Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Serpents and Doves

As Paul is closing out his letter to the Romans he injects a sharp warning.  It really gives us the sense of the intense amount of love and concern that the Apostle had for the church.  He loved them enough to warn them of dangers that face not only that church but all churches.  He loved them enough to tell them how to protect the church from false doctrine.  He is very well acquainted with the challenges that churches face with regards to Satan’s schemes of false doctrine combined with man’s weakness of the flesh pertaining to sin, so he offers up a stern warning.
Romans 16:17-20 - 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. 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. 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. 20 The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
- Romans 16:17 -

There is a real danger that Satan poses to the purity of a church and it comes when he recruits and deceives someone into acting as a spy and dissident among the believers.  Someone who has given their mind over to or is flirting with false doctrines… the intention of Satan there is vicious.

It is to get that person to spread the heresy and false doctrine so that people are deceived further and either begin believing false things about God or Christ or the Holy Spirit… or Salvation… all things that are crucial to Christianity.

Paul is not concerned with secondary issues, he’s dealt with how we handle those already (See Romans 14).  Here he is dealing with how we deal with heresy and apostasy.  It is a very loving thing for him to warn about and it is a very loving thing for a church to practice.  Godly love is what Paul is showing and Godly love doesn’t rejoice in unrighteousness, it confronts it out of love. (1 Corinthians 13:4-6; Ephesians 4:15)

His warning is two fold:  Watch out for those who 1.) Cause divisions & 2.) Create obstacles contrary to the doctrine you’ve been taught.

You see, this happens all too often I’m afraid.  And the longer error is permitted to exist and be taught in a church, the more unhealthy that church becomes…As I said, this isn’t dealing with secondary matters or matters of opinion and preference… This is dealing with things that are blatantly offensive to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Paul’s warning is warranted because the danger posed to the church by someone holding to or teaching a false doctrine is not some rare occurrence.  It is a danger every day.  Satan is always after the minds of those within the church because he wants to destroy what he can.  That’s why the Apostle already exhorted them to be renewed daily by God’s Word. (Romans 12:1-2)

With the introduction of a false doctrine you also get divisions amongst the church because inevitably that deceiver will be able to find someone to follow them.  What are those false doctrines?  Paul identifies them as “obstacles” that are contrary to the sound doctrine that they’ve been taught. (2 Timothy 1:13-14)  Hold fast to sound doctrine.  Hold fast to the pure Gospel! 

Now, the push back from the liberal mind is that this mentality is narrow-minded.  They say ‘We need to have more of an open-mind and let people interpret the Bible in whatever manner suits them.’

But what that really invites is not unity but chaos!  You can’t make the statement that there is no standard of truth without invalidating your own statement.  If we can’t know absolute truth, and truth becomes subjective to my interpretation, then even the statement that “truth is subjective” is an absolute statement… and so you can’t make it… That is, IF truth is subjective.

But Jesus Christ declared Himself to be THE truth (John 14:6).  And with that claim and many others like it He eliminates the myth that truth is subjective or relative... rather its absolute, sure, & found in Christ alone.

Hold fast to sound doctrine!  To not heed this word, Paul equates with being ashamed of the gospel.  Truly that’s what it is.  Those who have been ‘taught sound doctrine’ who then teach false doctrine or believe false doctrine are not only woefully misguided and deceived, they are ashamed of the true Gospel.

They must be ashamed of Jesus because why else would they feel the need to altar His word?  Look earlier in 2 Timothy 1.
2 Timothy 1:8-12 - Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, 9 who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10 and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, 11 for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, 12 which is why I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.
Preaching false doctrine and a false gospel is cowardice of the worst form.  We are not to tolerate those who teach false doctrine.  No, Paul says here in our text this morning that we are to mark out those who cause division and create obstacles.  To name them and avoid them for the benefit of the church of Jesus Christ.
Matthew 7:15-20 - “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
Jesus taught, beware of the wolves.  The wolves will come looking like sheep.  Looking like born again children of God.  We recognize them by their fruit.  Bad fruit like wicked doctrine and wicked works.  They create obstacles for people by adding works to salvation as the Gnostics did in the Apostle John’s day.  Or they reduce the Gospel to a simple prayer and never mention sin or the need for repentance.

