(from a manuscript of a sermon preached on 5/30/10 at Sovereign Redeemer Assembly)
Please turn in your Bibles to Romans 9, and let's read verses 22 through 33:
Romans 9: (22) But if God, desiring to demonstrate His wrath, and to make His power known, endured in much long-suffering vessels of wrath having been fitted out for destruction, (23) and that He make known the riches of His glory on vessels of mercy which He before prepared for glory, (24) whom He also called, not only us, of Jews, but also out of nations. (25) As also He says in Hosea, I will call those Not My people, My people! And those not beloved, Beloved! (26) And it shall be, in the place where it was said to them, You are not My people, there they will be called, Sons of the Living God. (27) But Isaiah cries on behalf of Israel, If the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, the remnant will be saved. (28) For [He is] bringing [the] matter to an end, and having been cut short in righteousness, because [the] Lord will do a thing cut short on the earth. (29) And as Isaiah has said before, Except [the] Lord of hosts left a seed to us, we would have become as Sodom, and we would have become as Gomorrah. (30) What then shall we say? That [the] nations not following after righteousness have taken on righteousness, but a righteousness of faith; (31) but Israel following after a Law of righteousness did not arrive at a Law of righteousness? (32) Why? Because [it was] not of faith, but as of works of Law. For they stumbled at the Stone-of-stumbling, (33) as it has been written, Behold, I place in Zion a Stone-of-stumbling, and a Rock-of-offense, and everyone believing on Him will not be shamed.
We went over verses 27 through 29 last time, which contained two quotes from the book of Isaiah that showed that although there was a large number of people in national Israel, only a small number - a remnant - would be saved, and if it were not for this remnant, Israel would have been like Sodom and Gomorrah. We also saw that God made a complete fulfillment and accomplishment of salvation through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. In the context of the entire chapter, we saw that God's promise has not failed, because the promise is not to NATIONAL Israel but to SPIRITUAL Israel. Both Jews AND Gentiles are included in SPIRITUAL Israel. As Romans 2:28 and 29 says, "For he is not a Jew that is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that outwardly in flesh; but he is a Jew that is one inwardly, and circumcision is of heart, in spirit, not in letter; of whom the praise is not from men, but from God."
Now we come to verse 30, which starts with a question that should be familiar to us by now, since this is the fifth time that Paul uses this question in the book of Romans. It's the question, "What then shall we say?" It's a connector question that means, "In light of what was previously said, what shall we conclude?" The conclusion then comes in the second part of verse 30 and the entirety of verse 31: "That the nations not following after righteousness have taken on righteousness, but a righteousness of faith; but Israel following after a Law of righteousness did not arrive at a Law of righteousness." I think it would be better if there were a period rather than a question mark at the end of this sentence, as most translations have it. It is the answer to the question, "What then shall we say?" The answer is that the nations, also known as the Gentiles, who did not follow after righteousness, have taken on a righteousness of faith, but the national Jews, who did follow after a Law of righteousness in a certain way, did not arrive at that Law of righteousness. What does this all mean? Well, let's break it down. As I hope you'll see, this follows from what Paul had been saying all through the book of Romans.
First, the non-Jewish nations did not follow after righteousness. In Romans 1:18-32, Paul speaks of the heathens who saw God's eternal power and Godhead in nature, leaving them without excuse, but instead of glorifying God, they made idols that looked like things in nature and worshipped the creature rather than the creator, and God gave them over to all kinds of disgusting immorality. In Romans 2:12-16, Paul speaks of those who were "without Law," meaning those who did not have the Law given to them like the Jews did. They still had a law of conscience that was written on their hearts in which they had some idea of good and bad, even while they were in ignorance. But instead of excusing their ignorance, or even making their ignorance a way to judge them to be saved, like many professing Christians do, God says that they perished without law. Those who died in ignorance of the only ground of salvation, which is the work of Jesus Christ alone, were condemned to hell. Romans 3:9 says that the Greeks, which is another name for the Gentiles or the nations, were under sin.
Second, the non-Jewish nations have taken on a righteousness of faith. These heathens, who did not have the Law given to them like the Jews did, and did not pursue righteousness like the Jews did, nevertheless TOOK ON righteousness! Before I go into more detail about the Gentiles' taking on righteousness, I want to make an important point. When Paul speaks of the nations who didn't follow after righteousness taking on righteousness, is he talking about EVERY Gentile WITHOUT EXCEPTION? Of course not. Just think about what this would mean if it meant every single person from a non-Jewish nation without exception. It says that they have taken on a righteousness of faith, meaning that they have been SAVED! So if Paul was talking about every Gentile without exception, then he would be saying that every Gentile without exception has been saved. We know that this isn't the case from what Paul said previously. Thus, when he says "the nations," he is talking specifically about CERTAIN PEOPLE who had not followed after righteousness but who had then taken on righteousness. Okay, do we have that straight? Okay.
