Romans 9:22-23 – Why Does God Put Up with Unbelieving Ethnic Israelites? Can ‘Vessels of Wrath’ Become ‘Vessels of Mercy’?

, posted by kingswoodhart

This is part of a series of posts on Romans. The main focus of this series will be chapters 9-11 of the letter. These chapters, particularly chapter 9, have been interpreted in various different ways. My aim is to demonstrate what I consider to be the correct interpretation. I will do this by considering the structure and context of the letter and then focusing in on these chapters, showing how the proposed interpretation fits with the context and structure of the letter, as well as being internally consistent within chapters 9-11. Click here for the contents page.

Having considered Romans 9:20-21 (about the potter and the clay), in this post we will continue with verses 22-23:

“[22] 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, [23] in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory”

In the structure of Romans 9:6-29 (which is one of the sections of Romans 9-11), verse 22 matches with verse 17: ‘For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth”’. Both verses refer to God showing/making known his power for the purpose of the proclamation of the good news about God. As we saw when considering verse 17, God was explaining to Pharaoh why he had not yet issued full and complete judgement against him by killing him, which was what Pharaoh deserved following his rejection of God. God explained that he had instead kept Pharaoh in his position of power and had hardened him because doing this caused a greater spread of the good news about God, which was achieved through the great miracles/plagues and final triumphant exodus of God’s people. This had a much greater impact than if God had simply killed Pharaoh immediately and then quietly led his people out of Egypt.

For a similar reason, God did not immediately kill the unbelieving ethnic Israelites upon their rejection of Christ, even though this was their deserved full judgement. Instead, God kept them in place and hardened them (also an act of judgement). The result of this was that Gentiles were coming to trust in Christ following the spread of the gospel to the nations. If God had immediately killed all the ethnic Israelites who rejected Christ, the gospel would not have spread as quickly, as more believers would have stayed in Jerusalem rather than leaving to flee persecution. Furthermore, this would have removed the opportunity for any of these ethnic Israelites to repent at a later time and come to trust in Christ. One such person who did this was Paul himself! Others would also do this, as Paul explains in Romans 11 (see below).

Verses 22 and 23 of Romans 9 therefore explain that God fulfils his desire to show his wrath and make known his power by keeping in place people who deserve ultimate destruction so that he can show his wrath and make known his power through the situation in which he keeps them. His desire to show his wrath and make known his power is a gospel desire to make the riches of his glory known, just as his desire in the situation with Pharaoh was a gospel desire to have his name proclaimed in all the earth. He fulfilled that desire by keeping Pharaoh in place so that he could show his power and wrath through the miracles/plagues and the exodus.

(Some English translations of verse 22 are differently worded to state, e.g. ‘What if God, although desiring…, has endured…’, i.e. asserting that God is choosing not to show his wrath (etc.) yet but is doing something else instead. This understanding would have God’s wrath in final judgement in view. However, God doesn’t only show his wrath at the final judgement but also does so before that (see Romans 1:18, for example). The parallel with Pharaoh makes the translation I have used above preferable over this one.)

Verses 22 and 23 speak again of two categories of people: ‘vessels of wrath’ and ‘vessels of mercy’. Regarding the ‘vessels of wrath prepared for destruction’. God has ‘endured’ them ‘with much patience’ as they are deserving of full judgement now and their continued existence requires patience on God’s part in allowing them to continue sinning. The reason God does this is because he wants to ‘make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory’. God has a gospel motivation in withholding full and final judgement from those who deserve it due to their rejection of Christ.

Paul talks more about this process in Romans 11, explaining that Gentiles have come to faith as a result of the rejection of Christ by unbelieving ethnic Israelites. In Romans 11:11, Paul states that ‘by their [i.e. unbelieving ethnic Israelites] transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles’. Also, in Romans 11:30, Paul states that Gentiles ‘have been shown mercy because of their [i.e. unbelieving ethnic Israelites] disobedience’. God has therefore endured with much patience the disobedience of the unbelieving ethnic Israelites, and this has resulted in Gentiles coming to know the riches of God’s glory.

A question Paul does not address at this point in Romans 9 is whether the ‘vessels of wrath prepared for destruction’ have any hope of salvation. Are they all destined to die without repenting and trusting in Christ, or is it still a possibility for them to do this? We do not need to speculate on the answer of this question, as Paul goes on to answer it himself in Romans 11. At the end of Romans 9:23, Paul breaks off his train of thought and doesn’t answer this question. He does this because he is going to continue on this topic in Romans 11:1-32, which is the parallel section to Romans 9:6-29 (similar to how Romans 9 itself is picking up where Paul left off in the parallel section of Romans 3).

So far in Romans 9, Paul has only started to consider the first two links of a three-link chain:

  1. Rejection of Christ by unbelieving ethnic Israelites, resulting in
  2. Acceptance of Christ by Gentiles

There is a third link in the chain explained in Romans 11:

  1. Unbelieving ethnic Israelites coming to trust in Christ due to their jealousy of the Gentiles who have accepted Christ

Reading on in the quote from Romans 11:11 we saw above, Paul states that ‘by their [i.e. unbelieving ethnic Israelites] transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them [i.e. unbelieving ethnic Israelites] jealous. Paul goes on to state that ‘inasmuch then as I am an apostle of Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if somehow I might move to jealousy my fellow countrymen and save some of them’ (Romans 11:13-14). Similarly, Paul goes on in Romans 11:30-31 to state ‘for just as you [i.e. believing Gentiles] once were disobedient to God, but now have been shown mercy because of their [i.e. unbelieving ethnic Israelites] disobedience, so these also now have been disobedient, that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy’.

Paul is clear that the unbelieving ethnic Israelites (who are currently ‘vessels of wrath prepared for destruction’) can still be saved.

The ‘vessels of wrath’ and ‘vessels of mercy’ are referring to two categories of people, but we have seen from Romans 11 that it is possible for an individual person to change from being a ‘vessel of wrath’ to become a ‘vessel of mercy’. This is significant, as there are some people who consider that each individual person was selected by God in eternity past to be of either one category or the other, and that it is impossible for any person of either category to change to the other category at any time. We will now see that, as well as the passages discussed above and in the previous post regarding verse 21, there is additional biblical context that also shows that this view is wrong.

First, in Romans 10:1, Paul speaks of the ethnic Israelites who have rejected Christ and states that ‘my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved’. In the view I have presented above, these unbelieving ethnic Israelites are all ‘vessels of wrath’ but can individually change categories to become ‘vessels of mercy’ and be saved if they repent and trust in Christ. It therefore makes sense that Paul would pray for their salvation collectively, as any of them could still be saved. On the other hand, those who are of the opinion that people cannot change categories would understand that the unbelieving ethnic Israelites Paul is praying for include some people who are ‘vessels of mercy’ (those that will come to believe at some point in the future) and some people who are ‘vessels of wrath’ (those who will continue rejecting Christ until they die). It would be very strange for Paul to believe that some of these people are unchangeably fixed as ‘vessels of wrath’ and then to pray collectively for the salvation of all of them. Instead, it is clear that Paul thinks that these people can be saved!

Romans 11:23-24 also speaks of unbelieving ethnic Israelites returning as members of the church if they do not continue in their unbelief, which is further evidence that Paul thinks it is possible for any unbelieving ethnic Israelite to do this.

Furthermore, in Ephesians 2:1-5, Paul, speaking to Christians, says this:

“[1] And you were dead in the trespasses and sins [2] in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—[3] among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. [4] But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, [5] even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved”.

Paul says that all Christians can look back to a time when they were ‘children of wrath’. This shows that people are not permanently fixed in one category or the other, because all Christians, who are now ‘vessels of mercy’, were once ‘children of wrath’. They were deserving of God’s wrath like the rest of mankind (Ephesians 5:3), but they accepted the gift from God of salvation by faith (Ephesians 2:8) and therefore their status before God was changed.

Romans 2:1-5 is also of relevance:

“[1] Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. [2] We know that the judgement of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. [3] Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgement of God? [4] Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? [5] But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgement will be revealed.”

