In Romans 9:22-23, Paul mentions “vessels of wrath” that were “prepared for destruction” (9:22) and “vessels of mercy” that were “prepared for glory” (9:23).
The question is: Who is the doing the “preparing”? Is it the same person in both cases? Or is there a different “preparer” in each case?
Asking those questions are important, because some interpreters believe God prepares the vessels of mercy, but unbelievers prepare themselves for destruction. The interpreter is then apparently relieved of an unwanted burden: the “burden” of viewing God as preparing a vessel for destruction. To some, God preparing a vessel for destruction seems contrary to what is commonly believed about His love and kindness and desire for all to repent.
The reason why two different “preparers” are often seen is due to a change in Greek voice. In Romans 9:23, the word “prepared” is active, with God clearly the subject of the idea. But in Romans 9:22, the word “prepared” is passive, and some believe Paul is deliberately changing tenses to avoid attributing a “preparing a vessel for destruction” act to God.
However, there are at least three contextual reasons why God must be understood as both the one who prepares vessels of mercy for glory and the one who prepares vessels of wrath for destruction. Context must guide us.
(1) The use of passive voice does not exclude God from being the actor in any case. Context must have the last word. The New Testament is full of instances when the passive voice is used as a “divine passive,” meaning that God is the implied subject. Such is probably the case in Romans 9:22. Simply noting a change in voice does not de facto eliminate God as the subject preparing the vessels of wrath for destruction.
(2) The concepts of “vessels of mercy” and “vessels of wrath” parallel previous concepts in Romans 9. For example, Romans 9:18 says, “Therefore, God has mercy on whom he wills, and he hardens whom he wills.” Taken together, Romans 9:18 and 9:22-23 would mean, “Those on whom God has mercy are vessels of mercy prepared for glory, and those whom God hardens are vessels of wrath prepared for destruction.” Paul is certainly not trying to hide the fact that God hardens whom he wills to harden. There is no other competing subject in the sentence. Only God’s sovereignty in hardening is in view. If God does the hardening, surely God prepares a vessel of wrath for destruction.
(3) The image of a “Potter” precedes the notions of preparing vessels of mercy and vessels of wrath. Paul argues that the Potter has the right to do whatever he wants with a lump of clay, making some pottery for honorable purposes, and some for dishonorable purposes. Such potter-rights parallel 9:22-23 also. Pottery for noble purposes parallels vessels of mercy prepared for glory, and pottery for dishonorable use parallels vessels of wrath prepared for destruction. And here is the key: there is only one potter–God! If there were two potters, then perhaps the case could be made that God shapes vessels of mercy, but unbelievers shape themselves for destruction. But, since there is one Potter, there is only one Vessel-Preparer as well. The titles are synonymous.
In light of the above reasons, it seems to go against the flow of Paul’s argument to assert that God prepares vessels of mercy, but someone else (e.g. the unbeliever) prepares vessels of wrath for destruction. After all, Paul has already explained that God has mercy on whom he wants, and he hardens whom he wants (Rom 9:18). In fact, it is by the act of hardening that God prepares a vessel of wrath for destruction. God has the right to do this, for he is the potter, and the potter can do whatever he wants with the lump of clay.
Paul’s teaching that “God prepares vessels of wrath for destruction” is not as objectionable as it may first appear. His purpose is threefold: (1) to show his wrath (9:22), (2) to make his power known (9:22), and (3) to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy (9:23). Therefore, God purposefully prepares vessels of wrath for destruction. His hardening is not arbitrary or unjust. When God hardens, he hardens sinners, and sinners do not deserve his mercy.
Paul even cited an Old Testament example of God raising up a vessel for destruction: Pharaoh! God told Pharaoh, “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (Rom 9:17). God can harden (=prepare a vessel for destruction=make pottery for dishonorable use) as he wishes (Rom 9:18), for none deserve his heart-softening, eye-opening, life-changing mercy.
So, who prepares vessels of wrath and vessels of mercy? God. And He prepares them with purpose: to show his power, proclaim his name, display his righteous judgment, and exalt the precious nature of his mercy. Soli Deo Gloria!