In the book of Acts, we have this stirring story of the conversion of the Philippian jailor (Acts 16:25-34). This is the man who threw Paul and Silas into the “inner prison” and “fastened their feet in the stocks” (24), not exactly the most comfortable way to spend the night, especially given the fact that they had been brutally beaten with “many blows” (23). Nevertheless, Paul and Silas didn’t wallow in their disappointment with the situation; instead, they “were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them” (26). At this point, God sent an earthquake and opened the prison doors. It awakened the jailor, who was about to commit suicide, supposing that the prisoners had escaped (not only his job, but his very life, depended on his ability to keep the prisoners in). But Paul stops him, and assures him that no one had left. It is at this point that the jailor realizes that the message about God he had presumably been hearing from these men was true, and at the same time realizes his danger, for he had been opposing this God. And so he cries out: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (30). To which Paul answers, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (31). The jailor did just that. He, along with his entire house, believe and are baptized (33-34). This is precisely the answer Paul now gives to his reader in Romans 10 in the text will are considering this morning.
It is to me a tragic thing that perhaps most people in our time do not think this is a very important or urgent question at all. More than that, many charge that this preoccupation with being saved is an impediment to the kinds of change we really need, things like salvation from poverty or oppression. They will say that the call to be saved from something future like hell or the wrath of God is a distraction from more pressing social concerns. They will even charge that getting people to focus on the future has in fact been used to oppress people and keep them down in the present.
This is, of course, nonsense. I think an unassailable argument can be made (and has been) that when the church has been most focused on the eternal, it has also been the most earthly good. Take the primitive church, for example. They were certainly very focused on the eternal and the age to come and yet at the same time they were also very concerned about alleviating earthly ills whenever and wherever they could. Now, I’m not denying that professing Christians in positions of power have at various points in history abused their power, and even used the church to aid and abet them in their pursuit of ill-gotten gains. But they did not do this by applying Biblical principles: they did so by denying them. True Christianity leads to the alleviation of soul and body, both in this age and in the age to come. We must never forget that hospitals and orphanages belonged historically to the purview of the church, not the state. The state didn’t invent these institutions; in many places it has simply displaced the church as the one that governs and runs them.
Nevertheless, it is a red herring to say that a preoccupation with getting to heaven is a distraction to more pressing earthly concerns. Really? How is it, I ask, that earthly concerns are more pressing than the eternal? Imbedded in this objection is the assumption that earthly problems are more important than the eternal abode of the soul. It is to say that facing God’s wrath against our sin is no great shakes compared to living under the poverty line. And that, I say, is idiotic. It is absolutely insane to argue that where you spend eternity is not as important as the latest talking point among the politicians.
It is the easiest thing in the world to ridicule Christianity now for its insistence upon the eternal and on getting right with God. But when at the Final Judgment you stand before the God of the universe and he asks you why he should let you into heaven and you can can’t open your mouth because you realize you have nothing to say, you will finally and tragically understand that it was not the Christian who was the insane one, it was yourself. If you will not flee from the wrath to come, you will inevitably be engulfed by it.
The question, “What must I do to be saved?” is therefore not something we can afford on which to be wrong. Again, it is the very question to which the apostle Paul addresses himself in the passage we are considering. And it behooves us to hear what the apostle Paul has to say on this subject. For this is not someone who arrived at his conclusions after staring at his navel for weeks on end. This is not someone who got his wisdom from the elites who have again and again been found to be wrong. Rather, Paul is someone who got his message from the Lord of heaven. “For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11-12). This is an authoritative message, and we urgently need to hear it.
But there are other dangers besides various alternatives to the gospel. Among Christians who accept the basic facts of the NT record, there can often be serious disagreement as to what constitutes a true conversion and what it means to be saved. There are a couple of dangers in this category I want to mention.
First of all, there is the danger of making conversion more than it really is. This is what has often happened when dramatic and sudden conversion experiences of others in history are used as a template for all conversions. We read or are told of this or that dramatic conversion, and it is so obviously a work of the Lord, that we begin to wonder if we have been truly saved because ours is not exactly like that. You see the problem: it leads inevitably to a lack of assurance in those who have in many cases been truly saved. However, the problem with this kind of thinking is that in point of fact everyone’s conversion will be different in terms of their personal experience of the transition from spiritual death to life. One of the reasons for this is because conversion takes into account our own personalities. And we are all different, and therefore we should not be surprised when our conversion experience is different from that of another person.
