God's Design for History: The Glory of His Mercy
As regards the gospel, they are enemies of God for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. 29 For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30 Just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, 31 so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. 32 For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.
Today we wrap up the body of Romans 11. There are two more weekends before Palm Sunday. My plan is to finish our exposition of the last paragraph, Romans 11:33-36, in those two weekends and then turn to focused Holy Week messages as we mark the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Romans 11:30-32 is the summary of the main point of this chapter, namely, that God has designed and guided history—both its disobedience and its obedience—so that in the end it will most fully display the reliability of his promises and the magnificence of his mercy—to prevent human pride and produce white-hot worship. Verse 29: “The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” In other words, the gifts and callings by which he completes his plans in history are infallible. God designs and guides history irrevocably.
The Lord of History
He is the Lord of history in the most absolute sense. As Psalm 67:4 says, “You judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth.” God guides the nations. The nations of the earth—with all their billions of decisions each day—are not sovereign and are not random. They are “guided.” They are “led.” Daniel 2:21, “He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings.” Daniel 4:35, “All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” Isaiah 46:9-10, “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, 10 declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’”
The Shocking Design of History
So Romans 11:30-32 summarizes in the most astonishing and shocking way the design of God in history to maximize the display of his mercy and to shut the mouth of all human boasting. I say “astonishing” and “shocking.” I could say “unsearchable” and “inscrutable,” because those are the words Paul uses in the next verse (33) where he gives his own response to what he is teaching: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” So if you think what we are about to see in verses 30-32 is mind-blowing and astonishing and unsearchable and inscrutable, you are right, and the apostle knew what he was doing: he was taking us further up and further in—about as far as we could go—into the absolute governance and the ultimate design and purpose of God for his creation. The shock is intentional. Verse 33 proves it. So I regard it as one of my pastoral expositional duties to produce God shock, and not simply relieve shock.
And let me pause here to say that this sort of truth—this shocking vision of ultimate reality—is really relevant to your daily life, if you will see it and feel it for what it really is. Take sex for example. Desiring God is going to hold a conference this fall (Lord willing) on the topic “Sex and the Supremacy of Christ.” The assumption is this: One of the main reasons that the world and the church are awash in lust and pornography (by men and women—30% of internet pornography is now viewed by women), fornication, adultery, masturbation, exhibitionism, homosexuality, bestiality, rape, and endless sexual innuendo in all media—one of the reasons we are awash in all this is that our lives are intellectually and emotionally disconnected from infinite, soul-staggering grandeur.
Inside and outside the church we are drowning in a sea of triviality, pettiness, banality, and silliness. Television is trivial. Radio is trivial. Conversation is trivial. Education is trivial. Christian books are trivial. Worship styles are trivial. It is inevitable that the human heart, which was made to be staggered with terrifyingly joyous dread and peace by an infinitely untouchable, embracing God—it is inevitable that such a heart, drowning in the all-pervasive, blurry boredom of banal entertainment, will reach for the best buzz that life can give: sex.
The deepest cure to our pitiful addictions is not any mental strategies—and I believe in them and have my own. The deepest cure is to be intellectually and emotionally staggered by the infinite, everlasting, unchanging sovereignty, holiness, wrath, justice, wisdom, truth, and mercy of God. And sex is just one of the hundreds of day-to-day issues you face that will overwhelm you and debase your life without this kind of encounter with the living God.
That is why Romans 11:30-32 is relevant for you. I pray that God will give you the capacity to be spiritually jolted. I will do all I can in the next three messages to help that happen—since that is what happens to Paul here, and he is trying to pass it on to us. But finally it is God’s doing, not mine.
The Four Stages of God’s Design in History
Consider the four stages of God’s design in history. I’ll tell you in advance what they are and their sequence, so that you can see them more easily and think about them more clearly.
1) The time of Gentile disobedience—the time when God let the nations go their own ways and sink further and further into sin, while God patiently wrote a lesson book for the nations in the history of Israel as he gave them law and writings and prophets.
