Paul did not want his warnings to cause offense to the Roman believers. He did not believe that divisive and scandalous individuals were active among them, but he urged caution. Satan hates thriving churches and thriving believers, and they are often the target of his malice. Perhaps in the ceremonial and cultural differences existing in the congregation (ch. 14-15), he saw the seeds of potential conflict and wished to prevent it. Had he not witnessed this among the Galatians? As a parent will warn his children of sin’s consequences without thinking that they are already enmeshed in them, so faithful pastors and teachers who know something of the deceitfulness of men’s hearts and Satan’s schemes will warn God’s people to be vigilant. “For we are not ignorant of his devices” (2 Cor. 2:11). Our blessed Savior is always building his church, but the evil one is always trying to tear it down. Bitter controversies and heart-wrenching divisions in his body often have seemingly insignificant origins: loose talk, insinuations and suspicion, or a questionable teacher allowed. We should never be offended when a godly man warns us. He may see dangers that we do not. His experience may be broader. His acquaintance with church history may give him a particular alertness to the seeds of division. Through wise warnings, our Savior warns us, as he warned Peter of his pending denial and fall. Look at how Peter took offense rather than humbling himself to listen. He did not plead with Jesus to help him, and he fell. Let us take every warning to watch as a message from heaven to guard vigilantly our hearts and lives in Christ Jesus.
But we shall take offense at the warnings God sends to us if the spirit of our age dominates us more than the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Pride, willfulness, and stubbornness make a man little inclined to receive a warning. We often think the preacher’s warning applies to someone else, but not to us. Our heavenly Father tests us on this point. Will we say, “Yes, I needed to hear that, for I am weak; thank you, Lord, for telling me to be on guard?” Or, shall we be puffed up with pride and take offense because we think we have it all together. If we felt our weakness as we should, we would welcome even the strongest warnings as God sending us an angel from heaven to keep us on the straight path, or to strengthen weak areas of our thinking or practice. Not one of us is above such warnings; we need them far more than we know or feel. “A prudent man foreseeth the evil, and hideth himself: but the simple pass on, and are punished” (Prov. 22:3; 27:12). If we would yield more promptly to our Savior’s faithful shepherding, we should not find ourselves in so many scrapes, wondering what in the world has happened, when all the time we would have been preserved from sin’s pit if we had humbled ourselves under God’s hand.
Defend a Good Reputation by Continued Obedience (v. 19)
We should rejoice when we hear that the Lord is blessing his church to grow in grace, knowledge, and usefulness. The good reputation of churches throughout the world should fill our hearts with gratitude to God. If our congregation is unsettled or struggling, then hearing that another is thriving should give us hope that our Savior will also build us up! He is not stingy in his gifts and graces. His will is that we bear “much fruit” (John 15:5,8). He has fullness of grace and life to share with us. It is remarkable that the Roman congregation had so early a reputation for obedience. Notice that word “obedience.” This is not the normal standard for evaluating men and churches. Men first think of charisma, or social relevance, or fine buildings and programs, and especially in our day cutting-edge music. The Holy Spirit thinks first of obedience to the gospel, to the commandments of God, to sound doctrine, to love and service. Unless we think of obedience first, we shall go astray in our judgment. It is obedience to the word of God that proves we love Jesus Christ and are his friends (John 14:15; 15:14). Obedience assumes that the Christian faith is not a “pick and choose what is meaningful to you” religion. Each of us should be chiefly concerned with pleasing our God and Savior by obeying him. Then, our likes and dislikes will be shaped and sanctified as we yield ourselves to his word. “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them” (John 13:17). The disciples’ joy and badge of honor is obedience to God out of love for Jesus Christ and gratitude for his grace and mercy.
Paul rejoiced in their obedience. Nothing fills a godly man’s heart with more joy than obedience and to hear that other believers are walking in obedience to God’s word (3 John 4). This is also the reason that he has written them a magnum opus of Christian doctrine and living. The grace of repentance unto obedience is such a precious gift from God that those to whom he gives it must cherish and preserve it through continued faithfulness to his truth. It is a danger, as later happened in Ephesus, for a good beginning to give way to a cold heart. The only way to prevent this is to hold fast to the good, to guard against all occasions for slipping away from our “first love,” and to abide closely in Jesus Christ, the lover of our souls and the living fountain of preserving grace and vital piety.
