The Power of the Potter

A Non-Calvinist Exposition of Romans 9:15-24


The text of Romans 9:10-24 is regarded by most Calvinists as a proof-text for the doctrine of unconditional election. In this article, we will deal only with the verses 15-24, whereas verses 10-14 are taken into account by Roger Forster and Paul Marston's exposition, which is included on our site: "Exposition of Romans 9:10-14." We will offer a non-Calvinist understanding of Romans 9:15-24, where we will show that it does not teach the doctrine of unconditional election, although the text is about God's sovereignty in His election.

The most important tenet of Calvinist teaching is the doctrine of God's unconditional election, where it is taught that God unconditionally elects some individuals for salvation, while others are ignored. This means that God can elect you for salvation for no reason whatsoever, while choosing not to save your neighbor. This is possible because, ex hypothesi, His election is not based upon any condition, i.e., it is unconditional election. A non-Calvinist contends that the Calvinist view of election cannot avoid the conclusion that God is capricious and unfair if a Calvinist is unable to answer the following questions:

  1. Why did God choose to save you but not your neighbor, if both of you were and are incapable of doing anything to come near God?
  2. Under which righteous criteria did God choose to save you, but not your neighbor?
  3. Since both of you are sinners, we cannot appeal to any moral external criterion. God preferred not to save your neighbor, but chose to save some sadists, murderers, and other people more morally depraved than your poor neighbor. Why did God choose to do so, and more importantly, is it fair?

All three questions can be condensed into the following one:

How does God elect some people?

A Calvinist who tries to answer the above three questions usually says that Paul has already provided an answer in Romans 9:20, 22-24:

O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, "Why hast thou made me thus?" What if God, choosing to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted for destruction; and this that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, whom He had prepared before unto glory, even us whom He hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?

However, such a Calvinist reply is unsatisfactory for an obvious reason: Paul does not provide a clear answer here to the question of how God elects. The text is not clear whether it supports the Calvinist notion of election. In fact, a non-Calvinist can be entitled to claim rather that Romans 9:20, 22-24 supports a non-Calvinist theology, something that a Calvinist would strongly disagree with.

Precisely because there is a disagreement between Calvinists and non-Calvinists regarding Romans 9, it is not clear that Romans 9:20, 22-24 provides an answer of how God elects, i.e., whether it teaches conditional or unconditional election.

A non-Calvinist understands Romans 9:15-24 as a passage that teaches about conditional election and can offer very plausible reasons for such interpretation. Therefore, it would be instructive for Calvinists to learn those reasons that strongly justify a non-Calvinist interpretation of the text. What this strong justification amounts to is the prominent theme of our article.

One important thing to observe with Romans 9:20, 22-24 is that Paul's answer does not forbid us to ask questions concerning the manner of God's election. Rather, what Paul forbids us to do is to complain against God. My question about God's election is not of a complaining nature, and by that token is quite a legitimate question to ask. God urges us to search and study the Scriptures in order to attain an understanding and wisdom which would enable us to be perfect before God:

Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman who needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. … All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly equipped for all good works. (2 Tim. 2:15, 3:16-17)

The lesson of Romans 9:20, 22-24 is that God has the ultimate say in His choice. However, it does not teach anything about God's unconditional election. If the text says anything about how God elects people unto salvation, then it alludes to one of the most profound attributes of divine character, namely His long-suffering nature. Paul's answer does not imply that God is the greatest wanton, capricious in His choice of whom He saves. A non-Calvinist could equally exclaim with Paul that God may "choos[e] to show his wrath," in that he does so according to His righteous criterion. The criterion is, namely, to be or not to be in Christ. A non-Calvinist perspective maintains that those who reject Christ will indeed experience God's wrath.

A Calvinist might object and say that the text gives the answer of why God elects some unto salvation by ignoring others: "God ignores some people so that those whom God chooses to save will understand the grace extended to them." Such an objection is insufficient, since we can also fully understand God's grace without assuming that God's election is unconditional. Here follows a non-Calvinist perspective of the greatness of God's grace:

In heaven, we will see how God's grace is great by fully realizing that we could have been lost, because we could have chosen not to believe in Him. God was so good towards us in spite of our sins, which we committed before His eyes. God forgave us just because we believed in His beloved Son. We don't deserve His goodness at all, even if we believe! Our faith does not diminish the nature of His grace, since we do not deserve to be in the presence of His glorious beauty, whether we believe or not. Truly, His grace is great!

Given the above perspective of God's grace, is it necessary to understand the nature of divine election in a Calvinist sense?

