For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.” So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory.
No Jew would object to the just basis for God to harden Pharaoh. However, Paul was using this illustration to set up God’s just basis for hardening the unbelieving Jews, with regarding to God’s Stumbling Stone, the Messiah, who will not come in a manner consistent with their expectations, who otherwise sought to establish their own righteousness, rather than to trust in God for His righteousness.
Calvinist, Erwin Lutzer: “The potter has power over the clay to make on vessel unto honor and another to dishonor. God’s purposes in salvation history are being fulfilled.” (The Doctrines That Divide, p.214, emphasis mine)
Calvinist, James White: “God is indeed saying that He will mercy some and harden others. This is the unquestionable teaching of Romans 9:18.” (Debating Calvinism, p.351, emphasis mine)
Again, this is part of an overall dialogue with the Jews, in terms of why the failure of an unconditional predestination of God’s blessings to all physical descendants of Abraham, was not a failure of Scripture, but a failure to properly understand who the Scriptures say that God would bless, namely, those of the faith of Abraham, who was counted a “friend of God.” Here, Paul demonstrates the Potter principles, which, as we see in the quote of Jacob and Esau coming from Malachi 1:1-5, this quote comes from Jeremiah 18:1-13.
Question: In this context, who are the ones who receive God’s “mercy”?
Answer: The believing Gentiles.
Question: In this context, who are the ones whom God “hardens”?
Answer: The unbelieving Jews.
Romans 11:7: “What then? What Israel is seeking, it has not obtained, but those who were chosen obtained it, and the rest were hardened.”
Romans 11:25: “For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery--so that you will not be wise in your own estimation--that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.”
Romans 9:30-33: “What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith; but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone, just as it is written, ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, and He who believes in Him will not be disappointed.’”
Romans 15:9: “And for the Gentiles to glorify God for His mercy; as it is written, ‘Therefore I will give praise to You among the Gentiles, and I will sing to Your name.’”
Isaiah 45:9: “Woe to the one who quarrels with his Maker—an earthenware vessel among the vessels of earth! Will the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you doing?’ Or the thing you are making say, ‘He has no hands’”?
Jeremiah 18:1-13: “The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD saying, ‘Arise and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will announce My words to you.’ Then I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was, making something on the wheel. But the vessel that he was making of clay was spoiled in the hand of the potter; so he remade it into another vessel, as it pleased the potter to make. Then the word of the LORD came to me saying, ‘Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does?’ declares the LORD. ‘Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it. Or at another moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to build up or to plant it; if it does evil in My sight by not obeying My voice, then I will think better of the good with which I had promised to bless it. So now then, speak to the men of Judah and against the inhabitants of Jerusalem saying, “Thus says the LORD, ‘Behold, I am fashioning calamity against you and devising a plan against you. Oh turn back, each of you from his evil way, and reform your ways and your deeds.’” But they will say, “It’s hopeless! For we are going to follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart.” Therefore thus says the LORD, “Ask now among the nations, who ever heard the like of this? The virgin of Israel has done a most appalling thing.”’”
Jeremiah 18:1-13 reveals the conditional nature of the molding of God the Potter. If we repent, He will relent. If we forsake Him, He will fashion us accordingly. God asks: “Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does? Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel.” The men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem are the clay in God’s hand and He has declared that He is “fashioning” calamity and devising a plan against them. But God said that He would “relent” this fashioning if they would meet what condition? Answer: Repentance, if they “turn back, each of you from his evil way, and reform your ways and your deeds.” The basis upon which God, the Potter, remakes spoiled vessels is repentance, and He is “willing” (Matthew 23:37) that “all” come to repentance. (2nd Peter 3:9) Remember that God created man “very good” (Genesis 1:31), but because of sin, we have spoiled in His hand and have become vessels of “wrath.” (Ephesians 2:3) Yet, God “the Potter” mercifully remakes us into “another vessel,” as it “pleased” Him to “make,” which for some is “honorable use,” and some for “common use.” (Romans 9:21) Paul writes: “If anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work.” (2nd Timothy 2:21) Pharaoh would be an example of the vessel that was “remade” for “common use,” that is, a human garbage can. For God, as the Potter, to do this, we know two things: He has the sovereign jurisdiction and a righteous basis for what He decides: “He will be proved right in what he says, and he will win his case in court.” (Romans 3:4, NLT) “If God is not just, how is he qualified to judge the world?” (Romans 3:6, NLT) Therefore, if Pharaoh is molded for common use, we can rest assure that justice was administered.