But second, there is the danger of making conversion less than it really is. On one hand, there are those who think that all the gospel demands of us is to be nice people. As long as you are a good citizen and a nice person, you are deemed to be saved. But this is not what the gospel demands of us. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” You may be a nice person and a good neighbor; but if you are not a conscious disciple of Jesus Christ, then you are not saved according to the gospel which Paul and the apostles of Christ proclaimed.
On the other hand, even among those who recognize that the gospel demands more than mere niceness, there is nevertheless the tendency to dumb it down, and to make it nothing more than a call for people to sign their names on a card or to say a canned prayer. There is no call for repentance from sins, especially specific sins in the life. They are content for people to have Christ as Savior who will never have him as Lord. But as we shall see, this also is foreign to the Biblical gospel proclaimed by Paul.
Whereas the first danger has the tendency to squash true assurance, this second danger has the tendency to create false assurance.
So what does Paul say? He says at least four things. In this passage we see the impossibility of the gospel’s alternatives (5), the accessibility of the gospel’s message (6-7), the simplicity of the gospel’s demands (8-10), and the universality of the gospel’s call (11-13).
The impossibility of the gospel’s alternatives (5).
Our text begins this way: “For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them” (5). Paul says in verse 4 that the reason so many Jews were ignorant of God’s righteousness (1-3) is because they failed to see that Christ was the goal of the law. They failed to see that the law did not point to itself as the means whereby we become righteous before God through good works. They failed to see that it pointed to Christ as the one who fulfilled its righteous requirement and in whom every sacrifice found its antitype. They failed to see that those who are united to Christ by faith are made righteous, not those who by law-keeping seek to become righteous.
Verse 5 is a confirmation from Lev. 18:5 of verse 4. It is a confirmation because it shows the impossibility of being saved by the law. Paul had said the same thing to the Galatians: “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ But the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them’” (Gal. 3:11-12). What Paul is saying, I think, is this: if you want to be saved by the law, then you must be saved on its principles. And the fundamental principle of the law is that its blessings depend on obedience. If you are seeking salvation as the blessing expected from the law, then the only way you can get it through the law is by perfectly obeying its commands. And no has even done that, nor can do that (cf. Rom. 7:10).
In other words, Paul’s Jewish relatives made two interrelated mistakes. They failed to see the true end (goal) to which the law pointed, and therefore they mistook the law as a means to gain salvation through works.
Now, though Paul was referring to the Mosaic law, it applies to anyone who is seeking to establish their own righteousness before God. This text teaches us to beware of just doing the best you can and relying on that to get you into a right relationship with God. And that basically is every alterative there is to the gospel. If you are not relying on the righteousness of God in Christ, then you are relying on a righteousness of your own.
This does not, of course, mean that it doesn’t matter how we live. It doesn’t mean that we do not live under the authority of God’s law. It does not mean that holiness is not important or that sin is not the calamity that it is. God is still holy and he will have no fellowship with evil. Of course we should not sin. But that is just the problem. Our hearts and lives have been warped by sin and we cannot put them up against the perfect standard of God’s law and expect them to be judged to be straight. God’s law is like a medical exam that is meant to diagnose a disease. But we must not mistake the exam for the cure! God’s law is meant to show us our sin and to show us that we need to be saved from it. But in showing us our need for salvation the law itself is telling us that it cannot save us – we cannot save ourselves by our good works.
What does this mean for you and me? It means that the first step to true conversion is recognizing my own inability to save myself, that the righteousness which I desperately need is outside of myself. It means that I need to recognize the sin in me, to see sin in terms of specific sins, and to see the extent to which they control us. It means that we need to see how hateful sin is, not only because of what it is and will do to us but because it is hateful to the God in whom we live and move and have our being. For until we see the rot that is in our soul, we will remain convinced either that it is nothing serious, or we will remain convinced that it is something we can take care on our own terms and in our own time.
The accessibility of the gospel’s message (6-7).
The apostle continues: “But the righteousness based on faith says, ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?”’ (that is, to bring Christ down) ‘or “Who will descend into the abyss?”’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead)” (6-7). In these verses, Paul grounds the call of the gospel in the work of Christ for us in his redemptive life, death, and resurrection, and shows that what is inaccessible through the law has become accessible to us in Christ.
