Sermon: The Complete Failure of Man’s Righteousness (Romans 10:1-3)

The Complete Failure of Man’s Righteousness

Romans 10:1-3

Truth Taught-Human righteousness even when it is zealous still leads to utter destruction


I can remember a conversation I had with someone many years ago about the issue of Jesus Christ being the only way a sinner can be made right with God. As this person made their case for God being inclusive of all religions because, according to him, even though they don’t realize it, all religions actually worship the same God. I asked him where did he get his view from? His response was that to see if someone’s religion is real we should just look to the worshipper’s commitment and zeal for God.

No matter what you say, people most often have their minds made up already. So when I took them to Romans 10 and showed him what Paul said about the Israelites…Judaism (one of the religions he felt was acceptable to God) when it came to their zeal and to their commitment they still felt that other religions were as good as Christianity. The fact is regardless of how hard someone believes a lie is not relevant.

Paul began to show us in Romans 9 that the Jews are missing the most important and vital piece Jesus, Himself. They were a group who tried to work their way to God. When shown the truth they stumbled over Jesus.

Romans 9:30–33 (ESV)

30 What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. 32 Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33 as it is written,

       “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense;

and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

When a person is using the Law of God as a means of finding God’s favor what they are doing is seeking righteousness by their own efforts.

Human righteousness even when it is zealous still leads to utter destruction

Human Need

We must realize that there is salvation only in Jesus Christ. We also have the need to live accordingly.

Father, You have Gathered Your people that You may let us hear Your words, so that we may learn to fear You all the days that we live on the earth, and that we may also teach our children…amen

Romans 10:1–3 (ESV)

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.

So, what did Paul do? What was his strategy when it came to the salvation of his Jewish kinsmen?

  1. Paul Prayed

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.

While the Israelites had zeal without knowledge, Paul had a zeal with knowledge. He knew God is sovereign. He had just taught us in Romans 9 about God saving some and hardening others. He taught us Jacob I loved and Esau Ive hated. He taught us about election and God’s foreknowledge. While all that is true, now he’s going to show us how it is the elect are saved and how prayer plays a wonderful part in the equation.

There are hyper-Calvinists, those who do not see a need for prayer and evangelism because they say, Since God is sovereign and has elected those to save then we play no part in that at all.

Paul was not a hyper-Calvinist and we are NOT hyper-Calvinists.

God wants us to pray is that in prayer God allows us as creatures to be involved in activities that are eternally important. When we pray, the work of the kingdom is advanced. In this way, prayer gives us opportunity to be involved in a significant way in the work of the kingdom and thus gives expression to our greatness as creatures made in God’s image.[1]

Many times in the Bible we see that prayer changes everything. Now this is a difficult concept to grasp especially in the realm of a sovereign God. Hopefully, we can see a little bit through the veil, as it were to discover God’s greatness and our praying.

James 4:2 (ESV)

You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask.

Here, the implication is that asking God in prayer is directly connected to our receiving what we need.

Luke 11:9–10 (ESV)
And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.

Many times in the OT we read of God relenting judgment when His people turn to Him in humility and prayer.

2 Chronicles 7:14 (ESV)

14 if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.

Prayer changes the outcome of certain circumstances.

How do we reconcile the two truths…one is prayer changes things and two, God is sovereign?

Philippians 2:12–13 (ESV)

12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Philippians 2:12-13 is a very practical passage in which we may observe a perfect balance of these two truths. Paul is talking about the outworking of the Christian life. He emphasizes the aspect of human responsibility in this process (v. 12), and he also emphasizes God’s sovereign control (v. 13). God is controlling and man is responsible. Neither of these two verses should be quoted without the other because the Bible keeps both truths in perfect balance.[2]

So prayer is effectual and really matters in God’s plans because God not only ordains the ends but also the means to His divine decree. In other words, He ordains His plans and they will all come to pass. Sometimes the means in carrying out His plans are through the prayers of His people.

We see the same thing in the great commission. God has determined to save all His elect children. He does so through the evangelistic efforts of His people.

So, we can pray with confidence that our very prayers are also ordained by our sovereign Father for the purpose of His glory and will being accomplished in this world.

One more example…

Luke 10:2 (ESV)

And he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.

Do you see the issue here? Jesus knows exactly the quantity of witnesses for Him. He knows exactly the condition of the people, namely, that they are ready for harvest. Rather than sending out workers into the fields to share the Gospel with the people who are ready to hear, He tells us to pray to Him, the Lord of the harvest that He would send out workers into His harvest.

Paul understands that the only hope his fellow Jews have is if someone prays for them. They are unwilling to understand the truth that righteousness doesn’t come by man’s efforts but only by God’s grace. His kinsmen desperately need truth…

  1. Zeal Without Knowledge

For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.

