A Commentary by John Stott
The second ground for confidence that God has a future for his people is his mercy. For God’s mercy is shown to the disobedient. *Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience (30), so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you* (31).
These carefully constructed verses contain a parallel rather than a contrast. Human disobedience and divine mercy are depicted in the experience of both Gentiles and Jews; the obvious difference is that, whereas God has already been merciful to disobedient but repentant Gentiles, his mercy to disobedient Israel belongs largely to the future. But there is another difference, namely in the reasons given for God’s mercy, which are expressed in the Greek sentence by simple datives. Thus, you received mercy ‘by their disobedience’ (30), whereas they will receive mercy ‘by your mercy’ (31). More fully, it is because of disobedient Israel that disobedient Gentiles have received mercy. and it is because of this mercy to disobedient Gentiles that disobedient Jews will receive mercy too. We detect yet again the ‘chain of blessing’, as Israel’s disobedience has led to mercy for the Gentiles, which in turn will lead to mercy for Israel.
Verse 32 sums up the argument in such a way as to disclose God’s overruling purpose and plan. *For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all*. Disobedience is likened to a dungeon in which God has incarcerated all human beings, so that, they have no possibility of escape except as God’s mercy releases them’. This has been the argument of this letter, as in its first three chapters Paul demonstrated that all human beings are sinful, guilty and without excuse, and then from 3:21 onwards unfolded the way of salvation by grace through faith in Christ. He writes something similar in Galatians. ‘The Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin…We were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge (RSV, ‘was our custodian’) to lead us to Christ….’ (Gal.3:22ff.). Thus human disobedience was the prison from which divine mercy liberates us.
But who are the ‘all men’ who are bound over to disobedience, and the ‘all’ on whom God will have mercy (32)? On this verse some have built their universalistic dreams. And, isolated from its context in Romans, it could be understood to promise universal salvation in the end. But Romans will not allow this interpretation, since in it Paul declares that there is to be a ‘day of God’s wrath’ (2:5), on which some will receive ‘wrath and anger’, ‘trouble and distress’ (2:8f.). What, then, is the alternative? It is to note that in both halves of verse 32, regarding those whom God has imprisoned in disobedience and those on whom he will have mercy, Paul does not actually write of ‘all men’ or of ‘all’, but of ‘the all’ (*tous pantas*). And this expression in its context refers to the two groups who are contrasted throughout the chapter, and especially in verses 28 and 31, namely, the ‘they’ and the ‘you’, the Jews and the Gentiles.
Paul has been at pains to argue that there is no distinction between Jews and Gentiles either in sin (3:9, 22) or in salvation (10:12). Now he writes that, as they have been together in the prison of their disobedience, so they will be together in the freedom of God’s mercy. Moreover, he has predicted the future ‘fulness’ both of Israel (12) and of the Gentiles (25). It is when these two ‘fulnesses’ have been fused that the new humanity will have been realized, consisting of huge numbers of the redeemed, the great multinational multitude which no-one will count, (Rev. 7:9), ‘the many’ who were formally in Adam but are now in Christ, experiencing his overflowing grace and reigning with him in life (5:12ff.). The end of God’s ways will be ‘mercy, mercy uncompromised’, mercy on the fulness of both Jews and Gentiles, mercy on ‘them all’, that is, ‘on all without distinction , rather than on all without exception.