Romans chapter ten is one of the most cited passages in all of Scripture. Verse 9 is particularly attractive to evangelicals and forms the climax of the “Romans Road”. Although this verse is almost always excised and exhibited in a hermeneutically sealed enclosure with all the context vacuumed out to preserve its evangelistic integrity for posterity’s sake, this text is more meaningful if it is studied in its natural habitat. As they say: If you love a verse, set it free. If it makes sense in context, then you really do understand it; if it doesn’t then you never did. I think that is how the saying goes. So let’s take a few moments and consider the context of this astounding statement.
The full context of this verse starts back in chapter one of Romans, but don’t despair, we are going to skip ahead to the immediate context only. The immediate context is a little difficult to cleanly dissect given Paul’s practice of braiding fistfuls of ideas into single cords, but for the purposes of this essay, we can settle for 10:4 through 10:13. First, I would like to call your attention briefly back to verse 9: Those of you who are given to quoting it all by itself… that it is not a complete sentence; I’m just saying… I am fascinated by the punctiliousness and fastidiousness that some have for quoting an entire verse, but have no regard at all for the full sentences. I’m just saying.
In verse 4 and 5 Paul contrasts the righteousness that is by the law with the righteousness that is by faith, and demonstrates that legal righteousness is a function of legal compliance, which is perfectly logical and reasonable. The righteousness of the law says that if you keep the law you aren’t condemned by the law. It really doesn’t get much simpler than that. Of course, the sticking point is what to do when you don’t continue in all things written in the law to do them. What contingency righteousness does the law afford you in that case? None. The answer is, None. Now contrast that with what the righteousness which is by faith says. What does it say, Paul? Paul answers: It does not say “Who will ascend into heaven?” The, what does it say, Paul? Paul answers: It does not say “Who will descend into the deep”. I love you Paul.
Declaring first what the word of faith doesn’t say is crucial in bringing together the contrast between law and faith. The lines he quotes all come from Deuteronomy. But it is interesting that the first quote is from Deuteronomy 9.4 which says “Speak not thou in thine heart” and the others are from Deuteronomy 30.12-14. At first glance it appears that Paul is Frankensteining together a proof-text. Some commentators even posit that theory, although obviously not in those words. However, if you look at Deuteronomy 9, it is clear that he didn’t just pluck out a convenient phrase. The context of that phrase is not only relevant to the discussion in Romans 10, it is central to the entire Epistle. My hypothesis on the Old Testament quotes found in the New Testament writings is that they are most often a form of referencing. Since the Bible did not have chapter and verse divisions as ours do today, and especially not universally recognized divisions, then the New Testament authors “referenced” passages by citing a significant, identifying phrase from it; but the reader was expected to upload the full context of that reference into their understanding and apply that lens to the argument. If we look at Deuteronomy 9 in that way, consider this context:
Speak not thou in thine heart, after that the LORD thy God hath cast them out from before thee, saying, For my righteousness the LORD hath brought me in to possess this land: but for the wickedness of these nations the LORD doth drive them out from before thee. Not for thy righteousness, or for the uprightness of thine heart, dost thou go to possess their land: but for the wickedness of these nations the LORD thy God doth drive them out from before thee, and that he may perform the word which the LORD sware unto thy fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Understand therefore, that the LORD thy God giveth thee not this good land to possess it for thy righteousness; for thou art a stiffnecked people.
It is difficult to ignore this brutal upbraiding of self-righteousness and relative righteousness and the clear implication of a deeper and higher source of true righteousness, and conclude that Paul only coincidentally chose this phrase to introduce the following quotes also from Deuteronomy. Notice that Moses also is dealing here with the same two people groups within the same issue. Jews and Gentiles, righteousness and wickedness. Are the Jews better than the Gentiles? Is that why God chose the Jews? All of this is central to the thesis of Romans. It is very hard to say that that is all just a happy coincidence. So if we accept the full context of Deuteronomy 9, then what we have in Romanos 10 is Paul saying that the word of faith is not self-righteousness and it is not relative righteousness. True righteousness begins with a heartfelt conviction of our own disqualifying wickedness.
The second part quotes from Deuteronomy 30, where Moses says:
For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it. [And what follows is the famous “I have set before you life and death” speech.]