John Calvin: “We are accordingly to take two points into consideration here, first, Pharaoh’s predestination to destruction, which refers to the just but secret counsel of God, and second, the purpose of this predestination, which is to proclaim the name of God.” (Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: Romans and Thessalonians, p.206, emphasis mine)
John Calvin: “At this point in particular the flesh rages when it hears that the predestination to death of those who perish is referred to the will of God.” (Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: Romans and Thessalonians, p.208, emphasis mine)
John Calvin: “Since many interpreters also destroy the meaning of this passage in attempting to minimize its harshness, we must note first that in Hebrew the expression I did raise is I have appointed thee.” (Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: Romans and Thessalonians, p.206, emphasis mine)
Question: Does God make men from birth into predestined, wicked vessels?
Answer: No one can say that God made them wicked. As children of wrath, by nature, men make themselves wicked. What God does is to take people and mold them for a purpose, based upon what they do in relation to Him, as per Jeremiah 18:1-13.
Question: What is meant by the “same lump”?
Answer: In context, the “same lump” would be Abraham, or the Jewish nation as a whole.
Question: To whom does God show “mercy” and to whom does He “harden”?
Answer: God is both free and pleased to show mercy upon the believing Gentiles, while rejecting the unbelieving Jews: “God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.” (1st Corinthians 1:21) God hardened unbelieving Israel via the Stumbling Stone (Isaiah 6:9-10), which clearly was not His preference, as per Jeremiah 18:1-14. God’s sovereign prerogative to have mercy upon whomever He will, and however He will, and the ‘whomever He will’ in this context are the believing Gentiles, and ‘however He will’ is by Abrahamic faith.
Question: Without Free Will, what does God endure with “much patience”? (Romans 9:22)
Answer: Here is what God is being patient about: “Thus says the LORD, ‘Behold, I am fashioning calamity against you and devising a plan against you. Oh turn back, each of you from his evil way, and reform your ways and your deeds.’” (Jeremiah 18:11) By nature, we are all “children of wrath.” (Ephesians 2:3) Yet God is longsuffering and patient with us: “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.”
Adrian Rogers: “The Bible says that God is molding these, that He is longsuffering with them. Look if you will in this passage of Scripture here. Look in verse 22, ‘What if God, willing to show His wrath and make His power known, endured with much longsuffering, the vessels of wrath.’ Here is God working with them. Here is God’s hand on them. A patient, loving, longsuffering God…not an arbitrary God, a longsuffering God.” (Predestined to Hell? Absolutely Not!, Romans 9:1, emphasis mine)
Adrian Rogers: “In Romans 9 Paul reveals that while Israel was His chosen people, God has thrown wide open the doors of heaven to Gentiles as well. He is preparing vessels of glory from every corner of the earth to demonstrate His mercy towards all.” (Foundations For Our Faith, Vol. II, A Study In Romans Chapters 5-9, p.121)
And God is not finished with Israel. Mercy has been shown to the Gentiles, if perhaps, by that mercy, the Jewish people might be incited to jealousy and turn back to the Lord: “I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous.” (Romans 11:11) Free Will is clearly evident there, otherwise how could they become jealous? And if there was no Free Will, for what is God patiently waiting and enduring, as per Romans 9:22?
John Calvin: “God says that Pharaoh had proceeded from Him, and that his character was given to him by God. The words I have raised up suit this interpretation very well.” (Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: Romans and Thessalonians, p.207, emphasis mine)
Question: In what sense had God “raised up” Pharaoh?
