I want to begin with a word of prayer. We are just going to dive into the Word.
Father, as we now look into Your Word, we approach it with reverence and awe. We desire to clothe ourselves with humility. We desire to be slow to speak and quick to hear. We desire for the seed of the Word to find fertile soil in our hearts. We desire that You would cause the Word to bear much fruit in our lives. We are all at different places in our walk with You. Draw from this one passage of Scripture, Lord, and meet each one of us exactly where we are. I pray that the practical relevance of even this text would be very clear as we try to teach sound doctrine. So, I thank You for these men. I thank you for those who are watching all around the world, even the ladies who are joining us by livestream. Bless this study now in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Alright men, it is my last time to say Romans chapter 9. Yeah, I probably will say it again. I hate to come down from Mount Everest. The view from here is spectacular and this has been in many ways life changing as we have been in this chapter. We are at the end of Romans 9, verses 30 to 33. So, who knows, we may not be able to get all the way through these verses. Romans 9, I want to begin reading in verse 30. And if you are taking notes, I have changed the title of this to “The Tragedy of Unbelief,” The Tragedy of Unbelief, and I think that more captures the central theme of this passage.
So, beginning in verse 30, Paul says, “What shall we say then? The Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith; but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone, just as it is written, ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, and he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.'” Your translation may say, “will not be ashamed.”
When we look at a passage of Scripture, we always want to isolate, “What is the big idea?” What is the dominant theme? What is the central thrust? It is like the clothesline upon which we hang all of our thoughts. And so, to put our finger on the live nerve running through these four verses, it is about unbelief. It is about the unbelief of Israel, the tragedy of unbelief. And by way of introduction, I want us to just quickly consider what a horrible sin unbelief is.
Unbelief is in reality cosmic treason against God. It is a boldface defiance of God. In fact, unbelief calls God a liar and repudiates His Word. It is an utter rejection of God. Unbelief slams the door shut that leads to heaven. Unbelief is so serious that there is no forgiveness for the sin of unbelief if one dies in unbelief. It is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Unbelief tramples underfoot the precious blood of the Lord Jesus Christ and despises the blood of Christ as an unclean thing, as the blood of mere pigs. Unbelief insults the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has come into the world to convict men of sin and righteousness and judgment, John 16:8 through 11. And number one on that list is the sin of unbelief.
The Holy Spirit has primarily and principally come into this world to convict men of the sin of unbelief because they believe not. Unbelief damns the soul. Unbelief refuses the grace of God. Unbelief is arrogance and pride on steroids at the highest level. Unbelief prizes other things more than God. Unbelief refuses Jesus Christ His rightful place to reign in the human heart. Unbelief refuses God’s diagnosis of your spiritual condition, and unbelief refuses the only remedy that can cure from sin. That is how serious unbelief is. And ultimately, unbelief is not an intellectual issue. It is a heart issue, and that is what Paul is addressing.
He is addressing the unbelief of the nation Israel. It was from Israel that God called His prophets. It was to Israel that God gave His law. It was out of Israel that God gave birth to the Messiah, His Son the Lord Jesus Christ. It was to Israel that the gospel was first preached. It was in Israel that Jesus was crucified, buried, raised, and ascended to heaven. And Israel has utterly turned its back upon the Lord Jesus Christ and upon God with exceptions, and we have some exceptions even here today who are trophies of His grace. So, as we walk through this passage, it matters not if you are not a Jew. You may be a Gentile, and unbelief is still as inflammatory. It stiff-arms God and keeps God at arm’s length.
So, as we walk through this, I want to begin in verse 30. I have got five headings which are like tent pegs to hang our thoughts as we walk very carefully through this passage. I want you to note first the summation. At the beginning of verse 30, Paul writes, “What shall we say then?” And what that question does is it brings the entire chapter of Romans 9 down to a bottom line. Paul is a bottom-line man. Get to the bottom line. And as Paul says, “What shall we say then?” Paul is getting to the bottom line, “Why has God chosen so many Gentiles and only such a small remnant of Jews?”
