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In this small portion of the last chapter of Romans, the apostle arranges a number of profound and important truths. If we have eyes to see the sweep of redemptive history, we will get it. If we do not, then we are missing some crucial aspects of the gospel.
“Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple. For your obedience is come abroad unto all men. I am glad therefore on your behalf: but yet I would have you wise unto that which is good, and simple concerning evil. And the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen” (Rom. 16:17-20).
Summary of the Text
Paul then pleads with the Romans, and what he asks them to do is identify those who are schismatic, and to have nothing to do with them (v. 17). These are men who, despite their presence within the church, do not serve Jesus Christ, but rather worship their own belly (v. 18). They are deceptive and dangerous (v. 18). Paul knows that the obedience of the Roman church is known to all men (v. 19), and he is glad for this. But at the same time, he has a caution for them—they should be good-wise and evil-simple (v. 19). If they are, then the God of peace will fulfill His glorious promise (Gen. 3:15) through them, and bruise Satan under their feet shortly (v. 20). Paul then pronounces a benediction over them (v. 20).
Division and Dividers
There is a kind of simplistic liberalism that wants to evaluate everything as though right and wrong were not real categories. So if you strike a child, they say, you are simply teaching them violence. Actually, if you spank with a sense of love and justice, then when you spank, you are actually teaching your son not to clock his little sister over the head with his plastic fire truck. This is faux-profundity, like those who think that pro-lifers who support capital punishment are being inconsistent. Let’s see, we support executing the guilty after a fair trial, and oppose executing the innocent who never get a trial. Right, wrong? Guilt, innocence? These are strange words. You tell me who’s being inconsistent.
So they say that if you follow what the apostle says here, and you divide from those who cause divisions, then have you not joined them? Hmmm? But in the world God made, the antithesis is inescapable. This means that you must divide the way God says, or you will divide in another, destructive way. We do not have the option of “not dividing.” We will either divide from the schismatics, or we will divide from those who love Christian unity. There are no other options. There is no way to love the wolves without hating the sheep, and vice versa.
Note the character of these schismatics. First, they cause divisions and offenses. Right and wrong—some are guilty and some are innocent. We are responsible to know which are which. Second, God has given us a way to do this. The measuring rod is the “doctrine” that we “have learned.” What does the Bible say? Third, though these people are in the church they are not of the church. They do not worship Jesus Christ. They do not serve Christ, but rather they serve their own bellies. The rumbling of those bellies gives unction to their eloquence, and so with smooth flatteries, they deceive the hearts of the simple. Anyone who believes that these belly gods have disappeared from the church since Paul’s day is not paying attention . . . or is one of them.
The Right Kind of Simple
Paul says that these smooth talkers deceive the hearts of the simple. And yet in the next breath, he wants our hearts to be a certain kind of simple—simple with regard to evil. We are to be wise in what is good, and simple in the convolutions of evil. Keep it simple. Love God, hate sin. Read the Bible, love your neighbor. Trust in Jesus. Love the good people, fight the bad people. Enroll in the graduate schools of goodness, and repeatedly flunk the kindergartens of sin. In the devil’s kindergarten, you should not even be able to figure out how to hold the crayons.
The God of Peace is a Warrior
The glorious promise of verse 20 is packed with implications that we must draw out. First, we conquer evil, crushing it, bruising it, because the God of peace enables us to do so. Remember the earlier point about dividing from division. There is no contradiction when the God of peace crushes the serpent head of all discord. Peace is brought into this sorry world by means of conquest, and not with a therapeutic group hug. Secondly, notice how Paul shows that the Messianic promise that the seed of the woman would bruise the serpent’s head is a promise that is not limited to Jesus Himself. It is partially fulfilled by means of the body of Christ—it is “your feet.” Third, Paul says that this will happen “shortly.” The Roman Christians he was writing to did not have to wait for the Day of Judgment for this to happen. Fourth, we see here how Satan is connected by the New Testament writers with the events in the Garden of Eden. Genesis doesn’t mention Satan by name, but Paul places him there. Other writers do the same (1 Jn. 3:10, 12; Rev. 20:2). And fifth, the fulfillment of this promise is connected to the instructions he has just given. If we mark and identify the sowers of discord, pursuing goodness with deep and profound wisdom, and avoiding evil with a very simple revulsion, then what? Then the God of peace is at work in our midst, and He will use our feet to crush the serpent’s head.
Good Words and Fair Speeches . . . from Satan
Emissaries of Hell don’t show up at your door like they were straight out of a zombie movie. They don’t say, “Hello, I am here from the devil, and I have come to lead you astray. Come with me to the hellish inferno.” Satanism is not characterized by severed goats’ heads, pentagrams on the floor, troubled teenagers, and guttering candles. Jesus was tempted to become a Satan worshipper (Matt. 4:8) , and He was tempted by something glorious. The apostle Paul tells us that Satan is an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14), and it is no wonder if his ministers come off looking like ministers of righteousness (2 Cor. 11:15). So what does not crush disturbances in the church? It is the conviction that certain people have that their wants and desires are right, righteous, true, and holy. They don’t want that deeper right than being right. The only serpent they want to be crushed is out there.
But the godly plea is this—bruise in us the serpent’s head.