Now back to the Gentiles who did not have the Law given to them like the Jews did, and did not pursue righteousness like the Jews did, taking on righteousness. So here are people who were ignorant of the Law that God gave to the Jews. Here are people who were not looking to conform to the Law that God gave to the Jews, because you can't conform to what you don't know. So they weren't following after or pursuing righteousness. They were just going their own way, doing what was right in their own eyes. But then what happened? Well, we go back to what Paul had said earlier in Romans. Let's first look at Romans 1, verses 16 and 17:
Romans 1: (16) For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is [the] power of God to salvation to everyone believing, both to Jew first, and to Greek; (17) for in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; even as it has been written, But the just shall live by faith.
The gospel of Christ is the power of God to salvation to EVERYONE believing, for in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed from the beginning to the end of faith, and all who believe the gospel live by faith. What does this say about the nations, the Gentiles, the Greeks, who did not have the Law given to them like the Jews did and did not pursue righteousness? Did they take on righteousness by just living by the light that was given to them while remaining ignorant of the gospel? Were these the heathens who somehow felt their sinfulness and desired forgiveness but remained in the dark about the person and work of Jesus Christ? That's what some Calvinists would like you to believe. The Westminster Confession of Faith says that "elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the word" "are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how He pleases." W.G.T. Shedd interpreted this to mean the following, quote: "... the Scriptures and the Confession teach that the Divine Spirit exerts his regenerating grace, to some extent, within adult heathendom, making use of conscience, or 'the law written on the heart', as the means of convicting of sin preparatory to imparting the new divine life ... These are all regenerated in this life. And since regeneration in the instance of the adult immediately produces faith and repentance, a regenerate heathen is both a believer and a penitent. He feels sorrow for sin, and the need of mercy. This felt need of mercy and desire for it is potentially and virtually faith in the Redeemer. For although the Redeemer has not been presented to him historically and personally as the object of faith, yet the Divine Spirit by the new birth has wrought in him the sincere and longing disposition to believe in him. ... Such a man is 'regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit', and belongs to that class of 'elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the word.' ..." endquote. But is that what God says? Romans 2:12-16 says the EXACT OPPOSITE! Let's turn over there:
Romans 2: (12) For as many as sinned without Law will also perish without Law. And as many as sinned within Law will be judged through Law. (13) For not the hearers of the Law are just with God, but the doers of the Law shall be justified. (14) For when nations not having Law do by nature the things of the Law, they not having Law are a law to themselves, (15) who show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience witnessing with [them], and the thoughts between one another accusing or even excusing, (16) in a day when God judges the hidden things of men, according to my gospel, through Jesus Christ.
Does this say, as Shedd said, that God "makes use of conscience, or 'the law written on the heart', as the means of convicting of sin preparatory to imparting the new divine life"? No! It says that "as many as sinned without Law will also perish without Law"! And how will God judge the hidden things of men, including the heathen nations? Verse 16 says, "according to my GOSPEL"! There's none of this nonsense about "potential" and "virtual faith" and a "sincere and longing disposition to believe in" a "Redeemer" who has never been presented to the heathen as an object of faith! Away with such gospel-denying blasphemy! God says that the GOSPEL, which reveals the RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD, is the power of God unto salvation. There IS NO SALVATION apart from THE GOSPEL.
What is that righteousness that is revealed in the gospel? Turn to Romans 3 verses 21 through 30:
Romans 3: (21) But now a righteousness of God has been revealed apart from Law, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, (22) even the righteousness of God through faith of Jesus Christ toward all and upon all those believing; for there is no difference, (23) for all sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (24) being justified freely by His grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus, (25) whom God set forth [as] a propitiation through faith in His blood, as a demonstration of His righteousness through the passing over of the sins that had taken place before, in the forbearance of God, (26) for a demonstration of His righteousness in the present time, for His being just and justifying the [one] that [is] of the faith of Jesus. (27) Then where [is] the boasting? It was excluded. Through what law? Of works? No, but through a Law of faith. (28) Then we conclude a man to be justified by faith without works of Law. (29) Or [is He] the God of Jews only, and not also of the nations? Yes, of the nations also, (30) since [it is] one God who will justify circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith.
