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A Misuse of Romans 10:17

“So belief cometh of hearing and hearing by the word of Christ,” (Romans 10:17 ASV). Among the many proof texts popular among us, Romans 10:17 is often used to demonstrate that doing something by faith means doing as one has been instructed to do in the word of God. While this principle is certainly true, the passage under consideration does not support this principle. One would be better served to support the aforementioned argument by a study of the eleventh chapter of Hebrews.

Romans 10:17 actually says something entirely different when allowed to speak from its own context. In Romans, Paul makes a case for the gospel as the only means of salvation (Romans 1:16-17). This is true, says Paul, because in the gospel is revealed the “righteousness of God” which comes to man by faith, not by works (Romans 1:17; 3:21-22; 4:4-5). Man without Christ, left to pursue righteousness by his own works, is left to a hopeless task. This is true because all people have sinned, whether Jew or Gentile, and violated the law to which they are responsible (Romans 2:12-16; 3:10,23). Because all have sinned, no person can be justified or “made righteous” by their own keeping of the law of God (Romans 3:20). Rather than trusting in our ability to keep God’s commandments perfectly, which even Paul could not do, we must put our trust in the cleansing blood of Jesus and the “righteousness of God,” (Romans 3:21-26; 7:14-25). In Romans 10, Paul laments the fact that many of his Jewish brethren have failed to find the salvation that is in Christ. This is true, says Paul, because “being ignorant of God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own righteousness, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God,” (Romans 10:3). Then he says, “For Christ is the end of law unto righteousness to everyone who believes,” (Romans 10:4). All who come to Jesus are freed from law as a system of justification. The result is righteousness for them, but not their own righteousness. It is the righteousness of God, given by God.

This righteousness of God must be received from God as a gift (Romans 5:17). We receive this precious gift of imputed righteousness when we obey from the heart that “form” or “symbol” of the teaching to which we were delivered (Romans 6:17). This “form” or “symbol” of the redemptive teaching about the death and resurrection is baptism (Romans 6:3-7). In baptism, we are putting our trust in the very acts which baptism symbolizes, the death and resurrection of Christ. After all, “he was delivered up for our trespasses and was raised for our justification,” (Romans 4:25). In Romans 10, Paul explores the nature of this righteousness of God that comes to us by faith. He seeks to show how different it is from a works oriented righteousness that depends completely on the performance of man. Citing some lines from Moses’ sermon in Deuteronomy 30, Paul demonstrates that this “righteousness that is of faith” is not out of man’s reach. It is not, like justification by works, unattainable for weak human beings. God has done the work of redemption and appealed to man to trust in his redemptive work in this “word of faith which we preach,” (Romans 10:8). The gospel is a “word of faith” because it calls man to trust in God to do something for him that he cannot do for himself (Romans 10:5-8). Paul then shows that all who acknowledge Jesus as Lord and put their trust in the redemptive events of the gospel can enjoy this imputed righteousness. Romans 10 assumes Romans 6. Paul never entertained the idea of faith apart from baptism. Baptism is an act of faith, a divine mystery in which people who take God at his word accept the gift of righteousness. In so trusting the gospel message we “call upon” the name of the Lord. The term “call upon” indicates an appeal to someone for help. We must appeal to the Lord Jesus for help, according to Romans, because we cannot help ourselves. Jesus is Lord of all those who call upon him, or trust in him, whether they are Jews or Gentiles (Romans 10:9-13). Paul says that people cannot appeal to Jesus for help until they are willing to put their trust in him. They cannot decide to put their trust in him until they have heard the gospel message of what God has done for us in the cross and the resurrection, and how we can accept that gift of grace into our lives. But even when people hear the glad tidings of the cross, some to not accept it. Paul says, “but not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our message,'” (Romans 10:16). This is a quotation from Isaiah 53:1. The message in view is the message of the suffering Servant of God, who was “wounded for our transgressions,…bruised for our iniquities,” and by whose “stripes we are healed.” This is the same passage that Philip used when he taught the Ethiopian Eunuch about Jesus (Acts 8:35). Now, when Paul begins verse 17, he says, “So then faith comes from the message…” The word I am translating as “message” is akoes, which is the same word that is used in verse 16 when he says “Lord, who has believed our message?” Some translations translate it as “hearing” but the word actually refers to the message that is heard, in this case, the message about Jesus Christ and his redemptive death. The last part of verse 17 says, “and the message through the word of Christ,” (translation mine). Some translate it “and hearing by the word of Christ.” The message of Jesus and his death, says Paul, is presented to people in “the word of Christ.” The word translated “word” in the last part of Romans 10:17 is hrematos, the same word used to describe the “word of faith which we preach” in Romans 10:8. It refers to the gospel, the redemptive preaching about Jesus’ death and resurrection, God’s only power to save. Paul is saying that saving faith, the kind that brings God’s righteousness to those who trust in him, comes only through the message of Jesus, the preaching of the gospel.