This little expression, “What shall we say then?” it is the seventh time in the book of Romans. Paul has said that just as a footnote. And Paul is repeatedly saying, “What shall we say then?” If you want to do an impression of the Apostle Paul, just go around saying, “What shall we say then?” I will just give you the citations on this: chapter 3 verse 5, chapter 4 verse 1, chapter 6 verse 1, chapter 7 verse 7, chapter 8 verse 31, chapter 9 verse 14, and now for the seventh time in the book of Romans, Paul says this again. So, here is the conclusion, here is the summation of this chapter.
So, that quickly now leads us to the reception, which would be the second half of verse 30, the reception. “That Gentiles,” and that would be non-Jews, the vast majority of the world, “who did not pursue righteousness.” Stop right there. “Pursue” is an athletic word. It means “to run after something swiftly in order to attain a prize or to reach a goal.” And it says, “The Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness,” meaning God’s righteousness, the righteousness that comes from God, the righteousness that brings a right standing before God, the righteousness that gives a right relationship with God, the righteousness that everyone desperately needs to be found in acceptance with a holy God. It says, “They did not pursue righteousness.”
For the most part, they were pagans. For the most part, they were heathens. For the most part, they were atheists, they were agnostics. For the most part, they were caught up in the religions of Egypt and Babylon and Assyria, the false religions of the world. They were not looking for God’s righteousness. But here is the strange twist: they attained righteousness. The Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness attained righteousness. And the word “attained” is another athletic word that means “to lay hold of an esteemed prize.” It is like the prize at the end of the race. They attained what they were not even seeking, what they were not even looking for.
Now, we can easily believe this and understand this, number one, because of total depravity. I mean, Paul has already said in Romans 3 and verse 11, “There is none who seeks after God, no not one.” So, we are not surprised to see that the Gentiles did not pursue God and did not pursue righteousness. The fact of the matter is because of the blindness, the spiritual blindness of the human eye and the spiritual deadness of the heart and the soul, of course they didn’t pursue righteousness. There is none who pursues righteousness.
But second, this very clearly implies a divine intervention that there was an unexpected dramatic turnaround for a large number of Gentiles. What they were not even looking for, they found. And this speaks to how God must be the Initiator of salvation and how God must be the Pursuer and how God must be the Seeker because we were not pursuing God. It necessitated that God pursue us, that Jesus would leave the ninety-nine and come look for the one lost sheep. And that is what God has done with those Gentiles in the first century. Let me bring it up to date. This is what God did in your life that you attained that what you were not even looking for. Of course, you may have wanted religion. Of course, you may have wanted a morally respectable life, but you attained that which you were not even looking for.
And then, he becomes more descriptive at the end of verse 30, and he says, “Even the righteousness which is by faith.” And what that means is the only way to receive this righteousness is to receive it by faith and by faith alone, that you come to God with an empty hand, that you come to God and humble yourself and lower yourself and repent of your sin, and you come to the place of submitting your life to the Lord Jesus Christ. You come to the end of yourself so that Christ may begin and you receive it by faith.
And this has been the constant thread that has been woven through the book of Romans. We go back to the very theme verses, Romans 1:16 and 17. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The righteous man shall live by faith.'”
And that set in motion this theme. There are so many verses. I have got them all written down here, how many times the word “believe” and “faith” is mentioned in the book of Romans. I would use up all my time, but you can just walk through the second half of chapter 3 and all of chapter 4. With my ballpoint pen, I have drawn a circle around every time “believe” and “faith” is found in my Bible, and I have connected all those circles. And it is just like a roadmap through Romans, isolating that it is by faith and faith alone, sola fide, by faith alone.
And so, this is where the Gentiles found themselves. They found themselves with that which they were never looking for. They found the righteousness of God in Christ. How much like God is this to save those whom you would think would be the least likely to be saved, whom you would perceive to be the furthest away from God, those who did not even know the Word of God, who had just pagan religious superstitions about God. Those are the ones who attained the righteousness of God. And it brings greater glory to God when He saves those who are the furthest away, when He has to reach all the way to the bottom of the barrel. So, that is the reception. That is the realization, and quite frankly, that is most of us here today.
