Romans 16:17-20 - "Sunnyhill" Herne Bay Evangelical Free Church

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Romans 16:17-20


"Watch Out"

When we lived in France we learnt some interesting things about the French. If you did something that was potentially dangerous (like trip over a paving stone) someone would say to you "Attention!" – "Look out!" This always struck me as somewhat amusing – after all what was the point of telling me "to look out" after I'd tripped, it all seemed a bit late – like shutting the stable-door after the horse has bolted.

Paul wasn't about to wait like that – instead he issued his "Watch out" before one particular problem arose:

v.17 "I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out…"

Paul has just about finished his letter to the Christians in Rome but before signing off he must pass on one last piece of advice. It comes in terms of a warning.

In the body of his letter Paul had explained the mess that men and women have got themselves into, how serious that mess was, and what God has done to get us out of it. God sent Jesus to be the Saviour we all need. And Jesus saves those who trust him. In his death on the cross of Calvary Jesus did all that was necessary - there is nothing left for us to do but believe. Salvation is God's free gift. Writing in another letter Paul put it very clearly:

Eph 2:8 "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,"

But Paul knew that this wonderfully good news would come under threat. If God's rescue plan was adulterated by human additives the result would be disastrous! Because of this threat Paul issued his final exhortation:

v.17 "I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out…"

False teachers and what to do about them
The problem of false teachers was not a new one even in Paul's day – they were known back in OT times:

Jer.14:14 "And the LORD said to me: "The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds."

 And Jesus himself warned his disciples that false teachers would prove to be a real problem:

Mt.7:15 "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves."

And so it has proved down through the centuries. The effect that false teachers will have in any situation in which they operate is that they will cause division and they will impede Christians in making progress in their life and service of Jesus Christ. Paul's instructions being in harmony with Bible teaching as a whole are still very relevant to us today - we must pay heed to them.

We'll look at what he has to say under three headings each with three points:

  • Recognising these people?

  • He tells us they will teach a different doctrine

  • He tells us who they are really serving

  • He tells us how they behave

  • Responding to the threat these people pose:

  • We are to avoid them

  • We are to be marked by our own obedience to the gospel

  • We are to be innocent as to the practice of evil

  • Rejoicing in the certainty of victory over such people:

  • Our God is a God of peace

  • Satan will be crushed

  • Jesus will give grace

So let's get going.

Recognising these people

1. Significant doctrinal differences
The characteristic mark of the false teacher is a divergence from the revealed truth of the gospel. This divergence may be due, in part, to ignorance but is much more likely due to a wilful rejection of Biblical truth as being unpalatable. The person concerned simply replaces what he/she doesn't like by something he/she finds more appealing. The type of person that Paul is warning against here is also marked by a concern to propagate his understanding (or rather misunderstanding) of the Christian message. This is important for us to recognise because Paul is not warning against the immature or the truly ignorant he is warning against those who refuse to submit themselves to the truth of the gospel preferring to promote some other version of it. (Example of Aquila and Priscilla with Apollos in Acts 18).

Paul's warning is addressed to all of the church members in Rome – he expects them to be able to recognise deviations from the doctrine they have received and so be able to identify false teachers when they start to exert an influence. Do I really know what God's truth is? Can I spot deviations from it? For Paul this is crucially important!

How different is the attitude of many today! Doctrine divides they say so let's not talk about doctrine. But to adopt such a stance is to divorce ourselves from the wisdom of the Bible where truth is God's truth and as such to be received and cherished, believed and obeyed. To dismiss doctrine on the pretext that it divides is to say we know better than Jesus who not only prayed that his followers be sanctified by the truth but also declared that he himself was the truth!

If we abandon good, sound, doctrine we will end up accepting a different doctrine – a teaching that will not be able to save us!

False teachers peddle many different errors including the following which are current in the 21 st century:

  • Sincerity's the thing – it doesn't really matter what you do/believe

  • Don't be so enthusiastic

  • Do your best – works not grace

  • Man is fundamentally good – man needs helping not saving

  • It's fine for you – other religions are equally valuable

  • Nobody believes that these days – "modern man syndrome" eg. penal substitution, literal physical resurrection etc.

