Is there ever a cause sufficient to avoid, turn away from, dissociate from, or shun someone? Is there anyone whom we should not bid Godspeed?
In the New King James Version, Romans 16:17 reads, “Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them.” Here we see four elements:
- Those who cause divisions and offenses.
- Contrary to the doctrine you learned.
- Avoid them.
Let us consider each of these elements, and then apply Paul’s admonition to publishing those who divide from the doctrine that you learned.
“Avoid them.” What does this mean?
The English Standard Version and the Holman Christian Standard Bible also render it “avoid them.” To contemporary understandings, the verb “avoid” leaves a lot of room for “nuance.” At one time, nuance meant what its denotative dictionary definition denotes. Now? Not so much. It has taken over the field previously dominated by “You’re taking it out of context,” overused even when context is not the problem. The outcome is that God is not allowed to say that there ever could be a cause sufficient to actually avoid someone, to turn away from them, to dissociate from them, or to shun them.
Other translations call this over-nuancing into question. The Twentieth Century New Testament renders it “dissociate yourselves from them.” Do we dissociate from a theologian who teaches heresy on core doctrines of the faith – doctrines without which there is no Christianity and no faith – when we publish him, by siloing doctrines and supposedly publishing him only on doctrines where he is orthodox?
Multiple translations render it “turn away from them,” including the New American Standard Bible, American Standard Version, Berean Standard Bible, English Majority Text Version, Easy-To-Read Version, Majority Standard Bible, World English Bible, and Young’s Literal Translation.
Additional translations indicate that this turning is not merely to “bend away from them” (Smith’s Literal Translation) or “depart from them” (Good News Translation), but to “keep away from them,” including the New International Version and Bible in Basic English.
In the Concordia Commentary series, Michael Middendorf says,
Here the idea is “to keep away from, steer clear of” [emphasis in original] certain persons (BDAG, 1). The notion of avoidance is reinforced by the prepositional phrase, άπ’ αύτών, “from them.”
To keep away means to stay away. The Lexham English Bible and the International Standard Version read, “Stay away from them.” That carries the force of A Faithful Version’s “shun them,” and the Weymouth New Testament’s “habitually to shun them.”
These renderings do not admit changing the object of the verb from “them” to “a few of their doctrines” or “publish them generally, just not on their faith-threatening errors.”
If that seems too extreme, consider the note in The Lutheran Study Bible: “Those who advocate a false gospel are to be entirely avoided.” Check the temptation to race to the escape hatch of “false gospel,” which expresses a different one of the four elements enumerated above (which we will get to), and thus evade what this note says about the element we currently are considering. Commenting on the ESV text which says, “avoid them,” The Lutheran Study Bible says “entirely avoided,” not nuance-avoided or context-avoided.
Armin J. Panning says in the People’s Bible Commentary: Romans,
Paul is very definite in his advice concerning false teachers. Watch out for them and keep away from them! Or to cast it in the terminology of thee first 16 verses of this chapter, Don’t greet them as if they were brothers in the faith.
That accords John who says, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds.” (2 John 10-11) As William Tyndale translates that, the apostle of love says, “nether bid him God spede. For he that biddeth him God spede is parttaker of his evyll dedes.”
To the sentiments of “moderates,” that is unloving. What is the loving thing to do? Francis Pieper says,
To say that love demands [fellowship with heterodoxy] is a misuse of that word. Love of God and love of the brethren rather requires the opposite practice. He who loves Christ loves Christ’s Word, and Christ command us to avoid all who teach anything that is contrary to His Word. And whoever really loves the brethren refuses to participate in their erring and sinning, seeking rather to deliver them from error and sin.
Avoiding fellowship with false teachers ourselves and warning others against them is not a popular message, particularly in our age of false ecumenism. But as Paul points out, such avoidance of false teachers and false teaching is very necessary . . . A standard assumption on the part of the ecumenicists is that unity of doctrine is neither possible nor necessary. … But … [f]alse doctrine is a grave danger to faith! Or as Paul says, “By smooth talk and flattery they decive the minds of naïve people” [Romans 16:18]. This “naïve people” is not just other people; it includes us as well. False doctrine is nothing to trifle with. “Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough?” Paul warns (1 Corinthians 5:6). “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Corinthians 10:12).
The King James Version says, “mark them.” The New King James Version says, “note those.”