Wise in Good, Untainted by Evil (v. 19)
How we may walk closely with him, and therefore with one another? We must be wise in what is good. We must know and love the good things of God’s word and praise him for his goodness with joyful hearts. “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God” (Micah 6:8). The good things he has shown us in his glorious gospel are like a vast mansion of innumerable rooms, each one filled with treasures of inestimable splendor. Our Father calls us to search out these gospel blessings, never tire of them or think we have mastered even one of his chambers, and find all our joy in his goodness. Toward him, we must be adoring, prayerful students of his word, walk with integrity and gratitude, and praise him with joyful hearts. Toward one another, we must “go about doing good,” as our Savior did (Acts 10:38).
We must also be simple or untainted by evil. In context, two of these evils are divisive attitudes and scandalous lives. Strangers we must be to pride and worldliness. We must never search out Satan’s deep things (Rev. 2:24), be inquisitive about the world’s sins, or crave its fleeting pleasures. At all times, disciples of Christ must endeavor to put on his meekness and gentleness (2 Cor. 10:1), especially in dealing with our brothers. As Paul told the Corinthians, it is better to be wronged than to insist upon our rights (1 Cor. 6:7). If we are wise in what is good, we shall seek those gospel attitudes that promote unity and love: forgiving and bearing with injury; seeking peace as much as it depends upon us; covering a multitude of transgressions with love. These two ideas are capable of wide application, both in the world and in our relationships with one another. The Holy Spirit’s main injunction here is for us to be experts in being and doing good but to be novices in sin. This is a mark of “true and undefiled religion” (1:27).
God’s Promise to Trample Satan (v. 20)
Yet, many are gripped by the dangerous and ultimately futile idea that the safety, progress, and victory of the church depends upon being as relevant to the world as possible. This idea assumes that the world knows best what it needs, and the church’s responsibility is to adapt to the expectations of fallen men. It also assumes that the gospel must make its progress in the world just as any other human philosophy or social movement. In other words, it ignores if not implicitly denies that the gospel of Jesus Christ is of supernatural origin and that the preaching of that gospel is God’s power unto salvation. It is a wonder that professing friends of Jesus can treat their Master so meanly and give his power and wisdom so little credit! We must remember that the human race is divided into two seeds: of the woman and of Satan. The former are those who believe in Jesus Christ and keep the commandments of God (Rev. 14:12). The latter are those who “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:19) and are “alienated and enemies in their minds by wicked works” (Col. 1:21). These two seeds or lines are not absolute in history, for “such were some of you, but ye are washed” (1 Cor. 6:11). God often in mercy turns his most determined foes into his devoted friends. Yet, the antithesis between the church and the world is not to be blurred. Those who yet remain enemies of God do the works of their father, the devil (John 8:44). They are not usually conscious of doing his bidding, for they are “held captive by Satan to do his will” (2 Tim. 2:26). Any attempt to make the world a better and holier place by the church’s being friendlier to the world’s philosophies and expectations is working against God’s purposes. We are not permitted to lower the claims of the gospel or to blur the difference between light and darkness (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1).
It would seem that such a separation consigns us to irrelevance, but this is unbelief talking. Since the Lord is always fighting his war with the sharp, gospel sword coming out of his mouth, he will subdue all things to himself by his invincible power (Phil. 3:21). Satan bit him on the heel, but he crushed or bruised his head. This gives us incredible hope of victory not by looking for ways to erase the barriers between faith and unbelief, righteousness and sin, truth and falsehood, but by being faithful to the victory that our Savior obtained on the cross and by his resurrection. He won this victory for us, for he is our Mediator and Head. By being lifted up on the cross, he judged the ruler of this world, cast out the accuser of the brethren, and bound the strong man (John 12:27-31; Rev. 12:10; Matt. 12:29). The power of the evil one has been broken. He can no longer deceive the nations en masse; the gospel will go forward, as we see it has been doing for the past two millennia, until every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord. His victory is our victory. It is the hope that inspires personal obedience, congregational faithfulness, and missiological zeal for the gospel. We go forth to serve our Lord in the strength of his victory, confident that he has “destroyed him who had the power of death” (Heb. 2:14).
