An Excerpt from The Gospel Call & True Conversion by Paul Washer

“But the righteousness based on faith speaks as follows: ‘Do not say in your heart, ‘who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down), or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’ — that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.”

Romans 10:6-10

This is arguably one of the most eloquent and important passages in all the Scriptures regarding what a “man must do” to be saved. Throughout the centuries of Christianity, it has served as a source of comfort for all who believe and as a wall of defense against the almost constant barrage of every false teaching that would seek to mingle works with faith as the means of salvation. Salvation is not won by any valiant deed or noble pilgrimage on the part of man, but by calling upon the Name of the Lord in faith.

A Near Word

In the verses immediately preceding our text, the apostle Paul demonstrates the great theological error of the greater part of the nation of Israel. Though they had a commendable zeal, they did not seek a right standing before God by faith in the atoning work of His Son. Instead, they sought a righteousness through a rigorous and excruciating obedience to the Law. Paul counters their false view by declaring that the perfect saving work of Christ marked the end of all attempts to establish one’s own righteousness before God through human merit or effort.

The Law places demands upon fallen man that he cannot accomplish any more than he can “ascend into heaven” or “descend into the abyss.” However, faith is entirely different. It requires no heroic feat or impossible religious conformity. Instead, it calls a man to acknowledge his “helpless estate” and to rest upon the person and accomplishments of Christ. For this reason, the apostle Paul assures the Christians in Rome that everything they required for a right standing before God was appropriated to them through their faith in the “word” of the Gospel that had been brought “near” to them through the apostolic preaching. They could rest assured of their salvation because they had believed in their hearts the Gospel message which was preached to them, and they were openly confessing Jesus as Lord.

The Misuse of the Text

This passage has rightly become one of the most popular and most employed among modern day evangelists and all who seek to share their faith with others. However, what does it truly mean, and what is its proper application in evangelism? Have these biblical requirements of “believing and confessing” been fulfilled merely because someone has made a decision for Christ, prayed the sinner’s prayer, or confessed Christ before a congregation of affirming believers? To answer these questions, we must consider Paul’s words in their proper context, and determine the precise meaning of his language. We must be wary of “assuming” that a text means a certain thing or that it should be used in a certain way merely because it is the prevalent interpretation and application of the text by our contemporaries. We often assume that we understand a text simply because it is the interpretation we received without question from those who received it without question from others. In the same way, we often use or apply a text simply because it is the modus operandi of all those around us. However, this naïve chain of unquestioned trust is often broken the moment someone actually studies the text “to see whether these things are so.” Having said this, we would do well to ask ourselves the following question: “Did the apostle Paul write this text with the purpose of giving us a model for the “sinner’s prayer” or did he have an entirely different purpose in mind?

In contemporary evangelicalism, the “sinner’s prayer” has become the foremost means of inviting men to Christ and granting them assurance of salvation. It is found on the back of most evangelistic tracts and heard at the end of most evangelistic sermons. It usually includes the following: The seeker is led to confess that he is a sinner and to acknowledge his inability to save himself. He is then directed to confess that Jesus died for his sins and rose again from the dead. Subsequently, he is encouraged to asked Jesus to come into his heart and to be his Savior. Afterward, he is promised that, if he prayed this prayer sincerely, he is now saved. Finally, he is directed that if he ever doubts his salvation he should stand upon this one moment in time when he prayed the sinner’s prayer and confessed Christ.

Although there is somc truth in these various elements, there are several serious objections that should be raised to this methodology of inviting sinners to Christ: First, it has no biblical precedent. It was not employed by Christ, the apostles or the early Christians. Secondly, it was unknown to the greater part of the church throughout history. That is, it is a recent invention. Thirdly, it has the danger of turning the Gospel into a credal statement. Countless individuals who show no biblical evidence of conversion believe themselves saved simply because one time in their lives they made a decsion for Christ and repeated the prayer. Although this is not the intention of those sincere Christians who use the sinner’s prayer in evangelism, it has been the overwhelming result of this methodology. Forthly, it has almost entirely replaced the biblical invitataion of repentance and faith. It is astounding that the biblical examples of inviting men to Christ are virtually ignored in favor of a modern-day construct. Fifthly, it has become the primary, and oftentimes, the only basis of assurance. That is, countless individuals, who bear little or no evidence of God’s work in their lives, are convinced or assured of their salvation only because one time in their lives they prayed the sinner’s prayer sincerely.

