Romans 16:17 & 18 “I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.”
We would all agree that the primary responsibility of parents is to love their children, supporting them constantly, encouraging them to live god-fearing lives, but we all recognise there are times when parents must warn their children of danger. “Watch out! If a stranger asks you to get into his car, you must never get in. If he offers you sweets, or if he says he knows your Mum and Dad still you must never get into his car. It is dangerous because there are a few extremely wicked people in the world. Tell the stranger that your parents NEVER allow you to get in a car with someone you don’t know.”
So it is with the message of the New Testament. It is the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and it speaks of grace abounding to the chief of sinners, full of the kindness and love of our great God and Saviour, but there are also times when notes of warning are sounded and our text is one of those.
1. BOTH OUR LORD AND HIS APOSTLES WARNED THE CHURCH TO ‘WATCH OUT’.
The preeminent message of Jesus Christ to his disciples was to love their neighbours as themselves, to love even their enemies, and to overcome evil with good, but there were times when our Lord said such things to his followers as, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matt. 7:15). One of the groups of people Jesus judged to be false prophets were the Pharisees and Jesus said to them in the hearing of his disciples, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. Woe to you, blind guides!” (Matt. 23:13-16). So the Lord Christ put the church on its guard. Watch out!
Jesus’ apostles also had the same blend of loving teaching and clear warning. Peter warned his readers, “First of all you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires” (2 Peter 3:3). Jude also warns them to watch out, “certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men . . .” (Jude 4). John the apostle of love warns the church, “Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch out . . .” (2 John 7&8). The writer to the Hebrews says to them, “Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings” (Hebs. 13:9). James tells them, “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred towards God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (James 4:4). The ecumenical movement is ominously silent about such warnings. How different was J.C.Ryle. One splendid collection of his writings has been called, Warnings to the Churches.
I have given to you the larger New Testament context in which we place this text in which the apostle Paul tells the congregation in Rome to watch out. These words of his are not a rarity amongst his letter. There are other places where the apostle instructs the churches to avoid false teachers. Consider his second letter to the Thessalonians in which Paul writes these words, “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us . . . If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother” (2 Thess. 3:6, 14&15).
There is also a memorable farewell scene in Ephesus at the harbour as Paul is sailing away leaving the people of God, and he gives the elders a powerful charge to be faithful shepherds of the church of God. In it he warns them, “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on guard!” (Acts 20:29-31). When new teachers arrived in town how scrupulous those elders were to find out what they believed, and how carefully they weighed their message when a teacher first stood behind the pulpit. Each elder was thinking in his heart, “I wonder if this is one of those savage wolves whose purpose in coming here is to destroy the flock?” Good shepherds!
It was just the same in Rome, Paul prefacing his words with a note of urgency, “I urge you, brothers . . .” he says, increasing the solemnity of his warning. They must never become complacent. This was very important to Paul because he had had first hand experience of a church utterly devastated by the activities of false teaching. These Christians in Rome had to see hazard lights flashing whenever they were confronted with anything “contrary to the teaching [they had] learned” (v.17).
It is fascinating to read in the letter to the Philippians of Paul’s response to certain irascible Christian teachers in Rome. They had seized the opportunity of Paul being in jail to openly complain about him, and to become preachers of Christ in the churches but always with a spirit of envy towards Paul because of the great place he had in people’s hearts. They were creating trouble out of their jealousy for Paul, and part of the reason they had in preaching Christ was to defy Paul. The gospel message they were preaching was true, but the spirit they displayed in their activities was ugly. Paul’s response to their ministries was quite amazing. He tells us that he could rejoice that Christ was being preached, even though it was with these foolish and unworthy motives. In other words Paul evaluated their ministry by the same criteria as he is giving to the Romans in our text. Judge everything by the teaching learned from the apostles. As long as that gospel was being proclaimed Paul wouldn’t make a fuss.
