[Romans 9:30 - 10:4] What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. 32 Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33 as it is written, “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. 2 For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. 3 For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. 4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
Faith, not Law, for Righteousness
Several verses up in chapter nine of Romans, before our reading, the Apostle Paul, says, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart… for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh .” Paul wishes that he himself could be accursed if it would mean salvation for his unbelieving countrymen – Israelites who failed to see Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah.
Our Lord Jesus also, in our Gospel reading today [Luke 19:41-48], weeps for the unbelieving Israelites. Our Lord Jesus drew near to Jerusalem, saw the city, and wept over it: “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!” But, “you did not know the time of your visitation.” Israel’s God finally visited in the flesh, but they did not recognize Him.
But, the gentiles would. In much greater numbers. Why is it that the Israelites, the natural branches, would not receive Christ, but the gentiles would receive Him? Paul asks, “What shall we say then?” i.e. “Why is it this way?”
And then Paul gives the answer: “the Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith.” “but Israel, who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness, did not succeed in reaching that law (they did not attain righteousness). Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works.”
Faith and works are two different ways. The Israelites had a zeal for God, but they were ignorant of how to be righteous to God. They sought to establish a righteousness of their own.
By seeking to establish their own righteousness by their works, they did not “submit to” – they did not put themselves under – the righteousness of God by which a person without a righteousness of their own is reckoned righteous by faith in the Savior, Jesus.
Their Savior came to them, but because they pursued a righteousness of their own by their works, their Savior didn’t make any sense to them. They weren’t looking for a sin-forgiver as Savior. Therefore, they did not recognize God’s visitation.
The Israelites believed they made a righteousness of their own by the works of a very difficult law. Today, many make a righteousness of their own by a very easy law – that of “being a good person”. The rest say, “things have gotten too easy these days!” Others despair because of their failures. Each of these is a case of clinging to a righteousness of your own by works of the Law, whether easy or difficult.
When I rely on my works, I am relying on the Law to do something that it has no power to do. The Law has no power to make righteous. Instead, “By the Law comes knowledge of sin” [Romans 3:20]. But, “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do” [Romans 8:3].
My best attempt at works shows me the depth of my sin – that I cannot truly do good. But God has visited me in Christ. What did the Savior come to do? What is God’s visitation in Jesus?
God’s visitation is that, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them [2 Corinthians 5:19]. On the cross, God visited in the flesh, and the Righteous One died for the unrighteous [1 Peter 3:18], thus atoning for all your sin.
The Lord’s visitation to Israel and for you is that the Lord came and, by His death for sin, He absolved the whole world. Outside the walls of Jerusalem, the visiting Lord cancelled your guilt by His blood. [Colossians 2:14].
Righteousness is God’s doing, counted to the sinner by faith in Christ: For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” [Romans 4:3-5]
To be righteous to God is to believe in what He has done for you: Just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” [Romans 4:6-8]
What can we make of all of this? One, as a bit of a side note, we now know who the true “Israel” is in the New Testament Bible. The Apostle Paul laments over his fellow countrymen, but then he also teaches us that the true Israel is the Israel of faith – whether Jew or Gentile. He says, “Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel”, but “it is those of faith (in Christ) who are the sons of Abraham” [Romans 9:8; Galatians 3:7]. The true Israel is the Church – all believers in Christ.
Secondly, when we keep finding in ourselves that we are indeed persistently unrighteous – that we are impatient, untrusting, and dishonest; that we assume the worst; that we lack in love; that we are enslaved to appetites and bound to impurities; that, though we try, we end up just as bad and often worse – when we see this, and we just can’t get our unrighteousness to stop, we know to stop looking at ourselves and to look at Christ alone - who only is righteous – and who has made you righteous to your heavenly Father by atoning for all that sin.
Righteousness is God’s work alone. It is His earnest desire to save you. No more heaping up the law upon yourself to pursue a righteousness that would be by works. Instead, look to Jesus whose grace and forgiveness alone are able to renew and remake us. In Christ, God has visited and has reconciled true sinners to Himself. Amen.