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Believing and confessing: the true meaning of Romans 10:6-10

August 2013 | by Paul Washer

Romans 10:6-10 is one of the most important texts in the Bible regarding what a man must do to be saved.

Paul puts it like this: ‘But the righteousness of faith speaks in this way, Do not say in your heart, Who will ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above) or, Who will descend into the abyss? (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).

‘But what does it say? The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach): that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation’.

Throughout the history of Christianity, this text has served as a source of comfort for all who have believed and a wall of defence against every false teaching that has mingled works with faith as a means of salvation.

It proves that salvation is not won by any valiant deed on the part of man, but by calling upon the name of the Lord in faith. This passage has also become a favourite among evangelists to call men to Christ.  

Meaning

It is for this reason that we must ask what the text truly means and what its proper application is in evangelism. Have the biblical requirements of believing and confessing been fulfilled because someone has simply made a ‘decision’ for Christ, or prayed ‘the sinner’s prayer’, or confessed Christ before a congregation of affirming believers?

To answer these questions, we must consider Paul’s words in their context and determine the precise meaning of his language. We must be wary of assuming that a text means a certain thing or that it should be used in a certain way merely because of its prevalent interpretation and application among our contemporaries.

We would do well to ask ourselves this: ‘Did the apostle Paul write this text with the purpose of giving us a model for the “sinner’s prayer”, or did he have a different purpose in mind?’

In contemporary evangelicalism, the sinner’s prayer has become a prominent means of inviting men to Christ and assuring them of salvation.

It is found on the back of evangelistic tracts and often heard at the end of evangelistic sermons. It usually includes the following emphases. The seeker is led to confess that he is a sinner and unable to save himself; he is then directed to confess that Jesus died for his sins and rose again from the dead.

Subsequently, he is encouraged to ask Jesus to come into his heart and be his Saviour. Afterward, he is promised that if he prayed this prayer sincerely, he is now saved. Finally, he is told that, if he ever doubts his salvation, he should stand upon this one moment in time when he prayed the sinner’s prayer and confessed Christ.

Although there is some truth in these various elements, there are serious objections to be raised against this methodology. 

Flaws

First, it has no biblical precedent. It was not employed by Christ, the apostles, or early Christians. Second, it was unknown to the greater part of the church throughout history.

Third, it has the danger of turning the gospel into merely a credal statement. Today, countless individuals who show no biblical evidence of conversion believe themselves saved, simply because one time in their lives they made a decision for Christ and repeated the prayer.

Fourth, it has almost entirely replaced the biblical invitation of repentance and faith. Is it not astounding that biblical examples of inviting men to Christ are virtually ignored in favour of this modern-day construct?

To grasp the true meaning of the text, we must understand that Paul is referring to both a one-time event in the believer’s life and to the fruit of that event which continues throughout the believer’s life.

A man is justified the moment he truly believes in Christ. However, the evidence that he believed in that one moment in time is that he goes on believing and confessing all the days of his life.

This does not mean that the believer will be immune to doubts, free from failure, and unhindered in his growth to maturity, but that the God who began a good work in him will continue perfecting it until that final day.

Believing with the heart

In our text Paul tells us that we are saved if we believe ‘in [our] heart’ and ‘with the heart’. However, before we begin any discussion regarding faith, we must remember that the demons also believe and tremble (James 2:19).

They have an acute knowledge of the person and work of Christ and accept them as absolute realities. However, all their knowledge and recognition of these realities do not lead to their salvation. They are not saved by what they know to be true, but are condemned by it.

Any honest evaluation of contemporary evangelicalism will prove there are countless individuals who have received a faith of the same kind as demons. They know something of the person and work of Christ, and will make something of a confession when it is convenient. However, there is little evidence of the ongoing reality of the saving work of Christ in their life.

Their hope for eternal salvation is founded upon the sincerity of a decision they made long ago to accept Christ, by means of a simple prayer. Like demons, they are lost. Yet, unlike demons, they do not know it!

They fail to understand that genuine faith not only recognises what is true about Christ, but also relies upon these truths and is transformed by them. In the Scriptures, the ‘heart’ refers to the seat of one’s intellect, will and emotions. It is the control centre of all that we are, and what happens there affects everything about us.

It is therefore absurd to think that a man could believe something ‘in’ or ‘with’ the heart without it having a dramatic effect upon the totality of his person. Saving faith is not a passive or partial reliance upon Christ, but a reliance that is active and growing.

The proof of faith is not that once upon a time we merely ‘accepted’ Christ through a prayer repeated by rote, but that, since the moment we first believed, Christ’s claims about himself and his claim upon us continue to be an increasingly greater reality in our lives.

Confessing with the mouth

Having taken a brief glance at faith, we must now consider what it means to confess with the mouth. The first thing we should notice in our text is the specificity of the confession. 

It is not merely a confession of faith in Jesus Christ, but a confession of his absolute and universal lordship. Thus the evidence that a man has believed with the heart and is trusting in the saving virtue of Christ is that he is also confessing him as Lord.

The history of the church proves that nothing could be more costly than to confess kúrios Iesous, or ‘Jesus is Lord!’ In the Roman world, there was only one lord and his name was Caesar. Even to mention the possibility of another was political treason, resulting in exile or execution.

In the Jewish religion, there was only one Lord, and his name was Yahweh. To give the title ‘lord’ to another was blasphemy and worthy of death. The renowned Greek scholar, A. T. Robertson, writes in Word pictures in the New Testament, ‘No Jew would do this who had not really trusted Christ, for kúrios in the Septuagint is used of God. No Gentile would do it who had not ceased worshipping the emperor as kúrios’.

We are saved by faith alone in the person and work of Christ, but the evidence that our faith is genuine is our confession of the lordship of Jesus Christ and our allegiance to him, even when such a confession costs us dearly.

Proper application

In light of the true significance of this text and what it has cost so many followers of Jesus throughout the ages, its use in modern-day evangelism is nothing short of repulsive. To even hint that this text is the biblical foundation for the ‘sinner’s prayer’ is a gross exegetical fallacy.

Because of it, unconverted multitudes have an almost impenetrable assurance of their eternal salvation, simply because one time in their lives they affirmed a few biblical truths and repeated a model prayer. Afterward, there was no transformation, no continuing work of sanctification, no rejection of the world and no desire for Christ.

Borrowing from the apostle Paul in Galatians 3:1, it is proper to ask such persons, ‘You foolish evangelicals, who has bewitched you?’

The text before us teaches that we are saved by faith alone. Salvation is not earned by some heroic feat or exhausting endeavour on the Christian’s part. However, this faith in Christ is not temporary, static or undetectable, but rather persevering, dynamic and evident.

This is ensured, because salvation is the work of God for the glory of God. He who first wrought saving faith in the heart of the believer will see to it that that faith perseveres, deepens and manifests. One such manifestation will be the confession of the lordship of Jesus Christ through both word and deed, regardless of the cost!

Paul Washer

The author ministered as a missionary in Peru for ten years, during which time he founded the HeartCry Missionary Society to support Peruvian church planters. Paul now serves as one of the labourers with the HeartCry Missionary Society (www.heartcrymissionary.com). He and his wife, Charo, have three children: Ian, Evan and Rowan. He is author of The gospel’s power & message and The gospel call & true conversion, both published by Reformation Heritage Books. The third book in the series, entitled Gospel assurance & warnings, is due for publication in Spring 2014.