Did God Create Some People for Wrath? Well No! Romans 9:19–23

Romans 9:22–23 is often cited to demonstrate God’s sovereign choice in creating some people for eternal destruction so that he might demonstrate his wrath while making other people to be recipients of his eternal mercy. This understanding highlights God’s eternal, unconditional election. This way, God could put his wrath and mercy on display, which otherwise he would not be able to do. Those who hold this view do believe that God did desire sin and evil, and he created people that ultimately he damned to hell either by predeterminately creating them for such or actively or passively passing them by.

At first glance, the verses do seem to teach the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election to salvation and reprobation. However, upon closer examination, it seems clear they do not. Having answered supposed objections to God’s sovereignty by referring to God as the potter (Rom 9:21), Paul now applies the examples above and God’s role as a potter on a grander scale. The verses say, “What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory(Rom 9:22–23).

It is important to remember that the preceding verses and illustrations about Esau and Pharaoh do not deal with individual salvation or the origin of evil, and in like manner, neither do these. They do refer to the same thing, particularly to God’s dealing with Pharaoh. (see my previous articles Does God Hate Esau? (Rom 6:16), and Did God Hardening Pharaoh Damn Him? (Rom 9:17-18)

Therefore, the emphasis is upon God’s patience toward evil and rebellious sinners. God’s delay in exercising his wrath is not because of inability or unwillingness, as it might seem to some, but rather to make his power known. Between the sixth and seventh plagues in Egypt, God told Pharaoh through Moses that he could have already obliterated Pharaoh and his people (Ex 9:15). Then in Exodus 9:16, God tells why he had not done so. “But, indeed, for this reason I have allowed you to remain, in order to show you My power and in order to proclaim My name through all the earth” (italics added). This is the verse quoted in Romans 9:17. In Exodus, it is the idea of God allowing Pharaoh to remain. As the passage tells us, God’s delay in dispensing wrath was not because God was unwilling to exercise wrath, but rather to show his “power and in order to proclaim [His] name through all the earth.”

Moreover, Exodus 9:17 says, “Still you exalt yourself against My people by not letting them go.” This implies that Pharaoh was hardening his heart against God’s true ultimate desire for him and this in spite of overwhelming evidence. If God was singularly and irrevocably hardening his heart, God’s words seem, at best, disingenuous; certainly, God should not be perturbed at Pharaoh’s stubbornness if God himself was the cause.

Romans 9:22-23 is teaching the same truth on a global scale. God’s delay in judging sin, wickedness, and evil is not because he is unwilling to judge, but rather, God delays judgment out of his merciful patience. Why? “To make known the riches of His glory upon vessels [humans] of mercy” (Rom 9:23). The world misreads the longsuffering of God as unwillingness or inability to judge sin thoroughly, and this to their peril.

He actually delays judgment to show mercy so that men and women may be saved. Many Scriptures attest to this. For example, “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?” (Rom 2:4). “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). “Whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed” (Rom 3:25). God is slow to anger. “The Lord is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and great in lovingkindness” (Ps 145:8). In God alone, as seen in Christ, “Lovingkindness and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Ps 85:10).

The Calvinist William Hendriksen says, “Paul does not state who it was that prepared these people or made them ripe for destruction. From 9:18, some have concluded that it was God. But here in verse 22, we are not told that it was God. And even if it was God, then must we not assume that his action of hardening their hearts, and thus preparing them for destruction, followed, and was a punishment for their own action of hardening themselves?”[1] In line with Hendriksen’s understanding is that prepared “may be understood reflexively (‘prepared themselves’)”[2] even though it is not necessary to do so to agree with Hendriksen; although, it does highlight the difficulty of making this the irrefutable stalwart fortress of Calvinism.

Simply put, this verse does not say who or what prepared them for destruction or why they are vessels of wrath. The passage says nothing about the origin of sin, sinners, or evil. MacArthur says, “As in the rest of Romans 9—indeed, as in the rest of Scripture—the closing three verses of this passage do not attempt to show the source or origin of evil or try to explain the humanly-inexplicable consistency of God’s justice with His righteousness. The apostle simply makes a declaration in the form of a rhetorical question.”[3]

Harrison in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary notes, “In v.22 the crucial problem is to interpret correctly the expression ‘prepared for destruction.’ Is Paul teaching a double predestination? This is improbable, because he avoids involving God in this case, whereas he is involved in showing mercy to the objects of his mercy (v.23). Furthermore, God’s patience in bearing with the objects of his wrath suggests a readiness to receive such on condition of repentance (cf. 2:3, 3; 2 Peter 3:9). So ‘prepared for destruction’ designates a ripeness of sinfulness that points to judgment unless there is a turning to God, yet God is not made responsible for the sinful condition. The preparation for destruction is the work of man, who allows himself to deteriorate in spite of knowledge and conscience.”[4]

