(Rom. 9:22-23) Does God create people only to damn them?

CLAIM: Calvinist interpreters argue that this passage teaches unconditional election. Others go further and claim that this supports the concept of double predestination. Is this the case?

RESPONSE: In response to this interpretation, a number of points can be made.

First, Paul uses different words for “prepared” in verses 22 and 23. The Greek words are katartizō and proetoimazō. These two Greek words are both translated as “prepared” in the NASB. But in the Greek, they aren’t even in the same word family. The New Living Translation shows the difference between the two (see also the KJV).

Katartizō (v.22): This word means “to cause to be in a condition to function well, put in order, restore… to prepare for a purpose, prepare, make, create, outfit” (BDAG).

Proetoimazō (v.23): This word means “prepare beforehand” (BDAG). This is the word used for the “good works, which God prepared beforehand” (Eph. 2:10).

While Paul may be using these terms synonymously, it is at the very least interesting that he doesn’t use the same terms to describe God’s plan for his judgment and his grace. Witherington writes, “Katērtismena, used of the vessels of wrath, is a perfect passive participle. Proētoimasen, used of the vessels of mercy, is an aorist active indicative. This change cannot be accidental, and it suggests that Paul means that the vessels of wrath are ripe or fit for destruction. Indeed, one could… understand it in the middle voice: “have made themselves fit for” destruction. If so, this verse certainly does not support the notion of double predestination. Rather it refers to the fact that these vessels are worthy of destruction, though God has endured them for a long time.”[1]

Second, there is no subject that “fits” the unbelievers for destruction, but God is the subject who “prepares” believers. There is a subtle difference between verses 22 and 23. God is not the subject of the sentence in verse 22, but he is the subject of the sentence in verse 23. In other words, God does not actively prepare the unbeliever for hell; they “fit” themselves. By contrast, in verse 23, God is the one who actively prepares believers for glory.

Third, these vessels of wrath might turn and become vessels of mercy. There is no fatalism in Romans 9. Paul has been warning them from the beginning of his letter to turn to God and become vessels of mercy (Rom. 2:4). However, he writes, “Because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Rom. 2:5). Paul is explaining that these vessels of wrath are able to become objects of his mercy, if they merely turn to him in faith. At one point, all former believers were “by nature children of wrath, even as the rest” (Eph. 2:3). But after we placed our faith in Christ, we became objects of mercy (Eph. 2:8-9). In the next chapter, Paul writes that God invited the people “all day long,” but “they were disobedient and rebellious” (Rom. 10:21 NLT).

Under Calvinism, there is no free willed person with whom God could be “patient.” Since God is the ultimate cause of all things, this would include human creatures. Remember, Calvinists appeal to the “lump of clay” to refer to human agency in the previous verse (Rom. 9:21). Therefore, under Calvinism, God is being “patient” with himself—not with free willed agents who rebel against him.

By contrast, God’s patience refers to his love for all people to turn to him. Peter writes that God is patient because he wants people to turn to him in faith: “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). The goal of God’s patience with hardened Israel is to cause them to have jealousy and come to faith in Christ (Rom. 11:11-14).

For more context, see our earlier article (Romans 9: An Arminian Interpretation).

[1] Ben Witherington III, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 258.