What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness…
Paul had two facts before him; the first was, that wherever he went preaching Christ certain Gentiles believed the doctrine, receiving at once forgiveness of sin and a change of heart; and although he had usually commenced his ministry in the synagogues, yet the Jews had almost everywhere rejected the Messiah, and at the same time missed the righteousness which they conceived they had obtained. Note —
I. A WONDER OF GRACE.
1. Certain men had attained to righteousness. Now that alone is a great wonder, for we are all sinners both by nature and by practice.
2. The wonder grows when we consider that these persons had attained to righteousness under great disadvantages; for they were Gentiles, considered by the Jews to be offcasts and outcasts given up to idolatry or to atheism and lusts. There are virtues for which the heathen had no name; and they practised vices for which, thank God, you have no name. They were ignorant withal of the requirements of the law, the light of which alone shone upon the seed of Israel. The strange thing is that such originally were those men who attained unto righteousness. Having no righteousness of their own, and being convinced that they needed one, they fled at once to the righteousness which God has prepared for all who believe in Christ. Are there not persons here whose condition is somewhat similar? You are not religious; but why should not you also attain to righteousness by faith? Wonders of grace are things which God delights in; why should He not work such wonders in you?
3. The marvel of grace was all the greater because, "They followed not after righteousness." Some of them were thoughtful, just, and generous towards men, but righteousness towards God was not a matter after which they laboured. Gold or glory, power or pleasure, were the objects for which they ran. Yet when the gospel burst in upon the midnight of their souls they received its light with joy. They had not sought the Shepherd, but He had sought them, and, laying them on His shoulders, He brought them to His fold. They were like that Indian who, passing up the mountain-side pursuing game, grasped a shrub to prevent his slipping, and as its roots gave way they uncovered masses of silver. These Gentiles discovered in Christ the righteousness which they needed, but which they had never dreamed of finding.
4. These unlikely persons did really believe, and so attain to righteousness. They did not want hammering at so long as some of you do. At the first summons many of them surrendered. They rose at a bound from depths of sin to heights of righteousness. The apostle asks us, "What shall we say then?"(1) Herein is seen the Sovereign appointment of the Lord. He will have mercy on whom He will have mercy, He will fulfil His promise to His Son, "Behold, Thou shalt call a nation that Thou knowest not," etc.
(2) This also is according to Divine prophecy. "I will call them My people, which were not My people," etc.
3. This is, in fact, the gospel of the grace of God. That God smiles upon worthy people and rewards their goodness is not the gospel. The gospel is that God hath mercy upon the guilty and undeserving.
II. A MARVEL OF FOLLY: "Israel," etc. These people —
1. Were very advantageously placed. They were of the chosen race, born within the visible Church, and circumcised, and brought up to know the law of Moses, and yet they had never attained to righteousness. There are those present who were nursed in the lap of piety; they have scarcely been a single Sabbath absent from the Lord's house. Now that they have reached riper years they are still hovering around the gates of mercy, but they have not entered upon the way of life. I tremble for you who are so good and yet are not regenerate.
2. Were earnest and zealous in following after the law of righteousness. Alas! many who have never forgotten a single outward rite are nevertheless quite dead as to spiritual things. Nobody could put a finger upon an open fault in you, and yet you, at least, have a shrewd suspicion that all is not right between you and God. It is concerning such as you that Paul had great heaviness and continual sorrow of heart. You may be earnestly seeking righteousness in the wrong way, and this is a terrible thing.
3. Made a mistake at the very beginning. Israel did not follow after righteousness, but after "the law of righteousness." They missed the spirit and followed after the mere letter of the law. They looked at "Thou shalt not kill," "Thou shalt not commit adultery," etc.; but to love God with all their heart was not thought of. They thought of what a man does, but they forgot the importance of what a man is. Escape from this error; be not so eager for the shell as to lose the kernel, so zealous for the form of godliness as to deny the power thereof!
4. Went upon a wrong principle — viz., that of works. This principle is wrong for —
(1) It exalts man.
(2) It ignores the great fact that you have sinned already. Are you going to be saved by your works? What about the past? If I am going to pay my way for the future, this will not discharge my old debts.
(3) It makes nothing of God. It shuts out both His justice and His mercy.
(4) It is impossible to you. You cannot perfectly keep the law of God, for you are sold under sin. Who can get clean water from a polluted spring? "There is not a just man upon earth that doeth good and sinneth not." But suppose you could outwardly keep the law of God out of a sense of obligation to do so, yet the work is not done unless you yourself are made right with God. Your heart must love God as well as your hands serve Him.
5. Fully developed their unrighteousness when they stumbled at Christ. Jesus Christ came among them, and became to them a rock of offence. They seemed to stand upright until then; but when He came among them, down they went into actual rebellion against the Lord and His Anointed. Yes, your moralists are the great enemies of the Cross. They do not want an atonement; they can hardly endure the doctrine.
(C. H. Spurgeon.)
Parallel VersesKJV: What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith.