The Bible’s Power to Change Lives
Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.
During the decade I spent as chairman of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (1978–1988), I listened to many sermons on the Bible, as well as preaching quite a few myself. But the best I heard was by Dr. W. A. Criswell, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas. He gave it at ICBI’s first “Summit Meeting” in Chicago in the fall of 1978.
At the time, Criswell had been pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas for over thirty-five years. He had been in the ministry for more than fifty years, and he had been chosen to address this amazing gathering of 350 pastors, scholars, and leaders of the major para-church organizations on the subject “What Happens When I Preach the Bible as Literally True?” His answer was a tour de force, as he explained what had happened to himself, what had happened to his church, and what he believes happens to God when God’s Word is thus used and honored.
About a year after Criswell had gone to the Dallas church, he announced to his already well-established congregation that he was going to preach through the Bible, beginning with Genesis and going right on to the last benedictory prayer in Revelation. “You never heard such lugubrious prognostications,” he reported. People said it would kill the church. “Nobody will come to hear someone preach about Habakkuk, Haggai, and Nahum. Most people don’t even know who those biblical books or characters are,” they said. Criswell did it all the same, however. Much to everyone’s astonishment, the problem that developed was not the demise of the church, but where to put all the people who were pressing in weekly to hear such biblical preaching. There were thousands of conversions, and today the First Baptist Church of Dallas is one of the largest, most effective, and most biblically sound churches in the entire country.
Scoffers abound. Critics multiply. But the lesson of history is the unique power of the Bible to change people’s lives and build churches.
This is what Paul is getting at in the verse to which we have come in our study of Romans 10, though there is some question among commentators about how it should be fitted in. Is it a digression? It could be, since Paul has spoken about unbelief in verse 16 and is going to deal with the unbelief of Israel explicitly in verses 18–21. Is it a throwback to what he has already said in verses 13–15? In my judgment, as well as in the judgment of a number of other commentators, the verse is best understood as a succinct summary of what has gone before.
I say “succinct” because the sentence as Paul wrote it has no verbs. The New International Version has added two verbs to make the passage flow better for English readers, “comes” and “is heard.” But what Paul actually wrote was: “So, then, faith by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” The very tone sounds like a summary of verse 14: “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?”
In our text the idea of “hearing” occurs two times: “faith by hearing” and “heard through the word of Christ.” It makes us ask: “Hearing what?” There are two answers to that question.
- The gospel. The first and most obvious answer is the message of the gospel, that is, the biblical message of salvation from sin through the work of Jesus Christ, as that message is preached by Christ’s ambassadors. This is what Paul has been writing about in verses 14 and 15, showing that: (1) for people to call on Christ for salvation, they must first believe in Christ; (2) for them to believe in Christ, they must first hear about Christ (or, “hear him,” as I said in an earlier study); (3) for them to hear Christ, someone must preach Christ to them; and (4) for someone to preach Christ to them, the messenger must first be sent. Everything Paul says in this section has to do with preaching the gospel. In fact, he will be thinking along these lines in the next verses, too, for his point there will be that his countrymen have had the gospel preached to them and are therefore without excuse in regard to their unbelief.
If we look at the matter in a broader context, we can even say that this is what the entire letter to the Romans is about. It is the gospel. It tells us that when we were hopelessly lost in sin and under the threat of God’s judgment, God acted to save us through the work of Christ. He sent Jesus to die for us, taking the punishment of our sins to himself, so that the love of God might go out to save the sinner. What is more, the salvation thus achieved is not only a salvation from the punishment due us for our sins. It is also salvation from the power of sin in our lives and eventually even from the presence of sin. It ends with glorification (Rom. 8:29–30).
This gospel is a glorious message, one the world very much needs to hear. It is why Paul calls it “the good news” in verse 16.
- Christ himself. The large majority of commentators take the phrase “through the word of Christ” as an objective genitive, meaning that the word is the word about Christ or that he is the content of the message. That is a true statement, of course. It is what I have just been saying about the gospel. However, I am convinced that here, rather than being an objective genitive, the phrase “through the word of Christ” is actually a subjective genitive, which means that Jesus is understood to be speaking the gospel message or “word.”
