Sermon preached on Romans 9:27-33 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 1/6/2013 in Novato, CA.
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Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“The Gentiles… Have Attained to Righteousness”
Imagine two kids from your childhood elementary school days. One boy who came from a long line of church goers and who was always clearly looking to do the moral thing. And then you had another boy whose morals were always questionable, and he and his family never stepped a foot in church. If then, later, when you die and go to heaven and find the unchurched boy in heaven, and the other not, that might be a bit of surprise. Our expectations about those two different boys from our childhood made us assume a certain future for them, a future that didn’t come about as we thought. Well, that’s sort of like the surprise that Paul’s been dealing with in this section of Romans. We mentioned a few weeks back that Romans 9-11 is a new section. It’s a section dealing with Israel. Particularly, Paul’s been talking about why Israel, for the most part, was not saved. That Israel, for the most part, had rejected the Messiah. But this surprise about Israel is put next to the surprise of the Gentiles. Not only are so many Israelites not saved. Many Gentiles were surprisingly being saved. This is like those two imagined boys from childhood. Israel is like that church going kid that you thought was always looking to do the moral thing. You thought for sure he’d be in heaven. And the Gentiles are like that unchurched kid who never seemed to have a very high standard of morality. You thought for sure that kid would be in the “other place”. Well, Paul’s been dealing with how this has surprised people, at how so many Israelites are not saved, and so many Gentiles are. Paul continues to address this today.
Of course, not all Israelites have missed this salvation. Some have been saved. And not all Gentiles have found this salvation. Many have not. But this is at the heart of what Paul addresses today. Paul gets at the heart of God’s plan with regard to how someone is saved. And he uses this to explain why so many Israelites missed this and why so many Gentiles didn’t. There’s a lesson here that the Israelites needed back then. That no matter your spiritual heritage and background each of us needs to know the right way for us to be saved. God’s way. And that’s a lesson the visible church needs today as well.
And so let’s dig into this passage. We’ll begin by thinking about Israel. We’ll think about how so many were not saved, but how some were. We’ll start with verses 27. Let’s read it again. Verse 27, “Isaiah also cries out concerning Israel: ‘Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, The remnant will be saved.'” And verse 29, “And as Isaiah said before: ‘Unless the LORD of Sabaoth had left us a seed, We would have become like Sodom, And we would have been made like Gomorrah.'”
These quotes are from Isaiah chapters 10 and 1. The context here is that Paul had just mentioned in the previous verses again how God had chosen Gentiles to be saved. That’s something we would expect of Israel, not the Gentiles. Israel in the Old Testament was known as the chosen nation. How can Gentiles be chosen when so many Israelites appear to not be chosen? Well, Paul’s quote of Isaiah helps to paint the picture for us. You see, the context in Isaiah is that the nation of Israel had rebelled against God. They had sinned over and over. They had committed idolatry. Because of this God sent Assyria against them. Some of you might recall this from our Christmas sermon two weeks ago when we studied Isaiah chapter 9. Assyria wiped out almost the entire nation of Israel. Only some were left and they were largely carried off to exile. Of course, here’s where we saw in our Christmas sermon that God promised restoration. He promised a Messiah. That child who would be born as the Prince of Peace and Mighty God.
But what good would it be to have a Messiah for Israel, if there were no Israelites left? What good would a promised restoration of Israel be if there were no Israelites left to restore? Well, that’s why Isaiah points out that Israel has not been completely wiped out. Verse 27 mentions a remnant. Verse 29 talks about God having left them a seed. If God hadn’t left them some survivors, they’d be like Sodom and Gomorrah. Remember, those are two ancient wicked cities God utterly wiped out with fire from heaven. But that wasn’t Israel’s fate. Not all of them were utterly destroyed in divine judgment like Sodom and Gomorrah. Some were saved.
But that’s Paul’s point here. That most were not. Most back then at Isaiah’s time were not saved. Paul’s point here is simple. Not all Israel are of Israel, verse 6. In other words, back during Isaiah’s time, you have the nation of Israel. We would have referred to that nation as God’s chosen people. But it would be a mistake to think that meant each and every citizen of Israel was truly God’s chosen people. As a nation, they existed as the visible church of God at that time. But most weren’t real worshippers of God. Most, sadly, were the opposite. That’s why God wiped out most of them in judgment. That’s why God had Assyria destroy most of them. This was God’s judgment upon them. But God left a remnant. A chosen holy seed.
But then fast forward from the time of Isaiah to the time of Paul. Now, many people who were ethnically Israelites did not believe in Jesus. They had rejected the Messiah. Jesus made it clear that this meant they rejected God too. And so you have the same thing essentially as back in Isaiah’s day. So many ethnic Israelites that were not really God’s chosen people. So many that were not really saved. But yet back in Isaiah’s day there was a remnant. And so too with Paul’s day. As Paul points out in chapter 11, there were some believing Jews at that time, himself included. In other words, that in Paul’s day, God again preserved a remnant among ethnic Israel. Yes, many ethnic Israelites rejected the Christ. But a remnant of God’s truly chosen ones believed. And so Paul uses the situation at the time of Isaiah with Assyria to show that the same sort of thing was going on again during Paul’s day. All of this makes that point that they are not all Israel that are of Israel. Not every ethnic Jew is truly the chosen of God. And some Gentiles are actually the chosen of God. The unbelieving Jews have been cast out now of the visible church in apostasy — similar to how so many before were destroyed by Assyria. Instead, believing Jews and believing Gentiles are brought together in one visible church, connected together in the new covenant inaugurated with Christ’s blood.
