J. Gordon Duncan

Culture, Business, Fitness, Etc.

In the Know – Romans 16:17-23 Part One

Every single person is a theologian.  No, not everyone has a written statement of faith and not everyone can articulate their thoughts on God coherently, but make no mistake:  everyone has a functional view of God that directs and influences their life.  Ask a person if they think God is loving, and how they react will indicate a measure of their own affection for God.  Ask a person if they think God answers prayer, and how they react will indicate a measure of their trust in self verses their trust in God.  Ask a person if they think God forgives sin, and how they react will indicate their sense of guilt and personal responsibility.

Despite the fact that people in the Raleigh/Durham/Garner area are highly churched either having grown up attending or presently attending to some degree, theology gets a bad rap in our area.  It is not uncommon when someone learns that my denomination has a theological standard that folks tell me, “I’m no theologian; I just follow Jesus.”  Ironically, that statement is as much a theological standard as our confession of faith.  No creed but Christ is just a potent influencer in one’s life as the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Nicene Creed.  If a person tells me, “I don’t believe in any of that theology stuff; I think there are multiple paths to get to God,” that too is a theological statement of the highest order.

Scripture, however, commands the believer to be an ardent student of the Bible.  In fact, God commands His children that if they do not study and know theology at its deepest level.  In doing so, the scriptures promise protection, both from evil and doctrinal error if a person will just study the scriptures.  For Paul in the book of Romans, there was real connection to holding to solid, biblical doctrine.  He felt that good theology didn’t divide; it united.  He felt good theology led to a joyful obedience that protected the believer from evil.

In general, theology isn’t a bad thing if it is pursued studiously and demonstrated in humility.  However, when it is held vigorously but studied lightly, it leads to all manner of conflicts and arguments.  We going to see that in detail and command for us this week in the closing verses of the book of Romans, so let’s ask this Big Picture Question:

Romans 16:17-23 – Part One

Big Picture Question:  How do doctrine and obedience work hand in hand?

17 I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.

Casting our mind back to last week, in these last few verses of Romans, Paul has been sending greetings to people who have partnered with him.  We’re going to see him take a break from his closing credits to give just a few more commands and warnings.  Though it may seem obtuse that Paul would transition from sending greetings to giving warning against false teachers, it actually makes sense contextually.   In verse 16, Paul encouraged the Romans to greet each other with a Holy Kiss which was a sign of unity.  Nothing destroys unity like disruptive false teachings.  So, Paul wants us to see that there is a true unity that comes from doctrinal unity.

His concern as the book closes is to make sure that the church of Rome does not abandon Biblical faithfulness and that they are constantly searching the scriptures for wisdom and truth.  So Paul commands the Romans to look out for people who are trying to cause divisions based on bad theology.  One of the reasons Paul issues this command is because he knows that people are going to come into the church and either subtly or openly challenge the firm foundational doctrines of our faith.  Now, there has been a ton of debate as to what doctrines were being challenged in the book of Romans.  We know that Colossians was fighting the early heretical elements of Gnosticism and the Humanity of Christ.  We know Galatians was written to fight the heretical doctrine of a hierarchy among the people of God pitting Jew against Gentile.  But we really don’t know if there was a specific doctrine that Paul is speaking of here.

I think we can say that Paul is not talking about issues of freedom where there are differing theological convictions like back in chapter 14.  There the emphasis was on maintaining fellowship.  Here Paul is saying to teachers of false doctrine.  In light of the overall emphasis of Romans, I don’t Paul has one or two doctrines in mind.  I think Paul is talking about protecting the clear doctrinal issues in scripture.  The question you might ask is, “Is there really a body of doctrine that defines Biblical unity?  Is there anything we should all agree on?”

It would almost appear like there is not.  But Paul makes it clear that there is.

  • In Romans 6:17, Paul calls it the standard of teaching: “  [You] have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed.”
  • In 2 Timothy 1:13-14, he calls it the pattern of sound words and the good deposit. “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.”
  • In Acts 20:27, he calls it the whole counsel of God. “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.”  (references gathered by John Piper)

Though there are perhaps a million areas in which students of the Bible disagree, issues that Paul has made clear and to which He is referring could safely be described as:

  • The humanity and deity of Jesus Christ – Jesus is both fully human and fully divine.
  • The total depravity and sinfulness of all mankind – Each and every human being is without hope because of their sin.
  • The substituionary death of Jesus Christ – Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are sufficient to pay the penalty for sinful men and women.
  • Salvation by faith alone in the person and work of Jesus Christ – Forgiveness and restoration in relationship with God comes only by faith in the work of Jesus and not by any work or effort of mankind.

These are a few of the inner circle doctrines that distinguish Christianity from other faiths, and they are doctrines that have been assailed and voraciously defended throughout church history.   So what does Paul tell us to do with people who attack the core doctrines of the Christian faith?  His command is pretty simple:  avoid them.

