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John Murray Commenting on Romans 9:22-24

October 17, 2008

John Murray:

22–24 These verses are an unfinished sentence (6 Luke 19:42; John 6: 62; Acts 23: 9). Literally the Greek terms are “but if” and their force is properly rendered by ‘what if’, as in the version, or, as Sanday and Headlam observe, “like our English idiom ‘what and if.’” Understood thus the three verses are an expansion and application of what underlies the analogy appealed to in verses 20b, 21. If God in the exercise of his sovereign right makes some vessels of wrath and others vessels of mercy what have lve to say? It is a rhetorical way of reiterating the question of verse 20.

The interpretation of these verses may more suitably be discussed in the order of the following details.

1. “Vessels of wrath” and “vessels of mercy” are best regarded in terms of verse 21. The potter makes vessels for certain purposes. So here the vessels are for wrath and mercy. It is true that they are vessels deserving wrath but this cannot apply in respect of mercy to the vessels of mercy. Hence both should be taken in a sense that can apply to both. This view is to the same effect as that of Calvin who says that vessels are to be taken in a general sense to mean instruments and therefore instruments for the exhibition of God’s mercy and the display of his judgment.

2. The participle “willing” has been interpreted in two ways: “because willing” or “although willing.” In the former case the thought would be that because God wishes to give more illustrious display of his wrath and power he exercises his longsuffering. In the latter case the meaning would be: although God wills to execute his wrath he nevertheless restrains and postpones this execution from the constraint of longsuffering. In the one case longsuffering serves the purpose of effective display of wrath and power, in the other case longsuffering inhibits the execution of the just desert. In favour of the latter it could be said that according to 2:4 God’s longsuffering is a manifestation of the goodness of God directed to repentance and could hardly be represented as the means of promoting the demonstration of God’s wrath. Before reaching a decision on this question other considerations bearing on the interpretation of verses 22,23 have to be taken into account.

3. The governing thought of these verses, as of the preceding, is the twofold way in which the sovereign will of God comes to expression. This is apparent from several considerations but from: none more than from the two designations, “vessels of wrath” and “vessels of mercy”. This same emphasis upon God’s determinative will must be present in the word “willing” at the beginning of verse 22. It harks back to verse 18 and also to the term in will verse 19. So “willing” is not simply wishing but determining.

4. It would not be proper to suppress the between “to show his wrath, and to make his power known” (vs. 22) arid “that I might show in thee my power”(vs. 17). There is surely reminiscence of the latter in the former. Hence what God did in, the case of Pharaoh illustrates what is more broadly applied to vessels of wrath in verse 21. Pharaoh was raised up and hardened, in the sense explained above, for the purpose of demonstrating God’s power and publishing his name in all the earth. If we interject the term “forbearance”, we must say it was exercised in this case in order that God’s great power might be displayed From this consideration, namely, that of the parallel, there appears to be a compelling reason to subordinate the longsuffering of verse 22 to the purpose of showing his wrath and making his power known. If we bear in mind the determinate purpose of God upon which the accent falls and that those embraced in this purpose are vessels of wrath and therefore viewed as deserving of wrath to the uttermost, the “much longsuffering” exercised towards then is not deprived of its real character as such. It is only because God is forbearing that lip delays the infliction of the full measure of ill-desert. Furthermore, the apostle has in view the unbelief of Israel and the longsuffering with which God endures their unbelief. He is reminding his unbelieving kinsmen that God’s longsuffering is not the certificate of God’s favour but that, awful though it be, it only ministers in the case of those who are the vessels of wrath to the more manifest exhibition of their ill-desert in the infliction of God’s wrath and the making known of his power. In the light of these considerations the participle “willing” (vs. 22a) can and should preferably be understood in the sense “because willing” rather than “although willing”. The total thrust of the context indicates the subordination which the former alternative implies.

5. The ..willing” (vs. 22), as indicated already, has a twofold reference. The first is ‘to show his wrath, and to make his power known”. The second is “that he might make known the riches of his glory upon vessels of mercy” (vs. 23).44 This is parallel to other expressions earlier in this chapter, especially to verses 16b, 18a. But no expression used hitherto is of comparable richness. The same term is used for making known as is used in verse 22 for making known his power upon vessels of wrath. Yet there is an eloquent contrast in respect of what is made known. Now it is “the riches of his glory”. God’s glory is the sum of his perfections and “the riches” refer to the splendor and fulness characterizing these perfections. It is to be borne in mind that in the bestowal of mercy there is no prejudice to any of God’s attributes. But it is not this negative that bears the emphasis. It is that the perfections are magnified in the work of mercy and in no action is there so effulgent an exhibition of God’s glory (cf. Psalm 85:9-11; Rom. 11:33; Eph. 1:7, 12, 14; 2:4, 7; 3:8, 16; Col.1:27; I Tim. 1:11). Glory in this instance is not to be identified with the glory mentioned at the end of verse 23. The latter is the glory bestowed, the former the glory of God manifested. The correlation, however, is noteworthy. The grandeur of believers’ bliss will consist in the fact that therein the richness of God’s glory will be manifest and it would fall short of “glory” if this were not the case.

