Let me begin with an analogy. Suppose I ask someone to explain the Model T automobile. They say, “The Model T is explained by science.” And they would be correct. The principles of engineering and the laws of physics are an explanation for how the Model T car operated. Now suppose I ask someone else, and they say, “Henry Ford.” And they would also be right. It is a different explanation, but it is not a wrong explanation. Different explanations for something can be complementary without being contradictory.
Now of course an obvious application of this analogy is to the current debate over the roles of religion and science as explanations of the universe. Both proport to be explanations of the universe. And I would argue that they are complementary without being contradictory. Now some make them contradictory by saying that science assumes a closed, materialist view of the universe. But that is not a scientific statement; it is a philosophical one that must be taken ultimately on faith. No matter how you slice the cheese, there is no necessary contradiction between faith and science.
But I want to apply this to the problem of how to explain why some people are saved and others aren’t. One explanation is to point to God’s sovereign choice. As we saw, this is Paul’s explanation in Rom. 9:6-29. But others will explain this by pointing to human faith or unbelief: those who believe are saved and those who don’t believe are not saved. As we will see, this is Paul’s explanation in Rom. 9:30-10:4. Now I am saying that these are both explanations. They are different, yes; but they are complementary explanations, and not contradictory explanations.
That doesn’t mean we can fully understand how they are complementary; there are some things revealed in Scripture that we can know but can’t fully explain. Take the Trinity for instance. You cannot tell me how God can be one and three. Just saying, “God is one in essence and three in person,” is correct, but it doesn’t really dissolve the mystery, especially if you think about it long enough. In some sense, it is just restating the mystery. Even the analogies run into problems (like water being solid, liquid, and vapor), and ultimately lead to heresy (the water analogy, for example, leads to modalism). And when the church has articulated the doctrine, it has most often been in negative terms (“God is not like this”) rather than in positive terms (“God is like this”), because it is just so hard to say these positive things about God apart from what Scripture explicitly says. But we can see why we run into difficulties: it is because we are dealing with God. Given the complexities of life and the universe – what God created – we should expect the God who created all this to be beyond our ability to ultimately comprehend. God himself reminds us that his thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways are not our ways (Isa. 55:8).
I think this applies to the relationship between God’s sovereignty and our responsibility in the matter of salvation. With Paul, I take them to be complementary explanations of why a person is saved. It is right to say that the ultimate reason I am saved is because God chose me (cf. Acts 13:48). But it is also right for me to say that I am saved because I trusted in Christ, and that the onus is on us to repent and believe (cf. Acts 17:30). It is also right to say that a person who is not finally saved that it is because they did not trust in Christ (Jn. 3:18, 36). And it is also right to say that it is because God did not choose them: “you do not believe because you are not among my sheep” (rather than “you are not among my sheep because you did not believe”! – John 10:26).
If you are waiting for an explanation how these two explanations are compatible, you are going to be waiting a long time, because I simply can’t do that. Of course we can say some things. We can say that faith is necessary because it is the appointed means God has chosen to bring salvation to his people, and this means is according to God’s sovereign, eternal election. But that doesn’t get rid of all the mystery, and those who say it does just haven’t thought about it long enough. It is enough for me to say that they are logically compatible and Biblical; but at the end of the day there is mystery here that I can’t explain, much like the doctrine of the Trinity. The mystery here comes in because we are not just dealing with human effort, but also with the work of God. It simply should not surprise us that there will be certain aspects of our salvation that we cannot fully comprehend. But that doesn’t mean that we should reject it; it only means that we should humbly embrace it as far as the Bible reveals it.
Now let’s come to the text. Note how Paul begins: “What shall we say, then?” (Rom. 9:30). Every time Paul uses this phrase or something like it, the apostle is tying together two parts of an argument. It is sometimes to confront a false implication to what he has been saying (as in 6:1; 7:7; 9:14). It is sometimes to transition to another stage in an ongoing argument (as in 4:21). It is sometimes to draw a conclusion from the foregoing verses (as in 8:31). But the point is that this demonstrates that Paul has not moved to a different subject. He is still dealing with the reasons why so many Gentiles are being saved and why so many Jews are lost. His explanation in the previous verses (9:24-29) rests upon God’s sovereign choice. Here in these verses, his explanation rests upon human decision: Gentiles believed and the Jews didn’t. The fact that this text is part of one overarching argument shows that election to salvation and the gospel call to faith and repentance for salvation are compatible. It is true that Paul doesn’t explain how these are compatible, but he seamlessly transitions from one explanation to the other. And this shows that they are both explanations.
