Romans 10:14-21 – Do unbelieving ethnic Israelites have any excuse for not believing?

This is part of a series of posts on Romans. Click here for the contents page.

Having reached the centre of Romans 9-11, i.e. 10:4-13, we are now on the return journey, with each section matching with its corresponding earlier section.

The next section is Romans 10:14-21. In this section, Paul goes through possible excuses as to why the unbelieving ethnic Israelites are not currently trusting in Christ (at Paul’s time of writing). Perhaps it’s not really their fault? Perhaps it’s somehow God’s fault? This section matches up with 9:30-10:3 – both are used by Paul to demonstrate that the situation of the unbelieving ethnic Israelites is entirely their own fault. They could easily trust in Christ and it’s not in any way God’s fault that they haven’t done so yet.

Paul finished the central section (10:4-13) with the very simple summary of salvation that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”. That sounds straightforward enough, but perhaps the unbelieving ethnic Israelites have an excuse for not calling on the name of the Lord? This is what Paul discusses in this section:

“[14] 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? [15a] And how are they to preach unless they are sent?”

These verses take us backwards through a series of steps leading to salvation. Setting out the steps in chronological order we have:

  1. Preacher is sent to them
  2. Preacher preaches the word of Christ (see v. 17) to them
  3. They hear the word of Christ
  4. They believe in Christ
  5. They call on Christ

A few verses before this, Paul has set out that someone reaching steps 4 and 5 will be saved: “For it is with the heart that one believes and is justified, and it is with the mouth that one declares their faith and is saved” (10:10). (It seems that steps 4 and 5 are linked, so that anyone reaching step 4 will reach step 5 as well.) So if the unbelieving ethnic Israelites had not reached step 3 yet (i.e. they hadn’t heard the word of Christ), they would have an excuse for not having reached steps 4 and 5. Paul will go on to demonstrate that the unbelieving ethnic Israelites have indeed reached step 3, so they don’t have this excuse (see verses 16 and 18 below).

“[15b] As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!””

This covers steps 1 and 2 – there have been preachers and they have been preaching the good news (i.e. the “gospel”) to the ethnic Israelites. The quote is from Isaiah 52:7: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.””

“[16] But they have not all obeyed the good news. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?””

This covers step 3 – they have heard. This also shows that it is possible to get to step 3 but not reach step 4. It is possible to hear the word but not believe it. Such a person has been given all they need to believe, but they choose to disobey the good news by not trusting Christ.

“[17] So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

The way to get to step 4 is via step 3.

Paul will now make three points to address the remaining potential excuses for the unbelieving ethnic Israelites. Perhaps they hadn’t heard? Perhaps they heard but did not understand? Perhaps they could not find the one they were seeking? For each of the three points, Paul introduces the situation and then quotes a Bible verse. Each time, Paul is addressing the question of the unbelief of the ethnic Israelites, but Paul’s Bible quotation relates to Gentiles. What Paul is doing is proving that the ethnic Israelites have no excuse for not trusting in Christ by proving that even the Gentiles have no excuse for not doing this. If Paul can prove that even the Gentiles have no excuse, then the ethnic Israelites, who have been in a privileged position compared to the Gentiles (see 9:1-5), certainly must have no excuse.

“[18] 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.””

Paul confirms again that the unbelieving ethnic Israelites have indeed heard, i.e. they have reached step 3. What they have heard is the word of Christ (see verse 17). The quotation is from Psalm 19:4, which talks of the proclamation of the creation, which goes to everyone (even the Gentiles). Paul is saying that even the proclamation of creation declares the word of Christ, and this word goes to everyone. The ethnic Israelites have heard this word and so much more, thanks to the various prophets and evangelists that God has sent to them. As the proclamation of creation is enough to make the Gentiles without excuse (Romans 1:20), then the ethnic Israelites certainly must be without excuse for having heard this and more. We will discuss some implications of this verse in more depth at the end of this post.

“[19] 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.””

After establishing that the Israelites have heard the word of Christ, the next possible excuse is that perhaps they didn’t understand it. Paul contrasts these ethnic Israelites against a non-Israelite “foolish nation”. In context, the point Paul is making is that there are plenty of Gentile Christians, and while these ethnic Israelites have had hundreds of years of theological training, along with all the blessings set out at the beginning of Romans 9, the Gentiles haven’t had those blessings but many of them have become Christians. If even those Gentiles understood the good news about Christ, it would be absurd to suggest that the ethnic Israelites were in a position of not understanding it.

