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Romans 9:14-24 (ESV):

14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

Can the 'vessels of wrath' exercise free will and turn the tables? Or are they irrevocably pre-determined to receive God's wrath?


Related: Why would God create vessels of wrath prepared for destruction (Romans 9:21-22) if He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11)?

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    I wish I had $1 for every bucket of ink wasted discussing this passage over the centuries since Paul!!
    – Dottard
    Jan 12, 2021 at 0:38
  • There is a nice discussion of this in amazon.com/Being-Theologian-Cross-Reflections-Disputation/dp/…
    – Robert
    Jan 12, 2021 at 0:40
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    The vessels of mercy were 'prepared beforehand'. The vessels of wrath are prepared, by their own behaviour. There is no 'beforehand' with the latter. You are assuming that there is.
    – Nigel J
    Jan 12, 2021 at 15:50
  • @NigelJ - would you be willing to elaborate on this idea in an answer? Jan 12, 2021 at 16:31
  • 1
    @SpiritRealmInvestigator Yes, I have done so. And I have up-voted your question (+1).
    – Nigel J
    Jan 12, 2021 at 17:26

5 Answers 5

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Yes, they do have free will. In Romans 9-11 Paul is not teaching determinism; he is countering the deterministic views of his opponents.



Paul's Titanic Chiasmus

Romans 9-11 is a massive, chiastic argument, centered around the topic raised in Romans 9:3-5, and debated among the Roman Christians of the time:

  • Are those physically born into Israel pre-determined to be heirs of God's covenants?
  • Is everyone else ineligible?

Paul's response is a resounding "no!", but he develops this argument over 3 chapters, not 3 verses.

The center (most important part) of this chiasmus is in chapter 10:

12 For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him.

13 For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.

Note that the emphasis in verse 13 is on the whosoever, not the call. The point is not to outline a checklist entitled "steps to salvation", but to clearly establish that God's covenant of grace--which Paul has spent much of this epistle outlining--is available to everyone.

--

Allegory of the Olive Tree

The critical verses highlighted in the OP are chiastically paired with the allegory of the olive tree in Romans 11. I review the development of Paul's argument in more detail in this post. I'll offer a more concise summary here.

I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.

The first sentence is a quotation of Exodus 33, which shows that God's decision to extend mercy (or judgement) is not arbitrary. The latter sentence builds on Paul's arguments from Moses & Jacob in the previous verses: you can't earn God's mercy. Moses & Jacob didn't earn God's mercy. But God, who knows people from the beginning (see Jer. 1:5) and knows the heart (see 1 Sam. 16:7), gave them what they could never earn, and in so doing created a covenant with them.

Paul spent the last few chapters explaining that salvation came through Christ, not through strict, unwavering obedience to the Law of Moses. Paul teaches that God's people are not under the Law of Moses; they are under grace.

Grace, in Paul's world, did not mean a handout. Grace was a gift that was given through covenant or treaty: there were expectations of the recipient (see further discussion in my videos here & here). Moses & Jacob were recipients of God's covenants. God's covenants were extended to ancient Israel (though not all chose to accept/keep these covenants). Paul's glorious message is that even though you too cannot earn it, you cannot attain it through human will & exertion, God extends His covenants to you as well! A portion of Paul's audience thinks they are better than their peers--he's telling them they are not.

Paul illustrates this reality in chapter 11, through the allegory of the olive tree (natural branches = physical Israel, wild branches = those adopted in). Those of physical Israel who are unbelieving are cut off from the olive tree, and no longer receive the "richness" of its roots (see vss. 17,20). Those who, though not of physical Israel, endure/persist/continue (ἐπιμένῃς, v22) and stand by faith (v20) are grafted into the tree and receive the richness of its roots.

Paul quickly warns, however, that those who were grafted in can still be cut off if they are prideful (v20), and those who have been cut off can still be rescued and returned to the tree if they turn from their unbelief (v23).

This is a decidedly non-deterministic theology. Paul does not dispute the Israelite claim to have been foreordained by God to be born into Israel--but he shows them, from their own prophets, history, and parables--that being born into Israel is not enough. One can gain access to God's covenants through faithfulness, and one can lose access through unfaithfulness. Although the Israelites received these opportunities first, they did not receive them exclusively: everyone, regardless of their family "tree" of origin, can be grafted in to be full heirs (see Romans 8:14-17).