It is not contradictory to say that avoiding false teachers creates and enable unity.  Avoiding false teachers, whether they be in print, on TV, on the radio, or in the church is the biblical, unifying, and Godly response.  John Piper calls this “Truth Based Division for the sake of Truth Based Unity”  No Christian should submissively sit under the teaching of another person who is going to teach you that you can earn your way to God or Jesus was not fully human and divine, and on and on.  But this is much is clear: despite whatever amount of study you or I have done in our lifetimes, we never get to graduate in the sense that we do not need to continually pour ourselves over Biblical truth.  Study of the scriptures both protects the church from doctrinal heresy and insures loving unity.  Oh, we’ll disagree on some issues for sure, and we do here at SK, but the core doctrines of the Christian faith must be maintained by a vigilance for the scriptures that can never be neglected or forsaken.  Those doctrines are the basis of all Christian unity and love.

I don’t know if you have ever found yourself in a situation where you felt that you were being taught or led in such a way that you felt the things you were hearing were actually detrimental to your heart and soul.  I have.  I remember visiting a church in another part of the state one time for a service.  They were proclaiming that Jesus would forgive you of your sins if you asked him to but if you lived a really bad life afterwards, God would practically hate when you arrived in heaven almost as if you had to get to Heaven and then pay for your sins all over again. I had no desire to return that teaching ever again as what it really taught was that the work of Christ was insufficient to atone for sin.  It seemed as if the pastor was afraid that Jesus’ gift was so free that people might actually still sin after believing so he wanted to guilt people into obeying.  The problem, the gift of Jesus is just that free.  We are called to obedience, but the work of Jesus is powerful enough to love and forgive even if you are willfully sin.  But that pastor was teaching that there was some penalty left for your sin.  In this case, it was teaching that you would not receive and enjoy the full fellowship of the Father because of your sins.  Though subtle, that teaching stinks of Hell because it makes the work of Jesus’ ineffective and insufficient in the lives of believers.  According to Paul’s command, that was not a church whose teaching I should sit under.  I needed to avoid it at all costs.

Taking in the whole counsel of the scriptures, Paul would have you bless these enemies of Christ not by being enemies in return but by wisely avoiding submission to their teaching and offering them the counter truths of the Gospel.  Look at how Paul describes them in verse 18.

18 For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.

In addition to teaching false doctrines, Paul offers two key characteristics to false teachers.  One key characteristic that a person is teaching false doctrine is that their life is defined by the pursuit of feeding their own appetites.  This is essentially the motivation for a person who teaches false doctrine:  by teaching truths contrary to scripture, they hope to ensure that their lives are easy and in some cases, cushy.  Listen if a teacher tells you that there is no hell and there is no punishment for sin (which would be Biblically incorrect), they are saying there are no consequences for wrong actions.  If a teacher promotes that, they can live any way they want, lying, stealing, cheating, and be completely consistent with their theology.  False doctrines make for cushy living.  The problem is that cushy living comes on the back of those who hold to correct biblical truth.

Let me make one statement here as it is necessary in our American context of ministry.   Having, gaining, and maintaining wealth is not necessarily antithetical to being a believer or necessarily means that if you have money you cannot be a faithful teacher of scripture.  However, if the emphasis of a particular teacher’s ministry and the representation of their life, is the pursuit of worldly wealth, pleasure, and comfort (thus feeding and overstuffing their appetite), then that person becomes under scrutiny of being guilty of this verse.  And being guilty of this verse is not limited just to preachers, evangelists, or people on TV.  Paul more than likely is not speaking about what we would call ministers today.  He is warning against people within the church who design their entire life for comfort and the feeding of their appetite.  Those things don’t necessarily make a person a non-Christian but seeking to live without sacrifice does make that person suspect.  So if a teacher of the scripture spends all his or her time talking about how faith in God will help you get enough lettuce for your fetish, then you should probably change the channel.

The second characteristic of a person teaching false doctrines is that they do it with smooth talk and flattery with the purpose of deceiving naïve people.  Now this makes sense.  If I’m going to undermine your faith in Jesus Christ and convince you to believe a heretical doctrine, telling you that is what I’m trying to do is probably a bad idea.  You are smart folks.  You’ll say, “Hey no thanks.  I like my Jesus, and I like believing what the Bible says.”  But if I flatter you and blow sunshine while doing it in a winsome way, you’re more than likely to give me a chance and hear what I have to say.

Let me give you an example from church history.  Socinus was a heretical teacher from the 1600’s.  He denied that Jesus was God.  He denied that Jesus was eternal.  He denied that God knew everything.  He even denied that Jesus’ sacrifice was sufficient for saving sinful men and women.  But here is the thing:  people loved the guy.  One another writer describes Socinus in this way.  He was a gentleman. His morals were above reproach and he distinguished himself by his unfailing courtesy. Unfailing courtesy was remarkable in an age when even the great Protestant leaders, would use street language when arguing with their opponents.

