stop!” I believe Christians are just like a police officer with authority to stop the work of the enemy from around you and others. You have been given authority in Jesus’ name over all of the power of the enemy. My question is, are you using the authority you possess in Christ over the work of Satan? When a police officer sees an accident, he doesn’t stand on the sidelines and do nothing. No, he jumps into the midst of the chaos and takes authority over the circumstances and tries to help. Even so, as a believer, you need to take the authority you have in Christ and get into the fight against the chaos that Satan brings to people’s lives. Do you bring God’s truth into the confusion that is around you? When you hear false teaching, you need to speak up and say, “No, this is the truth!” When you see the train wrecks around you, you need to be the spiritual police officer that God will use to reach those who are hurting and in need of help. This is how God will crush Satan under your feet!

Last, Paul ends with another benediction when he writes, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen.” Paul can’t quite seem to finish this letter. Every time he begins to end this epistle he just continues to write. In our next study, he will give another benediction to finally conclude this epistle.