The main theme of this article is to understand the nature of divine election as described in Romans 9:15-24.
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The Division of the Text

We will divide the passage into three groups of verses: (1) 15-17, (2) 18-21, and (3) 22-24. The reason for such a division is that each group introduces a new theme. The first group is about God's sovereign will in His choice of showing mercy, coupled with the case of the pharaoh, emphasizing God's sovereign choice. The second group introduces the theme of God's hardening by two illustrations: (a) God's hardening of the pharaoh, and (b) the power of the potter. It emphasizes that we are not in a position to protest against God's choice and His action of hardening. The third group continues the same theme, but also reveals the character of God, namely His long-suffering nature.
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The First Group: Romans 9:15-17

15 So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also.
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.
17 For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.

The Principle of Charity

Does verse 15 imply that God does not want to show mercy on some people? Yes, but in a certain sense, and it is this sense which we want to capture. Verse 15, taken together with other verses in context, might imply that God does not want to show mercy on some people, especially with its mention of the pharaoh. The main idea of the first group (15-17) is God's sovereignty in His election; God proclaims His sovereignty by declaratively uttering, "I will."

What kind of will is this "I will"? It is God's will. However, we know from other passages the nature of God's holy will. These passages say that God wants to save all men, or in other words, He wants to show mercy on all people. How shall we reconcile these texts with Romans 9:15-17? This kind of question, namely the question of harmonization, is, in general, fundamental in our interpretation of the whole Bible. It exhibits an important hermeneutic principle, namely the principle of charity, which is generally applied for all books and texts, and not only for the Bible.

The principle says that the interpretation should be charitable towards the text, rather than expressing our mistrust towards it. In order to understand the meaning of a text, we should try to perceive its rationale by attempting to see the author's reasons: why he wrote such-and-such. We should try to avoid interpreting a text as saying ludicrous things. This would involve not attributing a contradiction to the text. If there is a choice between two interpretations of the same text, then it is preferable to choose the one rendering the text rationally stronger.
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The Principle of Clarity

How shall we reconcile passages that say explicitly and clearly that God wants all saved with Romans 9:15-17? The passages that apparently contradict with Romans 9:15-17 are 1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9, and Ezekiel 18:23, 32, and 33:11. One important thing in our attempt at harmonization is not to seek ad hoc solutions, but a plausible harmonization that does justice to the text in question.

The first question in any kind of harmonization between texts is the choice of which text should be the guiding one. The principle that will help us in this choice is the principle of clarity. It says that we should interpret obscure texts by the relevant clearer ones.

What are the criteria for the clarity or obscurity of a biblical text? For our purpose, it is sufficient to mention five criteria for the clarity of a biblical text: (1) it consists of syntactically unambiguous sentences; (2) it does not consist of ambiguous words that can give at least two plausible interpretations; (3) it does not raise the question of the scope of expressions, i.e., whether certain expressions have a special or general scope; (4) it does not contain a sentence that is obscure due to some other sentences in the text that seemingly contradict it; and (5) it is not obscure due to a seeming contradiction with some other biblical texts which are either central or clearer ones. The centrality of a text means that the text is central as the guiding one, due to having an indisputable (or at least agreed) meaning.

So, which passage should we choose as the guiding one? Does Romans 9:15-17 fulfill the principle of clarity? Let us first compare it with the ones that it seemingly contradicts, such as 2 Peter 3:9 and 1 Timothy 2:4:

The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some men count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. (2 Pet. 3:9)

[God] will have all men to be saved and come unto the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim. 2:4)

Which passage is clearer? The obvious answer is that 2 Peter 3:9 and 1 Timothy 2:4 are clearer than Romans 9:15-17. The passage in Romans 9 is obscure due to the scope of some expressions, such as "not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth." Does it have a special scope, so that it applies only to desires or actions pertaining to salvation? Alternatively, does it have a general scope referring to an agent's life in general? This question will be further discussed in the sections below.

Another reason for the passage's obscurity is that it refers to a certain episode connected with the pharaoh in Moses' time, an episode which raises many questions, such as how God hardened the pharaoh's heart. God might have hardened the pharaoh's heart either directly or indirectly. If God hardened the pharaoh's heart directly, then he did so either because of His knowledge of the pharaoh's character or because he had decided beforehand to do it without consideration of the pharaoh's character. The issue of the hardening of the pharaoh's heart will be discussed further in the sections below.

Given the above obscurities, Romans 9:15-17 cannot serve as the guiding text in the harmonization of all those relevant. On the other hand, 2 Peter 3:9 and 1 Timothy 2:4 fulfill the requirements of clarity. There is neither ambiguity of words nor the problem of scope. It says clearly that God wants all men saved, and not just some men. Therefore, these clearer biblical truths should guide us in the harmonization and the interpretation of Romans 9.
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The Hermeneutic Problem

How should we harmonize Romans 9 with those it seemingly contradicts? We are looking for a harmonization that does justice to the text. Let us see more closely what the text says.

