NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TEN (Lesson XII)
German theologian John Bengel notes that for some in the Church at Rome there is a dilemma. A number of them were looking in the Law for something they couldn’t find, while others who were not seeking anything found everything they needed in the Gospel. Of course, we are speaking of righteousness and salvation which are in Christ and available for all who believe in Him. On top of that, as one searches the Law of Moses for righteousness and salvation, they discover that they need the Gospel after all. I like what Bengel says next: “Faith too has a mouth; for faith speaks, but unbelief generally mutters.”1 Bengel goes on to say that unbelief fluctuates; is always seeking, but finds nothing. That’s why unbelief looks down into the deep with suspicion and looks to heaven with doubt. One thing, Bengel says, that unbeliever’s need to know is what they are looking for. He goes on to say, poetically: “O unbelief, searching heaven and the deep for an answer, to find refuge in heaven or the deep, cannot be done outside of Christ.2
Adam Clarke also stresses the impossibility of attaining a right standing with God through works. There can be no doubt, as Paul has made clear, justification cannot be achieved through good works since everyone is sinful and can never satisfy the Law’s demands. So if it is God’s desire to grant salvation to all who believe, it must be by faith since it is essential that faith have some object, whether seen or unseen, in which to trust. And seeing, in this case, it cannot be the Law then it must be Jesus Christ.
The reason for that is He is the only one who, through His passion, death, and resurrection has infinite merit before God the Father in heaven. By trying to earn justification through works of the Law, it would require going up into heaven and defending oneself before God. But since it can only be received as a gift, that required Christ to come down from heaven to deliver it to all who will believe. So His coming down, His suffering, His death, and resurrection are absolutely essential for justification and salvation. No amount of self-righteous works can be a substitute for even a minute particle of what Christ did for sinners. If a person refuses to believe in Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah, then they have to climb up into heaven to find a replacement because they won’t find another one down here. All you have down here is the antichrist who will send you down the path to everlasting punishment.3
Bible scholar Albert Barnes feels that it is important that everyone know that nowhere does the Apostle Paul affirm that Moses describes righteousness by faith. Nor does he credit Moses with confirming justification by faith. Moses had a different goal in mind. To issue the Law and state its demands and rewards. Nevertheless, though he did not formally describe the plan of justification by faith, yet he used wording that could be taken as a similar plan. We find it at the time Moses called all the people together to deliver to them all that God had given him.4 Then Moses says to them: “This Law I give you today is not too hard for you, or too far from you. It is not in heaven. You do not need to say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us and bring it down to make us hear it, so we may obey it?’ It is not farther than the sea. You do not need to say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us and bring it to us to make us hear it, so we may obey it?’ But the Word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, so that you may obey it.”5 If we were to personify justification so that it would be able to describe what it is and what it does, there is little doubt that it would be able to speak for itself.6
Charles Hodge sees this from a different angle. By Paul quoting the Torah, it is thereby implied that he is advocating that justification can be attained with perfect obedience to all that Moses delivered to the children of Israel. However, when we look at what Moses went on to say must be also be obeyed, it is instantly clear that it would be impossible for any sinner to achieve. That’s why Paul is declaring that the Gospel requires no such impossible tasks. There is no need for anyone seeking to know the truth to climb to the heavens or sail across the sea to find it. Since these are figures of speech, Hodge sees them as saying that what God requires is unsophisticated enough for even a child to understand, and one does not need a broad or wide spectrum of comprehension. All it takes is an open mind an open heart and an open confession.
Since the knowledge and will of God have been made so easily available, no one is then required to go through an obstacle course to access the truth. Neither is it hidden in a riddle nor so mystical that it requires extrasensory perception. What Paul is talking about here and what Jesus offered to Nicodemus was not some new mantra or magical spell. These expressions had already become proverbial among the Jews. Something described as being too high or far off was another way of saying it was unattainable.7 To ascend to heaven or go down to hell, was to do what was impossible.8 As the sea was to the ancient mariners impassable, it is easy to understand how the question, “Who can pass over the sea?” was the same thing as saying “Who can ascend up into heaven?”9
Swiss Bible scholar Frédéric Godet notices a change of subject from Romans 10:5 to Romans 10:6. Paul is making it clear that Moses goes from advocating that a person’s righteousness and justification be grounded in the Torah, to grounding one’s righteousness and justification in trust or faith. Also, Moses goes from speaking of possessing this blessed assurance in a book to having it in one’s heart. Paul does this by quoting from a passage in Leviticus 18:5-6. In looking at it, we see that at first, it was speaking about the letter of the Law, then it switches to speaking about the spirit of the Law.