This is precisely the meaning of “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36, italics added). See also Matthew 23:37–38 and Romans 1:18. Robert H. Mounce comments, “But Paul had not as yet given us the entire story. God is not an arbitrary despot who does what he wishes without regard for anyone or anything. In the very next verse (v.22), Paul told of the great patience God showed toward those who deserve wrath. And in the following chapter, he discussed the liberty and responsibility of human beings . . . God’s sovereignty does not reduce humans to helpless automatons.”[5]

God did not create these to spurn them, damn them, actively or passively pass them by, or even judge them at the moment they deserve it. Nor did he create man to judge him at the moment he makes the irrevocable decision to reject God’s grace, but he has actually endured their un-repentance (and ours before we believed unto salvation) and spurning of his grace and love in order to show mercy upon mercy to them (us) and all. God did know that man would sin, and God chose to provide redemption for man at the same time he chose to create man according to his coextensive creation-redemption plan. He chose to offer mercy unconditionally to all, irrespective of their choice to accept or reject his mercy.

He chose to condition the reception of salvation upon grace-enabled faith, which is not works, merit, human virtue, nor an idea that supposedly makes man sovereign over salvation since it was our sovereign God who freely chose to create his salvation plan that comprehended grace-enabled faith; to wit, faith is the antithesis of works or virtue, and this regardless how many times some Calvinists allege or imply that conditioning salvation upon faith is works or makes man sovereign (John 6:29; Rom 6:26-31; 4:1-5; Eph 2:8-10).

The Holy Spirit is clear concerning this and says, “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom 4:5). In the preceding verses, Paul makes the same contrast in the life of Abraham, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’” (Rom 4:2–3).

Therefore, faith is not only not a meritorious work of man for salvation, but it is the antithesis of such. And grace-enabled faith is the unambiguous and ubiquitous condition for receiving God’s free gift (Rom 6:23) of salvation throughout the Scripture (Hab 2:4b; Rom 3:22). Christ repudiates all works as a means of obtaining salvation except the non-humanly meritorious faith provided by “the work of God” (John 6:29), which results in obedience, the works of faith (Eph 2:8–10; 1 Thess 1:3).[6]

God did not prepare these “vessels of wrath” by designing them or predestining them for that end because he declared, “Say to them, ‘As I live!’ declares the Lord God, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel?’” (Ezek 33:11). Rather, they are prepared because of his holiness and their sin.

Romans 9:23 tells us specifically why he patiently endures the wicked, “to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory.” Here it does say that God is the one who prepared the vessels of mercy. It does not tell us how, in this verse, some Calvinist’s claims to the contrary notwithstanding. I would argue that considering the entirety of Scripture, he did it by providing everything men needed to be saved, including the payment for man’s sin and grace-enabled faith (John 1:29).

In comparing the message of verse 22 with verse 23, Hendriksen says, “But it is not at all impossible that the apostle wishes to present a contrast between the present passage and verse 23, where the active agent is mentioned, in order to show that here, in verse 22, the people themselves—in co-operation with Satan!—were the active agents; as, for example, also in I Thess. 2:14b, 15, 16; whereas in Rom. 9:23 God is said to be the One who prepares, and there in a favorable sense.”[7] He then says, “That is, to those people who to the very end refuse to respond favorably to God’s patient appeals, that God shows his wrath and makes known his power.”[8]

Regarding the wicked, Keil and Delitzsch comment thusly, “God has not indeed made the wicked as such, but He has made the being which is capable of wickedness, and which has decided for it, viz., in view of the ‘day of adversity’ (Eccles. 7:14), which God will cause to come upon him, thus making His holiness manifest in the merited punishment, and thus also making wickedness the means of manifesting His glory. It is the same thought which is expressed in Ex. 9:16 with reference to Pharaoh.”[9]

MacArthur says concerning them, “Vessels of wrath prepared for destruction is surely one of the most tragic identifications of unbelievers in all of Scripture. Paul, of course, is speaking of ungodly and unrepentant human vessels, all of whom will feel the ultimate wrath of God, for which they have been prepared for destruction by their own rejection of Him. As already noted, it is not that God makes men sinful but that He leaves them in their sin unless they repent of it and turn to His Son for deliverance.”[10]

Hendriksen’s description of God’s patience towards Pharaoh seems to be a good picture of God’s patience toward all sinners.

