Why does Romans 10:17 say that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ?
In Romans 1—8 Paul discusses the mercies of God, how everyone is in need of righteousness, and how God provides righteousness by grace through faith. Paul concludes the section by stating that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ (Romans 8:38–39). In Romans 9—11 Paul explains that we can count on what God says, and that, even though it didn't appear that God was keeping His covenant promises to Israel, God would one day ensure that the nation would be delivered, just as God had promised (Jeremiah 31:31). In Romans 9 Paul shows whom God had worked with and would work with in order to accomplish His promises, and in Romans 10 Paul reminds his readers how the nation could become righteous. In the middle of that section, Paul says that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ (Romans 10:17).
In Romans 10:1 Paul expresses his deep desire that the nation of Israel would be saved. Paul notes that the nation had a zeal for God but wasn't pursuing God as God had instructed, so the people were ignorant in their zeal. They were trying to create their own righteousness, thinking they could do that by following the Law of Moses (Romans 10:2–3). But a person cannot become righteous by obeying any law; instead, he needs God's grace expressed in Christ and received by faith in Him (Romans 10:4–10). This provision of grace through Jesus' sacrifice is available to all humanity regardless of ethnicity (Romans 10:11–12), and whoever calls on Him will be delivered (Romans 10:13). Paul recognizes that, in order for people to call upon God, they need to first believe in Him; and, in order to believe in Him, they need to hear of Him; and, in order for them to hear of Him, they need someone to tell them about Him; and, in order for someone to tell them about Him, that someone needs to be sent (Romans 10:14–15). There were people who were sent, and the message was proclaimed, but not everyone responded appropriately (Romans 10:16). All had heard, and faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ (Romans 10:17).
Righteousness doesn't come simply from hearing the truth, though hearing the truth is necessary. When a person hears the truth about Jesus—or the truth about the Messiah, the Christ—he can choose to heed that truth or reject it. If a person responds to the word of Christ with faith (by believing or trusting in Him), he is given the righteousness of Christ and justified (or declared righteous) by God. In Romans 10 Paul is explaining how the nation was in a state of unbelief—not responding with trust in their Messiah (Romans 10:18–21). That unbelief will continue for a while, as long as the nation is in a time of partial hardening (Romans 11:25), but one day the nation will respond in faith, and the nation will be saved (Romans 11:26). The story will have a happy ending for the nation of Israel because faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ. One day, the nation will respond in faith to the word that is proclaimed to them.
Just as God has plans for the nation of Israel, He also has plans for you and me. God has ensured that we have heard the word of Christ—the message that Jesus died for our sins so that we wouldn't have to, and that He rose again to show He had truly conquered death. We have heard this wonderful message, this gospel or good news. Will we respond by believing in Him and being delivered, or saved, from our brokenness and sin? Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.
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