“Vessels of Wrath”
I’ve been treating Romans 9 in an effort to support my larger argument regarding divine election. Election in Scripture has the purpose of shaping the identity of God’s people. They are the people who have been on God’s heart and mind from eternity past. They are those to whom God has committed himself to pursue and redeem. This is true of anyone and everyone who is in Christ.
Election language does not function in Scripture to refer to God electing anyone unto damnation.
But what about the “vessels of wrath” in Romans 9? Isn’t it the case that God chose them in eternity past for destruction? Didn’t he choose to harden them so that they wouldn’t believe?
Let’s take a look at vv. 19-23 to see what Paul actually says.
Paul sums up his discussion of God’s hardening of Pharaoh (and the implied hardening of Israel, to which he refers explicitly in Rom. 11:35), by stating in v. 18 that God “has mercy on whom he desires, and he hardens whom he desires.”
This is not an abstract theological statement, but an affirmation that in the past God refused to be stopped by Pharaoh in his mission to save Israel and make them the agent of his universal saving purposes. And in Paul’s own day, God refuses to be stopped by stubborn Israel in his mission to reclaim the nations.
For Paul, both Pharaoh and contemporary Israel have rejected God and resisted his call. God retains the prerogative to harden them in unbelief in order to work out his redemptive program.
In vv. 19-21, Paul entertains a possible objection to God’s way of doing things. Isn’t that unjust of God to show mercy to whom he desires and to harden others? How can God hold Israel responsible for rejection if he is hardening them in unbelief?
Paul might have noted here that it is not that God predestined them for unbelief. God only hardens Pharaoh and Israel in response to their decisions to become obstacles to God’s redemptive aims.
Rather than doing that, however, Paul notes that God, as Creator, has the right to do with his creation as he pleases. Just as a potter has rights over the clay to make of it what he pleases (v. 21), God has the right over his creatures to do with them as he sees fit.
We must be careful at this point not to press Paul’s point too far. Paul does not use this analogy to make the point that God predestines some for salvation and others for damnation. He employs the analogy to stress that God reserves to himself the freedom and prerogatives of being the Creator God. If his creatures seek to hamstring his saving purposes, he does not owe anyone an explanation for his response.
Let’s look at vv. 22-23 to see how Paul works out his analogy.
Paul considers God’s treatment of the “vessels of wrath.” To whom does this term refer and how does God act upon them?
The “vessels of wrath” are not unbelievers in general, and it is not that God has predestined them from eternity past for destruction.
This term refers specifically to Jews who have rejected God’s work in Jesus and have become enemies of the gospel (Rom. 11:28).
Paul notes that they are “fit for destruction,” which is a better translation of the Greek participle than “prepared for destruction.” The participle here (“being fit” or “fitting themselves”) likely makes reference to the vessel’s fitness because of its own action, not to God’s prior action upon the vessel. “Prepared” indicates something done in advance, a notion that pushes the meaning of the participle beyond its intent. The participle functions adjectivally to describe the sort of vessels they are, not how God has acted upon them.
The only thing Paul says with regard to God’s action is that he has endured them with much patience (v. 22). And, because of the open call of the gospel–Paul makes this point in Romans 10–even they can cease being objects of wrath since “whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”
God’s patient endurance of these vessels who have made themselves the objects of wrath is a lesson directed to the “vessels of mercy.” Paul’s description of them highlights the difference between the dynamics of God’s mercy and the dynamics of God’s hardening. The objects of God’s mercy are those “which He prepared beforehand for glory.” This description does refer to God’s action in eternity past. The description of the “vessels of wrath” does not.
God’s election and God’s hardening work in different ways. Regarding election, God sets his love upon his people from eternity past to redeem them and transform them into agents of his redeeming love. This is true of anyone who joins God’s people in Christ.
God’s “hardening” of Pharaoh and Israel in Romans 9 refers to God’s responses to their rejection and their becoming obstacles to God’s saving purposes.
There’s more to say in conclusion to this discussion, but it remains the case that divine election shapes the identity of the people of God. This set of language in Scripture must be set aside when it comes to theologizing about those outside of Christ.