Romans 11:32-36

Consider a thorough exegesis of Romans 11:32-36 (WEB).

32) For God has bound all to disobedience, that he might have mercy on all.

33) Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past tracing out!  34) 'For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?' 35) 'Or who has first given to him, and it will be repaid to him again?' 36) For of him, and through him, and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever! Amen.

We ought to give our most serious attention and interpretive skill to these verses. 
I believe this paragraph of Scripture is the grand conclusion of grace theology for three reasons.  First, the paragraph is squarely at the end of Apostle Paul's treatise on grace and Christian salvation, a logical place for a grand conclusion to be.  These words are not a mere point or transition, but the summation of Paul's entire explanation of grace from Romans 1 through 11.  Second, Romans 11:32 is followed immediately by an equally grand doxology of worship (that is Romans 11:33-36) and five concluding chapters which focus on instructions about our response to this grand conclusion, that is Romans 12-16.  Third, I have already suggested that Romans 11:32 answers the three biggest questions that mankind has ever had or will ever have before God our creator.  Any concluding word about grace and Christian salvation ought to answer our biggest questions.  This grand conclusion does not disappoint.  Again these questions are:

1) How did sin enter the world?  2) What is God's purpose in sin and salvation?  3) Who is finally saved from God's wrath against sin?  Let's dissect this verse for the answers to these three questions.

For God

God is the subject of the grand conclusion of grace theology.  He is the subject of the sentence, the person in focus, the actor on the stage of everything.  "For God!"  It is certainly fitting that God would take the place as subject of the grand conclusion of redemption.

has bound

How has God acted?  The main verb is "to bind."  So "God has bound?"  This is curious, and in fact a bit dark and unexpected.  Freedom is what we seek, honor, and exalt.  Yet, "God has bound."


Who has he bound?  "God has bound all."  We are the direct object, that is ALL mankind, even ALL creation.  But how can there be rejoicing in this dark thought?  We might instead prefer to read that God has bound darkness, or bound Satan, or bound all evil.  But we read that "God has bound all."  We are the object of his binding.  What could this mean?  And does "all" mean ALL?  Is it only representatives from all categories of men as Mark Galli suggests in his book God Wins, or all men generally, or every single human that lived for all time?  Perhaps we misunderstand.  Perhaps we are ALL bound to his goodness or bound to forgiveness.

  to disobedience

Darkest of dark.  "God has bound all to disobedience!"  Who is this God?  Certainly this must be a mistranslation!  Certainly this must be an error from an evil scribe from millennia past!  Yet, this is an adverbial clause modifying the verb, "has bound," by answering the question, "has bound to what?"  But in light of the answer... who cares about grammar?  Why would God do that, and how could he possibly be good to do that?  Yet if we are reading and understanding correctly, then we now have the answer to our first question.

1) How did sin enter the world?  All men are bound to sin by the will of God.

The Biblical answer to the origin of sin is radically different than the answer suggested by C.S. Lewis.  As already discussed, Lewis believed that free will was required for a true expression of love.  Lewis also believed that giving man free will then allowed for mankind's choice of evil.  Though Lewis was a most excellent philosopher, he is in grave error on both of these points.  God's true loving grace is instead all the greater because he saves us, not out of our freedom, but out of our bondage to sin.  Lewis' suggestion that free will allows for the choice of evil is simply mistaken logic.  Actually God himself is the only being that ever lived with a perfectly free will, yet there is no possibility of his choosing evil.  A will that is free is truly free!  I write further about free will in my article, A Quintessential Defense of FREE WILL.

Furthermore, we now also see that "all" means every single human that has lived for all time, for Paul is simply restating Romans 3:23.  If "all" means ALL in Romans 3:23, as all Christian theologians agree, then it certainly must mean ALL here.  Though one might object saying that "all" simply means representatives from all categories of men, that is Jews and Gentiles, but not necessarily every individual.  At least it would be consistent to say that Romans 3:23 and Romans 11:32 both mean every category of men, but not every individual.  We should be consistent because the context for both verses regarding Paul's points about Jew and Gentile being alike under sin are the same.  However, Romans 3:23 is easily understood to mean every individual person, just as Romans 11:32 should be understood to mean every individual person, whether Jew or Gentile.  If we say "all" does not mean each individual, but only each category, are we then saying that there are some people who do not sin?  Are some people not bound to disobedience by God?  Hardly.  The point is that ALL who sin, and ALL sin, do so because God has ordained it.  Plus we now see that Galli is wrong to suggest that "all" merely means "all categories of men."  "All" can only mean ALL mankind in Romans 11:32 -- that is every single individual Jew and Gentile, even all creation.

Paul did warn us in Romans 8:20 that there is an actor on the stage that subjected creation to frustration.  Paul is now telling us plainly in his grand conclusion that it is God himself who has subjected creation to frustration.  God is the reason that each individual human that has ever lived for all time is a sinner.  This truth can also be confirmed in Isaiah 30:28.  So God has bound ALL men to disobedience.

