Question: "What does it mean that faith comes by hearing (Romans 10:17)?"
Answer: Romans has the theme of faith (Romans 1:16–17). Paul addresses the process by which faith is produced in the heart in Romans 10:17: “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.”
The first eight chapters of Romans contends with the ideas of positional salvation through faith (Romans 1:18—5:21), the process of growing in holiness through faith (Romans 6:1—8:17), and the future glorification Christians will receive because of faith (Romans 8:18–39). Chapters 9—11 of Romans works from the implied question, “Has God then failed to fulfill His promises to Israel?”
It is within this context that Paul gives the reason for the Israelites’ lack of salvation; namely, they lack faith (Romans 9:32; 10:4). The Israelites are saved through faith in Christ, just like the Gentiles. Eternal salvation does not distinguish between Gentile or Jew but is received through belief in the person and work of Jesus Christ (Romans 10:12–13; 1 Corinthians 15:1–8; Galatians 3:23–29).
In the lead-up to the statement that faith comes by hearing, Romans 10:14–16 explains the requirements for a series of actions to take place. In order for one to “call on the name of the Lord,” he or she must believe. In order to believe, one must hear (or receive the report). In order for one to hear, another has to give the report. And that other won’t give the report unless he or she is sent.
Paul continues in Romans 10:17 to summarize the argument thus far: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (NASB).
“Faith” is translated from the Greek word pistis, which means “belief, trust, or confidence in someone or something.” It is key to the book of Romans and is used 40 times in the book—three of those occurrences appearing in chapter 10. The verb form of the word is also used 21 times within the book and most often translated as “believe.”
If faith comes by hearing, then what does Paul mean by “hearing”? In this context, it is not simply the physical receiving of sounds by the ear as most English speakers would understand the term. “Hearing” seems to designate something more—the receiving or acceptance of a report. Note the use of the word, translated “message” in Romans 10:16, as Paul quotes Isaiah 53:1: “Lord, who has believed our message?” In Isaiah’s day, the Lord had provided Israel with a message, but the prophet laments that few actually received it. The “hearing” was not attached to simple sounds but to a message or report given. In Romans 10, Paul makes the point that the good news has been given and the people of Israel have heard (Romans 10:18).
The nature of the gospel is a report: a report of God saving people from the wrath they deserve. In order to believe the report, one must receive the report! Faith comes by hearing. It is not a guarantee that the report will result in faith, as Paul makes clear in Romans 10:16. For just as the Israelites refused to believe the message of Isaiah, every human today can refuse to believe the message of the gospel.
The nature of “hearing” also does not require the physical act of hearing with the ear. The report simply needs to be received. For instance, someone could read the gospel through GotQuestions.org and receive it by faith, without an audible word being spoken. As long as the message can be received fully, the medium does not affect the outcome. The content of the message must be “the word about Christ.” As Paul states in 1 Corinthians 15:3–5, the message is “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (NASB). Faith that leads to eternal salvation comes after “hearing”; that is, after receiving this message concerning Christ.