Romans 11:32 (NRSV)
For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.
Save for the closing doxology, this verse ends what is commonly called the Apostle Paul’s “election discourse,” which runs from Romans chapters 9 through 11. The meaning of this verse has challenged exegetes down through the ages; it is tough to hear that God imprisons us all in disobedience.
Paul’s election discourse has served as one of the principal – if not the principal – passages in the Bible that grounds the Christian Church’s doctrine of predestination. This doctrine holds that God has determined beforehand who is destined for eternal life. Some in the church believe that God’s predestination occurred at the beginning of time, and some – like Augustine and John Calvin – hold that predestination works in two directions: God predetermined those who will live in eternal life and those in eternal damnation. These interpretations of the election discourse and related scripture have had profound effects on Christian church life; some salutary, some worrisome, and some downright pernicious. As history shows, many Christians believed and practiced the idea that God’s predestination was the ultimate us v. them declaration.
Yet, there are others who hold that Romans 11:32 is one of the most hopeful verses in all of scripture. They point to the little word “all” at the end of the verse, and thus read the doctrine of election as affirming the possibility of universal salvation. This claim is buttressed by the idea that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection have universal meaning: “Go,” Christ commands in his final words on earth, “and make disciples of all nations [.]”
So one way to think about the doctrines of predestination, or election, or the possibility of universal salvation, is to lump them all together into a doctrine of humility and obedience. God’s ways are inscrutable, a mystery, hidden, but yet known in and through Jesus Christ. Through Christ’s humility and his obedience to God, we are now freed to turn our disobedience into obedience to God, our pride to humility, our “us v. them” into just “all of us.”
Almighty God, we thank you for this day. Grant us, we pray, the wisdom to know the strength of humility, the courage of servitude, the freedom of obedience. Amen.