A response to John MacArthur regarding Romans 9:22 – “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction”

John MacArthur responds to a question regarding Romans 9:22 entitled “How do we understand Romans 9:22, ‘vessels of wrath prepared for destruction’?” on the website, “Grace to You” (http://www.gty.org).  A link to the full question and response article can be found at http://www.gty.org/resources/questions/QA183/how-do-we-understand-romans-922-vessels-of-wrath-prepared-for-destruction.

I believe that MacArthur wrongly suggests that Romans 9:22 shows that God “actively” elects individuals to Heaven but “passively” elects others to Hell.  The only possible explanation for this conclusion is to read into, or eisegetical interpretation of the verses instead of an exegetical one.

My concern is that, this kind of interpretation of Romans 9:22, falsely portrays God in the Calvinistic view as “having nothing to do with predestining the elect to Hell” because He “passes over the non elect”. The truth is, if God makes all from one lump of clay, and elects some to Heaven, He must then, by necessity, elect the rest to Hell.

In the following paragraphs, I will interject my responses to John MacArthur’s response to the question regarding Romans 9:22. You will see John MacArthur’s written statement that can be verified using the link above and you will see my responses in italics. I will show how John MacArthur is wrong in his attempt to explain away God’s responsibility in electing those to Hell by privately misinterpreting the text.

John Mac Arthur,

How do we understand Romans 9:22, “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction”?

Question: The Bible speaks of vessels of mercy and vessels of destruction, which God specifically made for His purpose (Romans 9:21-23). Does that mean people like Judas were made by God for destruction?

Here is the question John MacArthur received to cause his written reply. To the person who asked the question, I would say that we won’t find the answer to Judas in a passage that does not deal with him directly; but, it is a fair question and remains a problem for all Calvinists in spite of their great efforts to place responsibility on Judas in a Calvinist Christian worldview.

John: That’s a very provocative question and of course you get ultimately into whole area of God’s sovereignty, but let me show you something most interesting about Romans 9:21.

MacArthur replies by saying it is a provocative question and gets into Gods sovereignty, and then says he is going to show us something about Romans 9:21.  So I am expecting a grammatical exegetical response, but we see it is pure eisegesis.

John: Paul is saying here that God is sovereign. Paul is clearly saying that, there is no other message here. Verse 18, “He has mercy on whom He will have mercy, and whom He will He hardens.” The argument comes, “Well it doesn’t seem fair,” and in verse 21 Paul says, “Hath not the potter power over the clay; of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor and another unto dishonor?” The potter can make a vessel any way he wants. He’s the potter and the vessel is simply clay.

MacArthur does three things here:

  1. He reiterates that Romans 9 is about God’s sovereignty and implies that God can make the vessels any way he wants…
  2. He recognizes a valid question that people often ask in response: “How is this fair”?
  3. He responds with the common answer that Calvinists give: “Who are you to ask”?

Before we move on, let me give you the true exegesis for Romans 9:21.

Romans 9:21 NKJV says: “Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?”

We see that there is no distinction in which God is making the vessels.  In fact from this verse, we see that God, by His power, makes both vessels the same way – from the same lump of clay.

In verse 21, the word “make” is poieo.  It is aorist, active, infinitive and means the author of, to cause, to prepare, to fashion for. This indicates that, grammatically and exegetically, both vessels are made the same way and with the same power – God’s.

From this verse, Calvinists would argue that God has irresistibly and unconditionally elected man to salvation. I would argue that it is then by necessity, that God has elected the reprobate the same way considering that in the same verse – 21, God, being the potter, uses the same lump, the same clay and the word make (poieo) is in the same tense.

Both vessels are made the same way.  So, if one vessel from this lump is irresistibly and unconditionally elected to salvation, it also means that the other vessels from this same lump are irresistibly and unconditionally reprobated.

This makes for the Calvinist, Romans 9 an “equal ultimacy” exegetically.

Now let’s continue in MacArthur’s article and see that he does something amazing in verse 22 and 23 which I will argue is pure eisegesis.

