A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 10:1-21. Israel’s fault: God’s dismay over her disobedience.
Chapters 9-11 of Romans all address the problem of Jewish unbelief. In chapter 9 the emphasis was on God’s purpose according to election; the emphasis of chapter 10, however, is on the human factors, on the need for an understanding of the gospel (5-13), for the proclamation of the gospel (14-15) and for the response of faith (16-21). With chapter 10 Paul turns from the past to the present, from his explanation of the Israelite’ unbelief to his hope that they will yet hear and believe the gospel. This vision for the future he will elaborate further in chapter 11.
1). Israel’s ignorance of the righteousness of God (1-4).
Paul begins this chapter, as he began the last, with a very personal reference to his love and longing for ‘them’. In the Greek sentence they are not specified, but NIV is certainly right to insert *the Israelites*. There are several similarities between the openings of the two chapters. In both Paul mentions his heart: his heart’s sorrow and anguish because the unbelieving people of Israel are lost (9:2f.), and his *heart’s desire and prayer to God…that they may be saved* (1). J.B.Phillips catches the earnestness of the apostle’s cry; ‘My brothers, from the bottom of my heart I long and pray to God that Israel may be saved!’ At the beginning of chapter 9 he expresses the hypothetical wish that he himself might be cursed if thereby they could be spared (9:3); at the beginning of chapter 10 he expresses an ardent, prayerful wish for their salvation. Moreover, as his pain is increased by their combination of privilege and prejudice (9:4f.), so his longing is increased by their combination of zeal and ignorance (2).
Paul has no doubt of their religious sincerity. He *can testify about them* from his own experience *that they are zealous for God*. And he knows what he is talking about, because he himself in his pre-conversion life was ‘extremely zealous’ in his religion (Gal. 1:14), as seen in his persecution of the church (Gal. 1:13; Phil. 3:6). Indeed he was ‘just as zealous for God’ as any of his contemporaries (Acts 22:3), and could even describe his zeal a that time a an ‘obsession’ (Acts 26:9ff.). So he is obliged to say to the Israelites that *their zeal is not based on knowledge* (2). Yet Scripture says that ‘it is not good to have zeal without knowledge’ (Pr.19:2). Sincerity is not enough, for we may be sincerely mistaken. The proper word for zeal without knowledge, commitment without reflection, or enthusiasm without understanding, is fanaticism. And fanaticism is a horrid and dangerous state to be in.
Having asserted their general condition of ignorance, Paul now particularizes in two negatives: *they did not know the righteousness that comes from God* and *they did not submit to God’s righteousness*. Instead they *sought to establish their own* (3). Recent commentators who have accepted Professor E.P.Sanders’ thesis of ‘covenantal nomism’ offer an interpretation of this verse which is very different from the traditional understanding. Professor Dunn, for example, argues that the Jews were right to see ‘righteousness’ as obedience to the law and so loyalty to the covenant (the meaning of ‘covenant nomism’), but wrong to construe it in terms of circumcision, sabbath observance, dietary regulations and ritual purity. This understanding of the law was not only ‘too superficial’ but also ‘too nationalistic’, because it disenfranchised the Gentiles whom God wanted to include. ‘Their own righteousness’, therefore meant a righteousness which was particularly and exclusively their own, and was being contrasted not with God’s but with other people’s. (Compare E.P. Sanders (1883): ‘”their own righteousness”…means “that righteousness which the Jews alone are privileged to obtain” rather than “self-righteousness which consists in individuals presenting their merits as a claim upon God”’). And their attempt to ‘establish’ this righteousness of their own was an act not of creation (producing something out of nothing) but of confirmation (presenting what was already in existence, namely their covenant membership and righteousness). What Paul objected to was ‘Israel’s attempt to maintain a national monopoly to that covenant righteousness’. What then does it mean that *Christ is the end of the law…*4)? What Christ terminated was not the law as the way of attaining a righteous standing before God, but ‘ the law seen as a way…of documenting God’s special regard for Israel, of marking Israel out from the other nations….’
What disturbs me about this attempted reconstruction, I confess, is not so much what is being affirmed (for the Jews were ethically exclusive), but what is being denied. For example, the statement that ‘their own righteousness’ is not being contrasted with God’s is plainly not so in 10:3, and more plainly still in Philippians 3:9. I think the Jews (like all human beings) were more self-righteous than Professors Sanders and Dunn allow. As Calvin justly commented, ‘the first step to obtaining the righteousness of God is to renounce our own righteousness’.