Let me preach to you some words of the founder of the seminary in Philadelphia where I was privileged to study. It was there that I first read these words forty five years ago, and the gist of what I read has become written indelibly in my mind. I’ve never forgotten their happy lucidity and I trust I never will. This is what Dr. J. Gresham Machen says;
The tolerance of Paul was not indiscriminate. He displayed no tolerance, for example, in Galatia. There, too, there were rival preachers. But Paul had no tolerance for them. “But though we,” he said, “or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Gal. i. 8). What is the reason for the difference in the apostle’s attitude in the two cases? What is the reason for the broad tolerance in Rome, and the fierce anathemas in Galatia?
The answer is perfectly plain. In Rome Paul was tolerant because there the content of the message that was being proclaimed by the rival teachers was true; in Galatia he was intolerant, because there the content of the rival message was false. In neither case did personalities have anything to do with Paul’s attitude. No doubt the motives of the Judaizers in Galatia were far from pure, and in an incidental way Paul does point out their impurity. But that was not the ground of his opposition. The Judaizers no doubt were morally far from perfect, but Paul’s opposition to them would have been exactly the same if they had all been angels from heaven.
His opposition was based altogether upon the falsity of their teaching; they were substituting for the one true gospel a false gospel which was no gospel at all. It never occurred to Paul that a gospel might be true for one man and not for another; the blight of pragmatism had never fallen upon his soul. Paul was convinced of the objective truth of the gospel message, and devotion to that truth was the great passion of his life. Christianity for Paul was not only a life, but also a doctrine, and logically the doctrine came first.
But what was the difference between the teaching of Paul and the teaching of the Judaizers? What was it that gave rise to the stupendous polemic of the Epistle to the Galatians? To the modern Church the difference would have seemed to be a mere theological subtlety. About many things the Judaizers were in perfect agreement with Paul. The Judaizers believed that Jesus was the Messiah; there is not a shadow of evidence that they objected to Paul’s lofty view of the person of Christ. Without the slightest doubt, they believed that Jesus had really risen from the dead. They believed, moreover, that faith in Christ was necessary to salvation. But the trouble was, they believed that something else was also necessary; they believed that what Christ had done needed to be pieced out by the believer’s own effort to keep the Law.
From the modern point of view the difference would have seemed to be very slight. Paul as well as the Judaizers believed that the keeping of the law of God, in its deepest import, is inseparably connected with faith. The difference concerned only the logical – not even, perhaps, the temporal order of three steps. Paul said that a man (1) first believes on Christ, (2) then is justified before God, (3) then immediately proceeds to keep God’s law. The Judaizers said that a man (1) believes on Christ and (2) keeps the law of God the best he can, and then (3) is justified.
The difference would seem to modern “practical” Christians to be a highly subtle and intangible matter, hardly worthy of consideration at all in view of the large measure of agreement in the practical realm. What a splendid cleaning up of the Gentile cities it would have been if the Judaizers had succeeded in extending to those cities the observance of the Mosaic law, even including the unfortunate ceremonial observances! Surely Paul ought to have made common cause with teachers who were so nearly in agreement with him; surely he ought to have applied to them the great principle of Christian unity.
As a matter of fact, however, Paul did nothing of the kind; and only because he (and others) did nothing of the kind does the Christian Church exist to-day. Paul saw very clearly that the difference between the Judaizers and himself was the difference between two entirely distinct types of religion; it was the difference between a religion of merit and a religion of grace. If Christ provides only a part of our salvation, leaving us to provide the rest, then we are still hopeless under the load of sin. For no matter how small the gap which must be bridged before salvation can be attained, the awakened conscience sees clearly that our wretched attempt at goodness is insufficient even to bridge that gap. The guilty soul enters again into the hopeless reckoning with God, to determine whether we have really done our part. And thus we groan again under the old bondage of the law.
Such an attempt to piece out the work of Christ by our own merit, Paul saw clearly, is the very essence of unbelief; Christ will do everything or nothing, and the only hope is to throw ourselves unreservedly on His mercy and trust Him for all.