The righteousness of God that is revealed in the gospel is that righteousness whereby God is just and justifier through the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. This righteousness, which is through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ - the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ - is TOWARD all those believing, meaning that it is GIVEN to all those believing, and it is UPON all those believing, meaning that it RESTS ON all those believing. This gospel not only includes imputed righteousness but also includes justification and propitiation by the blood of Christ, as we see in verses 24 and 25. Look at verses 27 through 30:
Romans 3: (27) Then where [is] the boasting? It was excluded. Through what law? Of works? No, but through a Law of faith. (28) Then we conclude a man to be justified by faith without works of Law. (29) Or [is He] the God of Jews only, and not also of the nations? Yes, of the nations also, (30) since [it is] one God who will justify circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith.
Paul says that God is the God of the nations and not just of the Jews, since God justifies the uncircumcision - which is the non-Jewish nations - through faith. Notice again that the heathen are not justified in ignorance, as people like Shedd would have you believe, but they are justified through FAITH. And this is not some "potential" or "virtual" faith in something or someone that a person doesn't know anything about - it is faith in THE LORD JESUS CHRIST. As we will see in a later sermon, the Lord willing, Romans 10:3 shows that all who are ignorant of the righteousness of God are necessarily unregenerate. Verse 28 of Romans 3 says that justification is by faith. This ties in to our passage in Romans 9, where it talks about the Gentiles having a "righteousness of faith."
Now if we look at the fourth chapter of Romans, we see that faith was counted to Abraham unto righteousness while Abraham was still in uncircumcision; thus, Abraham is the father of, and righteousness is imputed to, ALL those who have the same faith, including those in uncircumcision, which are the non-Jews. Notice in verses 11 and 13 of chapter 4 we see the phrase "righteousness of faith." That takes us back to Romans 9:30. The specific righteousness that the nations took on was a "righteousness of faith."
What is a "righteousness of faith"? I already mentioned Romans 4 in which Abraham's faith is said to be counted FOR or UNTO righteousness. This is the same concept. Abraham and all who have faith have a "righteousness of faith." Many false religionists think this means that faith is counted to believers INSTEAD OF or IN THE PLACE OF righteousness, meaning that God accepts our faith IN PLACE OF perfect righteousness. Other false religionists believe that faith IS ACTUALLY that righteousness that God accepts. But these are concepts that are diametrically OPPOSED to the TRUE meaning of the "righteousness of faith." The TRUE meaning is that faith is the INSTRUMENT through which a believer receives the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. That RIGHTEOUSNESS that is talked about is not OUR righteousness but is a righteousness that is OUTSIDE of ourselves, also called an ALIEN righteousness. That is the righteousness, the perfect sinless obedience, of Jesus Christ. Then this alien righteousness is IMPUTED to us when God saves us, and we RECEIVE this righteousness through the instrument of faith. Now when we talk of faith as the instrument through which a believer receives the imputed righteousness of Christ, an accusation commonly arises, which is that we believe that faith PRECEDES justification or is a CONDITION of justification or is an INSTRUMENTAL CAUSE of justification. The accusers say that since we say that faith is the INSTRUMENT, then the INSTRUMENT must occur before the RECEPTION occurs. I want to say as plainly as I can that we do NOT believe this and we firmly, without any reservation, REPUDIATE this. Think of this picture: Faith is like a pot, and imputed righteousness is like water. Faith is the instrument that holds or receives the water. However, we do NOT believe that God gives us the empty pot of faith FIRST and then pours imputed righteousness into it. We believe that God immediately gives us a FULL POT when He saves us. There is there is no empty pot EVER, and there is no pouring EVER. While faith is the instrument through which we receive imputed righteousness, imputed righteousness COMES TOGETHER with faith. This imputed righteousness is the righteousness that Romans 9:30 is talking about. And the faith that this verse talks about is that faith that is the RECEIVING INSTRUMENT of that imputed righteousness, that POT that HOLDS the water.
So the righteousness that the Gentiles have taken on is not a righteousness through looking at nature and knowing God's eternal power and Godhead, or a righteousness through living according to their consciences that accuse or excuse them, or a righteousness through a "potential" or "virtual faith" or a "sincere and longing disposition to believe in" a "Redeemer" who has never been presented to them as an object of faith, but they have taken on a righteousness of FAITH - the faith that believes that Jesus Christ alone met all the conditions for salvation.
Let's now look at verse 31 of Romans 9:
Romans 9: (31) but Israel following after a Law of righteousness did not arrive at a Law of righteousness?
So here, in contrast to the non-Jewish nations, the Jews who FOLLOWED AFTER a Law of righteousness, did NOT arrive at that Law of righteousness. Everything was turned upside-down. The Gentiles, who did NOT follow after a Law of righteousness, TOOK ON righteousness, while the Jews, who DID follow after a Law of righteousness, DID NOT arrive at that Law of righteousness. So let's go through this one like we did with the part about the Gentiles.
First, the Jews followed after a Law of righteousness. In Romans 2:12, Paul says that the Jews were "within Law" as opposed to the Gentiles who were "without Law." In verses 17 through 20 of the same chapter, Paul says that the Jews rest in the Law, know the will, approve the things excelling, are instructed out of the Law, and have a form of knowledge and of the truth in the Law. In chapter 3 verse 2, he says that the Jews were entrusted with the Word of God. In chapter 9 verses 4 and 5, he says that the Jews had the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the Lawgiving, the service, the promises, and the fathers. They had a lot, didn't they? They had God's Law, His revealed will by way of command, directly given to them. They were educated in the law from the time they were babies. They knew what God approved of and disapproved of. They were given the oracles of God and were entrusted with them. They had the very Word of God with them, INCLUDING the gospel. They were also the PRESERVERS of the Word of God, so that God's infallible Word would be passed on from generation to generation. They were nationally adopted by God as His covenant people and separated from the heathen nations, and they were ruled and guided and protected by God as no other nation was. They had the glory of God dwelling with them, especially as manifested in the Shechina glory that rested on the Ark of the Covenant and filled the tabernacle and temple. They had the covenants that were given to Abraham and Moses whereby God promised to be their God and promised that Israel would be His people. They had instructions in how to worship God and were the only nation that participated divinely-instituted worship. They had both temporal and spiritual promises, all pointing to the promised Messiah. They had the patriarchs and prophets who led them and delivered the Word of God to them. Meanwhile, the heathen nations were in the dark, stumbling around trying to make sense of everything. The Jews were privileged beyond measure!
What does it mean that the Jews "followed after a Law of righteousness"? It means that they were striving to keep God's revealed Law. They were striving to do what God commanded them to do and to keep from doing what God commanded them not to do. Now what's wrong with that? Nothing in and of itself. In fact, God still commands us to do certain things and to keep from doing certain things, and we are to strive to do what God commands us to do and to keep from doing what God commands us not to do. In this sense, we are to follow after a Law of righteousness. We as God's people are Law-keepers. We are moral. Then if the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good, as Paul said in Romans 7:12, and if we are to walk in obedience to the Law, as John said all throughout his first epistle, then how is it the case that the Jews, who followed after a Law of righteousness, did what was wrong, what was wicked?
Again, I want to make an important point before going further. When Paul speaks of Israel who did not arrive at a Law of righteousness, and in the following verses speaks of Israel believing in works salvation and stumbling at Christ, is he talking about EVERY Jew WITHOUT EXCEPTION? Of course not. Just think about what this would mean if it meant every single person from the nation of Israel without exception. He would be saying that every single person from the nation of Israel was unsaved. We know that this isn't the case from what Paul said just above this, that there was a small remnant in the nation of Israel who was saved. Thus, when he says "Israel," he is talking specifically about CERTAIN PEOPLE who were lost within the nation of Israel.
Okay, back to our question: How is it the case that the Jews, who followed after a Law of righteousness, did what was wrong, what was wicked? We find the answer in the second part of verse 31 through the end of the chapter. The second part of verse 31 says that they "did not arrive at a Law of righteousness." Here we see the PURPOSE that the Jews had for following after a Law of righteousness. What was Israel's AIM or INTENT in following after a Law of righteousness, in keeping God's Law? It was to ARRIVE at a Law of righteousness. What does it mean to ARRIVE at a Law of righteousness? It means to keep the Law perfectly in order to attain or maintain favor with God. What did these Jews do with all their outward advantages, including God's Law? The Jews were given God's Law as a hard and fast rule. The command was that everyone should keep the Law, and the threat was that those who did not keep the entire Law perfectly were under the curse of God. Only those who had a perfect righteousness were in God's favor. This was to show them that could NOT rest in their law-keeping as something that would gain or maintain favor with God. But what did the majority of the Jews do? Did they see God's Law as showing them the perfect righteousness of God and showing them that they could not meet up to this perfect righteousness in their own conduct? Did they run to the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ as their only hope of salvation? No. They perverted God's Law to make IT the end in and of itself. Instead of fleeing to and resting in the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of the Messiah, which the sacrifices represented, they used the Law as a way of gaining a righteousness of their own, to gain and maintain God's favor. They used this outward advantage to construct a religion of works righteousness. This is what the first part of verse 32 is talking about:
Romans 9: (32a) Why? Because [it was] not of faith, but as of works of Law.
