For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. 6 But the righteousness based on faith says, "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?'"(that is, to bring Christ down) 7 or "'Who will descend into the abyss?'" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? "The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, "Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame." 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."
It would be reasonable if someone asked: Why do we spend time in modern, 21st century America thinking about the problem with Israel – especially the problem with ancient Israel in biblical times? It seem so remote – so distant from terrorism in Riyadh and Casablanca, and from starvation in Ethiopia, and from Sars in Taiwan and Toronto, and from budget deficits and depressed economy and low interest rates, and from a possible bloodbath in the Republic of Congo between the Hema and Lindu tribes.
Romans 9—11 deal mainly with the problem of Israel’s failure to find righteousness before God and, therefore, salvation and eternal life. The rest of the world – the Gentiles – come into view starting in Romans 9:24 and stay in view the rest of the time, but they are secondary in Paul’s attention in these chapters. The main issue, again and again, is: Is Israel God’s chosen people, and what went wrong? Why should this matter to us?
Israel: The Historical Microcosm of the World’s Conscience
Let me focus on one main reason. By God’s design Israel is the historical microcosm of the world’s conscience – your conscience. Israel is the historical theater where the drama of every human soul is played out for all to see. What goes on inside you spiritually – and every other person – has gone on in Israel historically, and the story is told so that we can see ourselves and see the world understand. If you want to know your own spiritual condition before God, as a human being – if you want to know the greatest issues for all the world – you can learn it from watching the history of Israel as it is interpreted in the Bible.
I’m drawing this truth from Romans 3:19. There Paul says, "Now we know that whatever the law says [that is, the Old Testament law for Israel] it speaks to those who are under the law [that is, Israel], so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God." Do you see the point? God deals with Israel in his law not just to make things plain to Israel, but to make things plain to the "whole world." God speaks to Israel so that "every mouth may be stopped." Yours and mine. Israel is a microcosm of our conscience. Israel is a theater where we can watch our own spiritual struggles played out in history – and learn what they mean and how to respond to them. This is one reason why the early church never gave up the Old Testament, even though Christ has come and fulfills all the Old Testament hopes.
Israel as Microcosm Explained in Five Steps
Let me try to explain this microcosm – this theater – a bit more fully in five steps.
First, every human heart has a form of God’s law written on it. Paul says in Romans 2:15:
"[The Gentiles] show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them."
So we have a form of God’s law written on our hearts which God gave to Israel written in the Old Testament. Ours is invisible. Israel’s is visible and readable.
Second, we all fail to keep the law we have. Paul says in Romans 3:9:
"What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin."
So not only do we have a form of the law written on our heats that Israel had in writing, but we and they both fail to keep it. We all sin. But Israel’s sin is more clear because we can see the law that they break. It is written down in history. The law written on our heart is not visible, and so our disobedience and rebellion is just as serious, but is not so clear. Israel is the visible theater where you can see in history what is really going on in you.
Third, all of us know we fail to live up to God’s law written on our hearts, and our conscience condemns us.
And intuitively, we know this condemnation is an echo of God’s condemnation which is even more severe and just. The voice of conscience – as weak and imperfect as it is – is the echo of God’s judgment. And when we see Israel judged under the hand of God in history, we are seeing a drama of our own situation before God. When their mouths are stopped, ours are stopped.
Fourth, the remedy for Israel’s guilt and condemnation is relevant for us, because God’s purpose is that his way of saving guilty sinners is the same for Israel and for the world – but we learn it best by watching the theater of Israel’s history.
God’s remedy is not better law-keeping, but faith in the law-keeping and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Listen to Romans 3:28-30:
"For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one. He will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith."
In other words, the way of salvation from law-breaking and condemnation is "justification by faith, apart from works," and that means the way is open for all nations, Israel and all the rest.
You can see the same thing right here in our text, Romans 10:11-13:
"For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him [Jesus Christ – the stumbling stone, see 9:33] will not be put to shame.’ 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’"
The point is: "everyone who believes" on Christ will be justified in God’s courtroom. And since justification is by faith alone, therefore salvation from worldwide universal guilt and condemnation is open to Israel and all other nations.
So we have seen four ways that Israel is the historical theater of the drama of our own lives before God:
- we have a law of God written on our hearts, and Israel has the law written down in history for all to read;
- we fail to live up to our invisible law, and she fails to live up to her visible and written law for all to see;
- we are condemned by our conscience as an echo of God’s more severe and just sentence, and she is condemned by God visibly and publicly;
- the remedy offered to Israel is faith in the Messiah, Jesus, who provides a righteousness that they could not provide for themselves, and that is perfectly suited for us Gentiles as well.