Well, the next section in this passage helps to explain why that was the case at the time of Paul. Verses 30-32 get at why so many Jews at that time didn’t get it, and so many Gentiles did. Paul explains this with the language of different pursuits. For the Gentiles, he notes that they had in the past not been pursuing righteousness. But amazingly, surprisingly, they have now attained righteousness. This, of course, being a righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ. On the other hand, Paul says that Israel had been pursuing a law of righteousness. But for them, they did not attain it, because they sought it in the wrong way. They tried to attain to this righteousness through works of the law, and not by faith. And so Paul’s presenting a surprising twist of sorts. The Gentiles got what they had not sought for. The Jews did not get that which they had in fact sought after. Paul is of course painting with a broad brush again here. But this is the place for them at Paul’s day then. So many Israelites not saved. So many Gentiles becoming saved.
Let me explain Paul’s point here further. Paul’s returned to that doctrine of justification. That’s what this righteousness language is all about. Let’s start with his point about the Gentiles. He says they had not pursued righteousness. Now, let me clarify. Again, Paul’s using broad strokes. Recall back to Romans chapter 1 and his description of the Gentiles going off in their various sins and idolatries. Now, yes, there were certainly pagan gentiles at that time that discussed ethics and pursued something of what we might call ethical living. And surely God’s law written on the hearts of Gentiles back then made it so that there was some basic morality lived out by Gentiles, just as there is today. But did these nations for the most part look to live out righteousness as the Bible defined righteousness? No, they did not. Again, the Gentiles had varying thoughts about moral living, and even judgment in an afterlife for immoral living. But remember, Paul is speaking from a biblical perspective. These Gentiles did not pursue biblical righteousness in order to be declared in a right standing with the God of the Bible. That was not their religion nor their pursuit.
And yet, Paul says they found this righteousness nonetheless. Again, this is the idea of justification. They found biblical justification. They found something they had not in times past been searching for. Of course, they found this in Jesus Christ. They found this as the gospel was preached to them. They heard the gospel call that they were sinners and needed to be justified before God, lest they find God’s judgment upon them. They believed the gospel, repented of their sins, and turned in faith to Jesus Christ. All such Gentiles who did that, became righteous in God’s sight at that point of saving faith.
On the other hand, Paul says this is something the Jews pursued. Remember the Mosaic covenant and the law given to Israel. So many commandments given to them. So many specific instructions on what to do to live righteously. And so many sacrifices to offer for when they did not. And so they must have thought they had their bases covered. That they had a righteousness that was relatively far better than all the pagan nations around them. They looked to keep these many laws, and when they did not, they had sacrifices they could offer up. But Paul says in verse 31 that such Israelites did not attain this righteous standing.
What’s behind Paul’s point is what is true righteousness according to God. Well, it’s a standard of perfection. And it’s a standard that applies not just to the letter of the law but to the spirit of the law. And it’s a standard that demands not just outward conformity, but inward conformity as well. Your mind and heart and words have to all match your physical actions. Remember Matthew chapter 5 in the Sermon on the Mount. It’s not enough to just not murder someone physically. To be righteous, you have to make sure you never have any evil thoughts about another person either. And with adultery, it’s not enough to not commit such actions, but you have to also never have lusts after someone else’s wife. This is like how Jesus criticized the religious leaders for being like a whitewashed tombs, looking good on the outside, but full of death on the inside.
Add to this idea even the insufficiency of the sacrificial system in the Old Testament, and we see the fullness of Israel’s problem. The book of Hebrews makes the point that no number of bulls and goats can sufficiently stand in the place of humans to atone for their sins. And so, not only was the Jewish attempts at righteousness falling short, but even their sacrificial system couldn’t give the atonement they needed.
And so it’s as verse 31 says, Israel didn’t get what they pursued. They sought righteousness before God, but didn’t attain it. The reason is given in verse 32. Because they sought it by works and not by faith. In other words, they saw the good pursuit of righteousness. Justification is a worthy pursuit. We should want justification. The goal wasn’t the issue. It was how they went about the pursuit. See, they looked at the standards and looked at themselves and thought they could measure up. They thought they could work hard enough and merit justification before God. That God would owe them their justification because of what they did. Hypothetically speaking, justification can be earned. But just not by fallen sinners. Not by people already dead in their trespasses and sins. Jesus’ works were commendable. Jesus’ works declared his own personal righteousness. His works and living conformed perfectly to God’s righteous standards. Inwardly and outwardly he met the law’s demands. But the rest of humanity has not. At least not by their own works. Verse 32 says that Israel stumbled over this.
