Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Vessels of Wrath and Vessels of Mercy

We’ve been looking at the question of whether God really prepares some people for destruction and others for glory. How and to what extent is his sovereignty exercised within the human heart?

Romans 9 is much misunderstood where this subject is concerned. In yesterday’s post I made the case that nothing in the first 18 verses of the chapter deals with the subject of individual salvation. Paul’s subject there is God’s election of nations and other groups to strategic roles in human history for his own sovereign purposes.

At stake in the debate is our view of God. Can there be anything more important? A God who elects some to salvation and others to damnation is arbitrary and cruel. His offer of salvation is a lie. Faith is meaningless and hell inescapable for the “unchosen”. Worse, the death of Christ is no more than a symbol.

These things are not taught in Romans 9.

“Prepared for Destruction”

But we are getting to some harder stuff. Verses 19 through 26 are often interpreted individually, but I believe these also speak corporately. Here are the verses usually disputed:
“What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory — even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? As indeed he says in Hosea,

‘Those who were not my people I will call “my people,” and her who was not beloved I will call “beloved.” And in the very place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” there they will be called “sons of the living God.” ’ ”
Here at last are a few verses that seem initially to speak to the subject of individual election. Paul says, “God … endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction.” Surely these vessels are individual human beings rather than groups of people, no?

Some folks who otherwise reject the implications of Calvinism do understand these verses as speaking to God’s dealings with individuals in election. But they get around the obvious conclusion by pointing out that the “vessels of wrath” are “fitted [or prepared] for destruction” (passive voice in the Greek, indicating that God was not personally or directly responsible for their “fitting”), while the “vessels of mercy” were personally “prepared beforehand” by God himself.

I like the idea, but individualizing these few verses of the passage is a departure from everything Paul has been discussing to date. It’s also unnecessary.

Bear in mind that while, in English, “vessels” is distinctly plural and leads us automatically to think of a number of individuals rather than any particular group, in Greek, the word translated “one vessel” in verse 21 is exactly the same as “vessels” in verses 22 and 23. The distinct emphasis on the number of objects or vessels involved is a matter of English translation, not intrinsic to Paul’s illustration.

Given that, I’d contend the “vessels of wrath” and “vessels of mercy” are not only better understood corporately than as referring to individuals, but much better understood.

My reasons? Glad you asked, because I have a bunch:
  1. God’s endurance. It is indisputable that God endures the behavior of individuals with much patience. But his endurance of collective misbehavior is even more astonishing, going on as it does for generation after generation in many cases. The Amorites got 400 years of grace. Sodom and Gomorrah would have been saved if 10 righteous men could have been found in them. Jonah was sent to preach to Nineveh for the sake of 120,000 people who “did not know their right hand from their left”.
  2. More corporate language. While the exact nature of the “vessels of wrath” is left to us to determine, the exact nature of the “vessels of mercy” is not. The “vessels of mercy” speak of “us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but from the Gentiles”. It is with the Church as an entity comprised of disparate national groups that Paul is concerned here, not primarily with individual Christians, though it has certainly been often understood that way. Again, the Greek here does not stress a number of individual “vessels of mercy” (it can be translated “a vessel of mercy”), so we are left to the two quotes from the Old Testament that Paul uses to reinforce his concept to get an accurate understanding of what he means.
  3. The quote from Hosea. Paul references Hosea to reinforce his teaching about these “vessels”, and lo and behold, Hosea too has nothing to say about individual salvation. “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people’,” he says. Hosea spoke about the rejection and restoration of Israel, and Paul applies the quotation by the Holy Spirit to the acceptance of the Gentiles not as individuals but corporately. In neither interpretation is the individual in view.
  4. The two quotes from Isaiah. Paul then references Isaiah to reinforce his teaching about “vessels” and again, there is nothing individualistic about the passages he cites. Isaiah cries out “concerning Israel” and says “only a remnant will be saved”. It is a subset of a larger national group that is in view, not personal salvation. The second quote adds “we would have been like Sodom and Gomorrah” if the Lord had not “left us offspring”, another comment related to nations or groups rather than individuals.
For Paul to suddenly drop the subject of God’s sovereign purposes with respect to the nations throughout human history to inform us that some individual humans were created to be destroyed and others were created to be blessed is entirely foreign to the flow of thought in the chapter. If this is what he is trying to tell us, it comes out of nowhere and could certainly have used some clarification. It may well be true, but there is very little solid evidence that this is what Paul is teaching. It is certainly not the truth he is at pains to emphasize.

