To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

My Photo
Location: Mud Creek, Tennessee, United States

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Righteousness Through Faith

Rom. 9:30-33
Preached Sunday morning, December 12, 2004
New York Avenue Church of Christ

Do we really care about righteousness? Most of us care about salvation—about going to heaven instead of hell—but do we really care, deep down, about righteousness? On Wednesday evenings we’ve been studying how pagans in New Testament times thought that blessings came not to those who pursued righteousness, but to those who simply performed the correct rituals. Do we ever fall into the same boat? Or do we hunger and thirst for righteousness?

This passage in Romans 9 is simply full of the idea of righteousness; Paul mentions righteousness three times in the first two verses. As we’ve seen, the idea of righteousness is central to the book of Romans—and to the Christian life. Righteousness can have two meanings in Romans. It can mean either righteous behavior or righteous standing before God [1]. We probably think more often of the first, but the second is really more important and is in mind here. It’s hard to imagine anything more important for us, because right standing with God is basically the same as salvation. Yet as central as righteousness is to our salvation, it is still a very misunderstood concept, among both Christians and the lost.

We can see here part of the reason why it’s hard to understand. It doesn’t make sense. Verse 30 says that Gentiles, who weren’t even trying, attained righteousness by faith. That statement must have been a huge shock to the Jewish Christians in Rome. They lived day-by-day among the excesses of paganism—the futile worship of false gods, the officially sanctioned immorality of pagan cults, the total disregard for righteous living or pleasing God. Things are upside down here—the Jews, who refused to take part in worldly abominations, are lost. And the Gentiles, the pagans who had no compunction about sinning, are saved. How unfair is that? Things are totally upside down.

But God works like that sometimes, doesn’t he? In the Old Testament, God had a habit of choosing the younger brother over the older to receive an inheritance. In the New Testament we hear a story of laborers working one hour being paid the same amount as men who worked at the same job all day. Jesus said that the poor in spirit would inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. How could God approve of all those things and still be fair?

Well, for one thing, God’s not “fair.” The Bible never calls God “fair,” and there’s a reason for that. He’s much more than fair, actually. He’s just, and loving, and good. He wants more than “fairness” for us. He wants the best for his people, and sometimes that doesn’t make a lot of sense, at least at first, to our minds. But remember what Paul said to the Corinthians? “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27). The truths of God look upside down to worldly minds and hearts because God they are contrary to the way the world works.

Let’s remember another central idea in Romans: that righteousness is a gift from God to his people. Maybe one of the reasons God isn’t fair is to remind us of this gift. The Gentiles weren’t even trying for righteousness, but some of them attained it. What did they do to deserve it? Nothing, of course. It was a gift. But they did have something they had to do, you might say— Have faith! Believe! Trust!

And what kind of sense does that make? How can simply believing some fact save us? Well, of course it can’t. The faith in this passage must be more than simply believing something mentally. Even the demons do that, and it certainly doesn’t help them (Jas. 2:19). It must be something more—faith that takes feet. Jesus often healed sick persons and told them their faith made them well. But their faith had to lead them, first, to come to Jesus and, second, ask him for help. For our faith to be saving and sanctifying it must be a faith that brings us to Jesus. It must bring us to repentance (faith in commitment) and baptism (faith in action). Yet despite all these things we ourselves must do, our sanctification is still a gift from God and not wages for our good behavior.

Even Christians struggle at times with that idea. Have you ever heard a Christian say, “If I’m good enough to get to heaven . . .”? Have you ever spoken that way yourself? Part of growing up in an earthly sense is coming to know that you have to work for what you get. That’s a lesson that many people still need to learn. But when it comes to salvation, we need to get rid of the idea that we can earn it. We mustn’t even come to think that faith is a work for salvation. See verse 16: “Therefore, God's choice does not depend on a person's will or effort, but on God himself, who shows mercy.” Our works are not our salvation. Our faith is not even our salvation. Christ is our salvation.

The Jews failed to attain righteousness because they pursued it as if they could earn it. Again, that is the natural way to go about it. If you want something, you’ve got to work for it. That’s usually true, but not always. It’s fascinating, for example, to compare the baseball careers of Carl Yastrzemski and Babe Ruth. Yaz played 23 seasons for the Red Sox. He had more than 3400 hits and 450 home runs. A big part of his success came from how hard he worked at baseball. He ate well, kept himself in top physical condition, and practiced and practiced even after he became a major league all-star. Yet his best accomplishments simply can’t compare to Babe Ruth’s. And the Babe was the opposite kind of player. He ate and drank too much, kept himself overweight, ran around into the wee hours of the morning, and still stepped up to the plate and delivered like no other player before or since. Yaz attained baseball greatness by works, but the Babe’s achievements were a gift, by grace, you might say. Some things in life do indeed come to us only by grace. Righteousness is the most important one of all.

