I have a book at home called ‘Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God’. It was first published in 1961; and really, it’s a very important book which is often quoted and referred to in other books I’ve read. In the book, the author presents these two idea which we find side by side in the Scriptures. On the one hand, there’s God’s sovereignty: he’s the King who rules and reigns over all, and who upholds and directs all his creatures and all their actions; he’s the one who enables sinners to respond to the message of the gospel. So, we were dead in our transgressions and sins, without hope in the world, but God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ. It is by grace — God’s grace — you have been saved. God’s sovereignty in all matters — including our salvation — is clearly taught in the Bible.
However, on the other hand, the Scriptures are also clear on our responsibility: God has made his church responsible for making the gospel known; he commanded the apostles to go and make disciples of all nations. That’s the task he has given to the church and he commands his church to preach the gospel to all. So, he’s given that responsibility to the church. And, of course, God also holds men and women and boys and girls responsible for their sins and for how they respond to the gospel message. John 3:18 says that whoever believes in the Saviour is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already, because he has not believed.
So, we have these two ideas, side by side in the Bible: God’s sovereignty and our responsibility. In fact, we find the same two ideas in the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis. On the one hand, Joseph’s brothers hated him and they intended to harm him when they sold him into slavery. That’s what they did and they bore responsibility for the wicked thing they did. But Joseph confessed several times that God sent him to Egypt; and right at the end of the book of Genesis he said that, though his brothers intended to harm Joseph, God intended it for good. So, there’s God’s sovereignty: what he planned and did. And there’s our human responsibility: what his brothers planned and did. And they’re placed side by side in the Bible.
Or think about what we believe about the Scriptures. The Apostle Paul wrote the Letter to the Romans. But we believe he wrote what he wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so that Paul’s word is also God’s word. So, we have God at work and we have Paul at work at the same time. And these two things are placed side by side.
And these two ideas are explored in the book. And really, Paul is dealing with the same two ideas in Romans 9 in relation to how the Jews have responded — or, really, how they haven’t responded — to the gospel message. Think back to how chapter 9 began with Paul’s great sorrow and his unceasing anguish because so many of his fellow Jews have not believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. And because they have not believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, they’ve cut themselves off from the Saviour so that they’re under the wrath and curse of God. And it broke Paul’s heart.
And then, it’s as if someone asked Paul:
Has God’s word failed? Didn’t God make all those promises to the Jews? Didn’t he promise to be their God for ever and ever? Since so few of them have believed in the Saviour, has God’s word of promise to them failed?
And Paul responded by explaining that when God made those promises, he wasn’t making those promises to every single Jew. For instance, Abraham had two sons; and God chose one of them, and not the other. And Isaac had two sons; and God chose one of them, and not the other. Not all Israel — not every single person who is biologically related to Abraham — belongs to the true people of Israel, who have inherited his promises. When we speak of God’s grace, we need to remember that it’s God’s electing grace, because he himself said in the Scriptures:
I will have mercy on whomever I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whomever I have compassion.
He chooses one, and not the other. He has mercy on one, and hardens another.
And then someone asked:
Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will? If salvation is down to God’s electing grace — in other words, if it’s down to God’s sovereign decision — why does he blame me if I don’t believe?
And do you remember Paul’s answer? He said in effect:
Who do you think you are, answering back to God?
In other words, Paul was emphasising again God’s sovereignty. He’s the King. He’s the Lord. He’s the one who made us, and we, his creatures, have no right to question him, because he’s the Sovereign King, the Ruler of all that he has made.
All the emphasis thus far has been on God’s sovereign, electing grace. But in the next verses, Paul goes on to write about our responsibility. And in particular, he’s writing about the responsibility of the Jews to believe in the Saviour; and he’s writing about how so many of the Jews haven’t done so, whereas so many of the Gentiles have done so.
Verses 30 to 33
So, Paul says in verse 30:
What then shall we say?
And I think he’s referring back to the beginning of the chapter and to what he said there about his great sorrow and the unceasing anguish in his heart over the fact that so few of the Jews have been saved. So, he’s referring back to what he said at the beginning of the chapter. You see, verses 6 to 29 are a kind of tangent. You know, Paul went off on this tangent because he was answering the question of whether God’s word had failed. And having answered that question by reminding us about God’s sovereign, electing grace, he now comes back to where he started the chapter. So, what he’s saying in verse 30 is: given that so few Jews have been saved, what can we say about it?