God is being patient with these ethnic Israelites in not giving them full judgement immediately, but instead giving them an opportunity to repent. They are currently ‘storing up wrath’ for themselves as ‘vessels of wrath prepared for destruction’, but God is giving them an opportunity to escape the punishment that they deserve. They can escape this punishment through repentance, which is what God’s kindness and patience in delaying their deserved judgement is intended to enable.

In 1 Timothy 1:15-16, Paul speaks of how God’s patience applied to him in his own life:

“[15] Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. [16] But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.”

This understanding of God’s patience also fits with 2 Peter 3:9, which states that ‘the Lord is not slow to fulfil his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. This would not make sense if God had chosen some people to permanently and unchangeably remain as ‘vessels of wrath’. The context of this verse is God’s judgement (2 Peter 3:10). God patiently delays the full judgement that people deserve in the hope that they will repent before it is finally too late. Praise God for his patience and mercy! Peter goes on to encourage his readers to ‘count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters’ (2 Peter 3:15-16). Peter’s teaching on God’s patience is the same as Paul’s.

From this analysis, we can therefore conclude that it is possible for people to change from being a ‘vessel of wrath’ to being a ‘vessel of mercy’, so people have not been permanently fixed in one category or the other from eternity past. We can therefore define the two categories as follows:

The ‘vessels of wrath’ are those who have rejected Christ and are therefore heading towards final judgement and hell, which is the place prepared for such people. While God patiently delays the final judgement they deserve, they have the opportunity to repent and thereby change categories before it is too late.

The ‘vessels of mercy’ are those who are currently trusting in Christ. They therefore correspond to the ‘elect’, as defined by Paul in Romans 11:7. The ethnic Israelites referred to as vessels for honourable/dishonourable use from Romans 9:21 are therefore vessels of mercy/wrath, respectively.

Paul does not speak in these verses about how God decided who would become a vessel of mercy (e.g. arbitrarily, dependent on faith, etc.) – he only states that the vessels of mercy were ‘prepared beforehand for glory’. It is not explained whether they were prepared beforehand individually or corporately. As we have seen that individuals who are ‘vessels of mercy’ have not always been that kind of vessel, it makes sense for the preparation beforehand for glory of the ‘vessels of mercy’ to have been done corporately, rather than individually. God was preparing what would happen to the ‘vessels of mercy’ collectively, rather than individually selecting who would be a ‘vessel of mercy’.

The ‘vessels of wrath’ are also in a corporate situation. They are ‘prepared for destruction’ – the final destination of the ‘vessels of wrath’ has been fixed, but God gives individual ‘vessels of wrath’ an opportunity to repent and change categories.

This corporate understanding fits with the context of the verses, which have been distinguishing between two categories of people: vessels of wrath/mercy and vessels for honourable/dishonourable use.

Even if an individualistic interpretation of the vessels were to be taken, this would not rule out the possibility of an individual vessel of wrath being able to change to become a vessel of mercy. Before an individual becomes a Christian, they are ‘prepared for destruction’, i.e. that is the destination in which they are heading. Even if God is taken as the agent doing the preparing, God has prepared them for destruction but could still relent from this. After an individual becomes a Christian, they become ‘prepared beforehand for glory’, i.e. they are prepared for glory before they reach glory. Paul does not specify how far ‘beforehand’ each individual is prepared for glory, but since each individual was once a ‘vessel of wrath’ before they became a ‘vessel of mercy’, God’s preparation of them for glory would not seem to have taken place before they became a ‘vessel of mercy’. There is no suggestion in the text that the preparation for glory took place in eternity past.

Although Paul starts verse 22 by saying ‘what if…’, it seems that Paul does believe that what follows is what God is actually doing (so Paul is not merely speculating). As mentioned above, he doesn’t finish the sentence, which breaks off at the end of verse 23. In the context of the previous verses (20-21), the point Paul seems to be making could be paraphrased as “what if God wanted to do X, [who would have the right to question that]?” – with the implied answer: no one. Paul is again pushing back against the ethnic Israelite objector who does not like what God is doing, as explained for verses 20-21.

In the next post, we will finish this section of Romans 9 with verses 24-29.

This was first published at the Predestination Station, where comments can be made.