The first group emphasizes that it is God who has the ultimate say in His choice. We are not in a position to demand anything from God: "Not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God who showeth mercy" (emphasis added). Why are we not in a position to demand anything from God? This is answered by the key word "mercy." It is translated from the Greek eleeo, which can mean "to help the afflicted, to bring help to the wretched." We are not in a position to say anything simply because it is we who need help, like the drowning man, utterly dependent on a saving hand. This perspective also sheds light on the scope of the words, "not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth." It refers to our general sinful life having made us miserable before God, and not necessarily to the special act of believing in God. If this is disputable then it only shows how Romans 9:15-17 is indeed an obscure passage. However, as we shall see further below, the general scope, referring to our general sinful nature, is the most plausible one to adopt, since, as it will be argued, it is the only one that can provide a plausible harmonization with the central guiding passages. Both our sinful desires ("him that willeth") and our course of actions ("him that runneth") have led us to the position where only God can save us. Therefore, it is ultimately His decision whether He will save us. Nevertheless, we know from the clearer passages that God wants to save all men. How should we harmonize these with the apparent contradiction that God does not want to show mercy on some people?

Let us start with the following idea, which suggests a possible solution: God wants to save all men but only on a certain condition, which would not depend on how we have conducted our lives in the past. What is the condition? It is to believe in Christ. The interpretative choice of the condition is based on obvious grounds. The Bible emphasizes that believing is the fundamental condition for pleasing God; indeed, so fundamental that the Bible even uses the word "impossible" in order to emphasize its importance: "but without faith it is impossible to please Him" (Heb. 11:6). The conditional nature of God's election will also lead us to the conclusion that His choice not to show mercy on some people is not a permanent state of affairs: it would be reversed if those same people simply began to believe in Christ.

Thus, it appears that the solution for harmonization is to adopt the perspective of conditional divine election, where the condition for election is to believe in Christ.

The next task in examining the above solution is to determine whether it is also in agreement with Paul's intended meaning when he wrote Romans 9. For instance, was Paul thinking about our outlined idea of conditional election when he mentioned "Pharaoh" or "Moses"? It is quite dubious to say that God would have showed mercy if the pharaoh believed in Christ, simply because Christ was not yet born. Therefore we must either refine our initial idea or try another one.

Let us see whether we can refine our initial idea so that it can be plausibly harmonized with Romans 9. Before we proceed with the refinement, let us explain why this is the best course of action. What is the idea's crucial point? It is, namely, the idea of conditional election. Could we find another solution invoking the idea of the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election? It is dubious whether it would work, simply because of the following problem: how can God want to save all people but show mercy only to some? Either God is powerless to save all (clearly ruled out by Calvinists) or God does not want to save all (in obvious contradiction with the most crystal-clear statements that God in fact wants to save all men). Therefore, we can safely discard the idea expressing unconditional election. The idea of conditional election, on the other hand, can easily solve the above outlined problem of why God does not save all people: God wants to save all people, but at the same He respects our free choice, which is expressed by our belief or disbelief in Christ. (For more about this theme on freedom and belief, please see Roger and Marston's account.) Because the idea of conditional election has apologetic force to solve the problem of why God does not save all people, it provides a stronger rational interpretation of Romans 9, and by the principle of charity it is a preferable interpretation. Let us now proceed with the refinement of the idea of conditionality.

How should we refine the condition representing God's criterion such that it plausibly agrees with Paul's intending meaning? The condition of believing in Christ could be understood in a much wider sense, namely a belief in the God of Israel, since Jesus Christ is the God of the Bible. It is obvious that the pharaoh did not believe in the God of Israel, since he was quite antagonistic towards the people of Israel. He caused much suffering to Israelites in Egypt. Because of his orders, Egyptians set taskmasters to afflict Israelites with their burdens (cf. Exod. 1:11). He even ordered the decimation of Israel's male population (cf. Exod. 1:16). This was an act of outright declaration of war against Israel's God. Therefore, God chose not to show mercy on the pharaoh.

Would the above refinement of the idea contradict with the phrase "not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth"? It would if it referred to the special act of belief in God through which one became saved, i.e., the saving faith. If it referred to the saving faith, it would entail the idea of unconditional election, since God's election would not depend on having belief in God. We have seen that such an idea of unconditional election has more problems, such as a lack of apologetic force in explaining why God did not choose to extend mercy to some people. On the other hand, if the phrase referred to our general moral nature, it would not contradict with the idea of conditional election, since our morality is not the condition for divine election. (Our good deeds are not sufficient for God's forgiveness of our sins.)