Folks, don’t expect false teachers of the scriptures to let you know that they are teaching heresy.  Expect them to be winsome, attractive, wear nice clothing, speak clearly, be funny, and be kind.  Expect them to pet furry animals and cry at hallmark commercials.  Expect them to attract large crowds and be embraced by the media.  But be sure to analyze every single word they say.   Now here is where we are going to have to begin to wrap things up in preparation for continuing this sermon next week.  But before we do, let’s take a peak and what God promises to us if we vigilantly search the scriptures and seek for doctrinal purity.

19 For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.

God uses your growing, knowing, learning, and living the scriptures through the power of the Holy Spirit to enable you to obey where you once thought it was impossible.  God helps you obey.  When you think it is impossible for you to overcome a certain sin or  have a change of attitude and heart, through the scriptures and the power of the Holy Spirit, God helps you obey.  And that is a cause for rejoicing.  And to give you some idea about next week’s sermon, look at the command that Paul gives you in your efforts of discernment and obedience.

Be wise to what is good – meaning search the scriptures to know what God calls good.  And be innocent to what is evil.  Know good and therefore know how to avoid that which is evil.  To demonstrate how we are all going to do this, let me give you a brief analogy.  I know a bunch of guys who earned the privilege of playing High School football.  In their teenage years, they trained hard, put in the work of being a student athlete and I even know a few that excelled and received some attention from colleges.  Ultimately however, they moved on from their dream of playing football to go to college, start a career, and build a family.  Over the years though, despite efforts to even stay in shape a bit, these former high schoolers are not in football conditioning.  Preparing to play football required of them intense discipline and effort so that they could not only perform at a high level, they could also avoid getting hurt.  10 or 20 years later, they just aren’t in that shape any more.  They still live the dream though.  Each and every Sunday when the NFL is on, they keep up with their favorite team.  They speak intelligently about the action on the screen criticizing play calling or poor conditioning.  Perhaps even in the back of their mind, they wish they could still be out there.  Truth be told, if they suited up these days and ran on the field, they would be flat run over.  Hamstrings would be pulled, arms would be broken, and dreams would be dashed.

This story is not far from the average Christian.  You see, many Christians can point to a time earlier in their life when they were actively involved in their faith.  They shared the Gospel with friends.  They trained each and ever day in prayer and in bible study.  They wanted to grow in their faith and be useful and helpful for the Kingdom of God.  But just as many high school athletes give up their dream and move on to careers, so do many believers.  Oh, they still mix the occasional prayer and study like the old high school athlete mixes in a run here and there, but the days of conditioning for work in the kingdom are long gone.  And just like our former football player, if many Christians actively engaged in the work of the Kingdom right now, they would get their butt kicked because they haven’t trained in scripture and the word in so long.  So many Christians today are weak in their efforts of sharing the Gospel and susceptible to all manners of bad teaching because they just aren’t training.  The problem is that just like, jock who lives vicariously through the NFL each Sunday, so do many Christians.  They observe worship each Sunday, talk about it, and maybe even critique, but are they in the game?  Many are not.

This just should not be.  Each and every Christian is called to a vigorous and rigorous training each and ever day in the scriptures and prayer.  But here is where the analogy ends.  The goal of our training is not so we can be superstar Christians playing in the starting lineup or getting our face on a Sportscenter highlight.  We pursue the scriptures and pursue prayer because that is where we find Jesus.  And in the finding of Jesus each and every day, He prepares us for the life of the Kingdom: both its proclamation and its defense.

Jesus is the end goal of your faith –not the ability to pummel someone with the scriptures.

Jesus is the end goal of your study – not the flexing of your theological muscles.

Jesus is the end goal of your obedience – not the acquiring of the elements of self-righteousness

Jesus is the end goal of your theology – not the ability to bad mouth the folks in the other camp.

And you know what?  Jesus is the end goal of defending your heart against bad theology.  The folks that Paul warns against are not just promoting doctrinal differences.  Leading people away from the heart of Christian theology ultimately leads people away from Jesus.  Bad theology always tries to pull people away from the person and work of Christ.  If you want to protect yourself while enjoying your Savior all the more, find Him in the scriptures where His life is clearly portrayed and explained.  Now next week, we are going to pick up these thoughts focusing on the ideas of being wise in what is good and innocent and what is evil, but for now, walk away with thought.  The scriptures principally teach what you are to believe about God and what God requires of you in response.  The Bible teaches you of Jesus and what the life of following Him looks like.  Neglecting such a great treasure is neglecting the open face meeting of Jesus Christ in your heart and mind.  Let’s not be those people.  Let’s not be former High School athletes reliving the dream each Sunday.  Let’s be people who are passionate about Jesus and lovers of His word.

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June 2, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , ,

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