Grace Unliminted (Romans 11:32)

by Ronald Goetz

Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 26, 1980, pp 1149-1150. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


It’s this standing in grace. It’s this having no other way to account for where one is. It’s this sense of having been held and fed and loved, as a child is loved, that drives us, as it certainly drove Paul, to a sense of grace universal.

For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all. [Rom. 11:32].

By what right did Paul presume to address the Christians of Rome in such universalistic terms? "Mercy upon all"? Had not the Lord Jesus himself taught the very converse when he warned that "many are called but few are chosen"? Paul’s own second letter to the Thessalonians had looked forward to that day in which the Lord Jesus would be revealed "in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the Gospel" (1:8).

Had Paul gone soft as a result of the many beatings and stonings and other perils that he had endured as a missionary? Was it the advancing years that were causing him to write with the permissiveness of a doting grandfather?

Surely the opening chapters of Romans don’t give any hint of a diminished Paul. His general indictment of humanity’s sin, his frank confession of our helplessness before the demands of the law sound like the same old rigorous and crusty Paul that we had come to know and love. This was the Paul who could fanatically persecute Christians before his conversion and could, in a rage, call for the self-mutilation of the Judaizers after his conversion (Gal. 5:12).

Now, this self-same Paul, as the surprising culmination of his whole theology of history, is calling for universal salvation. "Mercy upon all"? What of the Caligulas and the Neros of his day, or the Hitlers and the Stalins of our own? What of the drug traffickers or the pimps who exploit teen-agers? Is "mercy" the answer to the crimes of sadistic degenerates or the corruption of officials who permit wolves to prey upon the poor? Will there never be justice for the victims of exploitation and unspeakable cruelty? Is it not profane even to suggest blanket forgiveness for the perpetrators of Auschwitz?

Quite apart from the fiends and moral lepers of history, does not this Pauline universalism make a mockery of ordinary human striving? If everything is covered by grace, then really, all we do is trivialized. If we’re all going to be dragged into the Kingdom of God whether we want to be or not, and human freedom and moral striving are only an illusion, then we are merely the puppets of a divine determiner. But how can a deity who denies us freedom be loved in freedom?

The arguments that can be marshaled against this Pauline universalism are legion, and surely they were not unknown to the apostle himself. In fact, many can be found in his own letters. Nevertheless, Paul was finally driven, by the very logic of his faith in the incarnation, to speak in such grace-filled terms. The incarnation of the Son of God is, no matter how you slice it, a matter, of sheer constancy and love from God’s side. It was not by human righteousness that we ascended to heaven, "that is, to bring Christ down" (Rom. 10:6).

The incarnation was so far from being a human accomplishment that it caught humanity by surprise. Even now, after nearly 2,000 years of proclamation, we still strain to believe. Our faith is so terribly fragile that often it surprises even us. The fact that we believe at all seems a miracle; it is all grace.

Christmas is so much a holiday of family reunions and generalized piety that we often lose sight of the drastic thing we do. We bow down and worship an infant, believing him to be the altogether unique Son of the Most High! It must be the sentiment and the festiveness that so veil our modern critical faculties, and maybe that’s OK. Yet in the brief span before now and the day itself, it might be useful to examine what an exceptional thing our faith is.

What remains when we examine our faith and try to sort out our reasons for wanting to believe (a way out of tragedy perhaps), our reasons for needing to believe (an unresolved Oedipal conflict possibly)? How can we believe at all against the fact that historically our religion has functioned as an opiate for the oppressed and that it is, as a cultural phenomenon, neither appreciably better nor essentially worse than any other religion? How can an even mildly sophisticated 20th century person -- anyone who knows the shoddy history of the Christian churches, who has taken Hume or Darwin, Marx or Freud or Nietzsche to heart -- still believe in the truth of the incarnation?

If we examine ourselves, we must admit that our faith swims against the main current of our culture and of our own individual psyches. When we believe, if we believe, we believe because we have been graced. We know all the reasons for skepticism, and we embrace them all -- if not frankly and formally, then certainly implicitly in our individual life styles. Still we also believe. It’s probable that our recognition of God in Christ is the only miracle we will ever see.

We could argue for the sheer graciousness of the incarnation by grounding our case in the sinful state of humanity, stressing how it is that we deserve only death and how the son of God comes to us "while we were yet sinners." Like the poor, our sin is always with us, so perhaps we can save sin for Lent. Let’s just focus on the experience of faith itself. We realize that all is grace by merely recognizing the manifold cultural and critical contradictions that bar the way to faith. What a rare, almost enchanted thing is our incarnation faith.

It’s this standing in grace. It’s this having no other way to account for where one is. It’s this sense of having been held and fed and loved, as a child is loved, that drives us, as it certainly drove Paul, to a sense of grace universal. How can such love be limited? How can God finally love some with such parental tenderness and care and then reject others? Is God a parent who dotes on favorite children and treats the others as pariahs?

Paul’s own experience of faith revealed to him that there can be no talk of faith being the one work that merits salvation. To one who experienced the road to Damascus, such talk is absurd -- just as it is absurd to us people "come of age" who will cluster around the manger, transfixed in wonder. There is no merit in my receiving that which I cannot deny.

No! Christmas is God’s party, and there’s only one question left. Has he thrown his party for a few or for all? In the heat of religious conflict we say things in fierce judgment. Even Jesus said things in fierce judgment which must be tempered by reality. The reality in Bethlehem is the universal love of God. The problems, the paradoxes, the contradictions notwithstanding -- the reality in Bethlehem is the universal love of God.