Romans 11:32: “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.”
God has consigned all to disobedience.
This does not mean that God causes our disobedience. It means that he leaves us to our own devices. As soon as God removes his support we immediately turn to disobedience.
The word that Paul uses for disobedience means to enclose completely as a fisherman’s net encloses fish.
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he uses the same word to describe how God’s law encloses us in sin. We are completely surrounded by the condemnation of the law.
The word that is used for disobedience means unbelief, obstinate disobedience to the divine will.
The first ones that God consigned to disobedience were the Gentiles. Throughout the Old Testament the Gentiles were left to their own devices. And since they had no support from God they quickly became enclosed by sin.
While the Gentiles were consigned to disobedience in the Old Testament God was showing great love and mercy to the Israelites. This does not mean that the Israelites were always faithfully following God in the Old Testament. No, they abandoned God many times. But God did not abandon them. He kept having mercy on them and restoring them.
In the days of the New Testament, as the Apostle Paul is writing his letter to the Romans, the situation is reversed. God has consigned the Israelites to disobedience. They have rejected Christ so God has rejected them. Instead, God is now having mercy on the Gentiles, the ones who had formerly been consigned to disobedience.
This is illustrated in a story from Matthew 15. Jesus ventures out of the land of Israel into the region of Tyre and Sidon. He is met by a Canaanite woman, a Gentile whom God had blessed with faith. The woman wanted Jesus to heal her daughter.
In one of the most dramatic encounters in all of Scripture, Jesus tests her faith by calling her a dog and insisting that he was sent only to help the people of Israel. She responded by saying, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (Matthew 15:27)
Jesus had not encountered that much faith among any of the Israelites. He says, “O woman, great is your faith!” and proceeds to heal her daughter.
As Professor David Schmitt points out, Jesus marveled at the woman’s faith because it was faith that God had created in her. The only things that God marvels at are the things that he creates. This goes all the way back to to the days of creation. As God created each part of this world he looked at what he had made and saw that it was good. When all was created it says, “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31)
So formerly the Gentiles were consigned to disobedience and now have received mercy through Christ while the Israelites are consigned to disobedience.
Paul wishes it were not so. He deeply wishes that God would have mercy on his own people, the Israelites. In verses 13 and 14 of this chapter of Romans Paul says he magnifies his ministry to the Gentiles in hopes that it might somehow incite jealousy in his people and attract them to the faith.
God continues to operate the same way today. He will have mercy on one group of people for a while and consign others to disobedience. Then he will switch things around. And the reason is so that God may have mercy on them all.
How do we know that God will not someday withdraw his mercy from us and move on to other people? This is where Scriptures and the sacraments of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper come in. As we hear God’s Word and use the sacraments as Christ intended, we have the assurance that God’s abundant, unchanging mercy will never depart from us. If we ignore God’s Word and sacraments and focus on our own efforts or accomplishments we can never be sure that God’s mercy will remain with us.
When it comes to God’s mercy, Martin Luther puts things into the proper perspective:
“No man on earth can help but fear and tremble and desire to escape if he thinks of God. As soon as he hears God mentioned, he is quiet and subdued. I do not speak of wild people, but of those whose heart is pierced, who feel their sin. (It is only to such we preach.) For the conscience is awake, feeling and knowing that God is hostile to sinners and will condemn them, and that they cannot escape nor flee from His wrath. Therefore their conscience flinches and trembles and quakes, faints and grows pale and chilled as before lightning and thunder. Therefore Christ must deal mightily with such fear and graft into the heart such sweet and kind and comforting words that those grievous, bitter and horrible thoughts are removed, and must present the Father in as sweet a way as ever a heart could wish.”
The main theme of Romans is that God’s grace and mercy in Christ is greater than all our evil. This is expressed clearly in Romans 5:15:
“But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.”
God consigned us to disobedience but Christ was obedient to the full extent. He obeyed Joseph and Mary, his earthly parents. He obeyed the Roman government. But above all he obeyed his heavenly Father when he went to the cross and died for our sins. He submitted to the Father’s will when he said as he prayed to his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will but thine be done.”
And through faith in Christ, his perfect obedience replaces all our disobedience.
The subjunctive mood is used for the verb to have mercy in this verse. This carries the idea of possibility or potentiality. God will have mercy only on those who realize that they are completely enclosed in sin. Those who do not realize their sinful condition will not receive mercy. Even if it were to be given to them they would reject it.
And, just as with the Canaanite woman, God marvels at our faith in Christ. He marvels at our faith because he has created it in us.
And all means all. If God has mercy on you then he has mercy on everyone, even those we might not want him to have mercy on. We don’t get to pick and choose.
As soon as God removes his support we immediately turn from his ways to sin. We become enclosed in sin. The only way out is through God’s mercy and the only way to have full confidence in God’s mercy is through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.