Let us return to the case of the pharaoh. In his case, we see that the condition of God's mercy is not present, i.e., he lacked belief in the God of Israel. Consequently, God did not choose to show mercy unto the pharaoh. However, God's choice in not extending mercy unto the pharaoh does not imply that God did not want to save him. God would have shown mercy on the pharaoh if he had not been hostile towards Israelites.

Observe that the above interpretation is quite in harmony with 2 Peter 3:9 and 1 Timothy 2:4, since God's special concern about Israel is prompted by His concern for the salvation of mankind. God's plan of salvation was to be effected through Israel. God's promise to Abraham, "[I]n thee shall all families of the earth be blessed" (Gen. 12:3), is a messianic prophecy. It concerns the birth of the Savior, who will be born as an Israelite.

There is still one problem. Since we know that God hardened pharaoh's heart, we must take into account the question of whether God's decision in not showing His mercy has a permanent effect on the pharaoh's character. We do not dispute that conditions for showing mercy were lacking, but rather the possibility of the hardening's irrevocability: whether the hardened person can no longer be saved. Could we say that God's hardening is a permanent affair with not contradicting 2 Peter 3:9 and 1 Timothy 2:4? This problem is the topic of the second group.
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The Second Group: Romans 9:18-21

18 Therefore hath He mercy on whom He will have mercy, and whom He will, He hardeneth.
19 Thou wilt say then unto me, "Why doth He yet find fault, for who hath resisted His will?"
20 But nay, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, "Why hast thou made me thus?"
21 Hath not the potter power over the clay to make from the same lump one vessel unto honor and another unto dishonor?

The Concept of Hardening

We know, from the case of the pharaoh, that God hardens some people. This hardening does not simply mean ignoring the person, but rather causing the person to be more resistant to believing in God's message. The problem is the plausibility of the outlined interpretation in the first group, where it was said that God's decision in not showing mercy is conditional. However, in certain cases God chooses not to show mercy towards some people by hardening them, as in the case of the pharaoh. Would this not imply that His decision was final? This depends on two things: (1) the manner of hardening, and (2) the reason for hardening. These two things make the whole passage of Romans 9:15-24 obscure, because we do not know generally how and why God hardens some people. For this reason, there are obscurities in the case of the hardening of the pharaoh.

The story of the hardening of the pharaoh is as follows. Moses came before the pharaoh to request the release of Israelites from Egyptian oppression. He requested that the Israelites be allowed to leave Egypt, but the pharaoh refused. God sent various plagues on Egypt, yet the pharaoh remained stubborn. After the last plague, he changed his mind and permitted the Israelites to go. The hardening of the pharaoh refers to the Pharaoh's stubborn, hostile attitude towards Israelites. The question is how God hardened the pharaoh. Either God hardened him in an indirect way, as an effect of the pharaoh's dealing with Moses, or God hardened the pharaoh directly, by directly causing him not to accept Moses' message.

We will show that a non-Calvinist can accept either alternative. However, before proceeding with this task, we have to bear in mind what the term "hardening" means, a meaning that is consistent with both alternatives.

The meaning of the term implies that God was not the initial cause of the pharaoh's antagonistic attitude towards Israelites. The whole meaning of the word would be lost if God had been the initial cause of the pharaoh's antagonistic relation towards Israelites. If God were the initial cause of the pharaoh's antagonistic character, then it would no longer be hardening, but rather the creation of such a character. What the term signifies is making some already-present quality stronger, as the Hebrew word chazaq suggests. This word is one of the two Hebrew words in the text that are translated into the English verb "to harden." Chazaq means "to strengthen, prevail, harden, to be strong, become strong, be courageous, be firm, be resolute." The other word is qashah, which means "to be hard, be severe, be fierce, be harsh," or "to show stubbornness, to make difficult, to make hard." There must already be some quality present in order to make it stronger, more intense, more stable, etc., depending on the context. In the pharaoh's case, the quality in question was his antagonistic will towards Israelites. What God did was make his will more determined, or stronger. The hardening of an agent's will does not involve causing the agent to have alien intentions, externally caused. Externally-caused intentions are neither internal to the agent's will nor formed by the agent's solely voluntaristic activities. The pharaoh's antagonistic intentions were both formed by the pharaoh himself and internal to his will. What God did was take advantage of the pharaoh's intention, merely making him more determined or stronger in his will. The question is how God made it stronger.
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The First Alternative - Indirect Hardening

If we accept the first alternative then we must conclude that God knew beforehand that the pharaoh would be hardened as a consequence of his dealing with Moses. This conclusion follows from God's explicit predictions regarding the pharaoh's attitude (cf. Exodus 7:4: "But Pharaoh shall not hearken unto you"). Therefore, God's statement about His hardening the pharaoh's heart would suggest that God's hardening was indirect by virtue of God's foreknowledge. However, observe that God's prediction in itself would not necessarily imply that hardening would be done in an indirect way. God's statement, "I will harden Pharaoh's heart" (Exod. 7:3), under the assumption of the first alternative, is understood as a prediction that the pharaoh would be hardened as a consequence of dealing with Moses.

