February 11, 2018
HUMAN RESPONSIBILITY AND THE UNIVERSAL OFFER OF THE GOSPEL
(29 of 44 in a series through Romans)
Do you remember earlier in the book of Romans when Paul asked, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” Obviously Paul answered, “By no means” (6:1). But the question itself exposes a tendency we have, doesn’t it? Sometimes we can take a biblical truth and try to apply it in very unbiblical ways. I’m not sure why that is. I guess the answer to that is the same as the answer to why we do any sin. It’s irrational, but we can be drawn to it nonetheless. And perhaps contributing to this tendency is that we don’t always ask the question, “How does the Bible want me to apply this truth?” We’re content simply to understand what is true—not additionally understanding what we are to do with that truth. Consequently, Paul knows that we could very well take the biblical truth that where sin has increased, grace has abounded all the more and begin to argue that we should sin that grace may abound. Therefore, he cuts anyone off in their path who would venture that direction.
I feel like Paul is doing something similar in Romans 9:30-10:13. After spending paragraph after paragraph arguing that God sovereignly chooses and calls which individuals will belong to him as his children, Paul knows that we could have a tendency to take that biblical doctrine of God’s sovereignly electing individuals and apply it in an unbiblical way. Does this mean that we’re not responsible creatures? Does this mean that we shouldn’t pray for people to be saved? And just at the moment your mind could drift toward this direction of applying this biblical truth in unbiblical ways, Paul stops us in our tracks. He goes back to the very issue he has just addressed—why are a great number of Gentiles and a smaller number of Jews being saved—and he answers it in a completely different but equally true way. Whereas he has just spent a majority of the chapter saying that the reason that only a remnant of Israelites are being saved is because God only promised a remnant would be saved and has only called that remnant to himself, he now answers that same question by focusing completely on the individuals themselves and their unbelief. And in the same text, he mentions (in 10:1) that he prays for his countrymen to be saved. So, if there were even a second’s thought that God’s sovereignty could be applied in any sense to lessen our responsibility to repent and believe the gospel or to pray for others to come to faith, Paul puts a stop to it immediately. To apply God’s sovereignty to lessen our responsibility or need to pray for others is to utilize biblical doctrine in utterly unbiblical ways!
Now, with that truth in place in our minds, let’s look specifically at the question Paul asks in this text. He begins, “What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why?” (9:30-32a).
You see, that is the very issue Paul had brought up in the text we looked at last week. Historically, the Jews were intent on pursuing a law that promised righteousness. The Gentiles, on the other hand, were ignorant of God and doing nothing to pursue a right standing before him. Yet, now that Jesus has come—the fulfillment of the law and answer to a right standing with God—numerous Gentiles have come to faith and are children of God while a much smaller number of Jews are children of God. So, why? Why did that happen? That’s the question Paul is asking, and his answer (interestingly) helps us to see, once more, why the gospel is such good news. As he answers the question, he first answers why many Israelites have not attained righteousness, and then he answers why many Gentiles have been able to attain a right standing before God. So, why is it that so many Israelites failed to attain a right standing with God? Paul answers:
Because they thought righteousness was based on their own works.
Paul provides this answer quickly and simply, writing in verse 32, “Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works.” That is to say, when Israel saw the law of God, they saw that it pointed to eternal life, and it did. In fact, Paul notes that Moses held out life as the benefit of obeying the law, writing in 10:5, “For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them.” Therefore, the Israelites (in large measure) concluded that they would pursue a righteous standing before God by trying to obey the commands of the law—completely and perfectly—and then on the basis of their own good works of perfect obedience to the law (i.e. “seeking to establish their own” righteousness (10:3)), gain a right standing with God.
The problem is that this is impossible for fallen human beings to perfectly and completely obey God’s law. And this should have been obvious to any of them. Day-in and day-out there would have been reminders that they’re falling short, becoming law-breakers simply because they break the law at any one point. Did they fail to love God with their heart, soul, mind, and strength? Did they covet? Did they fail to honor their parents? Did they fail to love their neighbor as themselves? Answering yes to any of these (or any of hundreds of other examples)—even one time—would make them fail in doing the law, making them law-breakers.
In other words, they would not succeed in obeying the law and meriting life. Well, we might ask, were they just not zealous enough? No, that’s not the problem. Paul, in fact, notes in 10:2, “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.” Their problem wasn’t that they weren’t trying hard enough. They were. They were like a man pushing on a door as hard as he can in order to open that door, when it’s a door that one must pull open. The problem isn’t effort. It’s effort without knowledge.
