Wherefore? Because [they sought it] not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumblingstone;
Note 3 at Ro 9:32: Why is it that a person who is seeking so hard to please God can be rejected, while a person who has not sought God at all can come into a righteous relationship with Him? This is an important question, and its answer is one of the most profound doctrines in Scripture.
Paul gave the answer to his own question. The answer is faith and its object. The Jews were zealous (Ro 10:2) for the things of God, but their faith was in themselves. They were trusting that they could earn God's favor by their acts of righteousness. On the other hand, the Gentiles had no holiness to trust in. So when they heard the Gospel that Jesus paid man's debt, they readily accepted His "gift" of salvation, while the religious Jews could not abandon their trust in themselves for salvation.
This same problem exists today. Millions of church people are trying to live holy lives, but they do not have a true faith in Jesus as their Savior. If they were to stand before God and He was to ask them what they had done to deserve salvation, they would immediately start recounting all their acts of holiness: church attendance, financial giving, etc. Regardless of how good their actions are compared to others, they always come short of the perfect standard of God (see notes 5-6 at Ro 3:23). The only response to this kind of question that would grant them entrance to heaven is for them to say that their only claim to salvation is faith in Jesus as their Savior. Anything more or less is damned.
Note 4 at Ro 9:32: There is a difference between works of faith (1Th 1:3 and 2Th 1:11) and works of the Law (Ga 2:16; 3:2, 5, and 10). The difference is not in the action but in the attitude. A work of the Law is some act of righteousness or holiness that is being done to earn the favor of God. A work of faith may be the same act of righteousness or holiness, but it is done as a labor of love (1Th 1:3). It is done not to obtain favor but in gratitude for the favor that has already been extended to us in Christ. Works of the Law and faith in Jesus are opposites (Ro 11:6).
Note 5 at Ro 9:32: Jesus is the "stumblingstone" that Paul was speaking of. God has placed Jesus directly in the path of every person. Those who fail to put their complete trust in Jesus because they are trusting in themselves will stumble and fall into hell, while those who believe in Him will never be ashamed (Ro 9:33).
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