However, before we look at the next element essential to true conversion, we need to consider the role of verses 6-8 in the overall context of the argument. It appears that Paul is quoting loosely from Deut. 30:12-14. But how is he using this OT text in his argument? There are two problems that on the surface appear in Paul’s use of this text. The first problem is that it looks like he is pitting one OT text against another. The second problem is that it looks like he is offering an interpretation of the Deuteronomy text which is not faithful to its meaning in the original context. What then do we say to these things?
First, Paul is not pitting Moses in Leviticus against Moses in Deuteronomy. He is not saying that in one place, Moses taught salvation by works and in another he taught salvation by faith. Those who accuse Paul of doing this fail to properly understand how he is using the Deuteronomy passage.
The fact of the matter is that Paul was not offering an interpretation of the Deuteronomy passage, which was about the law, not Christ. He is simply using OT language to illustrate the nature of the righteousness by faith, in particular, its accessibility to us. He is putting it this way to underscore the fact that what was impossible by the law is possible in Christ. You can see this in the way the apostle frames the Deuteronomy quotation: “But the righteousness of faith speaks like this” (6, my translation – the word houtos is untranslated in the ESV, but which is translated as “on this wise” in the KJV). In other words, Paul is saying that the righteousness of faith comes to us in a way similar to the way the law came to Israel. What is this similarity? It is our easy access to it. As John Stott put it, Paul “is not claiming either that Moses explicitly foretold the death and resurrection of Jesus, or that he preached the gospel under the guise of the law. No. The similarity he sees and stresses between Moses’ teaching and the apostles’ gospel lies in their easy accessibility” (Stott, Romans, p. 284).
The whole point, therefore, of verses 6-8 to contrast the availability of the faith righteousness with the impossibility of works/law righteousness. Just as the law was easily accessible to Israel, for God brought it to them, so Christ has brought righteousness to those who believe. There is no need for us to storm the ramparts of heaven or to plumb the depths of the earth, for the work has already been done by Christ.
Paul thus uses the Deuteronomy passage negatively and positively. Negatively, the message of the gospel tells us to not act as if Christ was never born or never rose again. It accepts what Jesus did as a sure foundation for a saving righteousness (6-7). Positively, it confesses and believes in Jesus as Lord and Savior (8-10).
But the point is this: the gospel message of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ is what God has done in Christ to save us. He is the one who has made salvation accessible to us. He has done for us what we could never do for ourselves.
It is important for us to understand that the essence of the gospel is not in how we respond to the message of Jesus’ life and death, but in the message of his redemptive work itself. That’s not to say that the response is unimportant, and Paul will go on to deal with that. But if we don’t get the message right we won’t get the response right either. What the apostle is saying in these verses is that God has accomplished our redemption through Christ. Salvation is not achieved by acting as if Christ never came. And the gospel message is not primarily a list of tasks for us to do, but first and foremost it is to recognize that though I cannot save myself, Christ has done what I cannot do.
The apostle anchors our salvation in the incarnation and resurrection of Christ (and everything in between). Our response to this message is not to add to his work. Christ did not bring salvation just out of our reach; no, he brought it to us, he made it accessible. He doesn’t need us to supplement his work; he has done the work for us. The gospel is not a new law, it is not Sinai 2.0. The gospel rather is the good news that the righteousness of God can come to us on the basis of what Jesus did in his substitutionary life and death. That is the point of verses 6-7.
The simplicity of the gospel’s demands (8-10).
Very well, the good news, the gospel, is announced. How shall we respond? What response is demanded of us? Paul tells us: “But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because [better, that] if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (8-10).
Here we see that the response demanded in the gospel is one that corresponds to the news given. If it is true that Jesus Christ has finished the work of redemption, if it is true that he has accomplished salvation for us, then redemption and righteousness as a whole is something which we must receive from him. How do we receive it? We receive it by faith. The word preached is thus “the word of faith.”
Faith is the means by which we receive the free gift of salvation and righteousness. Faith is the open-hand of the beggar who comes pleading for grace and mercy from the Most High. It is fitting for us to receive salvation in this way, because in faith and trust we look outside of ourselves. It is impossible to be truly trusting in Christ for salvation while leaning on your own goodness and righteousness.
Nevertheless, this is not mere lip confession. Nor is the faith that saves an empty faith, a mere cognitive acquiescence to certain truths. The faith that saves is a faith the comes from the heart, from the very center of the human soul, and carries with it our will and affections.