I have two reasons for believing this. First, this is the way the word of Christ was referred to in verse 14. In the earlier discussion of that verse I pointed out that the proper translation is not “the one of whom they have not heard,” as the New International Version has it, but “the one whom they have not heard.” The point I made there is that Jesus speaks through his messengers, so that those who hear the messenger to the extent of believing on Christ and calling on Christ for salvation have actually heard Jesus as he has spoken his truth to them and called them to faith. Jesus said that this is what he would do (see John 10:3–5, 16). Since this is what “hearing Christ” meant in verse 14, it is right to see that earlier meaning in this verse too.
Second, if verse 17 only means “the word about Christ,” the two parts of the verse are redundant, because this is what the “message” of the first part of the verse means. It would reduce to: “Faith comes from hearing the gospel, and the gospel that is heard is the gospel.”
On the other hand, if “hearing Christ” is the meaning, an important truth is added. To paraphrase this a bit, the proper meaning of verse 17 would be: “Faith comes from hearing the gospel preached, and the reason faith comes from hearing the gospel preached is that Jesus himself, the object of the gospel as well as its subject, speaks through the messenger to call the listening one to faith.”
Word and Spirit
This is a very important point, as I said. In fact, it was the chief discovery the Reformers made so far as the nature and function of the written Word of God is concerned. The way they talked about it was to stress the mutual working together of the Word of God (the Bible), on the one hand, and the Holy Spirit of God (the Spirit of Christ), on the other.
Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others had a very strong faith in the work of the Holy Spirit to convert, teach, and lead people. They knew verses like John 3:8 (“The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit”); 1 John 5:6 (“… And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth”); and 1 Corinthians 2:12–14 (“We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned”).
But when the Reformers thought about these verses and others that stress the work of the Holy Spirit, they also remembered verses that taught the importance of the Bible in knowing the mind and will of God. They understood rightly that God speaks only through the written Word.
Without the Holy Spirit, the Bible is a dead book. That is why the man “without the Spirit” cannot understand it. But, on the other hand, without the Word as an objective guide from God, claims to a special leading by the Holy Spirit run to excess, error, or mere foolishness. Knowing the importance of both, the Reformers preached the Word in the power of the Holy Spirit, and the transformation of Europe and the western world was the result.
Let me put the Reformers’ doctrine back into the terminology of our text by saying: When the Bible is preached, Christ speaks. Isn’t that what the verse says? And when Jesus speaks, his voice brings life out of death and his sheep awake from their spiritually lost condition and follow him.
In the sermon I referred to earlier, W. A. Criswell said, “No word spoken for God ever falls to the ground. Somehow, some way, in areas of life that we don’t understand and don’t know, God blesses it in his good purpose, in his electing choice, and in his heavenly time. That is the basis on which I have tried to build, with God’s help, the congregation you call the First Baptist Church of Dallas.”
Let me say it again. The reason the Bible is powerful is that it is not the mere words of men, however insightful they may be, or even (do not misunderstand me here) the unique and inerrant Word of God, as important as that is. It is because God speaks to people through the Bible by the Spirit of Christ, and because that Word is life-giving and life-transforming.
“The Book that Set My People Free”
Maybe you are thinking that the Bible only works like that in America or in southern Bible Belt areas of the country, like Texas. If so, let me take you half a world away and tell you the story of Rochunga Pudaite, an Indian national from the people known as the Hmars. He tells his story in a volume titled The Book That Set My People Free.
The Hmars were at one time one of the most feared tribes in India. They had descended from Mongols who had come from central China, crossed the lower Himalayas, and settled in northeast India. They were headhunters, and when they fought they took heads that they hung over the doors of their bamboo huts. The British, who ruled India in those days, called them “barbaric tribesmen” and said they were almost like animals. When the British tried to enter the Hmar territory, the Hmars fought back. On one occasion they took five hundred heads in just one raid on a tea plantation. The soldiers pursued them. A few Hmars were killed, but most escaped back into the jungle, which is where they were when a Welsh missionary by the name of Watkin Roberts brought the Bible to their tribe.
Roberts was a chemist who had been converted during one of the great Welsh revivals of the last century, and when he read an account of the pursuit of the Hmar headhunters by British soldiers, he felt that God wanted him to take the Bible to them.
