Human Responsibility and Salvation (Romans 9:30-10:21)
C. H. Spurgeon was once asked if he could reconcile the two truths of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. “I wouldn’t try,” he replied, “I never reconcile friends.”
I am certain that many of you would desire me to attempt to relieve the tension which seems to exist between these two great doctrinal truths. I must confess that I spent some agonizing hours in my study this week trying to arrive at some penetrating new analysis of this perplexing problem which would resolve our difficulties, but no such revelations materialized.
What does impress me about the apostle Paul is that he, like Spurgeon, never attempts to reconcile the two. If I were writing Romans knowing that sovereignty and human responsibility posed such intellectual problems, I would have kept the two doctrines as far apart as possible, hoping that no one would sense their apparent incompatibility. But instead, Paul taught divine sovereignty in chapter 9 and human responsibility in chapter 10 without any word of explanation in between. In chapter 9, Paul explained the unbelief of many Israelites on the basis that God had not chosen them. In chapter 10, Paul proceeds to add that they did not choose God. Whatever difficulties it may create, Paul makes no effort to disarm the problem by defending one truth at the expense of the other, and neither, I must add, should we.
A Summary of Israel’s Present State
There is no abrupt shift from chapter 9 to chapter 10, for the argument of divine sovereignty flows easily into that of human responsibility. Verses 30-33 serve as the transition between Paul’s defense of divine sovereignty and his declaration of human responsibility.
How to be a Christian without being religious (v. 30). Verse 30 sums up the case so far as the Gentiles are concerned. Though they were not seeking righteousness, they obtained it by faith. Since the Gentiles were pagans and knew they had nothing to commend them before a righteous and holy God, they accepted God’s provision of righteousness in the Person and work of Jesus Christ by faith.
How to be religious without being a Christian (v. 31). On the contrary, Israel, who sought after righteousness, failed to arrive at it because they pursued the right goal through the wrong means. They tried to earn righteousness by the works of the Law.
The central issue: faith in Jesus Christ (vv. 32-33). The ingredient missing from Israel’s religion was faith. They had substituted their works instead, and this was unacceptable before God.
The whole issue came to a head in the Person of Jesus Christ. He was the end of the Law—both its fulfillment and its termination (cf. Col. 2:14)—for every believer. The Jews chose to retain the Law and to reject their Messiah. Christ is either a stone to occasion stumbling or a foundation upon which to rest. He will be one or the other to every individual. This is what Isaiah the prophet wrote in 8:14 and 28:16:61 “just as it is written, “Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, And he who believes in Him will not be disappointed” (Romans 9:33).
Israel’s Problem Examined
Paul begins his explanation of Israel’s failure as he did in chapter 9, with an expression of his deep and abiding love for his people. He is a ‘beloved enemy.’
Sometimes we hear the expression ‘Today has been canceled due to lack of interest.’ The problem with Israel was not in a lack of enthusiasm or effort. If sincerity and diligence were the way to heaven, Israel would be in first place, with many of the cults and “ism’s” of our day running a close second. Israel had plenty of zeal but it was misdirected due to a lack of knowledge: “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge” (Romans 10:2).
As we shall see later, this lack of knowledge was not due to a lack of revelation or innocent ignorance on the part of Israel. It was a willful and obstinate rejection of the truth as taught in the Old Testament and as further disclosed by our Lord Jesus Christ. It was the kind of ignorance which says, “Don’t confuse me with the facts; my mind is already made up.” In seeking to earn their own righteousness, they stubbornly refused to submit to the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ. Christ is, indeed, the end of the Law (v. 4) to all who believe, but the Jews preferred their interpretation of the Law to its true meaning and fulfillment.
Two Ways of Salvation Contrasted
Concerning the matter of eternal salvation, we know that there are not two ways to obtain it, but only one. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through me” (John 14:6). But in the mind of the Jews there were two ways, each in competition with the other—the way of works (law-keeping) and the way of faith (Paul’s gospel). These two ‘ways’ are contrasted in verses 5-13.
