Paul invites us to pray for unbelievers, but merely praying isn’t enough. We must go—in whatever ways God provides for us to do so.
The Universal Assurance (v. 13)
This is another familiar verse to those who have memorized the Roman Road plan of salvation. Paul quotes from Joel 2:32. Having examined the matter of election, we can now interpret what Paul means when he says anyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. For those who believe salvation is open to all who ask, this verse fits neatly into their philosophy, but for those who believe in actual election of individuals and that all are not elect, the verse is still valid. They simply maintain only the elect will call, and since they are elect God will accept them and grant them salvation. Either way we interpret this matter, the end result is identical. Those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.
But what does it mean to call? Does simply calling on the name of the Lord result in salvation? Paul seems to imply this, but Jesus said not all who called him Lord would be saved (Matthew 7:21). And how many have used the Lord’s name in vain or simply used it in a statement such as, “Lord have mercy?” Surely using the Lord’s name in these ways has nothing to do with salvation—and it doesn’t.
Paul is referring to a call involving repentance, as well as a plea for help. It is not simply a call to get one out of trouble such as in foxhole prayers. Rather it is a sincere call of desperation for deliverance from the sin binding the individual. They have recognized their state of affairs and desire forgiveness. So they call out for help. It also involves the desire and intention to be different after that. The person is not seeking forgiveness simply to go out and live the same way as before. They are not after sinning more so God’s grace can be made more real to them and evident to others. It is similar to the call made to Jesus by the leper that he could help him if he desired (Luke 5:12).
The Universal Challenge (vv. 14-15)
Paul proposes a domino scenario. How can people call unless they believe and how can they believe if they haven’t heard? Further, how can individuals hear without someone telling them, and how can someone tell if they don’t go?
People will not call on something or someone if they don’t believe. If I don’t believe God exists, I will not call on him for help. It would be ludicrous to ask for help from someone I didn’t believe existed. This is similar to asking someone to give their time or money to a cause they don’t believe in. Why would someone raise money for cancer research if they didn’t believe a cure could actually be discovered? Therefore, all who call on God believe he exists and have at least rudimentary belief in him.
Nor can people believe in a God they have not heard about. Paul has already discussed natural revelation. Some fashioned gods as a result of what they saw or imagined about God in nature or they worshipped the things they believed this god made. Whether they heard or saw, they responded. Paul is particularly concerned about the hearing element, for he was going and he wanted others to go as well. After all, this was the commission Christ left for the early church and for Paul personally. He had been sent by Christ himself and commissioned by the church. He was an apostle—one sent with good news.
Paul quotes Isaiah 52:7 to speak of the beauty involved when others take the good news to the lost. In context, the good news was the approaching end of the Babylonian exile, which was wonderful news to the captives who had spent seventy years in a foreign land. All believers are responsible for taking this good news to those who need to hear.
The Universal Rejection (vv. 16-21)
Not everyone welcomes the good news of salvation. Some don’t because they see no need of being saved. A person must believe something about themselves in order to see the need for help. If I don’t think I’m a sinner, I will not be interested in forgiveness for what I don’t perceive as reality. Alcoholics who don’t think they are will not seek help, nor will those addicted to other substances.
Rejection doesn’t necessarily mean God’s Spirit is not working. It may not have been the right time or more probably the person was simply not listening. And obviously, there are more people who reject than accept. Jesus said many would choose the broad path and only a few the narrow. Many are being saved, but many more are refusing to listen.
While we cannot change the message, we must continually experiment with various methods to transport it. Nor are people saved by merely existing in a world where the message is distributed. Faith comes from listening to the message, followed by acknowledging and accepting the presentation.
Paul’s attention once again turns to the Jews as it concerns hearing and responding to the gospel, and he uses a series of Old Testament quotations to reinforce his conclusions. The Jews had heard God’s message numerous times. God called Abraham and promised to make him a great nation. Jews and Gentiles came from his loins—the Jews being God’s chosen people. God delivered them from Egyptian slavery, gave them the commandments and law, and led them through the wilderness to the Promised Land. He would eventually rescue them on at least two more occasions from the Assyrians and Babylonians. God sent prophets, judges, and kings to them.
God’s warning about disobedience came in many forms and from many people. They had heard, but did they really understand? Quoting from Deuteronomy and Isaiah, Paul maintains they did. The sad conclusion is why we must keep going to all people: God opens his arms of grace to people, but they keep disobeying and arguing with him.
As long as the world exists, there will be the need for the Gospel presentation. Not all will accept, but we must continue to go with the assurance of God’s presence and power and the knowledge that those who respond will be accepted.