Not Naive but Wise

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on October 2, 2022.

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. 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 God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you (Romans 16:17–20).[1]

When concluding his epistle to the Romans with specific, by-name greetings, we might expect Paul to carry such greetings to his parting benediction. But he doesn’t. Paul is a pastor at heart, concerned not only with commendation and edification but also preservation and protection. So, he interrupts the flow of his greetings to issue a two-fold warning and declaration. What better way to say adieu?

Of course, this should not surprise us. Throughout his epistle, Paul has woven in practical concerns, but here he seems to convey a concern for an ongoing susceptibility, a vulnerability of the people of God. This is nothing new. It was to the sinless yet naïve that Lucifer said, “Did not God actually say…?” (Gen. 3:1) and “You will not surely die” (3:4). It is the fallen angel of light who so well works his wicked ways as false lumination. And what began in the garden, he carries on among God’s people.

To the naïve in the day of Jeremiah, for example, God warned of Satan’s strategy, saying, “The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds” (Jer. 14:14). And our Lord Jesus cautioned against naivete, saying, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you” (Matt. 7:6), and then warned, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:15-16). Summarizing Jeremiah and Jesus, in considering our passage today, we may conclude that that division and deception are observable tools of the devil, which may be identified by the discerning. In other words, beware the wolves.

Beware the Wolves

If Jesus said we will be able to identify these “ravenous wolves” by “their fruits,” what are some of their characteristic fruits? Paul gives us four: False teachers cause disunity, create obstacles, crave pleasure, and communicate deceptively. Paul has had much to say about guarding against disunity in the church, but here he uses a word rarely used in the New Testament best translated, I think, as “dissensions,” disagreements leading to discord. One of the best ways to cause disunity in the church is to breed disagreements fanning the flame of discord.

Paul probably implies that such disagreements will come from someone undermining doctrinal integrity and creating obstacles to the truth. This may come through straight-forwardly contradicting true doctrine, or through its more sinister form of advocating false doctrine, what Peter calls “destructive heresies” (2 Pet. 2:1). Paul warned Timothy of this very thing:

If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth…(1 Tim. 6:3-5).

For this reason, among others, our forefathers set down doctrinal standards in creeds, catechisms, and confessions. As Presbyterians, we have inherited a theological treasure in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. And one among many of its uses is to help protect us from false teachers. We do well to know our doctrinal standards.

The third characteristic is observed: False teachers crave pleasure, serving not our Lord Christ but “their own appetites,” literally “their own belly.” Jude describes them as those “who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality” (Jude 1:4). When you see someone justify indulging their flesh by claiming gospel freedom, beware. When you encounter someone encouraging you to do the same, you are in the presence of a false teacher. For, the gospel liberty the Christian enjoys leads not to pleasing sensual appetites but to keeping our Savior’s commands. Beware of him who craves otherwise.

The fourth characteristic Paul provides is heard: False teachers communicate deceptively, “by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve.” Although we live in an age of vacillating semantics, words and their meaning still matter, and doesn’t the devil know it? As he knows the ways of the world, he surrounds us with deceiving voices, leading even the discerning ear to grow numb at the noise, even naïve. Our politicians lie, our media distorts, even our advertising resorts to means of deception. Lying is so pervasive in our culture, we have grown accustomed to it.

So, when a false teacher slips into the church, we may not first recognize him; we’re used to the rhetoric of deception. He speaks our language, we might say, telling us what we want to hear, trying to teach us what to think. Avoiding the substance of truth, he appeals to our vanity, flattering us with so-called words of encouragement. As Paul warned Timothy, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3-4). Who are these people so susceptible to deceit? They are the vulnerable, the gullible; they are the naïve.

