5 Moses writes about the righteousness that comes from the Law: The person who does these things will live by them. 6 But the righteousness that comes from faith talks like this: Don’t say in your heart, “Who will go up into heaven?” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 or “Who will go down into the region below?” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart (that is, the message of faith that we preach). 9 Because if you confess with your mouth “Jesus is Lord” and in your heart you have faith that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 Trusting with the heart leads to righteousness, and confessing with the mouth leads to salvation. 11 The scripture says, All who have faith in him won’t be put to shame. 12 There is no distinction between Jew and Greek, because the same Lord is Lord of all, who gives richly to all who call on him. 13 All who call on the Lord’s name will be saved.
14 So how can they call on someone they don’t have faith in? And how can they have faith in someone they haven’t heard of? And how can they hear without a preacher? 15 And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, How beautiful are the feet of those who announce the good news. (CEB)
Those Who Bring
Paul wrote his letter to the Romans in order to introduce himself and his message of God’s good news to a local community he’d never visited before. While he knew several of the people in the house-churches (in fact, he greets a few by name), most of the Roman Christians were strangers to Paul. There were Gentile and Jewish Christians in Rome. The letter to the Romans addresses big questions about God’s purposes for Israel, for Gentiles and the human race as a whole, and for all of creation.
One of the points of his argument in our text was to help us understand the concept of righteousness. Since the days of Moses, Israel has understood righteousness as keeping the law. Paul points this out by quoting from Leviticus 18:5, where God said to Moses, “You must keep my rules and my regulations; by doing them one will live; I am the LORD” (CEB). That particular understanding of righteousness is defined by adhering to the law. If you obey the law, then you are righteous. If you do not obey the law, then you are not righteous.
It helps to back up a few verses to see what Paul said immediately before verse 5. Paul wrote about his people, the Jews, “I can vouch for them: they are enthusiastic about God. However, it isn’t informed by knowledge. They don’t submit to God’s righteousness because they don’t understand his righteousness, and they try to establish their own righteousness” (Romans 10:2-3 CEB). Now, how can Paul, who is himself a Jew, say that his people are not informed by knowledge about God? Further, how can he say that his people don’t understand God’s righteousness?
Surely Paul’s fellow Jews, above all other peoples of the earth, knew God’s saving power! They celebrated God’s saving power in their festivals. The entirety of their lives revolved around the knowledge that God chose them, that God rescued them over and over throughout their existence. To this day, Jews know and celebrate God’s saving power. It’s part of the Jewish identity. So, what does Paul mean here?
I think Paul is speaking from his own experience as a Jew and as a Pharisee. What Paul knew before his conversion experience when Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus was that Israel understood their claim to righteousness as something that belonged exclusively to them. No other people had access to it. No other people could rightly claim it. Paul knew the Jewish theological mindset of his day because, before Jesus appeared to him, Paul shared it.
What Paul claims that his people sought to “establish” was nothing less than what God had already given to them. Paul’s criticism of his people is a criticism of a view that he, himself, once held. Namely, that his people insisted that God’s righteousness and God’s salvation were for Jews only. Paul strongly disagreed with the notion that observance of the law set his people apart and established a righteousness that was their own.
This was a criticism Paul had of some early Christians, too. The first people to accept Jesus as the Messiah were Jews, and some of those Jewish Christians insisted that the only way for Gentiles to be saved was for them to first become Jews. They believed that God’s grace only extended to Israel so, naturally, Gentiles had to become Jews before they could claim any part of the Jewish Messiah. God’s salvation was for Israel only.
So, Paul was not suggesting that his fellow Jews didn’t understand anything about God’s righteousness. He knew very well that they did. Rather, Paul argued that his fellow Jews had failed to grasp the full scope of God’s righteousness. While his fellow Jews celebrated Abraham’s faith which God recognized as righteousness, Paul points out a glaring disconnection: that righteousness is from faith, not from following the law. The law doesn’t make a person righteous. Abraham lived before the law existed, and Abraham’s righteousness came from his faith in God. From the beginning of righteousness itself, righteousness has come from faith in God. It always has and always will.
The righteousness of God was never meant to be exclusive to any particular people. God declared that all the nations of the earth would be blessed because of Abraham and Abraham’s descendants (c.f. Genesis 18:18, 22:18). The blessing of God was for all people. Righteousness through faith in God was always meant for all people. So, by seeking to establish righteousness as something that was exclusively Jewish, Paul argued that his people were actually pitting themselves against the nature, character, and purpose of God’s righteousness.
