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Romans 9:14-23 (2)


As we return to Paul’s response, one should observe that the objection raised in v. 19 is not a humble inquiry on the part of an inquisitive student of theology, as if he were simply asking "How can these things be?" It is rather an indignant declaration and arrogant protest against God in which he insists that "these things ought not to be, and if they are, God is unrighteous!" Paul's emphatic "O man" and "to God" in v. 20 assign to the objector his proper place: As a mere man you have no right to accuse God of unrighteousness. Piper explains:


"Paul has no objection when a person seeks to understand as much of God's dealings as possible, but he objects strenuously when a person criticizes and rejects the truth which he discovers. . . . For man to advise God about how he ought to act is as out of place as for a statue to advise a sculptor how to chisel. The presumption that a man's sense of values is ultimate and can prevail against God's sense of values is as ludicrous to Paul as a ranting figurine” (166).


But isn't it true that people can and do, in fact, resist God's will? Didn't Pharaoh? True, but no one denies that men can say "No" to God's commands, even as did Pharaoh when he "resisted" God's command through Moses that he set free the children of Israel. Paul's point, however, is that even this sort of "resistance" is in one sense "willed" by God. In other words, God "willed" (decree) that his "will" (precept) be resisted. In resisting God's will of "precept" Pharaoh was fulfilling God's will of "decree".


Paul uses a common biblical metaphor to illustrate his point. The relationship between Creator and creature may be compared to that between a potter and his clay. The sole authority for determining what sort of vessels are to be made rests with the Creator/potter. He has the indisputable right to give full and artistic display to all his attributes and skills as a craftsman by making vessels as he sees fit, either for honorable use or dishonorable use. Consequently, the creature has no more of a right to protest how God dispenses with the creation than does a piece of clay have the right to dictate instructions to the potter.


As with so much else that has preceded in 9:1-18, many commentators find in vv. 20-21 a reference to national or corporate entities and not to individuals and their eternal destinies. For example, it is argued that the OT texts quoted in vv. 20-21 (Isa. 45:9-11; Jer. 18:1-6) deal with the nation Israel, not individuals. But, it must be noted that Paul is employing a common metaphor and need not apply it precisely the same way as does another biblical author. Furthermore, it is more likely that the passage from which he derives the metaphor is Isaiah 29:16 which does have reference to individuals.


We should also take note of v. 24 in which the "vessels of mercy" (v. 23) are identified as those who have been called "from among" Jews and "from among" Gentiles. "Since the vessels of mercy consist of Jewish individuals and Gentile individuals, there is no basis for arguing that Paul's contrast between vessels of mercy and vessels of wrath . . . is a contrast between nations” (Piper, 181).


Some argue that Paul must be referring to national entities and not to individuals because "no potter makes a vessel just to destroy it." But this ignores the obvious parallel between v. 21 and v. 22. The vessel made for common use in v. 21 = the vessels prepared for destruction in v. 22. Therefore, common use and destruction are synonymous. Also, to say that a potter does not make a vessel simply to "destroy" it is based on a misconception of "destruction". By this term Paul does not mean extinction but eternal condemnation. "Destruction is not the opposite of existence; it is the opposite of glorious existence (9:22f.). And that is all that the metaphor of 9:21 requires. If apoleia means an eternal inglorious existence in hell, then the objection that God could not make persons for such apoleia, since potters do not do that sort of thing, is not true. For potters do make vessels which are fit for inglorious uses outside the house” (Piper, 183).


Several commentators point out that the word translated "destruction" (apoleia) is always used by Paul to refer to final condemnation (Phil. 1:28; 3:19; 2 Thess. 2:3; 1 Tim. 6:9; the cognate verb (apollumi) is used this way in Rom. 2:12; 1 Cor. 1:18; 2 Cor. 2:15; 4:3; note esp. the contrasts between this word and salvation in Phil. 1:28; 1 Cor. 1:18; and 2 Cor. 2:15). Note also that the objection in v. 19 to which v. 20 is addressed is formulated with reference to an individual: "Who can resist his will?" The objector perceives correctly that individual accountability is in view when he asks: "Why does God still find fault?"