The Way God Tramples Satan (v. 20)
In the strength of this historical, decisive trampling that occurred at the cross, the Lord continues to bruise Satan under the feet of his faithful people. This is a very significant promise. There is no indication that it refers exclusively to the final coming of our Savior, although every intermediate “bruising” throughout history in which God’s truth and church gain a signal triumph over Satan is a pledge of the final destruction of the evil one at our Savior’s return in glory. A more specific, more local victory seems to be intended. The reference is uncertain. What is more important for us to know is that the way in which God promises to bruise the serpent. First, the “God of peace” will bruise him. God achieves peace through righteousness by trampling upon Satan and his schemes, so that they are exposed and defeated, thwarted completely by his power and providence, or turned to serve the good of his church. To give us courage and good hope, we must remember that all of the turmoil we see in the world is completely governed by the God of peace, and the hard struggles through which we must pass on the way to God’s eternal kingdom have peace as their goal. Therefore, we should never fear to enter the lists of combatants for God’s glory and truth in the world. Victory is assured. The God of peace rules over all by his great power and through his Son rules over all things for the sake of the church.
Second, he tramples Satan through the faithfulness of his people. While the living God will obtain the victory, which is never in question, the means he has ordained to gain this victory are often ignored. Will we dedicate ourselves to being wise in good and simple in evil? Will we be on guard against attacks against his truth and defend his honor by speaking his truth in love and with the confidence that our Savior is subduing all things to himself? Will we steer clear of sin? The church’s maintaining of the antithesis between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, holiness and worldliness, are the means God has ordained to crush Satan. This is true both of individual believers, single congregations, and the whole church. We shall not witness the bruising of Satan by the hand of God through compromise, or holing up in our caves of fear, or praying for a miracle from heaven without being diligent to serve God according to his word. Our Savior had to endure the cross to save us; we must fight the good fight of faith to obtain the victory. We must resist sin and the devil (Rom. 6:13; James 4:7). When faced with a temptation, we must not think, “Well, my little private issues mean little; no one cares about me.” Really? The angels are watching, child of God! We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Even more, God still looks down from heaven to see if there are any who understand, who seek after him. Shall we not do our part? When sin generally or Satan specifically comes to attack the child of God, or sets up his little squabbles in the local congregation, or infects the church with wolves and their heresies, then is the time to be wise in the good and untainted by evil. Then is the time to say, “Here is my opportunity to see God bruise Satan. Jesus Christ has won the field. Look! There is his banner, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the crucified in weakness but raised by the power of God Savior!” Shall we not flock to it and do our part to stand for truth and godliness in our homes, relationships, marriages? Is not his honor worthy of our most strenuous efforts, our most determined resistance? What of your private battles against lust, fear, worry, unbelief, and prayerlessness? If we love Jesus Christ, we shall enlist, run to him, and see our conflicts as part of the larger struggle for God’s glory in the world, a contest that continues unabated every moment of every day in millions of lives and circumstances around the world! Trust the power of the God of peace. Fight clothed in the armor he has provided (Eph. 6:10-18). Expect for the Lord to give you victory.
The Sustaining Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ (v. 20)
But what if it comes not soon, as is promised here? We must leave it to God to define “soon.” It may be temporally soon, as multitudes of believers have found when they have become serious about godliness, prayer, and Jesus Christ. It may be soon in the sense that our lives are brief and that we have but a short time to serve Jesus Christ before his return. The day is at hand! Either way, Jesus Christ has prevailed, and it is an honor to fight for him. His grace will sustain us. Because he is always with us, his grace and strength are. Do not be unbelieving, but believe. Trust him. Call upon him. He who conquered is more than able to give you the victory. Abide in him and his word, and God will bruise Satan. He is a defeated worm. The cross is protruding from his crushed skull. Resist him, and he will flee; he must. The God of peace will cause him to flee. We have our Father’s promise. We have our Savior’s grace and presence. The battle may seem long and weary in terms of our wispy lives, but soon we shall see the Lamb in his glory. Let us not offer him that which costs us nothing but labor to be found in him, to spread the aroma of his gospel, and to unfurl his gospel flag of sovereign grace and Satan conquered wherever we go, beginning in our lives, families, and congregations. Because Jesus Christ is always with us, his grace and strength will never fail us. He will subdue us and all things to himself.