Until people have heard about what God has done for them in Christ and how they can accept the gift of God’s righteousness into their lives, they cannot exercise this saving faith. That is the meaning of Romans 10:17 in its context. We in the churches of Christ are trying to be a true “back to the Bible” movement. If we are serious about this, we must insist on using passages like Romans 10:17 according to their true contextual meaning. We must not resort to dishonest proof texting even when trying to prove valid principles.

DRO

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9 Comments

  1. Excellent article. I knew about “akoei/message” but I never noticed the connection to “hrema/word” in Rom. 10:8. I scribbled notes in my Bible immediately. Thanks for the nugget!

  2. For the sake of discussion, what do you think would be a specific example of an inappropriate use of this passage?

    By the way, excellent thoughts. Romans 9 and 10 are irrevocably tied to each other in this purpose. Salvation is through Christ alone!

  3. I would have a small quibble with your premise. You have well explained the specific application of the principle, but this alone does not negate the application of that principle more generically: You have to hear the message if you are to trust the message/Messenger. The fact that the immediate object of this was in the context of the Jewish rejection of the message of Christ does not eliminate its application in other ways. Paul has simply applied that principle to the situation at hand.

    As those who know me well can attest, I believe strongly in keeping things in context. However, failing to appreciate the existence of principles within a specific text ends up treating them as irrelevant for any other usage. Granted people sometimes misapply principles, but that failure should not keep us from applying them correctly.

    (I also disagree with your approach to imputed righteousness, but that is another discussion.)

  4. Wesley

    May 5, 2011 at 11:14 am

    Daniel,

    Usually the argument goes like this. We must do all things by faith. Faith comes by hearing the word of God. Therefore we must do all things by the word of God.

    That in and of itself is true. However, when we quote Romans 10:17 as a proof text, I believe we are taking it too far.

    Kevin,

    I do agree that we can apply principles beyond the immediate context. However, the way the principle of this text is normally applied requires a mistranslation and misunderstanding of the original context. Paul is speaking of how we come to saving faith and we do so through the message of the gospel.

    Also in my rewrite I would probably use the word reckoned instead of imputed.

  5. Eric Reynolds

    May 5, 2011 at 11:16 am

    I always appreciate a fresh look at the context of a passage. This section of Romans is very challenging to me. I’ll have to go back and read it again.

  6. Still trying to figure out exactly what you are saying not to do, though. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone make the leap of “therefore we must do all things by the word of God” without visiting other texts which illustrate that idea (I.e. Hebrews 11, Colossians 3:17, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, etc). In my understanding, what Paul is conveying here is the means by which a saving faith is generated: through hearing the Gospel. It is a valuable part of that general principle you mention above. Romans 10:17 must come up in the discussion about the origin of saving faith. If we’re not careful, the next step in an unnecessarily literal reading here would lead to saying this only applied to the Jews (see 10:1-2), and we cripple the text. It has to be open for some expansion of thought. It leads to the discussion of what we do with what we hear. Does that make sense? Just trying to clarify.

  7. I’m glad you haven’t Daniel, but I have on numerous occasions.

    I think you and I are in agreement on how the passage should be used. The passage is teaching us that saving faith on comes through the hearing of the gospel, which in Paul’s writing is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus on our behalf.

  8. Ewell D. Pritchett

    October 3, 2011 at 11:04 pm

    I’m with Daniel in that I do not see your point. Are you saying we are wrong to use Romans 10:17 when we cite the plan of salvation?

  9. Wesley

    October 3, 2011 at 11:46 pm

    I think if you use it to state that one must believe the gospel as part of or response to God’s offering of salvation, then you are using it correctly. However, the way it is used incorrectly is when we say something like. We must do all things by faith and faith comes from hearing the word of God, therefore we must do all things according to God’s word. I think the principle of doing all things according to God’s word is correct, however it is not taught in Romans 10:17.

    Hope that helps.

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