In Romans chapter 16 verses 17 through 20, Paul, himself, had picked up the pen in order to identify himself. When letters were sent, in those days, they were often dictated, and the only way that you would know for certain that the person who supposedly was sending the letter was the person who was sending the letter, as he would take the letter up, sign his name and perhaps write a few sentences of the last part of the letter so that you could see his handwriting and that it was, indeed, the person who the letter claimed to be from. It is of vital importance and significance to the spiritual health and welfare of the Roman Christians to listen to what he says, but its also important for our spiritual health and welfare.

The Church must be wary of those who cause divisions by teaching things out of accord with Apostolic doctrine.

Look first at verses 17 and 18, where we see this warning against schismatics, or dividers; those who cause division in the Church. The Church must be wary of those who cause division by teaching things that are out of accord with the apostle's doctrine. Notice that Paul directs this urging, this appeal, not to the elders, but to the whole Church. Look at his language in verse 17: "You brethren." Now, elsewhere, Peter and Paul will make exhortations like this to the elders. It is especially the elders' job to guard the flock. In Romans, chapter 16, verse 17, Paul explicitly directs this exhortation to us: "You brethren," you brothers and sisters in Christ, - the whole congregation - keep a lookout for those who bring division through wrong teaching; dividers, schismatics, and for those who create resistance to right teaching through their wrong teaching, those who are hinderers of the work of the gospel. Yes, elders are to be concerned about that, but every Christian is to be discerning.

Why, suddenly this exhortation? Where is Paul writing from? He's writing from Corinth to Rome. Now, in Corinth, there was division over doctrine in the church. There were already people there who were teaching false doctrine and Paul was having to confront that and here he is, signing his name to this letter, and he thinks, "O my, I don't want that to happen in Rome"!

Paul doesn't say for the church in Rome to argue with those people. He doesn't say to try and convince them, or try to win them over. He says, "Cut them off, shove them out. Have nothing to do with them. Leave them completely alone." And he gives a very unflattering description of their character in verse 18. He says two things. They serve their own appetites. They are serving their own desires, in other words, and they are deceiving those who are naive. And they are preying on those who are least able to discern their false teaching. And Paul's exhortation here is a call to every Christian to be discerning.

We live in a day and age where calling something false teaching isn't considered nice. It's not nice to call something false teaching. For Paul, doctrine -right teaching - is very important. And it is false doctrine that always brings division to the Church, and not faithful doctrine. And therefore, Christians must be on the lookout for those who cause division through false teaching.

It may be that you are a student getting ready to go off to school. It may be a liberal arts college or a state university. You may be required to take a religion course from someone who claims to be a Christian, and yet teaches against historic Christian doctrine. You will be called upon in that circumstance to discern the truth. You need to know the truth in order to do that. You may be a person listening to a teacher in some setting, a preacher, a religious authority who claims to be Christian, but who is against the apostolic teachings of Christianity. You are called upon here to be discerning.

Christians are to be "too good to deceive and too wise to be deceived, wise as serpents, harmless as doves."

If you will look at verse 19, Paul's word of encouragement and exhortation here is directly connected with what he's already said in verse 17, "for the report of your obedience has reached to all." Now, that doesn't seem to make sense at first. Keep an eye out for false teachers because I already know that you are doing such a good job, and you are growing in grace and you are obedient.

Paul is writing from Corinth where this is a problem, to Rome where it's not. And he is wanting to make it clear that he's not telling them to be on the lookout because they've messed up. He's saying, look, I've already heard the reports of your obedience. You are growing in grace. In fact, he says in verse 19, I'm rejoicing in you. And so I want you to understand, Paul is saying, I am not exhorting you in this because I am disappointed in you. I'm exhorting you in this precisely because you are doing so well, and I don't want you to fall into the trap. The exhortation is wrapped up inside of an encouragement.

Paul is calling these christians to be too good to deceive, and too wise to be deceived. He's calling them, in Jesus' language, to be wise as serpents, and as harmless as doves. He's rejoicing over them, but he wants them in their faithfulness to be innocent and wise - wise in that which is good, innocent in that which is evil. And this is the call to every Christian, a call for spiritual and biblical discernment. We need to know the truth. We need to know the difference between truth and error, and we need to exercise discretion in regard to those who are supposedly preachers of God's word.

God Himself is the source of our peace, unity, victory and we need His grace.

In verse 20, Paul goes on to give an optimistic expectation. He's given a warning, and he's given an exhortation wrapped up in encouragement, but here he gives an expectation of hope. He closes with a benediction. He says, "the God of peace will soon crush Satan under their feet." There's his expectation for the church in Rome. He has great hopes for them. God Himself is their source of peace and unity, and victory, and we need His grace.

Now, you need to understand the link of what he says in verse 19 and verse 20. In verse 19 he told you to exercise spiritual discernment, to be wise in that which is good, and innocent in that which is evil. That takes you back to a very old story in Genesis, chapter three, when Eve was tempted, and what did she show herself to be? Not wise in that which is good, and discerning and innocent of that which is evil, but naive and deceived in that which is concerning evil. So Paul in verse 19, is saying, don't you make the same mistake.

Paul is expressing the expectation that when you are faithful to be discerning, that God will crush Satan under your feet. Do you realize this is the first reference to Satan in the book of Romans? This is the first time he is mentioned. What is emphasized? That the power of God in the gospel is greater than the power of Satan.

Notice this interesting juxtaposition in verse 20 - the God of peace will crush Satan. What? The God of peace? Will crush? Yes! Because our peace does not come from the absence of warfare. It comes, in fact, directly from divine warfare against the enemy of our souls. God wins peace for us through divine warfare. Our peace is brought about by the victory of God, especially in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Rev. Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III is Chancellor and CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary. He can be reached at 601-923-1600 or by email at jhyde@rts.edu.