Besides the “nuance” and “out-of-context” attitudes that enable many to brush off Paul’s whole admonition in Romans 16:17 there is another common attitude: “You’re just looking for fault, so you found some.” Of course, there is such a thing as fault-finding that finds fault where there is none or less than alleged. But the proper response to that is not to drive from that ditch into the opposite ditch. Keep in the road. Heed the apostolic admonition not just in lip service and platitude.
The NKJV verb “note” sounds casual and passive. Again, what does this mean?
Translations that render it “watch out for” include The English Standard Version, New International Version, Holman Christian Standard Bible, International Standard Version, Majority Standard Bible, and Berean Study Bible. The Lexham English Bible, World English Bible, and English Majority Text Version read “look out for.” The Twentieth Century New Testament renders it “be on your guard against.” That is neither as casual nor as passive as the application many give to “note.”
Smith’s Literal Translation says, “observe narrowly.” To “observe narrowly” is to look “closely, keenly, carefully, intently, fixedly, searchingly” (The Free Dictionary). It means to “look at them in a concentrated way, often because you think they are not giving you full information about something.” (Collins Dictionary) As an example of usage, the Collins Dictionary provides “He grimaced and looked narrowly at his colleague.” Sometimes it is not what a theologian is saying, but what he is not saying.
Paul E. Kretzmann says it means “to be on the constant lookout for them.”
So, sometimes when “moderates” accuse people of fault-finding, all those people are doing is what Paul admonishes us to do. Paul admonishes us to guard, to be on the lookout. Niceness, likeability, and friendship are inadequate reasons to drop our guard or to close our eyes where doctrine is concerned.
Contrary to the Doctrine You Learned
Paul says, “contrary to the doctrine you learned.” What is that doctrine?
In one aspect, it is many things, the doctrines of: Scripture, creation, fall, original and actual sin, the Trinity, the Incarnation, the atonement-and-justification, Word and sacrament, and Law and Gospel. While it is both possible, and to an extent necessary because of the limitations of our minds, to consider these separately, they are like Jesus’ tunic.
Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His garments and made four parts, to each soldier a part, and also the tunic. Now the tunic was without seam, woven from the top in one piece. They said therefore among themselves, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be. (John 19:23-24).
Paul says “the doctrine” you learned, not “doctrines” you learned. The truth is united. “The doctrine” is one. The divisions are always many, plural. To break atonement from justification is an error. To break forgiveness of sins from the Incarnation is an error. And so on.
Earlier in the epistle to the Romans Paul elaborated the doctrine they had learned and the doctrine you have learned. Paul lays out the redemption we have in Jesus. He shows the vicarious satisfaction in Christ’s work of atonement. He shows the imputation of our sins to Christ under the Law and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us. He shows that Christ fulfilled the Law on our behalf by his active obedience and perfect righteousness. He shows that Christ exhausted on our behalf the Law’s penalty of death for sin when He died our death for us.
This doctrine is attested in Scripture, the catechisms, the confession of the Lutheran church in the Book of Concord, Lutheran hymns, the Liturgy, and the teachings of Martin Luther.
In the Missouri Synod, the “blue Catechism” of 1943 teaches.
129. Why was it necessary for our Savior to be true man?
It was necessary for our Savior to be true man —
A. That He might take our place under the Law.
B. That He might be able to suffer and die in our stead.
130. Why was it necessary for our Savior to be true God?
It was necessary for our Savior to be true God —
A. That His fulfilling of the Law might be sufficient for all men.
B. That His life and death might be a sufficient ransom for our redemption.
Missouri’s “burgundy Catechism” of 1991 teaches the same thing.
122. Why was it necessary for our Savior to be true man?
Christ had to be true man in order to
A. act in our place under the Law and fulfill it for us (active obedience);
B. be able to suffer and die for our guilt because we failed to keep the Law (passive obedience)
123. Why was it necessary for our Savior to be true God?
Christ had to be true God in order that
A. His fulfilling of the Law, His life, suffering, and death, might be a sufficient ransom for all people.
Missouri’s newest “burgundy and black Catechism” of 2017 teaches the same thing.
