Stumbling in the Pursuit of Righteousness – Romans 9:30-33

After concluding Romans 8 with the great promise that nothing can separate those who have been declared righteous and adopted into the family of God from the love of God, a reader might object that God has in fact rejected his people Israel. God made promises to Israel which seem to remain unfulfilled because of Israel’s unfaithfulness. Chapter 9 argued God this is not a problem of God’s faithfulness. Like Ishmael, Esau or Pharaoh, Israel’s failure to respond to God is an opportunity for God to show mercy (or not) on whomever he wills. But this does not mean Israel was not responsible for their failure to obtain righteousness through the Law.

But God’s sovereign choice does not mean Israel bears no responsibility for their failure to obtain righteousness through the Law. This is true even though the Law was not able to produce righteousness in the first place.

For Paul, Israel did not pursue righteousness through faith, but rather by works. Does this implies righteousness could be obtained by the following law, but Israel pursued righteousness in the wrong way? Schreiner does not think this was Paul’s point at all (Schreiner, “Israel’s Failure,” 213). Earlier in Romans Paul has argued the Law could not make someone righteous since that was not the purpose of the law in the first place (Rom 7:4-6).

Israel failed to obtain righteousness assuming a right relationship with God depended on total obedience to the Law rather than God’s grace. For example, in is likely that the worship offered by the northern kingdom of Israel was properly performed, all sacrifices were made according to the Law, yet God says that this worship is a stench to him because the people are not acting justly (Amos 5:21-24).


The verb translated “reaching” in verse 31 (φθάνω) can refer to attaining a particular status or state. Schreiner detects a racing metaphor, citing the verb “pursue” in this verse and “to run” in 9:16. I would also add the idea of a “stumbling block” in 9:32 could be part of the metaphor of running a race.

The Jewish people pursued the law of righteousness yet did not attain the goal of the Law. Looking ahead to 10:4, Paul will conclude this paragraph by stating clearly that Christ is the goal of the Law.

The Law was the standard to which Israel held themselves, but they could never obtain that standard. They therefore failed because they were seeking the wrong goal from the beginning. It really did not matter how close they came, they were never able to reach the goal since it was the wrong goal for them in the first place.

To extend Paul’s metaphor of a foot race, imagine competing in 100 meter sprint. You wear the right shoes and get into the proper starting crouch, and make an excellent start when the gun sounds. You bear down and sprint the 100 meters, finishing well ahead of all the other runners, absolutely certain you have won the contest. But as it turns out, you were competing in a 26.2 mile marathon. Your excellent start, perfect performance and stellar finish do not count for anything, since the goal set before you is still 26 miles away.

By way of analogy, Israel pursued righteousness by pursuing the Law. Many kept the Law as well as they possibly could, yet found themselves falling short of the glory of God since they were pursuing as if the works of the matter rather than faith in the grace of God who has called them into a unique relationship with God.

Although this is aimed that Paul’s Jewish dialogue partners, I suspect this warning is important also for Christians. It is easy for us to think we are pursuing Christ well by doing the right things, or by having a vibrant (emotional) worship time, by reading the right blogs, by voting for the right candidates or supporting all the right causes. These are not the standards by which we were declared righteous in the first place, nor is it the standard by which we maintain our relationship with God.

28 thoughts on “Stumbling in the Pursuit of Righteousness – Romans 9:30-33

  1. I have never understood Romans to mean that God has gone back on it’s promises to Israel. They were still a people set apart and I’m not totally convinced that it ever stopped, but rather changed to involve others and the law was deemed unnecessary. Because of this I see the law as something which God has abandoned, rather than the Jewish people. He didn’t abandon the people group, he took away the necessity of the law. He didn’t take away the special importance but rather allowed others to joined and moved the focus on something else. I don’t believe God broke his promises as well but rather included others and changed it from something that is all about the law to something that is all about the heart.

