“What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith. But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumblingstone; As it is written, Behold, I lay in Sion a stumblingstone and rock of offence: and whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.” —Romans 9:30-33
Notice that these people made a mistake at the very beginning; it may not seem a great one, but it was so in reality. Israel did not follow after righteousness, but after “the law of righteousness.” They missed the spirit, which is righteousness, and followed after the mere letter of the law. To be really righteous was not their aim, but to do righteousness was their utmost notion. They looked at “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” and so forth; but to love God with all their heart was not thought of, and yet this is the essence of righteousness. They looked at the letter of the law, and were careful to pay tithe upon mint and anise, and to attend to all sorts of small points and niceties; but to cleanse the heart and purify the motive did not occur to them. They thought of what a man does, but they forgot the importance of what a man is. Love to God, and likeness to God, were forgotten in a servile attempt to observe the letter of the law. So we see everywhere, people nowadays consider what kind of dress a clergyman ought to wear on a certain day, and which position he should occupy at the communion, and what should be the decoration of the place of worship, and what should be the proper music for the hymn, and so forth; but to what purpose is all this? To be right in heart with God, to trust in his dear Son, and to be renewed in his image, is better than all ritual. Among ourselves there are certain people who are nothing if they are not orthodox: they make a man an offender for a word, and are never so happy as when they are up to their necks in controversy. In each case the external and the letter are preferred to the inward and the spiritual. O my dear hearers, escape from this error; be not so eager for the shell as to lose the kernel, so zealous for the form of godliness as to deny the power thereof!
Charles H. Spurgeon (1834-1892)
Delivered Sunday Morning, May 1, 1887
at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington
Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 33, Sermon No. 1961
“S.S.: or The Sinner Saved”