Answer: Whereas John Calvin suggests that it is by giving
Pharaoh a certain type of “character,” a better meaning is
found in the example of Pilate. Jesus states: “You would
have no authority over Me, unless it had been given
you from above.” (John 19:11) Therefore, it is reasonable
to conclude that God raised up Pharaoh in the same way
that He raised up Pilate, that is, to power and prominence.
Adrian Rogers: “Pharaoh was the king, the most powerful man upon the face of the earth, and he was raised up to sit upon that throne. Now here it’s not talking about God raising him up from childhood. It’s talking about God raising him up in power and authority. Sometimes we get all upset when we see powerful people in high places who are not doing right. Isn’t that right? Let me tell you something, God is sovereign. ... He says, ‘For this purpose I hath raised thee up, that I might show My power in thee, and that My name might be declared throughout all the earth.’” (Predestined For Hell? Absolutely Not!, Romans 9:1, emphasis mine)
Question: How did God “harden” Pharaoh’s heart?
Answer: By allowing Pharaoh to think that he could withstand God. His magicians were permitted the power to copy the miracles performed by Moses, so each time that he thought that he had stood-up to God, the harder and more resolved his heart became. So it was all about pride.
Calvinist, Erwin Lutzer: “Thus, to harden a man’s heart, God may have to do no more than simply to abandon him to his own desires and lusts.” (The Doctrines That Divide, p.173, emphasis mine)
Or in this case, to abandon someone to their own pride.
Question: Why did God “harden” Pharaoh?
Answer: God answers this Himself: “...that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.” (Romans 9:17) That is thoroughly evangelical, and perfectly consistent with what we find elsewhere in Scripture as being evangelical in nature: “Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God and there is no other.” (Isaiah 45:22) Realize that the Calvinist has to come up with a reason for why God would create a world in a Calvinist sense, that is, by creating some for Heaven and the rest for Hell. Calvinists reason that it’s about God’s sovereignty, and more so, His glory. The Calvinist sees Romans 9:22 and feels justified: “What if God, willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known....” The Calvinist reasons, “See! God created this world to make His power known and to demonstrate His various attributes of wrath and love, ect.” But as we’ve seen from the text, God did not raise up Pharaoh for the purpose of having a vessel upon which to demonstrate an attribute of wrath. Rather, God had the salvation of lost people in mind. God demonstrates His various attributes, sure enough, but not for His benefit, since He is complete as is, and would otherwise have no need to do so, but rather, He demonstrates His various attributes with evangelical intentions, for our benefit, that we would be saved.
Question: Why did Paul feel that God was perfectly just in His dealings with Pharaoh?
Answer: Paul defends God’s verdicts, not only by appealing to His sovereignty, but also by appealing to the just nature of His decisions: “Though everyone else in the world is a liar, God is true. As the Scriptures says, ‘He will be proved right in what he says, and he will win his case in court.’ ‘But,’ some say, ‘our sins serve a good purpose, for people will see God’s goodness when he declares us sinners to be innocent. Isn’t it unfair, then, for God to punish us?’ (That is actually the way some people talk.) Of course not! If God is not just, how is he qualified to judge the world?’ ‘But,’ some might still argue, ‘how can God judge and condemn me as a sinner if my dishonesty highlights his truthfulness and brings him more glory?’ If you follow that kind of thinking, however, you might as well say that the more we sin the better it is! Those who say such things deserve to be condemned, yet some slander me by saying this is what I preach!” (Romans 3:4-8, NLT) Therefore, to Paul, God is qualified to judge on the basis that He is both sovereign and just. Paul asks, “What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!” (Romans 9:14)
Consider the text itself: “‘But I know that the king of Egypt will not permit you to go, except under compulsion. So I will stretch out My hand and strike Egypt with all My miracles which I shall do in the midst of it; and after that he will let you go.’” (Exodus 3:19-20) That sure sounds an awful lot like the Calvinist’s old nemesis, Foreknowledge. Remember that God, as the Potter, has the sovereign jurisdiction to deal with Pharaoh as He sees fit. But it doesn’t end there. It is God’s righteousness that ensures that His verdicts are just. Pharaoh will have no liability case against God on Judgment Day since God did not unjustly harden his heart. Out of his own free will, which God foreknew, Pharaoh was a wicked, hardened and stiff-necked individual, long before God had begun to test him. This is evident in the fact