6. The vessels of wrath are “fitted unto destruction”. The question disputed is whether they are represented as fitted or prepared by God for destruction or whether they are viewed as fitting themselves for destruction. It is true that Paul does not say that God prepared them for destruction as he does in the corresponding words respecting the vessels of mercy that “he afore prepared” them unto glory. It may be that he purposely refrained from making God the subject. However, we may not insist that God is not viewed as fitting them for destruction. In verse 18 there is the agency of God in hardening. In verses 22, 23 the analogy of verse 21 is being applied and the vessels of wrath correspond to the potter’s vessel unto dishonor which he prepares for this purpose. They are also vessels of wrath and, therefore, as observed above, vessels for wrath, and wrath corresponds to destruction. For these reasons there is nothing contrary to the teaching of the context if we regard God as the agent in fitting for destruction. At the same time we may not dogmatize that the apostle intended to convey this notion in this case. The main thought is that the destruction meted out to the vessels of wrath is something for which their precedent condition suits them. There is an exact correspondence between what they were in this life and the perdition to which they are consigned. This is another way of saying that there is continuity between this life and the lot of the life to come. In the general context of the apostle’s thought there is no release from human responsibility nor from the guilt of which perdition is the wages.

7. The vessels of mercy God “afore prepared unto glory”. In this case there is no question as to the agent. The vessels of wrath can be said to fit themselves for destruction; they are the agents of the demerit which reaps destruction. But only God prepares for glory. The figure of the potter is applied without reserve; vessels unto honor correspond to vessels prepared unto glory. The “afore prepared” points to the parallel truth indicated in “fitted unto destruction” that there is continuity between the process of operative grace in this life and the glory ultimately achieved. The glory meted out is something for which the precedent state and condition prepared the vessels of mercy ((II Tim. 2:20, 21). 8. Verse 24 must be understood in the light of the differentiation which permeates this whole passage from verse 6 onwards. This differentiation is the answer to the objection that the word of God might appear to have come to nought. It is the differentiation which the purpose of God according to election causes to be, exemplified in ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated’!, vindicated in God’s sovereign prerogative to have mercy on whom he will and to discriminate between vessels of wrath and vessels of mercy. Since the apostle is not thinking abstractly nor dealing merely with the past, he brings this to bear upon the concrete situation which he encounters and upon the way in which God’s sovereign will unto salvation is realized in the present. So he says “even us, whom he also called, not from the Jews only, but also from the Gentiles”. This is the conclusion to what in English has been rendered as a question (vss. 22-24) with the implied answer that we have no reply against God (cf. VS. 20). Paul applies what he had said respecting vessels of mercy prepared beforehand unto glory to actual experience in his own case and that of others. He finds in the call of Jews and Gentiles the illustration of God’s working grace.

Although in verses 22, 23 there is not direct reference to the decretive foreordination of God in the expressions “fitted unto destruction” and “afore prepared unto glory”, it is not possible to dissociate verse 24 from the earlier passage in which calling is given its locus in relation to predestination (8:28-30). Never in Pad is calling anything else than according to purpose and, therefore, the mention of calling in this passage harks back to the sovereign will and purpose of God repeatedly appealed to in the preceding verses. Thus the predestinarian background cannot be denied. Calling here has the same meaning as elsewhere, the effectual call to salvation (1:7; 8:28, 30; I Cor. 1:9 ; Gal. 1:15 ; II Tim. 1:9). It is neither necessary nor proper to think that the preparation mentioned in verse 23 preceded the actual call. The call would rather be the inception of the preparatory process. The reference to both Jews and Gentiles is all-important. That there should be the called from Jewry belongs to the argument of the passage as a whole. The covenant promise ha., not failed but comes to effect in the true Israel, the true children, the true seed (cf. vss. 6-9, 27, 29; 11: 5, 7). This is expressed in the words “not from the Jews only”. The form, however, signifies that the covenant promise and the electing grace of God have broader scope than Jewry. So “but also from the Gentiles” is added. In 4:12-17 the interest of the apostle differs from that of the present passage. There the polemic is focused upon justification by faith in opposition to works; here the interest is the fulfilment of the covenant promise. But there is a close relationship between the two passages, as may be seen particularly from 4:16. Basic in Paul’s thought is the promise given to Abraham that in his seed all the families of the earth would be blessed.

[Footnotes not included.]

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