This is a favorite passages of some who wish to deny the essentiality of baptism, and the need of living a faithful life. Even some who know better than this, still struggle with explaining clearly, just what this passage teaches. Therefore, we’ll take a closer look.
Let us back up in examining this passage (Rom. 10:9-10) to verses 6-8. Read these verses. The reference here takes one back to Deut. 30:11-14, with a few additional words added by the inspired Paul.
In Deut. 30:11-ff we find the people of that day being encouraged. God’s will is not hidden high up in heaven, so that men have to ascend there to find it. Neither, does one need to go on a long voyage across the sea to some mysterious land to find God’s will. God’s will is as close to you as your own mouth and heart. It can be accessed even now.
In Romans 10:6-8 Paul adds some words. Some may have said, “If someone will go into the heavenly realm and bring Jesus back, or if someone will descend into the unseen realm and bring Him up, then maybe I could have faith.” Paul says, “Such is not necessary for you to have faith.” God’s will is so well revealed that one can even now believe in the heart, and confess it telling others about it (cf. Deut. 6:6-7; 30:14). God sent forth His messengers (Rom. 10:15a). The apostles preached a faith building message (Rom. 10:17 cf. John 20:31) and this message was confirmed (Rom. 15:18-19; 1 Thes. 1:5; Heb. 2:3; Mark 16:20).
God’s word (His will) is evident enough for one to confess Jesus as Lord. One can believe that Jesus was raised from the dead [Keep things in context cf. v. 6-8. Clearly in Moses’ day God expected more than mental belief alone and confession!].
Notice the type of confession mentioned is not just empty words or mere lip service. It is from the heart (Romans 10:9-10 cf. 6:16-17).
Paul, what about repentance? Obviously repentance is necessary – yet such is not mentioned here. However, repentance is the result of proper faith.
Is baptism necessary? Absolutely! (see Romans 6:16-18 cf. 6:1-5). But once again Biblical baptism grows out of faith.
Paul does not discuss living a faithful life. Is such necessary? Yes! (read Rev. 2:10; 1 John 1:16; 1 John 2:4). But, again, such grows out of faith.
Why does Paul use this language found in Romans 10:9-10? I think due to the context (see Rom. 10:6-8). The point is that truth is revealed plainly enough to believe it, and tell others about it.
On confession, is mere lip service enough? No, no, no. (Read Matt. 7:21; Luke 6:46; Titus 1:16; Heb. 5:9). Is Paul suggesting that confession by itself guarantees salvation regardless of how one lives? Hardly. Consider 1 John 3:15; 4:20.
No, it seems to me that what Paul has in view here is a person that (1) truly believes in the heart, and (2) truly (sincerely) acknowledges Him as Lord. Such a one is the type of person that will be saved. Andrew Connally has written, “Here Paul is considering the Jewish point in particular. He has already shown men must believe (5:1-2), be baptized (6:3-5) and walk after the Spirit (8:12-14). Now why hadn’t the Jews received salvation? They refuse to believe and confess” (10:9-10) – (Great lessons from Romans and Galatians p. 46-47).
Watch the fact that righteousness and justification (Rom. 4:1-2), and righteousness and salvation (Rom. 10:9-10) are used interchangeably in this book. A puzzle for your “faith only” friends is to ask them, “Does salvation (righteousness, justification) come at the point of faith or confession?” If they say ’faith’ then confession has nothing to do with salvation – which is at odds with Rom. 10:9-10. If they say ‘confession’ then they must give up their ‘faith only’ position.
In truth, Paul is not giving steps here to salvation. What he is doing is this: (1) He is telling the Jews that they have no excuse. God has revealed the truth unto them (and us), and (2) they (and us) must learn to believe and acknowledge Jesus.
Compare this with Rom. 9:33 and Isa. 8:13-14. To stumble is to: (1) reject the Gospel (1 Cor. 1:23); (2) to reject Christ (Acts 4:11); (3) to be disobedient (1 Peter 2:8).
Now Paul quotes Isa. 28:16. Those who don’t stumble over Him, but put their trust in Him – will not be ashamed that they did in the end.
Paul changes the “He” of the original quote to “whosoever.” Thus, he emphasizes the universality of this truth (cf. Rom. 1:16).
A parting shot, what kind of faith is spoken of in this book? “Faith only” without obedience? Or obedient faith (Read Rom. 1:5; 6:16-18; 16:26). Also read Deut. 30:14 – God’s word was in their mouth and heart “…that they mayest do it.” It all ties back to Deut. 30. The point is God’s word is near enough for you to do what He would have you do, and say what He would have you say.