So our message this morning will come in two stages: first, we will look at Paul’s explanation as to why many in Israel were not being saved (9:31-33; 10:1-4), and second, we will look at Paul’s explanation as to why the Gentiles were being saved (9:30). And though this text was written in a first-century context, it has implications for us today: the same reasons why people are saved or not remain the same today. So this is very relevant for us today who live in the twenty-first century.
Before I begin, let me just point that that in stating that many in Israel were not being saved, Paul was not being anti-Semitic. After all, he was a Jew, and he was writing this out of a genuine concern for their salvation (9:1-2; 10:1). And the fact of the matter is that the reasons why so many Jews did not believe are very similar to the reasons why so many 21st century late modern people don’t believe. The categories are transcultural and, as I said, very relevant no matter whether you are a Jew or a Gentile.
Why people aren’t saved
I’m considering not only 9:30-33 but also 10:1-4 because there is a lot in these two passages that are parallel. So the first thing we should say is that we can’t locate their lostness in their religiosity. For in 9:31 the apostle describes his fellow Israelites as those who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness. The word described those who competed in the races and presents the idea of fervor and enthusiasm. Then in 10:2, he says that they “have a zeal for God.”
Now there are many today in the West, which is at the moment becoming more secular, who think that religion will be a thing of the past. But according to Tim Keller, scholars who research these trends say that the twenty-first century will be more religious than the twentieth, not less so. Religion is not going away. However, we must not think that this means that the Christian faith will become more prominent. We will always be faced with those who have a zeal for God but who do not have faith in Christ. Religiosity is no guarantee that you will be saved. In fact, religious fervor and sincerity is no mark of saving faith. If anything, false religion can blind people to true religion and render them impervious to the call of the gospel.
But the fact of the matter is that more and more people in our culture are becoming non-religious, identifying themselves as one of the “nones.” What does this text have to say to such people?
In 9:31-33, the apostle says that the Jews pursued the law of righteousness but did not attain to righteousness. Why? He tells us in chapter 10: they did not attain to the law of righteousness because (1) they were ignorant, (2) they were self-righteous, and as a result (3) they did not submit themselves to God’s righteousness. “They being ignorant of God’s righteousness and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves to the righteousness of God” (10:3, KJV). As a result, they missed Jesus, who is the righteousness of God for us, the goal of the very law they claimed to pursue (10:4). I would submit that these are the same reasons that men and women remain eternally lost today.
People are not saved because they are ignorant of the righteousness of God.
Being ignorant of the righteousness of God doesn’t mean you don’t know about the gospel. Certainly many of Paul’s own contemporaries had heard the gospel and rejected it, and I think it is these folks of whom he is saying that they were ignorant of the righteousness of God. Rather, he means they were ignorant in the sense that the message of the gospel didn’t ring true to them. It didn’t capture their hearts, and they neither saw the relevance of it nor felt the weight of it upon their consciences. They were ignorant of its truth and relevance and power. This had been the case with the apostle Paul before his conversion. He describes himself as having been “a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Tim. 1:13). That’s the reality here: it is the ignorance of unbelief.
There are many people today who are in this camp. They claim to know about the gospel, but they do not believe it is true. They are ignorant of the righteousness of God. They do not see their need for a Savior. Why? The answer is that they are self-righteous.
People are not saved because they are self-righteous.
The Jews of whom Paul was writing were those who were seeking salvation by works. Not all Jews were legalistic, of course, but many were, and they rejected the gospel for that reason. They “pursued a law that would lead wo righteousness” and “they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works” (9:31-32). They were “ignorant of the righteousness of God” and were “seeking to establish their own [righteousness]” and so “they did not submit to God’s righteousness” (10:3).
There are basically two types of people in the world. There are those who have a sin-stricken conscience and those who are careless with respect to sin. Our culture has created and nurtured millions of the latter and though it may seem surprising, such people are in a better position to seek salvation by works. It is only when you fail to see the gravity of human failure and sin that you begin to think you can save yourself by being better than others. And you see this all around us. Don’t think that because people have rejected the authority of God and his word that they don’t feel the need to be righteous. It’s part and parcel of the human condition.
For example, think about the cancel culture that in our present moment has become so powerful. It is interesting that those who are enabling the cancel culture are precisely those who think that values are relative, that we determine our own identity, and have absolutized personal freedom. Why then are they cancelling others? It is because they think the “others” are bad, and deserve to be cancelled. On the other hand, they think they are better (more righteous) than the “others” who needs to be cancelled. Now they have no real right, on the basis of their own world-view, to call anyone bad, but they do so, and it is a testament to the enduring human need to be righteous.
