What About Those Who Haven’t Heard? An Exposition of Romans 10

During his 30-year career, the Apostle Paul personally carried the gospel to some of the most important and populous cities along the central corridor of the Roman Empire, including Rome itself. But this work was no easy task. Paul endured incredible hardship and continually put his life on the line for the sake of the gospel, facing death time and again (2 Corinthians 11:23-28), until finally he was executed in Rome for the message he preached. History tells us that most of the other apostles met similar fates.

And through the centuries, countless others have given everything in order to get the gospel to those who haven’t heard. They were compelled by the Lord’s command (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Acts 1:8) and the conviction that those who have not heard the gospel are eternally lost (John 3:16-18; Romans 10:8-17; Revelation 20:11-15). That this was Paul’s conviction is unmistakably clear in chapter 10 of his letter to the believers in Rome:

8  But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith which we preach):
9  that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.
10  For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.
11  For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.”
12  For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him.
13  For “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
14  How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?
15  And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, Who bring glad tidings of good things!”
16  But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our report?”
17  So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.
Romans 10:8-17 (all quotes from NKJV)

In the first several chapters of Romans, Paul makes a very tightly-argued case that both Jews and Gentiles are guilty before a holy God and rightly stand under his condemnation.

8  but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness—indignation and wrath,
9  tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek;
Romans 2:8-9

9 What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin.
Romans 3:9

He also makes it clear that salvation is equally available to both Jews and Gentiles.

16  For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.
Romans 1:17

10  but glory, honor, and peace to everyone who works what is good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
11  For there is no partiality with God.
Romans 2:10-11

That there is no distinction between Jews and Gentiles with regard to salvation is what we would expect. However, as we will find, that Paul brings this up again in chapter 10 is significant in the context of the question concerning those who haven’t heard.

Despite the fact that Paul became the “apostle to the Gentiles,” he never lost his deep concern for the Jewish people who are his “countrymen according to the flesh.” This is especially evident in Romans 9-11 where he discusses the matter of Israel’s place in God’s program and also the salvation of individual Jews.

9  that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.
10  For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.
11  For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.”
Romans 10:8-11

So, the answer to the question about what a Jew must do to be saved is, “confess with your mouth … and believe in your heart.”

There is not a different way of salvation for the Jews – they must hear the gospel and respond in faith or they will be lost. And it is in this context that Paul reiterates the principle of equality between Jews and Gentiles before God concerning salvation:

12  For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him.
13  For “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Romans 10:12-13

For Jews, this is a two-edged sword. On the one side, it requires Jews to confess Jesus of Nazareth as their Messiah and Lord – which for many has been an unpalatable choice for at least a couple of reasons, not the least of which is the idea of being brought together with Gentiles into one body (Eph. 2:14-16).

On the other side, it provides the hope that God has not abandoned his people and that God has provided salvation to all who will call upon him, even if they count themselves among those who previously rejected Christ as a nation.

So, it is clear what this means for the Jews – that there is no way of salvation apart from explicit faith in Christ.

What then, are the implications, if any, for Gentiles in a passage that is primarily addressing the issue of the salvation of individual Jews? In order to fully grasp the implications for Gentiles, we must look yet further into what Paul says about the Jews – because in matters of salvation, there is no difference.

At the beginning of this section concerning the Jews, Paul writes:

1  I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit,
2  that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart.
3  For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh,
4  who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises;
5  of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen.
Romans 9:1–5

No other ethnic or religious people group has ever had the incredible advantages enjoyed by the Jewish nation. They were God’s chosen people. They were the recipients of the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 12, 15, 17), the Davidic Covenant (2 Samuel 7) and the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 36). They were given the Law of Moses (Exodus 19ff) so that as a redeemed people they would know how they should relate to their Redeemer. God had taken up residence in their midst in the tabernacle (Exodus 40)  and in the temple (1 Kings 8). They were given the prophets, priests and kings as the foundation for God’s kingdom on the earth. And it was through Israel that the Savior came into the world (Luke 2).

Not only had the first century Jews received a tremendous amount of “light,” for the most part they fervently believed what they had received and zealously lived accordingly. This is not to suggest that most of those Jews were believers nor to ignore the fact that the spirit of the law had been perverted and lost through the vain traditions of men. However, in practical terms, the Jews of Paul’s day lacked only one thing – knowledge of the gospel. And this is precisely why Paul was willing to give his all to get the gospel to them – for without knowledge of the gospel they would perish. It is in this context that Paul posed the following rhetorical questions:

(1)  How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed?
(2)  And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard?
(3)  And how shall they hear without a preacher?
(4)  And how shall they preach unless they are sent?
Romans 10:14-15a

Rhetorical questions anticipate only one response and that answer is obvious from the context and they way the question is framed. Another way of looking at it is that rhetorical questions are simply statements framed as questions. That being the case, what answer is each of these questions anticipating?

(1) “They can’t.”
(2) “They can’t.”
(3) “They can’t.”
(4) “They can’t.”

Therefore, if Jews can be saved only by calling upon the name of Christ, how can they be saved apart from hearing the gospel? Answer: They can’t.

With this in mind, the significance of Romans 10:12 becomes apparent:

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him.

The application is thus two-fold:

1) Even with all the advantages they have had throughout history, including a super-abundant amount of “light,” Jews cannot be saved apart from explicitly hearing the gospel and trusting in Christ.

2) Given that even Jews with all their advantages can’t be saved apart from hearing the gospel and given that there is no distinction between Jews and Gentiles when it comes to salvation, how much less would it be possible for a Gentile to be saved apart hearing the gospel?

Even though an increasing number of “evangelicals” are beginning to advocate or at least entertain the idea that salvation may be possible apart from hearing the gospel, such views are completely foreign to Paul’s thinking – and foreign to the overall tenor of  the New Testament in general.

We should be motivated by the Lord’s command to go into all the world and preach the gospel, as well as the personal conviction that those who haven’t heard the gospel must hear to have any hope of salvation. For us it might be little more than a theological debate. But for those who haven’t heard it is a matter of eternal significance.

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