READ : Romans 10:10-15, 17
If you’re interested in finding out about how things really work, I’ve got something important you’ll want to hear.
I have a fascinating book at home (to be perfectly honest with you, it belongs to one of my children) called The Way Things Work. It’s a very clever book, written by a very well-informed man named David Macauley. It’s filled with lots of helpful illustrations. It tells you in a simple enough way for almost anyone to understand how all sorts of things work. Do you want to know what makes an airplane fly, or how a turbine generates power, or why a computer can do all it does? You can find out in The Way Things Work.
I’m interested in the way one thing works that this book doesn’t explain. I’m interested in the way the gospel works. How do those who don’t know God come to be saved? For that information we have to turn to a different book, Paul’s letter to the Romans. There’s a passage in it that doesn’t have any diagrams or pictures, but I think it explains what we need to understand just as clearly. Listen:
For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.
Romans 10:10-15,17, nrsv
These verses invite us to think more closely about how the gospel actually works. If you’re familiar with biblical Christianity, or if you’ve followed at all any of these messages from the book of Romans, you will know that in order to be saved, all one has to do is trust in Jesus Christ. Anyone, good or bad, from whatever race or nationality, of any religion or no religion at all, has only to believe sincerely in Jesus and confess his Lordship, and he or she will be saved. This is what the Bible says, and it says it with a special clarity and directness here in Romans chapter 10. But how exactly does this work? Let’s take a look at Paul’s explanation.
THE PROBLEM OF ISRAEL
In Romans 9-11 the apostle Paul takes a brief detour from the main line of his explanation of the gospel to discuss the salvation of his own people, the Jewish people. By the time Paul was writing (in the mid to late fifties) it had become clear that most Jews were not going to accept Jesus as the Messiah. The initial wave of Jewish converts in Jerusalem and elsewhere had since subsided. Now as Paul traveled throughout the Roman world preaching the gospel “to the Jew first,” he met with little positive response and much rejection and persecution. This grieved him deeply, for it meant that many, if not most, of God’s ancient people were being lost (cf. 9:1ff). It also raised serious theological questions about the faithfulness of God, the nature of God’s choice, the reliability of his promises, the relationship of Jews and gentiles in the kingdom, and the hope that the Jewish people might again be restored to God’s kingdom at some future time. All of these questions are addressed by Paul in these three complex and often difficult chapters in the middle of the book of Romans.
The passage I read a moment ago from chapter 10 is neither difficult nor complicated. It’s very straightforward. Paul’s first point, out of which he develops all of his subsequent argument, is that salvation can be ours for the asking. Every good thing we could ever want from God-righteousness, forgiveness, peace, hope, eternal life-will be given to us if we just call upon him for it. Here is the plain and simple statement of the gospel truth: “If you confess with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (v. 9). And this is not merely Paul’s opinion. This is also the teaching of the Old Testament scripture, for as the prophets wrote, “Anyone who trusts in [God] will never be put to shame”, and “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (vv. 11,13).
THE MECHANICS OF THE GOSPEL
Now follow along carefully for just a bit. Paul asks a series of questions starting in verse 14. He is thinking out loud about the mechanics of the gospel, about all the specific things that have to happen for someone to actually be saved. So Paul works his way carefully through the process step by step (and remember, in the back of his mind there is, all the time, his question about why the majority of his fellow Jews were not being saved). The principle, as we have seen, is clear and simple. All anyone has to do to be saved is call upon the name of the Lord.
That name, however, is specific; it’s not just “God” in a general sense, but the Lord, i.e. Jesus. His is the name on which we must call, for as the Bible says, “There is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). So the only requirement for salvation is to ask for it; i.e. to call on the Lord Jesus. Anyone may do this; there is no distinction. God bestows his riches on all who call. We need only ask, just turn to him in prayer. How wonderfully simple!
But-and here we need to follow the logic closely-how can anyone call on Jesus unless they believe in him? The prayer which saves must be a prayer of real faith, not a blind stab in the dark. Paul has defined real faith earlier in this passage (see vv. 9-10). It consists of two parts: an inward conviction (“believe in your heart”) and an outward confession (“confess with your lips”). Saving faith is neither an empty profession of words without real trust in the heart, nor a vague claim of inner “belief” without an open and public commitment. It is belief in the Lord Jesus.
