by Barry Newton
During a winter school break many years ago while visiting a college friend, I learned that a secret meeting for adults was scheduled for later that night in his family’s furnished attic. I had stumbled upon a cell of adults who had evaded paying their taxes by attempting to exploit what they perceived to be a tax loophole.
They had no problem putting a postage stamp on a letter, nor putting a letter in their mailbox to be picked up. They did not mind holding a pen to write a check. They did believe, however, that the government had no right demanding taxes. They also objected to writing Internal Revenue Service on a check.
I can imagine a federal official saying, “if they would just believe in paying their taxes and would write a check they would be law abiding citizens. For writing the check makes you compliant with federal law.” In such a scenario, what has the official done? Has he or she provided an exhaustive list of how to become a law abiding tax payer or simply identified the only barriers preventing those individuals from being lawful citizens?
Would anyone argue that people could be law abiding citizens if they only wrote the check but never mailed it because the official never said you must mail the check? Of course not. The context of paying your taxes does not permit such an understanding.
Similarly, in Romans 10, Paul might be providing an exhaustive list of everything which is required of a person in order to be saved or he might be identifying those barriers which had prevented Israel from arriving at faith. Can we determine which function the apostolic message was intended to fulfill?
If Paul has provided us with an exhaustive handbook on how to be saved by faith, then he should never describe entering salvation in terms other than believing in Christ and confessing his name. Furthermore, assuming that the New Testament writers shared a common perspective on salvation, there also should be no examples of anyone doing anything more than confessing Christ in order to receive salvation.
On the contrary, not only does Paul describe the salvation which comes by trusting in Jesus as involving being baptized, but the historical record is also filled with individuals receiving the benefits of salvation only when they were baptized. (Romans 6:3,4,17,18; Colossians 2:11-13; Galatians 3:26,27; Acts 22:16)
Moreover, reading the context starting in Romans 9:30, reveals that Paul’s focus was upon why Israel had not been justified. She had not responded in faith.
Using a text which even Israel would recognize as authoritative, Deuteronomy 30:14, Paul identified Israel’s barrier to faith being a refusal to believe and confess. Paul claimed this belief and confession had to be rooted in Christ. The text limited how Paul described the faith response.
However, just like an official who might offer hope to tax evaders by saying they would be law abiding if they would just write a check, Paul also indicated Israel would be saved if she would believe in Christ and confess him with her lips.
His purpose was not to provide a handbook delineating how to respond to Christ in order to be saved. Rather, in this letter directed to Christians, Paul explained to them why Israel had not been justified and what they needed to overcome.
One reading of Romans 10:9-10 leads to the New Testament contradicting itself. The other reading not only reflects the historical understanding of the early church but also presents a unified theological message.