that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Exodus 7:13, 22, 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7) before God hardened it. (Exodus 9:12, 34-35, 10:1, 20, 27, 11:10; 14:8). Consider his guilt and judge for yourself if Pharaoh was a righteous man, wrongly manipulated by God: “So the Egyptians made the Israelites their slaves and put brutal slave drivers over them, hoping to wear them down under heavy burdens. They forced them to build the cities of Pithom and Rameses as supply centers for the king. But the more the Egyptians oppressed them, the more quickly the Israelites multiplied! The Egyptians soon became alarmed and decided to make their slavery more bitter still. They were ruthless with the Israelites, forcing them to make bricks and mortar and to work long hours in the fields.” (Exodus 1:11-14, NLT) This was before the Scriptures reveal that God hardened his heart. The very fact that Moses even lived beyond infancy was itself a miracle since Pharaoh enacted a policy of genocide and male infanticide. (Exodus 1:16, 22) Samuel certainly did not acquit Pharaoh: “‘Why then do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? When He had severely dealt with them, did they not allow the people to go, and they departed?’” (1st Samuel 6:6)
4-Point Calvinist, Ron Rhodes: “Pharaoh hardened his own heart seven times before God first hardened it, though the prediction that God would do it preceded all. The whole of Scripture seems to indicate that God hardens on the same grounds as showing mercy. If men will accept mercy, He will give it to them. If they will not, thus hardening themselves, He is only just and righteous in judging them. Mercy is the effect of a right attitude; hardening is the effect of stubbornness or a wrong attitude toward God. For example, imagine some clay and some wax sitting in the sun. The same sunshine hardens one and softens the other. The responsibility is with the materials, not with the sun.” (Commonly Misunderstood Bible Verses, pp.31-32, emphasis mine)
Adrian Rogers: “Lest we think that God just created Pharaoh, set him on a throne, hardened his heart, and then threw him into hell, we need to read the record carefully. About half of the times in the Exodus account where it refers to Pharaoh’s hardened heart, it says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. The other times it says that God hardened it. Pharaoh’s heart was set against God from the beginning, and God simply ‘gave him over’ (remember Romans 1?) to that which was his persistent desire. In Pharaoh’s case, he was intent on disregarding the word of God, and God simply allowed Pharaoh’s obstinance to run its course. Psalm 18:26 says, ‘With the pure thou wilt shew thyself pure; and with the froward thou wilt shew thyself froward.’ With a froward Pharaoh, God responded in kind.” (Foundations For Our Faith, Vol. II, A Study In Romans Chapters 5-9, pp.119-120, emphasis mine)
Adrian Rogers: “Don’t get the idea that God just raised up Pharaoh to send him to hell. God warned Pharaoh but he wouldn’t take the warning.” (Foundations For Our Faith, Vol. II, A Study In Romans Chapters 5-9, p.120)
Eric Landstrum of The Society of Evangelical Arminians: “Some consider God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart as clear evidence that God predestinates people to reprobation and ultimately, to condemnation. The Arminian view is that Pharaoh, of his own volition, had long set his heart against Israel and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and for His part, God offered Pharaoh five opportunities to honestly repent and live before finally strengthening Pharaoh’s resolve to follow through upon the hardness of heart that Pharaoh harbored against Israel long before God instructed Moses to deliver Israel from the hand of Pharaoh.” (What About Pharaoh? God Hardened Pharaoh’s Heart) Eric Landstrum: “Remember the Abrahamic covenant: ‘I will bless those who bless you, and whosoever curses you I will curse’ (Gen. 12:3). Oppression of Abraham’s children was Egypt’s sin and this oppression placed the nation of Egypt in a hostile relationship with the Lord of Hosts. Pharaoh and Egypt had already hardened their hearts against the children of Abraham long before the story of the Exodus. As a result, Egypt was already due judgment by the time the events of Exodus unfolded.” (What About Pharaoh? God Hardened Pharaoh’s Heart, emphasis mine) Eric Landstrum: “…the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was not to wickedness but with the nerve to follow through the inclinations of his heart that already existed. In other words, after the first five disciplinary plagues where God saw Pharaoh harden his own heart, God then confirmed the path that Pharaoh had chosen and strengthened Pharaoh’s resolve to act on his evil inclinations to further resist God even when prudent self-interest would have mitigated against such unrivaled foolhardiness.” (What About Pharaoh? God Hardened Pharaoh’s Heart, emphasis mine)
Question: How can God genuinely desire the salvation of those whom He hardens?