One more point must be made before leaving vv. 21-22. Paul portrays God as a potter who makes vessels from the same lump. The implications, notes Piper, are clear:


"The various types of vessels which the potter chooses to make are not at all determined by what the clay itself is, apart from the potter's shaping. Had the vessel for honor and the vessel for dishonor been made from different lumps of clay one might argue that it was some distinctive quality in the different lumps which caused the potter to appoint one vessel for dishonorable use and another for honorable use. But Paul rules that out with the phrase 'from the same lump’” (184-85).


It would seem that the same lump of clay from which the different kinds of vessels are made is parallel to what Paul said in vv. 10-13 about Jacob and Esau being born of the same mother and father (Rebecca and Isaac). John Stott draws this conclusion:


"If therefore God hardens some, he is not being unjust, for that is what their sin deserves. If, on the other hand, he has compassion on some, he is not being unjust, for he is dealing with them in mercy. The wonder is not that some are saved and others not, but that anybody is saved at all. For we deserve nothing at God's hand but judgment. If we receive what we deserve (which is judgment), or if we receive what we do not deserve (which is mercy), in neither case is God unjust. If therefore anybody is lost, the blame is theirs, but if anybody is saved, the credit is God's” (Romans, 269-70).


As we come to the conclusion of our study of Romans 9, three questions must be answered. First, how should we translate v. 22? a) "what if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath", or, b) "what if God, because willing to demonstrate His wrath"?


The latter is probably correct, indicating that God patiently endures the vessels of wrath because he wants to accomplish three things: (1) he wants to demonstrate his wrath; (2) he wants to make his power known; and (3) he wants to make known the riches of his glory on vessels of mercy. The translation because is also supported by comparing v. 22 with v. 17. Piper explains:


"Though Paul is now speaking more generally about 'vessels of wrath', the words of God to Pharaoh in Ex. 9:16 are still serving as the pattern for the way God acts. God's raising up Pharaoh and enduring him through a ten-fold recalcitrance was not in spite of his desire to show his power but because of his desire to show it. God could have destroyed Pharaoh after any one of his acts of disobedience, and the reason he did not was that he might 'multiply his wonders in the land of Egypt' (Ex. 11:9). By 'sustaining and tolerating' Pharaoh again and again God accomplished his purpose to show his power in the plagues and finally to win renown in Pharaoh's overthrow at the Red Sea (cf. the purpose mentioned in Ex. 7:3-5; 9:14-16; 10:1; 11:9; 14:4,17-18). Therefore, since Rom. 9:22 uses the same language as 9:17, it is more probable that God's desire to show his wrath and make known his power is the cause of his sustaining and tolerating vessels of wrath than that this sustaining and tolerating are in spite of that desire” (188-89).


The third of these three purposes is clearly ultimate, the other two being subordinate. In other words, the primary purpose for which God manifests his wrath on vessels of destruction is so that his mercy might be seen as all the more glorious. "The remarkable thing is that the revelation of this treasure of glory which the church will experience as mercy, is accomplished, at least in part, by God's patiently sustaining and tolerating vessels of wrath set for destruction” (168-69).


Our second question is this: what does it mean to say God patiently endured vessels of wrath? Apparently, God is patiently holding back immediate judgment so that the reprobate might continue to store up wrath for themselves and in this way make possible an even greater display of God's power and judgment. In dealing with Pharaoh, God endured his repeated refusal to let the people go in order that he might turn each occasion into an opportunity to display his power (Ex. 14:1-4,14). Also, with a greater measure of sin comes a greater display of wrath, which in turn sheds an even greater light on the glory of mercy towards those who themselves deserved judgment no less than the others.


