Stumbling Stone or Cornerstone?

Romans 9:30-33

May 12, 2006 | Ray Pritchard

Last week’s sermon was called Straight Talk About Predestination. If I were giving someone else advice, I would say that a title like that is just asking for trouble. I think it’s called leading with your chin. It’s hard to think of many topics that get people hot and bothered faster than the whole question of God’s sovereignty and our free will. I received a note from a friend who said that she had never thought about the question until she got married:

I didn’t struggle with the issue (in my own mind) until l married my husband and learned that all people didn’t necessarily believe the way I did (I’m embarrassed it took me that long to figure it out)!! We have differing views and it has become a recent (and sometimes heated) discussion/debate between us (now and then our friends get in on it, too!!).

Someone who said my sermon made him think about predestination for the first time in years decided to do his own study, which he sent to me. It turns out that he disagrees with virtually every point I made in the sermon. But he said it in a kind way, and I tried to reply in the same vein.

Then I got this note from a wise older friend who has seen a lot of ups and downs in his life:

I’m still not sure what is next and there must be a good reason I don’t….I don’t want to know. I guess you prepared me for this…I can remember your walking across Calvary’s stage and saying on one end there is God and walking to the other end and there is me. So if God’s already there waiting for me, then I’m just tagging along. The thoughts of predestination are not so shocking. I’ve spent time learning “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.”

A pastor in Alabama sent along this helpful insight:

I heard a great sermon by Tim Keller on predestination. He talked about how we are tempted to say the doctrine just isn’t fair and then made these two great points–first, you don’t know enough about the choosing process to make that call. Second, no one can say God hasn’t been fair to me.

That seems exactly right. I am very comfortable with the Charles Simeon quote that I included in the message:

When I come to a text which speaks of election, I delight myself in the doctrine of election. When the apostles exhort me to repentance and obedience, and indicate my freedom of choice and action, I give myself up to that side of the question.

As we come to the end of Romans 9 with its heavy emphasis on God’s sovereignty in salvation, the question arises, How can we know who is chosen and who is not chosen? Paul has already suggested several answers to that question. In verses 4-5 he points out that despite all of Israel’s religious advantages, most of the Jews rejected Jesus. So it’s not a matter of religious heritage. He even goes so far as to say that “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (v. 6). To us that may be a ho-hum statement, but it must have seemed like an electric shock to first-century Jews. We all like to think that we have certain advantages because of our background or our upbringing. In this world we’re accustomed to the notion that birth and education bring certain advantages. People who graduated from a particular college look out for each other. If you graduated from Notre Dame or UCLA or Wheaton or Georgia Tech, that fact alone may get you a job interview in certain circles, or it might even get you the job. In larger cities you have Chinatown or the Greek area or a neighborhood that is primarily Irish or Portuguese. People who live in those neighborhoods use their connections to get ahead in life. That’s just the way of the world. Sometimes people call me asking for favors because of past friendship or because we attended the same school or because of a shared friendship with someone else. I’m never surprised by this because I’ve made those phone calls myself. In this world you have to use whatever connections you have to get ahead. That’s just how the world works and it is not a bad thing.

It doesn’t work that way with God. No one has an “in” with him. Not even the Jews who had all the advantages Paul mentions in verses 4-5. They had the promises of the Old Testament, the covenants, the law, the prophets, the patriarchs, and Jesus himself was Jewish. But none of that matters when it comes to salvation. Not all the Jews will be saved. Paul goes on to point out that since God is the author of salvation, he can choose as he pleases. That’s the whole point of election and predestination.

But that brings us back to the fundamental question. How do we know the ones who are chosen and the ones who are not chosen? The answer is, we don’t, at least not by outward appearance. No one can look at a crowd of people and say, “You’re chosen” and “You’re not chosen.” How, then, do we know who is in and who is out? Paul gives us the answer in verses 30-33 and it is surprisingly simple. We know who is chosen and who is not chosen by how they respond to Jesus. As we look at these verses, remember that Paul is dealing with the Gentiles as a group, and with the Jews as a group. He wants us to understand why so many Gentiles believe and why so many Jews don’t believe in Jesus.

