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. 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. 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. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Timothy, my fellow worker, greets you; so do Lucius and Jason and Sosipater, my kinsmen. I Tertius, who wrote this letter, greet you in the Lord. Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer, and our brother Quartus, greet you. – Romans 16:17-23 ESV
As long as we live in this world, we will face opposition, from within and from without. Paul had a lot of experience dealing with both. But the one he seemed to warn against the most was the inside job, those who posed as brothers and sisters of Christ, but who ended up causing division and disunity. In his other letters, Paul referred to them as false apostles, describing them as “those who are looking for an opportunity to boast that their work is just like ours. These people are false apostles. They are deceitful workers who disguise themselves as apostles of Christ. But I am not surprised! Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no wonder that his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2 Corinthians 11:12-15 NLT). In 2 Corinthians 11:26, he refers to dangers he had faced from “false brothers.” In his letter to the Galatians he described “so-called Christians there—false ones, really—who were secretly brought in. They sneaked in to spy on us and take away the freedom we have in Christ Jesus. They wanted to enslave us and force us to follow their Jewish regulations” (Galatians 2:4 NLT). Paul warned his young protege, Timothy, “Teach these things, Timothy, and encourage everyone to obey them. Some people may contradict our teaching, but these are the wholesome teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. These teachings promote a godly life. Anyone who teaches something different is arrogant and lacks understanding. Such a person has an unhealthy desire to quibble over the meaning of words. This stirs up arguments ending in jealousy, division, slander, and evil suspicions. These people always cause trouble. Their minds are corrupt, and they have turned their backs on the truth. To them, a show of godliness is just a way to become wealthy” (1 Timothy 6:2-5 NLT).
The fact is, there have been and always will be false teachers and false believers in the church. They can be recognized by the character of their teaching. If it does not line up with the teaching of Christ and the writings of the apostles as found in the New Testament, then they are to be avoided like the plague. The difficulty is that, much of the time, their false teaching seems to have a ring of truth to it. And that is intentional. Warren Wiersbe warns, “Satan is the counterfeiter. . . . He has a false gospel (Galatians 1:6-9), preached by false ministers (2 Corinthians 11:13-12), producing false Christians (2 Corinthians 11:26). . . . Satan plants his counterfeits wherever God plants true believers (Matthew 13:38).”
Paul, out of his love for the body of Christ, takes time to warn his readers about those “who cause divisions and create obstacles to the doctrine that you have been taught.” He is talking about the fundamentals of the faith, particularly when it comes to salvation. Anyone who attempts to add anything to the gospel is to be avoided at all costs. If their teaching is Jesus plus anything, they are wrong. Jesus plus works. Jesus plus circumcision. Jesus plus a second blessing. Jesus plus signs and wonders. Jesus plus anything adds up to nothing. It is NOT the gospel as taught by Jesus and His disciples. Paul says these people “serve their own appetites.” They’re in it for selfish reasons, including anything from power and prestige to personal profit. They use smooth talk and flattery. They use clever-sounding words and convincing arguments. But in the end, what they teach is contrary to sound, healthy doctrine and it is divisive. They tear down rather than build up. They create schisms and attempt to splinter healthy congregations. They are not interested in dialogue or debate, but demand their way be the only way.
So Paul says, “I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.” He echoes the words of Jesus when He was sending out His disciples on their first ministry trip without Him. He said, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16 ESV). We need to be wary of those who show up teaching “new truths.” After more than 2,000 years of Christian history and scholarship, there is little that is new under the sun. In fact, much of what shows up in our day as new insights into Jesus, the gospel, the nature of the Church, and so much more, is far from new. They are simply rehashed teachings from centuries past. We live in an age where anything new and innovative is attractive. But Paul would have us be careful and stick with the sound doctrine taught by he and his fellow apostles. We should always be suspect of anything that shows up in the church as “new and improved.” A new view on Jesus is probably a false view. A new gospel, if it veers from the gospel as found in the New Testament, is no gospel at all.
At the end of the day, we must trust in the grace of God to protect us and to keep the gospel message pure. Ultimately, Paul reminds us, He will “crush Satan” under our feet. The truth concerning Jesus and the gospel of God will win out. And in the meantime, we must keep our focus on the matchless, priceless grace of God that saved us and sustains us. We must keep trusting in His way, His Word and His perfect plan for the redemption of the world.