- Romans 16:18 -

Those individuals are looking to please themselves… to fulfill and serve their own appetites and not Christ… if they refuse to repent of their error, then they are not born again Christians… They hate the Gospel… they are enemies of God.

Philippians 3:19 says that their end is destruction, not eternal life in Heaven with the Savior.  They have set their minds on earthly things. (Jude 12-13)  Many false teachers will know a great deal of Scripture.  They may have devoted their life to the study of theology… however, because they are not truly born again they do not apply scripture to their life… they bend it to fit themselves rather than being transformed by it.  Because they claim to know God and they know some about God they seem legitimate… but because they deny truth the Scriptures say it would be better for them to have never been born.

Now, the true picture of false teachers is a frightful one to us.  We see their heresies as ugly and disastrous things and rightly so, for so they are.  And we would think that picking out this type of person would be easy… That maybe they’d have a deformity or a hunch back of some sort!

However, Paul says that in their deceiving they use smooth talk and flattery and they aim to deceive those who are not well grounded in the faith… to those who are naïve, as our text says. They are beautiful to the ears with their lies.  It sounds good to some.  They are very good at doing what they do because they are following and serving Satan who is the great deceiver… the father of lies.

So it is something we must carefully consider.  As the Bereans did (Acts 17:11), we are to test everything we hear against the Scriptures to be sure it is truth.  These false teachers deceive the “naïve”.  The spiritually immature… Now, that’s a humbling thought isn’t it?  Many often over estimate their lever of maturity thinking that they will easily be able to pick out falsehoods… but it is at those times when we let our guards down that we open ourselves up to deception.  (2 Timothy 4:3-5)

We must be discerning.  We must discern between true and false teachers and true and false teachings.  We must!  We must because the time is coming, and I would submit that time is here already, when people will not endure sound teaching!  They won’t!  They will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.  They will turn away from listening to the truth and the result will be that they give their minds over to myths.

Thinking themselves wise, they become fools…  It is for this reason that Peter exhorted the Christians in 1 Peter 5:
1 Peter 5:6-11 - Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7 casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. 8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. 10 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.
Now, Paul goes on to commend them for already having this discerning practice in place, but also then he explains how we go about detecting error and shunning it and also how we find the truths that we embrace.

Now, this is crucial because all too often we stop short at just the command to be discerning and we go out on witch hunts exploring the errors so that we can stop them.  And while we must stop them, as we’ve established, God has a prescribed way about which we do it so that error is marked and the body of Christ is edified at the same time.

 - Romans 16:19 -

What is the best and really only way to be able to mark out those false doctrines?  Those false teachers?  Paul makes it very clear with two imperatives.  1.) Be wise as to what is good  2.) Be innocent as to what is evil.

Is he suggesting that we shouldn’t be knowledgeable of the false doctrine that exists out there?  Absolutely not!  On the contrary, he is encouraging us to be so knowledgeable about truth and good that evil and false things stand out clearly to be avoided!

If we don’t study well and seek to be, as Paul says, “wise” in that which is good, we will have a very hard time distinguishing truth from error on this and many other issues.

So how do we know true Doctrine about God from false?  By studying the truth about God even more!  It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been a Christian, you should never stop studying the Bible… never stop sharpening your discerning skills.  To not do so would be like expecting a knife to maintain its sharp blade without sharpening it ever… The relationship that our studying Scripture has to discernment is that we can best know error by knowing truth.

By dwelling on what is true… by dwelling on the beauty of the Gospel… we will learn discernment.  Not because it will teach us to go on mean spirited witch hunts, but because the truth will be ever so more and more clear that when error surfaces it can be quickly done away with.  Further we will love the truth more and will decry error quickly to preserve truth!

It is shocking to see how easily deception enters into our midst undetected these days.  If you go to your local Christian bookstore you will find such a mix of books teaching sound doctrine and false doctrine.  You cannot make the error of assuming that simply because it is sold at a Christian retailer that it is Christian! 

Don’t let someone else be discerning for you, it is your duty.  How does it happen that people are deceived?  They stop searching out the Scriptures for themselves and give themselves over to whatever sounds good to their ear.  Tim Challies – “A discerning person will know that he must focus his heart upon what is true and pure and lovely, having confidence that in doing this God will bless him with the ability to expose darkness.”

