Karl Barth: “God has mercy on us.” Sermon from the Basel prison

The arms of his eternal love, if I may say so, are already outstretched when he makes us prisoners of disobedience. He does so in order to have mercy on all. Barth on Romans 11:32

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“For God has made all men prisoners, that he may have mercy upon all.” (Rom 11:32)

In his groundbreaking commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Swiss reformed theologian Karl Barth, noted that Romans 11:32 is the key to understanding Paul’s theology. God’s all-embracing judgment on everything human has only one purpose: All-embracing mercy. God’s ‘no’ cannot be understood apart from his ‘yes’.

When Barth during his professorship in Basel started preaching for the inmates in the city’s prison, he took up again once more this insight. The thought that God’s grace is close to all, even though we are all imprisoned by sin, is recurrent in Barth’s prison sermons from the period – though perhaps most explicitly, of course, in his sermon on Romans 11:32 from 1957. Can we imagine a more appropriate place to preach, that God has made all prisoners, that he may have mercy on all?

Karl Barth, Deliverance to the Captives (Wipf & Stock Pub 2010)

We must start with the fact that God had mercy and will have mercy on all – that his will and work are determined and governed by his compassion. This he proved in Jesus Christ not only by words, but by the mightiest of his deeds. He gave himself for us in his dear Son and became man, our brother. This is the mighty deed and through it the word of God’s mercy on all has been spoken. We may and we must stick to this truth and ever anew begin with it.

God has mercy on us. He says ‘yes’ to us, he wills to be on our side, to be our God against all odds. Indeed against all odds, because we do not deserve this mercy, because, as we rightly suppose, he should say ‘no’ to us all. But he does not say ‘no’; he says ‘yes’. He is not against us; he is for us. This is God’s mercy.

Contrary to human mercy even in its kindest expression God’s mercy is almighty. It is almightily saving and helpful. It brings light, peace and joy. We need not be afraid that it might be limited or have strings attached. His ‘yes’ is unequivocal, never to be reversed into ‘no’.

Since God’s mercy is divine and not human, it is poured out on all men, as emphasized in our text [Rom. 11:32]. In his letter to the Romans Paul interprets this mercy by insisting that it is extended to the Jews and the Gentiles – to those near, or at least nearer, to God and to those far away from him – to the so-called pious and the so-called unbelievers – to the so-called good and the so-called evil people – truly to all. God has mercy on all, though on each one in his own way. God’s mercy is such as it is described in the parable of the lost sheep, of the lost coin, and of the prodigal son.

Let us pause for a moment. As according to God’s holy word, spoken in Jesus Christ, he has mercy on all, each one of you may and shall repeat – not after me, but after him -‘I am one of them’. God has mercy on me and will have mercy on me. The one great sin for anyone right now would be to think: ‘This is not meant for me. God does not have mercy on me and will not have mercy on me.’ […] The one great sin from which we shall try to escape this morning is to exclude anyone from the ‘yes’ of God’s mercy. […]

‘God has made all men prisoners of disobedience.’ What does this mean? What kind of imprisonment is this? […] The text insists that God has made all men prisoners of disobedience. All, including me, the preacher if this Sunday sermon? Yes, including me! Including the good or at least the better fellows among you? Yes, including them! Including the best people that ever lived or may live on earth? Yes, including these! The all-knowing God declares that all, each one in his own way, yet each and all, are prisoners of disobedience.

We must again pause for a moment. Because this is our common predicament, non shall secretly exempt himself; none shall point to the other fellow as a more obvious target; none shall think of himself as an exception, if only a half-exception or a quarter-exception. My brothers and sisters, everything depends on our readiness not to escape at this point. Not only because there is no escape – but because an escape would work to our disadvantage. Our peace and our joy, our salvation in time and eternity are here determined. We are not to deny, but to acknowledge, not to mutiny against, but to confess: God has made me and you prisoners of disobedience. […]

The arms of his eternal love, if I may say so, are already outstretched when he makes us prisoners of disobedience. He does so in order to have mercy on all. He keeps us, the prisoners of disobedience, togehter like a shepherd his flock. He keeps us in line and holds us in check. He places us on the very spot where his mercy is operative and manifest, he gathers us as his people, transfers us into a community of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he has made Jesus Christ our Saviour by delivering his own beloved and obedient Son to disobedience and death in our place. […] (Karl Barth, Deliverance to the Captives (Wipf & Stock Pub 2010), “All!”, pp. 85ff)