Romans 9:30-33, “ 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[a] 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.”
Facing the question as to whether the failure of a majority of first-century Jews to trust in Jesus the Messiah means that God’s plan to save Israel had failed, Paul answers with a thorough exposition of Scripture that proves the Lord has never redeemed people solely on account of their ethnicity. In fact, God makes distinctions within bloodlines, choosing some for salvation according to His purposes and passing by others. Indeed, the Lord has promised to save Israel—not Israel according to the flesh, but Israel according to the promise, realized through Spirit-given faith (Rom. 9:1-18). This Israel according to the promise is a remnant, and, as we will see, ultimately includes both Jews and Gentiles who rest in Christ alone for salvation (vv. 19-29). We infer this from the Apostle’s application of a text from Hosea to God’s salvation of Gentiles, a text about the salvation of a remnant of Jews. In any case, Paul will be much clearer about this in Romans 11.
In contrast to Jews’ failure to receive Jesus as the Savior is the Gentiles’ eager embrace of the Galilean carpenter as Lord, and in today’s passage the Apostle Paul looks at the reason for this more from a human perspective than from the divine perspective he has stressed thus far in Romans 9. God’s eternal decree of election and reprobation explains why some people believe in Jesus and why others do not; however, this decree does not negate our response. Paul explains that so many Jews in his day failed to follow Christ because they pursued righteousness the wrong way. Instead of seeking it by faith, they sought it by works (vv. 30-32a). They had a twofold problem. First, they had too high an estimate of their ability to obey the Lord, which led them to believe they could meet the perfect standard required to be declared righteous in God’s sight. To be sure, these Jews believed they needed divine assistance to achieve righteousness, but they thought their imperfect but divinely aided efforts would suffice. Jesus shows us this in His parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). The Pharisee counted on his own efforts to justify himself, not realizing that even the best works of fallen people are mixed with sin and cannot serve as the righteousness we need to stand before the Lord unafraid.
Second, the Jews who rejected Jesus erred by treating the law as an end in itself. Instead of looking for the One to whom the law of God points, they saw the Mosaic law as the Lord’s final act of salvation. Thus, Christ became a stumbling block to them (Rom. 9:32b-33).
Embracing justification by our works is no minor error. Rather, it is a battle against our most holy Creator. John Calvin comments: “Christ has been given to us for righteousness, whosoever obtrudes on God the righteousness of works, attempts to rob him of his own office…. Whenever men, under the empty pretence of being zealous for righteousness, put confidence in their works, they do in their furious madness carry on war with God himself.”