159. Why is it so important for us as sinners that the Son of God has become our Brother?
As our brother,
A. Jesus fulfilled our obligation to keep the Law (His active obedience);
B. Jesus suffered and died to pay the penalty of our sin (His passive obedience)
Explanations of Luther’s Small Catechism in English in the United States always have taught Christ’s vicarious satisfaction in the atonement for our justification. Vicarious satisfaction is “the doctrine you learned” for nearly every Lutheran reading this. Pieper says,
The term vicarious satisfaction is an ecclesiastical term. It is not found in the Bible, but its meaning … fully and adequately expresses what Scripture teaches on the redemption which Christ procured. … The ecclesiastical term vicarious satisfaction over against all heresies, is a concise epitome of what Scripture teaches on the work of Christ.
Those Who Cause Divisions and Offenses
The world has its ideas of what “divisive” means. It assigns blame for “divisiveness” based on its ideas.
The preface to the Book of Concord identifies corrupting the purity of the heavenly doctrine as the cause of division. Satan
scattered the seeds of false doctrine and dissensions in the churches and schools [Matthew 13:24-40]. He also labored to stir up divisions [Romans 16:17] combined with offense. By these arts of his, he labored to corrupt the purity of the heavenly doctrine, to sever the bond of Christian love and godly agreement [Ephesians 4:3].
The editors who prepared the Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord just quoted inserted the Scripture references in brackets. Note their reference to Romans 16:17. There, the Apostle Paul and God himself have ideas of what “divisive” means and who causes division. False teachers are “those who cause divisions and offenses.”
Division and offense are about this: doctrine. It is not about personalities and manners. Division is, as Paul says here, “contrary to the doctrine you learned.” Because the true teaching is one, teachers of true doctrine are uniters. Because false teaching divides off from the true teaching, and because false doctrines are many, false teachers are divisive no matter what nice guys they are. In Paul’s idea, division is a matter of doctrine. Candy coated exteriors, diplomatic manners, and the like are not unifying. The one catholic – universal – faith is unifying. Division of doctrine is divisive.
Panning says of the people Paul is talking about,
these are not people who have simply become a little confused in their thinking and would be willing to correct their teaching if their errors were pointed out to them. No, these are people who may fairly be described as regularly and intentionally causing division and questioning beliefs. They have an agenda; they are teachers seeking to win others to their point of view.
That expression “regularly questioning beliefs” does not mean questioning a variety of incompatible beliefs different people have on a topic. It means questioning the beliefs of the one true faith on the various topics of doctrine. In other words, regularly questioning orthodoxy.
The Lutheran Study Bible note on Romans 16:17 says, “Those who advocate a false Gospel are to be entirely avoided.” Division peels off from the true Gospel to a false one. True versus false, not nice versus rude or some such. Also, observe that the false is a “false Gospel,” not something outwardly opposed to the Gospel. It is something presented as Gospel, but still false. Paul E. Kretzmann says:
It is not the open enemies of the Christian Church that work the greatest harm, but the false teachers that call themselves after the name of Christ and purport to believe in, and to teach, the Bible, and who, by insidious propaganda, subvert the foundations of sound teaching. St. Paul, therefore warns the believers at Rome and the Christians of all times against such people as teach a doctrine at variance with the plain truths as he has proclaimed them.
Some weaken Paul’s admonition by a constraining historical interpretation. That interpretation limits what it hears Paul saying to only those errorists who already had existed historically and only such of those as openly rejected the Gospel entirely. The case is generally narrowed down to the Judaizers of Paul’s day who demanded circumcision and observance of Jewish ceremonialism. Middendorf says “narrowing the focus to such a precise group is speculative.” He says. “Paul’s warning stands applicable to whatever self-serving and misleading teachers might be on the horizon.”
“Moderates” like to brand the orthodox as “divisive.” They say the orthodox fail to be inclusive of errorists. But citing our text in Romans 16:17, Pieper says:
Such, however, as separate from a church body because it tenaciously clings to false doctrine are unjustly called schismatics, separatists, etc. This separation is commanded in Scripture (Rom. 16:17) and is the only means of restoring and maintaining the true unity of the Christian Church.
C. F. W. Walther, carries it to this extent:
A man may proclaim the pure doctrine, but if he does not condemn and refute the opposing false doctrine, does not warn against the wolves in sheep’s clothing, the false prophets, and unmask them, he is not a faithful steward of God’s mysteries, not a faithful shepherd of the sheep entrusted to him, not a faithful watchman on the walls of Zion, but, as the Word of God says, an unfaithful servant, a dumb dog, a traitor.