Why Lord?  How can this be?


Thankfully we see the beginning of another adverbial clause to answer the question as to why "God has bound."  Thankfully God is willing to disclose the reason for binding us all to disobedience.  The thought of God's decree being the reason that we stumble, fall, and disobey seems utterly dark.  It is as if we were wickedly fooled and our only hope turned out to be trying to destroy us in the end.  If God himself were proved to be evil, what hope could possibly exist?  Yet now a light shines through the darkness.  God offers an explanation. 

But one very important question comes to mind first.  The English phrase "that" could be heading towards "allow" or "oblige."  One offers possibility while the other states certainty.  The possibility of hope is better than nothing, but certainty is better than everything.  So for this phrase, let's dive into the Greek for more clarity.

The Greek word translated "that" is "iva."  On page 378 of A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature by Walter Bauer, "iva" is defined as "a result which follows according to the purpose of."  To further help us, "iva" is used several other times in the book of Romans.

Now we know that whatever things the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, that [iva] every mouth may be closed, and all the world may be brought under the judgment of God.

Romans 3:19 (WEB)

and if children, then heirs: heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with him, that [iva] we may also be glorified with him.

Romans 8:17 (WEB)

The dictionary definition and the prior context in Romans indicate that "that" means "for the purpose of a certain result."  Just as the law certainly holds every individual accountable to God, so God's purpose and result in Romans 11:32 is certain.  Just as future glory is certain for God's children that endure suffering, so God's purpose and result in Romans 11:32 is certain.

So let's read his certain purpose.

he might have mercy on

Now that sounds better, much much better.  God's purpose was not to do evil, but ultimately to show mercy.  In a nutshell, God could not demonstrate forgiveness if he had nothing to forgive.  Now one might still reject such a god saying that binding us to sin for the purpose of forgiving our sin still seems cruel.  Suppose a father chained his son to a boulder and when neighbors asked why, he said so that he could set him free one day.  Such a father would be imprisoned.  God, however, will not be imprisoned, but instead worshiped by all.

C.S. Lewis also rejected this scripture in Mere Christianity when he wrote, "God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right."  The truth about God's sovereignty over all creation, even evil, was difficult for Lewis to accept, as it is for all of us.

We had concluded above that the phrase "that" means "for the purpose of a certain result."  However, we now have the word "might" to consider.  That sounds like "possibility" again.  Let's dive back into the Greek.  The phrase "he might have mercy on" is from the Greek word transliterated "eleese."  This special verb means "to have mercy on."  This specific verb and its conjugation is used only one time in the whole Bible!  The verb tense in the Greek is in the 3rd person aorist active subjunctive singular tense.  The 3rd person singular indicates that Paul is writing about a single third person, namely God, the actor on the stage of mercy.  The active tense indicates that the action is not passive but active.  God is actively demonstrating mercy.  He is not a passive forgiver!  The aorist tense, sometimes called the "fairest" tense was used by the Greeks to denote a general reference to past action.  In this case the aorist tense refers to the work of our "Fairest" Lord Jesus who brought mercy to ALL mankind.  Christ's work on the cross forgiving ALL mankind's sin is a finished and completed work.  The payment has been made and received by the Father.  Finally, the subjunctive mood typically indicates action that is... possible or potential, but not certain.

Whoa!  Stop the train!

At first glance, this thought seems to mean that God has made mercy possible, but it is only definite for those adding the missing PART of faith.  Or maybe mercy is definite only for the PART of mankind that is chosen for forgiveness.  That is the most common interpretation and fits well with either Arminian or Calvinistic theology.

So is my entire thesis unraveled?

According to,

If the subjunctive mood is used in a ‘purpose’ (or in a ‘result’) clause, then the action should NOT be thought of as a POSSIBLE result, but should be viewed as the stated outcome that WILL HAPPEN (or HAS HAPPENED) as a result of another stated action.  The use of the subjunctive is not to indicate that something ‘may’ or ‘might’ result from a given action, but it is stating the ‘purpose of’ or ‘reason for’ an action.  The subjunctive mood in a purpose clause actually functions more like a verb in the indicative mood rather than in the optative mood.  It is not stating the possibility or probability of an action, but instead telling the intention of the primary action.

Whew!  That is good news... if you are among those bound to disobedience.  Romans 11:32 is not speaking about 'possible' mercy, but instead... certain and guaranteed mercy!!!

Yet we still may ask how can God get away with locking mankind in bondage to sin even if his goal is to set us free?  Well he is God, so he will do what he pleases.  He does not answer to us, but instead we answer to him.  And how would we stop him anyway?  In fact, Romans 11:32 is not telling us what he plans to do, but what he has already done.  Further, God's wisdom in such matters is quite beyond our comprehension.  Paul's response is simply to break out in worship with the concluding doxology.  "How unsearchable are his judgments!"