Paul certainly was right. The difference which divided him from the Judaizers was no mere theological subtlety, but concerned the very heart and core of the religion of Christ. “Just as I am without one plea, But that Thy blood was shed for me” – that was what Paul was contending for in Galatia; that hymn would never have been written if the Judaizers had won. And without the thing which that hymn expresses there is no Christianity at all” (J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, Eerdmans, 1923, pp.22-25).
2. DIVISIONS AND STUMBLING BLOCKS ARE THE RESULT OF ERROR.
So Paul tells the congregation in Rome to watch out for any teaching, any doctrine or practice that is different from the doctrines and behaviour that they have learned from the apostles. What happens when false teaching and aberrant behaviour is brought into a congregation in the name of Christ? See what Paul says, that they “cause divisions and put obstacles in your way” (v.17). What is to be our response? The N.I.V. translates Paul’s exhortation, “Watch out” for them. The Authorized Version translates it, “Mark them.” In other words, identify them. Paul writes to Timothy in his first letter and the closing verses of chapter one; “holding on to faith and a good conscience. Some have rejected these and so have shipwrecked their faith. Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme” (I Tim. 1:19&20). Paul is not the perfect English gentleman who gives sly hints but is too good mannered to name names. Paul doesn’t play around making everyone feel suspicious about everybody else; “I am talking about Hymenaeus and Alexander whose teachings are blasphemous,” he says. Paul names names. He repeats this warning about Hymenaeus in his second letter to Timothy because he hadn’t ceased his activities, “Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have wandered away from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some” (2 Tim. 2:17&18). Again in the same letter Paul warns Timothy, “Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done. You too should be on your guard against him, because he strongly opposed our message” (2 Ti. 4:14&15). Paul identified false teachers by name.
Many of you know what has happened in the last two years through the publication of the book The Lost Message of Jesus, by Steve Chalke, a frequent speaker at Spring Harvest conferences influencing thousands of people. Chalke would claim that he wrote this attack on the cross of our Lord as part of his service of Jesus Christ, but Paul says in our text that people teaching what is contrary to the New Testament are not serving our Lord Jesus Christ. They are in fact serving their own appetites, and Paul does not mean sensuous appetites but serving self – self-opinion rather than Christ. When you say, “But I think of the cross like this . . .” or “I believe Jesus died because he wouldn’t give up what he believed come what may,” then you are serving your own opinions, your own appetite for self-gratification, rather than serving the God who has given us both his Son and his word – which explains why he first gave his Son to the cross of Golgotha.
Now in his book Chalke charges the Christian church with lovelessness, in fact the book is a sustained polemic against evangelical Christianity. Chalke’s heroes lie beyond the Christian pale; all his villains are in fact Christians. He reserves his praise for such figures as Princess Diana and John Cleese, while he condemns churches, preachers and theologians. He commends the Monty Python film The Life of Brian and he damns Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.
But Chalke’s most serious hang-ups relate to the doctrine of sin. Steve Chalke deplores the idea of Original Sin and he notes contemptuously that while we have spent centuries poring over the Bible and written huge theological tomes in an effort to prove the inherent sinfulness of all mankind, we have missed one startling point: “Jesus believed in original goodness.” For Chalke it is as if the Fall never happened and man is still in Paradise, deserving the accolade “very good”.
Maybe some Christian preachers have laid too much stress on “sinners”. Maybe they have relied too heavily on fear as a motive for pressing sinners into the kingdom of God. Yet it’s clear that Jesus himself saw his mission as aimed not at the righteous, but at sinners. If human beings are as noble as Chalke portrays them they have no need of a physician. In any case, isn’t there a marvellous irony in Chalke claiming that the words of Christ in Mark 1:15, “The kingdom of God is at hand” are the central message of the gospel? Because didn’t Jesus immediately add, “Therefore repent and believe the gospel”? Doesn’t that make Jesus himself open to Chalke’s charge “that the only way evangelicals can unlock the Christian life is by making people feel guilty”? The whole Bible holds that man is essentially fallen; we take to sin like ducks to water. Man’s unhappiness is not caused by external damage so much as an internal impulse to become petty emperors. The depth of our sin proves the height of God’s love; only the great sacrifice of the cross could rescue us.
But Chalke’s shallow understanding of sin, is followed by equally shallow teaching on the atonement. Chalke is weary of the evangelical obsession with preaching “Christ crucified”. He regards the idea of penal substitution as immoral (“It is a form of cosmic child abuse”). Chalke sees the cross exclusively as a symbol of love. There, he says, Jesus absorbed all the forces of hate. He uses this analogy, referring to a battered wife whom he calls Carol, who is the victim of an unfaithful husband. She saves her marriage by taking all the pain to herself and granting her husband full pardon. So, Chalke says, the cross is a demonstration of just how far God as Father and Jesus as his Son are prepared to go to prove their love.
Chalke’s erroneous view of the cross is at least a thousand years old and probably older. How can the cross be a mere demonstration: a mere grand gesture? If death is the wages of sin (as it surely is) and if Christ actually died under the condemnation passed by Roman and Jewish courts, then the cross is a death penalty that Jesus is paying – in its very nature. Jesus’ penal suffering is not a theory, but a fact. The Pauline teaching of substitutionary atonement adds not a single iota to the horror of what Jesus endured. The New Testament doctrine is simply explaining the gospel narrative which tells us that Jesus the sinless one suffered what sin deserved.
As Principal Macleod wrote, “We shall never understand the cross unless we see it not only as an action of Christ the Son, but also as an action of God the Father. How can the sacrificing of his only Son demonstrate the Father’s love? Suppose we, for no reason, did this to our sons; would crucifying our sons demonstrate our love? The cross cannot be a demonstration of the divine love unless there is something in the relationship between God and man to which the death of his Son was the only answer. With all the power of his soul, Jesus prayed that the cup might pass from him. With all the ardour of his being, the Father wished he could grant that prayer. But both were constrained by a self-imposed necessity. The Son of Man must suffer. ‘Die he . . . or justice must.’” There is something in the very nature of who God is that requires that the wages of sin be death and without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin.
Yet there is now set before the church this grave error denying that in our place condemned the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ stood, and that opinion destroys what lies at the heart of the Christian message, and yet it is promoted and defended by Steve Chalke. It is contrary to the teaching of the apostles which the church has learned from the Bible. So what does the Holy Spirit tell us to do? Initially, to be on guard for every appearance of error, for false teachers are bound to turn up, and we must watch out for them. Then it prophesies that the consequences of such erroneous preaching will be division. Error puts obstacles in the way of mission and worship and co-operation in Christian work.
Has that happened? Yes. When? Many times, in fact wherever error spreads. For example at the Reformation when Luther pointed out to the Roman church from the Bible its errors and that church had the opportunity then to turn back again to the New Testament, but instead of that it burned at the stake hundreds of people who taught what Luther and the New Testament contain. What was the consequence of that false teaching? Divisions and obstacles put in the way of the church making an impact on the world.
Has that occurred anywhere else? Yes, last month. In what way? Many of you know. For fourteen years the Universities and Colleges Christian Unions and the Keswick Minnistries have worked with Spring Harvest in organizing a week of Bible teaching for students called Word Alive. The Word Alive committee take seriously what Paul says in our text, “I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people” (vv. 17&18). So they have obeyed the Word of God and have quietly prevented Steve Chalke from speaking at the Word Alive conference. As a consequence last September the Word Alive Committee was called to a meeting by Spring Harvest and told that as they refused to have Steve Chalke preaching at Word Alive its partnership with Spring Harvest had to be terminated. From now on Spring Harvest will be holding its own Easter student conference in Minehead with Steve Chalke speaking.
What will happen there? What Paul tells us in our text as happening, “smooth talk and flattery [will] deceive the minds of naive people”. People will go away saying, “I don’t agree with everything that Steve Chalke says, but I think he’s had a raw deal from Word Alive. Who do they think they are stopping sincere Christians from sharing their views with others? Look at all the good work Steve Chalke does.”
