When in Romans: Wholehearted Belief

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Dr. Jim Somerville

8/13/2023

Romans 10:5-15

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First Baptist Richmond, August 13, 2023
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Romans 10:5-15

If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

            In last Sunday’s sermon Lynn Turner made a confession. She said the hardest class she took in seminary was not systematic theology or biblical hermeneutics: it was Romans. She couldn’t follow Paul’s logic, his sentences ran on endlessly, she couldn’t grasp his theology. And so she said she wasn’t going to try to explain all of that. Instead she was going to let our pastor, who is a New Testament scholar, do it when he got back. And you laughed as if to say, “Well played, Lynn!” But I was driving home from my uncle’s memorial service in North Carolina, listening to the sermon in my car. I didn’t laugh. I thought, “I’m not sure I understand Paul any better than Lynn does!” But I’ve thought about it since then and I think I have an explanation that may be helpful. Are you ready? Here it is:

Paul didn’t actually write Romans.

            Stay with me. He dictated it, but he didn’t write it. That job fell to someone named Tertius, who says in Romans 16:22, “I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.” But who is Tertius? I did some research and learned that he was no mere scribe. Tertius was a theologian in his own right: numbered among the Seventy Disciples in a list compiled by Hippolytus, and the successor of Sosipater (who is mentioned in Romans 16:21) as the Bishop of Iconium.[i] So, what you have in Romans is the great Apostle Paul and the soon-to-be Bishop of Iconium working on a letter together. It may have been a much more collaborative process than we have imagined.

            I picture it like this: Paul, pacing back and forth, one hand behind his back while he strokes his beard with the other and dictates the letter of Romans as Tertius sits at a desk and writes out a rough draft, maybe with a piece of charcoal on a sheet of papyrus. Every once in a while Paul would stop and say, “Read that back to me,” and Tertius would, and Paul might decide to change something. But it’s possible that Tertius had his own suggestions. For example: when Paul begins by saying, “I, Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ,” Tertius might have said, “Are you sure you want to say slave?  That sounds so demeaning.  Wouldn’t servant be a better word?”  “Oh, all right then,” Paul says, “a servant of Jesus Christ.”  And so it would go, with occasional interruptions and helpful suggestions, until Paul gets to the end of chapter 8, where, in a moment of divine inspiration, he closes his eyes and says, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!”[ii]  Tertius is writing as fast as he can.  Paul stops to take a breath.  And that’s when Tertius asks,

“But what about the Jews?”

            There’s a long pause.  Paul wasn’t thinking about the Jews, he was thinking about those Gentiles who had trusted Jesus for their salvation.  But now that Tertius has asked him, he can’t stop thinking about them, about his fellow Israelites who are trying, as he once did, to save themselves by keeping the law.  His heart breaks.  When he can speak again he swallows the lump in his throat and says, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.”[iii]  For three full chapters Paul focuses on the Jews and what will become of them in this new age God is about to usher in, until finally he begins to feel hopeful again and says, “Just as you [Gentiles] were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of [the Jews] disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy….”[iv] And when the truth of it hits him, that his fellow Israelites will also receive the mercy of God, he bursts into doxology: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!,” he says,  “For from him and through him and to him are all things, and to him be the glory forever.  Amen.”[v] That’s when Paul can move on to chapter 12. That’s when he can say, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice….”[vi]

            As Lynn mentioned last week, many scholars believe that Romans would read better without chapters 9-11, that if you skipped from the end of chapter 8 to the beginning of chapter 12 the letter would flow seamlessly, from a paragraph about how nothing can separate us from the love of God to a paragraph about presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Paul knew that. When he asked Tertius to read the entire letter back to him he may have said, “You know, I’m not really sure we need chapters 9-11. Maybe I can use them in a separate letter to the Jews.” And it may have been Tertius who said, “No, Paul! I think you need to leave them in. There’s truth in here that applies to everyone!” And Paul might have said, “Well, OK. If you say so.” If there’s any truth in that, if there’s any possibility that that’s the way it actually happened, then we may have Tertius to thank—or to blame—not only for the awkward transitions, the interrupted thoughts, and the run-on sentences, but also for our access to this beautiful, complicated, and confusing section of Romans. It might have been left on the cutting room floor, and if it had, I think we would all be poorer for it. If nothing else it proves that Paul had a heart, and that his heart was breaking for his people, perhaps even for all people who have not been able to confess their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord, or to believe that God raised him from the dead.