  2. I think that when we are looking at Israel following the law, as you said in you blog post, they tried their very best to keep the whole law. The things that were given to Moses to pass along from God were kept all the way through Jesus’ time. We get the example of when the rich ruler asks Jesus what he must do to earn salvation, Jesus tells him to keep the commandments, and he answers with the fact that he had kept them since he was a boy. Jesus then tells him to give up his wealth and he cannot do it. In this sense we can see that it was a heart issue. Just following the rules does not make you saved. In a way it almost seems unfair, he is held to a standard that he doesn’t even know. For Israel faith was about following God’s command, but there is more to having a relationship than just rules, your heart has to be in the right place as well.

    • Thompson, good job on your discussion post. Your example of the rich ruler who could not give up his possession, in the end, was a great way of explaining the discussion further. When thinking about the whole idea myself another reason why individuals may only be trying to follow the law rather than having a deep, real relationship would God could be because they care about what others think. Meaning, they are doing all the rights things a Christian should be doing but just because they want others to think they are great. To them, they still probably seeing themselves as living right in the eyes of God because they are following all His rules, just making sure everyone knows it at the same time. For example, in Matthew 23 Jesus warns against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and calls them out their selfish “Godly actions”. The Pharisees acted correct and preached how they should in front of the crowds but then still were not right with God in the end, proving following the law in the wrong way will never bring someone to righteousness.

      Expanding on the above point, the amazing thing about God is He will call His people out when they are following the law rather than Him, no matter the reasoning behind it. For example, with the story that you gave with the rich ruler and mine with the Pharisees God used Jesus to open the eyes of these different individuals. Next, in Romans 9:30-33, God used the Genitals to make the Israelites “jealous” and come back, aligning themselves correctly with Christ (Longenecker, pg .188). By choosing an ethnicity of people who were not God’s chosen, it would make the Israelites realize the law is not needed any longer under the New Christian faith because when they tried to stand rightly with God through the law only they did not achieve anything but the Genitals did when standing in faith (ESV, pg. 2174). By brining nations back and calling individuals out, this proves God truly is just (1 Corinthians 10:13) but also graceful (Ephesians 2:8-9).

  3. I’ve been reading this blog since I was a senior in high school, and this has got to be one of my favorite blogs that you have written. The metaphor for running a race would flow with the rest of Paul’s writing. We see him making running metaphors in a few verses (1 Corinthians 9:24-26, Hebrews 12:1, 2 Timothy 4:7). I believe that your suspicion is correct too. Since this book was written to Jewish Christian and gentiles, I would assume that there was still some forms of legalism floating around in the church.

    Just like the Jews, we also cannot attain the goal of the Law. We can run the race of the Law, but we will never be able to finish. With Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, we have been taken out of the race. Christ has run the race and finished it for us.

  4. I think you are right Christians also going about believing their works are what matter most, when it is our faith that needs to take root and flourish beyond just their manifesting in good will and works. The Jews tried to live their lives following the Law and their traditions to a T, and ultimately they had fallen into a trap. They were so caught up in the fact that they were obeying the Law, that they were ignoring the relationship and faith aspect of their lives that God expected, or wanted, to see from His people. Likewise, Christians need to be wary of taking works too far. Works should be the result of our faith, not actions to show off or a way of life to imply our righteousness. Ephesians 2:8 shows Paul addressing the Church in Ephesus on this same matter, that it is by faith and not by works that one is truly saved. Also Romans 9:16, which was mentioned in the article above, tells us that man’s efforts are not enough to gain salvation and Romans 3:23 speaks prior to that about all falling short of the glory of God. Jews and Christians alike needed to understand that although works can be a good thing, it is faith that ultimately leads to our getting salvation. This was true in the past, and it is still important knowledge to remember and adhere to as long as we are here on this earth.

