Who Prepares the Vessels of Wrath and Vessels of Mercy?

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!

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4 thoughts on “Who Prepares the Vessels of Wrath and Vessels of Mercy?

  1. Mr. Chase,

    I remain anonymous perhaps because our discussion should end when this comment does (maybe my ip can be tracked but what does it matter who I am?).

    I have a long history of discussing PiperCalvinism. What’s interesting is that every time I do, I’m told that I have misinterpreted Scripture and that I should believe this way too, which defies your own theological viewpoint and logic because as you see it, I’ve been predestined to believe how I believe.

    I’m taken aback that you could preach like this (for various reasons); that God could cause people to do the horrific acts that they do. In doing so you must say that God chose evil for humanity if at no point in creation humans had a choice to choose good over evil (Adam and Eve in the garden); Either God is not completely holy because he chose evil to be in the hearts of humans or he gave humans a choice to obey or sin. Question: Is God not sovereign enough to create people with a choice?

    Quite frankly, the God you proclaim is crazy if He has to do evil things just to “show his power.” Here’s an example from John Piper himself. A young girl was in a fatal car accident (Piper says that she flew through the windshield). As a result of the obvious pain and grief the family suffered God was “glorified.” How ridiculous. Another example using a current event. A 2 yr old from Galveston was brutally attacked by her own mother and step-father; her head was slammed against the tile floor and also held under bath water. Was this for “God’s glory?” Did God prepare those vessels of wrath (Mom and Step-father) for His glory? There are other examples that I could think of but I will stop there.

    If you want to preach this, of course you have the freedom and choice to do so. I believe however that it is a disgrace to the mystery and greatness of God’s salvation to say that people do not have a choice to obey or disobey. People need to be responsible for their actions; how can they be if God is the one who ordains and performs them?

    Thank you for your time,

    A

  2. Dear A,

    Thanks for your note and thoughtful comments. I appreciate you taking the time to respond to a post with which you disagree. Whether or not you desire a dialogue on the issue of predestination, your comments made me realize I should make a few clarifications about my position.

    First, I do believe God has given mankind a will, and therefore choice is inherent in that gift, but circumstances are demonstrably different pre-Fall and post-Fall. Before the Fall, Adam and Eve could choose of their own free will the tree of life or the tree of knowledge of good and evil. But after the Fall, they were barred from the tree of life. The tree of life was no longer a choice they could make. Similarly, mankind’s will is bound in sin (Rom 6:16, 20; John 8:34). I believe that the Bible teaches that everyone makes choices, and that we are responsible for our choices. However, as people born in sin, the choices we make will only be sinful ones (Rom 8:5-8). In our sinful nature, we cannot please God (Rom 8:8). In our sinful nature, we cannot submit to what God commands (Rom 8:7). But our sinful state does not mean we do not choose to sin–it means that our bound will can only make sinful choices.

    Second, what I am interested in discussing is not PiperCalvinism (though clever phrase coinage, I’ll give you that). Christians should not ultimately follow any one person’s theology, whether that be John Calvin or John Piper or W. A. Criswell or Billy Graham or any pastor. I am interested in what the text of Scripture teaches, and there are things in the Bible that challenge my initial assumptions about what God does or does not do. I can identify with anyone who finds predestination objectionable, because I once found its teaching to be ridiculous and abhorrent. I thought, “How can God be that way? Surely no one really thinks that!” Or I’d think to myself, “Anyone who believes that must not understand Scripture at all, for who wants a God like that?” To be quite frank, the teaching of predestination made me angry. Also, Calvinists I met seemed to be abrasive, arrogant, insistent, impatient, and so I wanted nothing to do with their theology of salvation. However, I believe that over time my heart changed because of what certain passages teach. As I kept studying Romans 9, John 6, and Ephesians 1 (primarily those three chapters, but other ones were instrumental as well), I kept seeing what I didn’t want to see.

    Third, I don’t believe that God chose evil to be in the hearts of innocent people. However, I do believe that God’s sovereignty gives him the right to harden people in their sinful state (Romans 1:24, 26, 28; 9:18, 21-22). God does not cause people to sin, but God hardening people in their sin ensures that they will continue in their hardened sinful state. God can harden sinners and show judgment in order to show his power and justice. While you may find it objectionable that God can harden a sinner to display his power and wrath, Paul teaches it in Romans 9:17, 22 (see also Psalm 76:10).

    Fourth, I deny that God hardening a sinner is the same thing as God doing evil. For 1 John 1:5 says, “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” But Romans 9:18 says, “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.” God’s act of hardening is for the purpose of displaying his justice and righteousness. God doing evil would not display his righteousness, so God would not–and cannot–do evil. But since God does harden sinners–and yet God never does what is evil–the act of hardening cannot be evil.