It is true, of course, that many of these self-righteous cancellers aren’t trying to be good in order to get into heaven. They may or may not believe in heaven. Rather, they are trying to create a utopia, a heaven, on earth. Their salvation is earth- and time-bound.
But how is this like the Jews of Paul’s day? They put their own self-effort and self-righteousness as the means by which they saved themselves. And even though they attempted to define their own righteousness by God’s law, they ended up missing God’s law and the righteousness it pointed them to. People today may not think highly of the Bible or of Biblical standards like God’s law, but they still have a notion of right and wrong, and they are still trying to save themselves. What they are saving themselves for may be different, but they are still trying to save themselves. And they have adopted the same mindset of the self-righteous Pharisee in Luke 18 who told God that he was thankful he was not as bad as other people were (Lk. 18:10-14).
Of course, if you feel that you are good enough, then you are not going to seek salvation outside of yourself. You are not going to see the need for an alien righteousness, the righteousness of God. And that is the case with millions of people on planet earth. They don’t feel a need for the gospel because they are doing quite well on their own, thank you very much.
Sadly, any salvation is impossible when it is based on self-righteous works, even when its locus is the here and now. Say that you define salvation in terms of personal freedom, which is the case in the West at the present time [by personal freedom I don’t mean political freedom, to which this is ultimately antithetical, but rather the right to determine my personal identity to be whatever I want it to be]. People who seek salvation in this modern gospel peddled on our city streets are trying to find their salvation through personal autonomy in an identity they have self-created. Many are attracted to this personal autonomy and are promised that it will lead to a world in which their will be no more hate or people excluding others, and it will give them the fulfillment they are seeking without judgment from anyone else.
But here is the irony: absolutizing personal freedom has created whole groups of “bad” people who now need to be excluded. The salvation sought was supposed to get rid of one group excluding another, but instead it has created the need to exclude others. Furthermore, because our personal freedom is so important, we end up exploiting others in order to safeguard our freedom. When my own freedom is so important, the people around me become props to support my self-conceived perception of myself (i.e. Facebook and Instagram!). When they threaten that, we have to cancel them (un-friending people on Facebook, for example, is often a very mild form of this). This identity, then, is too fragile to support the weight put upon it. The satisfaction we seek in this world is ultimately elusive.
Why is this? It is because we are created by God who made us for himself. When we put our own self-created identity/freedom in place of God, we are going to inevitably end up frustrated. God will not allow us to find peace apart from himself: “’There is no peace,’ says my God, ‘for the wicked’” (Isa. 57:21). He made us to find our salvation, not in some self-created identity, but rather in him. He created us to find our freedom, not in abandoning his law, but by conformity to it. When we violate the order of creation, we should not be surprised when we fail to find salvation. Like the Jews of old, modern man is trying to establish his/her own righteousness. And when we seek to establish our own righteousness, whether that is by God’s law or by our own notion of right and wrong, we will not submit to the righteousness of God (Rom. 10:3), which is the only way we can be saved.
People are not saved because they do not submit to God’s righteousness.
Jesus is the righteousness of God. He is the savior that people reject, and with him, their own salvation. But it stands to reason that if you can save yourself, you don’t need a Savior. Because people are ignorant and self-righteous, they don’t see a need to submit to God’s righteousness. That was the mindset of the Jews, and it is the mindset of most people in our day as well. Paul says, quoting the OT, that Jesus was a stumbling block to them (9:32-33). He remains a stumbling-block and a rock of offense to many today.
First of all, because people are ignorant of God’s righteousness and confident in their own righteous, they end up actually wanting a different savior. They don’t want salvation before God in the age to come; they want salvation before men in the present. Like the Jews, who didn’t want a Christ hung upon the cross dealing with the most important issue of justification before God, people today want a political savior – they want their salvation from “Rome” and from political oppression. People talk all the time now about righteousness and justice, but this is almost always on a horizontal level, in terms of what people do to other people. However, the reality is that justice on the horizontal level is going to be impossible until we achieve justice on the vertical level, and this can only be done in Christ.
Again, the problem is that this insistence on other saviors and salvations won’t give them what they want. Take, for instance, the fact that today people are rightly worried about the abuse of power to oppress others. For them, the savior they are seeking is salvation from political oppression. But any solution apart from Christ will only lead to more of that. If we don’t come through Christ, we are going to end us using the power we gain to oppress and exploit others. We may start by valuing freedom, but we will end up by destroying it. The French Revolution started by valuing equality, liberty, and fraternity, and ended up with baskets of heads. Jesus shows us a different and better way, because he gave up power – his throne in heaven – in order to save those who had no power to save themselves. Though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, that we through his poverty might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9). People who embrace the Christ of the Bible aren’t going to use others or oppress others, but will be willing to lay down their lives for others. Injustice clearly cannot survive with that mindset.
