“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.