            And we all know some people like that.

            Two weeks ago I preached from the final section of Romans 8. I was talking about how Paul spends the better part of seven chapters talking about sin. For him it is the biggest problem we humans face; it’s what separates us from God. But in Romans 8 he starts talking about suffering, and without giving it too much thought I said, “Maybe it’s because that’s the other big problem we humans face.” I’ve given it more thought since then but it still rings true. We don’t understand suffering.  We don’t know why we have to go through it.  We sometimes ask the question, “If God is all loving and all powerful then why do such terrible things happen?” It’s a reasonable question, but for Paul the answer is clear: suffering brings him closer to Jesus, and he wants to get as close to Jesus as he can. In Philippians 3:10 he writes: “All I want is to know Christ and to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings and become like him in his death.”  Maybe you could keep that in mind the next time you’re suffering. 

            But then I turned to this week’s passage and discovered that three times in eleven verses Paul uses the word salvation. I thought, “Maybe that’s the third big problem we humans face. Maybe there’s sin, suffering, and salvation.” And that’s when this sermon began to sound like one of those old-fashioned revival sermons, with three points that all start with the same letter of the alphabet, and maybe that’s what led me to choose “Just as I Am” as our closing hymn. I joked about it with our worship planning team on Monday just after I learned that we would be singing “Sweet Hour of Prayer” in the service and that the Cumbia girls would be singing “Blessed Assurance.” I said, “If we throw in ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’ revival could break out.”

And maybe it will. Maybe what all of us need more than we realize is salvation, but for me that begs the question of what we need to be saved from. The old-fashioned evangelist would say we need to be saved from hell, but as I told you a few weeks ago, Paul never mentions the word hell in this letter. What he thinks his fellow Israelites need to be saved from is their anxious and ceaseless striving to save themselves. Maybe you know something about that. Paul knows. He’s been there himself. He says in Philippians 3 that when it came to righteousness under the law he was blameless, but still he didn’t have peace with God. Not until he met Jesus. That’s when things changed for him. That’s when he could let out a sigh of relief. And it wasn’t because of anything he did. It was because of what Jesus did. Whatever the price of salvation was, it had been paid in full, and this is where I think some evangelists get it wrong. 

            They focus on Romans 10:9, where Paul says, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”  “That’s what you’ve got to do,” they say.  “You’ve got to confess.  You’ve got to believe.” They don’t seem to understand that this verse is in the middle of a passage where Paul is saying that you cannot be saved by what you do. We haven’t really talked about it in this sermon but people were talking about it on my Facebook page yesterday. I had mentioned that some people have a hard time believing that God raised Jesus from the dead. Their scientific minds can’t seem to make room for the concept of resurrection. Some people in that conversation were saying you just have to believe anyway. Others were saying, “But what if you can’t? What if you’ve tried and failed?” I just want to say that the good news Paul was trying to share with his fellow Israelites—who may have been more legalistic than scientific—is that our salvation does not depend on what we do, it depends on what Jesus has done, and if we come away from this passage thinking we have to do something, we may have gotten it wrong.

I sometimes think about it like this.  I think about a river winding around the base of a cliff.  On the cliff are rock climbers, with helmets and harnesses, ropes and pitons, going up that cliff one precarious handhold at a time, while in the river below are people floating by on inner tubes, staring up at the cliff and saying, “Would you look at that?” They admire those rock climbers. They know they don’t have the skill to do that. But they can float down the river, and they can trust those tubes to hold them up.