When Roberts arrived at the border of the Hmar territory in India, the British authorities would not let him proceed, declaring the area much too dangerous. So Roberts did the next best thing. He found some Lushais from a tribe adjoining the Hmars and began to translate the Bible into their related language. When he received a small gift for the work from a lady in England, he printed a few hundred copies of the Gospel of John and sent a copy to each of the tribal villages.
One of these copies came to the village in which Pudaite’s father was living. A Lushai tribesman happened to be there and read the book to him. Pudaite’s father could not understand what it meant to be “born again,” and the neighbor could not explain it to him. He suggested that the chief invite the translator to the village.
When Roberts asked the British agent for permission to go, he was told not to enter the Hmar territory. “When I go in there, I take along a hundred soldiers for protection, and I can’t spare a single soldier for you,” said the agent. Roberts showed him the tribal chief’s invitation but was told it was deceptive. “They only want to chop your head off,” he said. Roberts went anyway and was able to explain the gospel to the people. After a week of teaching, the chief and four Hmar men announced that they wanted to make peace with the God of the Bible by believing on Jesus Christ. One of the four men was Pudaite’s father.
This man, whose name was Chawanga, became one of the first Hmar preachers. He traveled all over the territory, teaching the Bible, leading people to Christ, and founding churches. These early Hmar preachers founded churches in almost every village. Many people came to Christ. They were tired of their fighting, drinking, and fear. When they became Christians they began living different lives. They began to work harder and built schools for their children.
Strangely enough, the British branded Watkin Roberts a troublemaker for his part in this tribal transformation and ordered him to leave. As a result, he left only a part of the Bible in the Lushai language.
The Hmars chose Rochunga Pudaite to do the Hmar translation. Although none of them had ever been out of their own area of northeast India, they sent Pudaite to a mission school and then to a college in India. The missionary worked with others to see that Pudaite was able to continue his education in Scotland and then in America. Pudaite did the translation and later became the new head of the mission Watkin Roberts had founded, the Indo-Burma Pioneer Mission, which later changed its name to the Partnership Mission.
Today, reports Pudaite:
The Hmars … have become one of the most advanced ethnic groups in all India. At least ninety-five percent are Christians, worshiping in over 200 churches. Except for Mr. [Roberts], the only missionary they have had is the Bible.
Hmar population is now up to about 125,000. Eighty-five percent can read and write, a phenomenal percentage in India [and a higher percentage than the citizens of Philadelphia]. They have eighty-eight church-sponsored elementary schools, seven junior highs, and four high schools—one with an enrollment of about a thousand. They even have a good hospital, staffed by Hmar doctors and nurses.
One of our Hmars holds the rank of ambassador in the Indian Embassy in Yugoslavia. Another is the Indian charge d’affaires in Saudi Arabia. Another is the highest ranking civil servant in India. Another is the administrator of a large state. Every year the government gives tests to select the outstanding young men for government service. Only about twenty are selected in the whole country. For several years one or two Hmars have been in each group of winners. And there is only one Hmar for every 7,000 people in India.
The Hmars have also begun taking the gospel to other tribes, starting hundreds of churches in other territories. They have taken food to tribes that were starving. As for Rochunga Pudaite, he is now head of an organization called Bibles for the World, which has already mailed millions of Bibles to postal addresses in scores of countries and has a vision for mailing in this decade at least one billion Bibles to the more than one billion telephone addresses worldwide.
Pudaite says, “The Bible is the Book that reveals the mind of God, the heart of man, the way of salvation, and the blessedness of believers. It is the Book that tells us where we come from and where we are going. It is the Book that set my people free.”
Faith by Hearing
I conclude with two important applications. The first is for believers. The second is for those who have not yet called on Christ.
First, if people can only be converted by hearing the gospel message, which is what Paul says, then believers must make sure they hear it. It is our responsibility to take the gospel to them and to send others to places where we cannot go ourselves. Do not suppose that what you can do is unimportant or that God is going to save people without human messengers, by a direct word from heaven, for example. All who are saved are saved because Christians have done something to bring the gospel to them.