So this leads us then to our third point for today. To think further about this stumbling of Israel. This is verses 32 and 33. Look with me starting in the last half of verse 32.”For they stumbled at that stumbling stone. As it is written: ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, and whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.'” Paul combines two more quotes from the Old Testament here to make his point here. The first passage comes from Isaiah 8:14. The idea here is the stumbling stone idea. You are walking along some path and you trip and fall because of some stone in your way. That’s this stumbling stone.
Well, what is this thing Israel tripped over? Well, at first it sounds like it’s talking about the way in which someone is justified. Verse 32 introduces the stumbling stone idea with the contrast of faith versus works. The reason the Jews stumbled and the Gentiles did not, is because the Gentiles looked to be justified by faith. The Jews instead looked to be justified by works. Thus, they stumbled. They stumbled because you can’t do that. You can’t be justified by your own works, because your sin-tainted works will never be good enough.
But this stumbling is actually more than that. They actually stumbled on more than just their approach to justification. The ultimately stumbled over a person. You see verse 33, defines the stumbling block not as a concept, but as a person. Whoever believes on him, on this stone, he will not be put to shame. You see, the stumbling block that the Israelites ultimately stumbled over was Jesus. Of course, that goes hand in hand with their faulty approach to justification. This was at the heart of Jesus and his message. It was at the heart of why they rejected them. When he showed up on the scene, he preached a message of repentance, and message of faith, and a message that the people needed forgiveness. The culmination of his message was his death on the cross. But that was something that tripped up the Jews. They couldn’t accept these things, let alone the Messiah dying on the cross.
This is the repeated message in the New Testament. There are several Old Testament passages about stones. Passages that the New Testament interprets as pointing to Jesus. 1 Peter 2, like this passage, combines several of them. Time and again, the Bible says that people still stumble over this stone who is Jesus. Matthew 21 has Jesus talking about how such a stone would crush those who oppose it. Interestingly, Jesus connects this idea in Matthew 21:43 with the fact that God would take away the kingdom from such people and give it to a people who will produce its fruit. The Gentiles come to mind right there.
Well, the second Isaiah passage Paul’s quotes from to make up verse 33, is from Isaiah 28:16. That reference in Isaiah sees the stone as a perfect foundation cornerstone. A perfect foundation stone. I love how Paul merges two Isaiah quotes into this one verse, to bring out the two possible responses to Jesus. You can either stumble over him, or he can be your foundation. You can either say Jesus is not needed for you to be right with God, or you can say that he is absolutely needed for your salvation — his saving work on the cross. You can either have your religion founded on the sand of your own failing works, or on the solid rock of Christ’s work, received by faith on your behalf. These are the two responses held out in this final section in Romans 9. The Jews, largely, had the wrong view of Jesus. On the other hand, so many Gentiles were coming to the right view of Jesus, a view of faith in him. The Jews had stumbled over the stone. The Gentiles had founded themselves upon that same stone. Two different approaches. Two very different outcomes. Faith in Christ equals a justification by faith. Attempting to be justified by your works, means you are not justified, but condemned.
Saints of God, as we conclude this message for today I want to offer the exhortation to be on guard against this mentality the Israelites had. In so many ways, the visible Christian church is in a place similar to what Israel was in before Christ came. What I mean is that in the Old Testament, the nation of Israel was the visible church. That visible church contained a bunch of people who weren’t truly saved. It contained a remnant that was. That remnant believed in Jesus when he came. The others did not. Well, today the visible church is also a mixed body. It’s made up of some true believers and some who are not. I don’t know the percentage of course. But just being an outward member in Christ’s church is not what you really need for your salvation. No, what you need, is to believe on the rock of Jesus Christ. To trust in him for your salvation. Not in your own works to save you. But in Christ and his works.
That means we need to be on guard for that same error of the Jews back then. To make sure we don’t stumble like they did. Their stumbling must remind us that we will never be justified by works. Pursue justification by faith! You see, it’s us who are in the religious circles that are often in so much danger. Being in a church outwardly can incline us to think we are right with God when in reality we might just be going through the religious motions. Don’t stumble like Israel. Analyze your heart. Examine yourselves and see that you are in fact in the faith. Given the state of the visible church today, I think this is an especially relevant question. So many of the mainline denominations have departed in so many ways from biblical truth. Surely even today God has kept a remnant of his church faithful to him. But let’s make sure we are part of that remnant.
Well, that is of course what the Lord’s Supper is especially all about. This time to examine ourselves. To examine our faith. Let us really use this time for that purpose as we come to the Lord’s table. To see that indeed you are in the faith, and if not, then truly repent and come then today in real faith. And as we examine and confirm our faith, we can rest assured that we are a part of that remnant if we have this genuine faith in Jesus. As Paul says here, if you’ve put your faith in him you will in no way be put to shame. Be confident then today that you are part of God’s elect, a remnant even today, if you have faith in Christ. Live in this confidence and joy then today! Amen.
Copyright © 2013 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.