Why does Paul put in confession though? Why does he make salvation in some sense depend on it? He doesn’t do so because confession is what makes us worthy before God. He does so because confessing Christ is the necessary concomitant of saving faith. What I mean by this is that if you truly believe in Jesus you will confess him before men. Confessing Christ, then, is not the ground of our salvation, it is the evidence of it. Confession and faith go together. Where confession is lacking, you can be sure that faith is lacking also. Someone who will not confess Christ is someone who has not trusted in him for his salvation.
I think it is also important to note how it is that we receive Christ: we confess with our mouths (expressing our faith) Jesus as Lord. This is parallel to believing that Jesus rose from the dead, and in the NT we see one as the evidence of the other (1:4; Acts 2:36; Eph. 1:19-21). Resurrection proves lordship (14:9). This is very significant.
First of all, it is a recognition of the divinity of Jesus Christ. The word here (kyrios) is used more than 6000 times in the LXX to represent the Tetragrammaton. In Phil. 2:9, “Lord” is the “name which is above every name.” In verse 13 of our text, Christ as Lord is the object of prayer, and this is also significant since prayer to anyone other than God was to a Jew, as someone put it, “utterly repugnant” (also note the OT context of the verse 13, which is Joel 2:32). C.E.B. Cranfield puts it this way: “We take it for granted that, for Paul, the confession that Jesus is Lord meant the acknowledgment that Jesus shares the name and the nature, the holiness, the authority, power, majesty, and eternity of the one and only true God” (Cranfield, Romans [ICC, vol 2], p. 529).
Second, it is a recognition of ownership, of belonging to Jesus as a servant belong to his master, so that mere confession with no regard to the claims of Christ on the life is spurious and absurd. Remember Paul’s confession in 1:1; it must be the confession of every one who claims the name of Christ.
Sometimes you will hear well-meaning Christians put down “Lordship salvation” as if it is introducing a new kind of legalism into Christianity. But my friends, it is not. There is no other kind of salvation; if you do not receive Christ as Lord, and if your life does not bear out that relationship, then you are not saved. For the stunning announcement, “you will be saved” (9,cf. ver. 10, 11, 13) is only given to those who receive and believe in Jesus as the risen Lord.
This is where a good understanding of the total picture the Bible gives us of salvation is so important. Faith does not come out of nowhere. It is the gift of God, created in the heart by the Holy Spirit who regenerates us and brings us out of a state of spiritual death. In doing so, he makes us new creatures, gives us new affections, and begets in us new desires. Faith is born in that context, so saving faith is also a holy faith. Now it is true that it is not the nature of our faith that saves us, it is its object; but there is only one kind of faith that will receive the righteousness of God in Christ and that is a faith which is holy and which would never demur to receive Christ as Lord and to bow the knee to him in love and trust. Is that true of you?
The universality of the gospel’s call (11-13).
This is the point of verses 11-13: the word of salvation does not depend on one’s race or heritage or spiritual background or age or rank or past. It depends only on faith and therefore is open to all. So Paul writes, “For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’ 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. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”
Note the emphasis in the words everyone (11), no difference . . . unto all (12), and whosoever (13).
There is great encouragement in these words. They include anyone who will believe on Christ, no matter who they are or where they come from. If you believe on Christ, you will not be put to shame – that is to say, you will be able to stand before the awful judgment seat of Almighty God with absolute confidence. And you will receive the bestowment of the riches of Christ forever (cf. Eph. 2:7). And you will be saved.
I once heard or read R. C. Sproul say that, even though he did not embrace the Roman Catholic belief in the power of the priest to forgive sin, he could understand why people would want to hear a priest say to them, with authority, “Your sins are forgiven.” But, my friends, we don’t need a priest to tell us that, because God himself is saying it to us right here. He is saying it to us here in Romans 10 and in Isaiah 28:16 and in Joel 2:32. If you trust in Christ and receive him as your Lord and Savior, God himself is saying to you, “You will be saved.” Your sins are forgiven! How much more assurance could you have, do you need?
A friend of mine said that for a long time he struggled with the assurance of his salvation. But then one day he read Rom. 10:13 and realized that all the assurance he needed was the assurance offered him in that promise, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” He took God at his word and found rest for his soul. Will you? Come to Christ, find in him all the grace of God to poor and weary sinners.