On the other hand, if Paul is simply continuing to discuss God’s sovereignty with respect to national groups; groups of people comprised of individuals each of whom exercises personal choice and has equal opportunity for a relationship with God, these statements are perfectly consistent.

Paul’s Final Words on the Subject

Verses 30 through 33 do not specifically have to do with the sovereignty of God, but it is worth noting that right up to the end of the chapter, Paul is talking about groups, Israel and the Gentiles, and what those groups did characteristically throughout history.

The Gentiles, we’re told, characteristically did not pursue righteousness and yet attained it. But we know that individual Gentiles did, in fact, pursue such righteousness as was to be had under the Old Covenant. The Old Testament knows several examples, Rahab and Ruth among them. Who knows how many others did not rate a mention in scripture and yet pleased God with their faith?

Israel, on the other hand, characteristically pursued righteousness through the law rather than by faith, and “stumbled over the stumbling stone”. Not to belabor the obvious, but we know of so many Israelites who did not make that mistake that it would be impossible to list them all. Chapter 11 of Hebrews is a good start.

The point is that while certain attitudes were characteristic of each group, scripture is full of individuals whose own choices were not reflective of the dominant attitudes of their kin. God’s sovereignty as exercised over nations and other groups has never been the determining factor in individual salvation or destruction.

It has never kept anyone who wanted to from knowing and loving him.

God’s Sovereignty and Individuals

There are whole denominations and large chunks of many others within Christendom that remain steadfastly convinced that God’s sovereignty means that he chooses some individuals and rejects others, or that he designs them for “wrath” or “mercy”. Such Calvinist notions have been discussed at length in previous posts and I will not go into them here.

I will say this: If you are looking to persuade me of such things, please don’t start with Romans 9. From beginning to end, it is not the subject Paul has under consideration.

You will simply have to look elsewhere to prove your point.


  1. I would like for you to expound on the "vessels of wrath/mercy" you speak about here:

    But they get around the obvious conclusion by pointing out that the “vessels of wrath” are “fitted [or prepared] for destruction” (passive voice in the Greek, indicating that God was not personally or directly responsible for their “fitting”), while the “vessels of mercy” were personally “prepared beforehand” by God himself.

    I read your last two posts and then went to Matthew Henry's Commentary and believe his insight is very close to what you have written. Compare this:

    "When Christ said to the Jews (Mt. 23:32), Fill you up then the measure of your father, that upon you may come all the righteous blood (v. 35), he did, as it were, endure them with much long-suffering, that they might, by their own obstinacy and wilfulness in sin, fit themselves for destruction. [2.] Vessels of mercy—filled with mercy. The happiness bestowed upon the saved remnant is the fruit, not of their merit, but of God’s mercy. The spring of all the joy and glory of heaven is that mercy of God which endures for ever."

    I didn't want to paste his entire dissection of the Romans 9:20-23, but when I read it I get your idea of God not being directly responsible (we choose) for the "wrath vessel" but He is directly responsible for the "vessel of mercy" (we still choose).

    Read what Henry wrote and let me know what you think.

    Excellent posts, thanks.

    1. Sorry to take so long to respond, Micah. Very busy day and I just saw your comment now.

      Fortunately I have Henry in three-volume hardcover, though I think it's Bible Gateway that also has the entire text of his commentary available.

      The position Henry takes, as I read it, is largely about the fate, choices and election of individuals ("Why is this man born white, and that one black? Why is this child born and nurtured in a pious family, and that one in the midst of robbers?"). In asking questions like that, I think Henry is very much outside of the topic Paul is actually discussing in Romans 9. I am not at all confident that individual election to salvation or damnation is what Paul is addressing here. So, yes, I'd agree with Henry theologically, but perhaps not as to the specifics of his interpretation of everything in this chapter.

      What I think Paul is addressing in this entire chapter is the movements God throughout history to raise up nations and groups for the purpose of displaying wrath and glory. Individual salvation is not at issue.

      Let me give an example: We might talk about the Buffalo Sabres as a "team destined to wind up at the bottom of their conference". Corporately, their season is toast. But we have left out of the discussion the subject of trades or retirement. Should Brian Gionta elect to pack it in after 40 games, he has not participated in the destiny of the team. If Jonas Enroth waives his no-trade clause and elects to go to Chicago or Los Angeles just before the playoffs start, and ends up hoisting the Stanley Cup on his shoulder, he has DEFINITELY not participated in the inevitable destiny of the team.

