This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson ought to make perhaps especially its proclaimers’ ears perk up. Particularly its end, after all, emphasizes the extreme importance of the work of proclamation.
In Romans 9 Paul insists that salvation doesn’t depend on people’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. However, that raises the question of whether people have any responsibility at all when it comes to their salvation.
Christians profess that God gives those God chose for eternal life both the gift of faith in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. We also profess that God keeps us eternally close to God. So is there any place for human activity when it comes to our salvation?
Some Reformed Christians, for example, have veered dangerously close to such a claim. They’ve rightly stressed God’s central role in salvation. Yet some sometimes act as though they’ve forgotten that God also gives people some responsibility.
Romans 10:5-15 is perhaps most centrally about the importance of human hearing of the gospel through which the faithful reception of God’s grace comes. “How,” asks the apostle rhetorically in verse 14, “can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?”
This helps explain why he’s so serious about preaching the gospel to the whole world. He insists that God uses such proclamation to produce faith. The apostle also implies that where no one proclaims the gospel of Jesus Christ, faith doesn’t blossom.
Of course, this almost immediately raises some basic questions. Does Paul really mean that we must audibly hear someone proclaim the gospel in order to respond to God’s grace with our faith? Or is verse 14 a kind of wisdom saying that asserts that faith usually arises through the audible proclamation of the gospel?
It at least suggests that God generally produces faith in response to the audible proclamation of God’s gospel. After all, as biblical scholars note, when Paul talks about “hearing” here, he’s speaking of hearing audible speech.
The apostle asserts, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (13). To call on the Lord is to call out for help to God on the basis of who God is and what God has done to save us. Quite simply, it’s to receive God’s grace with faith in Jesus Christ.
But how, adds Paul in verse 14, can people call out to God for help if, as one paraphrase puts it, “they don’t know who to trust?” How can anyone faithfully call on the name of the Lord if they don’t know who that Lord is?
Romans 10’s proclaimers might make this flawed analogy: suppose you were in a car accident and needed help. You might dial a random number and ask whoever answers it to help you. But how could you know if that person is willing and able to help you?
Wouldn’t it be better if you knew something about the person whom you were calling? Wouldn’t it be better if, for instance, you called a local friend or relative who you know would be both willing and able to help you? Or better still if you called emergency personnel who are trained to help in such situations? In a similar way, if people are to find help when they call out, it will be best if they know it’s our living God who, in Christ, is able to help them.
Yet how can people know that the living God is willing and able to help them if no one tells them about the Lord? Think back to the accident analogy. How could I call the police or an ambulance if I didn’t even know they existed?
These and similar questions are at least arguably as important today as they’ve ever been. We live and work, after all, in a time of deep uncertainty and, in many corners, despair. People wonder if this global pandemic will ever end. Will our countries ever experience the kind of racial justice and equality for which God and God’s people long?
On top of that, so many voices claim to be authorities to which we should listen to learn about our salvation from these and other problems. I hear, for example, countless voices proclaim that “only science can save us” from COVID-19. Christians profess that while God often uses science to richly bless us, salvation of all sorts comes from God alone. Yet how would anyone know that if someone hadn’t told him or her? In fact, how would any of us know about the gospel if someone hadn’t told us about it?
People of Dutch heritage like myself sometimes think of the Netherlands as, at one time. at least, very Christian. Some of the 19th and 20th centuries’ best Reformed Christian thinkers came, after all, from the Netherlands. We tend to forget that our pagan Frisian ancestors killed the missionary Boniface when he tried to tell them the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ.
Yet, as Paul continues in Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, how can anyone tell such people the good news of the gospel so that they can respond in faith unless someone sends people to tell that good news? “How can they preach,” he asks in verse 15, “unless they are sent?”
Paul insists that God has sent him to announce to the world what God has done. He believes that God will graciously open the door to a faithful response to that work through that proclamation. The apostle, in fact, believes that he would be failing to do his work for God if he didn’t tell them what God has done for them in Christ.
