Before we get lost in the theological high weeds, I would like to thank all of you for walking this treacherous road with me. Now let’s carry on!
In Romans 9:19 Paul answers another objection that arises from this revelation of God’s election of some and not others for salvation.
You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?” But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?” Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor? (Romans 9:19-21)
In other words, if God is in control of who is hardened and who is not, then how can He condemn the hardened? Paul does not resort to “free will” language to resolve this problem.
Instead in Romans 9:20-21, we run into the much maligned potter/clay analogy of Paul. The apostle makes an argument from lesser to greater here. If a human potter has the right to form his clay as he pleases how much more does the King of the Universe have the right to form the destiny of His creatures as He pleases? We have no right to dispute with our Maker. The fact that God chooses to save anyone is amazing and a testimony to His great grace. Just as Jacob and Esau came from the same womb, God draws mankind from the same “lump”, or the same mass of fallen unredeemed humanity. No man has any merit over another, whether it be by pedigree or righteous choice. All are in the same sinking boat (Romans 3:23)
An objection is made by the Arminian in Romans 9:21 because OT passages like Jeremiah 18:1-6 have similar language and are referring to the corporate nation of Israel. This doesn’t necessarily help their case because we also have an OT passage like Isaiah 29:16, which has language that more closely parallels the potter/clay analogy in Romans 9:21 than other OT passages. Isaiah 29:16 is talking about individual wicked men, so if this is the OT text Paul is drawing from it would confirm his flow of thought and the problem he raised from Romans 9:1-5 (unlike the OT passages with corporate meanings)..
There is an additional objection made by the Arminian in Romans 9:22 that goes something like this: “No potter makes a vessel for destruction, that would be ridiculous!”
It would possibly be ridiculous if “destruction” could only be referring to a shattering or annihilation of a vessel. But there is no need to restrict it to that meaning here. “Destruction” has a much deeper meaning, especially when eternal destinies are at stake. Hell is a place of eternal conscious “destruction” of the soul, not annihilation or a ceasing to exist. “Destruction” in Romans 9:22 is the same greek word used to intimate hell in Matthew 7:13.
Our understanding of “destruction” should also be linked to “dishonor” in its parallel verse (Romans 9:21). Potters do indeed make vessels for dishonor. Consider first century waste bins, where unwanted trash, rotten food and maybe even human waste was disposed of. In the end, even a vessel of dishonor shows the skill and prerogative of the Potter.
There are also some pertinent grammatical nuances taking place in Romans 9:22-23. The word “fitted” in Romans 9:22, as in “vessels of wrath fitted for destruction,” is in the passive voice. The wording “He prepared” in Romans 9:23, as in “the vessels of mercy He prepared beforehand for glory,” is in the active voice. This has led many Reformed thinkers to propose that God is necessarily the divine action that brings men to glory, while God is passive in His treatment of the vessels of wrath. In a way, the vessels of wrath prepare themselves for hell by their own depraved heart, while the vessels of mercy must be born again by God to prepare them for glory (Titus 3:5-6). This is what becomes a stumbling point for many regarding the doctrine of “double predestination.”
“God doesn’t create babies just to send them to hell!” is sometimes the emotional argument used against the Reformed view.
But again, there is not an equal divine action that separates the elect from the nonelect, though in God’s sovereignty there is at least an equal divine ultimacy, as Romans 9 teaches. Man’s own willful sinful rebellion in this life is what sends him to hell, God’s active casting happens after man’s life at judgment (Matthew 10:28-30)
Here the Arminian has not carried out their own theology to it’s logical end. The free willer is not saving God from any supposed injustice by denying His electing grace or predestination. Let’s flip the table on their own argument and take up the Arminian view: If God has perfect foreknowledge (which all orthodox free willers hold to), then He at least knows who will accept or reject Christ. Yet God the Creator has still chosen to create people He knows will reject Christ and will be sent to hell.
My Arminian brethren, why would God choose to create people (or “babies” as some like to say) He knows He must send to hell for an eternity?
If you believe the biblical purpose God created all things was to display the “free will” of man, then you are a staunch Arminian indeed and no scriptural reasoning will do for you. But if the biblical purpose God created all things was to display His glory, then we are beginning to grasp the argument of Paul and, I believe, the Reformed view.
As was the case with part III covering Romans 9:14-18, God did not “work” evil in Pharaoh’s heart but did use Pharaoh’s evil for His glory. When mankind fell through the willful sin of Adam, the willful sin of all justly condemned all. God does not need to “work” new evil in any man, but evil man absolutely must have God “work” new righteousness in him for salvation (John 3:3).
Remember the discussion of part III, God’s glory is directly linked to His merciful election of us. Romans 9:23 refers to God’s glory twice, the first “glory” is the riches He gives to elect, the second “glory” is His purpose for saving the elect. Whether it’s His “power” He’s displaying through the vessels of wrath, or His “glory” He’s displaying through the vessels of mercy, God has His own esteem in mind. God’s mercy is the way His glory shines brightest. But for the star of God’s mercy to radiate in it’s full force it must be placed up against the dark backdrop of His wrath:
Daniel Fuller communicates this truth better than I could ever attempt to:
“It is surely right for God to prepare vessels of wrath, for it is only by so doing that He is able to show the exceeding riches of His glory, the capstone of which is His mercy. For God not to prepare vessels of wrath would mean that He could not fully reveal Himself as the merciful God. Then creation could not honor Him for what He really is, and God would have been unrighteous, for in the act of creation He would have done something inconsistent with the full delight He has in His own glory.”
