“Why not? Because they were trying to get right with God by keeping the law instead of by trusting in him. They stumbled over the great rock in their path. God warned them of this in the Scriptures when he said, “I am placing a stone in Jerusalem that makes people stumble, a rock that makes them fall. But anyone who trusts in him will never be disgraced.””
Romans 9:32-33 NLT
Once again, Paul displays his remarkable grasp and memory of Scripture by quoting the prophet Isaiah. He points out that those attempting to follow the Law will stumble over a “great rock in their path”, because they failed to trust God. An alternative translation to “keeping the Law” in Romans 9:32 is “doing good works”.
The background to the “great rock” is the sad story of a people, the nation of Judah, who have rejected God and trusted in other things instead. Isaiah warned them about a time of annihilation coming their way through the Assyrians, but he encouraged his countrymen to trust in the Lord. Sadly, as they found out later, the “descendants of Jacob” (Isaiah 8:17) failed to trust in God at all, and continued to try to keep the Law, in parallel with devising human solutions to their impending problem. In Paul’s context in Romans 9 the stumbling would take place because of the complacency that comes from trusting in good works and legalism. But he ends this chapter in his letter by reminding his readers that trusting in God will lead to a good outcome.
What can we pilgrims glean from these verses? Christians can also become legalistic and complacent, thinking that if they do good to others, who perhaps are not so fortunate as they are, this will stand them in good stead when they come face to face with God. But we must remember that we are not saved by doing good, but rather saved for doing good. Ephesians 2:8-10, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no-one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” The “great rock” of legalism is something to beware of.
We pilgrims can also become legalistic because we can get caught up in the process of judging others. Like the Pharisees of old, we can have a tendency to look down on those who perhaps don’t believe in the way that we do, or who don’t share our faith and beliefs, or who fail to regularly attend church meetings. But we need to remember that Jesus said, “Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged” (Matthew 7:1-2). Psalm 50:6 makes it clear that there is only One qualified to be the Judge – God Himself. “Then let the heavens proclaim his justice, for God himself will be the judge”. James 4:12, “God alone, who gave the law, is the Judge. He alone has the power to save or to destroy. So what right do you have to judge your neighbour?”
We can avoid being trapped by the “great rock” of legalism through reconciling what we do and what we think. By that I mean that our good works must come out of our inner spiritual life. We avoid the “great rock” not by keeping rules, but by the power of the living God. Amen?
Dear Father God. We confess we so easily fall into the trap of legalistic behaviour. Please forgive us we pray. In Jesus’ name. Amen.