Words for worship: Submitting to God’s mercy and imprisoning!

This post was contributed by worship leader Mike Hale.

Preaching to inmates in a prison chapel service, the elderly guest preacher began with what may seem a puzzling verse from the Bible. “God has made all men prisoners of disobedience, so that he may have mercy on all.”

It was fifty-five years ago this month (September,1957), and the guest speaker who based his sermon on Romans 11:32 that day was the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth, arguably one of the most important voices in theology since the Protestant Reformation. Barth was invited to speak at the prison in Basil, Switzerland from time to time, and 18 of his sermons were published in Deliverance to the Captives (1961, Harper & Brothers).

Admitting the verse is not easy to understand, Barth began by saying it is best understood when starting from the second phrase—with the affirmation ‘that he may have mercy upon all’.  Barth said that those who know Jesus 
“...know it is imperative to begin at all times in our thoughts and in our life with him....just as the alphabet has no other beginning than the letter A. 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....  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.”
Barth described God’s mercy as almighty, saving, unlimited, and as mercy that brings light, peace and joy—without strings attached—and as the scripture emphasizes, is poured out on ALL men.  Barth told the prisoners this includes the so-called pious and the so-called unbelievers, the so-called good and the so-called evil people, including our enemies. He warned it would be a terrible mistake to think “This is not meant for me. God does not have mercy on me and will not have mercy on me.’ Or even worse: ‘I do not need mercy. I do not want it!” 

But that he may have mercy on all, God has made all men prisoners of disobedience. And the old theologian then described less obvious kinds of prisoners.
“Prisoner of a sorrow that once befell him and now poisons his heart and life: Prisoner of resentment, anger or hatred, perhaps rightfully directed against some people who gave him offence! Prisoner of a dismal tendency or habit which since his younger days he has been unable to shake off! Prisoner of a depressing illness... prisoners of mutual distrust... And all of us may feel like prisoners of anxiety... prisoners of the limitations of our one and only life, which is so short, prisoners of the limitations of our birth and our approaching death.”
But what is meant that God has made all men prisoners of disobedience? The God who knows who and what we are, reveals in his word that our imprisonment is being fundamentally disobedient before him and to him.
“Disobeying God means, whether we believe in him or not, that we let him be the ‘man upstairs’ and reserve for ourselves, in our hearts and minds and lives, the right to go our own ways. Disobeying God means that we affirm in our innermost hearts and with our outward life that there is not God. It is....rebellion and revolt, the attempt at an impossible ascent in the mountains.... God knows that we attempt the impossible, that we are these foolish mountain-climbers... There is no denial of our ultimate disobedience...”
Barth said that he himself, as well as all who have ever lived, and the best that have ever lived on earth, are each in his own way prisoners of disobedience.  Will we admit it?
“Our peace and 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.

“...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. ‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin,’ says the apostle Paul elsewhere, in an equally difficult passage. And Jesus Christ was obedient to God by not rebelling against his will, but by submitting to it.”

“We are called to belong to him, to share in God’s eternal mercy poured out in him, to rejoice in our salvation through him, and to live in the power of this mercy and this salvation.  Therefore, we have no other choice but to submit to God’s design to make us all prisoners of disobedience.”
Barth concluded by saying that true courage is “courage to be humble and consciously participate in the divine mercy as a prisoner of disobedience.” Such a person will yearn to rise again after reaching a point of acknowledging that he can no longer help himself, that no one else can help him, and that there is no help save God’s mercy. Having reached that depth, “God’s mercy has already reached out for you, has already found you, and you will experience that it will lift you to the highest heights.” Which brings real, lasting joy!
“Joy is born when you renounce any attempt to be something more than one among all those whom God has made prisoners of disobedience, that he may have mercy on all. Joy is born when you submit to both God’s mercy and God’s imprisoning, without resistance. Amen.”
And with a final prayer, the prison chapel service was over. But you ask, “why choose the message of Romans 11:32—about mercy for prisoners of disobedience—for a blog about Trinitarian worship?”  Because it leads us to verses 33-36, one of the wonderful doxologies of the New Testament, ending with “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.”

We cannot free ourselves from our human desire to rule our own lives in resistance to God, but the Holy Spirit gifts us with eyes to see and a heart to throw ourselves on God's mercy and welcome the saving grace that is the person of Jesus, the living Son of God and Son of Man. As freed prisoners, our new lives are bound by the Spirit to the risen Jesus. It is in the Spirit and through Christ we worship the Father and give glory to God forever! May we all enjoy our freedom, and praise God for it!