2) The time of Jewish disobedience—the time when they rejected their Messiah, Jesus Christ, and God gave them up to hardness.
3) The time of mercy shown to millions of Gentiles through the spread of the gospel to all nations and calling out a redeemed people of God—a fullness of the Gentiles.
4) The time of mercy on Israel as God completes his redemptive plan and takes away the hardening and saves the nation of Israel with a mass conversion to Christ.
Those are the four stages mentioned here. Now let’s read them and see the relationship among them and the nature of each stage which Paul sums up in verse 32: “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.”
Verse 30: “Just as you [Gentiles] were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience . . .” So here are three of the four stages mentioned in one verse.
Stage One: The Time of Gentile Disobedience
First, “you [Gentiles] were at one time disobedient.” Now stop and ponder this for a moment. What Paul has in mind here is what he referred to in Acts 14:16 where he said, “In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways.” In fact, there are clues that God had in mind a certain amount of sinning (or disobedience) that the nations would be allowed to accumulate before he would bring judgment and mercy. For example, in Genesis 15:13 we read, “Then the Lord said to Abram, ‘Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. . . . 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity [the sin, the disobedience] of the Amorites is not yet complete.” God not only let the nations go their own ways accumulating sin, but he had quantities and deadlines in view. He had plans for how much sin he would tolerate in various cases. (The same is probably true today.)
So Paul in the first part of Romans 11:30 Paul is calling attention to the generations when God let the nations go their way, fill up the measure of their sins, and ripen for judgment and mercy. But note something important. Paul is not thinking individualistically here. He is not itemizing all Gentiles. He is thinking corporately here. He is thinking of the Gentile world as a whole, not all the individuals in it. One evidence for this is how many individual Gentiles turned from their disobedience in the Old Testament and repented and were saved. There was Melchizedek in Genesis 14. And there were the Ninevites who repented when Jonah preached to them. Paul doesn’t mean that there was no such thing as obedience among Gentiles during this first stage. He simply means: as a whole, it was a period of unbelief and disobedience: God let them go. Or as Romans 1:28 says, “God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.” That’s stage one.
Stage Two: The Time of Jewish Disobedience
Keep reading in verse 30: “Just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience.” Before we focus on the mercy God shows to the Gentiles after this long period of their disobedience, notice that that mercy comes “because of their [the Jews’] disobedience.” So the second stage in God’s design is the disobedience of the Jews.
This was the rejection of Jesus by the Jewish people. The decisive disobedience of Israel was her refusal to worship Jesus Christ. We know this is what Paul had in mind because this is the disobedience that resulted in mercy to the Gentiles. Jesus said, when they killed the Son in the parable of the tenants, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits” (Matthew 21:43). “Therefore,” he says—that is, “because” you reject the son—the kingdom will pass over to the Gentiles who obey. That is what he means here in the word “because” (in verse 30b): “Now [you Gentiles] have received mercy because of their disobedience.”
God Planned These Two Stages of Disobedience for a Purpose
Now let’s begin to stir in the truth that is coming explicitly in the next two verses: These two periods of disobedience—the first by the Gentiles and the second by the Jews—were planned by God. Verse 32 says, “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.” When it says he “consigned all to disobedience” he is referring here not to every individual person. He is referring to these first two stages of redemptive history: Gentiles as a whole disobeyed in their period of disobedience, and Jews as a whole disobeyed—are disobeying—in their period of disobedience. To this Paul says in verse 32 God “consigned” them.
He makes this even more clear by saying clearly that it was purposeful. God did it for a reason. Verse 32 says it was purposeful, “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that [for the purpose that] he may have mercy on all.” God planned these seasons of disobedience for a purpose: to make mercy more manifest. And verse 31 says that it was purposeful: “So they too [the Jews] have now been disobedient in order that [for the purpose that] by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy.” Again the disobedience is purposeful on God’s part and the purpose is the display of mercy.