This passage in Romans 9 is specifically about the Jews’ inability to understand righteousness through grace. The misunderstanding is not limited to Jews, as we see elsewhere in the New Testament. In Gal. 3:1-3, for example, Paul chides Christians: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you. . . . Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?” That is where our thoughts and actions naturally gravitate to—the flesh. The antidote to that tendency, Paul showed the Colossians, is to “Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience” (Col. 3:12). Notice that Christians are to put on these qualities not as those striving to be chosen by God, but as those already chosen. We are to do good works as an act of love and gratitude, not as a means of earning righteousness. Paul went on to tell the Colossians, “And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:15b-16).

We will fail as Christians if we put anything, even faith, restoration, godliness, or good works, in place of the Lord’s grace. That may be hard for us as Americans to accept. We pride ourselves as a nation on our hard work and self-reliance. But if we, like the Jews of Paul’s day, try to pursue righteousness by any kind of worthiness, we’re just running in place. Remember verse 16: “Therefore, God's choice does not depend on a person's will or effort, but on God himself, who shows mercy.”

Trusting in Jesus Christ as our righteousness is so hard, the Bible calls Jesus a stumbling stone. Here Paul is talking specifically about the Jews, who stumbled over Jesus as the only means to righteousness. There are probably a couple of different reasons the Jews missed the point. For one thing, they had been looking at the law so intently, they missed the message of grace that’s found in the Old Testament. Secondly, they took great pride in their ethnic heritage—in being the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Someone has suggested that the Jews made the mistake of thinking God “liked” them [2]. Well, the Bible seems to say that God didn’t necessarily always like the Jews, but he always loved them! It’s the same with Christians today. I’m not sure God always likes us, but he always loves us. Christ is still the stumbling stone for unbelievers today, whether Jew or Gentile. I know that the stumbling stone tripped me up as a teenager making my own bumbling way to God. I could accept Jesus as a helper to assist me in doing better, but it took some time to accept him as the savior who gives me a righteousness and salvation I don’t deserve. I’ve know others who struggled in the same way.

One young man I knew came forward for prayer after a Bible study. He kept saying “I want to be better,” but he simply couldn’t accept his need for total repentance and regeneration through baptism. I’m afraid he was looking for righteousness and salvation on his own terms. There are thousands of ways to do that in the world. Whole industries are devoted to keeping our mind away from the only One who can possibly save us. The world still looks in the wrong place, and pride still blinds the eyes of those who refuse to surrender all they have and are to Jesus Christ. Jesus is still the stumbling stone for the lost.

But for Christians, for those who have already allowed ourselves to be broken on that stone, Jesus is our righteousness, and the rock of our salvation. If we believe in him we will not be put to shame (v. 33). Do those words about shame carry any weight in our shameless society? On Wednesday evenings we’ve been studying how much honor and shame mattered in the first century. Today many of us still know shame, particularly persons who have experienced abuse or molestation as children, or failure at any time in our lives. Of course, all of us deserve shame for our sin. We’ve all sinned, and are subject to shame. Those living outside of Christ ought to pay attention to that shame and repent and be baptized before it’s too late. But shame is not what God wants for those who have begun a new life in Christ. God is not looking down and wagging a finger at Christians saying, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself.” No. God wants to share his righteousness with us.

That’s God’s nature, to love us and want us to be like him—righteous and pure. He is the only one who can make us that way. True righteousness is a gift. I urge you to take it up and live the glorious life God wants for us.

1. Gerald R. Cragg, "The Epistle to the Romans," exposition, The Interpreter's Bible, vol. 9. Nashville: Abingdon, 1954, p. 551.
2. Ray C. Stedman, "Let God Be God." Online sermon text at

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ


Anonymous Anonymous said...

it is really inspiring as i try and prepare a word for this school related Christian club talking about attaining our Righteousness through our faith in Jesus Christ..

Continue to do the Lord's work and never give up doing what you know is right and what God is saying to you..

Be Blessed

8:39 PM  
Blogger Milton Stanley said...

Thanks for your encouragement, Anon. All the best to you, too.

9:18 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home