This popular application of our text to the seeker is contrary to Paul’s logic and purpose. It distorts one of the Scriptures’ most powerful teachings on sola fide and one of its most powerful promises to the people of God. It has also turned the text into an empty creed that has been used to give a false assurance of salvation to a countless multitude of individuals who bear little or no fruit of conversion. For these reasons, it is imperative that we take a thorough look at this text in light of its grammatical and historical context.

To grasp something of Paul’s meaning and purpose, it is helpful to understand that he is referring to both a one-time event in the believer’s life and to the result or fruit of that event which continues throughout the entirety of the believer’s life. In other words, he is speaking of a person’s conversion experience and of the on-going fruit of that conversion which validates it or demonstrates it to be genuine. A man is justified and reconciled with God the moment he truly believes in the person and atoning work of Christ. However the evidence that he truly believed and was genuinely converted in that one moment of time is that he “goes on” believing and confessing all the days of his life. This is not to say that the true believer will be immune to doubts, free from failure, or unhindered in his growth to maturity. However, it does mean that the God who began a good work in him will continue perfecting that work until the final day. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. However, the evidence of saving faith is a genuine and enduring confession of the lordship of Jesus Christ throughout the life of the believer.

Herein lies the problem with the modern day use of this text. Whether it has been our intention or not, no one can deny that there are countless individuals in the street and in the pew who believe themselves to be “saved” because one time in their lives they supposedly “believed in their heart” and “confessed with their mouth,” but there is little or no abiding fruit. They live the full course of their lives in carnality and worldliness without any real evidence of the enduring power of God which Scripture teaches will always accompany salvation. Yet they believe themselves “saved” and are even adamant in their convictions because one time in their lives they “made their decision” and/or “prayed the prayer.” The problem is further exasperated by the fact that countless evangelical ministers validate the salvation of such individuals. They base their confirmation upon a “supposed” conversion experience, but neglect to consider whether or not there is any evidence of an on-going work of sanctification or the bearing of fruit. It seems that they have forgotten a foundational truth of the Gospel: That genuine saving faith is validated by its perseverance and fruit; that the evidence that we have been saved from the condemnation of sin, is that we are currently being saved from the power of sin.

Believing with the Heart

In our text, the apostle Paul tells us that we are saved if we believe “in our heart” and “with the heart.” If our salvation depends on such faith, then our consideration and correct interpretation of these two phrases are of utmost importance. Before we begin any discussion regarding faith, we would do well to remember that the demons also believe and tremble, but not unto salvation. When Jesus began preaching in Galilee, the demons who had possessed a certain man in the synagogue cried out, “I know who You are – the Holy One of God.” The Gerasene demoniac spoke in even greater detail when he confessed that Jesus was the “Son of the Most High God.” From these examples, it would not seem beyond the bounds of Scripture to suggest that Satan and demons have an acute knowledge of the person and work of Jesus Christ, and that they accept them as absolute realities. They know He is the Son of God, that He died on Calvary for the sins of His people, and that He rose again on the third day. However, all their knowledge and recognition of the realities of Christ do not lead to their salvation. They are not saved by what they know to be true, but rather they are condemned by it. This same malady is found among men!
Any honest evaluation of contemporary evangelicalism will prove that there are countless individuals walking the streets and sitting in pews that have “received a faith of the same kind” as demons. They know something of the person and work of Christ, and they will make something of a confession when it is convenient. However, there is little evidence of an ongoing reality of the saving work of Christ in their life. Their hope of eternal salvation is founded upon the sincerity of a decision they made long ago to “accept Christ” by means of a simple prayer. Their hope was confirmed by ministers of the Gospel who should have known better. Like demons they are lost. Yet, unlike demons they do not know it!

Having given this warning regarding the dangers of a heartless faith, we are now ready to examine a true faith of the heart: A faith that not only recognizes what is true about the person and work of Christ, but relies upon these realities and is transformed by them. In the Scriptures, the heart refers to the very core or essence of a person. It is the seat of one’s intellect, will, and emotions. In one sense, we may say that it is the control center of all that we are. What happens there affects everything else about us. Therefore it is absurd to think that a man could believe something “in” or “with” the heart without it also having a dramatic or even drastic effect upon the totality of his person.

To believe in our heart that God raised Jesus from the dead is to believe with our innermost being that everything Jesus said about Himself is true. This may not sound too radical until we consider some of the things that He actually said:

  • He is the eternal God and the Creator of the universe.
  • He is the Life and Light of all men.
  • He is mankind’s only Savior.
  • He is the absolute Sovereign of the universe.
  • He will determine the eternal destiny of all men.
  • He is more valuable than the combined wealth of the world.
  • The promotion of His will and agenda is the purpose of the universe and of every individual’s life.
  • He is to be loved above all other persons and things.
  • He is to be radically followed and obeyed no matter the cost.2
  • He will judge His people’s service to Him and reward them accordingly.