We see that Romans 9:21 clearly states that God has power to make one vessel for honor and the other for dishonor; and, in fact He does.  However, MacArthur is going to attempt to deemphasize God’s position or involvement on the part of those created for dishonor by stressing that verse 22 indicates a passive voice.  This is called “equivocation” or deception.  Notice, MacArthur first argues that God has the power to do whatever He wants – which includes making vessels for dishonor; but, then misleads by stating that vessels made for dishonor is somehow done differently.

John: But I want you to notice what happens in verse twenty-two. “What if God, willing to show His wrath, and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction; And that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had before prepared unto glory,”

Now I don’t want to get too deep and I just want to give you one or two thoughts. Notice, there are vessels of wrath, at the end of verse 22, fitted to destruction. In verse 23, vessels of mercy which He had prepared to glory. Now in the Greek you have two serious distinctions here in the Greek tense and you must recognize them. I should say in the Greek voice which is similar to English. You realize the difference between active and passive? In active, the subject does the acting and in passive the subject receives the action. Now notice, verse 22 is a passive, vessels of wrath fitted to destruction. God is not the subject. The verb is passive. Verse 23, vessels of mercy which He had prepared to glory. God, there, is the subject and the verb is active.

The private interpretation in verses 22 and 23 from John MacArthur are just not true! There is a great responsibility for someone like MacArthur to be honest about this text.

MacArthur here now is trying to insert into the text the reason that he thinks God is not so bad in His election to reprobation.  He states that he does not “want to get too deep”.  But I ask for MacArthur to get deep if this is how he believes Romans 9:22 is exegeted. 

First of all, MacArthur states that there are two serious distinctions in verse 22. This is a conflict with verse 21 which clearly shows that there is no distinction in the power that God shows on both vessels. 

Keep this in mind as we move forward: Any power God demonstrates or any fitting God does, is so fixed and determined by God that there is no possible outcome for the vessel of either kind to turn out otherwise. 

So, for any theologian to postulate some kind of “pulling back” by God is false teaching in Calvinistic determinism (how God knows).  God knows in such a way that no grammatical private interpretation of verses 22 and 23 can escape the fixed positions of all vessels in Romans 9.

It is possible, however, for the next verse to clear up the context; but, it does not as MacArthur claims.  In fact, it remains grammatically consistent with verses 21 and 22 which teach that God gives mercy and reprobates the same way.

Now, MacArthur argues there is a distinction between the way God acts on the two aforementioned vessels.  I disagree and so does scripture!

Romans 9:22-23 NKJV: “What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory”

John MacArthur is wrong in his use of the Greek in Romans 9:22. 

In verse 22, “…the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction…”, we see the tense and voice. The Strong’s and the Complete Word Study Bible shows that the word “fitted” or “prepared” is “katartizo” and is in the perfect passive.

The perfect tense in Greek corresponds to the perfect tense in English, and describes an action which is viewed as having been completed in the past, once and for all, not needing to be repeated.  The passive voice represents the subject as being the recipient of the action. E.g., in the sentence, “The boy was hit by the ball,” the boy receives the action.

So, when Calvinists use Romans 9 to support individual election, God has also unconditionally reprobated man in the past not passively but causally and actively.

The passive verb does not mean the necessary cause, God in this case, acted passively, it merely denotes the causer as emphasized before or after the action of the verb, but is still the active cause.

MacArthur wrote this: “You realize the difference between active and passive? In active, the subject does the acting and in passive the subject receives the action.”

This is only half true.  The part of the verse that says “the vessels prepared for destruction” denotes that the “fitted” are the recipients of the action; but, at the beginning of the verse, the text demonstrates who is the cause of the action three times!

The beginning of verse 22 indicates that God is the Active cause:

  1. “What if God
  2. ”wanting to show His wrath)
  3. “to make His power known

Three times, the verse tells us Who the cause of the action is as it relates to “the vessels prepared for destruction” – God.  So, to infer that God is not the active cause upon the “vessels prepared for destruction”, is a complete distortion of the text.

