An Exegesis of Romans 10:9-10

Many Christians have been taught to use “the Romans Road to Salvation” when trying to lead people to Christ. The idea is to use certain verses out of Romans to demonstrate that all men are sinners, that the wages of sin is death, and therefore that all men deserve Hell, but that God provided a means to salvation to those who place their faith in His Son, Jesus Christ. This “road” usually ends with the witness reading Romans 10:9-10, which says:

[I]f you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. (NIV)

On the basis of the requirement of confession, the person is asked to “pray a prayer” to “ask Jesus into your heart.” Certainly, people must understand “the bad news” if they are to accept the Good News of Jesus Christ. We therefore are in full agreement with the first half of the “Romans Road.” But is it possible that these two verses have been misunderstood and improperly applied in evangelistic encounters?

The Context

As always, the first thing to look at when examining any verse is its context. The Book of Romans as a whole was written to explain the Gospel of Jesus Christ and its power to save to the Roman Christians (Rom. 1:16). Chapters 1-2 demonstrate the sinfulness of all men. Chapters 3-4 are Paul’s great discourse on justification by faith alone in Christ alone. Chapters 5-8 deal with sanctification, and chapters 9-11 deal with the nation of Israel. On its face, then, we should be very cautious about using any passage directly out of chapters 5-11 to explain how a person is justified. This is especially true of chapters 9-11, since Israel in particular is in view.

The Terminology

Beyond the context, another major red flag in taking these verses as a basic presentation of the Gospel is the words Paul uses. The four verbs are “confess,” “believe,” “justify,” and “save.” Contrary to what many teach, to confess does not mean to profess or to pray. It simply means “to say the same thing as,” which is to say, to see something the way God does. This verse, then, cannot be used to teach that one must “pray the prayer of salvation.”

We will discuss belief and justification below, but it may surprise many to find that salvation, especially in Romans, does not refer to “going to heaven.” We will discuss this in detail, but for now, it is sufficient to note that it refers to deliverance from a temporal danger. If this is true, then this passage is inappropriate to use to call someone to “saving faith,” because “eternal salvation” is not what Paul is talking about at all!

The Text

How, then, should we take these verses if not as a basic presentation of the Gospel? Notice the opening words:

[I]if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Paul sets out two conditions for salvation. The first is confession and the second is belief. The fact that salvation here has two conditions is enough to keep us from looking at this as the salvation of our immortal soul. There is only one condition for such salvation, which is faith in Christ (John 3:16; Rom 4:1-5, etc.). In recognition of this, some see confession as roughly synonymous with belief, that the confession is simply the outward manifestation of belief. Such view must be rejected, however, for its mere redundancy. If this were true, then either the confession is totally unnecessary for salvation (which makes Paul’s wording awkward at best) or faith manifested in a certain act is required for salvation. Both of these possibilities are unacceptable. After all, how is a deaf or mute person supposed to confess anything with their mouths; and yet “to confess” does not mean “to believe.” It is sloppy exegesis to assert as much.

Whatever this salvation is, then, it cannot refer to salvation from Hell. It is, though, tied closely to confession. This same idea appears again just a few verses later in Rom. 10:13, where Paul quotes Joel 2:32, saying, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Notice, again, that salvation is in view, and the condition has something to do with confessing, which here Paul equates with calling on the name of the Lord.

The context of Joel is instructive. Joel’s prophecy was a warning to Israel about the coming invasion of Assyria. Were they only to call upon Yahweh, they could have been saved, or delivered, from destruction. As it happened, they did not and were destroyed. The salvation Paul has in view here seems to be salvation from God’s wrath (cf. Rom. 2:1-6). It is a consistent theme through Scripture that God punishes those who reject Him and live instead in sin. Deliverance from that punishment has always come by a return to the One True God. The book of Judges, in fact, in its entirety is a demonstration of that principle!

All this is confirmed by our passage. Romans 10:10 says,

For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.

In this verse, the same verbs are used as in verse nine: “confess,” “believe” and “save.” Only here, their relationship is clarified. Paul says that justification follows belief. It is extremely important to note that the word for justification here is the same word Paul uses exclusively in chapters three and four where he discusses how we are saved from Hell. In that unit, just as here, justification is tied to faith as its sole condition. Once the individual has been justified, they may progress on to salvation by confessing Jesus, the name of the Lord. The reasoning is easy enough. How can one confess the Lord Jesus, that is, to accept God’s testimony concerning Him, if they have not believed in Him? This is especially important given that this section is dealing with Israel as a nation. They were under the immediate threat of destruction by the Roman Empire for their rejection of Jesus Christ (see Matt 24:1-2). Their deliverance from that threat was precisely the same for their deliverance from the Assyrian threat centuries before: to confess their Savior, which is exactly what Paul goes on to say in Rom. 10:13. Yet how could they confess that Jesus is their Savior and Lord, their promised Messiah, if they did not believe that God has raised Him from the dead?

The rest of the chapter and all of chapter eleven bear this view out. Israel must first be brought to believe that Jesus is the Christ, which required those who were already believers to go to them with the Gospel. Paul promises that on the last day, all of Israel will be saved (Rom. 11:26), not only from Hell, but from the persecution they have been suffering since they first went into exile more than five hundred years before Christ!

Application

Rom. 10:9-10, then, does not give the Gospel in a nutshell. For those looking for a single verse to explain what person must do to receive eternal life and be saved from Hell, there is none better than John 3:16. To try to make this verse evangelistic can actually cause people to misunderstand the Gospel, since its focus is confession rather than faith. This is not to say that those people who did come to understand the Gospel through this verse are not saved. Many people will spend eternity with Christ because of these words, yet that does not mean we should continue to use it in an inappropriate manner.

Further, when we look at this passage as an evangelistic call to salvation, we run the risk of missing the greater promise to believers. Here, God offers His children deliverance from bondage in this world. While the promise is directed specifically to the Jew, it holds equally true for all believers. It is no secret that God disciplines His children. God offers the amazing promise of deliverance from sin and its harmful effects if we simply call upon Jesus Christ! By focusing our attention only on our immortal souls, we miss the truth that this passage promises deliverance from wrath, discipline, and sin in the here and now.

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