These radical claims of Christ do not leave much room for a nonchalant response. Nor can they be believed with the very core or center of our intellect, will, and emotions without having a radical, drastic, or even devastating effect upon our lives. It is impossible for a rational creature to embrace these truths and not be noticeably changed by them. The very nature of the claims themselves demands a cataclysmic change in the character of one’s person and the direction of his life.

Therefore, true saving faith is not a passive or partial reliance upon Christ, but a reliance that is active and growing. Through the continuing work of sanctification, it eventually encompasses the entirety of the believer’s life. The proof of saving faith is not that once upon a time we merely “accepted Christ” through a prayer repeated by rote, but that since the moment we first believed the Gospel, Christ’s claims about Himself and His claim upon us continues to be a greater and greater reality in our lives.

Confessing with the Mouth

Having taken a brief glance at heartfelt faith, we must now consider what it means to confess with the mouth. The first thing we should notice from our text is the specificity of the confession. It is not merely a confession of faith in Jesus Christ, but a confession of His absolute and universal lordship. Thus, the evidence that a man has believed with the heart and is trusting in the saving virtue of the person and work of Christ is that he is also confessing Him as Lord.

The long history of Christianity proves that nothing could be more radical or costly than to confess, kúrios Iesous or “Jesus is Lord!” In the Roman world, there was only one Lord and his name was Caesar. Even to mention the possibility of another was political treason, resulting in exile or execution. In the Jewish religion, there was only one Lord and His name was Yahweh. To give the title of Lord to another was blasphemy and worthy of death. The renowned Greek scholar A. T. Robertson writes: “No Jew would do this who had not really trusted Christ, for kúrios in the LXX is used of God. No Gentile would do it who had not ceased worshipping the emperor as kúrios.” Again Robertson writes:

“One is reminded of the demand made to Polycarp that he say Kúrios Kaisar and how each time he replied Kúrios Iesous. He paid the penalty for his loyalty with his life. Lighthearted men today can say ‘Lord Jesus’ in a flippant or even in an irreverent way, but no Jew or Gentile then said it who did not mean it.”

We are saved by faith alone in the person and work of Christ, but the evidence that our faith is genuine is our confession of the lordship of Jesus Christ and our allegiance to Him, even when such a confession costs us dearly. The early church suffered and died because it faithfully proclaimed Jesus as Lord and refused to worship Caesar. At this very moment, Christians suffer imprisonment, torture, and death because of the same confession. Even in the Western world, where there is little or no physical persecution to speak of, the true believer is the one who submits to the lordship of Jesus Christ rather than live by the standards of this present evil age. This is the meaning of the apostle Paul when he writes:

“If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”

True faith in Jesus shows itself in a real submission to and an open confession of the lordship of Jesus, which deepens as the believer matures, and grows stronger even in the most adverse of circumstances. The great evidence of salvation is not merely that a person made a decision for Christ and confessed Him as Lord at the end of an evangelistic meeting, but that he continues on to maturity in this same faith and confession. Commenting on our text, the renowned Scottish Baptist Robert Haldane writes:

“A man becomes righteous, perfectly righteous, through believing God’s record concerning His Son. But the evidence that this faith is genuine is found in the open confession of the Lord with the mouth in everything in which His will is known. Confession of Christ is as necessary as faith in Him, but necessary for a different purpose. Faith is necessary to obtain the gift of righteousness. Confession is necessary to prove that this gift is received. If a man does not confess Christ at that hazard of life, character, property, liberty, and everything dear to him, he has not the faith of Christ. In saying, then, that confession is made unto salvation, the Apostle does not mean that it is the cause of salvation, or that without it the title to salvation is incomplete. When a man believes in his heart, he is justified. But confession of Christ is the effect of faith, and will be evidence of it at the last day. Faith which interests the sinner in the righteousness of Christ is manifested by the confession of His name in the midst of enemies, or in the face of danger.”