If God failed to act with wrath against the prepared vessels of wrath He would be disregarding His own glory. If He disregarded His own glory not only would He fail to act with wrath, He would also fail to act with mercy, and He would cease altogether of being God.
If it weren’t this way no one would be saved, neither Jew nor Gentile. Romans 9:24 confirms the flow of the entire chapter up to this point and displays again that individual souls are the focus of Paul’s discussion, not a nation. Paul makes this election reality intensely personal to “even us, whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles.” (Romans 9:24) This calling given to us is the effectual calling of God that brings us to faith in Christ (2 Thessalonians 2:14).
Romans 9 is not written as an obscure and solitary island in Pauline thought. The preceding chapters of Romans 1-8 have systematically brought the reader to this essential chapter:
Romans 1-3 deals with the utter sinfulness of man and His dire spiritual condition apart from God’s righteousness. It is made abundantly clear in Romans that God is righteous in pouring out His wrath on mankind (Romans 1:18). All men are without excuse and all men are condemned under the law (Romans 3:19-20). None are righteous, none seek God, and none do good (Romans 3:10, 11, 12).. Man is neither able nor willing to lift a finger towards his own salvation, he cannot seek God so God must seek Him. Man is totally depraved as the Reformed doctrine confirms. If we don’t rightly grasp the depravity of man posited in chapters 1-3, the gracious election of God in chapters 8-9 will never reach it’s full beautiful force in our hearts.
All men are justly condemned to hell, yet in Romans 3:21-4:25 Paul introduces the saving righteousness of God in Christ through faith. Though God is righteous is judging sinners condemned under the law, He is also righteous in saving sinners through the perfect person and work of Jesus Christ (Romans 3:23-26). Jesus Christ, the perfect Son of God, has been put forth as the wrath bearing sacrifice for our sins so that we get the glory and righteousness He deserves. Paul makes it clear that Gentiles and Jews have both been offered this gift of free grace through faith.
In Romans chapters 5-8 Paul displays the living hope believers now have since acquiring the righteousness of God in Christ. Believers (both Jew and Gentile) are given an assurance of life eternal and future glory. Romans 8 has some of the most precious promises in the entire Bible, with it all culminating with the grand and beautiful conclusion of Romans 8:31-39.
In chapter Romans 9, Paul answers a question (he really answers it fully in chapters 9-11). If God’s promises to ethnic Israel were unfulfilled in Old Covenant, how can we be sure his promises to us will be fulfilled in the New Covenant? How can we be assured Romans 8 is for us?
The answer to that question has been the primary focus of this series: We have found that we can be sure of God’s faithfulness because of His electing grace He has given us in eternity past.
In Romans 10 we find the sovereign means by which God plans to draw people to Himself: By the sending of messengers who will preach the message of the gospel (Romans 10:14-16). How does one come to faith in Christ? Through hearing someone preaching the word of Christ (Romans 10:17).
Far from discouraging evangelism, the election of God ensures our success as evangelists! If we go and share Christ God has promised He will bring people to Himself (Malachi 1:11). He will be faithful to bear fruit with the proclamation of His Son. What an indescribable privilege God has given to those of us in Christ (Acts 1:8). All of our evangelism efforts are invincible through God’s sovereign grace. Reformed theology affirms evangelism as the only sure thing going these days!
Romans 11 deals with God’s future faithful treatment to a remnant in Israel. It’s a chapter almost as hotly debated as Romans 9.
Romans 12-16 deals with the practical implications of the Christian walk in everyday life. It displays how the staggering change saving grace made within us should look as outward living. Paul ends the book of Romans with some final instructions as the apostle to the Gentiles.
I am under no pretension that this brief series answers every reservation inquiring minds could bring up regarding election. But remember, the pressing matter is not whether it all makes sense to our finite and fallen minds; the real matter is whether this is what Scripture plainly teaches. While we rack our little brains trying to reconcile man’s responsibility with God’s sovereignty, these massive truths are easy for the mind of God. We can take heart and know His ways are not our ways, and His thoughts are infinitely higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8-9).
We can’t conveniently dismiss Romans 9 as too controversial or ambiguous for serious discussion. Accusations of “intellectual grandstanding” or “schism” against those who would take up a sincere study of Romans 9 are unwarranted. I am sure both sides can improve on discussing the issue in a greater spirit of Christian charity. But God has intentionally spoken every word of Scripture for us to discover and delight in. If we are to know God we must know His word. So the meaning and mystery of every verse should be claimed and proclaimed whether we like the implications it brings or not. Romans 9 is no different.
If all Scripture is “God-breathed” and all Scripture is “profitable” then studying Romans 9 can be just as beneficial for the soul (even the lost one!) as studying John 3:16 (2 Timothy 3:16). I hope that through the illumination of the Holy Spirit this brief study has benefitted you in some way.
I’ll end on a note I believe we all can agree on:
God bless and go share. To Him be the glory. (Matthew 28:18-20).