So Israel’s historical story and our internal, personal story connect in Jesus. Their history was pointing to Jesus, and our spiritual struggles were pointing to Jesus.
Which leads to one last illustration of Israel as the historical theater of our life’s drama.
Fifth, Paul describes why Israel missed the remedy, faith in Jesus Christ, so that we will not make the same mistake, and so that they can find their way back.
Now this is where we are in Romans 10:5-13. I have begun this way so that you can see why this text matters for you. What Paul is doing here is explaining for us why Israel missed the point of her own law. His aim for us is that we would not miss the point of that law or the law written on our hearts. They read their story and didn’t see the point. Are you reading your story and not seeing the point? Do you know what your conscience and your failures and your guilt feelings are all about? Have you watched the theater of God’s dealings with Israel and learned about his dealings with you?
We should pause and ponder the wonder of this for a moment. God Almighty, Creator of the universe, Ruler of all things, has intervened in history for the last 4,000 years to deal with a people called Israel – why? – so that the whole world might understand themselves and their struggles and their Maker and the way of salvation by Christ. He deals with the microcosm for the sake of the macrocosm. He deals with one finite people for the sake of all peoples. He deals in visible history for the sake of invisible souls and minds and hearts that are depressed with guilt and condemnation. Is this not a marvel that the history of Israel – told in the Bible – is about you! It’s about your right standing before a holy God, and about your change.
And so it turns out after all that God’s dealings with Israel do relate to terrorism and its anger and grief, and they do relate to Sars and with its pain and fears, and they do relate to a depressed economy with its unemployment and discouragements and hardships, and they do relate to tribal rage with its revenge and unforgiveness – because the whole story of Israel and her failure is leading us to Christ for forgiveness and for righteousness and for help to everyone who believes.
The Way Israel Missed the Point of Her History (Verses 5-8)
So I ask, have you avoided Israel’s mistake, or are you making the same one? Let’s look at how Paul shows us in verses 5-8 the way that Israel missed the point of her history. He already made the point in Romans 10:3-4. Israel put her own righteousness where Christ’s righteousness belongs.
"Being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. 4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes."
Israel failed to see that her law, her history, was meant to lead her to Christ for righteousness by faith, not by works.
Now in verses 5-8 Paul illustrates this failure from the Old Testament. We should watch and be sure that we do not make the same mistake in using the law of Israel or the law in our own hearts. What Paul says here is that the Old Testament taught that two kinds of righteousness: the righteousness from law and the righteousness from faith in Christ.
Righteousness from Law
The first he illustrates in verse 5 by quoting Leviticus 18:5:
"For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them [or: by that righteousness]."
In other words, Paul says that Moses laid down the principle that perfect obedience to the law would obtain eternal life from God. If we would trust him and by his grace never sin, we would be saved and have everlasting life.
Both Paul (Romans 3:9-10; 3:23) and the Old Testament (1Kings 8:46) are perfectly aware that no one gains life this way because we all sin. But the principle – that God’s primal and ultimate demand is perfect faith with no sin – that principle is absolutely crucial – none of the Old Testament sacrifices, or the cross of Christ, makes sense without it. Righteousness by perfect faith and no sin would make one perfectly suited for eternal life. You can see this in Galatians 5:3, "I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law." In other words, if you want the "righteousness from law," you must keep the whole law perfectly by a perfect faith (see Numbers 14:11; 20:12). But no one has ever measured up to this standard – except one.
Righteousness from Faith
Which leads to the other kind of righteousness, namely, the righteousness by faith in Christ. Paul illustrates this righteousness in verses 6-8 by referring to Deuteronomy 30:11-14. Remember, this is what Paul is explaining from verse 4: "Christ is the goal of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes." How does he illustrate this from Deuteronomy 30? Listen as I read the original verses from Deuteronomy 30:11-14. Their point is that the law is doable!
For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, "Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?" 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?" 14 But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.
For Paul this text points to Christ as our righteousness. He says that what this text is really pointing to is "the word of faith that we proclaim" (v. 8), that is, to faith in Christ. Listen to the way he weaves Christ into this text in Romans 10:6-8:
But the righteousness based on faith says, "Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’" (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 or "‘Who will descend into the abyss?’" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? "The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim)."