            If you can understand that illustration as a kind of a parable, you can see that I’m talking about two different approaches to salvation: one where you trust your skill as a rock climber, and the other where you trust the principle of buoyancy. Paul had been climbing his whole life before he met Jesus. He was good at it. He may have been the best climber of his time. But the cliff was high. It reached into the clouds. He had never been completely sure that he would make it to the top. Now he was trusting Jesus for his salvation—floating down the river of life, supported by grace, surrounded by love—and in no danger of sinking. “Well, but wasn’t he doing something?” someone might ask. “Wasn’t he trusting Jesus?” Well, yes. Yes he was.  But he was doing it in the same way you trust water to hold you up when you’re floating in an inner tube. You don’t have to think about it. You don’t have to do anything. You just have to float. And here’s the good news: not everyone can climb the face of a cliff, and some people have trouble believing in the resurrection, but everyone—everyone—can float in an inner tube.   

            I think about Buzz Ingalls, one of our members, who was baptized in the James River a few years ago. Buzz had polio when he was a kid and it affected his ability to walk. Everything else worked perfectly—his mind, his heart, his soul—but his legs couldn’t carry him. He had to use crutches. So, things that would have been easy for some of us as kids would have been impossible for him, things like playing basketball or jumping hurdles. But when we said we were going to be baptizing people in the James River Buzz wanted to try. He had been a Christian for years but he had never been baptized. When we talked about it he said, “I think I could make it down to the water on my crutches with a little help.”

So, that’s what we did. We got him as close to the water as we could in a wheelchair, and then he struggled up out of the chair and onto those crutches and began to make his way down to the water, with someone watching closely on each side. As I recall he took the crutches with him, right out into the water, but at some point the principle of buoyancy took over, and he felt himself lifted up by the water. He handed his crutches off to the person beside him and took the last few steps on his own, feeling weightless and free. I asked him to profess his faith and he said, “Jesus is Lord!” He probably believed in his heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, but I didn’t ask him that. I just dipped him down under the water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and he came up looking like he’d been born again.

            The difference between those struggling steps Buzz took to get down to the water, and those weightless steps he took once he was there, may be the difference between trying to save yourself, and trusting Jesus for your salvation. And maybe that’s why I can invite you to come down the aisle this morning,

            Just as you are.

—Jim Somerville © 2023


[i] Yes, I got this from Wikipedia. I am not ashamed.

[ii] Romans 8:38-39

[iii] Romans 9:2-4

[iv] Romans 11:30-31

[v] Romans 11:33a, 36

[vi] Romans 12:1

First Baptist Richmond, August 13, 2023
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Romans 10:5-15

If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

            In last Sunday’s sermon Lynn Turner made a confession. She said the hardest class she took in seminary was not systematic theology or biblical hermeneutics: it was Romans. She couldn’t follow Paul’s logic, his sentences ran on endlessly, she couldn’t grasp his theology. And so she said she wasn’t going to try to explain all of that. Instead she was going to let our pastor, who is a New Testament scholar, do it when he got back. And you laughed as if to say, “Well played, Lynn!” But I was driving home from my uncle’s memorial service in North Carolina, listening to the sermon in my car. I didn’t laugh. I thought, “I’m not sure I understand Paul any better than Lynn does!” But I’ve thought about it since then and I think I have an explanation that may be helpful. Are you ready? Here it is:

Paul didn’t actually write Romans.

            Stay with me. He dictated it, but he didn’t write it. That job fell to someone named Tertius, who says in Romans 16:22, “I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.” But who is Tertius? I did some research and learned that he was no mere scribe. Tertius was a theologian in his own right: numbered among the Seventy Disciples in a list compiled by Hippolytus, and the successor of Sosipater (who is mentioned in Romans 16:21) as the Bishop of Iconium.[i] So, what you have in Romans is the great Apostle Paul and the soon-to-be Bishop of Iconium working on a letter together. It may have been a much more collaborative process than we have imagined.

            I picture it like this: Paul, pacing back and forth, one hand behind his back while he strokes his beard with the other and dictates the letter of Romans as Tertius sits at a desk and writes out a rough draft, maybe with a piece of charcoal on a sheet of papyrus. Every once in a while Paul would stop and say, “Read that back to me,” and Tertius would, and Paul might decide to change something. But it’s possible that Tertius had his own suggestions. For example: when Paul begins by saying, “I, Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ,” Tertius might have said, “Are you sure you want to say slave?  That sounds so demeaning.  Wouldn’t servant be a better word?”  “Oh, all right then,” Paul says, “a servant of Jesus Christ.”  And so it would go, with occasional interruptions and helpful suggestions, until Paul gets to the end of chapter 8, where, in a moment of divine inspiration, he closes his eyes and says, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!”[ii]  Tertius is writing as fast as he can.  Paul stops to take a breath.  And that’s when Tertius asks,

“But what about the Jews?”