The New Testament knows nothing of the attempt of some to claim Jesus as their Savior even if they are not living for and with him as Lord. Then the next question. “How can they believe in someone of whom they have never heard?” In order to have faith you must have knowledge, for no one can believe in Christ unless they have heard of him and learned enough to respond.
Question 3: “And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” People won’t learn the gospel message of salvation by faith in Christ unless somebody tells it to them. What could be more obvious?
Then one final question, “How can they preach unless they are sent?” There is a double sending of the gospel. God sends every Christian with the gospel to share it with neighbors and friends. He also sends some in a special sense to be missionaries who take the gospel to places where it has not yet been heard. And Christians too are senders, for it is our prayers and gifts which support the ministry of those who are telling about Jesus where most of us cannot go.
So this is how the gospel actually works. It is like a chain with five links: In order to be saved, people must call; to call they must believe; if they are to believe they need to hear; they cannot hear without preaching; and there will be no preaching unless someone is commissioned and sent. Thus the apostle can summarize the whole process this way in verse 17: “Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.”
THE GOSPEL CHAIN
Where do you fit into this great gospel chain that binds us to God? God is there throughout. He is active from beginning to end: he sends Christians to preach, he blesses their words, he enables people to hear the message and opens hearts to receive it in faith, he saves those who call upon him even while he prompts them to call. God never fails.
But what about us? We must believe and call upon the name of the Lord for salvation. Whenever we hear the gospel we must obey it, accept it, act upon it. The truth is that God does not save anyone willy-nilly; the responsibility of everyone who hears and understands the gospel is to receive it with grateful acceptance. The great mystery of salvation is that, for those who are saved, all the credit goes to God, while all the responsibility for those who are lost rests with unresponsive hearers because of their refusal to believe the gospel.
Friend, whoever you are listening to me today, you’re somewhere along that gospel chain. Actually, if you have stayed with me thus far, then you have already heard the message about Christ. The question is, do you believe it, and have you called on the Lord Jesus to save you? You can do that now, this very moment, and you will belong to God forever.
But for those of us who are Christians, who have believed and called upon the name of the Lord (perhaps many years ago), there is a further question. Suppose there is a break in the gospel chain-that someone is not saved, in other words-the question is, which link has been broken? The failure cannot be with God. He will never fail to save anyone who calls on him out of faith in Christ. In the situation Paul was concerned about the break was not in the area of his responsibility, for he has preached the gospel faithfully and they have heard the message (cf. v. 18). No, the failure has been on the part of the people of Israel: they have refused to believe (v. 16).
But what about our own day? What about the millions of people around our world and in our communities who were created in God’s image to know, enjoy and glorify him, but who are living as strangers to him? If they are lost because they reject the gospel and refuse to accept the Lord Jesus, that is one thing. But what if the break is occurring elsewhere in the chain? What about our neighbors who aren’t responding because they aren’t hearing and seeing a credible witness from us? And what about the more than one billion people alive today who have never called on the name of the Lord Jesus not because they do not believe in him but because they have never heard of him? What will we say about that? More important, what will we do about it?
Have you ever thought about why you’re still alive today? Any one of a hundred different accidents could have ended your life yesterday. Just a pinprick hole in a blood vessel in your head, or a clot lodging in an artery near your heart last night, and you would never have seen today. Why didn’t it happen? Is it just luck or fate that keeps us alive? Can you be thankful for nothing more than the law of averages or good genetics? Of course not! You and I are alive today because the God who rules all things has a reason for preserving our lives. If you’re not a Christian, his patience in protecting you is intended to lead you to come back to him. He’s giving you another chance today to turn to him in faith, call upon him and ask for his gift of eternal life. You need to do that today, before you run out of chances. If you’re a Christian, you’re alive today because the Lord has a purpose for you to fulfill in proclaiming Jesus Christ.