Mission Impossible Romans 9:30–10:21
Why the pursuit of righteousness through works is futile
On my first day of college many years ago, I met a Gentile who was “born again.” He presented Jesus Christ as Savior and the only way to heaven and told me I needed to accept Him.
Although no longer observant by then, I had been raised Orthodox and took his presentation as a personal attack on my people.
“I am Jewish!” I yelled at him. “We don’t believe in Jesus, nor do we need Him. Don’t even mention that name to me again!”
Yet I knew something was wrong. I was raised to pursue righteousness by keeping the commandments (Hebrew, mitzvot)—by keeping the Mosaic Law—and was zealous and proud of my Judaism. But sometime after my Bar Mitzvah at age 13, I realized I couldn’t keep the commandments 100 percent of the time. I knew I fell short of God’s standard and was unholy––not fit for heaven.
How was it, I wondered, that a Gentile could live a more righteous life than a Jew? The answer is found in the book of Romans: Righteousness comes only by faith.
With the exception of biblical Christianity, every religion in the world, including Judaism, teaches that one becomes righteous by doing good works. In Romans 9:30––10:21, the apostle Paul, himself a Jew, explained that righteousness is unattainable through works and achieved solely by faith and that Israel, in its present condition, is blind to that concept. It is so focused on getting the Law right that it can’t see the promised Messiah, who offered God’s righteousness by becoming the final sacrifice for sin through His death and providing victory over sin through His resurrection.
In Romans 9:30–33, Paul made the case that Israel, God’s Chosen People, pursued righteousness through the Law and fell short (v. 31), while Gentiles who were not pursuing righteousness found it through faith (v. 30).
Unfortunately, it is entirely possible to pursue the Law without faith. That was God’s problem with the Israelites: Bring no more futile sacrifices; incense is an abomination to Me. The New Moons, the Sabbaths, and the calling of assemblies—I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting. These people draw near with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from Me (Isa. 1:13; 29:13).
Faith comes from the heart, which is why God commanded Israel, “You shall love the L your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Dt. 6:5). “Without faith it is impossible to please Him” (Heb. 11:6).
Had Israel sought righteousness by faith, it would not have stumbled over the Messiah: “For they stumbled at that stumbling stone” (Rom. 9:32).
Quoting the great Jewish prophet Isaiah, Paul explained God’s sovereignty in placing a “stumbling stone and rock of offense” (v. 33; cf. Isa. 8:14; 28:16) before Israel and still saying, “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame” (Rom. 9:33).
Paul’s message was motivated by a love and great burden for his people. In verse 3 he even said he would exchange his own salvation for theirs, if he could. His constant prayer was that Israel “may be saved” (10:1). Paul knew his people were zealous for God but lacked knowledge (v. 2) and were thus blind and lost. Instead of submitting to God’s righteousness by faith in Jesus, the One who “is the end of the law” (v. 4), they sought their own righteousness by following the Law.
Paul delineated the central issue: Which righteousness is acceptable to God? Works of righteousness through the Law or faith righteousness through Christ? Unmistakably, Israel had received great privileges as a result of being chosen, such as the sacrificial system, the priesthood, Temple services, the prophets, and the covenants (9:4–5). But those things pointed to the One who would come to offer Himself to them. He would redeem them and make them righteous. Instead, they rejected Him and worshiped the Law.
Paul strengthened his argument by calling on the Law written in the Torah (the Pentateuch): “You shall therefore keep My statutes and My judgments, which if a man does, he shall live by them” (Lev. 18:5); and “the word is very near you, ... to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways....But if your heart turns away...you shall surely perish” (Dt. 30:14, 16–18).
While Moses taught that the Law was to be obeyed, he also taught it was to be in their hearts (6:4–9). Paul argued the Israelites did not have the Word in their hearts.
He then explained that anyone who confesses with his mouth that Jesus is Lord and believes in his heart that God raised Him from the dead will be saved (Rom. 10:9). All people everywhere,Jewish and Gentile, obtain salvation the same way: by faith. “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. For ‘whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’” (vv. 12–13).
Yet people must hear the message, or “how then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (v. 14). Unless righteousness by faith alone through the Person and work of Jesus is preached, how do people come to believe? They don’t. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (v. 17). Paul anticipated the question, “Have they not heard?” Should the Jewish people have received their Messiah when He came? If so, how did they hear? Paul used Psalm 19 as the answer: “Their sound has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world” (Rom. 10:18; cf. Ps. 19:4).
He was referring to creation, which is visible to people everywhere. The beginning of the psalm explains: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork” (v. 1). In addition, the Jewish people had the Law: “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple” (v. 7). Israel has seen and heard through creation and the Bible.
Through Israel’s rejection, the message of salvation went to the Gentiles. Paul then quoted Moses and Isaiah, predicting the Gentiles’ role in God’s program.
Here is the text directly from the Hebrew Scriptures:
I will provoke them to jealousy by those who are not a nation. I was sought by those who did not ask for Me; I was found by those who did not seek Me. I said, “Here I am, here I am,” to a nation that was not called by My name. I have stretched out My hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, according to their own thoughts; a people who provoke Me to anger continually to My face (Dt. 32:21; Isa. 65:1–3).
Thus the Gentiles found the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, even though they did not ask for nor seek Him (Rom. 10:19–20).
How grateful I am to God that He showed me the truth. Now I have been made righteous, not through works, but through faith in Jesus, “who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we…might live for righteousness” (1 Pet. 2:24). In receiving Jesus as my Savior, I returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of my soul (v. 25); and someday, my people will too (Rom. 11:26–27).