Know your Naivete

The fact is we all have been or are naïve from time to time, perhaps even today. It could be due to age or lack of experience, but more often than not it is due to a lack of self-knowledge or awareness. The naïve don’t know it. It should not surprise us that Calvin begins his magisterial Institutes saying, “The whole sum of our wisdom—wisdom, that is, which deserves to be called true and assured—broadly consists of two parts, knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves.”[2] He goes on to say, “The purpose of [knowing ourselves] is to show us our weakness, misery, vanity and vileness, to fill us with despair, distrust and hatred of ourselves, and then to kindle in us the desire to seek God, for in him is found all that is good and of which we ourselves are empty and deprived.”[3] If you sit here today confident that you are not susceptible to desires of your flesh or the ploys of him who “disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14), then beware: Many woes await you, including being deceived. But if you know your naivete, knowing that Satan seeks to lead even the elect astray, were it possible (Matt. 24:24), then you know to humble yourself and look to the Lord’s provision.

In our passage, Paul lists no false teacher. A list may have been easier for the naïve, but it wouldn’t teach the church the discernment necessary to spot wolves before they harm the flock. And so, Paul teaches us how to identify false teachers and their false teaching. Paul tells us to “watch out,” know they exist, and that they seek to creep into the church unnoticed (Jude 1:4). Or, as Matthew Henry puts it succinctly, “A danger discovered is half prevented,”[4] so watch out.

If this is the case, what’s the second half of prevention? Paul says, “avoid them”! The present tense command (“avoid”!) implies on-going diligence. Once discovered this doesn’t mean ignore them, as if they’ll go away. No, to “avoid” the false teachers means something stronger, something akin to shunning: Have nothing to do with them, turn away from them![5] This includes not only false teachers in the flesh but false teaching through various media means.

            Be careful little eyes what you see;

            Be careful little ears what you hear;

            Be careful little minds what you think.

            For, the Father up above is looking down in love,

            so be careful what you see, hear, and think.

But turning away from a false teacher is not the complete admonition. For, turning from something means we turn to something, or in this case someone. The false teacher is identified as one who does not “serve our Lord Christ,” but the Christian does. So, part of watching out and avoiding means looking to and turning to Christ. As he is our Lord and Savior, he is the one who “delivered us from the domain of darkness” (Eph. 1:13), and he is the one who will deliver us from false teachers. So, we must trust in him.

Trust our Deliverer

What is referred to theologically as the protoevangelium, or first gospel, is given after the Fall of humankind into sin and God’s curse upon the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15). As Satan was in the form of a serpent, his doom was pronounced in the curse and his punishment sure, not by the hand of Adam but a second Adam to come, the offspring, or literally “seed,” of a woman. Our deliverer was one born of a woman, at the proper time, born to save the children of God and conquer our foe. And so he did in his death and resurrection, that we might have life through faith in Him, and victory over a conquered enemy.

Yet, while Satan has been defeated, awaiting his promised punishment, he seeks to tear down what he can and lead astray whom he will. And we see this in the world and sadly sometimes in the church, as our Lord foretold. But we must never let this liability leads us to despair, for that would be to put our trust in ourselves, in our watching out and turning away. No, the source of your peace now and evermore is the God of peace, and he “will soon crush Satan under [our] feet.” So, the church militant fights the good fight, even against Satan’s minions, not for fear of loss but for the victory won.

            Though with a scornful wonder

            men see her sore oppressed,

            by schisms rent asunder,

            by heresies distressed,

            yet saints their watch are keeping,

            their cry goes up, “How long?”

            And soon the night of weeping

            Shall be the morn of song.

            The church shall never perish!

            Her dear Lord to defend,

            to guide, sustain, and cherish,

            is with her to the end;

            though there be those that hate her,

            and false sons in her pale,

            against or foe or traitor

            she ever shall prevail.[6]

The victorious Christian life is not one of fear nor naivete. Through his Spirit, we live in obedience to God, watching out for false teachers and rooted in Truth himself, living wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.” For, that which is good is of God, not evil. And that which is good we know and receive by grace, and the grace we enjoy has been given through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Robert White (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2014), 1.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, ed. Leslie F. Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1961), 1799.

[5] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), 930.

[6] Trinity Hymnal, revised ed. (Suwanee: Great Commission Publications, 1990), 347.

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