< August 07, 2011 >

Commentary on Romans 10:5-15

 

A preacher might get at this very challenging text from one of two directions.

Each approach comes with its own difficulties.

You can ignore the wider context of Romans 9-11 and zero in on the pregnant statements in verse 9 ("If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved"), verse 13 ("Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved"), or verse 15 ("How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!").

Or, you can treat this passage as part of Paul's broader discussion about whether the reliability of God is imperiled by the gospel's failure to attract the majority of Paul's Jewish contemporaries.

The former approach will be utterly unhelpful for those who are working through a series on Romans or who are midway through the lectionary's three-week tour of chapters 9-11. It also risks providing a shallow and unsatisfying engagement with scripture, which is prooftexting's propensity.

The latter requires preachers to set this passage into the trajectory of Paul's larger presentation, which is difficult since this is the lectionary's only selection from Romans 9-11 between last week's introductory text and next week's conclusion.

Obviously (obvious to me, at least), the latter approach corresponds best with the lectionary's function and is more likely to produce real "biblical preaching," so that's my angle in this commentary.

What Is Paul Saying?

Our passage follows directly on the heels of a bold statement: "For Christ is the end [Greek: telos] of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes" (Romans 10:4). (Actually, a better translation is: "For the end of the law is Christ....") Whether telos refers to the Mosaic law's termination or to its consummation/goal occasions no small debate. The statement's basic emphasis is much clearer, however: Christ is the agent through whom God's righteousness is actualized. Even the law aimed toward Christ. Christ is the means of righteousness for everyone who has faith.

To unpack the claims of 10:4, Paul offers in 10:5-13 a series of references to scripture. Trying to follow his point can make our heads hurt.

As is usually the case when Paul refers to scripture, scholarship on verses 5-13 has generated deep debates about Paul's method and purpose. What we discover in these verses is not a scriptural "proof" meant to convince us. Rather, Paul collects biblical voices to provide resonance for his theological assertions. As a skilled midrashic deejay, he remixes a scriptural conversation for the Roman churches to hear, a conversation in which -- in Paul's arrangement -- Christ sits at the center of the voices. All the words gravitate around him, thus acquiring new meaning as they express God's work through Christ. (The relevant texts are Leviticus 18:5; Deuteronomy 30:11-14; Isaiah 28:16; Joel 2:32.)

Paul finds in Moses' discourse about the law (Deuteronomy 30:11-14) affirmation that God's word (Greek: rhēma) -- the life that the law promised -- is very close to the people of God who received the law through Moses (see Romans 10:8). Just as near is Christ (the law's telos), according to Paul's christological rereading of Deuteronomy. Christ himself came "down" to humanity and enfleshed the law's ultimate purpose (taking telos in Romans 10:4 as consummation), which is to give life. Christ accomplished what the law could not, hampered as it was by the power of sin (recall Romans 7:8-12). There's no need, then, for us to go up to heaven to seek Christ; he already came to us. Nor do we descend into the grave to find him; he's not there.

Concerning the nearness of the law, Moses spoke of "the word" being in the "mouth" (NRSV: "lips") and the "heart" of the people of Israel (Romans 10:8a). Paul rereads this in verse 8b as "the word (Greek: rhēma) about faith" that he now preaches as an apostle of Christ.

That is, Paul proclaims Christ, good news about Christ's faithfulness and a message that in turn elicits faith in its hearers. In intimate ways, a believer interacts with Jesus: She confesses his Lordship in her "mouth" (NRSV: "lips") and expresses faith in her "heart." This way of confession and faith is the way of justification and salvation (verses 9-10).

At the end of the paragraph (verses 11-13), things get a little simpler. Here the emphasis falls on "everyone." Recall that 10:4 spoke of everyone (Greek: pas) who has faith ("believes"). Four times Paul repeats the work pas:

  • Verse 11: "Everyone (pas) who believes in him will not be put to shame" (NET). That is, put positively, everyone will receive God's approval.
  • Verse 12: "There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all (pas) and is generous to all (pas) who call on him."
  • Verse 13: "Everyone (pas) who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."

God's salvation is available to all. This is a bold statement. We err if we hear it as anthropology, as a claim that all people are about the same, or as a maxim that "a person's a person, no matter how small" (that's not Paul, but Horton Hears a Who!). Rather, Paul makes a statement about God: God has made salvation near to all.

At this point, Paul takes the discussion forward another step. Verses 14-15 launch a different subunit within Romans 9-11, in which Paul will note that the message about Christ has gone out. It has indeed been proclaimed, and it has been heard, and so Paul must reckon with the perplexing reality of why it has not widely evoked a positive response among "Israel," Paul's Jewish contemporaries. Paul's reflections on this matter extend far into Romans 11.

Why Is Paul Saying This?

How does Romans 10:5-15 serve Paul's wider argument in Romans 9-11?

For one thing, Paul is ruminating on why it can be that so many of his fellow Jews have, in his words, "not submitted to God's righteousness" (10:3). Why has the gospel apparently made no impact upon them? He contends in 10:5-13 that it has been made very available to them. This pushes the questions: Has something gone wrong? and What is God's plan here? These questions drive much of the theological deliberation in Romans 9-11.

Paul is also moving to equate the lack of a response to the gospel with "disobedience." The gospel has been proclaimed and "heard" (Greek: akouō; 10:14, 18). But not all have "obeyed" (Greek: hupakouō; 10:16) it. They have resisted its power, refusing God's efforts to manifest righteousness. (Next Sunday's text allows preachers an opportunity to revisit this aspect of Paul's argument.)

The move here is similar to what Paul did in Romans 1-3, where he asserted that Jews and gentiles alike are estranged from God and under sin's power (see 3:9). Paul dissolves some of the distance between Jews and gentiles; all suffer from disobedience to God, in some form (compare 6:16-17). But, for Paul, there is good news in this: God still saves people out of those conditions. In next week's reading, Paul will contend earnestly that God remains faithful to save and shows mercy to all.

And so the word of salvation is still very near.

What Has Paul Told Us?

Beginning with last week's reading from Romans 9:1-5, I've contended that Romans 9-11 is primarily about the character of God. This week's reading is important for helping us get inside the argument Paul offers in these three chapters. But it's also important for what it says about God and God's relationship to us. What might a preacher emphasize, so a sermon does more than map the rhetorical flow of Romans 9-11?

First, this passage gets a place in the "greatest hits" list of Pauline passages that insist we must not presume we make our salvation happen. All people who are caught up in God's righteousness do so because of God's effort. None manufactures it on his own. Christ is the means by which God manifests God's righteousness (see 1:17) and claims us within it.

Second, just as God's instruction was very near to the people of Israel in the law Moses gave them, so too God's word of life remains present among all people -- ready to be encountered -- through Christ. What does it mean that it's near to us? It means it's right here! Show it to your congregation. And remind them that none of us is any nearer to it than anyone else. It's for everyone.