  5. We serve a just and faithful God. Back in the Old Testament, God made a promise to Israel. God is going to keep his promises, but it is a two way street. Israel needed to seek after God- and instead, they relied too heavily on the Law to save them. In regards to righteousness, Romans 9:30 compares “righteousness that is by faith” with “a law of righteousness.” They lacked faith, and instead, put all of their hope in the law. It is not like they neglected God and didn’t care, but they were zealous in the wrong way. Doug Moo states, “Though God revealed himself to them, and they were zealous for God, they did not comprehend that Christ was bringing God’s righteousness” (Moo, 156). Essentially, the law was made as a supplement until the death of Christ. Once Christ died on the cross for us, righteousness was to be found only through having faith. As we can see, God was very faithful and just by sending his Son to die on the cross, but the Jews just had to believe, and instead of believing, they focused on works based salvation and obeying the law.

  6. It is so easy to get wrapped up in faith as a thing by works. It is the only practical thing that we can truly see a result of most of the time. Paul warns his audiences in general that faith is to be by faith and not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9). Doing all the works means nothing if you do not have the faith to go with it. We think that by doing all the right things that we are earning a favor with God and that He will look on us as people to be rewarded for what we have done. While following the Law and having actions that follow are good, they are useless if not backed by a firm faith in God and the saving acts of Christ. And that is why we need to be reminded so often and it is a good thing that Paul mentions it multiple times through his letters. Just like the Jews, we can boast in our works when our boasting needs to be focused only on God in what He has done for us.

  7. I think this is an issue every Christian struggles with. The Jews are a prime example of how we place legalism over grace most times in our life. It is a constant battle in a believer’s life to be grounded in grace for what God has done through Jesus and not focused on personal works. The Jews were this way because of their perspective on the Law. As you mentioned, their goal in regard to the Law was the wrong goal. They strived to live a life of salvation through works, and not on what Christ did. This is the perspective we need to remind ourselves every day. Works by no means is bad, however, it cannot become our idol, our god who we are enslaved too, or the means by which we label our salvation. This is an ever present struggle for us now as the Jews back then, however, they had more attachment to the Law because it was officially produced for them. They just had the wrong perspective and goal that caused them to be where they were as a nation.

  8. I agree with that last paragraph entirely. We as Christians who also happen to be Americans do all kinds of things all kinds of ways. This business of telling people they ‘must not be a Christian if they vote for that person’ has no place in the church. the other things you mentioned there are other examples of how we fill our lives with spiritual things that ultimately don’t save us. we need to adjust our focus so that we identify with the redemption we have in Christ FIRST, before our patriotism, before our good Christian life, before our other interests and desires. A life that is lived in reverent remembrance of that fact will ultimately lead others toward Christ.
    I want to mention something that puzzles me regarding this topic. Jesus said that he would turn away people who prophesied in his name because he ‘never knew them’ in Matthew 7. The way that they should have ‘gotten to know’ him was by doing the will of his father (v. 21). What was Jesus talking about here? seeking to do the righteous thing? and doesn’t that line up with the Jews’ attitudes in what they pursued by keeping the Law? If all that is true, then i don’t think the implications of both of these passages can exist next to each other.

  9. The analogy of running a race is interesting to me because even though we have track teams and the Olympics, would the Jews have understood the concept of running a race exactly like we understand it today? I think that many churches today are concerned more with “rule-following” than with spreading the Grace of God. The Jews definitely missed their mark and missed out on righteousness through faith because they were not focused on Christ as the finish line. I would say that we as a Body of Christ today could do a better job at preaching this message.

  10. I have grown up in a Christian family and went to Christian schools and churches all my life. I definitely agree that sometimes we pursue the wrong things. It is easy for me to get caught up in trying to be a good Christian by following all the rules, rather than truly following God. This puts and unnecessary pressure on my day to day walk with God. Why do I continue to try to be a “good person” rather than focusing on my walk with God, then? I find that it feels safer and easier to try to be a good person and keep my own agenda. It feels like I still have control. I believe many western Christians today (me included) try to keep this “good person” façade up because we are afraid of what God can do with our lives otherwise.