We find that these words from Tim are not a new thought from him, but rather a clear understanding of the call placed on all Christians. (1 Corinthians 14:20)  Jesus warned Christians of the importance of being alert to the false teachings that will be spouted from the wolves…
Matthew 10:16 - Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
Wise like a serpent.  Not the deceptive image of the serpent that we commonly associate with Satan, but wise like a serpent knowing when to run away from danger or when to attack the thing posing that danger… but as innocent as a dove.  In other words, Jesus calls for Christians to be ever-growing disciples… Disciples who are maturing and becoming more and more proficient in their study of God’s Word.

That’s how we are to be when it comes to what is good… to what is true!  However, when it comes to evil we are to be innocent as doves.  Have nothing to do with evil and falsehoods.  Don’t “try” falsehoods out to see if you like them.  Don’t tolerate falsehood just because you like the way it makes you feel.

Some people say, 'Well it sounds good to me and is encouraging and positive so I’m going to experiment with it.  It can't hurt.'  Emphatically we must say,  NO!  We must be innocent… blameless in those things!  Having nothing to do with them.

We are not to make even a beginning of evil!  Our discerning efforts shouldn’t be found in truing out the false, rather, they should be found in knowing truth more clearly and deeply so that by contrast we don’t fall for the smooth talking deceiver instead we see them for the vile, dangerous thing that it is!

However, the duty of discernment and the duty of defending the truth of the Gospel is not with out a price!  The more love you have for the Savior, the more you will be hated by this world. (John 15:18-20)  Be prepared brethren, should you decide to take up this mantle and begin marking out the false teachings and their teachers… be prepared, you will quickly make enemies.  Know that it is not ultimately YOU they hate, but rather the truth and the One whom you serve.  They hated first Christ, they will also hate you.  If the world loves you, it is probably because you love the darkness of evil and false and not the truth of Jesus Christ. (Matthew 5:11-12)

In being persecuted for Christ’s sake, rejoice!  You are among great company!  In defending the purity of the truth of Jesus Christ you are glorifying God and storing up for yourselves treasures in Heaven!  Paul goes on in verse 20 to encourage Christians to pursue that which he has just laid out in the preceding verses.

- Romans 16:20 -

He reassures them that though the world does in fact hate them for their love of truth and marking out of evil… even though it will make existence in this life more difficult… take heart!  Be encouraged, because God will soon crush Satan under your feet!

Those who are despising you, those who are creating divisions and obstacles… they are believing the deceptions of Satan, but you take heart and continue to be wise in what is good even though that is unpopular.  Gazing upon the Savior all the more.  Why?  Because HE is your peace!  He is what we hope in! (1 Peter 1:3-7)

Jesus Christ is your focus!  God will soon bring to justice all those who blaspheme His Name and persecute His children.  Because He will crush Satan!  Christian, one day… one day our struggle will be over!  Spiritual warfare against Satan and his deceptions will end one day for we will stand in Heaven, before our God… where no evil will be permitted to enter!  So we continue persevering in Christ!  (1 Timothy 6:12-19)

God has ensured the ultimate victory over Satan!  So our toil in Him is not ever in vain!  Then this verse ends by reminding them that they will be able to do these things… to stand up under trial and persevere, because the sufficient grace of the Lord Jesus Christ will be with them! (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)  We need the grace of Christ to strengthen us, we need it to give us wisdom, we need it daily to sustain and guide us!

Christian brethren, are you doing the work of the Bereans?  Are you studying to show yourself approved; a worker who is not ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth? (2 Timothy 2:15-19)  Are you making it your duty to be wise in what is good and innocent in what is evil?

If so, take heart!  For it is Christ’s grace working in you to do these things!  Continue holding fast to the truth of Jesus Christ!  That which is good and pure and right!

If not, repent!  Gaze intently on the beauty of the Savior who has been crucified and risen to save you from your sin… even the sin of being ashamed of His Name.  Let the awe filled wonder of what He did for your sake on that cross humble you and lead you to cry out to Him for forgiveness and strength to obey His call.  Are you following a known and marked false teacher because it makes you feel good?  Repent!  False doctrine, no matter how sweet the taste, is vile poison!

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