To some people their need for Gods mercy is obvious. Theyve lived a terrible life. Theyve done many things of which they are ashamed so no one needs to convince them they are in trouble with God. They know their spiritual condition only too well. For these the challenge of the heart is to believe God actually loves them and wants them to be with Him in heaven forever. These are the ones who are amazed at His grace.
But not everyone has lived a wild life. Not everyone rebels against the rules. Not everyone walks away from their family values or their religious upbringing. Some continue to go to church and give and serve. They say no to the voices that tempt them to just try it once. And as a result they escape the havoc that tears apart the lives of some of their friends. Their families tend to stay together, they often succeed in what they do. They dont embarrass themselves or their loved ones, and people are proud of them. They are held up as examples of how people ought to live. And this kind of success is just what the Bible says will happen to those who obey its rules. Yet, there is a challenge of the heart for this group as well. It can actually be harder for them to be saved. These are the ones especially in danger of stumbling over the stumbling stone.
What does Paul say? (Ro 9:30-10:4)
Here is Pauls summary of what he has been trying to tell us over the course of chapter nine. As you recall (Ro 8:31; 9:14) he uses the question, What shall we say then? to show us how to answer the doubts or confusion that may have arisen from what he just told us. So now after his discussions about Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Pharaoh, vessels of wrath and mercy, and prophecies from Hosea and Isaiah, heres the main point he wants to make. He says:
(9:30) Over the many years he had been traveling and preaching he had watched Gentiles who didnt know the Law or had ever tried to obey it become fully blessed by God as if they had perfectly kept its commandments.
(9:31-32) While many Jews who zealously tried to obey every detail failed and remained under Gods judgment (vessels of wrath) because they were convinced they could be accepted by Him if they worked hard at obeying all the rules in the Law of Moses.
(9:33) Yet, just as the prophet Isaiah has told us, God built into the very fabric of Judaism symbols and promises foretelling that He would send the Messiah to atone for our sins because all of us desperately need mercy: the covenant (Ge 15:7-17; 22:1-19); the tabernacle (the altar); the prophets (Isa 59:15-20).
In the heart of biblical Judaism there has always been a sacrificial system which constantly makes the statement that you will always need mercy. This is where the proud stumble. They become offended by Gods rebuke. They refuse to look honestly at their own condition or admit they need Gods mercy.
(10:1) In spite of the fact that many were stumbling over the stumbling stone of the gospel, and were even persecuting those who tried to preach it, Paul says he continued to passionately pray for them to be saved. Obviously, he believed repentance and faith were still possible even for those he labeled as vessels of wrath (9:22).
(10:2-3) Zeal is never a substitute for humility. It can actually be a form of rebellion against Gods verdict that we are sinful and His assessment that we are powerless to meet His standards.
(10:4) The gospel of Jesus Christ confronts this pride head-on and forces us to choose: will we humble ourselves and seek Gods grace or will we try to make ourselves righteous by our own efforts?
The stumbling stone is basically human pride. I convince myself Im good enough, or will be soon, and if God is just He will have to accept me as I am. Yet, how is it possible for someone to study the Law with all of its rules and holy standards and still come to this conclusion? Paul actually gives us the answer by showing us his own heart. What a person must do is focus on their outward behavior and ignore Gods standards for the inward attitudes of their heart.
Paul says he perfectly kept the outward standards of the Law (Php 3:4-6)
Yet, by his own admission he failed to keep its inward standards (Ro 7:7-11), such as not coveting (Ex 20:17) and loving your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18).
This is the secret to self-righteousness: a person must compartmentalize. They must focus on outward behaviors (dos and donts ) while ignoring inward attitudes (faith, love, purity). Lets listen to Jesus explain this: Luke 18:10-14; Matthew 7:1-5.
The Purpose of the Law
Paul tells us God never intended for the Law to make us righteous. Yes, of course its a guideline that shows us how to live, and as Christians we still try to obey, its moral standards, but anyone who sincerely tries to obey will soon discover that they cant, and that discovery is a good thing, not a bad thing. If we respond honestly and humbly admit our condition then our hearts are being prepared to receive Gods grace. We are personally discovering our need for mercy. Listen to what Paul says: For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe (Gal 3:21, 22).
Preparing for grace
A proud person sees no need for mercy, so in order to prepare us to receive His gift of righteousness God must first humble us. In order to avoid stumbling over the stumbling stone I must:
1) Be willing to honestly evaluate my own condition.
To admit my wrong choices
To admit my impure attitudes
To admit I need mercy
To stop trying to justify myself by: dumbing down Gods standards until I think I meet them as I am; comparing myself favorable to others whose failure is more glaring than mine.
2) Be willing to acknowledge that God is holy and unchanging
Good and bad, right and wrong, pure and impure dont change with time or public opinion
3) Be willing to face the fact that God will judge my life and hold me accountable.
Not water this down with talk about His love.
Not assume He doesnt see whats taking place in my life or care (Ps 14:1; 36:1; 139).
4) Be willing to trust Gods promises to be merciful to those who acknowledge their failure and repent.
David: Psalm 32, 51
David was willing to acknowledge his inward (and outward) sin and trust that God would be merciful to him. His frequent references to lovingkindness (hesed) show that he understood God had promised to be merciful to those who repent and would not fail to do so.
There are always two steps to receiving Gods grace. The first is repentance and the second is faith. But even when it comes to repenting human pride can slip in and render it useless. If were not careful pride can produce a counterfeit repentance that avoids true humility.
Repentance is not: Grieving over my failures (2Co 7:8-10); hating myself; promising to stop; becoming zealous (going to church, tithing, reading the Bible, praying or doing acts of penance).
Each of these assumes that I could or should have done better or that with a renewed effort I will do better in the future, and if I achieve a certain level of good behavior God will consider my new lifestyle acceptable and call me righteous. Real repentance abandons all hope that Ill ever be good enough
in fact it stops trying to earn anything. Instead with empty hands it reaches out to take the gift God mercifully offers. Lets close by listening to Paul tell us how he did this: Philippians 3:7-9
First, is there anyone who thought you were good enough or maybe that everyone else is bad enough that God would let you into heaven the way you are? If so, this message is for you. Second, most of us are conscious of backsliding into various temptations or of neglecting our spiritual disciplines, but there is another area that is equally or more dangerous: that is of living such a good Christian life we return to trusting our own righteousness. We return to self-rightousness without even realizing its happening. Heres one way to check: when taking communion do I have a hard time thinking of any sins?
1) Which challenge of the heart did you face? Was it hard to believe God could forgive someone as sinful as you, or did you live such an orderly life it wasnt easy to feel remorse for sin? 2) Share an example (thats not too personal) where God convicted you of a sin until you repented. Did the problem go away or do you just repent more quickly now? What is God teaching you in this process?