Denial of Vicarious Satisfaction
Suppose there were a school of theology that teaches the following as doctrine.
The Christian doctrine of atonement does not mean that Christ made vicarious satisfaction for us to God. The atonement does not involve an active obedience by Christ to God under the Law in our place. It does not involve Christ fulfilling all righteousness for us. It does not involve a passive obedience by Christ to God under the Law by his suffering in our place the Law’s penalty of death for our sin.
God by nature is love and mercy. Therefore, God can and does just up and forgive. He did this before and without the incarnation of Christ. He did it before and without the cross. Jesus came preaching repentance and forgiveness, declaring the bounty and mercy of his Father. The problem, however, is that we could not buy that. And so, we killed him. That is why Christ was crucified. Our murder of Christ fully explains the cross.
This also explains how atonement really comes. It comes not at the cross. It comes in preaching that announces the forgiveness of sins. It comes in a sheer, bloodless absolution. Christ enters the conscience through the absolution, through the proclaimed Word and the administered Sacrament to effect the forgiveness of sin. This is the true substitutionary atonement, happening here and now.
Thus, when we speak as we often do of “the person and work of Christ,” the work does not include vicarious satisfaction in the atonement. Instead, the work is Christ’s word, and by “the word” we no longer mean what Lutheran Orthodoxy embraced in “the word.” We mean a word of sheer absolution, a bloodless forgiveness, which Christ continues to work through the preacher. When the preacher preaches and the sinner believes that God has just up and forgiven him without the sacrifice of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, that is the atonement that never happened on the cross finally happening now.
In the atonement there is no imputation of our sin to Christ and no imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us. Luckily for us, for atonement, Christ did not need to be sinless on our behalf. It is lucky because Christ did have sin of his own, not our sin imputed to him. He sinned in the Garden of Gethsemane. He sinned on the cross. In fact, He committed his own original sin of unbelief when He cried “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me.” Instead of believing God’s Word, such as the word at his Baptism, “You are my beloved Son,” He “believed his own belief.”
“Confessing made it so, and thus Christ committed his own, personal sin – not only an actual sin, but the original sin. … He looked upon himself on the cross and believed in his own belief.”
That school of theology is presented as if it were Christianity. That is presented as if it were the Gospel. Can anyone explain how rejection of Christ’s substitutionary atonement and its replacement by that is not “another gospel?” Christ’s vicarious satisfaction is a seamless part of Christ’s tunic of “the doctrine you learned.” The Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article V, paragraph 101, confesses:
We are justified only when we receive Christ as the Atoning Sacrifice and believe that for Christ’s sake God is reconciled to us. Neither is justification even to be dreamed of without Christ as the Atonement.
Justification and atonement go together seamlessly. There is no Gospel without justification, and there is no Gospel without the atonement. Therefore, among other things, Paul is telling us to watch out for, be on our guard against, to look closely, keenly, carefully, intently, fixedly, and searchingly for doctrinal division from and stumbling blocks to faith in Christ’s vicarious satisfaction.
“Mark and avoid” means that we should not publish a denier of atonement even if all he wrote was that there are seven days in a week or that there are 28 chapters in Matthew. Paul does not say, silo doctrines and associate with false teachers on their sifted true statements. He says, “avoid them.” We should not publish them on anything.
We should not publish such a teacher about the preaching of the Word of God under the Third Commandment in a synodical edition of the Large Catechism just because we are unaware of any error in his essay there.
At another and secondary layer, we are not always as successful at siloing doctrines as we imagine. Is Paul telling us to publish such a teacher in a synodical book about Lutheran preaching, when his doctrine about preaching is that the atonement happens in preaching, not at the cross. Is that also our doctrine now? Is publishing him on preaching what “mark and avoid” means?
Continuing in this other and secondary layer, is Paul telling us to publish such a teacher on the distinction of Law and Gospel when his idea about the Law is that the God’s Law is an inauthentic word of God; when he and his school of theology dub the orthodox Lutheran doctrine of vicarious satisfaction a false “legal scheme?” The rejection of the orthodox Lutheran doctrine of Christ’s work of atonement is tied together with such a teacher’s heterodox idea of Law and Gospel, yet we publish him on Law and Gospel, thinking we have successfully siloed his teachings. Is that what “mark and avoid” means?