2. Who are they really serving?
a. Paul is direct and blunt! Whatever these folk might say, whatever they might declare their intentions to be there is one thing of which Paul is absolutely sure: these people are not serving Christ!

We need to be less naïve than we sometimes are. All that glitters is not gold and the mere fact that sometimes turns up at church and that on a regular basis is no sure fire indication that they have Christ's interests at heart. Sadly, there are many things that have been promoted within the Christian world that have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do Christ. Lip-service may or may not be paid but that is not what counts for Paul – it is holding fast to the doctrine that has been given once for all to the church. We should learn to be suspicious of new ideas/fads that have been unknown to the church over the centuries and we should be wary of those who push such ideas.

b. Paul is direct – if they are not serving the interests of Christ they are serving another agenda and that he identifies as their own appetites. We again need to be savvy and not assume that everyone who makes any noise about being interested in Christian things is actually motivated by a desire to see Jesus honoured and glorified – if they were they would stick with his doctrine – no, many water down his teaching, re-interpret Christian teaching, deny his doctrine because for one reason or another it doesn't fit with their personal interests. Perhaps Christ's doctrine is too tough for them, too straight, too uncompromising so they reformulate it and make it more amenable, more suitable to what really counts for them - themselves.

Of course if we call a spade a spade we lay ourselves open to criticism especially the charge of being intolerant and unloving and judgmental and in the eyes of many the charge doesn't need any investigation at all. But did you know that when Jesus spoke about not being judgmental just a few verses later he warned about false teachers?

3. How do false teachers usually behave?
Wouldn't it be easy if those who infiltrated the church bringing dissension and conflict were all rude aggressive and generally obnoxious people? It would be straightforward then to stand up to them and you'd have the support of everyone else around you but life is simply not like that.

Paul describes those he warns against as smooth talkers and flatterers and how we find them difficult to resist! Appeals are made to our intelligence, to our reasonableness, to our compassion and we fail to notice that appeals are not being made to the whole counsel of God! We love to imagine that we are able to see things straight and flattery disarms us and we forget to turn to God's word for our direction.

Again if someone were to come along and tell us flatly to our face that their views have never been accepted by the church at large and never could be accepted by a church that remained faithful to God's word then we'd see the choice starkly before us. We'd realise that it was God's truth or man's error. But they don't have the honesty and moral courage to do so – men sign up to doctrinal statements and all the while retain unannounced intellectual reservations. Once in, once accepted they begin to share their doubts concerned revealed truth and advance their own ideas and congregations and Christian institutions are first weakened then effectively destroyed.

We must not be naïve to think that every suave smile and smooth word is evidence of a genuine heart – we must be more ready to ask the question "Is this the religious equivalent of a second hand car salesman?

And the behaviour of such folk is fundamentally deception – if they can they will lead away from the truth as it is in Christ, they will draw away from devotion to him, what they do will spoil a church's life and witness and if they don't produce the shipwreck of another's faith they will certainly lead to a life of spiritual fruitlessness in the affected believer.

So how are we to respond to such people?

1. Avoidance
In terms of the 21 st century's ideas of political correctness Paul is impossible. Our society doesn't like things to be too clear cut when it comes to religious matters – that's a bit too uncomfortable – much better to invoke the word "intolerant" when truth is contrasted with error. To the religious establishment of our day heresy is an ugly word. And so in the eyes of many of our contemporaries every new-fangled idea should be welcomed as bringing an interesting new perspective to bear upon our spiritual lives.

And what is it that Paul says? "Avoid such people." v.17.

Doesn't that sound a bit extreme Paul? Shouldn't we be engaging with them? Shouldn't we be discussing with them? Shouldn't we be learning together? Surely none of has all the truth after all?

And Paul's response is: "Avoid them"

These folk who are pushing their line are not walking the common walk of Christian discipleship but are deliberately setting aside the Word of God. Their contributions do not help anyone to make progress in the Christian life because they are leading not into the truth but away from it. The effect of what they are doing is to cause division and to put obstacles in the way of those who wish to serve Christ faithfully.