Now how does he see Christ in this passage? That is the crucial question. And remember Israel’s failure to see things like this is the theater from which we are supposed to learn about our own souls and our own salvation.
How Deuteronomy 30:11-14 Points to Christ (Four Steps)
Here’s my four step answer to how Paul sees Deuteronomy 30:11-14 as pointing to Christ as our righteousness the way Romans 10:4 says it does.
1. Paul knew from the Old Testament and from experience and from inspiration that all people sin, and none is righteous (Romans 3:9-10). 1 Kings 8:46, "There is no one who does not sin." Therefore, he knew that there was something strange about this seemingly simple statement in Deuteronomy 30:11, "This commandment is not too hard for you." The commandment had proved too hard for everyone in the world, even the most faithful. And would prove this hard even to Paul’s own day.
2. When Paul uses the words in verse 6, "Do not say in your heart," he is quoting from Deuteronomy 9:4 where God warns Israel, "Do not say in your heart . . . ‘It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to possess this land." In other words, he knows that the gift of the promised land was not owing to how easy it was to keep the commandments. It was not owing to any human righteousness. It was owing to God’s totally undeserved grace apart from any human performances. Paul sees in that a picture of the way justification comes to the believer – how we enter into the promised land of God’s favor.
3. A few verses earlier (Deuteronomy 30:6) Moses says that the eventual perfect obedience of Israel would only come in the day when God fulfills his new covenant promise perfectly and totally changes the heart of Israel. Moses writes, "And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live." Almost certainly Paul read this with Christ in mind. Christ would bring this to pass. His blood would be the blood of the new covenant (Luke 22:20). Someday there would not only be perfect justification, there would be perfect sanctification. The commandments really would be easy – someday. Through Christ!
4. Now Paul was prepared by the wider and nearer context to see Christ implicit in Deuteronomy 30:11-14. Each time Moses refers to the commandment being easy and near, Paul substitutes Christ. Look at verse 6:
"But the righteousness based on faith says, ‘Do not say in your heart, "Who will ascend into heaven [OT: to bring the commandment near and make it easy and doable]?"’ [But Paul says] (that is, to bring Christ down)."
He puts Christ where the commandment is. Then in verse 7 Paul goes on. Neither does the righteousness from faith say
"‘Who will descend into the abyss [OT: to bring the commandment near and make it easy and doable]?’ [But Paul says] (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead)."
Again he puts Christ where the commandment is.
Notice carefully, Paul refers to Christ’s incarnation – "to bring him down" (v. 6) – and to his resurrection – "to bring Christ up from the dead" (v. 7). The point is: There is nothing Israel did to make this happen. Paul puts the earthly life of Christ and the risen life of Christ in the place of our obedience to the commandments. That is the key to justification. That’s the point of Romans 10:4, which these verses support: "Christ is the goal of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes." This is the first step in how the commandments are "not too hard for you." They were not too hard for Christ. And God credits his obedience to you.
In other words, Paul sees in this Old Testament text a pointer to the day when Christ would be both our righteousness and our sanctification. First, Moses teaches, we must have a perfect righteousness that is doable – but none do it. Therefore, Paul infers, Christ will come, live, die, rise, and thus do the perfect obedience for us, and credit it to us. And then, because of that great justification – that great step in the fulfillment of the new covenant – we will one day, with a perfectly circumcised heart, obey God perfectly with ease and joy.
Our response to this is to have joyful faith in Christ, our righteousness. Verse 8: "But what does [the righteousness from faith] say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim)." What Moses was teaching was the way to faith in Christ for righteousness.
There is so much more to be said here and we will pick it up next week. But consider this in closing. Jesus said, "My yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:30). But he also said, "The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life" (Matthew 7:14). We live between perfect justification – which has already happened – and perfect sanctification – which has not yet happened. We taste it now: Oh, how sweet is the fellowship of Christ in doing his will! And how easy it is when we live in the wonder of being a justified child of God, all-satisfied in Jesus! But Oh, how we groan, in our failings of faith and obedience! Let us say with the apostle Paul, "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" He is our righteousness. He is our victory. He has circumcised our hearts. And he is working our sanctification.
O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer’s praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of his grace.
My gracious master and my God,
Assist me to proclaim,
To spread the through all the earth abroad,
The honors of Thy name.
He breaks the power of canceled sin,
He sets the prisoner free;
His blood can make the foulest clean,
His blood availed for me.