The conundrum of this quote is that Moses is referring to the law. The law is close to you. The law is in your mouth and in your heart. Whereas Paul’s context is that the law is “Do or Die” but that the word of faith is close to us, in our heart and mouth. So, again it appears that Paul is lifting a convenient phrase and using it completely against the context. However, I don’t think that is true either. His quotation here is much more complex than simply citing these phrases. Notice that he intersperses these quotes with his own commentary:
“Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above:)“
“Who shall descend into the deep? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead.)“
These comments are explained by others in many ways, but what I think he is saying is that there is a righteousness (That which Moses referred to) which was not from above or from below or from far away. It was nigh unto them, that is to say within their reach to do it (just not within their grasp). That is why Moses adjures them to not seek it from above or below. Do and live. It was as simple as that. But in that admonition to not seek it from heaven above or the deep below is the premonition that there is also a righteousness that will be from above and that will rise up from below. They intuit that it must be so. And so this admonition to Israel which for them meant to lean into the law and not look for another, overlays itself on the righteousness of faith. And also in the case of faith we also are not to stumble into these doubts. Israel was not supposed to enquire “Who shall ascend” precisely because what they had been given did not require anyone to ascend, they already had the law. But we don’t doubt as to “Who shall ascend” because Christ already did ascend. This is not just a reconfiguring of the quote. It is much more sophisticated than that. It is actually quite brilliant. He is both defining and differentiating the two righteousnesses with one quote. The ultimate example of economization of words. Why use two quotes when one will do better? And it is better because it also illustrates that the purpose of God is steadfast and the principles of his grace are unchanging, so much so that the same admonition is transferable from the righteousness of the law to the righteousness of faith.
This steadfastness is very important to understanding the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. How could the New be “New” and yet preached by citing the Old? How could the Old Testament laws and prophecies be the foundation of the church? This is difficult both for those that think that the New Testament is thoroughly novel as well as those that think it was just a different form factor of the Old. The correct perspective is that the Old Testament is the temporal proxy upon which God’s timeless principles are overlaid. In the acting world this is called a Stand-In: People who take the place of the actor for light and sound checks, camera blocking, and rehearsals. That is the Old Testament; it is the Stand-In on God’s stage. The New Testament says so quite plainly; read Hebrews 9 and 10 for starters. However, even though the sacrifices, foods, clothings, and days were not the actual “actor”, all the concepts, all the principles, are the real deal. The Old Testament was the stand-in and when the lead Actor came on the stage, then the stand-in bowed out and the Star hit His mark and claimed His rightful role. Those that would keep dragging the stand-in back on to the stage are just as misguided as those that believe that the Director wrote an entirely new script after rehearsals and recast the part.
Having established what the word of faith does not say, he poses the hypophora, “But what saith it?” But again he doesn’t answer the question, he strings us along a little while longer, creating a great deal of dramatic tension. What is the word of faith, already?! Not yet. First, where is the word of faith? Deuteronomy 30:14: “But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart”. So again, just as with the previous citations, the word of faith also overlaps the proximity characteristic of the law, albeit because of an entirely different reason. The law was close because it was nigh to them to do it. But the word of faith is close because Christ is in us. And this is the word of faith which we preach. Finally!
“…that if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.”
The word of faith is to confess the Lord Jesus with your mouth, believing in your heart that God raised him from the dead. Notice all the elements of the Deuteronomy citations. What we say in our heart. Who ascended (resurrected). Who descended (died). The righteousness that was by the law answered all of these as well, but the answers were all different, and inferior.
Verse 9 is an interesting study in translation that we should take a moment to consider. The classical translations typically render it as “confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus”, whereas most modern translations usually render it as “confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord”. For most people this is a “Tomato, Tomahto” issue, but for some this is a “Tomato, Potahto” problem. To be fair, the objection that the latter have with this translation is legitimate. Modern translations often introduce too much commentary into the translation of the text. They don’t simply make it more readable, they make it more understandable. This might seem to many to be a good problem to have, however the problem is that understandability is a lot like cropping a photo, once you trim it down to a particular understanding, it is very difficult to un-crop it later. So once they introduce understanding, if that understanding is inaccurate, the reader is mostly stuck with it. The classical translations are more difficult to understand, but they by the same token they afford us more more latitude to reassess doctrinal positions. But there is also another side to that coin: All translation is interpretation — Point of fact: “translation” and “interpretation” are synonyms. Interpreters translate and translators interpret. So, while I prefer the more neutral and expansive renderings of the classical translations, they are not absolutely neutral and uncropped. That simply is not possible. And to be fair, they aren’t even always as neutral as they could be. So this really is an argument of degrees. But let’s consider the degrees for a moment.
