We often quote Romans 10:9-10 out of context, though we get the basic idea correct (it is talking about salvation). A fuller understanding of the context can help us better appreciate why Paul words these verses the way he does.
Some people were arguing that they could be saved by their good works, by obeying the Bible, rather than by Jesus’ death and resurrection (see Rom 10:5). So Paul quoted the same Bible they professed to obey, showing how even in the Old Testament God saved people by grace. (He has already argued in Romans 4 that Abraham was made right with God through faith, i.e., through trusting him.)
In Romans 10, Paul quotes from Deuteronomy 30 and makes comparisons with Christ:
Moses said that no one needed to ascend to heaven to bring down the law again (Deut 30:12); God had already freely given the law. Paul makes a comparison: in the same way, he says, no one needs to ascend to heaven to bring down Christ again: God already sent him freely (Rom 10:6).
Moses said that no one needed to descend into the depths of the sea again (Deut 30:13); God had already redeemed his people and brought them through the sea. Paul makes another comparison: no one needs to descend to the depths, as if to bring Christ up from the dead; God already raised him (Rom 10:7).
Rather, Moses said, the law is already available, in Israel’s mouths and hearts if they chose to embrace it (Deut 30:14; cf. Deut 5:29; 6:6-7; 10:16; 30:6). Likewise, Paul claims that the message about faith in Christ is similarly available, in our mouths and hearts, if we embrace it (Rom 10:8).
Then he goes on to explain what he means by “in your mouth and in your heart”: it is by confessing with our mouth Jesus’ Lordship, and by believing that he is risen and alive, that we are saved. Naturally, genuine faith that Jesus is the true and living Lord will transform the way we live; but the transformation comes through accepting Christ, not through mere moral self-help efforts apart from faith in Christ.
To whom is this promise available? In the following verses, Paul emphasizes the words “whoever” and “all”: the Bible says that “whoever” believes will not be shamed (Rom 10:11); Christ is Lord of “all,” whether Jew or Gentile (10:12); and (again quoting the Bible, now from Joel) “Whoever” calls on the Lord’s name will be saved (10:13). This fits Paul’s theme throughout Romans: the gospel is for Jew and Gentile alike, not on the basis of Israel’s laws, but on the basis of God’s gift in Jesus Christ.
The passage does not, however, stop by explaining salvation. It also talks about how this “message of faith” (10:8) that we “confess with our mouth” gets spread. How can people call on Jesus without believing in him? Or believe in him without hearing about him? And how can they hear without someone bringing them the message? Sometimes we also quote out of context Romans 10:17: “faith comes through hearing, and hearing through the message about Christ.” In context, 10:17 refers to saving faith through hearing the gospel.
Romans 10:9-10 talk about the mouth and the heart not as if this is the single New Testament formula for salvation (for example, as if every salvation text must mention the mouth, or as if deaf-mutes cannot be saved, neither of which is true). Rather, Paul is explaining a text from the Old Testament that mentions the mouth and the heart. Yet both texts mention the mouth and the heart because they are intimately connected. If we really believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, can we be silent about him? Rather, “shout it from the housetops” (Matt 10:27)! Our Savior is alive, he has set our hearts on fire, and we ought to tell the world about him!
This article is adapted from one that Craig wrote for the Missionary Seer in 2006. Craig is author of 17 books, including 1-2 Corinthians (Cambridge University Press, 2005).