            There’s a long pause.  Paul wasn’t thinking about the Jews, he was thinking about those Gentiles who had trusted Jesus for their salvation.  But now that Tertius has asked him, he can’t stop thinking about them, about his fellow Israelites who are trying, as he once did, to save themselves by keeping the law.  His heart breaks.  When he can speak again he swallows the lump in his throat and says, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.”[iii]  For three full chapters Paul focuses on the Jews and what will become of them in this new age God is about to usher in, until finally he begins to feel hopeful again and says, “Just as you [Gentiles] were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of [the Jews] disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy….”[iv] And when the truth of it hits him, that his fellow Israelites will also receive the mercy of God, he bursts into doxology: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!,” he says,  “For from him and through him and to him are all things, and to him be the glory forever.  Amen.”[v] That’s when Paul can move on to chapter 12. That’s when he can say, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice….”[vi]

            As Lynn mentioned last week, many scholars believe that Romans would read better without chapters 9-11, that if you skipped from the end of chapter 8 to the beginning of chapter 12 the letter would flow seamlessly, from a paragraph about how nothing can separate us from the love of God to a paragraph about presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Paul knew that. When he asked Tertius to read the entire letter back to him he may have said, “You know, I’m not really sure we need chapters 9-11. Maybe I can use them in a separate letter to the Jews.” And it may have been Tertius who said, “No, Paul! I think you need to leave them in. There’s truth in here that applies to everyone!” And Paul might have said, “Well, OK. If you say so.” If there’s any truth in that, if there’s any possibility that that’s the way it actually happened, then we may have Tertius to thank—or to blame—not only for the awkward transitions, the interrupted thoughts, and the run-on sentences, but also for our access to this beautiful, complicated, and confusing section of Romans. It might have been left on the cutting room floor, and if it had, I think we would all be poorer for it. If nothing else it proves that Paul had a heart, and that his heart was breaking for his people, perhaps even for all people who have not been able to confess their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord, or to believe that God raised him from the dead.

            And we all know some people like that.

            Two weeks ago I preached from the final section of Romans 8. I was talking about how Paul spends the better part of seven chapters talking about sin. For him it is the biggest problem we humans face; it’s what separates us from God. But in Romans 8 he starts talking about suffering, and without giving it too much thought I said, “Maybe it’s because that’s the other big problem we humans face.” I’ve given it more thought since then but it still rings true. We don’t understand suffering.  We don’t know why we have to go through it.  We sometimes ask the question, “If God is all loving and all powerful then why do such terrible things happen?” It’s a reasonable question, but for Paul the answer is clear: suffering brings him closer to Jesus, and he wants to get as close to Jesus as he can. In Philippians 3:10 he writes: “All I want is to know Christ and to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings and become like him in his death.”  Maybe you could keep that in mind the next time you’re suffering. 

            But then I turned to this week’s passage and discovered that three times in eleven verses Paul uses the word salvation. I thought, “Maybe that’s the third big problem we humans face. Maybe there’s sin, suffering, and salvation.” And that’s when this sermon began to sound like one of those old-fashioned revival sermons, with three points that all start with the same letter of the alphabet, and maybe that’s what led me to choose “Just as I Am” as our closing hymn. I joked about it with our worship planning team on Monday just after I learned that we would be singing “Sweet Hour of Prayer” in the service and that the Cumbia girls would be singing “Blessed Assurance.” I said, “If we throw in ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’ revival could break out.”

And maybe it will. Maybe what all of us need more than we realize is salvation, but for me that begs the question of what we need to be saved from. The old-fashioned evangelist would say we need to be saved from hell, but as I told you a few weeks ago, Paul never mentions the word hell in this letter. What he thinks his fellow Israelites need to be saved from is their anxious and ceaseless striving to save themselves. Maybe you know something about that. Paul knows. He’s been there himself. He says in Philippians 3 that when it came to righteousness under the law he was blameless, but still he didn’t have peace with God. Not until he met Jesus. That’s when things changed for him. That’s when he could let out a sigh of relief. And it wasn’t because of anything he did. It was because of what Jesus did. Whatever the price of salvation was, it had been paid in full, and this is where I think some evangelists get it wrong. 