      It's a crummy illustration full of holes but perhaps you see my point.

      This concept is evident in the section you quote from Henry about the Jews. When he says, "upon *you* may come all the righteous blood ..." it is clearly a national, not an individual condemnation in view. It ain't personal. Any Pharisee could repent at any moment, and I believe some did. Corporately, as a national entity that God had formerly blessed, they were to be in for a long, miserable couple of millennia (at least) until being "grafted in" again, as we see later in Romans. But individual Jews could either ride that train to its destination or jump off at will by exercising faith in Jesus as Messiah.

      Corporately, we may say that a certain subset of humanity is destined for wrath or for glory. Individually, each retains the ability to participate in the fate of their nation or group.

      God has "prepared beforehand" quite an astounding destination for the "vessels of mercy". And we have the option to get on board. Or not.

      Not sure if that clarifies anything!

  2. I of course don't know what motivates you to select particular topics in your presentations but this one was new for me. I guess this is what Calvinism and its offshoots is about? I followed the link to Milburn Cockrell you provided and read some of that material. May I suggest that you probably unnecessarily went into way too much detail concerning countering the belief and exposition by him and those subscribing to that notion of predetermined damnation? I would have treated it like a single black box issue where it is not necessary to deal with the individual items in the box. The box represents this singular idea that people are destined for damnation. From what I gathered, reading his material, his thought processes and ideas are so patently absurd and illogical that it is unnecessary to even remotely take them seriously. That whole concept can simply be dismissed outright as a single item without having to go into any details.

    It is much more relevant to once again be able to observe how fragile the human capacity for reason is when that type of material gets taken seriously, especially by people who should have the capacity to know better. You did counter that reasoning correctly, but, in my opinion, gave it way too much attention since it clearly can be dismissed outright.

    1. I quite understand if you feel I've beaten the chapter to death, Qman. Sometimes I go with the short, punchy, newsy stuff to which scripture applies or in which its lessons are evident. Other times I am deeply concerned with the way people interpret scripture, and this is one of those. So you are totally welcome to skim through when you think I'm flogging a dead horse!

      That said, so many of these verses are used as proof texts by Calvinists like Milburn Cockrell to allege individual election to salvation or damnation that I thought it worthwhile to examine the entire chapter. I actually left a fair bit out, believe it or not.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

    2. Unfortunately for us all, Mr. Cockrell is not alone. There is an increasing number of increasingly loud Calvinists following the same line of thought, and they are very serious about converting you to their view...or if not you, at least some less wise followers they can draw away. And the chapter Tom covers with these last two posts are the meat of their argument.

      I'm very grateful to Tom for putting in such solid and thoughtful study, since Calvinists love to pull verses out of Romans 9 and beat down their objectors using them. They count on losing us in the details of that chapter, then browbeating us with other verses pulled out of context to support their slant.

      So I think we do need to know that they are twisting the Scriptures when they do this, and I think we need to know why we think that.


  3. Tom, thanks for the response. I realized about halfway through my attempt at a logical response to your posts that I needed to be getting ready for church, so I rushed what I attempted to convey.

    I think what I had in mind to say is that I agree with your "corporate" idea of this scripture, but I also think Henry makes a great point that it could be both in a way. I read in his commentary the corporate approach as well as the "oh that you would choose life" concept as well.

    Qman, it appears you have a limited knowledge of John Calvin's writings as well as the verbal gymnastics his followers must use to try and convince others of it's viability in Christianity.

    That being said, I would like your opinion of this direct quote from Calvin if you don't mind.

    "Since the arrangement of all things is in the hand of God, since to Him belongs the disposal of life and death, he arranges ALL THINGS by His sovereign counsel, in such a way that individuals are born, who are doomed from the womb to certain death, and are to glorify Him by their destruction." John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion vol. 2, 231.

    My interest in what you think is more in depth than just to have you deride the multi-part statement as the foolishness that it is. I especially am curious as to your opinion, using fresh eyes for lack of a better description, about the last phrase stating that even though we had no chance whatsoever to participate in the glory of God and his love for others, we must "glorify Him by our destruction."

    This statement, in my opinion, is the bedrock of Calvinism and I always use it to totally destroy any argument they feebly attempt to use to defend the teaching as a whole.

    Any opinion or feedback would be appreciated. Come on Tom, I know you have some thoughts??