Third, I want you to note the rejection. That is in verse 31: “But,” verse 31 begins with the word “but,” and not all “buts” in the Bible are good. This actually takes a turn to the left, total shift of focus, total contrast to the Gentiles who attained what they were not even pursuing. “But Israel,” referring to God’s chosen nation, and let me just remind us Israel has been the dominant theme of this entire chapter beginning in verse 1.
Okay, so verse 31, the rejection: “But Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness.” Now, what that means that they were running, pursuing. Again remember, athletic word, they were running full tilt, they were sprinting. It was no lack of effort. They were strenuously, energetically trying to attain a right standing before God. They had the covenants. They had the law. They had the prophets. They were so into this they added over seven hundred more commandments to the Word of God. I mean, the Bible wasn’t enough for them. They wanted more steps in the ladder to try to reach God.
“Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness,” and what that means they were seeking the law for righteousness. They were trying to keep the law as a means by which they would attain to a right standing before God. And that is just the way the natural mind functions and works. All of the religions of the world, wherever they are found, every false religion, all teach that you have to do something, you have to be something, in order to find a right standing before God. And leading that parade was the nation Israel. There was no nation that pursued it more wholeheartedly than did the nation Israel. And at the tip of the spear were the Pharisees who even separated themselves from their own nation in order to get to the head of the line, in order to be wholeheartedly in pursuit of this self-righteousness.
Notice what it says. It is the total opposite. “They did not arrive at the law,” meaning they did not arrive at what the law required and the reason is because that the law requires absolute perfection. The law says that if you break just one commandment, you have broken them all. I mean, how many links in a chain have to break before the entire chain is broken? Just one. And how many stones have to be thrown through a glass window before the entire window is shattered? Just one. The law says that you have to be as perfect as God is perfect because the law is a reflection of the perfect holiness of God. And Israel was under the false delusion that they could meet that standard or that God would somehow just grade them on the curve, that they were better than other people, better than other nations. But as they were in this state of self-deception, they failed to attain that which they were pursuing, the very righteousness of God.
And so, here we see, here is a very relevant point for us even as we live now in a Gentile-dominated world. How possible it is to be religious but lost! How possible it is to be sincere up to your eyeballs, but to be sincerely wrong! Churches today are just like Israel in the first century. Churches today are filled to overflowing with unconverted, unregenerate church members who are just like Israel, who are pursuing a righteousness of their own. They are like what Jesus said of the Pharisees long ago, “They honor Me with their lips.” Their choir is phenomenal. The soloists they can strut out are amazing. “They honor Me with their lips but their heart is far from Me.” We see from this how, from Israel making relevance today, how easy it is to have full heads but an empty heart, to know all of the answers but they are the answers to the wrong questions, to know the pastor but not to know the Lord, to come to church but to have never come to Christ. This is the hardest person on planet earth to reach with the gospel. It would be easier to reach a Gentile who is not even looking for it than to try to reach a very religious person who is steeped in their religion but never sees the need to be born again.
The gospel is always for the down and out. The gospel is always for the out and out blatant immoral person. They never perceive that they are the ones standing in the need of the gospel, and the reason why they are not converted is not because are too bad to be saved; it is because they are too good to be saved. It is their own morality and their own pursuing of righteousness that prevents them from ever attaining to righteousness until God removes the scales from their eyes, until God awakens them from their slumber, until God blows a trumpet in their ear, and they finally come to the realization that their own self-righteousness will not give them a right standing before God. You can be born in this but until you are born again you will not even see the kingdom of heaven. So, that is the rejection, and that rejection continues to this present hour in Israel, as well as outside of Israel with Gentiles.
So, this leads now to number four, the explanation. Paul, again the master teacher, Paul doesn’t just make a statement, he backs up the statement. He doesn’t just tell us what, he tells us why. So, here is the explanation. So, verse 32 begins, “Why?” Question mark. So, Paul is leading us now into the introduction because he knows that the listener, the reader is thinking, “So, why is this?” He says, “because they,” referring to the unbelieving Jews in the previous verse, that is the antecedent to “they.” “They did not pursue it by faith.” Here is the deal. They were running. Yeah, they were running. They were running faster than anyone else on planet earth. They were just running in the wrong direction. And if you are running in the wrong direction faster than anyone else, you are going further away from where you ought to be. They were running the wrong race on the wrong track in the wrong direction. “They did not pursue it by faith.”
