On my first day of college many years ago, I met a Gentile who was “born again.” He presented Jesus Christ as Savior and the only way to heaven and told me I needed to accept Him.
Although no longer observant by then, I had been raised Orthodox and took his presentation as a personal attack on my people.
“I am Jewish!” I yelled at him. “We don’t believe in Jesus, nor do we need Him. Don’t even mention that name to me again!”
Yet I knew something was wrong. I was raised to pursue righteousness by keeping the commandments (Hebrew, mitzvot)—by keeping the Mosaic Law—and was zealous and proud of my Judaism. But sometime after my Bar Mitzvah at age 13, I realized I couldn’t keep the commandments 100 percent of the time. I knew I fell short of God’s standard and was unholy––not fit for heaven.
How was it, I wondered, that a Gentile could live a more righteous life than a Jew? The answer is found in the book of Romans: Righteousness comes only by faith.
With the exception of biblical Christianity, every religion in the world, including Judaism, teaches that one becomes righteous by doing good works. In Romans 9:30––10:21, the apostle Paul, himself a Jew, explained that righteousness is unattainable through works and achieved solely by faith and that Israel, in its present condition, is blind to that concept. It is so focused on getting the Law right that it can’t see the promised Messiah, who offered God’s righteousness by becoming the final sacrifice for sin through His death and providing victory over sin through His resurrection.
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In Romans 9:30–33, Paul made the case that Israel, God’s Chosen People, pursued righteousness through the Law and fell short (v. 31), while Gentiles who were not pursuing righteousness found it through faith (v. 30).
Unfortunately, it is entirely possible to pursue the Law without faith. That was God’s problem with the Israelites: Bring no more futile sacrifices; incense is an abomination to Me. The New Moons, the Sabbaths, and the calling of assemblies—I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting. These people draw near with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from Me (Isa. 1:13; 29:13).
taught that the Law was to be obeyed, he also taught it was to be in their hearts (Dt. 6:4–9).”
Faith comes from the heart, which is why God commanded Israel, “You shall love the L your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Dt. 6:5). “Without faith it is impossible to please Him” (Heb. 11:6).
Had Israel sought righteousness by faith, it would not have stumbled over the Messiah: “For they stumbled at that stumbling stone” (Rom. 9:32).
Quoting the great Jewish prophet Isaiah, Paul explained God’s sovereignty in placing a “stumbling stone and rock of offense” (v. 33; cf. Isa. 8:14; 28:16) before Israel and still saying, “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame” (Rom. 9:33).
Paul’s message was motivated by a love and great burden for his people. In verse 3 he even said he would exchange his own salvation for theirs, if he could. His constant prayer was that Israel “may be saved” (10:1). Paul knew his people were zealous for God but lacked knowledge (v. 2) and were thus blind and lost. Instead of submitting to God’s righteousness by faith in Jesus, the One who “is the end of the law” (v. 4), they sought their own righteousness by following the Law.
Paul delineated the central issue: Which righteousness is acceptable to God? Works of righteousness through the Law or faith righteousness through Christ? Unmistakably, Israel had received great privileges as a result of being chosen, such as the sacrificial system, the priesthood, Temple services, the prophets, and the covenants (9:4–5). But those things pointed to the One who would come to offer Himself to them. He would redeem them and make them righteous. Instead, they rejected Him and worshiped the Law.
Paul strengthened his argument by calling on the Law written in the Torah (the Pentateuch): “You shall therefore keep My statutes and My judgments, which if a man does, he shall live by them” (Lev. 18:5); and “the word is very near you, ... to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways. ... But if your heart turns away ... you shall surely perish” (Dt. 30:14, 16–18).
Steve Herzig is the director of North American Ministries and a Bible teacher for The Friends of Israel.