At the end of Chapter 9 Paul has told us that the Jews did everything they did all for nothing because they lacked faith. Now he takes back even another step to something that comes even before faith…knowledge or truth.

I want us today to see the importance of truth.

I remember a guy who came to me after a Disciple Hour class and in a complaining way said, I feel like I’m in seminary or something on Sunday mornings. I guess his idea was to come on Sundays and sit back and not think or do anything. It was about a year later he came to me telling me that he was saved as he thought through and prayed to God about his sin and turned to Christ for righteousness.

Before we begin looking at our text today I want to establish the vital status God places on truth.

Let’s look at the importance of truth…

John 1:14 (ESV)

14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 8:31–32 (ESV)

31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

John 14:6 (ESV)

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

John 16:13 (ESV)

13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.

John 17:17 (ESV)

17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.

John 18:37 (ESV)

37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”

Paul declared that “those who perish,” do so “because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved” (2 Thess. 2:10) and that those who are saved are sanctified “by the Spirit and faith in the truth” (2:13). No matter how erudite, religious, and sincere they may be, those who rely on their own knowledge and understanding are destined to be “always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7).[3]

Paul was the greatest witness to the fact that the Jews were zealous people. They were deeply committed to what they believed. Before Paul’s conversion, he was the Pharisee above all others. He worked harder than all others.

Galatians 1:13–14 (ESV)

13 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 14 And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.

Notice Paul uses the same word zealous…in other words, he knows what its like to have an ignorant zeal.

He gives us a very similar assessment of his ignorant zeal in Philippians…

Philippians 3:3–7 (ESV)

For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people 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 righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.

One dynamic when someone has a zeal without knowledge when given truth they will reject it and remain zealous without truth. Like Paul before he met Jesus he was zealous and hated truth. He would rather go on believing lies and made up traditions of men than the truth. For Paul it took a divine work of God to open his eyes to truth. He knew that if his kinsmen were going to be saved, it would take God’s work to overpower their spiritual deadness and zeal.

Ephesians 1:16–18 (ESV)

16 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, 17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, 18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints,

These Israelites were lost but had a zeal for God. They thought they were doing what God wanted but they we not. So, what exactly did they lack? Where did they go wrong? What exactly did they have wrong?

  1. Righteousness Without God

For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.

They were ignorant of the righteousness of God.

They did not know the righteousness of God. Literally, it’s closer to they did not acknowledge the righteousness of God.

They really were not ignorant of it or it’s not they didn’t know it. More precisely they did know it at least in part but didn’t acknowledge it.

When Paul uses the phrase: the righteousness of God it’s used in the sense of the righteousness of God being revealed for the purpose of salvation. This is exactly the way he uses the same phrase in chapter 1.

Romans 1:16–17 (ESV)

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

Do you see what he’s getting at? It’s in the Gospel alone that God’s righteousness is revealed to sinful mankind for the purpose of salvation. His righteousness is revealed in Christ for the purpose of having it applied to the sinner for salvation.

So, to disregard God’s righteousness makes things even worse. Their ignorance is a guilty ignorance.

This takes us back to Chapter 9 where Paul tells us that they did not pursue the Law by faith and stumbled over the stone who is Jesus Christ.

Rather than taking God’s righteousness by faith in Jesus Christ which is the only righteousness God accepts, they went on ahead striving to establish their own righteousness. Their attempts were always futile.

It’s much like what God spoke through the Prophet Jeremiah…

Jeremiah 2:11–13 (ESV)

11    Has a nation changed its gods,

even though they are no gods?

       But my people have changed their glory

for that which does not profit.

12    Be appalled, O heavens, at this;

be shocked, be utterly desolate,

declares the Lord,

13    for my people have committed two evils:

       they have forsaken me,

the fountain of living waters,

       and hewed out cisterns for themselves,

broken cisterns that can hold no water.

The Israelites were so rebellious and proud that rather than receiving righteousness as a free gift from God through Jesus, they would rather try to drink dirt because it’s dirt they supplied for themselves.

They failed to receive true righteousness that God had. They failed to submit to it by faith.


  1. We see religions all over the world seeking to work and achieve some level of righteousness thinking that if they’re committed and zealous enough that God will accept their efforts.

We could go down the list of various religions and study how it is, in their beliefs, righteousness is achieved. Beloved, unless we receive Christ’s righteousness as a free gift we are not loved by God. In fact, all others will be judged and sentenced to eternal damnation. It doesn’t matter how committed a person is or how hard they work, all their efforts are wasted.

John 14:6 (ESV)

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

  1. We must be praying diligently for our lost loved ones and friends. Like Paul taught us, Prayer with evangelism is the key to seeing the lost saved.


[1] Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine (p. 377). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.


[3] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans. Chicago: Moody Press.

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