First, let’s give the criticism its due consideration. The modern rendering is quite interpretive. The Greek text does not say that the word of faith is to confess that Jesus is Lord. That is what those translators think it means. And it is very possible that it does mean that. But there is a subtle yet significant difference between the modern translation and the classical one that renders it as “confess the Lord Jesus”. This rendering is undeniably abstruse to the point of being arcane. What does that mean, exactly? Most people assume it means to confess that Jesus is the Lord, hence the modern rendering. A classical interpretation of this translation is to connect it to Jesus’ demand, in Matthew 10:32, that believers confess him before men. Which is a good interpretation. Although, we are compelled to ask, Confess him how? Confess him as what? If not Lord, then what? Exactly? There is only one word in the text that contextualizes it in any way that makes sense. That word is “Lord”. What are we to confess about Jesus? That he is Lord.
So while I agree that the modern translations over-specialize the text, I think that the accusation against them is specious. This is even more clear when we look at the Greek text itself. While it is true that the Greek text does not read, “confess that Jesus is Lord”, it also doesn’t read, “confess the Lord Jesus”. Both of these are interpretations. So, in a broad sense, this is an argument over whose scalpel nicked the artery. The Greek text reads thus: “That if you confess the saying with your mouth Lord Jesus”. This is an equal opportunity offender. Those that oppose the rendering of confessing that “Jesus is Lord,” don’t like it, and those that oppose the rendering of confessing “the Lord Jesus,” don’t like it. In case it isn’t obvious, a strict rendering of the Greek would be “confess with your mouth: ‘Lord Jesus’ “. This is fraught with doctrinal complications. Is Paul teaching that one only has to say the words “Lord Jesus”? But if you think about it for a moment, there isn’t any significant difference between that and the other two translations. They are all teaching that there is something you must say with your mouth, and regardless of what, exactly, that saying is, it is no more difficult to say than any other one. It isn’t like one of them prescribes an impossible to utter word that only those with the Holy Spirit can enunciate it. It is no more difficult to articulate “Lord Jesus”, than “Jesus is Lord”, or “the Lord Jesus” (or whatever the classicalists think that translates to). But how is that possible? Is merely saying any of these phrases enough? Of course not. Surely Christ meant more than to simply “identify with him”, or “acknowledge him”. For instance, Josephus speaks of Christ in his history of the Jews. Is that “confessing Jesus”? Many atheists agree that Jesus lived and that the Apostles wrote of him. Is that “confessing Jesus”? Confess is a translation of homologeo, which roughly means to speak the same conclusion. (Homo: same; Logeo: speak to a conclusion) The meaning of “confess” is not to enunciate or even to express agreement, it is to adopt and proclaim a conclusion as your own conclusion. The operative word is “conclusion”. Saying “Jesus” isn’t a conclusion. To confess “Lord Jesus” is to adopt and proclaim the conclusion that Jesus — born of a virgin, crucified on the cross, and resurrected from the dead — is your Lord and is Lord of everything. To confess anything else about Jesus is an historical conclusion. To confess that he is Lord is a theological conclusion that is so hallowed and august that Paul declares to the Corinthians that “that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.” (1 Cor 12:3)
It is a conclusion not a spell or an affirmation. We know that because the text follows up with “and shalt believe in thine heart…”. The difference between a conclusion and a formula or affirmation, is that a formula requires no faith, and an affirmation is only faith, whereas a conclusion is a truth claim emanating from a sincere belief founded on fact. So this conclusion is the theological claim that Jesus is Lord, emanating from sincere belief that his historical death and resurrection was by the power of God. This is much more than an oral assent or the power of a positive thought. Just as the righteousness of the law was a Doing accompanied by a not believing in your heart (so typical of the law to frame everything as a negative), so also the word of faith is a Confessing accompanied by a believing in your heart. In other words, a “Yea” and an “Amen”. However, even so, this prescribed confession still seems insufficient. So much so that neo-evangelicalism augments it with extensions like “as Lord and Savior“. And this also has a lot to do with why translations do not render the text strictly. It doesn’t make a great deal of sense to us like that. Our modern mind reads it wrong. We read it as a mindless and heartless formula or an affirmation that will make something magically come true. For this reason both the classical and modern translations are superior to the strict rendering; as I said, translation requires interpretation. If a translation is such that it will be universally misunderstood, then it is an inaccurate translation. A translation must interpret more than the lexicon of the text, it must communicate the sense as well.