  11. I think the video shown above is a perfect illustration of how most Christians feel about their relationship with our Savior Jesus. For me I have a habit of comparing other people’s relationship with Jesus to my own and always have the feeling like I am doing something wrong. It always feels like other people have a better relationship than I do. But I need to remember that it doesn’t matter how many good works I do, but its the relationship I build with Jesus. I need to focus more on the individual relationship I have with Jesus and focus less on what other people think about my relationship with the Lord.

  12. Many times I find myself pursuing righteousness the way Israel had been. I focus so closely on doing the “right” and “acceptable” things that Christians are supposed to do. By doing this, I find myself losing sight of Jesus hanging on the cross and begin believing that my righteousness depends upon being a “good Christian”, if such a title was even possible. Romans 3:22 explains the way that one is declared righteous. It is all through belief. Of course following God’s commands and trying to refrain from sinning are both good things. However, if those things begin to feel like the determiners of our salvation, then we have to examine our faith and ourselves.
    Verses 16 through 21 could show that those who are not elected will never reach righteousness through their works. This goes for the elect as well. The difference is the elect (depending on one’s view of predestination) have chosen or will eventually choose to believe it has been by Christ’s mercy that we are saved. It is not by our own doing that we become righteous.

    • I agree with you that sometimes I believe my works are able to make me right with God, but I know none of my works can compare to what Christ has done for me to become righteous. I also have been thinking about why am I able to partake in the blessing that come from believing in God and not others who will never be able to? Then I think about how does free will play into the process of predestination? Does not God desire to give all people the opportunity to be able to choose if they believe in the work of Christ or not? I know I belong to Christ through the evidence of the Holy Spirit in my life, but why I am able to have security and not others?

  13. I agree that once we, as believers, accept Christ that we immediately obtain righteousness, but to become righteous is a process as we learn more about God and how we are able to reflect His characteristics in our lives. As a Gentile, it makes sense we do not have to do anything to obtain righteousness, but Jews do not completely understand that now they do not need to do any works to become righteous (Moo, 143). Romans 9:30-31 does states that Jews will stumble over no longer having to do works to obtain righteousness, but I believe there is hope to overcome it. Romans 10:1-4 states that we need to pray for the Jews to have the full revelation of the Gospel revealed to them.

  14. The idea that is present in this passage of scripture and this post is that faith cannot be obtained by pursuing the Law, but by faith in Jesus and the grace of God. Moo said that the Jews’ preoccupation with the law kept them from seeing that Jesus is the climax of God’s plan of redemption (Moo, 143). In verse 9:32 it says that the Jews did not pursue faith, but rather works. Mentioned at the end of the post is that while Paul is addressing the Jews, this is an important message for present-day Christians to keep in mind as well. Some people believe that they are doing well because they are doing all of the good works. It is important to Christians to keep in mind that good works do not merit them salvation, but rather that good works are an after effect of salvation. When a person has a good relationship with God and are passionately pursing Him, then the good works will follow.

  15. I think that we need to trust that God will never go back on his promises. He should not be blamed for the rebellion and fallen nature of his creation. Humans must face the consequences of their wrong choices. It is so easy to blame God when something bad happens. When something good happens on the other hand, we tend to forget to thank God for it.

    Paul presents God’s righteousness in Rom. 3:21-26, which makes it possible for all people to be justified, not by works of the law but by faith. The new era of salvation has begun with the coming of Christ (Moo). The righteousness of God has been made known “apart from the law” (3:21). “Law” there refers to the Torah, which was what many of the Jews attempted to follow so precisely, while not caring about anything else.

    I love the running analogies in Romans because running is one of my greatest passions. So it is easy for me to relate to and understand. 1 Cor. 9:24 also tells us to “run in such a way that you may win.” We must have our eyes on the finish line, and what is truly important, not just the good race we are running (or the good works we are doing). It all means nothing if we do not finish.