I mean, that was too simple for them. That was an insult to their religious pride because we believe that we are better than other people. Just by faith? You mean, you could just live a sinful pagan life and in a moment of faith you would receive the righteousness that we have been pursuing our entire life? No. Israel tried to earn it. They tried to merit it. They tried to inherit it. They tried to buy it. They tried to attain it every way except by God’s chosen means to receive it by simple faith alone in Christ alone. They did not pursue it by faith. They had their stinking nose in the air looking down their long nose at others. They were holier than thou. They were too good in their own eyes to receive a handout, to receive just a free gift. “No, we make religion the old-fashioned way; we earn it. We will earn our way to heaven. That is an insult that we would just receive a gift, like this is giving something to a beggar.”
He goes on in verse 32, “but as though it were by works.” They were trying to work their way to heaven. Can you imagine anything more insane than to try to work your way to heaven? If you are trying to work your way to heaven, you are grossly ignorant of two facts. Number one, you do not know how holy God is. You don’t have a clue. And number two, you do not know how sinful you are. I mean, you are moronic spiritually if you think that you can contribute to your own righteousness and make any installment deposit to get yourself to heaven. That is like a man in quicksand who is going down. The more he tries to save himself, the faster he goes down. The only way for you to get out of that quicksand is for a rope to be thrown to you and by faith to lay hold of that rope and for someone else to pull you out of that quicksand. And the more you just shove that rope away and by your own efforts to try to elevate yourself up and out of that pit, the faster you are going down to the pit. George Whitefield, the great evangelist, said, “Can a man save himself by works?” He said, “It would be easier to pull yourself up to heaven with a rope of sand than for you by your own righteousness to ascend to the holy throne of God.”
And so, that is the explanation, and he now continues the explanation. He says, “They,” referring to the unbelieving Jews who were hardened in their self-righteousness, “They stumbled over the stumbling stone.” They tripped over it. They fell over it. There it was. It was right in front of them, but it was just laying on the ground. It was so seemingly small in their eyes. It wasn’t a boulder. It wasn’t a mountain. It was just a little stone that seemed to be so unimportant, so earthy, just laying there on the ground. It wasn’t on a pedestal. It wasn’t in the spotlight. It didn’t meet their expectations of what they were looking for in a triumphant Messiah who would break the yoke of Roman oppression and restore national sovereignty to the nation of Israel. They were looking for a political solution, not a spiritual solution. They wanted the economy restored. They wanted their own government to preside over them. They had no concept of what their real and true need was to be delivered from the yoke and the bondage of sin.
So, “they stumbled over the stumbling stone.” They just rejected Christ. In fact, they crucified the stumbling stone. They were only too happy for it to be buried so they don’t have to even look at it or deal with it anymore. And this is drawn from Psalm 118 verse 22, this very idea, and it is quoted five times in the New Testament: Matthew 21:42, Mark 12:10 through 11, Luke 20:17, Acts 4 verse 11, 1 Peter 2 verse 7. I take the time to read those just to impress you with the fact that this is a major theme in the Bible that is in three of the four Gospels, that is at the very beginning of the preaching of the book of Acts, and finds its place in the epistles.
“They stumbled over Christ” because…you ready for this? They thought the gospel was foolishness. They wanted, as I’ve already said, a mighty Messiah who would come riding into Jerusalem triumphantly and just take over. They did not want God to send them a carpenter from, of all places, Nazareth. “Can any good thing come from Nazareth?” “That is on the wrong side of the tracks. You are in the wrong ZIP code. You have the wrong pedigree. Your resume is lousy.”