“[20] 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.””

In his third and final point about the lack of excuse for the unbelieving ethnic Israelites, Paul speaks of Gentiles who have become Christians even though they weren’t seeking God. In contrast, the unbelieving ethnic Israelites “have a zeal for God” (10:2), so they are seeking God. Therefore they are in a better position to find God than the Gentiles, so this is also no excuse for them. Paul is making a similar point to Romans 9:30-31, which is in the parallel section to this one. The point made both times is that Gentiles who have not sought God have found him, while ethnic Israelites who have sought God have not found him.

We’ve gone through all the remaining excuses and none of them has succeeded in taking any blame away from the unbelieving ethnic Israelites. We can see the true situation is that, rather than seeking God according to the way God has revealed to them, these unbelieving ethnic Israelites are disobediently trusting in themselves and trying to achieve their own righteousness instead. How does God respond to this disobedience?

“[21] But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.””

God really wants these Israelites to be saved! He holds out his hands to them all day long. Even though they have been so disobedient, he still loves them and wants them to turn to him. As we’ve seen in Chapter 10, the word of Christ has been preached to them and has entered into their hearts so that they can be saved. God really wants this to happen! There is no one who wants ethnic Israelites to be saved more than God does. God has done nothing whatsoever to permanently cut any of them off or permanently prevent any of them from being saved.

It’s clear that it’s not God’s fault in any way that any of the ethnic Israelites are not trusting in Christ. All of them have had everything they need to be able to do this, and God continues to hold out his hands for them to come to him. We’ll see in chapter 11 the lengths to which God is going to increase the number of ethnic Israelites who are being saved.

Verse 21 begins with the words but of Israel he says (referring to the unbelieving ethnic Israelites) because the previous three Bible quotations relate to Gentiles (although, as explained above, they were used to prove a point about the ethnic Israelites).

Here is a structure for this section of Romans (10:14-21):

structure-of-romans-10v14-21

The C2-C2-A sections are about the unbelieving ethnic Israelites, and consider whether they have an excuse for not believing. The C2-C2-B section is a general truth that is stated without reference to the specific situation of the ethnic Israelites. This general truth helps us to understand the situation of the ethnic Israelites – they don’t have an excuse because they have heard the word of Christ.

In the next post, we’ll be starting out on Romans 11.

“Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn, and live.” (Ezekiel 18:31b-32)

Additional discussion of Romans 10:18

We will now consider further implications of this verse, following the initial discussion of it above.

“[18] 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.””

The Bible verse to which Paul refers to prove this is striking. Paul does not speak here of prophets or evangelists going to speak the word of Christ to the Israelites (although that has happened many times, as mentioned in verse 15b). Instead, Paul speaks of the proclamation made by the creation itself, from Psalm 19:

“[1] The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. [2] Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. [3] There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. [4] Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.”

Paul is therefore saying that the creation preaches the word of Christ. Paul is not merely saying that the creation is sufficient to let us deduce that some kind of “God” exists; he is saying that the creation specifically preaches the word of Christ. This should not really be a surprise to us – if the creation preached anything other than the word of Christ, the creation would be a heretic! Given that the creation was created by Christ (John 1:3), it shouldn’t be at all surprising that it proclaims his word.

Some people find this difficult to believe, and don’t see how the creation specifically preaches the word of Christ. Although they wouldn’t put it like this, their reasoning is really that, because they don’t understand how the creation preaches the word of Christ, the creation must only be preaching a general message rather than one about Christ. However, the problem is not with the clarity of the proclamation of the creation – the problem lies with the people hearing the proclamation! Due to our sinful natures (since the fall), we are naturally inclined against listening to the proclamation of the word of Christ, so we don’t usually see it for what it really is.

