An Identity Crisis

Romans is a document of freedom.   By the grace of God, Paul argues, we are set free from having to keep law perfectly in order to be justified before God. Unfortunately, when Paul concluded Romans with the statement of Romans 16:17, some had still missed the argument of the letter. Some today have also involved themselves in an ironic twist of the precious truth that we are saved by grace. Instead, some are still saying that we are saved by perfect obedience to law. This theology is specifically revealed by those who have established what they consider to be a legal liturgy of assembly by which one is supposedly justified if kept precisely every Sunday morning.

The twisting of Paul’s statement in Romans 16:17 is so misused that it is almost impossible for many to identify the divisive person about whom Paul speaks. And because the passage is often reversed in its contextual meaning, some slanderously accuse their opponents of dividing the church over issues in which Christians actually have freedom. They use the passage in a manner that is opposite from Paul’s original defense of those who sought to function organically in the freedom of Christ.   Thus those who twist the statements of Paul actually replace grace for law that they have bound as a legal doctrine of self-justification.

We must study carefully what Paul stated in the context of the entire book of Romans before coming to the following statement of Romans 16:17,18:

 Now I urge you, brethren, mark those who cause divisions and offenses contrary to the teaching you have learned, and turn away from them. For they who are such serve not our Lord Christ but their own belly, and by appealing words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the innocent.


In the context of Paul’s series of arguments in the book of Romans against the legalistic brethren to whom he was directing this letter, we must understand “the teaching” that Paul taught the Roman disciples in his letter. And to understand this teaching, we must consider the entire argument of Paul’s thesis in Romans. In order to bring us to the above concluding statement, Paul introduces us to a profound truth in reference to our justification: “Therefore, we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of law (Rm 3:28). What he meant was that we are made right before God by our trust (faith) in God’s grace, not by our trust in our meritorious obedience of law, or our efforts to atone for sins through good works.

Because Abraham was not under the Sinai law, he could not be justified by obedience to that law. Paul even argued that Abraham could not establish his own righteousness by keeping any codified law of work that he might establish for himself. “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something about which to boast, but not before God(Rm 4:2).   Neither Abraham, nor ourselves, can devise any law of works by which we can atone for our sins, and thus boast before God concerning our righteousness. Both Abraham and ourselves have only one recourse: “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him for righteousness” (Rm 4:3).

If we would devise a system of law by which we might seek to justify ourselves before God, then we would be putting God in debt to save us. “Now to him who works [to justify himself],” Paul stated, “the reward is not credited according to grace, but according to debt” (Rm 4:4).   Therefore, the one who would bind law-keeping as the foundation upon which our salvation depends is seeking to obligate God to save us on the basis of our law-keeping.

Since the legalistic Jewish Christians to whom Paul was writing the letter of Romans were seeking to bind certain precepts of the Sinai law on the Gentiles, Paul asked the brethren, “How then was it [Abraham’s righteousness] credited? When he was in circumcision or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision” (Rm 4:10). Circumcision was commanded for Abraham as a sign of God’s covenant with Him, but he was not circumcised in order that God establish a covenant with him (Rm 4:11). The covenant was first established, and then the circumcision came as a sign of the covenant (See Gn 17:9-11).

At the time Paul wrote, one could be circumcised if he so chose. But to bind such in order to be declared justified (saved) before God was contrary to salvation by God’s grace. The Jewish Christians, therefore, were dividing the church by binding where God had not bound. They were the problem, not those who wanted to live free from the law of circumcision.

The problem with the theology of the legalistic Jews was that they sought to establish their own righteousness before God through their strict obedience of law. In this way, they were seeking to be self-justified before God.

 For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves to the righteousness of God (Rm 10:3).

If we use the law of Christ as a legal system by which we would seek to justify ourselves before Christ, then we too would have the same problem as the Jews who sought to use the Sinai law as a legal system of self-justification. We would be establishing our own righteousness by a law which we would presume to keep perfectly in order to put God in debt to save us. But such can never happen simply because all have sinned, and thus, no one can live perfectly before God (Rm 3:9,10,23).

Paul wrote that he wanted to be found in Christ, not having my own righteousness that is from law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness that is from God by faith” (Ph 3:9). This did not mean that he was declaring his freedom from law, but that he was declaring his freedom from having to obey law perfectly in order to be justified before God.   Once he had assured himself of being just before God through faith, then through trust (faith) in God he established law in his behavior (Rm 3:30,31).

No one can keep law to any degree by which he can boast before God that he deserves to be saved. Since the first sin entered into the world through Adam, salvation has always been by faith in the grace of God. This conclusion must be true since we all sin (Rm 3:9,10).   Since we cannot keep any law perfectly in order to save ourselves, then it is superfluous for us to exalt ourselves as judges to demand perfect keeping of law by others. It is for this reason that some need to be cautioned about establishing a law of liturgy for assembly, and by doing such, consider themselves self-justified before God when they supposedly keep perfectly their self-imposed liturgy of law for assembly.

In the historical context of the writing of the letter of Romans, the Sinai law had been terminated (Rm 7:1-4). This termination meant the end of the rite of circumcision. However, there were Jewish brethren “who sneaked in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage” (Gl 2:4).   These were the “church dividers.”   These brethren taught, “Except you are circumcised after the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (At 15:1).   The one who would divide the church, therefore, is the one who would bind where God has not bound. He is the one who would impose that which God has not bound in order to be justified before God. This was the entire case of Paul in the book of Romans. If we would bind perfect keeping of any law as a means of salvation, then we have traded grace for law. And in the trade, we have made a bad deal. If one would impose upon the church any tradition as law, then he has become a church divider.

