Romans 16:19, “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.”
Christian leaders must keep a close watch on the flocks under their care, and in so doing, they are to have a particular concern for the “naive” or “simple.” Paul indicates as much in Romans 16:18 when he points out that those whom false teachers are apt to lead astray are those who are naive, that is, relatively unlearned in the faith and not wise to the way that Satan works in the world. That such people are particularly susceptible to false teaching is obvious, and the elders of the church need to keep a watchful eye on them.
We need to take care here, for although Paul wants the leaders of the church to pay close attention to the simple, he does not intend for those who are infants in Christ to stay that way. He wants everyone to grow to maturity in the Lord (Eph. 4:11-16). There is a good kind of simplicity, namely, simple dependence on God and His Word. As young children rely on their parents without question, so must we rely on the Lord (Matt. 18:1-4). But we are not to be simpleminded and content with our current knowledge of doctrine and present understanding of what a life pleasing to God entails. In fact, the more we know about the Lord and His character and faithfulness, the easier it is to have that simple, unquestioning reliance on Him that He seeks. The more we know Him, the more reasons we have to trust Him.
Yet simple dependence on our Creator and His provision does not exhaust the meaning of God-honoring simplicity. Paul explains in today’s passage that believers are to be “innocent as to what is evil” (Rom. 16:19). The Apostle does not commend naivete regarding the ways of the world here, for those who do not understand how sin works in the world are among the naive whom false teachers may easily lead astray (v. 18). Paul wants us to be innocent in an experiential sense. We should, however, be able to recognize evil. All believers should have a basic understanding of fallen human nature and how it ever seeks its own ends. Nevertheless, we are not to be practitioners of evil. Though sin will never be wholly absent from us until our glorification (1 John 1:8-9), that is not an excuse for us to become experts in the practice of sin. We are not to be so thoroughly acquainted with evil that we fall into sin ourselves.
Paul, then, exhorts us to wisdom in the practice of what is good and pleasing to the Lord (Rom. 16:19). It is not enough to be doctrinally sound—though that is essential. In addition to grasping true theology with our minds, we must seek expertise in doing what is good.
Knowing what orthodox, biblical Christianity teaches is not difficult. In fact, even unbelievers can know what the Bible says. But head knowledge is not enough. Doctrine must penetrate our hearts so that we are convicted to repent of sin and seek to do what is good. As we study the things of the Lord, let us continually ask Him to use what we study to bring us to repentance and to establish our hearts with the desire and understanding needed to do what He seeks from us.