Faith (Still) Comes by Hearing

In spite of all our strategies and methods, Romans 10 stands as a reminder that the gospel message must be simply spoken.

Have you heard?

It used to be understood that evangelism and missions mean sharing the Word of God and preaching Christ if sinners are to believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord.

Unfortunately, this staple of missions is now being rethought. Trendier methods are being advocated and pioneered. And while there is more to missionary work then simply proclaiming the gospel, there is nothing more basic and more foundational to the missionary task than gospel proclamation.

Let’s walk through one passage of the Bible that gives us a biblical model of the sine qua non of the missionary task: Romans 10:14-17.

In Romans 10, Paul is explaining the righteousness of God that is received by faith—which Israel rejected in an effort to attain righteousness through the Law. Seeking to climb up to heaven by their good works, they refused to accept the word and believe it (vv. 6-8). Then, Paul tells us that what is essential to believe and confess as a part of saving faith:

“…because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” (vv. 9-10)

From there, Paul explains that both Jew and Gentile are saved through this message because Jesus is Lord of all (vv. 11-12). Then, in verse 13, we read, “For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’” (quoting Joel 2:32).

This raises the question: how will someone come to call on the name of the Lord in this profession of faith and confession of Jesus’ lordship?

1. To call on the Lord’s name, one must believe in him.

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Rom. 10:14, emphasis added)

Paul is walking us backward through a chain of thought. We want people to call on the Lord, cry out to him, and worship him. The goal of evangelism, after all, is seeing sinners call on the name of the Lord. But they aren’t going to reach out and call on him unless they first believe in him. They must hear about him and who he is. They must understand why it is good and wonderful to reach out and call on him. Why should pagans worldwide, who worship their own gods, turn and call on Jesus?

2. To believe in Jesus, one must hear about him.

“How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Rom. 10:14, emphasis added)

To call, they must believe. But if they are going to believe, they must hear about him. People do not just believe by osmosis. Good deeds done by a Christian can illustrate that our faith is living and active, but they are not sufficient in themselves to indicate Whom we are serving. If you never say anything, how will other know why you serve? We must wed our deeds with the Word, showing love and shunning hypocrisy. But we cannot just have deeds without words. The lost must hear.

3. To hear about him, someone must preach.

“How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Rom. 10:14, emphasis added)

People won’t hear the word without someone telling them. Thus, they need preachers. Evangelists. Someone must speak, bridging the communication gap in a fashion both faithfully representing the truth and remaining intelligible within a new language and culture. Even the Ethiopian Eunuch needed Philip to explain what he was reading (Acts 8:31).

We’ve all heard the miracle stories of God’s radical interventions in the sinner’s life, but the normative means that God uses is faithful, human witnesses brining the gospel message to others. We can’t control when and how God will intervene in a sinner’s heart, but we can follow God’s simple instructions— to go and preach so as many as possible can hear. The Holy Spirit uses the Word of God to opens hearts and minds to Jesus.

4. To preach to people, we must go to the places where people haven’t heard.

“And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’” (Rom. 10:15)

The image Paul provides demonstrates that the preacher must specifically go to those who still need to hear. Imagine walking on a dusty dirty road for miles and miles. Now, imagine doing it with open toe sandals. The last thing you will have at the end of the day is “beautiful feet.” (If you’ve ever smelled your children’s feet after a day of playing outside, you can appreciate this!)

But the messenger’s feet in verse 15 have a deeper spiritual beauty because of the worth of the gospel message carried to a new land. The messenger travels somewhere to tell someone who hasn’t heard.

Hence, two things must happen in modern missions: we have to go, and we have to proclaim.

It is a pity indeed that we are in danger of losing what is at the bedrock of missions. We are far to willing to negotiate what is, for the Scriptures, non-negotiable.

Answering Objections

Someone might say, “Isn’t simple preaching an outdated model?” or, “It doesn’t work in this culture.”

Let’s answer this question in two ways:

First, when Paul says “preaching,” he does not exclusively mean standing behind a pulpit in a formal church gathering and hoping the lost show up. He is focusing on the proclamation of the message. The gospel is good news, and news is always something that is communicated in words.

Proclamation can mean traditional models of preaching in a church setting or street preaching, or it can include other methods such as Bible studies in homes. Even as there is discussion and answering questions, any time you share the content of the gospel and explain it, calling for a response of repentance and faith, you are evangelizing and preaching in the Pauline sense—whether you are meeting house to house, gathering in a coffee shop, or sharing your testimony and including the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection. All these things can result in preaching, so long as we remember that people must hear the message of the gospel if they are going to believe in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Second, Paul faced the same problem with preaching that many modern detractors of proclamational evangelism face: the reality that it doesn’t always work. Paul reminds us that Isaiah faced the same problem: “But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?’ (Rom. 10:16).

We read again in Romans verses 18-21:

“But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for ‘Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.’ But I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says, ‘I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry.’ Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, ‘I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.’ But of Israel he says, ‘All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.’”

Paul preached in lots of place and many rejected his message. There were also many people who believed. But his own fellow Israelites were often the ones who strongly rejected the message of the gospel. Did preaching “fail”? No!

I have been told the Puritans used to say, “The same sun that melts the ice hardens the clay.” Preaching doesn’t always break open someone’s heart; sometimes it hardens it. The problem isn’t the preaching or the effectiveness of the preacher or the Word he is bringing. So, while we may need to evaluate whether or not we are actually crossing cultural divides, we are not to find new methods when the simple gospel appears to “fail.” Maybe we even need to check that we are truly demonstrating the same love in our actions as we are speaking about in our words—but that doesn’t mean less preaching. Rather, we are to trust God.

We must pray that the Holy Spirit would fall on people with his power. Like Paul, we need to renounce underhanded ways, manipulative methods, or tampering with the Word to make it more effective (2 Cor. 4:2). We need to proclaim Jesus as Lord (v. 5) and trust that God will use the power of his gospel to let light shine into the darkened places (v. 6).

The bottom line is that people are not saved unless they hear the word about Christ. The gospel must be communicated by words. People need to hear it. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published March 26, 2020.

Tim Bertolet

Tim Bertolet serves with ABWE as Director of Instructional Design and Theological Education. He’s served in pastoral ministry for sixteen years and knows the life of an MK firsthand. With a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies from the University of Pretoria, and degrees from Westminster Theological Seminary and Lancaster Bible College, he specializes in Bible and theology and is passionate about applying it to life and ministry. Tim’s also an adjunct professor, research fellow with BibleMesh, and a published author. Tim lives in York, Pa. with his wife and kids. He enjoys reading, writing, science fiction, and gardening roses.