So we should say two things about these first two stages of disobedience in God’s redemptive history. One is that they are designed, no accidental. They do not surprise God. And they do not trap God into doing things he did not plan to do. They are happening “in order that” mercy might abound and be displayed more fully. The other thing to say about these two periods is that Paul is treating Gentiles and Jews not individually but as a whole. Not all Gentiles were disobedient in the period of Gentile disobedience. And not all Jews were disobedient in the period of Jewish disobedience. That is important mainly because if you don’t see it, you may take verse 32 to teach universalism—that all individuals will be saved—which it doesn’t.
Stage Three: The Time of Mercy for the Fullness of the Gentiles
Now stage three in God’s redemptive history. Back to verse 30: “Just as you [Gentiles] were at one time disobedient to God but [here it is] now have received mercy because of their disobedience.” The third stage in God’s plan is when Gentiles receive mercy—Gentiles as a whole. This happens “because of” the disobedience of the Jews (stage two), as verse 30b says. This refers to God’s sending the Gospel to the nations during the time when a hardening is on Israel (v. 25). It refers to the “fullness of the Gentiles” (v. 25) that is coming in during this age of world evangelization.
God did not plan for the Great Commission to happen until after the disobedience of Israel. He waited until there were 2,000 years of God’s interaction with Israel and the writing of the Old Testament and the coming and death and resurrection of the Messiah against that backdrop of law so that the mercy of God would be more fully intelligible to the nations as the Gospel spreads. God has his reasons, and they are infinitely wise for why he puts the Great Commission of mercy to the Gentiles only after 2,000 years of history with Israel. So stage three is mercy to the Gentiles through the preaching of the gospel on the basis of the record of God’s dealings with Israel for 2,000.
Stage Four: The Time of Mercy for All Israel
Finally, in verse 31 we see stage four: “So they too [the Jews] have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you [that’s stage three] they also may now receive mercy [that’s stage four].” The fourth stage is that the Jews will receive mercy when the full number of the Gentiles comes in. When the rescuing mercy for the nations is complete, then sheer mercy will remove the hardening and “all Israel” will receive the Messiah, and the people as a whole will be saved.
And notice the exact wording of verse 31 so that you see the strangeness of Israel’s salvation. “So they too [the Jews] have now been disobedient in order that . . .” What’s the purpose? It’s their own salvation BY the salvation of the Gentiles! “[Jews] have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy.” In other words, God planned that Israel would come to its fullest experience of mercy only by the mercy shown to Gentiles. Why?
And why did he plan for Gentiles, after being saved because of Jewish disobedience, to become the means of Jewish salvation?
Why Did God Plan History This Way?
The answer is that God’s aim in history to stop the mouth of human pride and magnify the greatness of his absolutely free mercy. Jews were prone to boast over Gentiles, so God humbled them by making their disobedience the means of Gentile salvation. And more than that: he humbled them by making their own salvation the fruit of Gentile salvation. By the mercy shown to Gentiles they receive mercy. Jewish boasting is ended.
And what about us Gentiles? We are prone to boast over the broken off branches of Israel and brag that their disobedience was for our mercy. True. But then God stops our mouths: by making our mercy a means of theirs and our salvation a stepping stone to theirs. And all Gentile boasting is ended.
Receive His Mercy
And what is left when all this boasting is excluded?
Mercy on all—that is, mercy on a great fullness of Gentiles and mercy on a great fullness of Israel. Mercy, absolutely free—the kind that excludes all self-reliance and self-exaltation. As Romans 9:16 says, “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.”
Be shocked, be astonished, be amazed! Say these ways are inscrutable. Say these ways and this God are unsearchable. But don’t insult him with trivial, banal, petty, silly worship. If you can only stand in awe and tremble, then stand in awe and tremble. But best of all: receive mercy. That’s his great aim in history—that the nations glorify God for his mercy (Romans 15:9). Receive it.