Since the verse tells us who the active and necessary causal being is, it is unnecessary to reiterate who the active cause is for the sake of redundancy; thus, the passive is used.  It merely denotes that “the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” as being the recipients of the action caused by the necessary causal being.

Given this, if Calvinism and individual election is the context, God is the active cause of the vessels prepared for destruction.  This sounds to me like the passage is teaching “positive, positive double-predestination”; and therefore, in Romans 9, God in Calvinism, has reprobated man unconditionally and irresistibly.

It could be said that a pastor teaching about this verse, meaning that the passive voice means God is acting passively has so bought into the “universal determinism” philosophy. That is maybe being dishonest.

John: Listen, God says I prepare vessels for glory, but vessels are prepared for destruction. And what is happening there in the Greek tense, is God is taking one step away from the responsibility of preparing a person from His creative act for hell. God doesn’t take that responsibility. He says there are vessels that have been prepared for destruction…….

I am going to cut into this paragraph and comment before the rest because the remainder of the paragraph does not give any more insight into the discussion of Romans 9 which is my focus.

MacArthur sums this all up by stating that there is some kind of disconnect between the ways vessels are prepared…  MacArthur writes: “Listen, God says I prepare vessels for glory, but vessels are prepared for destruction”.

Now here is how you make a private interpretation:  just cut up the two verses of Romans 9:22 and 23 and put them together to make an entirely different meaning.  To make the passage say God is taking one step away from the responsibility, you must cut up that actual text.

The verses are clear, that the vessels of wrath were prepared for destruction.

I also want to ask, in regards to the vessels of wrath that God passively destroys: If it were in fact passive then could the vessels of wrath in the sovereign mind of God done otherwise?

In this chapter, God:

  1. Hardens,
  2. Makes
  3. Uses His power
  4. Fits people for destruction

And yet MacArthur says God “is taking one step away of responsibility”? MacArthur implies that God’s responsibility stops just short. Just short of what? God being pure evil?

This is a problem for all Calvinists. They believe that God, by decrees, causes all that comes to pass. Then after God has caused all of the evil in the world, He “pulls back” from taking responsibility for the irresistible evil that He caused and He puts the responsibility on man who could not have done otherwise.

This is just not what Romans 9 teaches. MacArthur has made a private interpretation of verse 22 in stating that God has “pulled back”.  This is not the true grammar of the verse.

John: ……And if you study the Bible very carefully you will see that every where in Scripture the responsibility for such preparation lies right in the very heart of the man who goes to hell. Is that right? Jesus said, “You will not come to me, that you might have life.” At the end of the Book of Revelation He says, “Come, and let him that is athirst come.” And so God says, I fit for glory, but vessels are fitted for destruction. Judas was not created by God to occupy hell.

Another reason I know that is that hell was never even made for human beings. It was made for the devil and his angels. Judas went there because Judas chose to betray Christ, chose to reject the truth, chose to pay a sad, sad price.

Finally, MacArthur plays the “falsidical paradox”!

The last response by MacArthur is actually an Arminian one or non Calvinist.  The Calvinists try to play “two sides of the coin” so to speak.  It is double speak to create a paradox that actually has you believe it is good to join them.  But don’t.  This is called a contradiction.  It is a change of sides.  When you push a Calvinist to the hard questions they usually go to non Calvinist arguments such as:

  • “God acts passively”
  • “God allows evil”
  • “God’s election of permission”, etc…

Since I started studying and reading MacArthur’s teaching and study Bible commentary many years ago, I’ve noticed that there seems to be a change in the Christian world view as well.  Calvinism is becoming more and more popular amongst Christians.  Therefore, John MacArthur is becoming more and more aggressive in his Calvinism and his outreach to those outside of this camp.

All articles are property of “Reasons to Defend”, Grace Bible Fellowship Norwalk and Steve Tassi.

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