“But how can they call on Him they have not believed in? And how can they believe without hearing about Him? And how can they hear without a preacher? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: How beautiful are the feet of those who announce the gospel of good things! But all did not obey the gospel. For Isaiah says, Lord, who has believed our message? So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the message about Christ. But I ask, “Did they not hear? ” Yes, they did: Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the inhabited world. But I ask, “Did Israel not understand? ” First, Moses said: I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; I will make you angry by a nation that lacks understanding. And Isaiah says boldly: I was found by those who were not looking for Me; I revealed Myself to those who were not asking for Me. But to Israel he says: All day long I have spread out My hands to a disobedient and defiant people.” (Romans 10:14-21 HCSB)
Independence. In America, our national holiday is Independence Day and somehow that seems to define us, as a nation. Independent. Self Sufficient. We can do this ourselves, thank you very much. It also seems to define our attitude towards God, far too often. While many Americans love to highlight our heritage and that our nation was founded on the principals of religious freedom and the right to live and worship as our God dictates, there’s little doubt that we have strayed far from God and the love of worship that once defined our reason for existence. This sense of independence has now pervaded our religious beliefs and freedoms and driven us far, far from our God. Unfortunately, it sounds eerily similar to Paul’s words of warning in this week’s focal passage.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve taken a look at what it means to believe. We’ve discovered that belief is much, much deeper than just knowing a concept or agreeing intellectually with a series of statements or facts. Belief goes to the very heart of who you are, what you do and the goals you choose to pursue. If you truly believe something in your heart then you also express it with words and actions. You act on your core beliefs and they govern your choices, desires, relationships and lifestyle. In essence, what you believe defines who and what you are.
So, back to where I started. Independence. If independence defines your existence and is a core belief in your worldview, then it will significantly impact your understanding of, belief in and obedience to God. It really depends on where independence fits into your belief structure as to how it impacts your worldview and relationship with God. Culturally, there’s little doubt where it fits in America’s belief structure and how it impacts our worldview and relationships, God or otherwise. It appears to sit at the apex of our belief structure and governs almost every aspect of our personhood. Personal rights, self expression and even sexual identity and gender are governed by our independence and its impact on our beliefs.
Many Christians I know sit back and marvel at where our culture has arrived and lament the fact that America struggles with things like abortion on demand, gender identity, homosexuality, racial injustice, rampant divorce, family disintegration and a rejection of the Biblical God and His authority over life. However, I’m not surprised. Are you? We teach our kids independence, not interdependence. We teach them individualism and hatred, not the “imago Dei” (image of God) in all mankind. We teach them ownership, not stewardship. We teach them to lie, cheat and blame on others, but not accountability, responsibility and honesty. We teach them to seek human knowledge and understanding, never the wisdom of God. We teach them to trust science but ignore God’s Spirit. We tell them, trust your own heart but not God’s or His Word. Are you really surprised? I’m not…
Paul opens our focal passage with “how can they call on Him in whom they have not believed?” I could easily echo Paul’s question for America. We sing “God Bless America” but America cannot be blessed by the God she refuses to believe and obey. I know, many of you are probably saying “Amen” to that statement and we can easily get sidetracked into a political discussion. But let me say this very clearly, the answer to this issue is NOT political. That’s part of the problem we currently face. We’ve come to believe that God has blessed our form of government through representative rule (democratic republic) as the ultimate expression of righteousness, goodness and faith. Hear me clearly, that IS heresy. The ultimate expression of God’s righteousness, goodness and faith is Jesus Christ and not the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights or The United States of America.
Notice what Paul says, though: “How can they believe without hearing about Him?” Somehow, we’ve come to believe that the greatest message America has for the world is the way we’ve learned to practice self-governance. We’ve forgotten that the greatest message we have is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We proclaim that the greatest need man has is “personal, political freedom” and we fail to proclaim that the greatest need man has is “Jesus, who sets you free from sin to serve God.” To be fair, the issue isn’t with America but, rather, with the American church and that’s the core of the problem. We’ve somehow equated America with the people of God or the Christian Church and that simply isn’t true. In many ways, the American church has abandoned its calling to proclaim the Gospel and has focused on a political agenda.