“One so unattractive,” that Isaiah said, “men would hide their face from Him.” One so weak! One who was followed by a bunch of nobodies, just a bunch of fishermen, and even worse, a tax collector. That is the scum of Israel, a tax collector. Followed by even harlots! One who was charged with blasphemy! One who was indicted as one who is an insurrectionist creating trouble in Israel, trying to overthrow the government! One who was crucified on a cross, a means of execution publicly so horrific to the natural mind that no Roman citizen could even be crucified! It was too loathsome. It was too barbaric. It was too uncivilized that He would be crucified between the two known terrorists of the day. Barabbas, public enemy number one! “You want us to believe in one who charged us with sin, who called us to repent, who tried to unmask our hypocrisy, who said that we are outside the kingdom and that we have to be born again to enter the kingdom?” One who said—listen to this—that tax collectors and harlots would enter the kingdom before we enter the kingdom. What kind of nonsense is this? And one who said that we will perish in our sins if we do not likewise perish. You are telling me that my standing before God and my eternal destiny is entirely one hundred percent dependent upon my relationship with a publicly executed nobody Jew. That is what you are telling me. That is absolute stupidity, absolute nonsense.
And so therefore, 1 Corinthians 1:18, “For the preaching of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Verse 21 of 1 Corinthians 1, “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For, indeed, Jews ask for signs.” They wanted miracles! Well, Jesus gave them miracles. “Well, no, we want more miracles.” Jesus said, “I’ll give you only one more sign. It will be the sign of Jonah the prophet. You destroy this temple and in three days, I will raise it up. That’s the sign you’re going to get.” “Jews ask for signs, Greeks search for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block,” there you have it, “and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” So, they stumbled over the stumbling stone. They wanted some diamond to be mounted on a pedestal. They couldn’t stoop to believe in a crucified carpenter from Galilee.
This leads finally now to the quotation in verse 33. We love Paul. Not only does he tell us, but he explains why. And now he follows up with Bible. This is Bible on top of Bible, “Just as it is written,” and Paul brilliantly now quotes two passages from Isaiah, and he will take one of the Isaiah passages and cut it in half, take the other Isaiah passage and insert it in the middle and just weave his own argument together perfectly from Scripture.
Those two passages are Isaiah 8 verse 14 and Isaiah 28 verse 16. So, “Just as it is written.” He starts with Isaiah 28 verse 16, “Behold.” Now, what that means is, “What I am about to tell you is astonishing. What I am about to tell you is bewildering, jaw-dropping, mind-boggling.” “Behold.” Let us just take this very carefully one word at a time. “I.” Who’s the “I”? God the Father. This is God the Father acting. “Lay.” The word “lay” means to set something in place. It means to put something into place and in this case as a foundation. God the Father would “lay,” please note, “in Zion.” That means in Jerusalem. Paul now shifts to the Isaiah 8:14 passage, “a stone of stumbling,” a stone that will cause the downfall of the nation Israel. A stone that just lays in the dirt, that is seemingly unimportant, that is so easy to overlook, that would be easy if you would pay attention to cast it aside. “A stone of stumbling,” meaning God the Father laid this stone that will cause your stumbling.
“And,” he’s still in Romans 8:14, “a rock of offense.” Israel was looking for a rock star and God gave them a rock, “a rock of offense,” meaning this was an insult to their pride. This was an insult to their flesh. They were offended by this scheme of salvation that brings man to nothingness before God, that reduces man to a posture of being a beggar before God, to come to God and to declare spiritual bankruptcy, to have no spiritual capital by which they could bring to God to be a part of earning their own salvation. This was offensive. It was a “rock of offense.”
And now, he goes back to Isaiah 28:16. “And he,” meaning the idea is almost “whosoever.” “He who believes in Him.” And just so you know this, “believe” and “faith” are from the very same Greek root word. They are more than synonyms. They are just translated different ways. “He who believes in Him.” Now, first of all, to believe means to commit your life to the object of your faith, and there is only one object of faith that will save. You can have faith in the wrong object and you will perish. There is only one object into which you may place your faith in order to have the righteousness that comes from God alone. And would you please note, it says, “in Him”? “Him” is a personal pronoun. Not “in it,” but “in Him.” This rock of offense, this stone of stumbling is a Him. It is the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, the virgin-born, sinless life, substitutionary death, bodily resurrection, present enthronement Christ. “He who believes in Him.” Please note, nothing is added to “believe,” nothing is added to “Him.” This is sola fide. This is faith alone in Christ alone.
