For who can resist his will?”
20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded
say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?”
21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump
one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?
22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power,
has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,
23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy,
which he has prepared beforehand for glory—
24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only
but also from the Gentiles?
Since God asserts his sovereign right to harden whomever he wills, why should he blame man for doing what God has willed? It’s a question Paul knows some of his opponents will raise and he answers it with a stinging rebuke. You, “O man,” have no right to question anything your Creator does to you or with you! God has sovereign authority over all he has made.
The word “man” serves also to remind the objector of Genesis 2:7, which tells of God’s creation of man from dust (clay). Thus Paul quickly transitions to a common OT metaphor—the potter and the clay. Brendan Byrne says, “the potter has to make vessels for a wide variety of uses, some noble (the banquet cup), some homely (the chamber pot)” (cited by Colin Kruse). God as potter has the right to use man as he chooses.
But God’s will is never arbitrary or capricious. He is not an angry potter who breaks pots on a whim. His freedom is self-constrained by his character, one attribute of which is mercy. Just as God hardens whomever he wills he also shows mercy to whomever he wills. As we might expect, therefore, Paul elaborates on the manner in which God exercises his power, wrath, and mercy.God postpones wrath to display his mercy
The overall message of verses 22 and 23 is that God is patient with evildoers for the purpose of achieving his redemptive purpose. Without stating it, Paul refers the reader back to the example of Pharaoh. God kept wicked Pharaoh in his position, postponing judgment so God could display his power and proclaim his name through the dramatic deliverance of his people from Egypt. Through God’s forbearance Pharaoh himself was the recipient of God’s mercy.
Paul suggests that although God desires to quickly show his wrath and make known his power in doing so, he instead exercises long-suffering, subordinating for a while justice so he can make known the riches of his glory. We recall Moses’ request, “Show me your glory,” and God’s self-revelation: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).“Vessels of wrath prepared for destruction”
This phrase in verse 22 needs explanation. Does God purposely create people only to destroy them? As I asked in the previous message on Pharaoh, does God cause human beings to rebel against him, hardening their hearts when they do, so he can execute his wrath on them?
The evidence in the case of Pharaoh does not reveal God as the cause of Pharaoh’s hardened heart, but rather as confirming and propelling the king’s self-chosen rebellion. In the present passage God might be seen as the potter who molds certain vessels (people) for destruction. Is that Paul’s teaching? And does the verse prove the doctrine of reprobation (see below comments by Douglas Moo, R. C. Sproul, and Wayne Grudem)?
Verse 23 has a parallel phrase regarding “vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory.” We notice in the ESV translation the pronoun “he,” signifying God as the agent who has prepared the vessels of mercy for glory. No such pronoun accompanies the corresponding verb “prepared” in verse 22. The reason is that whereas the verb in 23 is third-person active, in 22 it is middle/passive, leaving the agent undefined.
Commentators argue both sides of this issue. Here is a range of opinions.
God is the agent. Moo presents both positions, as is his custom, and concludes that the parallel with verses 17–18 strongly suggests God himself prepares the vessels for eternal condemnation. The passage thus refers to “God’s act of reprobation whereby he destines the vessels of wrath to eternal destruction.”
Repentance is the issue. Everett Harrison thinks it improbable that Paul is teaching double predestination (reprobation). He points to Romans 2:3–4 and 2 Peter 3:9, which teach that God is patient with the objects of his wrath so they might come to repentance. Harrison concludes, “The preparation for destruction is the work of man, who allows himself to deteriorate in spite of knowledge and conscience.”
Charles Cranfield likewise finds significance in the message of Romans 2:4. God’s kindness, he says, is “intended to lead those whom He so endures to repentance.” Cranfield also cites Ephesians 2:3, which speaks of believers once having been children of wrath. The fact people are objects of God’s wrath now “does not imply that they must always remain such,” he says. Cranfield thinks Paul’s intent is not to identify the actor (God or people) but rather to highlight “the vessels’ condition of readiness, ripeness, for destruction.” Even so, that the people are ripe for destruction now does not mean they will necessarily be destroyed, he says.
The real issue is why God delays justice. Sproul, commenting on verse 21, rejects the claim that God makes “evil men and then punishes them for their wickedness.” God has the power to do that “but he does not have the authority to do so, if we understand that his authority is tied to his character.” On verse 22 Sproul says that because people do wickedness, the real theological question is “Why does God allow a wicked person to continue to exist?”
