For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. But the righteousness based on faith says, “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 that we proclaim); 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. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 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. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
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? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Romans 10:5–15)
About twenty years ago I found myself in a mosque in West London. The college where I trained for ministry had decided to bus a group of young eager students from the leafiness of North-West Bristol to experience the multi-cultural life of Southall, an area then known as ‘little Punjab’. The idea was to help prepare us to minister in areas where many religions existed side by side. Herefordshire it was not.
As we bounced along the roads in a rather old coach, we began to see an increase in Halal butchers and fast food shops. Shop fronts were draped in saris, and stalls full of fruit were dotted along the pavement. As we drew close to the church whose vicar was going to be our guide the skyline was shaped by mosques, gurdwaras and temples. Again, Herefordshire it was not.
The day had all the interest that you gain from moving amongst different cultures. We visited a Hindu Temple which had a well known statue of Ganesh. As we stood at the back of the dimply lit room, we watched women tend the many statues which were lit up at the front. We moved on to a Sikh gurdwara, where we removed our shoes and were given lunch in a large canteen set up to freely feed a multitude. After this we made out way to the mosque, which was housed in a building converted from an office block.
As we entered the main room, we found a rather plain place with lines marked out on the carpet so that worshippers knew the direction in which they should pray. There was an area at the front where the Qur'an could be read, and the imam was chatting to us about his community and how the different religions co-existed in this part of London. He then spoke about his frustration that civic organisations assumed that all religions were basically the same, something which gave rise the increasing phenomenon of multi-faith services for civic events.
His point was amply illustrated by what we had seen that day. We had walked from a Hindu Temple with its colourful display of statues of many gods to the plain walled mosque where it is proclaimed “Allah witnesses that there is no deity except Him … There is no deity except Him, the Exalted, in Might, the Wise” (Qur'an 3:18). Even within Hinduism there are many streams of tradition, and the concept of a ‘Hindu religion’ is more of a product of the British Empire than of India itself.
And so to today’s passage, where the Apostle is contrasting different understandings of religion, different ways in which the people of his day sought to earn God’s favour.
First he turns his attention to what we might call a ‘religion of works’, the notion that enough good deeds will earn God’s favour. This is ‘the righteousness that is based on the law’. The problem is, though, that although the law of God revealed through Moses is indeed righteous, we are not. None of us have lived perfect lives, and none of us have perfectly kept the law. No amount of good deeds will wipe out the past. Even if I perfectly keep the speed limit after the speed camera has flashed, I will still have to attend the speed awareness course.
Then we have what might be called a ‘mystical religion’, the idea that there is a deeper wisdom which is veiled, and can only be obtained through a more ‘spiritual’ path. To counter this, Paul alludes to Deuteronomy 30:12–14, which is speaking the commands of God:
“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?’ 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?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.” (Deuteronomy 30:12–14)
Now, this is not arguing that we can grasp everything that can be known about God. After all, some verses earlier Moses had commented: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” The point is that we have all we need. “The word is very near you”. We have it in the Scriptures. We need no more.
What is this word? Well, Paul continues: “(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 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.”
Here is the point. Moses wasn’t wrong, the person “who does the commandments shall live by them”. The issue is: who is the “who”? If not us, because we all mess up from time to time, who is it? The answer is Jesus. It is he who kept the commandments (“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” - Matthew 5:17). He is the ‘who’. This is why, as the Apostle continues, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”.
What we need, then, is not a mystical religion or a religion of works. What we need is a religion of faith. Faith in one who has achieved salvation for us, faith not in our own goodness or our own spiritual insight, but faith in Jesus.
We only need to look around in our multicultural country to see that there are many religions, and understandings of religions. The vital question is: which understanding we hold? Who is the “who” who will save us?