--

Vessels of Wrath

The critical verb here, κατηρτισμένα (having been completely fitted, prepared), is not in active voice. God, the subject of the sentence, is not doing the action. Here Paul explains the clay analogy from the prior verse: God gives life to & sustains His creations--even the wicked ones--and permits them to pursue their chosen course.

The unfaithful prepare themselves for destruction. By not immediately squashing the clay and starting over, God is in fact merciful: He endures, He puts up with them, He grants them a time and a space to repent. It is when they are completely fitted/prepared for destruction--by their own agency--that God metes out destruction. This too is demonstrated on the opposite side of the chiasmus--even the branches that have been cut off can be restored if they turn from their unfaithfulness. God will show His power, mete out justice, and use it as a teaching moment for future generations, but He reserves destruction until people are "fully ripe" in iniquity.

--

Conclusion

The vessels of wrath do have free will, and they are using it poorly--fitting themselves to receive justice from God.

When Paul's argument is considered in its entirety, rather than severed into isolated pieces, it is clear that Paul is responding to determinism, not teaching it. Those who are willing to be led by the Spirit and remain faithful may receive all of the promises of Abraham, regardless of their physical lineage.

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    "It is when they are completely fitted/prepared for destruction--by their own agency--that God metes out destruction." Wow! This makes so much sense! Excellent answer HTTR. +1 :)
    – Rajesh
    May 14 at 4:30
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There are two categories mentioned in Romans 9:23 and 24.

    1. the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: [Romans 9:22 KJV]
    1. the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory, [Romans 9:23 KJV]

'Fitted' is κατηρτισμενα and the fitting is εις, unto. BAGL (1) states the verb is acc. pl. neut. part. perf. pass. I would draw attention to the fact that it is plural, neuter and passive.

A plural, neuter and passive situation fitted the vessels, made them fit, readied them in advance, unto - a forward-looking preposition - destruction.

I suggest that the plural, neuter agency is a matter of corporate behaviour. Neuter, because the persons (themselves) are not in view but their deeds. Passive, because, once committed, the deeds (or rather the consequences of the deeds) will carry them, passively forward, unto the situation ahead.

'Afore prepared' is προητοιμασεν and again it is unto. BAGL says that this is third person, sing, aor 1, ind. A singular agency is in view. The prefix emphasises a prior preparation. The activity is that of the agent.

I suggest that this is the Divine initiative.

The Divine will was expressed in a previous preparation of vessels upon whom mercy would be demonstrated.

Human will is expressed by the corporate activity of those whose behaviour carried them forwards to an inevitable consequence.


If the persons in the second category boast of their 'liberty' and their 'free will' then they blame themselves for their future destruction. They freely confess that they had liberty and freedom to do as they pleased.

If the persons in the second category admit that they have no liberty, no freedom, only bondage, then they admit that humanity is in a desperate plight, see Romans chapter seven, for example. And this desperate plight is exactly what the gospel describes and is exactly the plight of those whom Jesus Christ came to save.

So it seems to me that those who assert their 'liberty' and their 'free-will' are those who, inevitably, fall into destruction.

Those who cry out, as Paul does "O wretched man that I am : Who shall deliver me !" will, inevitably, be shown mercy.

And that conclusion should answer the question.


(1) BDAG = Bagster's Analytical Greek Lexicon.

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  • So, is it a correct interpretation of your answer that the answer to the OP's question is, in short, "No, the vessels of wrath have no libertarian free will"? Jan 13, 2021 at 2:25
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator If you think that is logical, then I would say that you might well be correct.
    – Nigel J
    Jan 13, 2021 at 5:16
  • @NigelJ Socrates, at that time a judge, objected to the government of the 30 tyrants to summon their political enemy, Leo, to a trial. He chose death, rather than have judiciary system used for vengeance through him being a judge. Next judge summoned Leo, choosing his own life at expense of ruining an innocent life through fraudulent judging. Christ will esteem Socrates freely chosen courageous act, and the choice of cowardice of the next judge will be put to shame in eternity (cf. Romans 1:15-16). Free will exists and it accounts for eternal destiny of both Christians and non-Christians. Jan 13, 2021 at 12:17
  • @LevanGigineishvili - I posted the following question on Philosophy.SE, which you guys might find interesting: Is libertarian free will a necessary condition for moral responsibility?. Beware of redirections (the question is now considered a duplicate of another one). Jan 13, 2021 at 13:47
  • @Spirit Realm Investigator Why to ask self evident questions? No free will, no responsibility, and 2+2=4, both in philosophy (unless one follows wrongheaded determinists) and theology, both being the same. Jan 13, 2021 at 14:49
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This isn't the conclusion I'd reach from a wider biblical basis, but hermeneutically this passage is an open-and-shut case to me. The authorial intent is as clear as can possibly be:

