“For God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all.” – Romans 11:32
Paul tells us that God locks all of us up in unbelief, meaning we fail to believe the Gospel because God made sure we would all start out as unbelievers. But why did He do this? Simply so that He can show mercy to the same “all” that He first locked up in unbelief.
But doesn’t that mercy require us to do something ourselves to earn it, even if that something is as simple as having to choose to “repent” and “accept Christ as our saviour”? Christians sure seem to think so. But what does Paul say is the reason he was shown mercy? Well, he tells us:
“And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry; Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief.” – 1 Timothy 1:12-13
So why was Paul shown mercy? Because he decided it was time to finally do the right thing or believe the right thing? No, he said it was because he committed all of those sins in ignorance and unbelief, the same unbelief that God first locked him (and all of us) up in to begin with. It wasn’t because he chose to “repent” and believe that God would then show him mercy if he did so, but rather because he “did it ignorantly in unbelief.” So the only thing required to be shown mercy is to first be locked up in unbelief.
But could that only apply to Paul? Maybe we have to receive our mercy another way. Does Paul tell us the way we’ll receive that mercy ourselves? Why, yes, he does:
“And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting.” – 1 Timothy 1:14-16
Paul was shown mercy when the glorified Christ knocked him off his horse on the road to Damascus, and the way he was shown mercy is the pattern all of us who come to believe on Christ for “life everlasting” will also be shown mercy in. (It’s important to keep in mind that ”life everlasting” is a figurative term that simply refers to experiencing salvation early, before everyone else does.) We don’t earn that mercy through first deciding to shape up and fly right. Those of us whom God has elected for membership in the body of Christ and for “life everlasting” are simply knocked off of our high horses (meaning we are shown just how incapable we are of earning that mercy), and the truth of God’s mercy is then revealed to us.
Of course, it’s true that the passage in 1 Timothy is talking about members of the body of Christ in particular, but the passage in Romans 11 that I opened with still remains true: God is still going to show this same mercy to the same “all” He first locked up in unbelief, even if everyone else won’t experience it until the end of the ages (as Paul promised elsewhere that they would).