Answer: There is a point in which God will turn the unrepentant over to a reprobate heart: “Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections.” (Romans 1:24-26, KJV) Another example is Isaiah 6:9-10 as it relates to Matthew 23:37. God had often desired to gather Israel together as a hen gathers its chicks, but Israel was not willing, and therefore God gave them over to a hardened heart. This is why Isaiah warned to, “Seek the LORD while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near.” (Isaiah 55:6)
Arminian, Robert Shank: “...God’s hardening of the heart does nothing in this solemn matter that is not consonant with His earnest appeal ‘Harden not your heart’ (Ps. 95:8, Heb. 3:8).” (Elect in the Son, p.172)
Question: Did God desire the salvation of Pharaoh?
Answer: On the basis of Ezekiel 33:11, we can rule out that God wanted Pharaoh to perish. However, the hardening of Pharaoh was done, not so much for the salvation of Pharaoh, but for the salvation of Israel, and the world, since by this encounter, the fame of God had spread throughout the world. Consider other hardenings, such as with Sennacherib, king of Assyria (2nd Chronicles 19:1-37), and the Canaanite kings: “For it was of the LORD to harden their hearts, to meet Israel in battle in order that he might utterly destroy them, that they might receive no mercy, but that he might destroy them, just as the LORD had commanded Moses.” (Joshua 11:20) How many times did God stir up the pagan nations to war against unrepentant Israel? And yet, what was the purpose, except to stir Israel to repentance. Consider the Babylonians, whom God also raised up: “The LORD replied, ‘Look at the nations and be amazed! Watch and be astounded at what I will do! For I am doing something in your own day, something you wouldn’t believe even if someone told you about it. I am raising up the Babylonians to be a new power on the world scene. They are a cruel and violent nation who will march across the world and conquer it. They are notorious for their cruelty. They do as they like, and no one can stop them.’” (Habakkuk 1:5-7, NLT) So God has the sovereign right to use evil men to accomplish His righteous will, that is, to motivate repentance.
Calvinist, Phil Johnson: “God is not going to be frustrated throughout all eternity because He was desperately trying to save some people who just could not be persuaded. If that’s your view of God, then He’s not really sovereign. Pharaoh fulfilled exactly the purpose God raised him to fulfill. God is not wringing His hands in despair over Pharaoh’s rebellion and disbelief.” (For Whom Did Christ Die? The Nature of the Atonement, emphasis mine)
“Not really sovereign”? That’s an argument that Calvinists ought not use. Is God sovereign and powerful enough that He is capable of creating humans with the ability to think independently? What if God felt that He received more joy from the fellowship of independently minded creatures, rather than scripted creatures (who, according to Determinism, will never have one independent thought, all throughout eternity), wouldn’t you expect a sovereign God to choose the system of providence that gave Him the most amount of joy? Therefore, logically speaking, God, would still be sovereign because that’s the providential system that He chose, and was powerful enough to create it.
For more on this point, see here.