So what was Paul teaching? To understand how this should be understood, it is necessary to historically and culturally contextualize this phrase: Paul wrote this to First Century Romans. The Roman Empire was very tolerant. It was especially renowned for its religious tolerance. Caesar was ambivalent to what god you prayed to and what religious rites you practiced, so long as you submitted to Rome. You could preach of any “god” you wanted, but what you couldn’t do was claim another “Lord”. In the Roman Empire, there was one King; one Lord: Caesar. This was the club that the Jews beat Pilate into submission with:
Pilate sought to release him: but the Jews cried out, saying, If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend: whosoever maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar. — John 19:12
This was the accusation that they leveled against Jesus:
They began to accuse him, saying, We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, saying that he himself is Christ a King. — Luke 23:2
And this is the indictment the Jewish mob of Thessalonica brought against Jason and the disciples:
They drew Jason and certain brethren unto the rulers of the city, crying, These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also; whom Jason hath received: and these all do contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus. — Acts 17.6, 7
When Polycarp was sentenced to death, all he had to say to spare his life was “Kaiser Kyrios”: “Lord Caesar”. “Kaiser Kyrios“. That was what every subject of Rome must confess. When Paul wrote the epistle to the Romans, he told them that true righteousness requires one to say “Kyrion Iesoun”: “Lord Jesus”. To you and me today this might seem a small token, a passing remark. To a Roman, in the heart of Rome itself, this was decidedly more serious.
This could be a death sentence!
Paul is telling them that Jesus requires them to say, outloud, the one thing they could not say: “LORD Jesus”. Who would say such a thing? Only one who’s Lord was actually Jesus. Only one who said so by the Holy Ghost. If your Lord was not Jesus, there was no way you would ever say that. That statement, at that time, to those people, was, by definition, coming from the heart.
What type of faith would be necessary to compel a person to confess “Lord Jesus”? The only faith that would be sufficient is the faith that believes that God had raised Jesus from the dead. The belief that Jesus had descended in death to the deep and ascended in resurrection into heaven, and so bringing true righteousness close to every one of us, in our mouth and in our hearts. And notice what he says about this confession in verse 10: “with the mouth confession is made unto salvation”. The one confession that would get you killed was the confession that would give you life. So he emphasizes the comparison between the righteousness of the law and the righteousness by faith: The law says, “Do and Live”; The word of faith says “Confess and Live”.
In verse 12 he ties all of these strands back together with Deuteronomy 9 when he affirms that this word of faith is for both the Jew and the Greek, but in a way that was meaningful. Moses had cautioned the Jews from saying in their heart that it was because of their righteousness that God had saved them and promoted them, explaining that it had nothing to do with them because they weren’t actually righteous. However, Moses leaves the Gentiles hanging. But the word of faith improves on that. The word of faith is such that no one can claim such a thing because the righteousness they receive is a function of the most egalitarian promise in history from the greatest Lord in history. Jesus isn’t only Lord, he is Lord Over All.
In a way, this might seem discouraging. It might feel that we don’t have the same “opportunity” to make such a meaningful confession as the believers in Rome or those in the first centuries. But don’t be sad, there is a death sentence for us also. We haven’t been left out. The same Lord of the Romans is the Lord over us as well, and we also have a Caesar to offend. And I don’t mean the mounting threat of the Tolerance Brigade committed to destroying everything that does not bow its knee to their secularist creed, although that is an ever increasing possibility. But, no, the real Caesar, both of the Romans as well as of us, and of everyone, is that same old Caesar perched on his tiny, pathetic throne — feet dangling halfway off the ground and crown sliding down over his eyes — pretending to be lord of all creation, screeching “Me, Worship Me!” That Caesar is your Self. You either say “I Am Lord” or you confess “Jesus Is Lord”. Both of those statements are death sentences. Either you confess your Self Lord and you die, or you confess Lord Jesus and your Self dies. Either you pursue an unattainable righteousness of Self-will, or you receive the unmerited righteousness of faith. This is every bit of a catastrophic choice as that which confronted the Romans.
Is Jesus Lord or is Caesar Lord?
Is Jesus Lord or is Self Lord?
What do you confess?