    Fifth, your comments reminded me of the two objections Paul raised in Romans 9. In a literary move by Paul, he presented an objection to his teaching on divine election in order that he might then dismiss the objection. The first objection is, “What then shall we say? Is God unjust?” (Romans 9:14). That is usually the first objection raised against predestination anyway. After all, saying that God predestines some to eternal life seems to go against his holy character. Now if Paul really believed God would be unjust to elect some to eternal life, he would have said, “Yes, God is unjust to do this.” Or he could have said, “God would be unjust if he elected only some for salvation, so it’s a good thing it doesn’t work that way.” But Paul says, “Not at all!” Paul didn’t believe predestination calls God’s character (his righteousness or his justice or his holiness) into question. The second objection is in Romans 9:19: “One of you will say to me: ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?'” This is an important objection, because it focuses on human responsibility. The idea is this: If God predestines some to eternal life, how can anyone be held responsible for their choices? (In fact, I noticed almost the exact wording present in your final comment.) Now Paul could have said, “Since God elects, no one is responsible for their actions,” but that would have been unbiblical (Rom 2:5-11). Paul knows and teaches that people are responsible for their actions. However, in Romans 9:20 Paul answers the second predestination objection by focusing on God’s sovereignty as the Potter. Paul’s basic answer is this: God can do whatever He wants, and who are we to talk back to him? I do not stand as judge over God’s actions. No man does.

    Sixth, I’ll begin concluding my response by focusing on the issue of God’s sovereignty over horrible events. You raised two examples of tragedy that are truly heart-breaking. But in order to respond to those issues, I will raise the most horrifying example I can think of that demonstrates God’s sovereignty: the death of Jesus. There is no tragedy in human hisory, or in the future for that matter, that trumps the sinful murder of the blameless Son of God. Christ was innocent of the political insurgency with which he was charged. Jesus had no sin that should be punished. And yet Jesus was betrayed, tried, flogged, mocked, and crucified. The death of Jesus was the greatest act of evil ever committed by the hands of men. But the Book of Acts provides an interesting viewpoint about the events of Jesus’ death. Peter’s prayer to God in Acts 4 includes these words: “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen” (Acts 4:27-28). Here we have it, clear as day: the actions of Jesus’ enemies were according to what God decided would happen. Judas’ betrayal was ordained by God (John 13:18; 17:12). Jesus’ crucifixion was purposed by God (Acts 2:23). The death of Jesus is the greatest example of God ordaining an event, yet the people involved were responsible for their actions. If God ordained the most horrifying act in human history, and brought the greatest good and glory from it, then God can do it with any event in our lives. Nothing is outside his control.

    Seventh, the intersection of divine sovereignty and human responsibility is mysterious at many points. I think the tension evident in Scripture calls us to have faith in God, and to believe several things at the same time: God is holy and righteous, God is sovereign over all events, man’s sinful choices deserve nothing but God’s judgment, man bears responsibility for sinful choices, etc.

    Well, my response is certainly long enough. Please feel free to comment on my responses if you’d like, or not. In the end, I encourage you to pray that the Holy Spirit would guide us into the truth of His Word and that we would avoid error. I desire only to know Christ in the richness of his word, and to praise him for his mighty act of salvation by his grace alone.

  3. Thank you for your response and I will add that I shouldn’t have said that our conversation should end. I do believe that “both sides of the issue” are Brothers/Sisters in Christ and we should come together to reason in love. Thanks for the props on “PiperCalvinism.” It is truly a word that I use and not meant negatively.

    (first) From my point of view, it is inconsistent to say that God gave Adam and Eve a will to choose while at the same time saying that God preordains exactly what our decisions will be (who chooses and who doesn’t). How is that possible? In other words, is God sovereign enough to give Adam and Eve free will but not everyone else?

    (second) I too am interested in knowing what the Scripture says and teach/preach that. However, we must all admit that we come to Scripture with presuppositions and none of us can come completely objective; it is impossible.

    The Calvinists that I have found to be as you have described are the ones that are more concerned about promoting PiperCalvinism than they are a relationship with Jesus. As I said before, I’ve been accused of misinterpreting Scripture, etc. etc.

    (third) I do not find it objectionable that God could harden a sinners heart. I agree that God has the right to to do so as He chooses. But, the question is why does he do it? I believe that God does it based on the actions of the person (the choices that the person makes and yes, because of our sin nature we will sin but it is still a choice that everyone makes). I do not believe that God would randomly select someone to harden their heart just because to show His glory like most of the time it is presented.

    (fourth) God hardening the sinner is not an evil act because, as mentioned in point 3, He hardens people’s hearts according to His character, to punish the actions that people make the choice to commit themselves.