Why oh why should such people be tolerated? They are undermining the church, Christian witness and genuine Christian spirituality – why should we have truck with such people? We should not give them a platform, we should listen to their preaching and we should not buy their books. Rather we should esteem the true life of the church, the true interests of Christ and the well-being of our fellow church members. If others criticise us for living like that then let them we would have no shame for that!

2. Obedience
In second place we must ensure that our doctrine is not allowed to become merely theory and divorced from practice.

As Paul thought about the Christians in Rome he was glad because everyone knew about them, they were renowned for their obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ. They had heard the word of God, they had believed and embraced the gospel and they had become obedient to it with all that that implies. They freely admitted their sinfulness and guilt to God. They openly declared their utter inability to save themselves by their own efforts. They cried out on the Lord to have mercy upon them even though they were totally unworthy of such treatment at his hands. And they rested their entire trust upon Jesus finished work. And their lives were transformed – oh no, they weren't perfect and would never pretend that they were but their lives were now headed in a whole new direction. They were living for Jesus Christ and so must we!

3. Innocence
As Christians they were now to live lives separated from evil – this didn't mean then and doesn't mean now that Christians were to cut themselves off and retreat from the societies in which we find ourselves, it doesn't mean retreat and withdrawal into a monastery or a some other Christian ghetto, but it does mean living as salt in a corrupt world, it does mean living as light in an otherwise dark world. The Christian is not to adopt the strategies of a sinful world on the grounds that "everyone does it" but he is going to live to please his Heavenly Father who is morally clean and pure. The Christian living in innocence will not be asking all the time how close can he sail to wind without getting into trouble but how can he live in order best to please his Lord, Jesus.

Rejoice – for victory is assured
Does this sound a hopeless task? Is this naivety gone mad? Viewed from the perspective of human thoughts and patterns it probably does but the Christian is a different kind of creature altogether! He has come to realise that God's ways are higher than man's ways!

Doing things God's way is always going to win out in the long term. After all our God is in heaven and does whatsoever he pleases. None can touch him and cause him to fail – he is quite simply out of man's reach like that!

The whole Bible is a testimony to the outworking of God's plan and purpose of salvation despite the repeated failure of men and women. Time and again things appeared to be going very badly – it appeared that the promises of God were hanging by a mere thread but those promises were accomplished and the Saviour came! Not only did he come but he accomplished his work successfully. Having died for our sin Jesus rose the third day from the dead and after 40 more days he ascended into the very immediate presence of the Father where he rules the universe!

A. In the context of trouble in the church caused by false teachers Paul writes of God as the God of peace.
Problems in the church? Yes, sure they will come, Paul knew that. But would the church of Jesus Christ be destroyed? No way!

B. A Great victory is promised – God will soon crush that arch enemy Satan underfoot. Isn't that interesting language to employ – the God of peace will crush Satan – no accommodation there, no tolerance there. Satan who would disturb the peace of the church will be crushed and the church will live on to enjoy eternal, never-ending peace with God!!

Do you see too what Paul is suggesting as he suddenly describes the crushing of Satan? False teachers are actually involved not in Christ's work but in Satan's. Their work must fail and it will fail. It might make headway for a time, it might look like it's going to win but it will be brought crashing down as God crushes Satan.

C. Finally, grace is available to the church in the here and now in order to enable her to continue to go about her ministry. It won't necessarily be easy to be on the watch, it won't necessarily be easy to stand for the truth when compromise and relativism are the words of the day. Misunderstanding is likely to abound concerning the faithful church – accusations of being judgmental, intolerant, unloving will doubtless flow as she resists those smooth talking flatterers – and which of us enjoys such conflict? But we are not in this on our own left to our own devices – grace, wonderful free grace from Jesus Christ is available to us to strengthen us, to equip us and to enable us to stand and having done all to stand firm.


We have been entrusted with a wonderful effective gospel that is able not only to save but to save to the uttermost – let no-one take it from us and let us hold on to it so that we might magnify the loving graciousness of our God.

To whom be glory in the church both now and forevermore.


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