Many question how Paul uses Deuteronomy 30 in Romans 10 and in turn, if the passages are saying we can obey the law or believe the Gospel. Here are the passages:
Romans 10 1 Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. 2 For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. 3 For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. 4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
5 For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. 6 But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you,in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 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. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Deuteronomy 30 11 “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 14 But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.
15 “See, I have set before you today life and good,death and evil. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 17 But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear,but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life,that you and your offspring may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac,and to Jacob, to give them.”
In Romans 10, Paul distinguishes between the righteousness which is by the law and the righteousness which is by faith. The Jews are seeking their own righteousness through the law rather than God’s righteousness, but Christ is the end (or ‘goal’ or both ‘end’ and ‘goal’) of the law. But God’s righteousness is through belief in Christ, not through the works of the law. The law lays out God’s commands, but the gospel says salvation is through believing in Jesus Christ.
In Deuteronomy 30, after giving the law, Moses challenges the Jews to obey. To motivate the Jews to do so, he speaks of the goal of receiving blessing and life rather than curse and death. He also appeals to the means of obedience being accessible and obtainable, removing excuses and putting the weight on the Jews to choose life rather than death. The law is “not too hard” nor is getting it the impossible task of “ascending to heaven” and since God has put the law in your mouth and heart: “you can do it”.
In Romans 10, Paul quotes Moses in Deuteronomy 30 to support his point that righteousness and life is through belief in Christ, rather than obedience to the law. He does so in contrast to the law’s message of “the person who does the commandments shall live by them”. But part of Moses’ message is that if you obey the commands, you will live.
NT authors quoting the OT often reveal how they interpret the OT texts, but they are not writing commentaries on the OT. So some latitude may be granted between interpreting the OT and applying it. But has Paul gone too far? At first glance, Paul’s use of Deuteronomy 30 looks not only out of context, but against Moses’ main point.
A Second Look
This initial question is answered by looking a little closer at both Deuteronomy 30 and at Romans 10.
Moses was speaking to the Israelites on the cusp of God giving them the land He promised Abraham(Deuteronomy 30:5). God had redeemed them out of Egypt and was dwelling in their midst. God was promising mercy to the penitent; not just blessing (Deuteronomy 30:3). God promised to circumcise their hearts so they would love Him and live (Deuteronomy 30:7). In short, God was speaking to Israel as believers.
God’s putting His law in the Israelites hearts enabled them to obey and renders it useless to go somewhere else to get God’s law. So Moses goes beyond discussing the bare commands; he is commenting on God’s promise of grace which enables believers to obey the commands via circumcising their hearts and he implies the uselessness of seeking righteousness somewhere else.
Now let’s relook at Paul’s quotation of Moses. First, Paul starts, not with Deuteronomy 30, but with Deuteronomy 9:4 “Do not say in your heart…”. In Deuteronomy 9, God promises to drive out the nations and give Israel the land He promised the Patriarchs. But three times, God warns the Israelites not to credit this success to their own righteousness. Their success will be due to the sins of the nations as well as God’s fulfilling His promise to Abraham. As if this triple warning was not enough, God reminds Israel of their sinful stubbornness and idolatry in the golden calf episode and how they were almost destroyed.
Paul’s lead in with Deuteronomy 9 helps better understand Deuteronomy 30. Moses is not saying the Israelites can earn or merit the land through righteousness; though he does warn they can lose the land through disobedience. If they remain in the land, it’s due to God’s promise, not their earning it. Even their remaining in the land by making the right choices is only possible because God circumcises their hearts and puts His laws in their hearts. But again, such obedience does not earn life,and seeking life through the law is as useless as trying to go to heaven to get another law. Since the law points us to Christ, Paul speaks of the revelation of God’s law as the revelation of Christ.
In summary, Paul’s quotation of Deuteronomy 30 is on point, because Deuteronomy 30 is not about earning life through the law, but rather God’s promise to give Israel the land and His graciously enabling them to obey and remain in the land. Theologically, the law brings frustration and fear to unbelievers who cannot obey, but to believers it reminds us of God’s grace and promises. If we obey, we gain assurance of eternal life. If we disobey, it points us to Christ, to whom all true believers will turn.