It was exactly God’s great patience with Pharaoh and his people, his delay in pouring out upon them the full measure of the punishment they had deserved, that provided the opportunity to make known the riches of God’s glory lavished on Israel of that early day. If Pharaoh had been immediately destroyed, who would have become aware of God’s mercy toward Israel? But as the ten plagues followed each other, one by one, that mercy became increasingly evident. Note the following:

In connection with the

fifth plague: “But the Lord will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt, so that no animal belonging to the Israelites will die . . . All the livestock of the Egyptians died, but of the animals belonging to the Israelites died not one” (Exod. 9:4, 6).

seventh plague: “Only in the land of Goshen, where the children of Israel lived, was there no hail” (Exod. 9:26).

ninth plague: “No one could see anyone else or leave his place for three days; but all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings” (Exod. 10:23).

tenth plague: “There will be loud wailing throughout all the land of Egypt . . . but among the Israelites not a dog will bark at any man or animal, that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between the Egyptians and Israel . . . The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you” (Exod. 11:6, 7; 12:13).

The same principle is always operating. God is ever bearing with great patience vessels of wrath, to make known the riches of his glory lavished on vessels of mercy.[11]

Keil and Delitzsch note, “What Paul . . . wishes to say is this, that it was not Pharaoh’s conduct that determined the will of God, but that the will of God is always the antecedens: nothing happens to God through the obstinacy and rebellion of man which determines Him to an action not already embraced in the eternal plan, but also such an one must against his will be subservient to the display of God’s glory. The apostle adds v. 22, and shows that he recognised the factor of human self-determination, but also as one comprehended in God’s plan. The free actions of men create no situation by which God would be surprised and compelled to something which was not originally intended by Himself. The wicked also has his place in God’s order of the world. Whoever frustrates the designs of grace must serve God in this.”[12]

Therefore, although these verses, along with many others in the Bible, declare that God is sovereign over all of his creation, in that he created what he desired for his desired purposes and will, and will sovereignly accomplish his purpose in everything, including salvation, they do not demonstrate Calvinism’s requisite unconditional election along with selective forced regeneration and God inexplicably loving other people into hell. God demonstrated his sovereignty by choosing to create man with otherwise choice and condition salvation upon grace-enabled faith; he did this without any internal or external need, coercion, permission, or consultation outside of the Trinity.

Further, everything, including all of his creation, is under his jurisdiction whether it is good, bad, forgiveness, judgment, heaven, hell, or the elect or fallen angels, including Satan; accordingly, nothing will thwart his plan. In the beginning, God sovereignly chose to create man in his image, with the freedom to trust him and live in the garden or the freedom to distrust him and be cast out of the garden (Genesis 1:26–27, 2:16–17, 3:22–24). We see from man’s fall in the garden, God has patiently endured those who reject his grace, vessels of wrath, so that he may show mercy to those who receive his grace.

Adam’s faith was indeed a gift from God (as was everything in creation), but the choice to exercise it toward God was man’s freedom and responsibility. Whatever choice Adam made, he was responsible for it because he could have chosen otherwise and, in fact, did for a period of time. That is to say, for whatever period of time Adam lived before he sinned, he exercised faith toward God and apparently could have chosen to distrust God (Genesis 2:16–17).

Then, when he chose to distrust God, he could have chosen to continue to trust God and not sin. Lest one strap God with creating man with a past or nature that would unalterably result in a greatest desire in man to sin or some other equally causal plan for man to sin, which Calvinists ultimately do; such determinism is not allayed one iota by resorting to secondary, tertiary, or even quaternary, quinary, or senary causes.

God sovereignly determining to create man with real free choice comports with everything the Scripture reveals about the full character of God better than Calvinism. It is much more reflective of God’s love, holiness, mercy, and sovereignty without having to create “mysteries” where they do not exist.

Further, this understanding accentuates God’s sovereignty far above Calvinism’s understanding because Extensivists (non-Calvinists) see God as sovereign over humans who have otherwise choice, which Calvinism does not. Therefore, Calvinists default to compatibilism, which demotes God’s sovereignty and diminishes man by strapping him with little more than an enhanced animalistic freedom in that whether man or animal, they can only act according to their preconditioned desires—desires crafted by determinative antecedents.[13]

Compatibilism demeans man, and thereby diminishes the glory of God. Not that Calvinists intend or desire that but rather in their endeavor to exalt God by emphasizing unconditional election, monergism, and compatibilism, they diminish God. One cannot diminish the work of the creator without diminishing its creator, which Calvinism does by strapping man with compatibilism, whereby man was created to inevitably and freely choose sin and be totally passive in regeneration.