Why did Israel following after a Law of righteousness not arrive at a Law of righteousness? Because their following after a Law of righteousness was not of faith but was of works. They believed that favor in the sight of God was based on their Law-keeping. They believed that their everlasting habitations were based on their present stewardship. They believed that the difference between salvation and damnation was the keeping of the Law. Even their offering sacrifices - which pointed to the fact that salvation must be based on the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of the Messiah and not based on themselves in any way to any degree - even in offering these sacrifices, they used their work in offering these sacrifices as a ground of acceptance before God. They totally perverted the gospel of salvation conditioned on the work of Christ alone and made it into a false gospel of salvation conditioned on the sinner. It was not of faith but works. If it was of faith, then they would have believed that everyone who does not continue in all things that are written in the Law, to do them, are under God's curse, as Deuteronomy 27:26 says. They would have believed that not the hearers of the Law are just with God, but the doers of the Law shall be justified, as Romans 2:13 says. And if they believed that, then they would certainly not have believed that law-keeping is a way of gaining or maintaining favor with God, and they wouldn't have been trying to arrive at a Law of righteousness as an end in itself. Instead, they would have been running to a righteousness that is totally outside of themselves. They would have realized that in order for them to have favor with God, there must be a perfect mediator who would charge His own righteousness to them. They would have believed in the gospel of salvation conditioned on the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ alone. Instead, they used God's holy Law as the basis for their works religion. Thus, the Jews who did follow after righteousness to gain favor with God were in the same boat as the Gentiles who did not follow after righteousness. All are under sin. Look at Romans 3:9-20:
Romans 3: (9) What then? Do we excel? Not at all! For we have charged both Jews and Greeks before, all [with] being under sin; (10) according as it has been written, [There is] not a righteous [one], not even one! (11) [There is] not [one] understanding; [there is] not [one] seeking God. (12) All turned away, [they] became worthless together, not [one is] doing goodness, not so much as one! (13) Their throat [is] a tomb being opened; they used deceit with their tongues; [the] poison of asps [is] under their lips; (14) whose mouth [is] full of cursing and bitterness. (15) Their feet [are] swift to shed blood; (16) ruin and misery [are] in their way; (17) and they did not know a way of peace; (18) there is no fear of God before their eyes. (19) But we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those within the Law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world be under judgment to God. (20) Because by works of Law not one of all flesh will be justified before Him, for through Law [is] full knowledge of sin.
The unregenerate Jews didn't get the purpose of the Law. They thought that by works of Law they would be justified. But even their own Scriptures said that there is not a righteous one, not even one. Thus, just like the Gentiles were in need of a righteousness that they could not produce, so the Jews were in need of a righteousness that they could not produce. And verse 21 applies to the Jews as well as the Gentiles: A righteousness of God has been revealed APART from Law. The Jews got it all wrong. They thought that their righteousness was IN the Law. Yet the truth is that the only righteousness that God accepts is APART from their own law-keeping. If they were to be saved, they would have to be saved in the same way everyone else, including the Gentiles, would be saved - by the work of Jesus Christ alone, THROUGH FAITH in the work of Jesus Christ alone. No one is saved by the work of Jesus Christ alone who does not BELIEVE he is saved by the work of Jesus Christ alone. It is BY FAITH that it not be BY WORKS.
Salvation has always been and will always be the same, whether God saves an unregenerate person who has never followed after righteousness or God saves an unregenerate person who has always been zealously following after a Law of righteousness. God causes BOTH to TAKE ON a righteousness that is OUTSIDE of themselves, which is the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ that is imputed to them. And this alien righteousness is a righteousness of faith - it is received by God-given belief in salvation conditioned on the work of Jesus Christ alone. That immoral, irreligious, unconcerned person needs a righteousness he cannot produce. That moral, religious, zealous person needs a righteousness he cannot produce. The only ground of justification, sanctification, and glorification, is the work of Jesus Christ alone. The only rest, the only peace, the only reconciliation with and acceptance with and fellowship with God, is through the work of Jesus Christ alone. Amen.