And look at what Paul says about it in the rest of verse 30 and into verse 31. First of all, he mentions the Gentiles. They weren’t pursing righteousness. In other words, they weren’t thinking about how they could get right with God. Think about the book of Acts and how Paul went from city to city. And when Paul met the Gentiles, they weren’t thinking about the God of the Bible. They were worshipping their false gods. But then Paul preached to them about Jesus Christ; and many of them believed. And look: they have now obtained righteousness. Their sins were forgiven and they were accepted as righteous in God’s sight, by faith, says Paul. By faith in Jesus Christ.
On the other hand, the people of Israel have always been thinking about righteousness and what they need to do in order to get right with God. Think of the rich, young ruler who came to the Lord Jesus and asked him what he needed to do in order to have eternal life. Or think of the Lord’s parable of the Pharisee who went up to the temple to pray; and when he prayed, he mentioned all the things he had done. Or think of what Paul said about himself in Philippians 3 where he lists all the things he used to rely on for peace with God. And he said that, as for legalistic righteousness, I was faultless; I did everything the law required. The Jews were trying to get right with God by keeping the law. And so, look at verse 32: Paul says they pursued a law of righteousness. That is, the pursued a law which seemed to promise them righteousness. But instead of achieving it, they have not attained it.
Why not? Look at verse 32: because we become right with God, not by works, but by faith. They were looking to the law to save them, but they should have been looking to the Lord Jesus Christ.
And, instead of looking to the Lord Jesus Christ, they stumbled over him. That’s what Paul is saying at the end of verse 32 and into verse 33, where he quotes from Isaiah 8:14 and Isaiah 28:16. Think of a race. You’re running to reach the finish line and to win the prize which is righteousness from God and eternal life. And the Jews have stumbled on the way. What what have they stumbled over? They’ve stumbled over Jesus Christ.
Now, of course, Paul has already said many things about this in the earlier chapters in Romans. He’s written about how the Jews were relying on the law, when they should have been relying on Jesus Christ. Remember? He said:
We have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, but we’re justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
And redemption has come to us by Jesus Christ, because he offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins. The law condemns, but the Lord Jesus saves.
But the Jews stumbled over him. They did not believe in him. On the other hand, the Gentiles who heard the gospel message and who believed in the Lord Jesus, were justified: their sins were pardoned and God accepted them as righteous in his sight, so that though they may have done everything wrong, God regarded them as if they had done everything right.
Verses 1 to 4
In verse 1 of chapter 10 Paul tells us that his heart’s desire and his prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved.
And, of course, we should pause for a moment and note that we pray to God for the salvation of sinners because we believe God is sovereign in salvation as in everything else. He rules over all and he’s the one who enables sinners to believe the good news so that they will be saved. So, Paul wants the Jews to be saved; and because he wants them to be saved, he must ask God to save them.
And look what he says about them: They’re full of zeal, he said. And they were, weren’t they? Certainly many of them were; and we know how scrupulous they were and how careful many of them were — and still are — to keep God’s law. I remember listening to a programme on the radio about all the efforts the Jews take even today to prepare for the Passover; and how they must remove every bit of yeast from their homes. And so, they will scrub and scrub and scrub the kitchen table and the kitchen worktops and the cupboards to make sure there’s no yeast in their home, because God commanded the Israelites to eat unleavened bread during the Passover. So, if we’re to eat unleavened bread, we better ensure there’s no yeast in our home.
The Jews are full of zeal. They’re fully devoted and committed to living out what they believe. But, says Paul, it’s all without knowledge, because the Jews don’t realise that God gave them the law to lead them to Christ. That’s why Paul refers to Christ in verse 4 as the ‘end of the law’. Think of the law as a road and at the end of the road, there’s the Lord Jesus Christ. But instead of coming to Christ, and embracing him, and receiving from him the righteousness we need, the Jews have turned around, and they’ve headed back down the road. And despite all their zeal, and devotion, and commitment, they’re going in the wrong direction.
Now, Paul is talking about the Jews. He himself was a Jew and whenever he reached a new city, he headed straight for the synagogue in order to preach the good news to his fellow Jews. And it broke his heart that so few of them believed.
Now, although there are Jews in Belfast, we don’t meet them very often; and we don’t have many, if any, dealings with them. But what Paul says about the Jews and their zeal applies to all kinds of people. We meet people all the time, who are zealous for this or for that. They’re devoted to some cause. And perhaps we can admire them for their commitment. But still, if they haven’t yet come to Christ, and trusted in him, they cannot, they cannot be saved.
And so, we must do what Paul did, and we must pray to God for those who don’t believe. We must pray for our unbelieving neighbours here in Belfast. And we must pray for unbelievers across the world. We must pray for them that they may be saved by believing in the Saviour.