  16. Romans 9:30-33 is a very interesting passage in scripture that should not go unnoticed because it was God’s way of reminding Christians everyone can be saved but also not everyone will know Christ even if they “know Christ”; meaning, know the stories, the rights words to say, and the right things to do. While in the past Gentiles were not apart of the Christian faith, in this passage God is throwing that out the window and saying everyone can be righteous regardless of their ethnic identity, changing the nature of obedience to God (Longenecker, pg. 187). This is great news today for people who lived their entire lives in sin but have now found God because it means all their past works do not define their righteous salvation, instead their seeking of God does. However, this is not good for the type of Christian who grew up in church, believing his works are what define his relationship with God. Sometimes when you know everything you should be doing it can overcome an individual and he will believe he needs his works to be perfect to be right with God. This is what happened to Israel in Romans 9:30-33 when Paul called them out for pursuing the law rather than righteousness. Although God was not going to break his covenant with Israel, they still were seen as disobedient because they tried to pursue right standing through the law rather than faith (Longenecker, pg. 187). Instead, of getting wrapped up in following the “right way” as the Israelites had, a Christian needs to remember grace and faith are the only true way to salvation or he will forever be pursuing a destination he will never be able to reach. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8).”

  17. I definitely think Israel pursued righteousness in the wrong way because they failed to have faith in Jesus. God sent Jesus to give us a perfect example of what it means to follow the Law. Jesus is ultimately the blueprint to the Law and faith in him means having a proper righteous mentality for God. Having obedience in God through having faith in Jesus will align a person on the path to righteousness in accordance with God’s purpose of the Law. As Longenecker states, faith lies in the heart of everything (Longenecker, 184). However, those of ethnic Israel did not want to submit to faith in Jesus because of God’s direct allegiance with them. This allegiance meant everything to ethnic Israel, and for them following the laws of the Torah meant they were righteous in the eyes of God. Paul stresses that just following the rules of the Torah was not the key to righteousness and that God has given these laws for another purpose. The Laws of the Torah were given to act as guardians until the true Law came down who is known to be Jesus. Jesus is the blueprint to righteousness in Gods eyes and having faith in him corresponds with proper obedience to God.

  18. With the analogy you made about the foot race, it made me think of someone being “perfect” (or thinking they are), but they have it all wrong that will not help them in the end unless they make a major adjustment. Because the Israelites were not living out their faith as they should have been, they were relying on their own strength and not of that of the Holy Spirit. Their faith was weak and had no foundation, so it just crumbled in the midst of their pursuit of what was not real / authentic faith. The book of James mentions works should come from faith, but people cannot earn their salvation. Salvation is free to people through the sacrifice of Christ, which He is the ultimate righteousness and not the law, as Romans 10:4 says “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (ESV).

  19. God always keeps his promises, even ones made back thousands of years ago to a nation of Israel that was unfaithful to Him. the Jewish people attempted to attain righteousness through the law, and failed. Have we Christians not learned from the failure of Israel? Today you often see Christians, like you said, spending the right amount of time in personal devotion, listening to the right music, saying the right things, but we know that those are not things that bring salvation. The only things that truly brings salvation is the accepting of Jesus Christ into your heart. Once this is done, then the holy spirit works through you and transforms your heart to become a better person and, in turn, those things that you thought were making you a good Christian start truly become second-nature. I like the stumbling block metaphor because it bring light to the analogy of running a race and falling short of the glory of God.

  20. I do not think that Paul is saying God is not keeping his promises. There was something that was written in the blog that I think we often miss when we discuss wether or nor God keeps his promises. P. Long states “But God’s sovereign choice does not mean Israel bears no responsibility for their failure to obtain righteousness through the Law” (Long, 2019). While I think most of us would agree that God always keeps his promises we need to acknowledge their is responsibility on Isarel’s part for not following the Law they were given at Mount Sinai. Today are quick to say God did not keep his promise to Israel however, just because the promises have not been fulfilled does not mean he will not keep those promises.

