Discernment is a good thing — an essential thing in the Christian life. But there’s also discernment gone wrong, something Pastor John addressed in his sermon on Romans 16:17. What follows is a clip from the sermon, “Watch Out for Those Who Lead You Away from the Truth,” preached on November 5, 2006. Here’s what Pastor John said:
How can dividing from a false teacher who rises up in the church promote unity? How can dividing promote unity? Paul evidently believes it does, because he says, “Watch out for those who cause divisions” (Romans 16:17). Withdraw from them. Divide from them. Watch out for the dividers. Divide from them. The only way you can make sense out of that is to believe there is a kind of division that is right and a kind that is wrong.
Promote Unity, Divide from Disrupters
And what is right is the kind of division that is based on those people having left the doctrine. So Paul’s strategy here for preserving unity that he so longs for in the first part of verse 17 is to call for another kind of disunity. Namely, he calls for division with people who are on their way away from the doctrine.
“Paul calls for division with people who are on their way away from the doctrine.”
With regard to the command, “Watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught,” it is possible to go overboard with “watching out.” It is possible to go overboard. I am really hesitant even to say this, because I don’t think we live in a world where that is our sin, by and large. Maybe some churches or some people go overboard, but it is not America’s besetting sin. So I am hesitant, and yet I know that it happens. And so I want to warn you against it and summon you back to a biblical balance.
What I mean by going overboard with watching out is that you can become so obsessed with doctrinal error that you lose the ability to rejoice in doctrinal truth. You can; I have seen it. You can become so obsessed with purity, you cannot rejoice in the truth that should undergird it.
Obsession vs. Discernment
It is like one of those dogs — they are beagles usually — who are trained to sniff out drugs at the airport. And they are trained so completely to sniff out drugs that all they do is sniff out drugs. If you come into their house, they just go sniffing at you — sniffing at your purse and sniffing at your pockets and sniffing at anything you have in your hands. Well, this is not the way to welcome people in the church.
“You can become so obsessed with purity you cannot rejoice in the truth that should undergird it.”
It is possible to become so obsessed — to be so trained in drug sniffing — that all you do is sniff out drugs.
And I don’t want us to go there as a church. I don’t want to be there as a person. When I read the book of Romans and step back and look at the whole book, Paul pauses in chapters 3 and 6, and in chapter 8, and draws attention to the mess people are making of his teaching: “Continue in sin that grace may abound” (see Romans 6:1). But in the big picture, Romans is just a magnificent display of the work of God in Christ for our salvation.
It is a magnificent display that should cause us not mainly to say, “Now I have got ten weapons with which I can destroy enemies, but rather I am saved. I am saved. I have got a solid rock under my feet. I am going to heaven. I will see him someday.” And so let the spirit of delight in the truth be the main thing that people taste at this church. And then pray, especially for the elders, that we do have a good beagle nose for any kind of slippage or any kind of movement that would be away from the apostolic teaching.