So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. (v16)

So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (v18)

The author of Romans is absolutely unambiguous that they view these things as originating purely from God, and not from man. In this passage, they state in no unclear terms how they expect recipients to receive this message:

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” (v19)

And in response, they don't go on to challenge this conclusion, but rather to defend it:

But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” (v20)

Arguments for libertarian free will may be made from other scriptural passages, but here the author goes to such extreme lengths to disambiguate their teaching that (in my view) invoking any other passages to change the plain meaning of this text would be a disservice to its author.

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  • So, are you saying that there are other scriptural passages that do support libertarian free will, and that Romans 9 is in contradiction to them? If so, that would be material for a great contradiction question Jan 12, 2021 at 12:52
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator - yes, whilst I personally believe that scripture itself as a whole has an inspired unity of teaching, the authors themselves don't agree on every single issue all the way through. Unfortunately on questions around the degree of God's enforcement of his sovereignty, it's a bit above our pay grade as mortals. I'm comfortable enough that we just don't know for sure, and I don't expect all the authors to agree perfectly on it, so it's not really a question I'm interested in asking.
    – Steve Taylor
    Jan 12, 2021 at 13:06
  • @SteveTaylor So you think Paul is wrong, then, in Romans 9:14-24, but not wrong in some other places. Have I understood your answer and comment correctly ?
    – Nigel J
    Jan 12, 2021 at 15:47
  • @NigelJ - I don't think that I'd go as far as to say 'wrong', as I do recognise the authority to teach that Paul was given as an Apostle to the gentiles (aka me). What I would say is that Paul's theology of agency is at odds with that of other biblical authors and doesn't fit well with the approaches to agency outlined in other books, particularly among the Prophets. I lean with the broader weight of scripture, allowing the texts and authors to disagree where they do, and expecting that disagreement to reveal something of God along the way. It's all the way it's meant to be.
    – Steve Taylor
    Jan 13, 2021 at 12:31
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Unless they have the free will, and henceforth the real opportunity not to do iniquity, then it is unjust for God to punish them. Period.

In fact, for what misdeeds does God punish men?(I speak now from a profane perspective, for God does punish nobody, for all are punished already by their own sins for sins alienate us from God and what can be a greater punishment than alienation from God? If God will augment this punishment by some additional sadistic torment from outside, such a God, or rather, "god", would indeed have a very vulgar taste.); but, again to return to the profanely asked question: for what does God punish men? Of course first of all for unmercifulness and iniquity, because we read that Jesus Christ will say to those who smugly think that paradise is guaranteed for them: "I was hungry, and you did not feed Me; I was thirsty, and you gave Me no water; go to hell now, you all, who behaved so unmercifully". But if there is no free will, then at those words of Jesus a committed Calvinist will just smile and say: "But, actually, dear Lord, it is you who has to go to hell, by the way!" And Jesus, bewildered, will ask: "Me? In hell? It is oxymoron!, How dare you?" And the Calvinist will chuckle: "Very neatly: for did not You yourself make me a vessel of wrath, which means that I could not not behave as I have behaved, that is to say, I could not do mercy to those people!" "So?" "And so, since You are the cause for my not doing those merciful deeds, then You are also the cause of my mercilessness, and therefore the primary culprit for that! Thus, as the primary culprit and the principal cause of my unmercifulness, it is You who are to go to hell, aren't You?" "In fact, your logic works, but then it turns that you are a victim of My whim and thus My guilt is not only the unmercifulness, but that I have doomed poor you to become an instrument of it!" "Yes, dear Lord, yes! That's my point!" "Ok, I go to hell then, but I do not know what to do with you, for you haven't done any good things and paradise thus is not for you!" Calvinist, beaming even brighter: "I will help You! In fact, those having done good deeds, who are now in paradise, they also should not be there!" "What? You mean, Abraham?" "Yes, him also!" "And Isaak?" "Isaak too!""But, why?" "Because, their good deeds is not their merit, but Your singular merit, You made them to commit them, so only You deserve paradise, whereas both they and me should stay out of paradise, but also out of hell!" "Thus, as I see, we arrive at a paradoxical situation, an impasse, in fact: I, as the principal cause of both mercifulness and the mercilessness should go both to hell and paradise simultaneously, whereas all of the people, both merciful and merciless, should go to somewhere that is neither hell nor paradise! Wow!" "Indeed, wow! But since You now see, o Lord, that You must construct for us all a neither-hell-nor-paradise place, make sure to make it comfortable, at least 5-star hotel level in earthly terms, with sauna and wellness centre" etc etc.