So, when Paul wrote, “Moses writes about the righteousness that comes from the Law: The person who does these things will live by them” (Romans 10:5 CEB), he’s pointing out how his fellow Jews interpreted that text. He’s not pitting Scripture against Scripture. Rather, Paul argues against a particular interpretation of the Leviticus 18:5 text. He resolves the interpretation problem by providing an interpretation of Deuteronomy 30:12-14. That text reminded the people that the way to righteousness wasn’t difficult or far away. No one needs to set out on a spiritual quest to the heavens or to the depths of the abyss to find it. “But what does it say?” Paul wrote. “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart (that is, the message of faith that we preach)” (Romans 10:8 CEB).
Just as the word of the law was near, easily recited, and easily understood, so is the message that Paul preached. Paul’s message was of faith in Jesus Christ. God sent Jesus to reveal that all peoples may have access to God’s righteousness through faith. God is always the one who declares us righteous. Righteousness is never our own apart from God. God has always made God’s righteousness available through faith. And God’s righteousness is available to everyone no matter their ancestry. Jesus Christ has now become the focal point of our faith and the fulfillment of the law.
Christ has, in fact, fulfilled the function of the law, which was to reconcile human beings to God. The giving of the law was an act of love by God. It allowed an entire people to walk with God so that the rest of the human race might learn of God’s willingness to save everyone. And the law still plays a role in Christian life. Christ fulfills the law, but Christ did not end the law. We still pay attention to what the law says, and our faith in God is deeper because we have the law. Paul wrote, “So the Law itself is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous, and good” (Romans 7:12 CEB).
Yet, Paul insists that faith takes precedence over everything. It’s actually similar to an old argument, so to speak, within Judaism. The role of the priesthood was to make sure the law was followed and to provide a way to repair things through sacrifice when the law was broken. The prophets argued that following the law didn’t matter if those who observed it were only going through the motions with no real love for or trust of God in their heart. Even with the law, the prophets insisted that faith was necessary; love of God was necessary. And they still are now that Christ has come. The righteous live their faith authentically by loving God and loving others. Faith exhibits itself in right living, which is defined by love and the fruit of the Spirit (c.f. Galatians 5:22-23; Ephesians 5:9; Philippians 1:11; Colossians 1:6-12).
Salvation isn’t based on the law, Paul argues, but on faith. We might ask what Paul means by saying, “Because if you confess with your mouth “Jesus is Lord” and in your heart you have faith that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Trusting with the heart leads to righteousness, and confessing with the mouth leads to salvation” (Romans 10:9-10 CEB). I think he’s describing faith that is, again, authentic. Faith is at once inward and outward. Faith is inside of us, it’s something we hold to in our hearts and minds. And faith impels us to reach out in loving concern to others around us. To bear Godly fruit in our living.
In Christ we no longer have to pay attention to who we think is “in” and who we think ought to be “out.” God has made righteousness available to everyone. This new word of salvation is for everyone. It’s not exclusive to Israel. That, Paul argues, is where his fellow Jews have missed the point. God’s righteousness, mercy, grace, salvation, and gift of faith don’t depend upon one’s ancestry or race. Paul insists that there is no distinction between Jew and Greek because the same Lord is Lord of all and gives richly to all who call on God. What matters is Christ, and those who have faith in God will not be put to shame (c.f. Isaiah 28:16).
Do we grasp the meaning of this radical inclusion? For the church, it means we don’t build walls to keep people out. Rather, we break down barriers. We know that if God has made room for us, then God has made room for everyone. We know God as the one who calls all people, claims all people, redeems all people, and loves all people. God’s love for the human race and desire to heal and save are infinite. That’s the message of God’s righteousness that Paul declares in Christ. This is the good news. In Christ, God has made room for everyone and, “All who call on the Lord’s name will be saved” (Romans 10:13 CEB; c.f. Joel 2:32).
Lastly, we get to the scary part of this text (at least for many Christians). Paul gets into the dreaded word, evangelism. But evangelism really ought not be so scary. Evangelism isn’t only for preachers and teachers. Evangelism is for every Christian. It’s not that we have to convince people of the rightness of our doctrine, our liturgy, our preferred style of worship, or the kinds of songs we like to sing. Evangelism is simply introducing people to Jesus, and that can happen in any number of ways. Sometimes we do that by talking with people, sometimes we do that by mission work.
When we embody the word of God’s righteousness for all in such a way that we express it in our deeds, that’s authentic faith. Authentic faith becomes a very real, very active kind of evangelism. When our confession and our actions agree, people take notice. In fact, my experience shows that people notice our faithful actions long before they find out about our confession of faith. They can see it in the way we live, the way we talk, and the way we treat others.
We who believe become messengers of the good news. We are sent, and that’s a privilege. Those who received this gift now get to pass it on so others can receive it, too. In a way, we can imagine how beautiful this is for those to whom we might be sent. And how beautiful it might be for us that we should get to share this good news. But I think the deeper beauty for all of us is that God is and has always been God’s own messenger of salvation to us. That’s how profoundly God loves us. God chooses to be God With Us every day. And there is beauty everywhere we look when we participate in God’s work.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay