No Points for Effort

Lesson 37: Romans 9:24-33


No Points for Effort

by Bob Burridge ©2011

We like to see people put forth effort in their lives to accomplish noble goals, but effort alone is no virtue. People can be very diligent in accomplishing horrible things. Evil people in history such as Adolph Hitler, the heretic Pelagius, Communist Vladimir Lenin, and others were tirelessly busy and totally committed to things they sincerely believed in. However, we don’t commend them for their efforts. They set evil goals and used means that dishonored God. No godly person thinks of Hitler’s failed attempt at genocide and says, “Well, at least he tired.” Doing a wicked thing is not commended simply because there was a strong effort put forth.

In the not-so-distant past doctors thought they could cure certain diseases by cutting a patient to let out large amounts of blood. Since a fever reflects blood temperature, the process appeared to work. There was a problem though, the patients often died from the loss of blood, infections, or a reduced ability of the body to fight of the disease that was causing the fever. No one today would applaud a doctor’s efforts if he went back to the practice of bleeding his patients. We wouldn’t say, “Well at least he has good intentions, and he tries so hard!” Wrong practices are not justified simply because there is a good goal in mind.

On an even higher scale, the same is true of righteousness. The world’s religions have many varied ideas about how to become “right with God.” Most of them have the same common element, human effort. For some that effort is directed toward doing charitable works and good deeds. Some turn to magical incantations and mystical ceremonies. Others make great personal sacrifices and endure self-inflicted pain. Some trust in the decisions they make or in certain prayers they recite. They all make the same mistake according to what God tells us in his word. Biblically, our efforts, even good efforts, cannot be the cause of our salvation. No one is able to do good until God produces new life in them. Good efforts are the effect of God already making a person right by grace. At the root, each of these false religions makes man out to be god over his own soul. They see human effort as what causes God to treat some with mercy and others with wrath.

That is directly against what we have seen so far in our study of Romans. God grants no points for effort!

In this 9th chapter Paul used Old Testament Scripture to prove directly that we are not saved by any desire of our own hearts, or by the work of our hands. We are chosen for eternal life by God’s eternal good pleasure alone. In verse 11 he wrote about God’s dealing with the sons of Isaac. He chose to redeem only one of them “… that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls.”

Paul then summarized his point in verse 18, “Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.”

Here Paul is dealing with the objections of ancient Israel. They mistook their own efforts as the cause of God’s blessing. They had added complex details and customs to the law of God. Their man-made additions made them reject the promise of a Messiah who would satisfy justice for their guilt by his suffering in their place.

They came to rely upon their own Jewishness instead of resting in God’s provision of grace. They looked down upon the Gentiles, and took pride in their own efforts. However, God’s word says that all our efforts are worthless unless they are the fruit of a redeemed heart. The prophet said in Isaiah 64:6, “But we are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags …”

The prophets had warned that God would judge the nation for her corruption of the truth. Jesus said that God’s judgment would fall upon Israel while the generation he spoke to was still alive. When the Jewish Rabbi we know as the Apostle Paul become a follower of Christ, he also warned the Jews that their special time of blessing was about over.

God’s plan had not failed. Universal salvation of the Jews was never his plan. Just as he only made one of Abraham’s sons the heir of the promise, and only one of his Grandsons, it was only the chosen of Israel who were the true sons of God’s promise.

The time had come when God was not going to choose his people from Israel alone. Here our study continues in Romans 9:25-33.


God was going to add non-Jews to his covenant family!

Romans 9:25-26, “As He says also in Hosea: ‘I will call them My people, who were not My people, And her beloved, who was not beloved. And it shall come to pass in the place where it was said to them, “You are not My people,” There they shall be called sons of the living God.’ “

Again Paul builds his case by quoting from the Bible. This is his consistent way of reasoning: If it can be shown that God said it, that settles it. So he turned to the book of the prophet Hosea to show that he was not introducing a new idea.

Verse 25 is taken from Hosea 2:23 “… I will have mercy on her who had not obtained mercy; Then I will say to those who were not My people, ‘ You are My people!’ And they shall say, ‘You are my God!’ ”

Verse 26 is from Hosea 1:10, “… where it was said to them, ‘ You are not My people,’ There it shall be said to them, ‘ You are sons of the living God.’ ”

Hosea wrote to warn the Northern Kingdom of Israel about her unfaithfulness to God. She had compromised with unbelief and made alliances with heathen nations. But her strength was outward only. Inwardly she was weak and unfaithful. She had ignored the advice of God’s prophets. Most had abandoned the truth, so God was going to scatter them. He would let them be taken captive, led off into a heathen nation.

The life of Hosea teaches a memorable lesson that has taught us for thousands of years. God told this man to marry a prostitute by the name of Gomer. By her he had 3 children whom God named.

First he had a son and named him Jezreel [Yiz-re-EL (יזרעאל)]. Though Yiz-re-EL sounds similar to “Israel”, it is spelled very differently in Hebrew. The name means “scattered by God” in the sense of casting out seeds when planting so that they are spread out on the field. God said he would, “bring an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel.” (Hosea 1:4)

Next he had a daughter whom God told him to name Lo-Ruhamah [Lo Ru-KHA-mah (לא רחמה)], which means “no compassion”. God said, “for I will no longer have mercy on the house of Israel …”

Then he had another son. God told him to name this son Lo-Ammi [Lo Am-MI (לא עמי)]– which means “not my people. And God said, “for you are not My people and I will not be your God.”

The names represented God’s relationship with his unfaithful nation. Though the Israelis were physical descendents of Abraham, members of his visible covenant family, they were to be scattered without compassion, and no longer to be called God’s people.

Then Hosea was told to seek a woman who had committed adultery. This illustrated how Israel had left her God and committed spiritual adultery. To show God’s mercy in saving some from among the unworthy and apostate nation, Hosea was told to go find this woman, redeem her with a price, and to care for her. The names of his children were used to illustrate God’s grace toward those he redeems. Instead of Lo-Ammi (not my people), he was to say, Ammi (my people). In stead of Lo-Ruhamah (no compassion), he was to say, Ruhamah (compassion).

Throughout the record in Scripture, we see that God divides mankind into categories. There are two main ways of making that division. First, some become members outwardly in God’s Covenant Family, and others do not. Before the time of the Apostles that visible church was the nation of Israel. In the time of the Apostles it took on the form of the Christian Church. The members of that Covenant Family are those out of all of fallen mankind who make a commitment to submit to God’s ways and teachings.

Within that outward form of the church there is a more important division of mankind. Some in this visible form of the church are also redeemed from their guilt and sin, and some are not. The redeemed are those who were eternally chosen by grace alone. We call the whole group of God’s elect the Invisible Church. These are the vessels of mercy chosen to display the glories of Christ (Romans 9:23). God elected them based upon his own pleasure, not based upon their own efforts.

Those left in their sin are justly condemned. It is what we all deserve. They are forever aliens from the true spiritual family of God. They are what Paul called God’s Vessels of Wrath in the last section of this chapter (9:22). They display God’s power and patience in administering justice in his good time.

Hosea wrote to the unfaithful tribes of Israel who had abandoned God’s covenant. This is why this portion of Hosea was so helpful to Paul in making his point. God’s promise to redeem was only made with the remnant he eternally planned to be his own. Salvation is not by effort or inherited advantage, it is by Sovereign Grace alone. Therefore God may bring in Jews who had abandoned the outward form of the church, and he could save Gentiles as well.

Peter used these verses form Hosea similarly in 1 Peter 2:9-10, “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.”

God had promised to adopt the unworthy into His Kingdom. To make this election by sovereign grace absolutely clear, the Lord was about to build his church from among the Gentiles, those who were so despised and looked down upon by the Jews. Paul also explained this in Ephesians 2:12-13, “that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”


God promised to save only a remnant of Israel.

Romans 9:27-29, “Isaiah also cries out concerning Israel: ‘Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, The remnant will be saved. For He will finish the work and cut it short in righteousness, Because the LORD will make a short work upon the earth.’ And as Isaiah said before: ‘Unless the LORD of Sabaoth had left us a seed, We would have become like Sodom, And we would have been made like Gomorrah.’ ”

Paul again turns to the then existing books of the Bible, this time to the Prophet Isaiah. This section of Romans is a perfect lesson in using God’s written word as its own interpreter. In just these 33 verses, Paul quotes from the Old Testament 34 times. He makes eight Old Testament references in just these last nine verses.

The Bible is clear. God’s salvation is only promised to a remnant of those who claim to be his people. Isaiah 10:20-23, “And it shall come to pass in that day That the remnant of Israel, And such as have escaped of the house of Jacob, Will never again depend on him who defeated them, But will depend on the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, in truth. The remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, To the Mighty God. For though your people, O Israel, be as the sand of the sea, A remnant of them will return; The destruction decreed shall overflow with righteousness. For the Lord GOD of hosts Will make a determined end In the midst of all the land.”

The great nation of Israel was going to be taken away by Assyrian invasion as a judgment of God. There, they will be reduced to a mere remnant. Only that remnant will return to the land in faith. It will be only those who “depend on the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, in truth.” (Isaiah 10:20)

Clearly Paul and Isaiah did not see this as a promise to just a remnant of outward National Israel. The remnant was made up of those changed inwardly by grace and given a true faith. Since only a remnant is returned in faith, the majority of the outward church remained corrupt, even into the time when Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem hundreds of years after the delivering of Isaiah’s prophesies.

Those who take comfort in the size of their church or in the large numbers who seem to agree should take heed. God does not bless by majorities. He blesses his remnant rescued by grace alone. Popular trends in the churches through all the ages are never a good test of what is pleasing to God. Our trends must be measured by comparison with the honestly and carefully studied word of Scripture.

What of those who are not called by God’s grace to be his remnant? The Lord will quickly, surely, execute His Word. His judgment falls quickly. Paul again turns to the Scriptures for his support. Isaiah 1:9, “Unless the LORD of hosts Had left to us a very small remnant, We would have become like Sodom, We would have been made like Gomorrah.”

Aside from his mercy, the just end of every human is like that of Sodom and Gomorrah, the cities destroyed in terrifying judgment for their sin and unbelief.

On the other hand, God’s true Israel will always be delivered. Even though it will be only a remnant from the visible body of professing believers.


Finally, Paul exposes the error
of putting hope in our own efforts.

Romans 9:30-33, “What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone. As it is written: ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.’ “

“What is this?” the Jews were asking. “Has God given salvation to the unworthy Gentiles?” That’s exactly what he has done. “But, …” they might object, “… they weren’t even pursuing righteousness — and we were!”

So then, why did the Jews not attain salvation since they tried so hard? Paul’s answer hits right at the heart of all false religion, they thought they deserved it. They had so corrupted what Moses said, that they thought the law was a means of salvation. They thought that because they were so zealous in their religion, God would save them. But God gives no points for effort.

No human works are free from corruption. Sin distorts our every goal. Even our best efforts and intentions condemn us all the more as they are done arrogantly for our own glory rather than for the glory of our Creator.

In Galatians 2:21, Paul made it clear that if it was possible to be made right with God by means of our efforts or by keeping the law, then the death of the Messiah would have been unnecessary. “I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.”

Why send God the Son to suffer and to endure a cruel unjust death, if men were able to earn salvation by their deeds? if it could simply be deserved?

In Scripture Jesus is the Rock, the cornerstone of truth, and foundation of all hope. Upon the solid foundation of his holy life and atoning death his people stand with confidence that their guilt is removed. He is the cornerstone laid down first by the Master builder as a guide to how the rest of the building is to be oriented and constructed. As is says in Isaiah 28:16 “therefore thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a tested stone, a costly cornerstone for the foundation, firmly placed. He who believes in it will not be disturbed.”

Ancient Israel did not like the shape of the building that Christ’s truth marked out. She abused the law thinking it was a way of salvation. God gave his statutes to humble his people to repentance, and to instil in them a trust in his provisions for the soul. His law was the way those redeemed by grace show their gratitude. It was never given as a means of removing sin or earning salvation by our own efforts.

The suffering Messiah exposed that false religion of works. They looked for a different kind of Messiah, a Jewish revolutionary. The cornerstone became for the Jews a stumbling stone that offended them. Isaiah 8:14, “He will be as a sanctuary, But a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense To both the houses of Israel, As a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.”

Peter used this same Old Testament symbolism when he wrote 1 Peter 2:8, ” ‘A stone of stumbling And a rock of offense.’ They stumble, being disobedient to the word, to which they also were appointed.” In the next verses Peter used the reference from Hosea just as Paul did.

Dr. Haldane says, “A free salvation becomes an offense to men on account of their pride.” They will not admit their corruption due to sin, their guilt, their inability to merit God’s favor. They will not accept a God who is sovereign and just.

Israel in her unbelief stumbled at this. As a nation there was no evidence of a true faith. It exposed the spiritual aliens who lived among the true people of God. They who believe they can earn divine favor without the enablement of their Creator may take on the name of the Savior, but they are not part of the remnant redeemed by grace.

God shattered any glimmer of pride in the Israelite’s heart. He put faith into the hearts of the Gentiles considered by the Jews to be savage, pagan, and cursed. What grander demonstration of Sovereign Grace could be imagined? God saves sinners, not those who think they have earned the right to be called Son’s of God. The Gentiles had put forth no effort to come to Christ, or to discover God’s truth. Yet by grace alone they were grafted into the vine.

The effort we put forth in our lives is not done to merit God’s forgiveness. The cause of our alienation from him is not removed by good things we do or promise. Our efforts are the evidences of a forgiveness already granted. We strive toward holiness by the power of Christ at work in us, not to get him to work in us. By our obedience to God we express gratitude for blessings we know we do not deserve and could never earn.

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

Back to the Index of Studies In Paul’s Letter to the Romans

About Bob Burridge

I've taught Science, Bible, Math, Computer Programming and served 25 years as Pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Pinellas Park, Florida. I'm now Executive Director of the ministry of the Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
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