The way of works is considered first in verse 5: “For Moses writes that the one who practices the righteousness which is based on Law shall live by that righteousness.” Although Paul’s use of the Old Testament passages in these verses is difficult to explain,62 his point is clear. The way of works maintains that life is obtained through the obedience of the Law. “How do I get to heaven?” we ask the devout (and unbelieving) Jew. “Keep the Law,” he replies.
But the way of faith has a far different answer:
“But the righteousness based on faith speaks thus, “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).” 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 are preaching (Romans 10:6-8).
The way of works wrongly supposes that man must initiate salvation by prompting God to act in his behalf. This is the basis for virtually all pagan religion. Often the gods are passive and must be persuaded to act. We think of the contest between Elijah and the 400 prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. These prophets cut themselves to get the attention of their gods.
But the gospel of Jesus Christ is not so. We need do nothing at all to prompt God to save us, for it is God Who has initiated and accomplished our salvation. All we must do is to receive what God has offered in the gospel. We need not ascend into heaven as though we must solicit God’s help, for God has come to our aid by means of the incarnation. Nor do we have to ascend into the abyss to bring about our Lord’s resurrection from the dead. He has done this by His own power and on His own initiative.
Paul’s reference to bringing Christ down from heaven is not without very pointed application for these Jews who trusted in a Law-keeping righteousness, believed that if the nation Israel could keep the whole Law for one day, the Messiah would come. They really believed it was their obedience to the Law which would prompt Messiah to come to their aid.
Our salvation is not remote and removed and in need of our striving and effort. Rather it is before our very eyes. It is the salvation available in the message of the gospel and achieved on the cross of Calvary. It is, in the words of Moses, in our mouths and in our heart.
And what is the message of the gospel? “That if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved” (Romans 10:9). In this ninth verse, we learn several truths about the gospel. First, we see that it involves belief. The content of that belief is summarized by two expressions: ‘Jesus is Lord’ and ‘God hath raised Him from the dead.’ The lordship of Jesus encapsulizes the fact that Jesus is Who He claimed to be, the Son of God (deity), the Son of man (humanity), Israel’s Messiah, sovereign, infinite, omnipotent God. In the expression ‘God hath raised Him from the dead,’ we are reminded not only of the sacrificial, substitutionary death of Christ for sinners, but also of His physical, bodily resurrection from the dead. The resurrection of our Lord from the dead was the ‘sign of the prophet Jonah’ (Matthew 12:39-40), our Lord’s final authoritative vindication of all His claims.
Further, we learn that salvation involves both belief and confession, for salvation is neither head knowledge, nor lip service. We must believe God has raised Christ from the dead and we must confess Jesus as Lord. These should not be viewed as separate and opposing conditions for salvation, but as two elements of salvation. As James said, faith without works is no real saving faith, so Paul asserts that belief and confession go hand in hand. We should not forget, either, that the reason for the emphasis upon belief and confession is to be related to the quotation from Deuteronomy 30:14 where both the mouth and the heart are mentioned. With our heart we believe; with our mouth we confess; two dimensions of the same truth.
Verses 11 through 13 highlight another characteristic of the gospel of salvation by faith—it is universal in scope. The Jews trusted in salvation by works, in a righteousness attained by works. These were not just any good works, but the works demanded by the Law. Since Israel was the recipient of the Law and its custodian, they felt that only Israelites could thus be saved even by works. At the very least, Gentiles could be saved only by converting to Judaism and submitting entirely to the ordinances of the Law.
If the true gospel is the message of salvation by faith in the work of Christ in the sinner’s stead and without Law-keeping, then salvation is available to Jews and Gentiles alike. Gentiles do not need to enter heaven’s glory through the gate of Judaism. Instead, it is the Jews who must give up their ‘gate’ of works and enter through the ‘wicket gate’ of faith, to use the terminology of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
The offer of the gospel is a universal one, proclaiming salvation to all who will believe, by faith, in Christ’s death, burial and resurrection for the sinner: “For the Scripture says, ‘Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call upon Him” (Romans 10:11, 12).
