Paul wrote of Jesus to the Romans, “if you confess with your mouth and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” [Ro. 10:9-10]. Salvation, then, is heart-based. But we might ask, doesn’t “believe” really mean “make an informed decision”? So why is the feeling-based “heart” used in place of the (presumably) more reliable mind and will?
It’s a key question. Paul was writing to three or more house groups in Rome—the “church”—that may have gathered in each case around traditional Jewish standards; or around new-covenant convictions. It was, at least, a major issue in debate. A Jewish couple in Rome, Aquila and Prisca, probably alerted Paul to the problem. They had been with Paul earlier, ministering together in Corinth and Ephesus, and would have embraced his apostolic teachings on faith.
Now leading their own church group in Rome, Aquila and Prisca would have held Paul’s view. So both Jewish and Gentile believers were worshiping together, wholly equal (Ro. 16:3-6). This reflected an earlier change, a few years before, when Peter first worshiped together with a group of Gentiles, led by Cornelius in Caesarea, in one faith (Acts 10-11). Paul, alert to the issue in Rome, now wrote to all the Roman Christians—both Jew and Gentile—to call them into this unity. He started the theme in Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
If we tune into this Jew-and-Gentile distinction, we can catch the tensions between traditional Jewish believers—cited today as “Judaizers”—and the Gentile believers. Judaizers wanted Gentiles to convert, formally, into Judaism in order to have access to the “Jewish” Jesus. And this called for male circumcision. Yet their approach wasn’t “orthodox” (that is, “true” or “sound”).
A huge change emerged in the time of Peter’s angelic calling in Caesarea. That event forced the church to hold its first ever Church Council to examine the question [in Acts 15]. And there all the church leaders agreed that Gentiles were not called to become Jews in order to be Christians. So, it was a settled matter. But it seems some Jews in Rome still didn’t agree.
Given this debate, let’s survey Romans with this tension in mind. It raised a central question: what is genuine faith? So, let’s also trace how Paul linked saving faith to human “hearts” as a basis for dismissing the Judaizers. We start with chapter two where Paul wrote to Jews, in particular, about their treatment of Gentiles [2:17]. Some of them wanted to be “teacher[s] of [Gentiles], having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth.” Yet, ironically, they didn’t keep these duties themselves. The “Gentiles” on the other hand, while not Synagogue-trained like the natural Jews, were spontaneously doing “what the law requires” [2:14].
A big question. Were these the churched Gentile Christians? Or non-believing Gentiles [as in 2:24]? Paul answered this, later, by speaking of “heart” change: “But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God” [2:29]. His point, then, was that the Christian Gentiles, with Spirit-changed-hearts, were more “Jewish” in practice than were the judgmental, natural Jews!
In the next two chapters, Romans 3-4, Paul reviewed the heritage of these Roman Jews. The problem of sin was, and still is, common to all humans. Thus, sinful Jews weren’t better off than sinful Gentiles [3:9-10]. Only a living faith in Jesus leads to righteousness, and this “apart from the works of the [Jewish] law” [3:28]. Paul then argued in Romans 4 that Abraham, as the first patriarch of Judaism, was the exemplar of true faith. God viewed Abraham as “righteous” by faith well before he was circumcised, and before Jewish laws were written [4:10]. Abraham’s faith had focused, instead, on a “promise” yet to be fulfilled. In time it emerged in Jesus [4:23-25].
So, Paul dismissed this false tension between Jews and Gentiles by citing Abraham’s model of promise-based-faith. Next, in chapter 5, Paul examined the underlying motives of faith. As he offered earlier, in 2:29, faith is “a matter of the heart, by the Spirit.” And all believers come “by faith into this grace in which we stand” [5:2]: “… because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” [5:5]. Hearts, we see, are where the Spirit’s love changes souls. Rationality serves what the heart loves—not the other way round.
An open heart, then, is the nexus of God’s bond with humans. It’s where the Spirit shares his love, Heart-to-heart. Thus he achieves both conversion—“belief”—and sanctification as love awakens trust in once alienated souls. Faith, as engaged trust, works “through love” [Gal. 5:6].
In moving onward in the letter, in Romans 5-7, Paul took up our common challenge. Every believer has two competing paternities. Adam is first, by whom all subsequent humans still live. He gave himself over to the devil’s ambitions [see Jesus on this in John 8:39-47]. And Jesus, as the second source, is the one in whom all those who are “justified by his blood” are reconciled to God [5:8-11]. Yet both the old and new tracks continue in believers! Paul gives the picture of Adam’s declining power active in our physical being—as our selfish bodily and social habits die hard—alongside the power of our emerging Spirit-stirred desires. He sums up this dilemma: “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” [7:21-23].
The key to tracing Paul’s development is to stick with the promise of “God’s love … poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit”—so, “love-heart-and-Spirit” are all together—and then we can see how the apostle reaches a conclusion in Romans eight. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” [8:14]. And we are also told that our troubling physical heritage from Adam is doomed by the coming “redemption of our bodies”—in God’s great cosmological renewal [8:21-23]—so that we are assured nothing can ever “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” [8:29]. The key is to respond to the Spirit’s love, and not to old habits.
As we reach Romans 10, then, we find Paul discriminating between the flawed faith of many Jewish church members whose efforts to establish their own righteousness missed the free reconciliation offered by God’s love. This only comes through the Spirit who elicits faith in the heart. So we come back to the nexus of God’s love, the Spirit, and our hearts: faith is the certain response. “‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” Ro. 10:8-10].
Faith comes about as we “look” to Jesus and are stirred by a new confidence based in the heart. This is a newly heartfelt assurance of being loved by God as the Spirit shares this by his presence within.
Amen! Rejoicing I can place my trust in His love and grace
Thanks Ron, so helpful as always.
A very happy Christmas to you.
Excellent word Ron. Thank you!
My friends, thanks for responding! And may your Christmas be full of joy as we all recognize the gift we’ve been given!