    1. I am rarely without an opinion, Micah, as you have probably concluded.

      Certainly if Calvin is correct in his third and fourth clauses ("he arranges ALL THINGS" and "doomed from the womb"), his conclusion naturally follows. There is no doubt that destruction of the wicked glorifies God (witness God's statements to Pharaoh), but that is still consistent with God's judgment being a position of last resort rather than his preference or plan.

      But I cannot get past the verses that assure us that he "takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked" and is "not willing that any should perish". These verses (and others having to do with God's reluctance to dole out corporate judgment (the "O Jerusalem" speech comes to mind) give an insight into God's character that is impossible for me to reconcile with Calvin's picture of a Designer fashioning individuals for certain doom.

      I see two different personalities here. Contrast such compassion and endurance of wicked provocation ("how I have LONGED ... but you were not willing") with Calvin's scheming Designer. I can only conclude that either God is schizophrenic, or John Calvin's god is a different god than the one I worship.

      I'm sure you can guess which alternative I favour.

  4. Agree with both follow ups. My personal aggravation with this entire subject, as I may have shared previously, is the fact that one of these misguided souls has convinced my 26 year old son to believe SOME of this jibber jabber.

    As you can imagine, I also am never at a loss of an opinion, we have debated this ad nauseam and he's resorted to the old attempted free pass of "I'm a three point Calvinist." Now if we can agree that our battle is not againt people, places and things, but against principalities and powers of darkness, then this is obviously a ridiculous response to basic common sense. What they resort to is that Calvin was inspired by God 60% of the time as he wrote his "commentary" and he was controlled by the enemy 40% of the time he was inspired to write.

    It's truly sad, as IC states, that they want "to draw away" believers to what I can only describe as a nonsensical list of heresy.

    1. Hmm, Micah, this may not be pretty. I was wondering if anyone would catch me on sort of glossing over the topic a bit but then I am not as ambitious as Tom :-). Actually, I pursue this as an interest on a personal level not because I have a tremendous background in it. You are probably aware that your best resource in that regard is IC who has the theological and philosophical training for that. However, at the same time, I am pretty battle scarred concerning these topics since I just came off a philosophy forum (try the Philosophy Now magazine) that, like most of those sites is mainly populated by the avid ag/at (agnostic/atheist) crowd, and they do not take any prisoners. Wonder how well Calvin would have done in that environment?

      In any case, am I the only one who ever wonders why Christ (all knowing) apparently left so many dangling loose ends? Probably because he enjoys watching us fight and bicker over so many topics and over our different interpretations of what really belongs in the holes of the religious Swiss cheese? Or could it really be, as he said, that the ordinary person could see and understand more clearly then the intelligentsia, in that he speaks to the heart? So, I count myself among the former and prefer explanations based on plain language and common sense, similar to what IC has stated here as being his preference (although he belongs to the latter :-).

      So, my simple answer to Calvin is this.

      God created us all with free will that is strengthened by Christ's sacrifice to enable us to choose correctly so as to remain in God's grace. Where our capacity to choose is impaired by circumstance, I would expect Christ's sacrifice to make up the difference as long as we want him to do so. In other words, you go to hell if you want to, you won't if you act accordingly. Now, just because God is omniscient does not mean that the property and quality of free will has been invalidated. If you claim that, then it's just a cop out on your part dodging responsibility. As far as Christ/God is concerned, I can understand that, since no way would I want to forever live in my home with an onerous relative or neighbor who clearly indicates they don't care about me and would mess up my home and make it an uncomfortable environment for everybody.

      Also, hello, did you miss the part in the bible where God clearly states that he does not desire the destruction of the individual? So, you presume to suggest that God has nothing better to do than engage in creating stuff that he is going to throw away anyway and, on top of that, he is going to get Glory out of that activity? Hello, Mr. Calvin, where did you park your mind, and may we help you find it?

    2. I get what you're saying and totally agree with your premise, except where you say "....our capacity to choose is impaired by circumstance." I don't know what that means unless your speaking of people who don't have the mental capacity to choose or reject?

    3. I guess the good thing is that the bar is pretty low when it comes to what powers of understanding a person has to possess in order to be capable of genuine faith. Apparently children can do it. In fact, apparently they do it better than most adults. (Mt. 19:14)

  5. Yes, Micah, that's what I meant. Free will can of course be impaired in many ways (e.g., environmental, social) such as poor upbringing, example, addiction, etc.