What then is the knowledge they lacked? What should they have seen? Well, the point of the law was never to hold out eternal life on the basis of perfect obedience so that we might pursue righteousness based on our own works. The law held out life on the basis of perfect obedience so that we might see ourselves as hopeless, helpless, sinful, condemned, and look outside of ourselves to another. The purpose of the law was to show us we could never do enough. It was to point us to our need for a savior, namely, Jesus. This is what most Israelites throughout history have failed to see. He is the one they missed.
After noting that they pursued righteousness as if it were based on works, Paul then adds, “They stumbled over the stumbling stone, 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’” (9:32-33). You see, the whole law was always pointing to Christ as the answer, and they missed it.
Think about that for a second. I think we all think it’s enjoyable to read the OT law and see foreshadowings, promises, and pointers to Jesus. We see it as early as Genesis 3 with the promise that the seed of the woman would come and crush the head of the serpent, with the promise of the coming one from Judah who would rule as a lion, with the temple pointing us to the one who would really be God dwelling among us, and on and on. Jesus is being referenced and pointed to all over the place in the OT law. But—and this is key—it’s not just so that we would be impressed and amazed by God cleverly picturing and prophesying the coming of Jesus in all of these somewhat hidden or mysterious ways. Jesus is prophesied—directly and indirectly—all through the law because the Lord was giving us the answer to righteousness and life. Jesus is pictured all over the place in the OT because God is saying, “This is the answer to righteousness. He is the answer to life.” This is why Jesus can say to the unbelieving Jews in his own day, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me” (John 5:46).
And there’s the problem. As the Jews read, meditated on, and memorized the OT law, they refused to see Jesus as the answer. He is everywhere in the pages of the law, as the answer, end, and goal of the law. Thus Paul writes in 10:4, “For Christ is the end [or goal] of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” But instead of seeing him, looking to them as their hope, and believing in him so that they might stand in final judgment and know life, they stumbled at that very point. God had designed everything to provide righteousness for us through faith in Jesus, but, Paul notes, “Being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness,” which is through faith in Christ (10:3-4).
This is the human condition apart from the grace of God waking us up from our sinful slumber. We refuse to look away from ourselves, refuse to submit to God’s answer for righteousness, and refuse to trust in Christ as our only hope. We’d rather continue to look to ourselves as our hope, even though every day proves that looking to ourselves leaves us without hope and leaves us condemned.
And here’s the crazy thing, what we’re rejecting when we refuse to look to Christ in faith is God’s gift of righteousness. We’re laboring away, failing at every point, refusing to submit to God, when he simply is wanting to give us a gift of righteousness. This is the point Paul is making in 10:6-8 as he writes, “But the righteousness based on faith says, ‘Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down) or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim).” Now, what? Well, let’s take it a bit at a time.
Paul is quoting from Deuteronomy 30:12-14, where God tells the people that they do not have to go on a search to try to find his commandments because he’s given the commandments to them. In other words, this is ruling out any excuse-making. They don’t have to ascend into heaven and get them or descend into the sea to find them. God has simply given them to the people, putting them in their mouths and hearts.
But look what Paul does here. Because he understands that Jesus is the goal and end of the law, he simply inserts “Christ” in the place of the commandments. Thus, Paul is noting that even in Deuteronomy, God was sending the message to his people that what he called them to do wasn’t some impossible task. They didn’t need to ascend into heaven or descend into the earth to gain righteousness. He was making it available to them as a gift, through faith in his Son. He was saying, “Here it is, I’ve done it for you.” They don’t need to go get Jesus and bring him down to earth or go into the grave and raise him from the dead. Those are impossible tasks for us to do. But, here’s the great news: God has done it for us. He’s done the very thing we could never do. Jesus came, live, died, and rose so that we might be given a gift of righteousness through faith.
This is why we’ve noted that works versus faith is like “doing” versus “done.” Righteousness based on works always leave more to do because you can never do enough, but righteousness based on faith says, “Look, it’s already been done for you. Accept this gift of righteousness through faith.” That’s what Israel, by and large, refused to do. They refused to submit to God’s means of providing them righteousness. They stumbled over the righteous one that God had provided for them. They refused to believe and instead insisted on seeking to establish their own righteousness (10:3) based on works (9:32). And, therefore, they never attained a right standing with God.
That’s Paul’s answer to why so many Israelites didn’t succeed in attaining righteousness before God. They simply refused to bow the knee in faith to Jesus—God’s provision of righteousness that he spoke of all through the OT.
