“For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.” (Romans 10:3)
Much of the book of Romans is about the relationship between the law and grace. According to Paul, the law was given to convict people of their sin, pointing them to their need for grace. Never was the law intended to save anyone. The law in itself is not evil, but because of its existence, we are doomed to die, because it raises within us the awareness of our sin; as Paul put it, sin “seiz[es] an opportunity through the commandment” (Romans 7:11). Because of this, no one can save themselves simply by obeying the law. Our natures are sinful to the core, and any attempt to be obedient will reveal to us just how impossible it is to do so perfectly. This inability to obey is exactly why we need grace—the glorious grace of God that Paul so eloquently describes throughout Romans.
Unfortunately, there were many people who were hung up on the idea of earning their own salvation. Coming from a Jewish background, several of the Christians in Rome assumed they were superior to Gentile believers because they also had the law of Moses. They adhered to these strict regulations still, and therefore they had to be better Christians than the Gentiles. Paul, however, insisted this was a mistaken belief. “A Jew is one inwardly,” he claimed (Romans 2:29). Keeping the law was ultimately of little value when it came to true, saving faith in Jesus.
The idea that we can earn our salvation is still prevalent today. We hear all the time about how we need to do good things, and that if we do we’ll earn God’s favor. But while it is indeed true that God expects us to obey Him and do what He says, He wants us to do so out of love for Him, not because it somehow gains us a better standing with Him. Those who try to earn their salvation by doing good works are undermining God’s power in their lives. Ignoring God’s righteousness, they do all they can to establish their own. Whether they mean to or not, they are taking the glory for themselves by working to earn God’s favor.
This is an attitude we must guard against. There’s something ridiculously appealing in the idea that we can save ourselves, that by doing more good things than the next person, we’ll be somehow “more saved”. But this mindset takes the focus away from God and puts it instead directly on ourselves. If we want to truly bring honor to God, we must humble ourselves and realize that it is absolutely impossible for us to be good enough to merit salvation. We must admit that God alone is perfect, and that it is only by His grace—favor so absolutely undeserved—that we can be saved. We must submit to His righteousness, allowing it to atone for every one of our sins. Salvation has never been about what we can do for God; rather, it’s all about what God in His grace has done for us.