Romans 10:14-21 – Do unbelieving ethnic Israelites have any excuse for not believing?

, posted by kingswoodhart

  This is part of a series of posts on Romans. The main focus of this series will be chapters 9-11 of the letter. These chapters, particularly chapter 9, have been interpreted in various different ways. My aim is to demonstrate what I consider to be the correct interpretation. I will do this by considering the structure and context of the letter and then focusing in on these chapters, showing how the proposed interpretation fits with the context and structure of the letter, as well as being internally consistent within chapters 9-11. Click here for the contents page.

Having reached the centre of Romans 9-11, i.e. 10:4-13, we are now on the return journey, with each section matching with its corresponding earlier section.

The next section is Romans 10:14-21. In this section, Paul goes through possible excuses as to why the unbelieving ethnic Israelites are not currently trusting in Christ (at Paul’s time of writing). Perhaps it’s not really their fault? Perhaps it’s somehow God’s fault? This section matches up with 9:30-10:3 – both are used by Paul to demonstrate that the situation of the unbelieving ethnic Israelites is entirely their own fault. They could easily trust in Christ and it’s not in any way God’s fault that they haven’t done so yet.

Paul finished the central section (10:4-13) with the very simple summary of salvation that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”. That sounds straightforward enough, but perhaps the unbelieving ethnic Israelites have an excuse for not calling on the name of the Lord? This is what Paul discusses in this section:

“[14] How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? [15a] And how are they to preach unless they are sent?”

These verses take us backwards through a series of steps leading to salvation. Setting out the steps in chronological order we have:

  1. Preacher is sent to them
  2. Preacher preaches the word of Christ (see v. 17) to them
  3. They hear the word of Christ
  4. They believe in Christ
  5. They call on Christ

A few verses before this, Paul has set out that someone reaching steps 4 and 5 will be saved: “For it is with the heart that one believes and is justified, and it is with the mouth that one declares their faith and is saved” (10:10). (It seems that steps 4 and 5 are linked, so that anyone reaching step 4 will reach step 5 as well.) So if the unbelieving ethnic Israelites had not reached step 3 yet (i.e. they hadn’t heard the word of Christ), they would have an excuse for not having reached steps 4 and 5. Paul will go on to demonstrate that the unbelieving ethnic Israelites have indeed reached step 3, so they don’t have this excuse (see verses 16 and 18 below).

“[15b] As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!””

This covers steps 1 and 2 – there have been preachers and they have been preaching the good news (i.e. the “gospel”) to the ethnic Israelites. The quote is from Isaiah 52:7: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.””

“[16] But they have not all obeyed the good news. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?””

This covers step 3 – they have heard. This also shows that it is possible to get to step 3 but not reach step 4. It is possible to hear the word but not believe it. Such a person has been given all they need to believe, but they choose to disobey the good news by not trusting Christ.

“[17] So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

The way to get to step 4 is via step 3.

Paul will now make three points to address the remaining potential excuses for the unbelieving ethnic Israelites. Perhaps they hadn’t heard? Perhaps they heard but did not understand? Perhaps they could not find the one they were seeking? For each of the three points, Paul introduces the situation and then quotes a Bible verse. Each time, Paul is addressing the question of the unbelief of the ethnic Israelites, but Paul’s Bible quotation relates to Gentiles. What Paul is doing is proving that the ethnic Israelites have no excuse for not trusting in Christ by proving that even the Gentiles have no excuse for not doing this. If Paul can prove that even the Gentiles have no excuse, then the ethnic Israelites, who have been in a privileged position compared to the Gentiles (see 9:1-5), certainly must have no excuse.

“[18] But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for “Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.””

Paul confirms again that the unbelieving ethnic Israelites have indeed heard, i.e. they have reached step 3. What they have heard is the word of Christ (see verse 17). The quotation is from Psalm 19:4, which talks of the proclamation of the creation, which goes to everyone (even the Gentiles). Paul is saying that even the proclamation of creation declares the word of Christ, and this word goes to everyone. The ethnic Israelites have heard this word and so much more, thanks to the various prophets and evangelists that God has sent to them. As the proclamation of creation is enough to make the Gentiles without excuse (Romans 1:20), then the ethnic Israelites certainly must be without excuse for having heard this and more.

“[19] But I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says, “I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry.””

After establishing that the Israelites have heard the word of Christ, the next possible excuse is that perhaps they didn’t understand it. Paul contrasts these ethnic Israelites against a non-Israelite “foolish nation”. In context, the point Paul is making is that there are plenty of Gentile Christians, and while these ethnic Israelites have had hundreds of years of theological training, along with all the blessings set out at the beginning of Romans 9, the Gentiles haven’t had those blessings but many of them have become Christians. If even those Gentiles understood the good news about Christ, it would be absurd to suggest that the ethnic Israelites were in a position of not understanding it.

“[20] Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, “I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.””

In his third and final point about the lack of excuse for the unbelieving ethnic Israelites, Paul speaks of Gentiles who have become Christians even though they weren’t seeking God. In contrast, the unbelieving ethnic Israelites “have a zeal for God” (10:2), so they are seeking God. Therefore they are in a better position to find God than the Gentiles, so this is also no excuse for them. Paul is making a similar point to Romans 9:30-31, which is in the parallel section to this one. The point made both times is that Gentiles who have not sought God have found him, while ethnic Israelites who have sought God have not found him.

We’ve gone through all the remaining excuses and none of them has succeeded in taking any blame away from the unbelieving ethnic Israelites. We can see the true situation is that, rather than seeking God according to the way God has revealed to them, these unbelieving ethnic Israelites are disobediently trusting in themselves and trying to achieve their own righteousness instead. How does God respond to this disobedience?

“[21] But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.””

God really wants these Israelites to be saved! He holds out his hands to them all day long. Even though they have been so disobedient, he still loves them and wants them to turn to him. As we’ve seen in Chapter 10, the word of Christ has been preached to them and has entered into their hearts so that they can be saved. God really wants this to happen! There is no one who wants ethnic Israelites to be saved more than God does. God has done nothing whatsoever to permanently cut any of them off or permanently prevent any of them from being saved.

It’s clear that it’s not God’s fault in any way that any of the ethnic Israelites are not trusting in Christ. All of them have had everything they need to be able to do this, and God continues to hold out his hands for them to come to him. We’ll see in chapter 11 the lengths to which God is going to increase the number of ethnic Israelites who are being saved.

Verse 21 begins with the words but of Israel he says (referring to the unbelieving ethnic Israelites) because the previous three Bible quotations relate to Gentiles (although, as explained above, they were used to prove a point about the ethnic Israelites).

Here is a structure for this section of Romans (10:14-21):


The C2-C2-A sections are about the unbelieving ethnic Israelites, and consider whether they have an excuse for not believing. The C2-C2-B section is a general truth that is stated without reference to the specific situation of the ethnic Israelites. This general truth helps us to understand the situation of the ethnic Israelites – they don’t have an excuse because they have heard the word of Christ.

In the next post, we’ll be starting out on Romans 11.

“Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn, and live.” (Ezekiel 18:31b-32)


This was first published at the Predestination Station, where comments can be made.