Confession in its Historical Context

In order for us to understand what Paul meant when he wrote of the necessity of confessing Jesus as Lord, it is helpful to consider what it meant to the Christians of the early church. In the following is a portion of a letter written by Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia to the Roman Emperor Trajan who reigned from A.D. 98 to A.D. 117. It briefly describes how those accused of being “Christian” were interrogated and how the charge against them was either proven or dismissed:

“An anonymous information was laid before me, containing a charge against several persons, who upon examination denied they were Christians or had ever been so. They repeated after me an invocation to the god’s, and offered religious rites with wine and incense before your statue, and even reviled the name of Christ… I thought it proper, therefore, to discharge them.”

Pliny writes of several persons who were obviously falsely accused of being followers of Christ. In proof of their innocence they called upon the Roman god’s, offered worship to the emperor, and reviled the Name of Jesus. According to our text, they did the very opposite of what a Christian would do.

Although the content of Pliny’s letter provides us with only a negative example, it does give us a solid foundation for supposing how the scenario would have turned out differently if the accused had truly been Christian. Imagine that a small house church is discovered and brought before the Roman official. In order to prove or disprove the accusation against them, they are led to a small altar where they are commanded to perform a few simple rituals. First they must call upon the Roman gods. Secondly, they must participate in a form of emperor worship to prove their loyalty to Caesar. Finally, they are told to revile Christ, either to deny His lordship or to declare Him accursed. To the horror of the small fellowship, two of their own promptly take their place before the altar and do as they are commanded. As they are discharged, another is forced to his feet and commanded to obey. Though full of fear and trembling, he not only refuses to venerate the Roman gods and Caesar, but he replies Kúrios Iesous or “Jesus is Lord!” He is taken away by force to await either exile or execution. One by one, the rest of the fellowship makes the same faithful confession and their fate is sealed. Though the scenario is scripted, the archives of Christian history prove that a countless multitude of believers have faced such testing and prevailed at the cost of their own lives. Their testing proved that they believed in their heart unto salvation, because they confessed Jesus as Lord even unto death.

A Proper Application

In light of the true significance of this text and what it has cost so many followers of Jesus throughout the ages, its popular use in modern-day evangelism is nothing short of repulsive. To even hint that this text is the biblical foundation for the sinner’s prayer found at the end of countless evangelistic tracts and sermons is a gross exegetical fallacy. Yet due to this popular belief, countless multitudes of unconverted men, women, and children have an almost impenetrable assurance of their eternal salvation simply because one time in their lives they affirmed a few biblical truths and repeated a model prayer. Afterwards, there was no transformation, no continuing work of sanctification, no rejection of the world, and no desire for Christ. Borrowing from the pen of the apostle Paul, it is proper to ask, “You foolish evangelicals, who has bewitched you?”

The text before us teaches that we are saved by faith alone. Salvation is not earned by some heroic feat or exhausting endeavor on the part of the Christian, but it is received by faith in the person and work of Christ. Those who truly believe have long given up any and every attempt to establish their own righteousness. They have fallen upon Christ, and upon His virtue and merit they stand!

However this faith in Christ is neither temporary, static or undetectable, but persevering, dynamic, and evident. This is ensured because salvation is the work of God for the glory of God. He who first wrought saving faith in the heart of the believer will see to it that that faith perseveres, deepens, and manifests. One such manifestation will be the confession of the lordship of Jesus Christ through both word and deed, and regardless of the cost!

How then should we employ and apply this text? With regard the believer, it should be a constant consolation and warning. The consolation is that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone. Our right standing before God is not the result of our strenuous efforts or mighty deeds, but the result of Christ’s great effort and mighty accomplishment on Calvary. The warning is that one of the chief evidences of saving faith and true conversion is the growing reality of Christ’s lordship in our lives and our willingness to follow him even at the greatest cost. With regard to evangelism and our treatment of the seeker, our text should be used in a three-fold manner:

First, to prove to the seeker the uselessness of works, and admonish him to lay aside all hopes of gaining salvation through personal virtue or merit.

Secondly, it should be employed to encourage him to look to Christ alone and to believe in Him unto salvation.

Thirdly, it should be used as an on-going litmus test for the genuineness of his profession. He should know that if he is truly converted, the lordship of Jesus Christ will become a growing reality in His life. Although he will pass through great struggles, and suffer many failures in his faith, piety, and confession, throughout the years of his life, his identity and purpose will be increasing bound up in the mastery of Christ over him!

Paul serves as the HeartCry Coordinator in Western Europe. He is currently overseeing our missionaries in Italy, Spain, and France. He is also the founder and director of the HeartCry Missionary Society. Paul lives in Radford, Virginia with his wife Charo and their four children: Ian, Evan, Rowan, and Bronwyn.

More By Paul David Washer