The first alternative can be supported by God's explicit statement of His creation of evil: "I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I, the LORD, do all these things" (Isa. 45:7). As Christians, we do not interpret this as saying that God directly creates evil, but rather that God is in the last instance the cause of everything, as the first Originator of all things. God created evil in the sense that He is an indirect cause of evil, by creating free agents who rebelled against Him. As Christians, we do not say that God is responsible for evil. Otherwise, God would be evil indeed. In the same vein it could be said that God was an indirect cause of the pharaoh's hardening.

However, would not the first alternative contradict with the biblical perspective of the open view of God, or Open Theism, where the future is open for God? No, not at all. The open view of God does not imply that God is unable to predict what an individual will choose, but rather that God in some circumstances, under certain conditions, cannot predict what a human individual would freely choose. Open Theism does not contradict with the biblical teaching of divine omniscience (e.g., Revelation 19:6 implies omniscience since it is a special case of omnipotence), as omniscience means knowledge of everything that is logically possible to know. God's nescience is applied only in the context where a future outcome is based on individual free choice. Open Theism is founded on the assumption that choice based on free will is unpredictable. It follows logically that God cannot predict something that is in its nature unpredictable.

Whether Open Theism is true is an irrelevant issue for our present exposition. It was only mentioned because we believe that it is a biblical view. Our exposition is neutral with respect to Open Theism.

In any case, God could know that the pharaoh would be hardened by hearing Moses' message, on the basis of His perfect knowledge of the sociological and psychological mechanisms, present in the given circumstance, that would cause the pharaoh to be hardened.
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The Second Alternative - Direct Hardening

The second alternative is supported by God's explicit explanation of the purpose of hardening: "Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might show My power in thee, and that My name might be declared throughout all the earth" (Rom. 9:17). However, we have two problems: (1) whether a direct act of hardening is after all an act of manipulation, and (2) whether the hardening would be of a permanent nature.

An act of manipulation is inducing an intention in the agent, so that the intention is neither internal to the agent's will nor formed by the agent's sole voluntaristic activities. Hardening is to take advantage of already internally-formed intentions, making them stronger. This act of "making them stronger" is in some sense an external influence causing the present internal intentions to be more determined, or more stable. But it must be distinguished from external influences that induce new intentions that were not formerly present. With such an understanding of the concept of "manipulation," we cannot be entitled to say that God's hardening was an act of manipulation.

One thing is clear: God's intention to harden the pharaoh's heart was motivated to show His power as the One who saves Israel from oppression, in spite of mighty hindrances that prevented Israel from being free. It was motivated to show to all nations the power of Israel's God: "My name might be declared throughout all the earth" (Rom. 9:17). Why was God motivated to show His power to all nations? The answer is soteriological: to save them. The proud nations of Canaan would not give up their gods so easily. One possible route for God to prevent destruction was to announce to them His power. For instance, God warned King Balak, who was the king of Moab, before He destroyed Moab. It was fair play. Not every nation wanted to submit to Israel's God, but those nations who learned to fear Israel's God were spared, as seen in the case of the people of Gibeon. The men of Gibeon said to Joshua:

Because it was certainly told thy servants how the LORD thy God commanded his servant Moses to give you all the land and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you, therefore we were sore afraid for our lives because of you, and have done this thing. (Josh. 9:24)

We can conclude that they knew about the incident between Israel and Egypt by reading what they said: "thy servants have come because of the name of the LORD thy God; for we have heard the fame of him and all that he did in Egypt" (Josh. 9:9).

Nothing in the story of Exodus can exclude the possibility of an additional motivation for hardening the pharaoh's heart: the motive to save the pharaoh. Perhaps hardening was the only way of saving the pharaoh, by convincingly confronting him with a power greater than the power of all Egypt's gods. A great power that could divide the sea: "And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD when I have gotten Myself honor above pharaoh, above his chariots, and above his horsemen" (Exod. 14:8). There is no report of the pharaoh's life after the incident. It is implausible to assume that the pharaoh was killed; only that his army was decapitated. (As the supreme head of Egypt's army, he was not always active in battles.)

Observe also that God hardened the pharaoh not just once, but many times, suggesting that the hardening was not of a permanent nature. Otherwise, there would not be a need to harden the pharaoh so many times. Therefore, the hardening was of a temporal nature, not causing the pharaoh to perish for all eternity. Notice also that the above account is independent of whether God knew beforehand of the pharaoh's reaction to Moses' message.
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Further Questions About the Pharaoh

In any case, both alternatives represent no threat to the non-Calvinist perspective.

