Being a member of a healthy church isn’t an end in itself. It’s a wonderful blessing and privilege to sit under the faithful teaching of a shepherd who rightly handles God’s Word. But we must never allow that blessing from God to cultivate complacency in our relationship with Him. The nation of Israel serves as a sobering reminder of that danger.
Regarding Israel, Paul writes, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation” (Romans 10:1). This is vital to understand, because he’s not talking about rank pagans here. Israel had the Old Testament. They believed in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They believed in the God who created the world and everything in it, who gave His law to Moses, who was the Redeemer and Savior of Israel. Prior to the writing of the New Testament, they were the sole possessors of God’s written revelation. As God’s chosen people, they had more spiritual light shed on them than anyone else in history. To them belonged “the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises” (Romans 9:4). But it wasn’t enough. They were not saved.
Christ Himself continually pronounced judgment on apostate Israel. Even as He walked to the cross, while the professional mourning women were weeping over Him, He turned to them and said, “Stop weeping for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children” (Luke 23:28). Jesus saw the whole nation of Israel as apostate. They had the Old Testament, but they had misrepresented its meaning and twisted its revelation into a system of salvation by works. As Paul explained, they had “a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge” (Romans 10:2). And religious zeal—no matter how vigorous and pious—is worthless if it’s not grounded in God’s truth.
Paul goes on to explain specifically why Israel’s knowledge was lacking. “For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God” (Romans 10:3). In other words, Israel had underestimated God’s righteousness, and overestimated their ability to satisfy the righteous standard of His law. They completely misunderstood their own depravity and inability. Therefore, they failed to humble themselves like the publican in Luke 18:13, who pounded his breast in horror over his own wretchedness and said, “God be merciful to me, the sinner!”
Instead, the people of Israel were convinced of their own goodness and acceptability before God. They had a warped view of sin, a warped view of God’s righteousness, and a warped view of their ability to attain salvation by their own efforts. Worse still, they had a severe misunderstanding of the cross of Christ. As Paul wrote in Romans 10:4, they didn’t understand that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness,” that the only way we will ever be righteous is through the One who satisfied the Law perfectly. Missing that pivotal point was a disaster for Israel’s theology. It distorted their understanding of sin, Christ, and salvation. They sought to manufacture their own righteousness instead of relying on Christ’s, which is available, as Paul says, “to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4). Their faith was firmly focused on their own works, not the completed work of Christ. Despite all the revelation God had given them—despite the incarnation of the Son of God Himself—they were not saved.
Israel’s rejection of the Messiah was so wrenching to the heart of Paul that in Romans 9, he says, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3). He agonized personally over the apostasy of Israel.
But Paul’s thoughts don’t end in desperation. In Romans 10:13–14, he identifies the source of his hope: “‘Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?”
Imagine for a moment that the theory of natural theology is correct—gospel preaching and evangelism are entirely unnecessary to see souls saved. That renders more than two thousand years of missionary work utterly futile. It means the incalculable sums that God’s people have put into missions were a prodigious forfeiture, and that the lives sacrificed for the sake of the gospel were a pathetic waste. The same goes for all the martyrs throughout church history—if it’s true that people can get to heaven without knowing anything about Christ and with no exposure to the gospel, the martyrs were not heroes of our faith but fools who died worthless deaths for a nonexclusive gospel and in defense of meaningless biblical precision.
Make no mistake: the rise of postmodern Christianity and the supposed wideness in God’s mercy isn’t a harmless, potentially helpful theological perspective. It’s a direct assault on the gospel work of the church and an affront to the integrity of countless believers who suffered and died throughout its history.
Paul knew better. He understood that he did not labor in vain, but that the gospel he preached, and that countless others after him preached, is the only hope in the world for those caught in the grip of self-righteousness. Romans 10:13-14 is his rallying cry to get busy about the work of the gospel. His case is clear: You can’t be saved if you don’t believe the gospel, and you can’t believe the gospel if you haven’t heard it.
Paul is so energized by the work of the gospel that he bursts into enthusiastic praise for God’s faithful evangelists: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!” (Romans 10:15). He understood the farce of attempting to achieve your own salvation, and he was passionate about the only truth that could set sinners free.
In Romans 10:17, Paul continues, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” That word of Christ was best summed up by the Lord Himself in John 14:6: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”
The world must hear the message of Jesus Christ, and we have the precious privilege of serving as His ambassadors and heralds. May we never be so content with our theology—never so satisfied with our salvation and sovereign grace—that we forget that our great God has not only saved us but has also called us to be the means by which He will save others. As long as He grants us breath, He has work for us to do. May we be faithful in the relentless proclamation of the glorious gospel of Christ, for His glory and the sake of His kingdom.
by John MacArthur