Let’s begin by comparing two passages in this letter: Romans 8:28-30 and 10:14-17. Both passages describe a sequence of events. And in both passages, the sequence of events lead to final salvation. Now the Romans 8 passage differs from the Romans 10 passage in that God does all the acting. God is the subject of foreknowing, predestining, calling, justifying, and glorifying. It might seem, at least on a superficial reading of those verses, that they imply that there is no role that mankind plays in the working out of God’s redemptive and saving plan. However, the verses we will be considering this morning affirm that we do play a significant part. Balanced theology affirms both Romans 8 and 10: both passages describe how people are saved, and what must happen for us to be saved.
It is important that we not only recognize the fundamental place that God’s decree plays in the outworking of history, but we must also recognize that God’s decree does not nullify the responsibility of man and the seriousness of human decisions. And we must not think that because we can’t understand how they go together therefore they must not be compatible. Remember the great example of Paul’s experience of shipwreck in Acts 27. During the storm, God promised that no lives would be lost (27:22-25). Paul essentially encourages the sailors and soldiers by informing them of God’s purpose and decree – that no one would die in the storm. But if you look a few verses down, when the sailors try to escape the ship, leaving every one else to fend for themselves, Paul says this to the centurion, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved” (31). How are those two things compatible? If you apply the logic that non-Calvinists use, the fact that God had promised – unconditionally – that no one would be lost, must mean that it wouldn’t matter whether the sailors stayed or left. But that is not the logic of the apostle Paul and it is not the logic of Scripture! God’s decree in that instance did not cancel the care that needed to be taken with regard to the safety of the ship’s passengers (the converse is also true!). So we have no reason to think that God’s unchanging decree in the matter of salvation must therefore cancel out the responsibility we bear in the matter of salvation.
It reminds me what Elder John Leland once said. Leland was a Baptist preacher in Virginia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He pointed out that if a preacher is never accused of sometimes being an Arminian and sometimes accused of being a Calvinist, it is because they are not preaching the whole counsel of God. If you preach Romans 8-9 correctly, you are going to be accused of being a Calvinist. If you preach Romans 10 correctly, some people are going to accuse you of bailing on the doctrines of grace. But to be balanced, we must preach both.
Or consider Acts 2:23, in which Peter explains what happened at the cross: “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hand of lawless men.” Here we are reminded that the decree of God did not render the decisions of the Jewish leaders blameless and did not invalidate their moral significance. Even so, God’s decree that the elect be saved does not make a human response to God either insignificant or unnecessary. We must hold to both.
Thus, the passage we are considering this morning clearly affirms the necessity of hearing the gospel to be saved: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (17). We are justified by faith, and surely we cannot imagine anyone being saved apart from being justified before God. But faith comes by hearing, hearing the gospel, which is communicated by human messengers. It is the reason why God commissioned Paul to be an apostle in the first place: “to open their [the Gentiles’] eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18).
The fact of the matter is that natural revelation is not enough to save. The whole point of Romans 1:21, ff, is that the testimony of nature only serves to leave men without excuse, not that it can save. This is the same point made in 1 Cor. 1:21, which reads, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” The world does not know God through its own wisdom, that is, through the wisdom available through the created order. We can’t know God in this way because our eyes and our hearts are blinded through sin. And the history of the world bears this out. Men don’t end up naturally gravitating toward true religion but toward false religion and idolatry. So what has God done? He doesn’t save men and women through their own wisdom but chooses to save us through the preaching of the gospel.
You see this demarcation between natural and special revelation in Psalm 19, which Paul actually quotes in verse 18. In verses 1-6, the psalmist celebrates the universal reach of natural revelation. It indeed declares the glory of God, but nowhere are we told that it holds any saving power for those who live under its sway. On the other hand, special revelation in terms of God’s law is celebrated in verses 7-14. Here we are told that the law revives the soul and makes wise the simple (7), enlightens the eyes (8), warns us and gives us great reward (11). The word of God gives us wisdom in ways the created order on its own could never do. We need the word of God, and in particular, we need the gospel.
So the central claim of these verses is that it is God’s purpose for people to hear the gospel and be saved. We see this worked out in two ways. First, in the sequence delineated in verses 14-17. And second, in the Scriptures discussed in verses 18-20.
The necessity of the gospel seen in the sequence delineated (14-17)
Paul works backwards from the effect to the cause. Through a series of questions, he demonstrates that we must not expect people to call on the Lord and be saved who have not first heard the gospel. “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?’ So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” God sends preachers of the gospel, and their message is heard by some who believe it and call upon the name of the Lord and are saved.
The questions that the apostle asks are rhetorical. In other words, the answers are obvious – we should not expect those who have never heard the gospel to believe it and call upon the name of the Lord and be saved. And that means that missions are necessary and a part of God’s plan and purpose to extend his kingdom and to bring his elect home. Paul sums it all up in verse 17: “faith comes from hearing and hearing through the word of Christ.” This clearly shows that the very least we can say is that it is God’s ordinary way of working to bring people to faith through the preaching of the gospel to them.
