Grace for All: Paul, the Potter, and Perspective? (Romans 9)


This post is a part of a series that is examining each essay in the recently published book Grace for All. 


Dr. James D. Strauss, who passed in 2014, was Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Lincoln Christian Seminary (link). His essay, edited by John D. Wagner tackles the challenging argument that Paul presents in Romans 9.

This chapter starts off a section that is widely accepted as starting in chapter 9 and continuing through to the end of chapter 11.

By Ks.mini (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

By Ks.mini via Wikimedia Commons

The section starts off with Paul’s concern for the Jewish people:

For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites … (Rom 9:3-4 NASB)

A concern that is marked throughout the section, as it is expressed again in chapter 10:

Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. (Rom 10:1)

and again in chapter 11:

… Inasmuch then as I am an apostle of Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if somehow I might move to jealousy my fellow countrymen and save some of them … (Rom 11:13-14)

It is within this context that Paul writes about God’s sovereign right to have mercy on whom He will, and harden whom He will (Rom 9:18) and to form His creation as He desires.

Has the potter no right to make from the same lump of clay one vessel for special use and another for ordinary use? (Rom 9:21)

In Arminius’s examination of Roman’s 9 he notes that it is important to settle the main thesis or question that Paul is addressing. He proposes the challenge that Paul will seek to refute is as follows:

Does not the word God become of none effect, if those of the Jews, who seek righteousness, not of faith, but of the law, are rejected by God.

Is that the right thesis that Paul is refuting?

On what idea does Paul base his argument?

Does he answer his rhetorical challenger with a focus on the:

  • the corporate election of nations and certain individuals, to play a part in salvation history.
  • the corporate election of people, the community of people that are in Christ.
  • the individual election of people, that are saved in Christ

In the NICNT commentary on Romans, Douglas Moo writes of chapter 9 that all of these aspects are present:

Paul’s concern is not the result only of a natural love for his own people; nor is it directed only to their salvation. As the rehearsal of Israel’s privileges in vv. 4-5 makes clear, Paul is also concerned that Israel’s unbelief has ruptured the continuous course of salvation history: the people promised so many blessing have, it seems, been disinherited.

The debate among scholars then is which of these aspects is the primary point that Paul is making to defend God and His promises, and what conclusions can we draw from them.

In JETS, Thomas Schriener emphasizes individual election, which is understood to be unconditional. However, he notes the corporate aspects of the chapter including the reference to a group called the remnant (pdf).

Clearly Paul is an individual who has been  saved, and yet he is part of the remnant. The election of the remnant to  salvation and the election of individuals who comprise that  remnant are not mutually exclusive. They belong together.

In a separate JETS article (pdf), Brian Abasciano also notes the corporate and individual aspects of Romans 9 but argues that Paul’s point is rooted in corporate election.

Rather, to speak of election as corporate rather than individual means that the primary focus of election is the community and that the individual is elect only secondarily as a member of the community. Therefore, it is not at all inconsistent with the concept of corporate election for Paul to refer to individuals.

In Grace for All, the authors of the essay, “God’s Promise and Universal History”, argue that the weight of Romans 9 is on describing God’s plan of redemption to bring a Messiah through the nation Israel.

Paul’s consideration of Jacob, Esau, Moses, and Pharaoh is not occupied with their ultimate personal salvation, but rather with their role in the historic working out of the promised blessing. Paul is only concerned with the details in each person’s life which radically effect the historic fulfillment of the salvific promise of God.

… God had an ultimate historical purpose for the Israelites, i.e. the corporate Jacob. This was (as noted in 9:5) to physically produce the “seed,” Christ in the flesh, i.e. the Messiah (Gal 3:16) as well as the Israel of faith, the seed that are in Christ (Gal 3:29).

Potter2

Flickr user: Dean Croshere via Wikimedia Commons

Even though a different part of Paul’s argument is emphasized, the essay also draws on the ideas of corporate and individual election to salvation because they are present in Romans 9.

The remnant will be the recipients and fulfillment of the election promises made to the founding father of Israel. The fulfillment is through them being “in Him [Christ]” (Eph 1:4,7) and therefore part of the promised “seed” (Gal 3:29).

Which perspective did Paul intend to be the focus of the argument?

Can we conclude, as do Calvinists, that Paul’s defense that the Word of God has not failed, is based on God unconditionally choosing certain people to receive mercy and compassion (and thus be saved), hardening the rest to prepare them for destruction?

Or should we understand Paul’s defense to rest on the idea that God set out a condition by which the promises would be received (faith), and chooses to show mercy and compassion on all who meet it, hardening and rejecting those that do not?

In dealing with the section on the potter and clay in Romans 9, Strauss and Wagner defend the latter. They remind readers that the potter/clay imagery is drawn from OT passages in Isaiah and Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 18, the promises of God to bless or curse are tied to the response of the nation.

There are times, Jeremiah, when I threaten to uproot, tear down, and destroy a nation or kingdom. But if that nation I threatened stops doing wrong, I will cancel the destruction I intended to do to it. And there are times when I promise to build up and establish a nation or kingdom. But if that nation does what displeases me and does not obey me, then I will cancel the good I promised to do to it. (Jeremiah 18:7-10 NET)

It is in within this OT context, argue the authors, that we should understand Paul’s reference to the potter having the right to make the clay into vessels as He desires.

In every passage in which the above imagery appears, God is calling his rebellious people to repentance.

Now that the Messiah has come through the nation Israel, it is our response to Jesus that determines how the lump of clay will be treated in the potter’s hands.

Paul has already set forth that Christ is our righteousness, the object of our faith, and the source of the distinction between “vessels of mercy” and “vessels of wrath”. (emphasis added)

Greg Boyd (link) agrees with how Paul is using the potter clay analogy:

In other words, the point of the potter-clay analogy is not God’s unilateral control, but God’s willingness and right to change his plans in response to changing hearts.

The proper response to God’s promise, not unconditional election, is how Paul seeks to win the argument that God’s Word has not failed even if most of Israel are not saved.

The whole of Romans 9 is concerned with Israel’s unbelief, and it is central to Paul’s total argument that Israel is responsible for its rebellious attitude toward God’s promise.

We are unlikely to settle all of the questions and exegetical issues in a short post on a blog. After all Brian Abasciano is dealing with them in a three volume work that covers this single chapter (link). But hopefully this helps readers understand the different perspectives on this chapter.

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