The Failure of Evangelism (Romans 10.18-21)


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I often talk with people about how to best reach their friends with the gospel. Usually, those conversations focus on presenting the gospel with language and concepts that nonreligious friends can understand. The unstated assumption is that if we could just find the right words, people would come to Christ. But what if that assumption is wrong?

In Romans 10.18-21, the Apostle Paul asks why his fellow Jews failed to accept Christ. He offers three explanations, rejecting the first two in favor of the third.

The first explanation Paul offers is that they have not heard the gospel. In verse 18, he writes, "But I ask: Did they not hear? Of course they did." He proves this by citing Psalm 19.4, which says:

"Their voice has gone out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world."  

Paul exaggerates here a bit. Even if the gospel had not been preached in every corner of the globe in Paul's day, however, it had been preached in Jewish synagogues throughout the ancient world. According to Acts 17.2, it was Paul's custom to preach in Jewish synagogues first before taking the message to Gentile audiences. So, most of Paul's fellow Jews had heard the gospel.

The second explanation Paul offers is that his fellow Jews did not understand the gospel. In verse 19, he writes, "Again I ask: Did Israel not understand?" Paul answers this question negatively, and proves his answer by quoting Deuteronomy 32.21 and Isaiah 65.1:

First, Moses says,

"I will make you envious by those who are not a nation;
I will make you angry by a nation that has no understanding."  

And Isaiah boldly says,

"I was found by those who did not seek me;
I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me."  

In both passages, "I" refers to God, "you" refers to Israel, and "those" refers to Gentiles. And in both cases, the original context of God's remark is Israel's betrayal of his covenant with them. According to Paul, then, his fellow Jews failed to accept Jesus not because of intellectual misunderstanding  but because of spiritual disobedience.

Paul proves this third explanation by going on to quote Isaiah 65.2:

But concerning Israel he says,

"All day long I have held out my hands
to a disobedient and obstinate people."

Over the centuries, anti-Semites have used passages such as Romans 10.18-21 to accuse Jews of incorrigibility. Such people were and are wrong to do so. If Jews are noticeably "disobedient and obstinate," it is only because they receive so much notice period. If the Bible were the story of Americans, the whole world would no doubt notice our incorrigibility. Sin, in other words, doesn't know the difference between Jews and Gentiles.

You need to remember this as you share the gospel with others. Even if they hear a winsome, understandable presentation of the good news, they still might reject it. Sin makes people do stupid things. You're responsible to share the gospel anyway. How they answer is their responsibility.

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