This is a purpose for both Jew and Gentile. We know this because the verses preceding the sequence in verses 14-17 are universal: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him” (12). And that extends to the present time: it is God’s will today that people hear the gospel in order to be saved. It is the reason why Jesus gave the church the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations [not just some of them!], baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:19-20). It is a commission to the church in every age, down to the end of the world.
I would ask the young people here in our congregation to consider the possibility that God may be calling you to serve in the ministry of world missions. Now that doesn’t mean that we don’t all have the obligation and privilege to be sharing the gospel and making disciples. We all do. But there are some who are specially called and sent out to reach those who are unreached, who are called to go into all the nations. It is a special and blessed calling. Indeed, “how beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things” (15, KJV). And know that if God has called you for this, know that he will also gift you for it. As one missionary put it, “Those whom God calls, he uses!”
Before we leave these verses, what about verse 16? This seems out of place. What is Paul doing here, quoting as he is Isaiah 53:1? What he is saying is that though this is a sequence which leads to salvation, yet it is not an inevitable sequence. In other words, this is different from 8:29-30. In that sequence one thing leads inevitably to another leading ultimately to glorification. But here, just because the gospel is preached doesn’t mean that people will respond to it. That doesn’t make it any the more necessary, but it is important that we remember this, or we will ultimately give up in discouragement. We need to remember that even when we have presented the gospel in the most winsome way possible, there will be some who will simply not believe. After all, if people rejected the gospel preached at the mouth of our Lord, should we expect any the less from us?
The necessity of the gospel seen in the Scriptures discussed (18-21)
You also see the need for the gospel in the Scriptures referenced in these verses. Remember that Paul is arguing why so many Gentiles have embraced the faith and why so many in Israel had rejected the gospel. For many Jews, this was the exact opposite of what they would have expected. So one of the things the apostle is saying is that the Jews cannot complain that they have not heard the gospel. But he is also saying that they should have known that this is the way it would unfold, because this was predicted in the OT. God predicted that many in Israel would reject his word while many among the nations would embrace it and be saved. Going back to the point of 9:5, they can’t argue that God’s word has been invalidated because God is fulfilling his word in the way things were coming to pass.
But an important implication of these verses is that it is God’s will for his word to be disseminated throughout all the world. In verse 18, Paul quotes Ps. 19:4, which is about general revelation. But what the apostle is doing with it is arguing that just as general revelation is means to be universal, so it is with the gospel. It is God’s purpose for the gospel to spread through all the nations. And if we are going to be people who want the will of God for their lives, we ought also to be people who want to see the gospel spread through all the nations. Does that reflect our heart?
Now Paul quotes this verse as if it has already been fulfilled. But we must not press the language here. After all, in chapter 15, he shares with the Roman believers that it was his “ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation” (15:20), and this was the reason he wanted to badly to go to Spain (24). I think he is simply saying that the outworking of God’s purpose had already begun.
In verses 19-21, the apostle argues that this universal spread of the gospel, which would gather in many Gentiles (19-20) and leave many in Israel unchanged (21), was prophesied in Scripture, in particular in Deut. 32:21 and in Isa. 65:1-2.
I think the Isaiah passage is particularly interesting. Paul clearly applies verse 1 to the Gentiles and verse 2 to the Jews. What is interesting about this is that it once again underlines the compatibility of both sovereign grace and human responsibility. We see sovereign grace in that the Gentiles are described as those who weren’t even seeking after God. And yet God was found by them. How? Because he had shown himself to them. In other words, it is God’s sovereign initiate that is to explain the salvation of the Gentiles, not their goodness or their cleverness or their religiousness. On the other hand, we can see the reason for this in the attitude of the Jews, which really just mirrors the universal human condition: we are people who will, if left to ourselves, reject God’s offers of mercy. We need the grace of God, not only to help us, but to save us, from beginning to end.
On the other hand, we see the responsibility of those who rejected the gospel. Those who refuse to believe are described as those who do not obey God, implying culpability and guilt in such refusal (see verses 16 and 21). It is true that apart from God’s grace we cannot and will not embrace the gospel. But that does not mean that we are not still obligated to obey it.
Now some people will argue that God could never require a response to the gospel if we don’t have a native ability on our own, apart from grace, to respond. In other words, they reason from the commands of Scripture to an ability of our own (again, apart from grace) to obey the commands. This is one of the arguments that the Catholic scholar Erasmus made against Martin Luther in the day of the Reformation. To which Luther responded, in his inimitable fashion: “Even grammarians and schoolboys at street corners know that nothing more is signified by verbs in the imperative mood than what ought to be done, and that what is done or can be done should be expressed by verbs in the indicative. How is it that you theologians are twice as stupid as schoolboys, in that as soon as you get hold of a single imperative verb you infer an indicative meaning, as though the moment a thing is commanded it is done, or can be done?”