Now I want this to be very clear. Although Paul has said that only those will be saved whom God has chosen in election (Romans 9:15, 18, 21-23), nevertheless, the offer of the gospel is a universal one: “For whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13, Joel 2:32). This quotation from Joel is even more emphatic in the original text, for it should read, “For all whosoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”
The Implications of a Universal Gospel
Paul has said that even though God chooses those upon whom He will bestow the gift of salvation (chapter 9), men are responsible for their rejection of the gospel. So now we must go one step further. If the gospel is truly universal in scope, including both Jews and Gentiles, then it should be proclaimed universally. God is sovereign in the initiation and accomplishment of salvation, but man is responsible for its proclamation:
How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring glad tidings of good things!” (Romans 10:14, 15).
In these two verses, we see both the duty and the beauty of those who herald the gospel. Men cannot believe in what they have not heard, and men cannot hear without a proclaimer. I am avoiding the word preacher simply because we have a ‘reversed collar’ stereotype of this word. Paul is speaking about anyone who shares the gospel, not just a ‘clergyman.’
It is true that God has determined the ‘ends,’ so to speak. He has determined, sovereignly and without any obligation to anyone, the salvation of some. But this does not allow us to be slack in the proclamation of the gospel. People will not be saved without a human instrument. Did you get that? Men and women will not be saved apart from human effort. Why? Because God has decreed it thus. God is sovereign not only in decreeing the ends, but also in determining the means to those ends. And, my Christian friend, you and I, according to these verses, are God’s means to the salvation of men and women. Could God have saved men in some other way? Of course! But He didn’t purpose to do so. The implication of a universal scope for the gospel is a universal proclamation. Faith comes through hearing the proclaimed word of Christ (Romans 10:17). This is a subtle defense for Paul’s preaching to the Gentiles.
Israel’s Unbelief Is Inexcusable
In verses 16-21, our attention is again brought to focus upon the issue at hand—Israel’s unbelief. Although the gospel is universally preached, it is not universally accepted. This is especially evident in the present age with respect to the Jews: “However, they did not all heed the glad tidings; for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our report?’” (Romans 10:16). So we are brought face to face with the reality of Israel’s unbelief. Is there not some reason, even some excuse, which could be offered in Israel’s defense? Two are suggested, and both are quickly dispensed with.
Objection 1: Did Israel really hear the good news? This is the question raised in verse 16: “But I say, surely they have never heard, have they?” Paul replies without hesitation or qualification, “Indeed they have” and using the language of Psalm 19 insists that the gospel has been thoroughly proclaimed to Israel. No Jew could claim ignorance. The gospel was too clearly heralded in the Old Testament and very clearly proclaimed in their own day.
Objection 2: Did Israel really know that salvation by faith would be believed by Gentiles and rejected by Israel? (Romans 10:19-20). Perhaps, although the gospel was made clear, it was not sufficiently evident that this gospel would be gladly received by Gentiles and violently rejected by Jews. “No such luck,” says Paul. This, too, was easily discerned from the Old Testament Scriptures. For example, Moses wrote, “I will make you jealous by that which is not a nation, By a nation without understanding will I anger you” (Deuteronomy 32:21, Romans 10:19).
The Jews prided themselves in their racial purity, but even a ‘mongrel nation’ such as the Gentiles had been prophesied to receive the gospel. The Jews pleaded a misunderstanding, but even a senseless people like the Gentiles were able to grasp the message. Israel claimed to ‘miss the boat’ while seeking God, but the Gentiles found salvation without even looking (Romans 10:20).
The sum and substance (v. 21). Israel is without excuse for her unbelief. It is not so much a matter of ignorance, but of obstinance. It is not so much a matter of misunderstanding, but of disobedience. Here is Israel’s real problem, obstinance and disobedience.
Conclusion and Application
And it is just here, my friend, that our problem is to be found. Many of us may be thought to be very religious, but it is not religion that takes men to heaven. I have said at various times that hell will be populated with religious people.63 Religion is man’s effort to reach God, but the gospel message is that God has come down to earth and accomplished salvation for those who believe.
Often we are told that various individuals are so earnest and sincere in their beliefs, but it is not sincerity that saves, it is only Christ. If zeal and enthusiasm were the path to heaven, many cultists would be far ahead of the saints, but zeal without Biblical knowledge is spiritual suicide.