So the question is, what message was Moses trying to convey to the children of Israel? More or less he was telling them they need not distress themselves about the difficulty in understanding and practicing this Law. There was no need to imagine that someone would have to go up to heaven or sail beyond the horizon on the seas to bring back an explanation. Don’t trouble yourselves with thinking this would be necessary in order to fulfill the Law’s demands. This Law had been revealed by the Lord in such a way that every Israelite could understand it with their heart and profess it with their mouth. This was to help them put their faith in the nearness of Yahweh and in the promise of His grace and mercy.10
John Stott sees a clear path to salvation in what Paul says here. It is a case of pointing out what it was then and what would be years from now on. When Paul came preaching the Gospel, it was understood by the Jews that salvation came through obedience to the Law. Paul understood it that way when he told the Galatians: “The Law does not use faith. It says, ‘You must obey all the Law or there is no hope.’”11 But that was during under Moses. Now under Christ no-one is justified before God by the Law. Not because the Law was so bad, but because no-one had succeeded in obeying it. That weakness of the Law became the weakness of everyone who tried to find salvation by obeying it.12 But there was even more. It wasn’t just a case of not being able to obey the Law, but how often it was disobeyed. So instead of bringing life, it brought its curse – all who disobey the Law must die. But the Good News was that since Christ redeemed us from the Law’s curse by becoming a curse for us so it can no longer threaten us.13 It is in this sense that we say, “Christ completed the Law.” Righteousness now is no longer found in the Law, but in Christ.14
So as far as Stott is concerned, the righteousness Paul came preaching is by faith. He set before those who were listening that salvation is no longer found in the Law but in Christ. And that added another dimension: the assurance of salvation is no longer promised by a powerless Law, but by the risen Savior who has been given all power.15 Furthermore, you had to work for your salvation under the Law, but now your salvation is a gift from God because Christ has done all the necessary work. So Paul tells them there is no need to think how can I scale the heights or plumb the depths in order to find this salvation if it is no longer in the Law? The Messiah came down from above to earth and then rose up from below out of the earth so that He could ascend back into heaven having accomplished His mission of bringing salvation to all who believe.16
Verse 8: This is what the Scripture says: “God’s teaching is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart.”17 It is the message of faith being brought to people.
The Apostle Paul here so closely associates the tandem of the tongue and heart to the act of conversion in a way that we must consider them inseparable. To believe with the heart yet not confess with the mouth is to do no more than King Agrippa.18 Furthermore, it is liable within the boundaries of Christ’s own Law of confessing Him before men so He can acknowledge us before His Father in heaven. On the other hand, to confess with the tongue yet not believe in the heart is hypocrisy. Some of Christ’s most scathing rebukes were directed toward hypocrites. Yet even as the ingredients of salt are poisonous individually, together the compound is a preservative and excites flavor in food. Was it not our Lord who called those who believe and confess Him, the “salt” of the earth? Oh, you ask, what about the mute who cannot speak, or the deaf who cannot hear their own words? Since God sees the heart, their contrition and confession reaches His ears as loudly as one who verbalizes their confession. But their handicap cannot be used as an excuse by those who are able to testify to their belief in Christ as the risen Son of God.
In his quote from the Torah, Paul is referring to what Moses said to the children of Israel upon the giving of the Law. He said: “Obeying these commandments is not something beyond your strength and reach; for these Laws are not in the far heavens, so distant that you can’t hear and obey them, and with no one to bring them down to you; nor are they beyond the ocean, so far that no one can bring you their message; but they are very close at hand—in your hearts and on your lips—so obey them.”19 Paul takes what Moses said here about the Law being something that one does not obey out of habit or just as a practice, but something that abides in the heart and mind to lead and guide those who want to be obedient to God’s will, and applies it to the Gospel. Too often the teachings of Christ are followed as an outward formality and not out of an inward love for God.
1 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 322-323
2 Bengel: ibid., p. 324
3 Adam Clarke: On Romans. op. cit., loc. cit., p. 203
4 Deuteronomy 29:10ff
5 Ibid. 30:11-14
6 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 See Psalms 139:6; Proverbs 24:7
8 See Amos 9:2; Psalms 139:8-9
9 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit. pp. 524-525
10 Frédéric Louis Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 Galatians 3:12
12 Romans 8:3
13 Galatians 3:10ff
14 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
15 Matthew 28:18
16 Stott: ibid.
17 Deuteronomy 30:11-14
18 Acts of the Apostles 26:28