Nevertheless, the main point of this all is to show that it is God’s will for the gospel to spread through all the nations. And if that is God’s desire, it ought to be ours as well.
At this point, I think it is necessary to answer a couple of objections which are often raised against this view that the gospel is necessary for salvation. As a passing remark, I find it interesting that, in my experience, the first is an objection that is shared by unbelievers or liberal theologians and hyper-Calvinists!
Obj. 1. What about infants, the mentally incapacitated, and those who live in places where the gospel has never been heard? Doesn’t this imply that they can never be saved? And wouldn’t that make God unjust?
Ans. 1. What Paul is describing here is God’s normal method of saving people – God’s decree is usually realized in those who hear the gospel and believe (Acts 13:48). The salvation of Cornelius is instructive here (Acts 10-11). God sent an angel to him, not to preach the gospel to him, but to tell him to send for Peter who would preach the gospel to him whereby he would be saved (cf. 11:14). Couldn’t the angel have preached the gospel to him? Of course he could have. We mustn’t think the angels are ignorant of God’s saving purposes – after all, they make up the audience before whom the drama of redemption is played (Eph. 3:10). Nevertheless, God didn’t let the angle preach to Cornelius – he made him send for Peter! This shows us just how committed God is to having men preach the gospel so that his people are gathered into his kingdom.
Just as it is necessary for the sun to rise and set in its normal cycle for life to exist on the earth, that does not mean that sometimes God can’t change things (as in Josh. 10). We can’t put God in a box. However, we must also be honest with the testimony of Scripture that God uses the gospel to bring men and women to faith, and more than that, that this is normally the way it happens. At the same time, we must also recognize that infants who die before being able to receive the gospel are not then unable to enter eternal glory. After all, the hearing of faith is the means, not the basis, of our salvation: Christ and his righteousness are. Infants dying in infancy are saved on the basis of Christ’s work, just as anyone else is. So there is a place for exceptions.
Ans. 2. We must also remember, especially when considering the case of the unevangelized, that God is not unjust to let them perish without ever hearing the gospel. We are reminded, for example in Rom. 2:14-15, that God has not left himself without witness, and though men in such cases will not be judged for rejecting a gospel which they never heard, they will nevertheless perish because they don’t live up to the law of God witnessed to by their own consciences.
Couldn’t the Holy Spirit work in such people and places apart from the gospel? Of course that’s possible. But the witness of Scripture goes in another direction: it indicates that where the Holy Spirit works, God will send the gospel (cf. Acts 18:10). So we need to urgently pray for and generously support as we can those who are bringing the gospel to the unreached.
Again, the fundamental problem with the foregoing objections is that they do not square with the Biblical passages, like our text. The questions themselves are not based on Biblical considerations of text and context. We must always and ever calibrate and adjust our theological bearings on questions like this by the language and direction which the Biblical text itself gives to us.
Obj. 2. How is this compatible with the doctrine of election? Doesn’t this make God’s saving purpose conditional upon human effort?
Ans. Some would argue that because God has elected some to eternal life and this election necessarily leads to their salvation, therefore it is incompatible to argue that our salvation in any sense depends upon missions and the preaching of the gospel. Like one preacher put it to William Carey, “Young man, if God wants to save his elect, he will do it without your help and without mine!”
But what we need to remember is that God’s decree is realized through the preaching of the gospel. Election does not make missions unnecessary; in some sense, it makes missions essential. Remember how Paul put it to the Thessalonians: “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification of the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 2:13-14). Here we see that we are chosen to believe and we are called to believe through the gospel.
Now that does not make election to hang in an ultimate sense upon human effort, because faith is the gift of God, and the call of God secures the response of faith. So God creates the faith by which we receive the gospel and are saved.
So this passage deals with two excuses we might raise for not sharing the gospel. First, that it doesn’t matter whether we do or not because of the doctrine of election. But Paul clearly does not reason that way, and neither should we. Second, that people will reject the message. But Paul argues that even if people do, God is still glorified, his purpose will be served, and his people will be saved.
So what should we do? Let me leave you with four closing considerations.
First, we should want to have and should pray for a burden for souls. The fundamental problem with people is not economic or ignorance in general, but spiritual.
Second, We should share the gospel as God gives us opportunity through gospel conversations in the spheres in which God has placed us.
Third, we should live in such a way as to not to bring our message into disrepute, which is part, I think, of being “ready” as Peter put it in 1 Pet. 3:15.
Finally, we should support those who carry the gospel to unevangelized peoples, and to be ready to go ourselves.
 Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (trans. by J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston, 1957), p. 159.