Because Paul shows us that the word of Christ is preached by the creation through all the earth to everyone, we can conclude that all people reach step 3 (hearing the word of Christ), so all are given the possibility to reach step 4 (believing in Christ). This doesn’t mean that there is no point in having human evangelists, as “how beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news” (verse 15b). A person who hears the word of Christ from a human evangelist as well as from the creation is in a better position than a person who has heard it only from the creation. Paul himself dedicated his ministry to preaching the gospel to people who had not heard from a human evangelist before (Romans 15:20-21), so he saw the importance of human evangelism alongside his awareness that the creation proclaims the word of Christ. God wants us to engage in personal evangelism, but the reason for this is not that he is incapable of communicating to people without our help.

The point is that the proclamation of creation is sufficient to ensure that everyone reaches step 3, which makes step 4 a possibility for everyone (thanks to the enabling of the spirit-filled word of Christ – see the previous post). On judgement day, no non-Christian will be able to lay any blame on God that they never heard the word of Christ, even if they never met a human evangelist.

This also fits with Romans 1:

“[18] For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. [19] For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. [20] For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. [21] For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”

These people suppress the truth, and the truth is not simply that there is a “God”, but it is far more detailed than that, as Paul explains. They are “without excuse” because the proclamation of creation is enough for them to know God, but they choose not to honour him or give thanks.

If you’re still not convinced, consider what Paul says in Colossians 1:

“[15] The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. [16] For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. [17] He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. [18] And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. [19] For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, [20] and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. [21] Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour. [22] But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation – [23] if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.”

Paul says that the gospel has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. This would be hard to believe if he meant only the spoken word of human evangelists, but it makes sense if he is also including the proclamation of creation, which proclaims the word of Christ to everyone.

One reason why people might struggle with accepting this is if they have an understanding of what the “gospel” is that is too detailed and specific, requiring a long sequence of historical events to be listed before the “gospel” has been presented. However, in Galatians 3:8, Paul states that “the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”” Paul can call this simple statement the “gospel”, so we should broaden our understanding of what the “gospel” is, not requiring it to be a long list of propositions. This makes it easier to comprehend how the creation could proclaim the “gospel”. This verse also shows us that the gospel was known about before Jesus’ incarnation. The same point can be made from Paul’s introduction to Romans. In Romans 1:1-2, Paul refers to:

“the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through the holy scriptures, concerning his Son.”

The gospel about God’s Son was revealed long before Jesus’ incarnation.

People often like to discuss what happens to those who have never heard the gospel. It is often considered that a large proportion of the world’s population has never heard the gospel. Is it fair of God to punish people who have not reached step 3 of the five steps listed above? However, the Bible never directly addresses this question. Would the Bible really have nothing to say about so many people? It seems the more biblical position is to go along with Paul’s teaching that the gospel has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. The Bible does not explain what happens to people who have never heard the gospel because there are no such people. Everyone has heard at least the proclamation of creation, so even if someone has never heard the gospel from a human evangelist, they have still heard the word of Christ preached by the creation, which makes them ‘without excuse’ (Romans 1, see above). The sad fact is that many people resist and reject the gospel, not that God withholds the gospel from many people.

If you’re still not convinced on this point, this post might help (see in particular the comments made by Paul Blackham and Glen Scrivener – I also chip-in later in the discussion). Otherwise, don’t worry for now as this point doesn’t affect the rest of this analysis of Romans 9-11.

This was first published at the Predestination Station, where comments can be made.

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11 thoughts on “Romans 10:14-21 – Do unbelieving ethnic Israelites have any excuse for not believing?

  1. Pingback: Romans blog series – Contents | The Predestination Station

  2. Pingback: Romans 10:4-13 | The Predestination Station

  3. Pingback: Romans 11:1-6 | The Predestination Station

  4. Pingback: Romans 11:17-24 – Can unbelieving ethnic Israelites still be saved? | The Predestination Station

  5. Pingback: Romans 11:25-32 – Who does God want to have mercy on? – Who is “all Israel”? – Structure of Romans 11:1-32 | The Predestination Station

  6. Pingback: Romans 9:17-18 – God’s right to harden – Pharaoh | The Predestination Station

  7. Pingback: Romans 9:19-20 – Is it right for God to find fault with unbelieving ethnic Israelites? | The Predestination Station

  8. Pingback: Romans 9:30-10:3 – Why have so many ethnic Israelites failed to obtain righteousness? | The Predestination Station

  9. Pingback: Romans 11:33-36 – Why is Paul so full of praise? | The Predestination Station

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