I. Two Groups, Two Destinies

Group # 1: The Gentiles

“What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith” (v. 30). The Gentiles as a group didn’t care about finding God’s righteousness. They weren’t looking for it, or seeking after it, but they found it anyway. All their idol worship was just so much groping in the dark. And the more they worshiped idols, the further they got from God. That’s Paul’s whole point in Romans 1:18-32. God revealed himself to everyone in creation and in the conscience. But everyone by nature rejects and suppresses that truth. And truth rejected leads to idolatry, and idolatry opens the door to sexual immorality, and sexual immorality leads on to every sort of sin, until finally society itself utterly rejects God, and the final end of it all is that moral values are turned upside down so that good becomes evil and evil becomes good. When a society finally reaches the bottom, evil is not only tolerated, it is celebrated and promoted and those who oppose it are marginalized and ostracized.

This is Paul’s picture of the Gentiles as a whole, and it’s not a pretty picture. They “did not pursue righteousness.” He means they were religious but they didn’t seek the living God on his own terms. And now we come to the wonder of the gospel. They weren’t seeking salvation, but they found it anyway. They were messed up, fouled up, confused, disoriented, broken by their own sinful choices, utterly deceived by the idols they worshiped, deeply stained by sin, and tainted by their own immorality. As a group, the Gentiles (and that’s 99.999% of the human race) were a sorry lot. Since I am a Gentile, I can say it this way. But it pleased God to reveal his Son to us and to offer salvation to us if only we would receive it by faith.

What a novel concept. What a mind-blowing idea.

By faith!

Simple faith!

A free gift!

Total forgiveness!

Sins washed away!

Totally pardoned!

Declared righteous!

Given eternal life!

Brought into God’s family!

New life in Christ!

A fresh start!

No wonder the Gentiles went running for it. We were so messed up, we had no other choice. Our sin left us so broken that we jumped at the offer of free grace. Who wouldn’t take a deal like that?

We weren’t looking for it, and we definitely didn’t deserve it, but God in his mercy took us in, and we obtained what we never dreamed possible. I’m smiling as I write these words. And who wouldn’t smile. It’s a miracle of grace, pure and simple.

To borrow a phrase from a current came show, God offered us the gospel and then said, “Deal or No Deal.” And the Gentiles said, “Deal!” That’s how we were included in the first place.

Group # 2: The Jews

“But Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the “stumbling stone” (vv. 31-32). By contrast the Jews scrupulously obeyed the law, offered a river of animal blood on the altar of sacrifice, kept the dietary laws, established the priesthood, and in general tried to “play by the rules.” So what went wrong? If they did what God said, why weren’t they saved? The answer comes down to this. They thought that simply by keeping the rules, they would be saved. It comes down the motivation of the heart. They thought that by keeping the rituals year after year, that was all that God required. But the whole point of the law was to point to Jesus Christ who would one day fulfill the law in his life, death and resurrection. To just go through the motions ultimately meant turning the law (which was good) into a kind of “do-it-yourself” religion of works.

We see the same thing today when people say, “I was raised a Catholic so I must be a Christian.” No, it doesn’t work that way. Or “I’m a member of a Baptist church so I must be going to heaven.” Wrong answer. Or “My children were baptized as infants so I know they are saved.” That’s not right either.

Religion cannot save you.

Church membership cannot save you.

Good religious ritual cannot save you.

Trying hard to be good cannot save you.

Playing by the rules cannot save you.

Keeping the Ten Commandments cannot save you.

Baptism cannot save you.

Giving money cannot save you.

Being a pastor cannot save you.

Becoming a missionary cannot save you.

Reading the Bible cannot save you.

Serving the poor cannot save you.

Visiting the sick cannot save you.

Being nice cannot save you.

None of those things are bad or wrong or evil. As I check out that list, it all looks pretty good to me. We ought to do those things and live that way if we can. But they don’t make an ounce of difference when it comes to going to heaven.

If you want to go to heaven, you’ve got to deal with Jesus. You can’t avoid him. And you can’t use religion–even good religion–as a substitute for the Son of God.

We are saved by faith, not by religion, but we are not saved by faith in religion but by faith in Jesus Christ. The Jews stumbled over that point, and that’s why so many of them missed salvation both then and now.

Paul isn’t arguing that the Gentiles are “good” and the Jews are “bad.” Far from it. He’s really saying that we’re all in the same boat and the boat is going down. If you think you can save yourself by treading water through your good works, you’ll drown just as surely as the mass murderer who sinks like a rock to the bottom of the ocean. When it comes to going to heaven, no one has an advantage over anyone else.

It’s all about Jesus and how you respond to him. That’s the difference between heaven and hell.

II. Why People Stumble Over Jesus

“As it is written, ‘See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that causes them to fall, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame” (v. 33). To prove his point Paul combines two verses from Isaiah 8 and 28 into one verse. The beginning and end come from Isaiah 28:16; the phrase “a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that causes them to fall” comes from Isaiah 8:14. He’s taken these two verses—both of them very familiar to the Jews—and combined them to show that Jesus is both a stumbling stone and a cornerstone. To some he is a “stone that causes men to stumble;” to others he is a cornerstone of life. Those who stumble over Jesus fall to their own destruction. Those who build their lives on him “will never be put to shame.”

Picture a huge, flat stone hidden in the grass. Some people never see the stone because they are looking ahead and not down. Because they don’t see it, they stumble and fall. Others walk through the grass, slowly, carefully, uncertain of what lays ahead. Their head is down, their eyes fixed on the ground. They see the stone and instead of tripping over it, they stand on it.

The same stone thus trips one person and supports another.

Jesus is like that. Many people stumbled over him when he came the first time. The religious leaders stumbled over him because they were offended by his teaching on hypocrisy. The Pharisees stumbled because they were offended by the fact that he chose to associate with tax collectors and prostitutes. The Romans were offended because he upset the public peace.

Two thousand years have passed, and men still stumble over Jesus. They still find his message too controversial, too challenging, too simplistic, or too humbling. It’s not true that to know Jesus is to love him. Many people know all about him—and don’t love him at all. I can think of at least three reasons why men and women still stumble over Jesus.

1. Because they are offended by the exclusiveness of his claims.

In our relativistic age, many people are offended by any suggestion that there is only one way of salvation. But that is precisely what Jesus meant when he said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Those words must be taken at face value. We have no right to water them down. Sometimes people speak of Jesus as if he were some kind of great moral teacher. The people who say that generally don’t like John 14:6. It doesn’t fit the concept of a great moral teacher. If Jesus isn’t the way, the truth, and the life–if there really is another way to the Father–then Jesus isn’t a great moral teacher. He’s either the most self-deceived man in all history or he is a liar. In either case, he’s not a great teacher. You can’t pick and choose with Jesus. Either take what he says at face value or reject him altogether. Those are the only two choices you have.

2. Because they are offended by the implications of the cross.

I ate lunch with someone who was investigating the claims of Jesus Christ. During the course of our conversation, he told me that he thought Jesus Christ was basically a good man who said many helpful things. But he had trouble with the concept of Jesus as the Son of God. The cross especially perplexed him. “I don’t see why Jesus had to die for my sins—or for anybody’s sins. That doesn’t make sense to me.” He was giving voice to a common problem unbelievers have when brought face to face with Jesus. They like the man because instinctively they see in him One who speaks with uncommon wisdom and grace. But the cross–that’s another matter. Many people stumble over the cross because it implies that they themselves are sinners. That Jesus died–yes, they can grasp that for all men must someday die. That he was crucified–they can accept that as an historical fact. But they struggle with the concept that he died for them. To say it that way implies that they themselves deserve death for their sins. Why else would Jesus die “for them?” Many people simply can’t deal with that fact.

3. Because they are offended by the simplicity of salvation.

So many people want to “do something” for their salvation. They want Jesus, but they want to throw in their contribution too. So they give money, or they join the church, or they are baptized, or they try to help old people, or they give to cancer research, or they coach a Little League team, or they find some other way to become a pillar of the community.

All those things are good and commendable, but they are useless as far as salvation is concerned. Jesus said, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:2). What could be simpler than the childish faith of a little girl who looks trustingly into the face of her father? She innocently believes every word he says. It never crosses her mind not to believe him. She knows that she can trust him completely.

Salvation is simple because Jesus did all the work. It’s free because Jesus paid the price for your sin. It’s a gift because all you need to do is receive it. But some people are too proud to bend their knee to Jesus. They are offended by a salvation that comes to them as a free gift. They want to do something to feel like they made a contribution. They don’t want a “Jesus only” salvation. They want a “Jesus and me” salvation.

The Chaplain of Bourbon Street

Some of you will remember the name Bob Harrington. In the 1960s he gained national fame as the “Chaplain of Bourbon Street” in New Orleans. For a number of years God gave him a powerful ministry to the musicians, singers, barkers, gamblers and prostitutes who frequented the famous French Quarter. I ran across a copy of a book he wrote when his ministry was at its peak. A whole chapter is devoted to the prostitutes he led to Christ. I was struck by one statement. He said that he had always found it easy to win prostitutes to Christ because they already know they are sinners. You don’t have to convince them of that. All you have to do, he said, is show them love and give them hope for a better life.

Much harder to win, he said, were Baptist deacons because they have so much religion they don’t think they need Jesus. As I thought about it, I was reminded of Jesus’ words. “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). Are prostitutes worse sinners than Baptist deacons? No, not really. They both need Jesus. But one thinks he’s good enough; the other knows she’s not. That’s why it’s easier to win a prostitute than a deacon to Christ. Religious people are always offended by the simplicity of salvation. Sinners are delighted because they realize that a simple salvation is their only chance to go to heaven.

III. Two Ways to Obtain Salvation

That brings us back to the central point of our text. Jesus is God’s “stone” placed along the highway of life. Some people stumble over him; others stand on him. For some he is a stone of stumbling. For others, he is very cornerstone of life. The same stone causes some to stumble and others to stand.

That observations leads to one simple conclusion: Your eternal destiny hangs on your personal response to Jesus.

Man’s Way—By Works

Those who attempt to find salvation through works are like the Jews who stumbled over Jesus. They don’t see him, or if they see him, they ignore him because they are too busy trying to establish their own righteousness before God. So they stumble over Jesus and fall to their own destruction.

Dr. Barnhouse sums up their situation thusly:

Men look for something big. God put Christ into this world as a low-lying stone, hid away among the tall grass of a distant Roman province. Men held their eyes too high and walked across the world, not seeing Christ as God’s only answer to their problems, and they tripped over him and stumbled when they came upon him suddenly. They were offended by a scheme of salvation which brings man to nothingness, and they refused God’s way. (quoted in Boice, Romans, III, p. 1148)

God’s Way—By Trusting in Jesus Christ

There is another group of people, however. They trudge along through life deeply aware of their own sins. They know they aren’t perfect, they try and fail, try and fail, try and fail. They know that salvation must from outside their own heart. Listen to Barnhouse as he describes this group:

They have come through the tangled grass of this world with their eyes low upon their own bleeding feet, scarred with their walk on the road of sin. When they have come to this stone, they have been willing to stand on it and ask for nothing further. They have believed God’s word about the Lord Jesus Christ as being the only way of salvation. They have abandoned their goal, their road, their strength, their pride, and have taken their stand squarely on the Lord Jesus Christ. To them comes the trumpeted promise from the God of the universe: “Whoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.” (quoted in Boice, Romans, III, p. 1148)

A famous hymn says it so well:

My hope is built on nothing less,

Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.

I dare not trust the sweetest frame,

But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

On Christ, the Solid Rock, I stand.

All other ground is sinking sand.

All other ground is sinking sand.

We have the eternal promise of God that “the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” That means you’ll never be sorry you gave your heart to Jesus. You may go through a thousand disappointments, but you’ll never regret your decision to say Yes to Jesus Christ.

But the day is coming when many people will be ashamed. They will stand before God embarrassed that they wasted their lives in material pursuits and somehow stumbled over Jesus. They will be stripped of their self-righteousness and nothing will be left but their unforgiven sin. They will see Jesus and will bow before him—but in that day it will be too late. They will have nothing to say, no excuse to give, no claim to make before Almighty God. Because they refused the Son of God in this life, he will refuse them in the next. They will go out into eternal darkness, away from the presence of the Lord. In that day, their guilt will be so great that they will pray for a mountain to fall on them or a flood to wash them away from God’s presence.

All because they stumbled over Jesus.

Please don’t let that happen to you. Build your life on the Rock. Make sure you are trusting in Jesus Christ.

Let me ask the question very pointedly:

Who is Jesus to you?

Is he a stumbling stone or a cornerstone? Are you standing on the Rock or stumbling over it?

Build your life on the Rock. Make Jesus the cornerstone of your life. Stand on him, build upon him, let him bear the weight of all that you. Rest everything on Jesus and you will never be ashamed. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?