Saviour of All Fellowship

Romans 11:32

     The great culmination of Paul’s argument, starting with Romans 9, concerning God’s ways with Israel and the nations, is given in Romans 11:32. Here we learn that “God has shut us all unto disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all” (ASV).
     It is not difficult to understand these words, but it is very difficult to accept them. In the New International Commentary series on Romans, John Murray faces the statement squarely and boldly: “It is so ordered in the judgment of God that all are effectively inclosed in the fold of the disobedient and so hemmed in to disobedience that there is no possibility of escape from the servitude except as the mercy of God gives release. There is no possiblilty of toning down the severity of the action here stated.”
     “It is, however, the severity that exhibits the glory of the main thought of this verse. It is ‘that he might have mercy upon all.’ The more we reflect upon the implications of the first clause the more enhanced becomes our apprehension of the marvel of the second. And it is not mere correlation of disobedience and mercy that we have now; it is that the shutting up to disobedience without any amelioration of the severity involved, is directed to the end of showing mercy” (p.102).
     But who are these “all”? Henry Alford points out that “the all” are identical in both clauses and “signify all men without limitation” (THE GREEK TESTAMENT, vol.2, p.437). This fully accords with Paul’s use of the word “all” in reference to Jews and Greeks in Romans 3:9-20 and humanity in general in 3:23. C.E.B. Cranfield observes, apparently with some reluctance, “. . . if Paul had been asked whether there were any exceptions to the statement of the first part of the verse, it is highly unlikely that he would have said that there were (cf.3:9f, 19f). And, if the first [the all] does include every individual ". . . there is possibly a certain difficulty in maintaining that this interpretation is ruled out for the second [the all]” (International Commentary on Romans, p.588).
     Nevertheless, Murray does rule this out, claiming that the word “all” in the phrase “mercy upon all” does not mean all without exception, but rather, “all without distinction, who are partakers of this mercy” (p.103). And Alford leaves his readers with the impression that God will ultimately not be able to be merciful to the “all men without limitation” who are in view here. His reason is that “this mercy is not accepted” by everyone, even though “this contingency is here not in view” (p.437).
     Murray severely distorts the passage by limiting the all, and thus he undermines all the praise of God’s wisdom and power that is truly there and that he has spoken of so boldly as well. Alford brings in a concept that he admits is not in view and makes his own correct recognition of the scope of “the all” meaningless. What could Paul’s point be in speaking of God’s mercy to all here if he thought human actions would ultimately thwart such a universal blessing? How do verses 33-36 harmonize with these comments on verse 32?
     Murray is right in pointing to Paul’s emphasis on the divine activity. Human disobedience and unbelief cannot keep God from being merciful, for mercy can only be given to stubborn sinners, and this very passage makes it clear that God’s operation of shutting humanity to disobedience itself leads to the manifestation of divine mercy to humanity. And Alford is right that in light of the whole context of Romans, and the meaning of the word “all” in the first clause of Romans 11:32, the “all” of the second clause must be all without limitation.
     God will be merciful to everyone.

Dean Hough

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