    On another note but somewhat similar, if you say that no one is able to do a good act without Jesus, then why do people in other faiths love their children? Why do they give to the poor and serve their community? The are all good acts but of course would never pay for the sin debt. That is the debt that Jesus paid and we should accept that through His Divine revelation to do so.

    (fifth) I agree that man has no right to object to God; God is above all. At the same time, God operates with His character in Scripture. As Peter says that God desires that none should perish but all have eternal life, doesn’t that imply that some will accept and some will reject? Regardless of what we interpret “all” to be, there is obviously the desire of God that a group of people would receive His salvation and some of them are not going to do it.

    (sixth) I agree that the crucifixion of Jesus was the worst evil of them all; an innocent God-Man died at the hands of guilty humans. God preordained this plan to save humanity from sin because of His foreknowledge. He chose to do so by crucifying His son and we had no say or influence in that. Thus God did not preordain the fall, just His plan of rescue. If God preordained the fall, then Adam and Eve really didn’t have a choice.

    Regarding John 13 – This can be interpreted different ways. If you believe that God completely preordains every single act a person commits, then Judas was certainly going to do it. If you believe that God doesn’t but Jesus (being God and man) still knew that Judas was going to betray him, then Judas betrayed Him because of His own sinful actions (committed because Judas was not obedient to the predestined likeness of Jesus). Otherwise, you could say that basically God is responsible for killing Jesus.

    (seventh) This is my point exactly that there is a Divine mystery of how God has saved humanity. I believe that saying God only chose a few to irresistibly respond to show His power and glory doesn’t serve a purpose and sizes God down. Additionally, I think God hardens people’s hearts because they choose to go against His preordained design of how humans should act according to God’s character (being made in the image of God).

    We can preach a God-centered salvation and evangelize accordingly without saying that God chose some but didn’t the others. How is grace changed any whatsoever if God calls a person but they do not respond in obedience? That places the response-ability back on the human and the human did not respond appropriately.

    In closing I’ll give you a snippet of one of the conversations I had with a Calvinist. He said to me, “Come on, just admit it, you know we are puppets.” I do not say this to challenge you are make fun of your position. This is an honest quote from another Calvinist. We then continued to talk and I asked Him how a Holy God could condemn a baby to eternal Hell on the basis of another’s sin? (ie. a baby who dies at 1 month). How is this Just? The baby never committed an action (sin). Of course, the sinful nature would have eventually won and the child would have sinned but how can a child sin when they have made no choices or actions?

    One more thing: I do see the importance and absolute necessity of a God-centered salvation. We can do NOTHING to earn His grace and salvation. At the same time, when God places the gift of salvation in our hearts, again not on our own merit, I believe we must accept the gift of grace and if we do not then we have committed the unpardonable sin and will be eternally condemned.

    Thank you again for your thoughtful response. I wish for you, your family, and your ministry many blessings.

    A

  4. Dear A,

    Thanks for the continuing dialogue. And, wow! Your latest post merits a book-length response. I greatly appreciate your thoughts on the various implications of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.

    I’m going to try and only speak to one issue at a time, and see where the dialogue takes us. I agree that some claims made by Calvinists can appear philosophically contradictory. But if God is revealing His sovereign ways of saving and judging, then should I expect everything to come together clearly? Certainly not all of the time, and perhaps least of all when it comes to God’s plan of salvation. It indeed confounds human wisdom! After all, “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” (Romans 11:34a).

    Thus, I am comfortable with something appearing philosophically contradictory, because the mind of man does not perceive rightly the ways of the Lord on its own. If God’s thoughts and ways are higher, then I think that biblical revelation trumps philosophical reasoning.

    Let us begin with Romans 9:14-23, which is one of the core passages in the Calvinist/non-Calvinist debate.

    After speaking of God’s election based upon no human action but rather on the basis of God’s own sovereign will (Rom 9:11-12), Paul notes that there are two objections that can immediately be raised (and these seem to be the main two that are always initially raised in predestination discussions). First, does God’s unconditional election compromise his just character (Rom 9:14)? And, second, does God’s unconditional election override man’s responsibility (Rom 9:19)?

    Interestingly, your previous comments seem right along the lines of Paul’s “imaginary objector.” You seem to find unconditional election to be at odds both with God’s character and man’s will. But I encourage you to read Paul’s answers to the objections he himself raised. Paul actually dismisses the questions!

    So, for Paul, the very questions that could potentially overturn any notion of unconditional election (the first is at 9:14, the second at 9:19) are not powerful enough to overturn it after all. While the “imaginary objector” raised seemingly valid philosophical conclusions, the objector was wrong—and Paul’s teaching stands.

    A wooden translation of Romans 9:18 is, “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wills, and he hardens whom he wills.”

    Thoughts?

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