            They focus on Romans 10:9, where Paul says, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”  “That’s what you’ve got to do,” they say.  “You’ve got to confess.  You’ve got to believe.” They don’t seem to understand that this verse is in the middle of a passage where Paul is saying that you cannot be saved by what you do. We haven’t really talked about it in this sermon but people were talking about it on my Facebook page yesterday. I had mentioned that some people have a hard time believing that God raised Jesus from the dead. Their scientific minds can’t seem to make room for the concept of resurrection. Some people in that conversation were saying you just have to believe anyway. Others were saying, “But what if you can’t? What if you’ve tried and failed?” I just want to say that the good news Paul was trying to share with his fellow Israelites—who may have been more legalistic than scientific—is that our salvation does not depend on what we do, it depends on what Jesus has done, and if we come away from this passage thinking we have to do something, we may have gotten it wrong.

I sometimes think about it like this.  I think about a river winding around the base of a cliff.  On the cliff are rock climbers, with helmets and harnesses, ropes and pitons, going up that cliff one precarious handhold at a time, while in the river below are people floating by on inner tubes, staring up at the cliff and saying, “Would you look at that?” They admire those rock climbers. They know they don’t have the skill to do that. But they can float down the river, and they can trust those tubes to hold them up.

            If you can understand that illustration as a kind of a parable, you can see that I’m talking about two different approaches to salvation: one where you trust your skill as a rock climber, and the other where you trust the principle of buoyancy. Paul had been climbing his whole life before he met Jesus. He was good at it. He may have been the best climber of his time. But the cliff was high. It reached into the clouds. He had never been completely sure that he would make it to the top. Now he was trusting Jesus for his salvation—floating down the river of life, supported by grace, surrounded by love—and in no danger of sinking. “Well, but wasn’t he doing something?” someone might ask. “Wasn’t he trusting Jesus?” Well, yes. Yes he was.  But he was doing it in the same way you trust water to hold you up when you’re floating in an inner tube. You don’t have to think about it. You don’t have to do anything. You just have to float. And here’s the good news: not everyone can climb the face of a cliff, and some people have trouble believing in the resurrection, but everyone—everyone—can float in an inner tube.   

            I think about Buzz Ingalls, one of our members, who was baptized in the James River a few years ago. Buzz had polio when he was a kid and it affected his ability to walk. Everything else worked perfectly—his mind, his heart, his soul—but his legs couldn’t carry him. He had to use crutches. So, things that would have been easy for some of us as kids would have been impossible for him, things like playing basketball or jumping hurdles. But when we said we were going to be baptizing people in the James River Buzz wanted to try. He had been a Christian for years but he had never been baptized. When we talked about it he said, “I think I could make it down to the water on my crutches with a little help.”

So, that’s what we did. We got him as close to the water as we could in a wheelchair, and then he struggled up out of the chair and onto those crutches and began to make his way down to the water, with someone watching closely on each side. As I recall he took the crutches with him, right out into the water, but at some point the principle of buoyancy took over, and he felt himself lifted up by the water. He handed his crutches off to the person beside him and took the last few steps on his own, feeling weightless and free. I asked him to profess his faith and he said, “Jesus is Lord!” He probably believed in his heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, but I didn’t ask him that. I just dipped him down under the water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and he came up looking like he’d been born again.

            The difference between those struggling steps Buzz took to get down to the water, and those weightless steps he took once he was there, may be the difference between trying to save yourself, and trusting Jesus for your salvation. And maybe that’s why I can invite you to come down the aisle this morning,

            Just as you are.

—Jim Somerville © 2023


[i] Yes, I got this from Wikipedia. I am not ashamed.

[ii] Romans 8:38-39

[iii] Romans 9:2-4

[iv] Romans 11:30-31

[v] Romans 11:33a, 36

[vi] Romans 12:1