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What Did Apostle Paul Mean About ‘The Pots’ in Romans 9?

in-the-potters-handsA lot of people ask me questions about the idea of pre-destiny, fate and free will in the Bible. One reader recently asked me specifically what I thought about Romans, Chapter 9. The chapter begins with Paul describing God’s all powerful election which leads to these verses:

17 For Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

19 One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” 20 But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God?“Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” 21 Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?

Many Christians, like the ones described in verse 19, begin to ‘freak out’ and assume that they no longer have free choice or free will in life and thus, are blameless because God ‘made them this way and they couldn’t help it.’ However, this isn’t true- that’s a cop out.  Some Christians also wonder if this ‘pot’ analogy means that people are somehow ‘pre-destined’ to be either a special pot or a damned pot- that some people never had a chance at salvation; how cruel would that make God!?  Apostle Paul rebukes each of us by saying, “But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God?”

Like all passages, this one must be read in context of the full chapter. And, like most biblical chapters, chapter 9 must been read in context of the entire letter. When read properly, it becomes clear that Romans 9 is not at all about pre-destiny or fate, but about Apostle Paul’s desire to inspire the church in Rome to be patient for the return of Christ, to understand that salvation was for both Jew and Gentile and that Apostasy was not an option for any Christian. The ‘pot’ analogy was to show God’s complete sovereignty over all of us and to show us how to emulate God’s patience and mercy toward the unsaved.

The Book of Romans is a letter that Apostle Paul wrote to the Christian church in Rome. He was going to visit them and wanted to send them some ‘talking points’ ahead of time.  Some of the Jewish Christians were growing impatient with Christ’s return and were thinking about returning to Judaism. They thought that Jesus was supposed to return in a matter of months or weeks- the Romans were persecuting them and they were leaving the church. They were afraid that Jesus was a false Messiah after all.  I believe they were also still having issues with the inclusion of Gentile Christians in the salvation of Christ (Messiah) because so much of Romans is dedicated to the explanation of why Gentiles have been ‘grafted’ or ‘adopted’ into the son-ship of Abraham.

Paul begins by putting everyone in their place. He begins with the idea that God does whatever he likes, when ever he likes and however he likes. He brings up examples of how God created people like Pharaoh, whom they all knew, for the sole purpose of destruction and the fulfillment of his Holy Plan- and for the glorification of his name. There are many such individuals in the Bible where God created ‘pots’, or humans (look at Judas), for the sole purpose of destruction and/or the fulfillment of his Grand Plan. Paul’s Point: God is the Potter and makes human beings to serve his purpose.  He raises up kings and commoners alike to make human history turn in the direction he chooses.  No humans, nor pots, get to tell Him what to do- or complain about it!  He has perfect election that is not based on whether people do good deeds or bad deeds- it is based on his own sense of mercy, grace and decision.  This includes the decision to graft Gentiles onto the Abrahamic roots.

However, after he makes it clear that they have no right to question God, he relents and gives them biblical proof that the Gentiles were always intended to be part of their Abrahamic family, that the promise to Abraham was never meant to be via his blood, but via God’s promise and sealed through Abraham’s faith. Also, he shows that the physical, genetic offspring of Abraham was disobedient to God and  that only a small remnant would actually be saved.  Paul shows the Old Testament verses that clearly prove that Gentiles were always part of God’s plans.  These verses proved that more than just the genetic bloodline from Abraham needed to be included in the promise of God in order to fulfill the prophecy of ‘as many as the number of stars’ as his children.

Further, Paul brings up the pot analogy in order to tell the Roman Christians to be patient with the return of Christ. He proposes the idea that perhaps God is waiting this long, and is being this patient with the non-believers (‘pots meant for destruction’) in order ‘to make the riches of his glory known’ to the Christians (his special pots).

22 What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? 23 What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— 24 even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?

In other words, God is displaying his majesty, love, patience, and other wonderful characteristics by being patient with the unsaved so that we, his saved Children can witness it.   We are to watch and to learn from God’s example toward them.

I don’t believe Romans 9 was ever written to divide mankind into two kinds of pots,  but rather, to help us understand God’s infinite love for ALL his pots- even those who are ‘destined’ for the fire. Even for those, he has great patience.  This is in accordance with 2 Peter 3:9

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

Perhaps, just perhaps, he has given them a way to become a special pot too. He is God, after all, is he not? Didn’t Paul tell us not to question him? Can he not harden or soften hearts as He sees fit? Can He not have mercy on whomever He sees fit? Remember when Jesus told his Apostles that it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven? We all know that, in fact, it is impossible for this to happen- and yet, rich men like King David, King Solomon, Job and others of God’s favorites surely went to heaven. God makes ways for whom he wishes. So. We should simply sit in faith and be content to be his special pots.

Later in Romans, Paul exhorts for us to open our mouths and tell the Good News to the World.  That is our job. Let God worry about the pots meant for destruction. Our job is to speak the Word!    Maybe, if we do our jobs, tell them the Good News, get enough of us together to pray genuinely for someone’s soul, perhaps our loving Father will look down and have mercy on one of these ‘pots meant for destruction’.  Perhaps he will soften their hearts so that they can receive the Good Seed and be saved after all- just for love of us- because we love Him enough to obey him like this.  This is the miracle of God’s grace. Such is the glory & mercy of our God.

I think some people try to put too many words into God’s mouth that were not meant to be there.  This is why I truly detest denominational Doctrine books.  They attempt to translate the Bible into human language, which always ruins the message.  The Bible is a miracle.  One can study it, but can never translate it into human language and call it ‘right’.  Let’s just leave it at that, shall we?


  1. Just as God knew the direction Pharoah would choose, he being omnipotent and omniscient knows the choices we all will make. Both Exodus and Romans show it. They show how infinitely patient with us God is even knowing what path we will choose He is still giving us the chance to use our free will to believe Him and do as He commands.

  2. As we read exodus we see Pharoah had free will but hardened his own heart every time God sent and removed a plague refusing to believe God and do His will. When God says He hardened Pharoah’s heart He didn’t take away his free will but kept giving him chance after chance knowing Pharoah’s heart and that he would continue in his stubbornness.

    • I don’t think so, Jeff. I know people tell themselves this- but the Word is startlingly clear- GOD hardened pharoh’s heart. And when you read Paul’s narrative, that is exactly the point he is making as well. This makes many Christians unhappy because it looks like God is mean and unfair- which Paul addresses in verse 19. His response? “Who are you to question God?” It’s really that simple. I like it. God really is God. He does what he wants. I have no problem with it. I like it that way.

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