This passage reminds us of the great danger intrinsic to being a privileged people. Many of those things which we count as privileges can be a millstone about our necks. Israel mistook her privileges to be an indication that God saved men on the basis of family background. There may be someone hearing my words this morning who has grown up in a Christian home, and has somehow assumed their eternal salvation is assured because of their Christian background. These privileges never save, but they do spell out greater judgment, for you have more knowledge about the salvation of God. And on the basis of what you have been privileged to know, you will be judged (cf. Luke 12:47-48).
This text confronts us with what the Bible consistently maintains as the reason for men spending eternity in Hell. It is not primarily because God did not choose them (which is the point of Romans 9), but because they did not choose God. Hell is what we deserve.64 God condemns men to Hell because they have chosen to serve Satan rather than the sovereign God, they have chosen sin over righteousness, they have chosen to get to heaven on their terms, rather than on God’s. Condemnation is always traced to unbelief:
He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God (John 3:18).
And you are unwilling to come to Me, that you may have life (John 5:40).
Finally, this passage reminds us that even though God has determined those who will be saved, we are responsible to proclaim the message of the gospel to all men. For those who disbelieve, our proclamation will render them without excuse. And in any case, God is always glorified by the proclamation of the gospel, for by it the righteousness of God is revealed (Romans 1:17).
61 When Isaiah wrote these words, Jerusalem was under seige by Rezin of Syria and Pekah of Israel. Isaiah’s message was to trust in Yahweh for salvation and not to try and accomplish their release by the making of alliances with other heathen nations. Yahweh was the rock upon which Jerusalem should place her confidence and not on foreign powers, lest this rock be a stone of stumbling for the Jews.
63 “He has substituted religion for God—as if navigation were substituted for arrival, or battle for victory, or wooing for marriage, or in general the means for the end. But even in this present life, there is danger in the very concept of religion. It carries the suggestion that this is one more department of life, an extra department added to the economic, the social, the intellectual, the recreational, and all the rest. But that whose claims are infinite can have no standing as a department. Either it is an illusion or else our whole life falls under it. We have no non-religious activities; only religious and irreligious.” C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York, N.Y.: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1964), p. 30.
64 “But what does it mean to lose our souls? To answer this question, Jesus uses His own solemn imagery ‘Gehenna’ (‘hell’ in Mark 9:47 and ten other gospel texts), the valley outside Jerusalem where rubbish was burned; the ‘worm’ that ‘dieth not’ (Mark 9:47), an image, it seems, for the endless dissolution of the personality by a condemning conscience; ‘fire’ for the agnonizing awareness of God’s displeasure; ‘outer darkness’ for knowledge of the loss, not merely of God, but of all good, and everything that made life seem worth living; ‘gnashing of teeth’ for self-condemnation and self-loathing. These things are, no doubt, unimaginably dreadful, though those who have been convicted of sin know a little of their nature. But they are not arbitrary inflictions; they represent, rather, a conscious growing into the state in which one has chosen to be. The unbeliever has preferred to be by himself, without God, defying God, having God against him, and he shall have his preference. Nobody stands under the wrath of God save those who have chosen to do so. The essence of God’s action in wrath is to give men what they choose, in all its implications; nothing more, and equally nothing less. God’s readiness to respect human choice to this extent may appear disconcerting and even terrifying, but it is plain that His attitude here is supremely just, and poles apart from the wanton and irresponsible inflicting of pain which is what we mean by cruelty.
“We need, therefore, to remember that the key to interpreting the many biblical passages, often highly figurative, which picture the divine King and Judge as active against men in wrath and vengeance, is to realise that what God is hereby doing is no more than to ratify and confirm judgments which those whom He ‘visits’ have already passed on themselves by the course they have chosen to follow. This appears in the story of God’s first act of wrath towards man, in Genesis 3, where we learn that Adam had already chosen to hide from God, and keep clear of His presence, before ever God drove him from the garden; and the same principle applies throughout the Bible.” J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), pp. 138-139.