The next question is whether God made the pharaoh to be a man with such an antagonistic character towards Israelites, planned from his early childhood, or even before his birth. Clearly, Romans 9:17 does not imply that God formed the pharaoh to be such a man as he was. In context, the phrase "raised thee up" means that God incited the pharaoh, moved him to certain actions that were of a hardening effect. The Greek exegiro, the basis for the translation of the English word "raised," means "to incite or arouse someone." This suggests that it was God who actively and directly influenced the pharaoh to be hardened. Nevertheless, would not Romans 9:20-21 imply that God forms men to be evil from their early childhood, or even before their birth? No, not at all; we will see more closely what these verses actually say. Verse 19 will not be considered, because it is not problematic in the dispute between Calvinists and non-Calvinists.
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The Power of the Potter

20 But nay, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, "Why hast thou made me thus?"
21 Hath not the potter power over the clay to make from the same lump one vessel unto honor and another unto dishonor?

In verse 20, we are not concerned with the question "who art thou that repliest against God?", since it was already dealt with in the introduction. We are more concerned with the second half of verse 20, and verse 21. Reading the verse 21, we indeed get the impression that Paul says that God uses His power as the potter does. This impression is correct, but we must also examine how does God uses His power as the potter.

Paul's use of the analogy of the potter should be understood in the light of the Old Testament background. The potter-clay analogy is not a new analogy used in the New Testament, but was used in prophetic literature of the Old Testament as well. As a learned pharisee, Paul was very familiar with its use in the Old Testament. If potter-clay analogy is read in the light of its Old Testament background, Paul does not imply that the potter absolutely decides everything, as the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9 suggests. Indeed, in the Old Testament passage that makes the most use of the potter-clay analogy, it has the exact opposite meaning.

The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying, "Arise and go down to the potter's house, and there I will cause thee to hear My words." Then I went down to the potter's house, and behold, he wrought a work on the wheels. And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter; so he made it again another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to make it. Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying, "O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter?" saith the LORD. "Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in Mine hand, O house of Israel. At the instant I shall speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up and to pull down and to destroy it, if that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at the instant I shall speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it, if it do evil in My sight, that it obey not My voice, then I will repent of the good wherewith I said I would benefit them. Now therefore go to speak to the men of Judah and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, saying, 'Thus saith the LORD: Behold, I frame evil against you and devise a device against you. Return ye now every one from his evil way, and make your ways and your doings good.'" (Jer 18:1-11).

As Gregory Boyd observes:

In Jeremiah 18, the Lord showed Jeremiah a potter who was working on a vessel that didn't turn out right. So the potter revised his plan and formed a different kind of pot out of it (Jere 18:1-4). In the same way, the Lord said, since he is the potter and Israel is the clay, he has the right and is willing to change his mind about his plans for Israel if they will simply repent (Jere. 18:4-11). Indeed, the Lord announced that whenever he’s going to judge a nation, he is willing to change his mind if the nation repents. Conversely, whenever God announces that he's going to bless a nation, he will change his mind if that nation turns away from him. In other words, the point of the potter-clay analogy is not God's absolute control, but God's willingness and right to change his plans in response to changing hearts. (Gregory Boyd, "How do you respond to Romans 9?", Web. 06. Dec. 2014)

We observe that God's decision to bless or destroy a nation is conditional upon nation's willingness to repent. God's work with nations is akin to potter's work with the clay. He wants to change a "marred" vessel into a good one, but the clay has to be willing to be submitted to potter's will, so that it can be formed into a good vessel, otherwise it will stay marred or corrupt.

Similarly John Wesley observes in his notes:

The Lord commands Jeremiah to go down to the house of the potter so that he may be taught some theological lessons while observing the craftsman working his trade on his spinning wheel. It is a lesson in repentance and in God changing God's mind based on human action and response. John Wesley views this as God acting as "a just judge, rendering to every man according to his works" (Notes, 18:6). God will act and react based on human activity, and this concerns not only individuals but entire nations as well (vv. 7- 10). The specific concerns of the lesson are that Judah and Jerusalem in particular are like a lump of clay that the Lord is fashioning on a grand potter’s wheel for disaster and calamity (v. 11). And yet, these lumps of clay are responsible for their own destiny. Their choice toward repentance or further apostasy will change God’s plans for them, which were originally to bless them, but have changed to curse them. The potter and clay imagery claims that God will change plans for harm back to plans for peace, if they will repent. (Jeremiah 18:1 Wesley Study Bible Notes)

Potter-clay analogy is a lesson in repentance and in God changing God's mind based on human action and response.