  21. I believe that people would say that God didnt keep his promises because they have misread or just simply misunderstood the text. Just as the Jews of that time. They misunderstood what the Law was. They viewed it as the way to righteousness. And in doing so they never realized that it is throguh faith in God that we will be saved. Another thing I think leads to people saying God didn’t keep his promises is that they have no patients. Since they never seen it happen they just believe that it will never come true.

  22. I also think Paul gave these verses as a warning to Christians. Doing the right “things” never works out for any believer. It is a form of legalism and in my experience the hardening of the heart. As a Christian, we cannot save ourselves by reading the Bible and praying every day, or other forms of worship. Only God can and will save us if we confess our sins and repent. God is sovereign to forgive us. Yes, these things can strengthen our relationship with God if used by the right means. If our hearts are in the right spot and we are not thinking, “I am a better Christian because I do this or this every day, and God will surely put me in heaven when I die because I read the Bible.” Salvation cannot come through us it only comes through God, God died on the cross for our sins. It is by faith that we are saved not works, works are the evidence of our faith in Jesus Christ, (James 2:19-22). We have works because it is revealing the grace of God through us because we have faith. God died on the cross for our sin so that we did not have to work for our salvation, God freely gave us salvation through His death and resurrection on the cross. Works are the evidence in our lives that Jesus is alive, also it helps us grow closer to God. Reading the Bible deepens our relationship with God and praying is important because it is direct communication with God.

  23. The Israelites tried their very best to keep the whole law. God will call His people out when they are following the law rather than Him, no matter the reasoning behind it. God used the Genitals to make the Israelites “jealous” and come back, aligning themselves correctly with Christ . by Him choosing a group of people who were not chosen by God showed them the Israelites that In This new walk with Christ InThis new Christian faith that the law is not needed. Sometimes Christians think that works are more important than salvation it’s self. It’s our faith and walk with Christ that is important. Just as the Jew cannot attain the expectations or goal of the law neither can you and i we try to follow the law the best we can but Jesus eventually takes over when we can finish so he finishes for us.

  24. In this post you discuss the issue regarding the purpose of the law. The Jews pursued the law but did not fulfill it. The people of Israel pursued the Lord through their righteousness and works instead of the grace of God. We read in Romans that Jesus is the fulfilment of the law. In Christ there is no need to fulfill the law. The final sacrifice has been made by Christ. Paul discusses the race that the Jews were on, and they were pursuing the wrong goal. Instead of pursuing righteousness they needed to be pursuing God’s grace. The challenge throughout this post regarding the race we are on. We should not be pursuing righteousness to be in good standing with God. We need to be pursuing Christ with pure intentions. We cannot set our own standards and we will never meet the standards of God. We have access to our father through His grace. We need to be pursuing the Lord without the mindset of self-righteousness. “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4 ESV). Our goal for all we do must be for Christ. We are set free from the law by Christ. This implores us to live a life pleasing to God because of the sacrifice of His son. Our standing with God is not based on our works but on the work of the cross. The race that we are in is toward the Lord and not toward righteousness. This is a common mistake that we all often make.

  25. I think you are right with the point of Christians sometimes thinking that by works they are doing good things and having that relationship with God. I think today we think if we are to go to church, worship, help where it is needed, and be kind to others we are having a relationship with God. This is not the case at all. We need to read the Bible, study it, ask questions, and reread. To find and have that relationship with God is more than works, we must also pray and talk to God. Having a relationship with God is more than just how one looks to others but what you do on your own time, how you spend your time with God when nobody’s watching. Though it can be easy to get into that routine of doing good works and thinking you are doing good enough and don’t need to do more, that is not what God calls us to do. I think we today do as Israel did, we listen to what the Bible tells us to do, we look good on the outside, and follow the Word but our heart posture is not where it should be. We do not spend that needed one on one time with God and we don’t seek that relationship with God.

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