Stump the Pastor: Could you interpret Romans 11:32 for me?

On occasion, I (Pastor Matt) receive a question from someone in our church wrestling with a life, Biblical, or theological question. I received this one yesterday…

Could you interpret Romans 11:32 for me? (Romans 11:32– “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.”)

Here is my attempt to answer:

Paul’s words in Romans 11:25-32 are the climax of what has been discussed in chapters 9-11.

Paul began this 3 chapter section by wrestling with a perplexing theological quandary: How could Israel’s Messiah, Jesus Christ, not actually be saving the people of Israel right now (A.D. 50/60)? If these are God’s people through the covenant of Abraham, why are they under a curse for rejecting Jesus?

Paul gives an initial answer in chapter 9, verse 6: “not all descendant from Israel are Israel” (NIV). That is, the covenant was never about blood but about faith in the God who has made promises to an ethnic people. The election of God wasn’t automatic based on a physical connection to Abraham. Isaac’s son Jacob was chosen, Esau was not. Mercy came to one, not the other. In God’s providence, the same salvation, promises, and righteousness are now offered to Gentiles under the New Covenant (they can be grafted into God’s one true people, see 11:13-21)). Paul explains the hope of salvation has always been received by faith; it was never about works or nationality (see especially Romans 3:21-31, Romans 4 and also 9:30-32). Sadly, the Jews of Paul’s day were not saved because they kept trying to establish their own righteousness (10:1-3) and therefore refused to accept the good news (10:16-21).

When Paul gets to chapter 11, he has to deal with some suspicions that God has somehow turned away from Israel. Sadly, this has been a belief held throughout different parts of church history. Paul says, absolutely not! The promises made to Israel still stand because they are made by the God who does not change His mind. Paul quotes various Old Testament Scriptures to explain the situation. First, he reminds them that the hardening of God’s people was prophesied in the Old Testament (Rom. 11: 9-10/Psa. 69:22-23). Hardening is analogous to unbelief (11:20), but if unbelief turns to belief, salvation is assured (11:23).

In the final section (11:25-32), Paul goes on to say that just as the great hardening of nearly all Israel was foretold, there will one day be a massive return to God by the people of Israel in the days to come (11:26-27, quoting Isa. 59/Jer 31). The great hardening/disobedience of the Jews and the great revival of the Jews is so widespread, Paul uses the Greek term “pantas,” which  can mean “all, every, whole, all sorts of, etc.” depending on the context. Now, Paul as a first century Jewish Christian believer proves that not ALL Jews (without exception) were consigned to disobedience  (hardened and under God’s curse). Likewise, the expression ALL will have mercy, does not mean without any possible exception of some Jews not turning to Christ by faith. Rather, as a class of people, there is a time when nearly all Jews did/will not turn in faith to Jesus as Messiah, and likewise, there will be a time when nearly all Jews as a class of people will turn to Jesus as the true Messiah. God keeps His promises. God still has purposes and plans for the people of Israel. Who can grasp all that God is doing? No one says Paul, but God’s saving and sovereign purposes should cause us to respond in joyful worship…

Romans 11:33-36 – Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! 34 “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” 35 “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?” 36 For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.