What is the point with the potter-clay analogy? The point with the analogy is to emphasize God's sovereignty because He is the Creator. Use of the potter analogy teaches us that God is creator of everything; "I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I, the LORD, do all these things." (Isa 45:7) However, this does not imply that God directly causes and creates evil, for otherwise He would be morally evil, but rather that He is indirectly responsible for everything in the virtue of being the first cause of everything.

God is the sovereign Creator, but the text does not teach that God's sovereignty is inflexible, but rather flexible in accordance to our willingness to submit to His will. If we are willing to submit to His will, He will form us into "vessels unto honor." If we are not willing to submit to His will, we will not be formed into something good, but be formed into "vessels unto dishonor". The manner of how we are formed into "vessels unto dishonor", as will be shown in the next section, is that God simply gives us up, and in such rejected state, we become more corrupt.

The third group continues the theme of God's power to make some vessels unto honor or dishonor, but also reveals His character and the motive for His use of power.
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The Third Group: Romans 9:22-24

22 What if God, choosing to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted for destruction;
23 and this that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, whom He had prepared before unto glory,
24 even us whom He hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?

Preliminary Observation

In our study of Romans 9:22-24, we must observe the key terms in the passage: "longsuffering," "preparation," and "vessels of wrath/mercy." Of these three terms, the most important one is "longsuffering," for the two following reasons. First, it reveals the nature and the character of the God who elects, namely by emphasizing his divine attribute of makrothumia (long-suffering). Second, it shows how "vessels of wrath" and "vessels of mercy" are prepared. Therefore, let us study these three crucial terms from the text.
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The Long-Suffering Nature of God

Romans 9:22 says that God chooses to show His wrath. The text further says that His wrath is connected to a quality of endurance with much long-suffering. What is significant about God's long-suffering endurance? It shows that God does not enjoy expressing His wrath. God is patient and waits for people to repent, as is seen in other passages teaching about God's long-suffering nature:

Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. (1 Pet. 3:20)

The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. (2 Pet. 3:9)

God waited, "not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance." This implies that God's power to make some "vessels unto honor" and some "vessels unto dishonor" should not be understood in a Calvinist sense, where God would deterministically create and cause some people to be good or evil, for otherwise He could not want "that all should come to repentance." If God deterministically created some people to be evil, these people would not have the ability to repent, and, consequently, it would make no sense to say that God would wait for them to repent. In addition, since they cannot repent, they would perish. Why would God deterministically create some people to be evil, if He is not willing that any should perish? It simply makes no sense to interpret the text as saying that God deterministically creates some people to be good or evil.

Recall also that 2 Peter 3:9 is one of guiding passages in our interpretation of Romans, according to the principles of charity and clarity, and it should, therefore, guide us in our understanding of how God prepares the vessels of honor or dishonor.
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Vessels of Dishonor

In order to understand Paul's use of "making vessels unto dishonor," we should determine whether Paul had introduced this term, or at least explained the meaning of a similar expression that conveys the meaning of "making vessels unto dishonor." Does Paul explain it elsewhere, preferably in the same epistle?

Reading the passage in Romans 1:19-20, 22-28, we get an explanation of how and why God makes one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor. The passage in question is at the beginning of the same epistle, where it introduces and explains Paul's usage of the expression in Romans 9:

Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse ... Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves: Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet. And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient. (Rom. 1:19-20, 22-28)

Here we have a clear illustration of those "vessels of dishonor": God has abandoned them to their "vile affections" and uncleanness, "to dishonor their own bodies among themselves" (vv. 24, 26). It is even said that God relinquished them "to a reprobate mind" (v. 28). Is there any reason that explains why God did this? Yes, there is a reason for this, as stated in verses 22-23, namely that they did not honor God. Furthermore, it is written that they had a false perspective of God, and more importantly, they were active in bringing this false perspective into their lives: it was they "who changed the truth of God into a lie," who actively sought to believe in lies. They even knew the truth, but still chose to twist it and change it into a lie. God was not the cause of their initial deception, as confirmed by verse 19: "Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them." God hath shewed it unto them. Therefore, "they are without excuse" (v. 20). It is further confirmed that there were reasons for God's giving them up. Observing the terms "wherefore" and "for this cause" in verses 24 and 26, we see clearly that their deception and rebellion was not caused initially by God. The terms "wherefore" and "for this cause" teach us that there is an explanation for why God gave them up to such a terrible and dishonoring state. It does not teach the doctrine of the inscrutability of God's will, where there are neither reasons nor explanations for God's decisions to give them up. Quite the contrary, it teaches us rather that God would not give them up if they gave Him the proper worship and honor. Their terrible acts and foolishness darkened their hearts and mind.

