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Severe Warnings of Danger

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Romans 16:17–20

As Paul wraps up his letter to the Romans, he gives us two timely and urgent cautions. We are to watch out for false teachers in our midst who seek to lead us astray, and we are to seek wisdom in what is good and innocence with regard to the evil all around us.


We have finally set sail on our Wisdom Journey into the final chapter of Romans. And in the first sixteen verses, we found it remarkably encouraging how Paul commended and greeted nearly thirty people by name. It was a reminder that God knows all of us by name.

Now at this point, Paul stops rather suddenly to deliver a warning to the church in Rome. It is so sudden that some scholars think these next few verses were added later. There is no reason to believe that at all. Paul is just like you and me. Something came to his mind, and he had to stop what he was writing and add it to his closing remarks.

In verses 17-20, Paul interrupts his personal greetings and delivers important warnings about two deadly diversions for believers—then and now.

The first warning is this: Watch out for false teachers! This is what he writes in verses 17-18:

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.

False teachers are dangerous for at least two reasons, which Paul mentions here. First, they divide the church body (verse 17), and second, they deceive believers (verse 18).

How do you spot a false teacher? Paul tells us in verse 17 as he makes a connection between false teachers and their teaching, which creates “obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught.”

The word for “obstacles” here is skandalon. We get our word scandal from it. Now Paul is not thinking of moral scandals; he is thinking of doctrinal scandals. A false teacher who adds something to the gospel will trap unsuspecting or younger believers in serious doctrinal error.[1]

To this day, religious teachers add works to faith in Christ alone. Some church leaders teach that you have to be baptized in order to be saved, that salvation is not by faith alone but by faith plus baptism. One group teaches that if you worship on Sunday, your church is following the Antichrist. True salvation, they teach, is faith in God, plus worshiping on Saturday.

The Catholic Church teaches you must perform works of penance and partake in the Mass and other spiritual exercises in order to be saved. In other words, faith in Christ is not sufficient.

It might be famous pastors, like the late Robert Schuller, who wrote in his book Self-Esteem: The New Reformation that classical theology was wrong in its insistence that theology be “God-centered” instead of “man-centered.” He wrote, “If we follow God’s plan, we will feel good about ourselves and that is success.”[2]

Beloved, that is a false gospel. The apostle Paul wrote, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). That doesn’t sound like self-esteem to me. But Paul then goes on to write, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

Paul is deeply concerned over false teachers who have departed from the truth. And he gives us another clue to discern who these deceivers are here in verse 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.

They flatter their listeners with smooth talk. These false teachers tell their followers that their destiny is just around the corner, that God wants them to be wealthy and healthy. What they need to do is get up in the morning and speak positive things to themselves and then watch as positive results arrive. These false teachers make God submissive to people, rather than people submissive to God.

So, watch out for false teachers.

Paul then delivers another warning: Watch out for a depraved culture! That is another dangerous diversion for the believer. Notice verse 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.

The apostle Paul commends the Roman Christians because their faithfulness to Christ is known by everyone. And he does not just commend them; he celebrates over them, saying, “I rejoice over you.” But that does not stop him from adding this warning.

Paul’s warning has two sides. He wants them to be interested in good things and innocent in evil things.

First, he writes in verse 19, “I want you to be wise as to what is good.” To “be wise” is something you learn by practice. The writer of Hebrews referred to Christians “who because of practice have their senses trained to distinguish between good and evil” (Hebrews 5:14 NASB). Practice does not make you perfect, but it does make you perceptive as to what is truly good.

In contrast, Paul writes in the last part of verse 19 that we are to be “innocent as to what is evil.” He is effectively saying he wants us to be innocent of wrongdoing. You could even say that he wants us to be inexperienced in evil.

I remember a man telling me that I just did not know how to counsel him regarding his sin issue because I did not have enough experience in the world of sin out there. But that is exactly how the Lord wants us to live. Many Christians today dabble in sin, they get too close to sin, they experiment with sin, they try to manage sin. Paul is warning us of the danger of sin.

Beloved, do not be curious about what goes on behind closed doors or what is talked about during the day shift at your job. Walk away from those conversations. Do not be curious about the sin that is available on the internet. Pornography has slain its ten thousands and is a deadly trap. Put up boundaries. Stay away from it.

Be innocent—inexperienced—with evil. Beloved, the more inexperienced you are with sin, the better off you will be.

And here is the wonderful promise for our future: Paul adds in verse 20 that there is a coming day when “the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” No more temptation, no more sin, no more failure—we will be perfected in Christ.

Until then, be perceptive of false teaching, no matter how interesting it might be; and be alert to the danger of sin, no matter how alluring it might seem.

Pastor Steve Farrar wrote in his book Standing Tall about a family who had taken shelter in the basement as a severe storm passed over their town. The radio warned that a tornado had been spotted. When the storm had passed by, the father opened the front door to look at the damage.  A downed power line was still live. It was dancing on the pavement, emitting a shower of sparks in the street just in front of their home. Before the father realized what was happening, his five-year-old daughter had run out near the edge of the lawn, heading for that interesting, alluring, sparkling wire there in the street. He yelled for her to stop. She kept running. He began to run after her, yelling for her to stop. It was as if she did not hear him for the excitement of that sparkling wire. She reached it first and grabbed it and was instantly, tragically, killed.[3]

It is a dangerous thing to ignore severe warnings. And this is exactly what Paul is giving us today. False teaching seems so positive, so helpful. Sin looks so enjoyable, so fulfilling. But in the end, they are deadly and dangerous to our genuine walk with Christ.

Let us make sure we are listening today.

[1] James Montgomery Boice, Romans: An Expositional Commentary, Volume 4 (Baker, 1995), 1929.

[2] Quoted in John MacArthur, Hard to Believe (Thomas Nelson, 2003), 4.

[3] Steve Farrar, Standing Tall (Multnomah Publishers, 1994), 52.

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