“He who believes in Him will not be disappointed.” This word “disappointed” is a very strong word. It means “to be ashamed.” It means to be disgraced, to be dishonored, to be put to shame. But the negative in front of it, “not,” you put your faith in Jesus Christ and you will never be ashamed. You will never be disgraced in the eyes of God because this is the One whom He has placed before us.
I think we see here the tragedy of unbelief, that unbelief rejects the one whom God sent. Unbelief causes one to stumble over Christ and to perish eternally. Unbelief repudiates the free gift of God. Unbelief is arrogance and pride and says, “I have my own way of salvation. I have my own diagnosis of my own problem. I have my own solution to what I need.” Unbelief says, “I am wiser than God. I am stronger than God. I have a better plan than God.” Unbelief elevates self and it demotes God. That is what unbelief does. That is why I’m calling this, “The Tragedy of Unbelief.”
So, as we bring this to a conclusion, I want to tell you three things. Number one, those whom we think will never be saved are often the very ones who are saved. Don’t write anyone off your list. If you and I had been alive in the first century, we would have said the last people on planet earth to be saved would have been the Gentiles. They are agnostics. They are atheists. They are pagans. They are in rank unbelief. They are in emperor worship. They are in with false idols. They are not even looking to be made right with God. Those are the very ones whom God saved.
So, those whom we think will never be saved are often the very ones who are saved. That should give us encouragement and that should give us hope that as long as there is the grace of God there is hope. And the doctrine of election is our greatest hope that God can overcome the stubborn, uncircumcised heart and bring that one to faith in Christ.
Second thing, those whom we assume are saved are often those who are not saved. Just because they are religious, just because they have a Bible, just because they know the Bible, just because they go to a worship service, that doesn’t mean they are saved. It may be an indication they are. It may be an indication just that they are religious but lost just like Israel in the first century. And I think we assume too much. I have been a pastor for thirty-four years. By the grace of God, I have seen scores and scores of people converted. I would say easily nineteen out of twenty out of those hundreds and hundreds were self-righteous church members who falsely assumed that they were born again or that they were converted or that they were in the kingdom of heaven, when in fact they were not. And it was not until they came under the heart-searching, sin-exposing, Christ-exalting preaching of the Word of God were they suddenly awakened to the fact that they have never yet believed in Christ. So, we are surrounded by people like this, and the church is our first mission field.
Third, the last thing I will say is no one will ever be saved until God convicts them of their sin. It will not be until they come to the end of themselves and have exposed before their own eyes their own heart and their own need of grace will they ever be saved. And so, this is why we are so dependent upon the ministry of the Holy Spirit as we preach the gospel. We can give a perfect, airtight, Scripture-supported presentation of the gospel to a lost person, but it is not until the Holy Spirit convicts their heart and reveals to them their need for this message will they ever want it. And so, this shows us how dependent we are upon the Holy Spirit. And sometimes, it will be the lesson that we thought we taught the poorest, the witness that we felt, “I didn’t really button down everything that needed to be buttoned down,” may be the very arrow that God sends to the heart and brings them to their knees and brings them to Christ. And when we see that, it is a reminder to us that though we should present the gospel in the most accurate and winsome way, at the end of the day we are totally dependent upon the Holy Spirit to convict, to call, and to regenerate lost sinners.
So, men, I don’t know where you are. I would assume that most of you here are true believers in Christ. I would pray that you are, but there is a very statistical probability that someone here this morning would be just like Israel of old, and are religious but unconverted. And if that is you, if God is tapping you on the shoulder, then may today be the day you come into the kingdom. And for those watching on livestream, I can only pray that God would cause my words which are simply the words of God in Romans 9 to really pierce and penetrate deeply into your heart and soul. And if you yet are an unbeliever, very religious, but you have not yet come to that intersection in life where you turn away from your sin and you turn to the Lord Jesus Christ, may you do so this very moment. Behold, now is the accepted time. Behold, today is the day of salvation.