It is important to observe here that God did not have an indifferent stance towards them, but was, rather, deeply concerned about their foolishness. He decided to give them up. The consequence of giving them up was that they became more wicked, "dishonoring their own bodies among themselves." In giving them up, in other words, God causes them to be more deceived. Does it mean that they could not be saved? No, it does not, although, if they were rejected once, it would be harder for them to come to the light. The reason that they have a chance to be saved is simply because all of us were children of wrath:

Wherein in times past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience. Among these also we all in times past had our manner of living in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others. (Eph. 2:2-3)

According to a non-Calvinist, we have become changed thanks to both God's grace that enabled us to understand His truth and our free choice to believe in the truth.

Paul's explanation makes no sense if God initially caused them to "change the truth of God into a lie," as it contradicts verse 19. Moreover, it would also contradict with 1 Timothy 2:4: "[God] will have all men to be saved and come unto the knowledge of the truth." Delivering them unto dishonor was not driven by God's inscrutable will, where inscrutability is understood to mean that there is neither any reason (that we can understand) nor explanation for why God "makes them as vessels of dishonor." On the contrary, we have seen that Paul gives a reasonable explanation for why God has given them up to their dishonorable nature.

By understanding Romans 1, we understand why and how God "endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted for destruction." "The vessels of wrath" were indeed fitted for destruction, not because He determined them to be so, but rather because they brought destruction upon themselves by actively and willingly engaging in lies and self-deception. They were engaged in an activity of deceptions hindering them from being saved and reconciled with God.

Therefore, with this perspective of the first chapter of Romans, we can understand what Paul's expression "make one vessel unto dishonor" means in the ninth chapter of the same epistle.

We are, however, not yet finished with our exposition. We must understand the meaning of the third term, "prepare," as used for "the vessels of mercy."
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Romans 9:23 states that "the vessels of mercy" were "afore prepared unto glory." It teaches that some people were beforehand prepared for glory by virtue of their nature, namely being "the vessels of mercy." Does the text say how their nature is acquired? The fact that they are vessels of mercy obviously implies that they are in Christ. To be in Christ involves being conformed to Christ's image or character.

The text does not say that it was solely God's work in making them "vessels of mercy," i.e., God did not put them in a position to be in Christ, but rather they put themselves in Christ. How would a non-Calvinist understand that they were beforehand prepared unto glory? A non-Calvinist understanding is that God had, before the creation of human world, elected all who would be conformed unto Christ's image to be destined for glory. It does not mean that God made them to be conformed unto His image, but it is rather their free willingness that made them to be conformed. It does not mean that God had beforehand determined who would be in Christ, but rather determined criteria that must be met for belonging to the elected body. Thus, election and predestination, coextensive, are corporate and comprehend individuals only in association and identification with the elect body. It is not about election of particular individuals, but rather of those who would meet the criteria of being in Christ.

It should be noted that a non-Calvinist does not deny that God uses His power "to make one vessel unto honor." God was making them in a similar manner to the one He used with the "vessels of dishonor," by helping them to understand the truth of the Gospels and strengthen their faith. No non-Calvinist would dispute that we need God's grace to understand the truth: we need God's help to be conformed to Christ's image. Nevertheless, neither should we dispute human contribution in the process of salvation and sanctification, where human free choice to be in Christ is necessary for being elected for salvation.
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The Plausibility of the Non-Calvinist Interpretation

The non-Calvinist interpretation of "making vessels unto dishonor" is based on Paul's explanation of the term that is found at the beginning of the same epistle. In the course of our interpretation of Romans 9:15-24, we have asked whether Paul had already said something in previous chapters of the same epistle that would serve as an introduction to his account of God's grace and election. We observe that there is indeed an explanation and that the first chapter serves as a starting point in the interpretation of the whole epistle. It is in the first chapter that Paul introduces his theological concepts used elsewhere in his epistle.

In addition, a non-Calvinist is entitled to demand a justification for the plausibility of the Calvinist interpretation. The plausibility of the interpretation should satisfy the following conditions:

  1. the interpretation should not contradict with Romans 1:19-20, 22-28;
  2. the interpretation should not contradict with the guiding passages about God's benevolence;
  3. the interpretation should not ignore the long-suffering nature of God.

In our understanding, the Calvinist interpretation does not respect the above conditions, and therefore has no plausibility.
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Concluding Remarks

To repeat the question asked in the introduction: can a non-Calvinist equally exclaim with Paul, "What if God were willing to show his wrath"? Yes, he can, by observing that there is a distinction between the corporate and the individualistic sense of divine election. The important lesson of Romans 9:15-24 is that God is sovereign in His grace and election. His sovereignty does not involve inscrutability, but rather that He determines the conditions that have to be met in order to be elected. The text teaches about corporate and conditional election, where God chose a body of people who would meet the condition of being conformed unto Christ. Those who are not willing to be conformed unto Christ are hardened in their course of life and given up by God. It is we who bring upon ourselves God's wrath when not willing to be reconciled with Him.

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