However that other and secondary layer may be, at the
primary level, the “moderates” never could waterboard “mark and void them”
enough to get it to confess “publish them when they say something true.”
 Michael Middendorf, Romans 9-16 – Concordia Commentary (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2016), 1573
 Armin J. Panning, The People’s Commentary: Romans, rev. ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2004), 252.
 Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1950), III.425.
 Panning, op cit., 252-253.
 T. R. Halvorson, “When Doctrinal Review Misses a Question,” Steadfast Lutherans, March 6, 2023, https://steadfastlutherans.org/2023/03/when-doctrinal-review-misses-a-question/.
 Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible, New Testament (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1922), II.85.
 Chapter 1, pp. 33-35, T . R. Halvorson, Vicarious Satisfaction in Lutheran Catechisms, Confessions, and Hymns (Sidney, MT: Synoptic Text Information Services, Inc., 2023).
 See Johannes Quenstedt and Robert D. Preus, Atonement in Lutheran Orthodoxy: Johannes Quenstedt (Sidney, MT: Synoptic Text Information Services, Inc. 2023), where Quenstedt provides exegesis of many Scriptural texts that teach the atonement.
 Chapter 2 in T. R. Halvorson, Vicarious Satisfaction in Lutheran Catechisms, Confessions, and Hymns (Sidney, MT: Synoptic Text Information Services, Inc., 2023).
 Chapter 3 in T . R. Halvorson, Vicarious Satisfaction in Lutheran Catechisms, Confessions, and Hymns (Sidney, MT: Synoptic Text Information Services, Inc., 2023).
 Chapter 4 in T . R. Halvorson, Vicarious Satisfaction in Lutheran Catechisms, Confessions, and Hymns (Sidney, MT: Synoptic Text Information Services, Inc., 2023).
 T. R. Halvorson, “Vicarious Satisfaction in Liturgy: Agnus Dei (Lamb of God),” Steadfast Lutherans, February 28, 2023, https://steadfastlutherans.org/2023/02/vicarious-satisfaction-in-liturgy-agnus-dei-lamb-of-god/
T. R. Halvorson, “Vicarious Satisfaction in Liturgy: Invocation,” Steadfast Lutherans, February 9, 2023, https://steadfastlutherans.org/2023/01/vicarious-satisfaction-in-liturgy-invocation/
T. R. Halvorson, “Vicarious Satisfaction in Liturgy: Worship in General,” Steadfast Lutherans, December 14, 2022, https://steadfastlutherans.org/2022/12/vicarious-satisfaction-in-liturgy-worship-in-general/
 Chapter 1, pp. 13-15, T . R. Halvorson, Vicarious Satisfaction in Lutheran Catechisms, Confessions, and Hymns (Sidney, MT: Synoptic Text Information Services, Inc., 2023).
 A Short Explanation of Dr. Martin Luther’s Small Catechism: A Handbook of Christian Doctrine (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1943), rev’d 1965, 106.
 Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1991), 125-125.
 Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2017),
 “What Are You Taught About Redemption?” Steadfast Lutherans, August 16, 2022, https://steadfastlutherans.org/2022/08/what-are-you-taught-about-redemption/
 Pieper, op cit., II.344.
 “Preface to the Christian Book of Concord,” Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, 2nd ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006), 3 (Scripture references in brackets in the CPH Reader’s Edition as set forth in the quotation here).
 See also T. R. Halvorson, “Who Causes Division and Offense,” Steadfast Lutherans, August 9, 2022, https://steadfastlutherans.org/2022/08/who-causes-division-and-offense/
 Panning, op cit., 252.
 Kretzmann, op. cit., 84.
 Middendorf, op cit, 1577.
 Middendorf, op cit., 1578.
 Pieper, op cit., 427.
 Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther, Pastorale, 82 as quoted in Pieper, op cit. 50.
 Caveat: What is presented is a composite of what multiple members of that school teach, but it must be remembered that no school is a monolith. Not everything that is said of the school as a whole is necessarily true of every member of the school on every point.
 Overlooking that, while, yes, Christ was judicially murdered, nevertheless, He said, “I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again.” John 10:17-18. The death of Christ, while a murder on our part, was a voluntary, substitutionary sacrifice on Christ’s part.
 Steven D. Paulson, Lutheran Theology (London: T & T Clark, 2011), 105.