I wonder what would happen here in this congregation? I think of a famous chapel in London, the centre of so much that was achieved by the blessing of God during the forties and fifties and sixties. Today it is a mere pentecostal church. I am saying that if a man secretly holding this heresy became your pastor, and he had personality, and was handsome and articulate, and he visited people when they were ill, and had a sense of humour, what hope would there be for the little group of evangelical people in the congregation who longed for the preaching of the cross of Christ from the Bible? If they opposed this teaching and bemoaned the absence of the blood of Jesus, they would be made to seem an intolerant gang of behind-the-times puritan cranks; loveless fundamentalists, figures of scorn, people to be pitied, utterly lacking in the Spirit of Jesus. That capitulation of this pulpit would have been achieved in part as a result of listening to smooth talk and flattery. The naïve have again been deceived as Paul says here in our text.
We evangelicals are treated by modernists as if we were driven by our feelings, particularly the feeling of fear. They believe that we are fearful of change, fearful of unfamiliar people and practices, and fearful of the Holy Spirit doing a new thing. So they think that if they treat us with some kindly and tolerant patience those fears of ours will gradually ease, and we’ll no longer be so rigid. We find that whole attitude condescending and frustrating. We do not believe in the gospel because it is true for us. The dying of Jesus and his rising from the dead is not simply true for us; it is true, full stop. The objective events of a Friday and Sunday 2,000 years ago are not projections of emotion but events in space and time as real as you reading these words now.
I was reading this week some words of Hugh Latimer, the greatest English preacher at the Reformation, burnt at the stake just over 450 years ago. He said, “I never saw so little discipline as now-a-days. Men will all be masters; they will be masters, and not disciples.” So the link between Spring Harvest and Word Alive has at last been broken, and not before time, and the followers of Chalke’s views are giving him a platform while the UCCF and the Keswick Ministries are going to hold a Word Alive conference next April here in Wales in Pwllheli without Steve Chalke or anyone else who believes what he believes.
So what happens when false teaching is allowed to continue in the churches? What does Paul says here? It causes divisions; “watch out for those who cause divisions” (v.17). It is error that causes division, not evangelicalism. Evangelicalism is simply historical Christianity. It is the faith of the Bible, the faith of the great confessions, and evangelicalism is called upon to take the words of our text very seriously and “keep away” from false teachers. It means that we must guard our ministries. I am still delighted to sign a confession of faith when I am invited to speak at a university Christian Union. I signed such a statement almost fifty years ago and I believe those truths yet. It also means that we are not permitted to sell in our Christian Book Shop any books that promoted erroneous ideas of the death of Jesus Christ. Let them open their own book shops. The New Testament requires such vigilance from every single disciple of Christ. It is not taking a stand like this that divides the church it is the leaven of false teaching.
Modernism and the cults and sacramentalism put obstacles in the way of successful mission and cooperation and credibility before the watching world, and yet the modernists are the ones who badger us for joint meetings. They want annual occasions of praying for Christian Unity while at the same time refusing to come to weekly prayer meetings for revival. They are the ones who will not deal with false teaching. All this deceives the minds of naïve people. “Look at the evangelicals who refuse to come to meetings for unity. Didn’t Jesus pray that we should be one?” Yes one in truth. We are not divisive. We are victims of repressive tolerance. The ruling elites of the modernist dominated denominations will permit us to pastor little churches in our wrong-headed, stubborn and backward way as long as we grant their right to be open-minded and progressive. We cannot do that; we are unable to support meetings in which those who love error and condemn historical Christianity are considered to be messengers of Jesus Christ standing at the same pulpit as those who hold to Biblical Christianity. They have no place there. We are told to “keep away” from them by the Holy Ghost. We must obey God rather than men. So watch out for those who cause divisions! Keep away from them!
13th May 2007 GEOFF THOMAS