Mercy On All
“Just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that … they also may now receive mercy. For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.”- Romans 11:30-32
Christian thought has long regarded pride as one of the most deadly of all sins. There is good reason for this. If Isaiah 14:12-21 does allude to the fall of Satan, then it is pride that led to his condemnation. The sin of Genesis 3 is, among other things, a sin of pride in which Adam and Eve sought to exalt themselves and their ability to decide what is right and what is wrong. In any case, pride is a significant sin even if it is not the chief of all sins.
The earliest Christians confronted pride at nearly every turn. We often find Jesus criticizing the Pharisees for pridefully hanging onto salvation as if it were theirs alone (Mark 2:15-17). From what Paul says about Gentile boasting in Romans 11, we can infer that there were Gentile Christians in the church at Rome who were tempted to boast of their place in the church as they saw the majority of Jews refusing to believe in Jesus.
Rightly understood, the gospel crushes our pride with the realization that none of us is deserving of salvation and that it is not because we are smarter or more spiritually attuned than others that God chooses us for Himself. The Apostle Paul makes this point in a variety of ways in the book of Romans. He tells us that apart from Christ, “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” (Rom. 3:9). Paul also indicates that the Lord’s election of people to salvation has nothing to do with who they are or what they have done or will do (9:10-13).
Today’s passage makes these points as well. In the course of arguing that the Gentile Christians at Rome should not boast over their place in the church, Paul reminds them that they, too, were at one time disobedient to the Lord and undeserving of God’s favor. The Gentile Christians needed mercy, and that came via the disobedience and hardening of Israel (11:30; see v. 25). But Israel’s disobedience will not endure, for the Lord will give again to Israel the same mercy given to the Gentiles (v. 31). Cyril of Alexandria, one of the most important writers on Christology in the early church, wrote, “Jews and Gentiles were guilty of the same thing and … they were likewise cleansed by one and the same grace.”
The disobedience of the Gentiles and the disobedience of the Israelites show us our need for grace and mercy. By consigning all people, Jew and Gentile alike, to disobedience, God shows us that no one deserves salvation. This enables Him to have mercy on all, to show all peoples the fullness of His grace (11:32). Paul is not advocating universalism but noting that the Lord shows mercy to all kinds of people and not just one ethnic group.
John Calvin comments that “there is no reason why they who have a hope of salvation should despair of others; for whatever [Christians] may now be, they have been like all the rest. If [believers] have emerged from unbelief through God’s mercy alone, they ought to leave place for it as to others also.” The Lord shows mercy to all kinds of people, so we must never think that someone is beyond the reach of God’s grace. Let us not be surprised when He saves sinners.
Passages for Further Study
1 Corinthians 6:9-11