Faith and the Work of Christ
“But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?’ So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (vv. 16-17).- Romans 10:16-18
Romans 10 emphasizes the simplicity of the gospel for our justification before the Lord, and its contrast with the justification by works of the law that many first-century Jews pursued (vv. 5-13). As we will see in today’s passage, the gospel’s simplicity and the fact that the Jews had heard it preached meant that the Jews who rejected Jesus had no excuse. Before we look at that in more detail, however, we must consider those who never hear the gospel. Can they be saved, and does not hearing the gospel excuse them before God?
The Apostle Paul gives us no reason to think that those who never hear the gospel—the so-called innocent natives in Africa, Asia, or elsewhere—will be saved. Romans 10:9-15 tells us that the necessary condition of salvation is calling upon the name of the Lord, but the questions raised about preaching indicate that calling upon the Lord’s name is impossible unless people hear of Him and His work. If people get an automatic ticket to heaven because they never hear the gospel, there is no reason to send missionaries to disciple the nations—but Scripture does command us to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. The book of Jonah, Matthew 28:18-20, Paul’s church-planting work, and more indicate that the church must send gospel preachers into the whole world. So, one must hear the gospel to be redeemed. Having said that, our just God does not send people to hell simply because they never hear the gospel. Such people are condemned because, like all people, they suppress the truth about God that they do know, refusing to worship and thank Him (Rom. 1:18-32).
In Romans 10:16, Paul pauses briefly in his discussion of the need for the gospel to be preached in order to note that not everyone who has heard the gospel has believed it. He refers specifically to the Jews of his day who heard the gospel preached but rejected it. Then, in verse 17, he gives a brief synopsis of how people come into contact with the gospel and are saved. The Word of God comes to a person, that person believes it, and then that person is saved by putting faith in Christ. Ultimately, as we saw in Romans 9, only the elect will do this. But we do not know who the elect are, and so we preach the gospel to all people, knowing that God will call His people to faith as His Word is proclaimed.
Gospel preaching is necessary for salvation, and the first-century Jewish community had heard the Word of Christ (v. 18). The Jews could not claim ignorance to excuse their failure to call upon the Lord. They knew of Him, but many of them rejected Him.
In his commentary on today’s passage in his book Romans, Dr. R.C. Sproul notes that hearing the gospel is a necessary condition for salvation, but it is not a sufficient condition. Something else is needed, and that is the work of the Holy Spirit to give the hearer faith. Our job as the church is to preach the gospel faithfully to all people, knowing that the Lord will use it to save His elect. Because God will use His Word as He ordains, we know our preaching is never in vain.
Passages for Further Study
2 Chronicles 36:1-6