Our salvation is by grace, and not by perfect keeping of law, or the perfect keeping of a liturgy of assembly that cannot be defended by the word of God. “For by grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ep 2:8). It is by grace, and not by some system of self-imposed law that we would consider ourselves justified before God. The church dividers in the context of Paul’s arguments throughout the book of Romans were those who were binding law in a manner by which they would claim to be righteous before God.

At the time Paul wrote both Romans and Galatians, circumcision was a tradition among the Jews. It was a law under the Sinai covenant, but that covenant and law had been nailed to the cross (Cl 2:14). To bind the tradition of circumcision on the Gentiles would be binding where God had not bound.

Paul concluded Romans by encouraging those who sought to walk in the freedom they had in Christ. They must be on the lookout for those church dividers who would bind where God had not bound. These are those Paul had in mind when he wrote, “… mark those who cause divisions [by binding where God has not bound] and offenses contrary to the teaching [of the grace] you have learned ….” (Rm 16:17). These are those who have denied the grace of God. When Paul instructed, “turn away from them,” he meant what he stated in Galatians 5:1: “Stand fast therefore in the freedom by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.”

One must be cautious not to be recruited by others who would legally bring one into the bondage of self-imposed ceremonies of assembly by which they would seek to be justified before God. If one binds in our assemblies those things about which the New Testament is silent, then he is the church divider who walks contrary to the liberty that we have in Christ. Paul warned that legalistically oriented brethren zealously recruit you, but not for good. Yes, they want to exclude you so that you might be zealous for them” (Gl 4:17).   But if one is recruited to a gospel of legal obedience, then he is excluded from the grace of God.

If we recruit groups to perform our prescribed law of liturgy in assembly, we have not “established a church.” We have simply made those whom we have recruited to our “form of liturgy” to be twice condemned as the scribes and Pharisees who made those whom they recruited to their legalistic forms to be twofold sons of hell. Evangelists must be careful not to “travel sea and land” and do what Jesus said in the following statement:

Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel sea and land to make one proselyte. And when he is made, you make him twice as much the son of hell as yourselves (Mt 23:15).

Both Romans and Galatians were written concerning the same problem of some who were binding where God had not bound. If one seeks to be free in Christ, then he must not submit to those who would bind a system of law, and perfect obedience thereof, as a means of justification. We seek to obey the law of God, for in failing to walk in the light of His word, we cannot be saved. But to devise a system of traditional interpretations, or system of worship that one must keep in order to be justified before God, is to destroy the freedom we have in Christ. Before we would accuse one of being a “church divider,” we need to search the Scriptures to determine if he is actually violating Scripture, or simply doing something that is not according to our traditions, or how we personally feel.   If we cry out “church divider,” we may be the church divider for making the cry.

An example that sometimes reveals how easy it is to become somewhat hypocritical in our judgment of others illustrates this point. We once as a group made a decision as to how many assemblies each member of our group must attend before one was considered “faithful.” The decision was made by the entire group, written in our minds, and thus, we considered ourselves as rightful judges to pronounce judgment on those who did not attend our group-appointed times of assembly.

At the same time we were judging one another concerning faithfulness in attendees. We judged our neighbors for being denominational because they as a group had determined certain liturgies of assembly that must be recognized and obeyed. As a group, they even went as far as to chose a name for their group. We judged them denominational for selecting a particular name for their group, which we considered divisive. We made all these judgments at the same time we were being church dividers by binding on ourselves our own tradition as to how many assemblies one must attend in order to be “faithful.” We need not go into our established liturgy of assembly by which we also judged ourselves the “true” church. We justified ourselves because our decision was made by the group, while at the same time hypocritically judged our religious neighbors denominational, for binding their traditions on themselves as a group. We could not see our own theological hypocrisy.

It has been our experience that those who are quick to accuse others of dividing the church are the ones who are often coveting their own traditions that have denominated themselves as a unique group from all other groups. Their uniqueness is determined by their own “group decisions,” and thus they, as we, have all denominated ourselves from one another, while at the same time claiming that we all claim that we are the “true” church. We have often become judgmental humbugs with fingers pointing everywhere but at ourselves.

The church divider is not the one who stands in the liberty by which he was made free in Christ. The church divider is the one who binds his opinions, traditions, or liturgies of assembly that he presumes are legal forms of service and worship, and thus, must be kept as legal codes to justify oneself before God.

We must remember that we “have been called to freedom …” (Gl 5:13). Paul added a definition that explains the motives of the church divider:

For they who are such serve not our Lord Christ but their own belly, and by appealing words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the innocent (Rm 16:18).

The motive of the church dividers is selfish ambition. They are not seeking to bring the innocent into unity in Christ, but into conformity to their own strictures.   These are the Diotrephes brethren who love to be first, and thus through intimidation, they seek a following from those who are deceived into thinking that obedience to their opinions will present a facade of unity. This may possibly be those who seek to be considered important and prominent in the church. So by enforcing traditional behavior on the church, they are actually leading the church into the apostasy of traditionalism.

Chief-seat sitters have a hard time bringing people directly to Jesus and into unity with one another. Through appealing words and flattering speech they seek to woo and awe the innocent into submission to their own personality and pronouncements. These are they who divide the church of our Lord, for they seek to draw the sheep away after themselves by binding where God has not bound (At 20:30).

[Next lecture:   Nevember 23]

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