Second, because people are ignorant and self-righteous, they do not see (and cannot) that Jesus was the goal of the law for righteousness (10:4). The word “end” in verse 4 can carry the notion of “aim” or “goal” (cf. 1 Tim. 1:5). Many of Paul’s contemporaries did not see that Jesus was the Messiah promised in the Scriptures (1 Co. 1:23). They were blind, in fact, as to the real meaning of the OT even though they had the Bible in their hands (Jn. 5:39, 45-47). They were blind because they failed to see the depth of their need and didn’t think they needed a Messiah who had to die for their sins. Instead, they thought they could deal with their own sin by their religious works.
At the end of the day, they failed to see that the law pointed to Jesus. In the same way, modern man misses the multiple signposts put up by God in the created order that point to the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. People sense the need for things like justice, and love, and forgiveness. This need is a signpost to the cross, for that is the only place we will ultimately find the concurrence of all three: justice, love, and forgiveness. For on the cross, God’s love comes to expression in giving us his Son for us that we might be saved from the worst imaginable end in hell. On the cross, our Lord saves us from our sins and thus lavishes upon us the forgiveness of our sins, which we receive through him. But amazingly, we also see justice, for we are saved precisely because on the cross God poured out his holy wrath against sin.
When we realize that Jesus is the goal of the law for righteousness, that our righteousness can only be found in him, then he will also be the end of our trying to gain righteousness by self-effort. He did what we cannot do: he satisfied the justice of God on account of our sin. We can talk all day long about the injustices of other people; what we all need to realize is that everyone of us is guilty of injustice towards God, and he will by no means forgive the guilty. The only way we can receive salvation is if our sin and guilt is dealt with, and we cannot do that. Only the God-Man can do that. Only someone who was both God and man could save us: Man so that he could identify with us and be a substitute for us, and God so that he could bear the weight of infinite guilt upon his shoulders – infinite guilt because we have sinned against a God of infinite majesty. Our obsession with the present material order has blinded us to our greater need of reconciliation before God, but that does not mean that this need does not exist. It does, and it can only be dealt with in and through Christ, who is the righteousness of God for us.
There is no salvation outside of Christ. There is no other name under heaven, given among men, whereby we must be saved (Acts 4:12). He is the end of the law for righteousness, because he is the only one who can achieve the righteousness of God by which we are saved. He is the only one who dealt with the problem of injustice on both the vertical and horizontal levels (cf. Eph. 2:11-22), and therefore he is the only one in whom we can find peace and justice in this world or the next.
This is why people are not saved. They are not saved because they rest in their own righteousness and refuse to rest in the righteousness of God in Christ. But that begs the question: why are people saved?
Why people are saved
Paul’s answer is related to the reason why the Gentiles were being saved, but his answer has significance for anyone who wants to know how people are saved: “What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith” (30).
Paul’s answer is that people are saved by faith. Now this doesn’t mean just any faith, but faith in Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of the world. We see this because in the next verses we are told that the Jews had a lack of faith in Christ, who is the stone of stumbling and rock of offense (cf. 10:11 with 9:33).
Why are we saved by faith? Well, by this point we should know the answer. We are saved by faith in Christ because it is when we believe in him that God justifies the ungodly (cf. 4:5; 5:1). We need to be justified; we are sinners in the sight of God and a holy God will not have fellowship with the wicked. We need the guilt of our sins to be dealt with first and foremost. We need somehow to be made right with God. But how can a holy God declare a sinful man to be righteous? He can do so because by faith the righteousness of Christ is communicated to us. Not because our faith makes us worthy, but because by faith we are united to the only one who is worthy, Jesus. Jesus Christ kept the law we could not keep and died the death we could not die, and he did this as a substitute for sinners, so that his merits could be communicated to us by the sheer grace of God.
My friend, you are not going to find salvation in a self-constructed identity. You are not going to find salvation by demanding the freedom to define yourself however you want. You are not going to find salvation by being good, or by being just as the world defines justice. You are not going to find salvation in yourself. It can only be found in Jesus Christ, because Jesus is the only one who can restore us to fellowship with God. He is the only one who can balance the scales of justice in our favor. He is the only one in whom we can be justified and saved. Don’t relate to him as a rock of offense or a stone of stumbling. Don’t hide your sins behind your self-righteousness, but have them purged in the righteousness of God in Christ. All who come to him, he will never cast out.
 See Keller’s book Making Sense of God (Viking, 2016), p. 9-11.