Quoting Romans 10:14–17, author Roger E. Van Harn explains the central role of hearing in the mission of the church:
The church order is comprised of sending, preaching, and hearing. The salvation order is comprised of hearing, believing, and calling on the name of the Lord. The mission order joins the church order and the salvation order in the event of hearing. Hearing stands at the center between preaching and believing. It fulfills the purpose of the sending and makes possible the calling on the name of the Lord.1
Hearing stands between preaching and believing, between the purpose of the church and the order of salvation, according to Van Harn. He declares that hearers reside at the center of the mission of the church as they listen to a sermon. Yet, hearing is not the whole mission of the church. Nor are other elements—sending, preaching, believing, and calling—inferior to hearing. For Van Harn, hearing “the word of faith” (Rom. 10:8) or “the word of Christ” (v. 17) stands at the center of the mission between preaching and believing.2
Two Kinds of Hearing
For the Apostle Paul, there are two different kinds of hearing. The first kind is evident in Romans 10:18, where Paul asks, “Have they not heard? Indeed they have, for ‘Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.’” This “hearing” refers to God’s general revelation based on the first chapter of the epistle. The righteousness of God has been revealed to everyone through nature (Ps. 19). Therefore, people have no excuse. Their conscience knows the righteousness of God as they see God in nature. They have “heard” of God’s righteousness. In Greek, the word translated “hear” is akouō. It refers to hearing in general. But people do not necessarily believe what they hear.
The second kind of hearing Paul references is apparent in Romans 10:16: “But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?’” The word “obeyed” (hupoakouō) has akouō as its root. A more literal translation might be “hyper-hearing.”3 This word describes the kind of hearing that makes someone obey the gospel. They hear and truly believe it, which shows in their obedience to it. So, when it comes to missions and evangelism, we want hyper-hearing. We want people to really hear such that they believe the gospel and begin obeying Jesus as Lord.
It’s Not the Hearer’s Job
Nevertheless, according to Romans 10:16, the recipients of the gospel have not all practiced hyper-hearing or obedient hearing. Why not? John Calvin says:
We now see why this exception was by the way introduced; it was, that no one might suppose that faith necessarily follows where there is preaching. He however does afterwards point out the reason, by saying, “To whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” by which he intimates that there is no benefit from the word, except when God shines in us by the light of his Spirit; and thus the inward calling, which alone is efficacious and peculiar to the elect, is distinguished from the outward voice of men.4
According to Calvin, hyper-hearing is not something that humans can generate. The Holy Spirit takes the external calling and makes it an internal calling “efficacious and peculiar to the elect.” For example, someone listening to a sermon might think, “I don’t know what he is trying to say with such a serious look. I just don’t get it.” But those who practice hyper-hearing—those who receive the internal call—would instead think, “He is preaching the word of Christ. His appearance, his ethnic background, his degrees . . . none of those things matter to me. Oh, keep speaking to me; I’m listening!” Do preachers make them hear? No, preachers are incapable of doing such a thing. Of course, some preachers can be manipulative as they deliver sermons. They might crack some jokes and entertain the audience.5 Still, preachers cannot help people hear the word of Christ with the kind of hearing that chapter 10 of Romans describes. No preacher can induce hyper-hearing; humans cannot produce the kind of hearing that obeys the gospel.6
Sovereign Grace and Hearing
If hearing is essential to missions and evangelism, church leaders may again ask how they can make sure people exercise the kind of hearing that obeys the gospel. This may be the wrong question. Nowhere in the Bible does it say preachers of the gospel are to ensure hyper-hearing. What does the Bible say about the kind of hearing that leads to obedience? In Romans 10:16, Paul tells us that the Israelites “have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?’”7 The Apostle John quotes the same passage in John 12:37–40:
Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”
Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said,
“He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.” (emphasis added)
Chapter twelve of John’s gospel states that Christ performed many signs during His preaching ministry. But many hearers still did not believe in Him. Why not? Because God had “blinded” their eyes and “hardened” their hearts.
These responses to Christ were prophesied in the book of Isaiah. The people’s unbelief is the fulfillment of God’s divine election. He chooses whom He will; He has mercy on whom He will (Rom. 9:15–20). Therefore, the word of Christ has not failed even when some people refuse to hear and obey the gospel. Those who do not believe fail to believe because God does not grant them hyper-hearing. First Thessalonians 2:13 reads, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (emphasis added). The Word of God is at work inside believers. This verse refers to hyper-hearing—the Thessalonians were obeying the gospel that they had heard from the Apostles. But the striking thing is that the Apostles “thank God” for the hyper-hearing these believers practiced. The Apostles recognized that kind of response as God’s doing, not the result of works or human genealogies.
Magnify Christ, Trust God
The Apostle Paul’s main argument as summarized in Romans 9:6–7 still stands: “But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring.” The Word of God has not failed. So it is with preaching and hearing inside the church. When preachers preach the gospel, some audiences will not believe what they hear. Even if preachers clearly communicate the gospel to their hearers, some will refuse to receive it in faith. Preachers, therefore, should not become frustrated or discouraged. It is not that the gospel message failed to convert the hearers. But God, who bestows hyper-hearing as He wishes, has magnified Himself even in their unbelief. Christ is both the subject and object of preaching. Therefore, the church ought to worship Christ in the Scriptures preached—and heard.
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on January 24, 2018.
- Roger E. Van Harn, Preacher, Can You Hear Us Listening? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2005), 2. ↩︎
- Ibid., 3. ↩︎
- R.C. Sproul, The Gospel of God: Romans (Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2011), 227. ↩︎
- John Calvin, Commentary Upon the Acts of the Apostles, trans. Christopher Fetherstone, ed. Henry Beveridge, 500th-anniversary ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2009), 2:400-401. ↩︎
- Bryan Chapell differentiates true preaching from mere entertainment. If the preacher takes for the main point of a sermon the point of an illustration instead of faithfully unpacking the sermon text, he may be nothing but a showman, and what he delivers may not be preaching. Chapell states, “The preacher who constructs sermons to serve illustrations rather than solid biblical exposition inevitably drifts from pulpit to stage, from pastor to showman. Any trained public speaker can select a theme and gather a bundle of stories that will touch an audience emotionally, but this is not preaching.” See Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2005), 190. ↩︎
- Deut. 29:4. ↩︎
- Paul is quoting Isa. 53:1. ↩︎