I don't know how far this absurd talk would go, you can phantasise at will, but just to cut it short, let us simply assert that there is free will and responsibility for both attaining paradise or falling short of it on the part of all humans.

Paul is not Augustine in the latter's sorry extremes against Pelagius, or Kalvin, who followed this extreme Augustine in such a callous logical consistency that sacrificed the very merciful God to this logic! Paul's mentioned passage, comparing God to a potter and men to pots of either wrath or mercy, with no possibility on their part to change anything, is heavily contextual (I do not go into explaining it, but of course I can, for I will not leave probably the most genial an influential apostle to the calumny of being as unsound as to introduce a capricious god hypnotising hapless humans volens nolens to be vessels of his wrath), for even in Romans Paul is emphatic that humans are responsible for their destiny, see Romans 2:6 ("[God] who will give to each according to his deeds") for just one example out of many, to say nothing about other epistles of Paul, in which this point is no less emphatic!

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  • Romans 2:6 who will give/apodo, give back. 1 Peter 4:5 When we give back an account of our lives we admit to God what He first gave us. [?]
    – C. Stroud
    May 9 at 16:37
  • @C.Stroud Yes, God gives us, but we should increase the given talents by our efforts; unless we do so, talent will not increase automatically; the unincreased, the buried talent in us is evoking God’s wrath on us, “hell” is nothing else than the unincreased, buried talent in us, for we suffer at a vision of our betrayal of God’s mission on us. May 9 at 16:42
  • "our efforts" as an outworking of God in us, or, "our efforts" because we are only 99% fallen and can exercise the 1% independently of God?
    – C. Stroud
    May 9 at 16:54
  • @C.Stroud Despite falledness some health still remains in our natures and that's why all nations - Jews, non-Jews - possess understanding of what is right and what is wrong and can choose between. Augustine in fight against Pelagian heresy arrived at expressions that became a fundament for Jan Kalvin's entire heretical theology of capricious God who at His capricious will saves some and does not save the others. A blatant lunacy May 9 at 17:24
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If I had a computer which had free will and I asked it five times what was 5+6, suppose the fifth time it got 11 by chance for the first time, would that be to the credit of the computer? No, it would be the correct answer but if it was arrived at free of logic, free of cause and effect or anything else that might make it sensible, it would be random; meaningless. On Philosophy Stack I ask "What is free will free of?"

I put this first paragraph to try and show that if we are going to talk about Libertarian free will, LFW, we need to have some definitions. The following definitions are just starting points which someone may disagree with, that's fine, but one has to start somewhere and I don't think L. Boettner, Sam Harris and some other writers would want to disagree with them:

For this answer to try and understand what LFW might mean, I start off by defining it as meaning that all human actions originate in the will and choices of man.

For this answer I define "Hard Determinism" HD as meaning that God determines all human actions.

For this answer I define "Compatibilism" as meaning that both LFW and HD are in the Bible and so Christians need to believe in both, even though LFW and HD are saying exactly the opposite to each other.

Luke 22:22

"For the the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!" ESV

If Judas, Pilate, some Roman soldiers and others had their actions determined by God then LFW does not explain all human actions. Acts 4: 28 "predestined" and 17:26 "determined" are also examples of God determining human events and actions.

If Judas' actions were ultimately determined by God and not by Judas, then the definition of LFW which I started with does not work. If LFW fails this definition then we either need a different definition, or, LFW cannot accommodate a clear theme in the Bible, which is God determining.

If LFW cannot accept God determining then it becomes a chimera, a "philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ". Colossians 2:8.

To see whether "vessels of wrath" can or cannot exercise free will and turn the tables is to look at compatibilism, where God's determining and man's free will coexist.

They do not coexist in Libertarian Free Will. In LFW man's choices are alpha and omega of human behaviour not as a Bible truth but as an empty deceit.

I suggest this conclusion is the only logical outcome of the definitions I started with. But I just took them as starting points and not fixed points which cannot be improved on.

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