In Romans 9:1-33 the apostle Paul gave two reasons for Israel’s failure to obtain salvation: (1) Israel failed to obtain salvation because of God’s sovereignty – God saves by grace through faith whoever He chooses on the basis of unconditional election. God saves by grace not race; by mercy not merit; and by faith not flesh. Therefore no man can put God under obligation to save on any other basis. (2) Israel failed to obtain salvation because of human responsibility – since God saves by grace through faith man is responsible to see his inability to be saved by the Law through works of the flesh on the basis of conditional election. Israel pursued salvation as though it were by works rather than by faith (Romans 9:31-32).
Paul was at one time in the same shoes that the majority of his Israelite kinsmen were in. He also pursued salvation as though it were by works and believed in conditional election rather than unconditional election – until the Lord saved him on the Damascus Road. So what Paul was about to write in Romans 10:1-4 was not only true to Scripture but also his own personal experience – he had zeal without knowledge and was attempting to establish his own righteousness.
Paul’s prayer was for Israel’s salvation (Romans 10:1). There are two discoveries to be made in this verse by keeping it in its literary context (the verses that precede and follow it) and in its historical context (the situation in life for the author and the meaning of the message to its original audience): (1) We discover that believing in God’s sovereignty (chapter 9) does not discourage praying for the lost or witnessing to the lost. (2) We discover that while Paul was accused of preaching against the people (his situation in life), his telling them the truth and praying for them showed his genuine concern and love for them. It was those false teachers that told them what they wanted to hear and preyed on them that were actually against them.
Paul’s problem was Israel’s religion (Romans 10:2-3). We notice four problems with Israel’s religion in these two verses that made it almost impossible for them to receive Paul’s message: (1) the first problem with Israel’s religion was that they had a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. (2) The second problem with Israel’s religion was that they were ignorant of God’s righteousness. (3) The third problem with Israel’s religion was that they were seeking to establish their own righteousness – being ignorant of the righteousness of God that He requires. (4) The fourth problem with Israel’s religion was they did not subject themselves to God’s righteousness.
Paul knew all about these four problems because at one time in his life he was the epitome of Israel’s religion. Paul said that he was more zealous for Israel’s religion than the rest of his countrymen – “And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions” (Galatians 1:14). Paul also said that he was “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Philippians 3:5-6). While being attacked in the temple at Jerusalem and given the opportunity to make a defense before the Jews, Paul said, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers, being zealous for God just as you all are today” (Acts 22:3).
Paul had a zeal for God but without knowledge. The word knowledge is epignosis which means “real knowledge” or “true knowledge.” Gnosis is the word for common knowledge which is a lower form of knowledge and may even be a false knowledge. However the prefix epi means “over” or “above.” So epignosis is “true knowledge” which is “over” or “above” common knowledge and must be revealed by God because it does not originate in man. It is knowledge from above as compared to earthly or natural knowledge (see James 3:15, 17).
Paul also at one time was ignorant (without knowledge) of God’s righteousness and sought to establish a righteousness of his own. After being confronted by the Lord on the Damascus Road, Paul threw away his attempts at having a righteousness of his own derived from the Law and relied totally on the imputed righteousness of Christ as his only hope for attaining to the righteousness of God (Philippians 3:7-9). To be ignorant of God’s righteousness is to fail to see that God’s standard is beyond the reach of sinful man and that what we need we cannot attain and therefore it must be received as a gift through the works of another who was able to completely meet God’s righteous standard – this is why salvation is by faith in Christ.
The whole time Paul was depending upon his zeal for God and his personal obedience to the law in order to establish a righteousness of his own by which to be acceptable to God and merit His favor, he was not subjecting himself to God’s righteousness. Believing that he was pleasing God – being very sincere in that belief – Paul was refusing to place himself under God’s revealed way of salvation and was despising God’s authority. Nothing would have looked more like subjecting oneself to God’s righteousness than the earnest pursuit of rules and regulations – but those rules and regulations were for pointing men to Christ by pointing men to their own sinfulness. So instead of subjecting themselves to God’s way of righteousness – they rejected it.
Paul’s prescription was Israel’s Liberator (Romans 10:4). Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. Christ is the goal to which the law points and in Him men can rest and cease striving. By this He is the end of attempting to gain God’s required righteousness through the works of the law because it cannot be done. Christ fulfilled the Law of God completely. In His sinless life He upheld the precepts of the Law; in His sacrificial death He upheld the penalty of the Law; and in His supernatural resurrection He upheld the Person of the Law so that faith in Christ establishes the Law rather than nullifies it (Romans 3:31). Men are saved through the work of Christ alone and not one iota of their own!