Paul also explained earlier in Romans that God's grace is such that his mercy does not merely release us from our bonds, but overwhelms and floods our lives with his goodness.  His mercy will finally and totally erase all the pain of our past bondage.  We may have many complaints about our trials and bondage now, but we are well advised to hold our tongue.  Shortly we will have no complaints, but instead reason for over the top rejoicing and praise for our savior.

Romans 5:16-18 (WEB), says,

16) The gift is not as through one who sinned; for the judgment came by one to condemnation, but the free gift came of many trespasses to justification. 17) For if by the trespass of the one, death reigned through the one; so much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one, Jesus Christ. 18) So then as through one trespass, all men were condemned; even so through one act of righteousness, all men were justified to life.

Furthermore, t
he earlier picture of a father who chains his son to a boulder and then unchains him later does not capture the wonder of what God is actually doing. God does not simply reach down from Heaven with a key to unlock our bonds to set us free.  Instead, his very holy and powerful presence intimately indwells undeserving sinners and empowers us to break the bonds.  God shares his supernatural power with us to break the bonds that he ordained.  He shares his power with us as the Holy Spirit regenerates individual people, one by one, leading us to faith and victory over sin, sooner or later, whether today or even in the depths of Hades.  The bonds he created are too strong for us, but God designed these bonds to be smashed only through the demonstration of Christ's power at work in and through us!  I'll take some more of that power!!!

That is the meaning of Romans 8:37 (WEB), "No, in all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us."

That is the meaning of 2 Corinthians 4:6-10 (WEB).

6) seeing it is God who said, “Light will shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 7) But we have this treasure in clay vessels, that the exceeding greatness of the power may be of God, and not from ourselves. 8) We are pressed on every side, yet not crushed; perplexed, yet not to despair; 9) pursued, yet not forsaken; struck down, yet not destroyed; 10) always carrying in the body the putting to death of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.

That is the meaning of Isaiah 54:16-17 (WEB).

16) 'Behold, I have created the blacksmith who fans the coals into flame, and forges a weapon for his work; and I have created the destroyer to destroy. 17) No weapon that is formed against you will prevail; and you will condemn every tongue that rises against you in judgment. This is the heritage of Yahweh’s servants, and their righteousness is of me,' says Yahweh.

People get ready!  Let Jesus flex some supernatural power in your life!  Live through Jesus Christ!

Ephesians 2:7 (WEB), an often overlooked but favorite verse of mine, also agrees that God acted with good purpose, "that in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus."

Now we have the answer to our second question.

2) What is God's purpose in sin and salvation? God decreed our bondage to sin in order to provide opportunity to forgive sin and demonstrate his power at work in us to conquer sin.  God is showing off his grace and we happen to be the beneficiaries!  He is flexing his grace muscles.  He is modeling his beautiful grace on the world's runway by indwelling sinners.

Awesome!  So who are the beneficiaries again?


ALLALL who?  Wait a minute!  ALL mankind?  The parallel construct of this verse demands that this second use of the word "all" is equal to the first use of the word "all."  That is, it refers to every individual human being that ever lived for all time.  That is right.  Just as God has bound ALL humanity to sinful disobedience, so he has chosen ALL mankind for mercy, even ALL creation.  Though ALL mankind is not presently indwelt by the Holy Spirit, ALL mankind has already been forgiven at the cross, and one by one, sooner or later, ALL mankind will reap the benefits of Christ's mercy.  Sounds like the certain guaranteed universal salvation of ALL mankind to me.

Praise God for his love for us and our neighbors!

3) Who is finally saved from God's wrath against sin?  ALL mankind.  Looks like our favorite 'Romans Road' collection of verses from the book of Romans has a few potholes in it!

The Biblical answer to the scope of salvation is also radically different than the answer suggested by Dr. James Boice.  As already discussed, Boice believed that since some men are sentenced to eternal damnation, it is an obvious conclusion that their sins are not atoned.  Thus God's grace is really only extended to a subset of humanity.  Yet Romans 11:32 could not be more clear, that just as ALL are locked in bondage to sin, so ALL are granted mercy.  Dr. Boice is likewise a most excellent theologian, but in the effort to tie a neat bow on his theological system he has also made a grave error.  Read on to discover my explanation of this conundrum.

Of course right now the Arminian Christians may be reading back through my explanation to argue that the usage of "might" must mean possibility and not certainty.  They may reason that salvation is only possible because each individual must exercise their free will to meet the condition of "faith" in order to be finally saved.  Impossible!  Faith is not the condition to God's unconditional love.  Instead, Faith is trusting in God's unconditional love.  The Calvinist Christians may immediately see the error in Arminian thinking, for salvation by grace is unconditional or else it would be of works.  Calvinists may argue that "all" must mean every category and not every individual.  Again impossible!  The only basis for individual personal confidence in God's love is through confidence in his universal love for ALL mankind.

Yet both the Arminian and the Calvinist argue that since the Bible teaches that people go to eternal damnation, then it is impossible that ALL would be finally saved.  That is an excellent point to continue our discussion.  So let's turn to re-examine the question of the destinies of mankind in light of additional Scriptures.