Vessels of Wrath and Vessels of Mercy
Romans 9:21-23
Has not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel to honor, and another to dishonor?

The sentence is elliptical. Supposing God to have done so, and for certain ends — what then? The apostle does not fill up the sentence himself, but leaves it to be filled up by his readers agreeably to the principles he had been laying down. Would there be unrighteousness with God?


1. "The vessels of wrath," i.e., the "vessels to dishonour" of ver. 21.

(1) The wrath of God is invariably pointed against sin (chap. Romans 1:18; Ephesians 2:1-3). It is judicial, not personal; righteousness demanding the punishment of iniquity — "angry with the wicked," and insisting on the execution of the law. Sovereign wrath is a contradiction. Sovereign mercy is not. It expresses the unalienable right of the Supreme Ruler to show favour freely to the undeserving. The very word "mercy" implies "desert of evil" in its objects. But from the idea of the right of God to inflict suffering on the undeserving, we shrink with horror, for it would ascribe to God the right to do wrong. All punitive infliction presupposes desert. The bestowment of good does not. The latter, then, belongs to sovereignty; the former, to equity.

(2) The sins of men are freely committed. They are done with the choice of their wills. Otherwise there could be no such thing as sin. If a man were used as a mere machine, he could not be a sinner. Every sinner is sensible that neither, on the one hand, is he constrained to evil, nor, on the other, restrained from good. To say that man cannot will what is good is to employ terms most inconsiderate and misleading. What hinders him from willing? Only the absence of right dispositions. But the indisposition is just the want of will; and, there being no other inability in man than this, to say he cannot will resolves itself ultimately into the will not to will; inasmuch as he is kept from willing good by nothing but his aversion to good.

(3) These are truths sufficiently plain, and they serve to show the meaning of the expression "fitted to destruction."(a) More is meant than mere destination or appointment. "Fitted" includes particularly the idea of congruity between the character and the destruction. The question, then, comes to be — how are they thus "fitted" and by whom? In finding an answer to this question, observe the marked difference between the expressions on both sides of the alternative. God fits the "vessels of mercy," but the vessels of wrath are only "fitted for destruction" i.e., self-fitted, fitted by their impenitent and obdurate sinfulness. The blessed God cannot be regarded as directly "fitting men for destruction" by any influence from Him (James 1:13-16; Ezekiel 15:6-8).

(b) And, as God cannot make men wicked, neither should He be considered as appointing men to sin — unless it be in the simple sense of leaving them, in punitive abandonment, to the hardening influence of its wilful perpetration (Jude 1:4).

2. The vessels of mercy."(1) The very idea of mercy excludes all desert on their part, and all obligation on the part of God. "Vessels of mercy" implies that whatever there may be of good in them, that good is something which they do not deserve, and which God is, in no respect, bound to bestow.

(2) This being the case, their previous "preparation to glory" is an act of pure sovereignty. "Making them meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light" (Ephesians 2:1-10).


1. It is the same to both. The expression "Enduring them with much long-suffering" is used, it is true, only in reference to the former; but it is necessary, to complete the sense, that it be, as it were, carried forward, and considered as if repeated, in regard to the latter.

2. The long-suffering of God is one of the most wonderful facts in the history of our apostate race. It was manifested in His dealings with the antediluvian world, and in the whole course of His procedure toward the Jewish people. It has been manifested all along, and continues to be, in the experience of the race at large, and in the life of every individual. Who is there, of all the children of men, that is not the subject of it?

3. The idea implies the existence of a tendency in a contrary direction. The holiness of God is infinitely opposed to all sin, and while His holiness abhors it, His justice calls for its punishment. In proportion, then, to the strength of these principles of the Divine character, is the difficulty of forbearance with the workers of iniquity.

4. By this long-suffering, the great majority of men, alas! are only encouraged in evil (Ecclesiastes 8:11). They thus criminally, because wilfully, abuse the Divine goodness; and thus "fit themselves for destruction" (Romans 2:4, 5). But others dealt with in the same "long-suffering," alter very protracted and obstinate resistance of the means of grace, relent, believe, and are saved. Toward both there has been shown "much long-suffering." To many a believer — especially to such as have been converted later in life than others — might I make an appeal for the truth of this.

III. THE DESIGN OR OBJECT OF THIS CONDUCT here supposed by the apostle. Suppose God does as the potter does: "what if" this were the case? It is evident that the question is intended to involve another question: Would there be any ground of complaint? Who, with any just cause, could say a single word against the procedure? Remember that men are not here spoken of as creatures, but as sinners — guilty subjects of God's moral government, breakers of His law-all alike obnoxious to the visitation of His punitive justice. The general principle, then, is this — that God, the Supreme Ruler, so orders His rectoral procedure towards sinful men, as that He may most effectually secure the glory of His own character and government. Let us look at both sides of the alternative.

1. In God's longsuffering towards those who ultimately perish, what is His course? He lengthens out their period of trial. He applies every mode of treatment, in itself, as a moral means, fitted to bring them to repentance. In doing this, He provides for a satisfactory display of righteousness in their final condemnation; so that none can say that they perished unwarned, untried, uninvited. In the forbearance of God, they have found opportunity for repentance, and they have guiltily misimproved it; converting it into an opportunity of further and further showing the evil principles and dispositions by which they are actuated, and which are the grounds of their sentence of death in the judgment. As an exemplification of our meaning, take the case of the flood (cf. 1 Peter 3:19, 20; 2 Peter 3:9). And as it was with the antediluvian sinners, so was it with the Jews. God's judgments on them were not only deserved, but by His whole procedure toward them shown to be deserved ere they were inflicted. Their "mouths were stopped." And thus it will be at last. God the Judge has determined that He will not only be just in His sentences of condemnation, but show Himself just. Who will venture to find fault with this?

2. Of the other side of the alternative the import is sufficiently obvious. The "riches of His glory" evidently signifies here "His glorious riches" — and that means, as evidently, the riches of His mercy. The glorious riches of God's mercy are made known by salvation in general having been provided; by the means of its provision; and by every individual instance of salvation bestowed. But "the riches of His mercy" are more signally displayed in some cases of salvation than in others. In particular cases, by His "forbearance and long-suffering," He prepares wonderful exemplifications of the exuberant abundance and untrammelled freeness of this grace. Let this apostle himself tell us of his own ease, as an instance in point (1 Timothy 1:12-16).Conclusion:

1. There is a tendency at present to dwell too exclusively on the Divine love, and to make too little of the other attributes of the Divine character. Because the atonement is universal, and the gift of Christ is the highest expression of love, therefore Divine love must be love without distinctions. As if, because the atonement has been made for all, in order to there being a consistent ground on which all might be invited to pardon, therefore there can be and must be no distinctions in the saving application of the atonement. God says, "A new heart also will I give you," etc. Does He do this alike to all?

2. While it is right for us to look at both sides of the alternative, it is especially delightful for us to contemplate Him "preparing for glory the vessels of mercy." His time of preparing them is very various. He can fit them in a moment: while sometimes the preparation extends through many a year. He spares them sometimes as instruments for His use in preparing other "vessels of mercy" for the same glory with themselves. And then, when He takes them to the inheritance of the glory for which He has prepared them, and which He has prepared for them — how delightful our emotions in looking after them. Be has taken these vessels where He may put them to uses more glorifying to Him, and more honourable to themselves, than any use He could make of them in their imperfect state below!

(R. Wardlaw, D.D.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?

WEB: Or hasn't the potter a right over the clay, from the same lump to make one part a vessel for honor, and another for dishonor?

Vessels of Wrath and Vessels of Mercy
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