For example, what if one looked beneath the majestic mystique of the Mona Lisa only to find that Da Vinci painted by the numbers, or we learned that Beethoven’s 5th symphony was composed by an alien being who could do nothing but produce such a masterpiece. Either discovery would tell us more about the creators of such works than the works themselves. The point being, Calvinism’s reduction of man’s freedom to that of compatibilism tells us more about their unintended diminished view of God—who apparently could not be in sovereign control of truly free choice beings—than it does about man.

It seems to me that Extensivists believe in God’s sovereignty far more than Calvinists because it seems quite impossible to create a human with libertarian free will and guarantee that he will live righteously; that is that he will not sin so long as that choice is within his range of options, which it was in the garden with Adam and Eve.[14] The Calvinists unwittingly recognize this as well, which they evidence by their default to compatibilism which entails God desiring the fall of man and providing selective salvation, thereby resulting in some people being destined to perish in hell.

However, the Scripture teaches that God did the impossible. He desired and always has desired only righteousness. He always desired to create man for a holy love and worship relationship, which required that man be free to choose, as God is free. This freedom of God is seen in God freely choosing to create man to love. However, God knew it is impossible to create man with the actual freedom to choose differently than whatever he does, in fact, choose in the moral moment of decision and guarantee that he will always choose righteousness, so long as sinning is within his range of options.

Therefore, God chose to create and redeem man coextensively. He chose to create him with a real free choice to live righteously or sinfully, and he knew man would misuse his freedom by choosing to sin. But God was not surprised or in need of a revised plan because he had already chosen to redeem man with grace-enabled free choice. Thus, whereas it is impossible to guarantee that unfallen man will always choose righteousness, it apparently is not impossible to guarantee that fallen and subsequently redeemed man will always choose righteousness.[15]

That is to say, when the redeemed get to heaven, we will not only be beings with otherwise choice, as created in the image of God, but having been sinners both causing and living under the dark catastrophic canopy of sin, we will know good and evil experientially like God (Gen 2:17, 3:6). God knows everything, including good and evil experientially, although he never personally experienced sin or the temptation to sin. God’s experiential knowledge of evil flows from his omniscience, whereas before the fall, man only knew evil by faith.

However, after the fall, man knows it experientially, in all of its horrors, and therefore redeemed man in eternity will be essentially different from the created man in that he will know sin, redemption, mercy, judgment, and glorification experientially. Therefore, God did the impossible according to his eternal plan (Rev 13:8), which was and is to create and redeem man, thereby creating a truly free being with otherwise choice who will always choose to love and worship him. He did the impossible, but it was more costly than we will ever fully comprehend (John 3:16). That is the sovereign, holy, righteous, loving, merciful, and compassionate all providing God we serve! Hallelujah!

[1]William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, vol. 12–13, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001), Accompanying biblical text is author’s translation, New Testament Commentary, 328.
[2]John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck, and Dallas Theological Seminary, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, vol. 2, (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983–c1985), 478. The verb form can be translated either in the passive or middle voice.
[3]John MacArthur, Romans, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996, c1991, c1994), 40.
[4] Frank E. Gabelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 10, Romans–Galatians, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), 107.
[5] Robert H. Mounce, The New American Commentary, vol. 27, Romans, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 202.
[6] Commenting on Eph 2:8, A.T Robertson says, “And that (και τουτο [kai touto]). Neuter, not feminine ταυτη [tautē], and so refers not to πιστις [pistis] (feminine) or to χαρις [charis] (feminine also), but to the act of being saved by grace conditioned on faith on our part. Paul shows that salvation does not have its source (ἐξ ὑμων [ex humōn], out of you) in men, but from God. Besides, it is God’s gift (δωρον [dōron]) and not the result of our work.” A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1933), Eph 2:8–10.
[7]William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, vol. 12–13, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, 328 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001).
[8]William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, vol. 12–13, New Testament Commentary : Exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Accompanying biblical text is author’s translation., New Testament Commentary, 328 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001).
[9] Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, 6:xiii–243.
[10]John MacArthur, Romans, 40 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996, c1991, c1994).
[11]William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, vol. 12–13, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001), Accompanying biblical text is author’s translation., New Testament Commentary, 329.
[12] Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, 6:xiii–243.
[13] Compatibilism is the view of moral freedom that says determinism and moral responsibility are compatible. This compatibility is derived, not by making compatibilism (soft determinism) less deterministic than hard determinism,  but by defining free choice existing so long as the person chooses according to his greatest desire. However, the desire is determined by determinative antecedents; in Christianity, this ultimately leads back to God as the ultimate cause.
[14] Libertarian free will is the view that man can choose to act or refrain at least in some circumstances.
[15] Although the Scripture is clear that God provides sufficiently for man to live in eternity and never sin (John 10:28–29), my point here is to deal only with the nature of libertarian freedom.