In the previous article, Paul made a statement in Romans 9:30-31 that seemed pretty unfair: Jewish people who tried really hard to obtain righteousness didn’t achieve it, but yet those without the advantage of the Law of Moses (the Gentiles, or non-Jewish people) could be pronounced righteous through something as “simple” as faith.
For those who think that “doing lots of good things” is the path to God, this creates some serious questions about fairness. In the next couple of verses, though, we start to get an answer to those questions. The challenge is that this question of “fairness” is based on the wrong premise, as people get tripped up over a fundamental misunderstanding.
Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone. As it is written:
“See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall,
and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame.”
Romans 9:32-33 NIV
This error in thinking (which probably weaves its way among the thoughts of most of us) is defined in two ways:
First, it is patently incorrect that we can be good enough to be righteous before God. Certain Jewish people (particularly in the first century) may have tried, but – like the rest of us – they failed to find righteousness through keeping the law. Every one of them – and every one of us – chose to sin. When we fail to meet the requirements of the law perfect, we became unrighteous. Righteousness through the law is only “theoretical”; none of us actually accomplishes righteousness that way.
Think of it this way: you could theoretically buy a single lottery ticket once a week for a year and win the jackpot every time. However, that’s not going to happen. It’s theoretically possible, but it won’t happen. (Full disclosure: I’m an engineer, so I tend to focus on the practical world, and not the extents of things that are theoretically possible but don’t actually happen in real life.) A key difference between the lottery and righteousness through the law, though, is that the reason the latter won’t happen isn’t due to random chance and impossible odds: breaking the law is our choice, one that human beings have – regrettably – made time after time after time.
Still, the people described above – and others – get hung up on this idea: that doing good gets you favor with God. That fixation trips them up.
Those who think that “good enough” is good enough for God fail to understand God’s holiness and perfection, and His standard of righteousness. In fact, it’s a pretty low view of God to believe that His holy perfection could co-exist with anything less. Those who believe in a god like that might be thinking of a god who is a lot more like fallen human beings (like the Roman pantheon), or just wishfully want a god who doesn’t treat sin as that big of a deal.
The second illustration here shows how people stumble over a grace-based alternative to law-based righteousness. (By way of background, this “stone that causes people to stumble” seems to be referring to Jesus, especially when we compare these references to Isaiah with similar references in 1 Peter 2:4-10.)
There are people who believe that it is simply impossible to be righteous through faith alone, and that Jesus took care of the eternal consequences of sin: for all people who believe on Him, and for all time. Despite the example of Abraham, and the teachings of Jesus Christ, many people choose to say “no way” to the idea that faith is enough to be restored to righteousness before God.
Why do people refuse to accept the simple gift of salvation? I’m not sure, but I suspect that some of it is pride, believing that faith is “too easy” and that they need to do something to “help” God make a decision in their favor. In their pride, they could be unwilling to accept such a great gift. Some of it might be a sense of fairness (like these verses suggest), believing that people who do better things on earth deserve to be more righteous than those who have sinned more. And, maybe some of them want to feel superior to others (at least, based on visible actions).
Now, to be clear, a life of faith isn’t always easy. It includes giving up our own selves in exchange for something better, so we might say that it takes everything that we have and everything that we are. It isn’t a free pass to selfishly go back to doing whatever we want.
The difference between salvation by faith (versus salvation through the law) isn’t that faith doesn’t take effort. Instead, the difference is that we can be pronounced righteous through faith in God, but we can’t through the law. That might be a lot to wrap our minds around, but it’s our only hope to be restored to God. Good works will never save us, and the sooner we let go of them as a means of proving our righteousness to God, the sooner we can enjoy justification through faith, no matter our previous deeds – both good and bad.
From Sunday School lesson prepared for January 23, 2022
- The Lookout, January 23, 2022, © 2022 Christian Standard Media.
- Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
- The College Press Commentary, Romans, Volume 2, by Jack Cottrell. College Press Publishing Company, © 1998.