The doctrine of reprobation. Although Sproul does not comment on who prepares the vessels of wrath for destruction, he believes Paul is describing double predestination in this section. The doctrine of predestination, Sproul previously said when commenting on verse 18, is not that God causes faith in the heart of the elect, bringing them to salvation, and causes unbelief in the others. Such a view presupposes that human beings are innocent to begin with, an obvious error given the fallenness of humanity.
According to Sproul, the Calvinistic (biblical, as he sees it) doctrine of double predestination is that (1) God “intervenes in the lives of the elect to bring them to faith, as an act of mercy, an act of grace;” and (2) for the others, those who are reprobate, God “passes over” them and allows them to live out their own sinful dispositions. He withholds his mercy and grace from the reprobate and punishes them for their willful disobedience and sinfulness.Grudem thinks the term double predestination is inaccurate and unhelpful because it blurs the difference between election and reprobation. He defines reprobation as follows:
Affirm God’s sovereignty. Robert Utley, calling this chapter “the strongest expression of God’s sovereignty in the NT,” says the great truth “that God is in total charge of creation and redemption… should never be softened or finessed.” As Utley observes, Paul does not draw the logical conclusion concerning unbelievers prepared for wrath and believers prepared for glory. Paul leaves the tension in place, but for Utley the concept of covenant is what unites God’s sovereignty (the emphasis of chapter 9) and human free will (the emphasis of chapter 10). Through the covenant God reaches out to humanity to participate in his redemptive plan.
People prepare themselves for God’s wrath. Charles Swindoll argues on the basis of the verb’s middle voice that the phrase should be translated “vessels of wrath fitted by themselves for destruction” (emphasis his). He says, “All of humanity deserves immediate termination, so the fact that we live proves that God has not exercised justice.” While God withholds justice for a time, we should not complain that some will not be saved but rather “see the glass more than half full and thank God that anyone will be saved!” Swindoll points to James 1:13–16 for the truth that “God does not compel anyone to sin.”The triumph of God’s mercy
Cranfield makes a significant point: “There is no question of an equilibrium between God’s will to show His wrath and God’s will to manifest the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, as though He sometimes willed the one thing and sometimes the other.”
God’s manifestation of the riches of his glory “is nothing less than the ultimate purpose of God,” says Cranfield. Subordinate to it, therefore, is God’s purpose through his wrath. Cranfield reaches this conclusion from Paul’s grammar and syntax in the immediate context and the progression of Paul’s thought through chapter 11.
Although Israel is hardened and under God’s wrath in the present, the nation will eventually respond to the divine mercy. God’s patience with Israel now will make the triumph of his mercy shine ever brighter then. And as verse 24 says, God’s mercy overflows to Gentiles, who benefit now from God’s willingness to postpone his wrath on Israel.Closing thoughts
God is the Merchant of Mercy. His advertisement is the cross. His storefront displays the riches of his glory, and all the “vessels of mercy” run to the store to take advantage of the big sale. God is giving it all away, free for the asking.
As for those who don’t care to shop the sale at God’s store, they are bound for destruction. Is this proof of the doctrine of reprobation? This section clearly lends support to that doctrine, but it falls short as a proof text. The middle voice of “prepared” in verse 22 leaves us once again with a certain ambiguity. For sure God is not the author of evil, nor does the doctrine of reprobation imply such. Paul’s response to his questioner in verse 19 neither affirms nor denies the possibility that God wills people to do wrong so God may judge them. For good reason Paul responds as he does, because the idea is absurd.
Paul insists that we who come from Adam have no right to question anything God does. And if ambiguity is where we end up, well, neither should we question that. Moo is certainly correct: “Paul is content to hold the truths of God’s absolute sovereignty—in both election and in hardening—and of full human responsibility without reconciling them. We would do well to emulate his approach.”
These are important issues every Christian should seek to understand, and I hope what I have written in these messages has helped you do that. For further study, you may want to consult some of the Bible texts referred to above, along with 1 Peter 2:8; John 3:16–20; Jude 4; Acts 2:23; Romans 1:24, 26, 28; 11:8, 32; 1 Timothy 2:4; and Ezekiel 33:11.