Summary: Paul shows us why the Israelites rejected the salvation provided by God, and also why the Gentiles received the salvation provided by God.
If anyone could ever have achieved salvation by his own effort, it was Martin Luther. In 1505, when he was twenty-one years old, Luther abandoned a promising career in law and entered the monastery of the Augustinian hermits at Erfurt. As he later said, this was not to study academic theology but to save his soul.
In those days the monastic orders prescribed ways by which the seeking soul could find God, and Luther, with the determination and strength that characterized his entire life, gave himself rigorously to these tasks. He fasted and prayed. He devoted himself to menial work. Above all, he practiced penance, confessing his sins, even the most trivial, for hours on end until his superiors wearied of his exercise and ordered him to stop until he had committed some sin worth confessing. Luther’s piety gained him a reputation for being the most exemplary of monks.
Later he wrote to the Duke of Saxony, “I was indeed a pious monk and followed the rules of my order more strictly than I can express. If ever a monk could obtain heaven by his monkery, I should certainly have been entitled to it. Of this all the friars who have known me can testify. If I had continued much longer, I should have killed myself because of my watchings, prayers, reading and other labors.”
Yet Luther found no peace through these exercises.
The religious wisdom of the day instructed him to satisfy God’s demand for righteousness by doing good works. “But what works?” thought Luther. “What works can come from a heart like mine? How can I stand before the holiness of my Judge with works polluted in their very source?”
It was not until Johann Staupitz, the Vicar-General of the Congregation and Luther’s wise spiritual father, set him to studying the Bible that Luther realized what the difficulty was. He was trying to earn salvation by works of human righteousness, when the righteousness he needed was not human righteousness at all. It was divine righteousness, and this could become his only if God gave it to him, which he did in the gospel.
Luther had been seeking righteousness by means of human works, when what he needed was to accept God’s righteousness by simple faith and therefore stop trying to work for it.
And this is what we see in today’s text, Romans 9:30-33:
30What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; 31but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. 32Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33as 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.” (Romans 8:30-33)
Why would anyone reject salvation? Have you ever thought about that? Why would anyone reject salvation?
That’s the question that Paul is talking about in these verses, except it’s even more pointed than that. Paul is asking, in effect, “Why would a religious person reject salvation? Why would God’s covenant people, schooled in God’s law, and taught by God’s prophets, reject salvation? Why would anyone, whose focus in life was to be in fellowship with God, reject salvation?”
That’s a hard question. It’s a hard question, not only because it is perplexing to the mind (why would anyone reject salvation?), but also because it is a reality.
You see, for the people of God who had been given the Scriptures of the Old Testament and the predictions of the Messiah had, by and large, closed their ears to the gospel that the apostles were preaching. They had rejected Jesus as the Messiah. They had rejected the gospel that Jesus Christ was the only way of salvation.
And Paul was broken-hearted over it, as we saw in Romans 9:1-5. So he raises this issue for us again at the end of the chapter and he asks us, “Why would anyone reject salvation?”
I. Unbelieving Israel Has Not Found Right Standing with God, but the Believing Gentiles Have (9:30-31)
First, Paul teaches that unbelieving Israel has not found right standing with God, but the believing Gentiles have found right standing with God. He says in verses 30-31: “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.”
What has in fact come about, Paul says, is not what we would have expected. We would have expected all Israel to embrace Jesus as the Messiah. We would have expected the Gentiles to be resistant to him. But what we found, in fact, was that the Gentiles are flocking to him, but the complacent people of God are turning their ears against him. They are turning their hearts against him.