In his Presidential address at the Southern Baptist Convention last week, J.D. Greear stated: “Whenever the church gets in bed with politics, the church gets pregnant. And our offspring does not look like our Father in Heaven.” We’ve lost sight of our purpose and, as a result, we’ve lost much of our spiritual power. In many ways, the church suffers from the same sense of personal independence I mentioned above. We have developed methodologies and programs to fund and achieve our goals, all without God. We’ve adopted a business model and methods and that has resulted in the business of ministry focused on a business measure of success – size, money and influence. We want to make our mission about “growing” the church, making it bigger and better. Yet, our mission is to proclaim the gospel and make disciples. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3:6-7 HCSB) If you want to see how Jesus would respond to this issue, go read John 6. We must remember who we are and our mission, to proclaim the truth – the gospel of Christ – and leave the growth to God. But remember, “How can they believe without hearing about Him?”
So, it is impossible to believe unless they hear about Him and then Paul adds, “how can they hear without a herald (or preacher).” Somebody has to tell them. The idea of a herald is someone who enters the public square and declares what the king has sent him to say. The two key elements are the message and the messenger. We addressed the message, above. The message must be the truth of God’s Word regarding His Son, Jesus. So, let’s focus on the messenger. The messenger declares the message of truth with the authority of its source, His king. While this should be true of every preacher, it is contingent upon the message and its source. If I’m stating my opinion, then it is devoid of the King’s authority. If I’m sharing personal advice, it is devoid of the King’s authority. If I share a personal story or anecdote, it is devoid of the King’s authority. But if I’m delivering the truth of the Gospel, then it is filled with the King’s authority and power. So, the real power of the church’s pulpit is found only in the truth of the Gospel.
But, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the power of the Gospel will also flow through you when you share its truth with a neighbor, friend or family member. While Paul says, “how can they preach unless they are sent” that doesn’t preclude the fact that Christ sends every believer to live out his faith publicly, proclaim the truth faithfully and call others to faith daily.
“…but honor the Messiah as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” (1 Peter 3:15 HCSB)
“If anyone speaks, it should be as one who speaks God’s words; if anyone serves, it should be from the strength God provides, so that God may be glorified through Jesus Christ in everything. To Him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Peter 4:11 HCSB)
Finally, Paul says that “but all did not obey the gospel.” If faith comes by hearing, and what is heard comes through the truth of the gospel – the message about Christ, then what happened? Didn’t they hear? Yes, the message has been proclaimed to the ends of the inhabited world. Here, Paul quotes Psalm 19 and seems to imply that all men have heard the truth. Don’t rush to quickly to judgment on Paul’s words. While “all men” might seem to be inclusive, his next statement is much more narrowly focused – “did Israel not understand?” Paul begins to show how Israel had been given the truth and it had been “proclaimed” among all of them, but not all of them obeyed the gospel. We have the ability to hear the truth, and still reject it. We even have the ability to understand its purpose, its intent and the implications of its truth upon our lives and still reject it. Simply put, we have the ability to know the truth about God and to have even witnessed His power and still walk away, disobedient to that truth.
Paul tells us that the God’s intention is to use the impact of the Gospel among “those who were not looking for me” as a means to drive Israel to jealousy. To make them angry at how God has revealed Himself “to those were not asking for Me.” The very people of God had witnessed His power and presence, first hand. Yet they stood on the edge of the Jordan river and looked over into the land He promised them, and they cowered in fear (see Deut. 32). Paul now calls the church in Rome to recognize that Israel again cowers in fear at the fulfillment of God’s promises. They’ve heard the good news of the coming Messiah from the prophets and now they’ve heard, firsthand, as to how Jesus has fulfilled those promises, yet they have disobeyed God and rejected Christ. Again, Israel stands on the banks of the Jordan River and they hear how God is fulfilling His promises in their own day as John the Baptizer declares, “Look, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn. 1:29) Will they believe and obey? Some did, most didn’t.
What’s Paul’s message for our day and our church? It’s still the same. Don’t step back in fear, don’t turn away into disobedience but step forward in faith. Will you hear? Will you believe? Remember the promises of God and discover His power in obedience through faith as you proclaim the Good News of Christ to your friends, neighbors, coworkers and family. Remember, you have been sent and, if sent, then you have the King’s message to proclaim. That message is not about you, it is about Him. Will they believe? That’s not dependent upon your ability nor is it your responsibility, that’s the Holy Spirit’s job. Your job is obedience. My job is obedience.
If the American church turns away into disobedience – if we turn away into disobedience, then God will achieve His purpose through those who are willing to believe and obey. He will use and bless those who are willing, by faith, to believe and step into and across the Jordan and into the land of His promises. Will it result in the blessings we expect and desire? Probably not, but we will be blessed, nonetheless. Join me, let’s follow Him… together.