Now, it’s worth us pausing for a second and evaluating our own lives because this provides for us a rich opportunity for reflection and self-evaluation. Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to see problems in others than to see those same problems in ourselves? Well, my guess is that it’s pretty easy for us in this moment to say, “Foolish unbelieving Israelites. Why wouldn’t they just accept God’s free gift of righteousness in Christ instead of insisting to think that they can be righteous based on their own good works?” But let this be a Nathan speaking to David kind of moment for us. Perhaps we need to say to ourselves this morning, “You are the man.”
Because do you realize that every time you say to yourself, “I am not sure that I’ve been good or holy enough for God to be pleased with me” or “I don’t know if I’m okay with God because I’m not sure I’m quite measuring up” that you’re doing the very same thing that Paul is noting the unbelieving Israelites did? You’re refusing to recognize the sufficiency of God’s righteous gift for you in Christ, refusing to submit to God’s gift of righteousness, and seeking to establish a righteousness of your own based on works that will never be enough. Therefore, let’s stop trying to ascend into the heavens or dive into the sea (i.e. do that which is impossible) to get righteousness and instead recognize that God has freely provided a gift of righteousness for us through faith in Christ, rest in that, enjoy that, and give thanks to God for that.
And though that’s probably worth meditating on for a while, let’s move on to the second section of our text. After all, Paul has answered why a number of Israelites haven’t been saved. They refused to believe in Christ and have insisted on pursuing a righteousness based on their own good works. But there was another part of the question Paul had raised. Why have Gentiles, who throughout history have never been zealously pursuing righteous standing before God, actually been able to come to a place of righteous standing before God? And Paul’s answer is that the Gentiles are being saved because,
Because everyone who believes in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ will be saved
In other words, the reason Gentiles are being saved is because they’re believing the gospel, and the Lord has made salvation available to all who will believe. Paul writes, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (10:9-10).
Do you see what Paul is doing in stating this? He’s showing just how easy, how simple salvation is. We’re not saved by doing this impossible task or following all these difficult steps. It’s simply about believing that Jesus lived, died, and was raised for us and confessing him as our Lord. It’s that simple.
And not only is it that simple but it’s universally available. Paul continues, “For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing riches on all who call on him. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’” (10:11-13).
It doesn’t matter if you’re a Jew or a Gentile, a man or a woman, at this position or stature or at that position or stature. Everyone who believes, calling on the Lord for salvation will be saved. This is Paul’s answer to why so many Gentiles have been saved. They’ve believed. They’ve confessed Jesus as Lord. They’ve called on the name of the Lord. And all who do that are saved.
This means that you and I can say to any person on the planet, “If you’ll place your faith in Jesus Christ, who lived, died, and was raised on the third day for our justification, you can be saved.” And that is absolutely true. No need to question it or hesitate at all in saying that to someone. Now, will everyone believe? No. But it is true that if any person does believe, that person will be saved? Absolutely.
And Paul grounds that truth that all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved by quoting Joel 2:32. Now, let me state an obvious truth about that text: that’s from the OT. In other words, extending the genuine offer of salvation to Gentiles is not something that Paul came up with after his conversion, completely changing the message of the Bible. The offer of salvation to the Gentiles was announced in the book of Joel, years before Paul’s conversion or the coming of Jesus.
So, someone could theoretically not like what Paul is preaching in Romans, but you cannot accuse him of making it up. His gospel is in perfect continuity with the OT Scriptures. Why have only a remnant of Jews been saved while a great number of Gentiles have been saved? One way to answer that is to point to God’s sovereign work and promises. Another way to answer that is to point to human responsibility. Salvation is offered to all men through the indiscriminate preaching of the gospel. Many Jews have refused to believe, and, by God’s grace, a number of Gentiles (including us) have believed and been saved.
What then do we do with this news? Well, we go and preach the gospel, praying for God to convert masses and masses of people—both Jews and Gentiles. Paul is going to specifically dive into this application in the text we will look at next week. But, brothers and sisters, let us go ahead and acknowledge this morning, that in the gospel, you and I have good news that can take our neighbors from a place of being under God’s condemnation and on their way to hell to being forgiven, loved, secure children of God. And the reason why is because righteousness is the free gift of God, given through faith in Christ to everyone—literally every single person—who will believe. That is good news. Let us then run wild with it, praying that multitudes will hear and believe and find the life we know and love. And let us come to the table now, giving thanks that God has graciously opened our eyes to believe this gospel and given us the privilege of proclaiming it to others. Amen.