Finally, the vessels of mercy in v. 23 are explicitly said to have been prepared beforehand by God for glory. In v. 22 the vessels of wrath are said to be prepared for destruction, but by whom or by what? There are four views: (1) the voice of the Greek participle may be middle, not passive; hence the vessels of wrath are conceived as having prepared themselves for destruction (ostensibly through their rebellion and unrepentant unbelief); (2) prepared for destruction is simply a descriptive phrase without implying any agent of the preparation; (3) Paul deliberately expresses it this way to leave the issue shrouded in a mystery; (4) God is the agent or cause by whom the vessels of wrath are prepared for destruction.

The following is included for those with a knowledge of Greek who might wish to know why the use of the direct middle (i.e., option 1 above) is highly unlikely here: "First, grammatically, the direct middle is quite rare and is used almost exclusively in certain idiomatic expressions, especially where the verb is used consistently with such a notion (as in the verbs for putting on clothes). This is decidedly not the case with katartizo: nowhere else in the NT does it occur as a direct middle. Second, in the perfect tense, the middle-passive form is always to be taken as a passive in the NT (Luke 6:40; 1 Cor. 1:10; Heb. 11:3) – a fact that, in the least, argues against an idiomatic use of this verb as a direct middle. Third, the lexical nuance of katartizo, coupled with the perfect tense, suggests something of a 'done deal.' Although some commentators suggest that the verb means that the vessels are ready for destruction, both the lexical nuance of complete preparation and the grammatical nuance of the perfect tense are against this. Fourth, the context argues strongly for a passive and completed notion. In v. 20 the vessel is shaped by God's will, not its own ('Will that which is molded say its maker, "why have you made me this way?"'). In v. 21, Paul asks a question with ouk (thus expecting a positive answer): Is not the destiny of the vessels (one for honor, one for dishonor) entirely predetermined by their Creator? Verse 22 is the answer to that question. To argue, then, that katertismena is a direct middle seems to fly in the face of grammar (the normal use of the voice and tense), lexeme, and context" (Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament [Zondervan, 1996), 418).



1 Peter 1:1-2


1 Peter 1:1-2 asserts that we are elect “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.” As we have already seen, God’s foreknowledge is his special delight or gracious affection with which he views us (see the discussion of Rom. 8:29-30). Again, a good synonym is “forelove.” We must also interpret the force of the preposition translated “according to” (kata).


Most agree that here it has the sense of “in conformity with.” In other words, God’s foreknowledge or eternal love of us was the standard or norm in the light of which his electing act was undertaken. It would almost seem, as M. J. Harris suggests, that the notion of conformity has been “totally displaced, with kata denoting the ‘basis.’ Thus, election is based on (kata) the foreknowledge of God the Father, is effected by (en) the sanctifying work of the Spirit, and aims at or achieves (eis) obedience and the constant sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ” M. J. Harris, “Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament,” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 3:1201.


We must be careful, however, in basing too much of our theology on the nuances of Greek prepositions. On the other hand, we cannot afford to ignore prepositions as if they had no significance at all. One example of the latter is Normal L. Geisler’s attempt to circumvent the doctrine of unconditional election (Normal L. Geisler, “God Knows All Things,” in Predestination and Free Will: Four Views of Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom, ed. David Basinger and Randall Basinger [Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1986], pp. 70-71).


Geisler insists that what 1 Peter 1:1-2 is saying is that election and foreknowledge are simultaneous acts, that neither is based upon the other; either chronologically or logically. But to say that election is “in accord with” (that is Geisler’s rendering) foreknowledge is not the same thing as saying election is “at the same time as” or “simultaneous with” foreknowledge. Geisler’s exegesis suffers from two serious flaws. First, he mistakenly thinks foreknowledge refers to no more than divine omniscience, that attribute in virtue of which God knows all things. Second, he reads a meaning into the preposition kata that is foreign to the New Testament (see John Feinberg’s response to Geisler in the same volume, pp. 85-88).


In sum, Peter’s point is the same as Paul’s. In conformity with, or perhaps based upon, God’s pretemporal love and gracious affection for sinners, he predestined them to faith and life.