If you object that you were saved while sitting alone in your room, remember that it was by believing the message of the Bible that some Christian communicated to you somehow. It may have been by the direct word of a father or mother, an uncle or grandmother. It may have been years ago, when you were a child. It may have been more recently. But somehow, some Christian brought you the message about Jesus. Perhaps you did not have exposure to Christian teaching in your family. Perhaps you were converted in a distant city in a lonely hotel room through reading a Gideon Bible. Remember that somebody bought that Bible and somebody else put it there. If you were saved by a tract, some Christian wrote it, others published it, and still others arranged for it to get into your hands. It is the same if you have heard the gospel on the radio or on television or through a book.
The Bible says, “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” That is the way the salvation came to you. It is also the way it must go from you to others.
Second, a word for those who are not yet Christians. If you are not yet a believer in Jesus Christ, you need to understand that our text is true and very accurate when it says that, “faith comes from hearing the message.” How do people become believers? It is by hearing the message. And why is that so? It is because the Lord Jesus Christ himself speaks to them through the preacher to call them to faith.
So take advantage of the teaching. Listen to it. Find a faithful pastor who is teaching the Word of God Sunday by Sunday from his pulpit, and learn from him. Open your heart to the words that are being taught. One commentator wrote, “If you will open your heart now, and willingly pay attention to the good news that God has nothing against you, that he loves you, that he sent the Lord Jesus Christ to die for you, that Christ did die for you personally, and that he was buried, and that God raised him from the dead on the third day as the guarantee of your salvation—if you will open your heart to this, you will find faith coming to you.”
“Faith comes from hearing.” God has planned it that way. The message is being taught. Your part is to open your ears to that truth, trusting that, as you do, God will make the message true for you and that you will find yourself calling on the Lord Jesus Christ to be your Savior.
17 Paul now turns two of the questions of v. 14 into declarative statements in preparation for what follows: Faith depends on “hearing the message”—i.e., hearing it with understanding and acceptance. And the message is heard “through the word of Christ.” This can mean either the word about Christ (objective genitive) or the word proclaimed by Christ (subjective genitive). The former sense is somewhat favored by the fact that in Isaiah 53, which may still be in Paul’s thought, the Servant is not a proclaimer but a suffering redeemer. On the other hand, the second possibility cannot be ruled out. Barrett, 189, writes, “Christ must be heard either in his own person, or in the person of his preachers, through whom his own word (v. 17) is spoken; otherwise faith in him is impossible.”
17. Consequently, faith (comes) from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.
Of the many interpretations of this passage, some very involved, the best is probably the one which views it as a summarizing conclusion. Does not the opening word “Consequently” point in this direction? What Paul is saying, then, is that faith in Christ presupposes having heard the word that proceeds from and concerns Christ. Here a word, in the original, that has just (verse 16) been used in a passive sense—“that which was heard”—is now also used in the active sense: hearing the message.
The great importance Paul attached to hearing immediately reminds one of Jesus. In all Christ’s teaching, both on earth and from heaven, it would be difficult to discover any exhortation which he repeated more often, in one form or another, than the one about hearing; better still: listening (Matt. 11:15; 13:9, 43; Mark 4:9, 23; Luke 8:8; 14:35; Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22; 13:9). Add 8:18 in both Mark and Luke.
10:17 In this quotation from Isaiah, Paul notices that the belief spoken of by the prophet springs from the message that is heard, and that the message comes through the word about the Messiah. So he lays down the conclusion that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. Faith comes to men when they hear our preaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ, which is based, of course, on the written word of God.
But hearing with the ears is not enough. A person must hear with an open heart and mind, willing to be shown the truth of God. If he does, he will find that the word has the ring of truth, and that the truth is self-authenticating. He will then believe. It should be clear, of course, that the hearing alluded to in this verse does not involve the ears exclusively. The message might be read, for example. So “to hear” means to receive the word by whatever means.
10:17 — So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.
Everything that we need to know in regard to salvation—what it is, why we need it, how we can receive it—can be found in God’s Word. God blesses us when we hear His promises and respond in faith to them.
 Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: God and History (Vol. 3, pp. 1261–1268). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
 Harrison, E. F., & Hagner, D. A. (2008). Romans. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, p. 164). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Vol. 12–13, p. 351). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1723). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Stanley, C. F. (2005). The Charles F. Stanley life principles Bible: New King James Version (Ro 10:17). Nashville, TN: Nelson Bibles.