However, Paul also understands that he can’t do that work alone. He needs people to both send and support him. So one of the reasons the apostle writes the letter to the Roman Christians is to solicit their support for his mission work.
As richly as God gifts missionaries, they can’t preach the gospel alone. Many kingdom workers need the Church to send them out to do their work. Yet all of those who preach and teach the good news also need tangible support. Those who proclaim the gospel need people to support them with prayers, encouragement and finances.
After all, Christ sends missionaries. Missionaries preach. People hear those missionaries. Those hearers call out in faith to the living God. God graciously saves those who call out to the Lord.
Yet, as one biblical scholar notes, perhaps we hear Paul’s case for mission work even more pointedly when we consider what he says negatively. Unless the church commissions people for mission work, there will be no missionaries.
And unless there are missionaries, not everyone will hear Christ’s message and voice. And unless people hear that gospel, they won’t believe the truths of his death and resurrection.
And unless people hear those truths about Jesus Christ, they won’t faithfully call out for help to the Lord. And, Paul concludes, unless they somehow call out to the Lord, people won’t be saved.
Of course, as Paul grieves in what follows this Sunday’s Lesson, not everyone who hears the good news faithfully receives it. While Christ and his church can and must send missionaries, not all of their hearers will believe. So Romans 10’s proclaimers and hearers try to remember that while God holds God’s adopted children accountable for both sharing the gospel and supporting missionaries who also share the good news, only God can turn hearers into believers.
How, then, might those who proclaim Romans 10 invite our hearers to respond to this morning’s text? We might share a word for older people and a word for younger ones. Preachers and teachers, parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts, friends and neighbors need to live out our concern for the salvation of others.
Jesus’ followers faithfully pray for those who haven’t yet received God’s grace with their faith. We’re careful in our language about those who don’t yet believe. Christians reflect a deep love for non-Christians in our words and actions.
And we find ways to communicate that concern to children. God’s mature adopted sons and daughters deliberately teach them to share our commitment to those who don’t yet believe. Christians communicate to children the value of supporting those who bring the gospel to people who are spiritually lost.
But Romans 10’s proclaimers might also challenge children and young adults to explore to what is God calling them. This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson invites them to consider giving their lives in some kind of mission.
Millions of people across the world are just waiting for someone like our young adults to preach the gospel to them. So which of those people who hear our proclamation of Romans 10 is God challenging to do the beautiful work of bringing them that life-saving gospel?
Makmun was a successful lawyer in Jakarta, Indonesia. While on a business trip to his hometown, he stopped to visit a friend who was also a lawyer. Since he arrived at his friend’s office a bit early, he had to wait for a few minutes. As he waited, Makmun, as many of us who wait in an office do, he paged through reading materials someone had left there.
Among them he found a small book entitled, Yesus Juruselamatmu, which means “Jesus Your Savior.” It included passages from the gospels that recount Jesus’ life and teachings.
Initially the Christians who had the audacity to distribute a book with such a provocative title irritated Makmun. He was, in fact, still fussing about it when his friend walked out into the waiting room to meet him. Because he was embarrassed to have his friend see him reading such a book, Makmun slipped it into his pocket.
Makmun, in fact, forgot about the book until he boarded a plane to return to his home. As he sat down in his seat, the book caught on his armrest and pinched his side. So he took the book out of his pocket just to make himself more comfortable. During his flight to Jakarta, however, Makmun read some pages in the book. Yet they so irritated him again that he quickly closed the book and stuffed it back into his pocket.
However, those pages wouldn’t let go of him. Makmun found that even once he returned home, he couldn’t sleep because he kept thinking about the book. When his wife asked him what was wrong, he reported that the book was bothering him. So she took it from him, and promptly read it from beginning to end. “It’s a good book,” Makmun’s wife told him before falling asleep. So Makmun picked up the book and finished reading it.
Not long afterwards, both Makmun and his wife received God’s grace with their faith. So the Holy Spirit, through the proclamation of a little book (and, as it turns out, Makmun’s friend), transformed them into enthusiastic Christians and active church members.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 9, 2020
Romans 10:5-15 Commentary