"Fitted for Destruction"

So then what if God, in order to fulfil his desire to demonstrate wrath and to make known his power, sustained and tolerated with much patience the vessels of wrath made for destruction, . . .
(Piper's translation)

The following is excerpted from The Justification of God (pp. 211-214).

5.3 "Fitted for destruction"

The next question raised against the interpretation put forward above in Section 2 is this: does not the use of the passive voice in the phrase "vessels of wrath fitted (κατηρτισμένα) for destruction" suggest that Paul does not attribute their condition to God's doing especially since he uses the active voice in the phrase "vessels of mercy which he prepared before for glory"?

Elsewhere in Paul (1 Corinthians 1:10; 2 Corinthians 13:11; Galatians 6:1; 1 Thessalonians 3:10), and indeed in the whole New Testament, καταρτίζω has the positive meaning of repair, prepare, equip or complete. It refers once to the divine act of creation—Hebrews 11:3. In Psalm 16:5 (LXX) it probably means ordain. Delling (TDNT, I, 476) suggests the meaning "foreordain" in Romans 9:22. That is quite uncertain. In view of the clay/potter analogy in 9:21 "created" or "prepared" would seem most natural. But to settle the question of the meaning of κατηρτισμένα one must first address the question of agency: who is doing the action?

There are at least four views: 1) God is the one who fits (or creates) the vessels of wrath for destruction;29 2) the voice is middle not passive and thus means that the vessels of wrath have fitted themselves for destruction (Bengel, Gnomon, II, 86; Beyschlag, Theodicee 65); 3) the participle is to be construed adjectivally as "fit for destruction" with no implication intended about who did the fitting (Lagrange, Romains, 240; Cranfield, Romans, II, 495f; Sanday and Headlam, Romans, 261; Schlier, Roemerbrief, 301); 4) the passive is intended to express a mystery no human can break through.30

The least likely of these is the second, according to which κατηρτισμένα is construed as "having fitted themselves." In a context where the sovereignty of God as a potter over clay has been stressed, Paul would have had to use a clearer grammatical construction to signify all of a sudden that man's destiny is self-determined. And indeed the well-known reflexive use of ἑτοιμάζειν ἑαυτόν (Revelation 8:6; 19:7) lay ready for such use if Paul had intended such.

The third and fourth views are similar, in that both assert that Paul did not intend to inform the reader about who did the "fitting for destruction." The fourth view says this is because he did not know the answer to that question; the third view says it is because, though he may have known the answer, it was beside the point in Romans 9:22 to give it. The point was only to say that those who are ultimately judged are in a condition that makes this judgment fitting or appropriate. That the fourth view contradicts the context of what Paul claims to know in Romans 9 and that the third view is true but does not go far enough, I will try to show by the following observations.

It seems to me that, after the clear and powerful statements of double predestination in Romans 9, it is grasping at a straw to argue that the passive voice κατηρτισμένα proves that Paul denied divine agency in fitting men for destruction. "Jacob I loved and Esau I hated" (9:13). "He has mercy on whom he wills and he hardens whom he wills" (9:18). "He makes from the same lump a vessel for honor and a vessel for dishonor" (9:21). Is it really plausible after such assertions to argue that the differences between "vessels of wrath fitted for destruction" and "vessels of mercy which he prepared before for glory" are such that Paul is now denying or even trying to conceal the divine agency in the former? Paul has just stated unabashedly that God makes from the same lump vessels for dishonor (9:21).

I cannot escape the implication that anti-Calvinistic apologetic is in control when in the next verse we are forbidden to suggest that the divine Potter is at work in the phrase "vessels of wrath fitted for destruction." Moreover, in view of the parallels between Romans 9:22 and 9:17 (see Section 2), a most natural suggestion is that Pharaoh serves as an example of a "vessel of wrath fitted for destruction." And since Paul's inference from the Pharaoh story is that "God hardens whom he wills" (9:18), the most natural suggestion from the context is that "fitted for destruction" (9:22) refers precisely to this divine hardening.

Besides these contextual considerations we may also recall how closely related Paul's thought has proved to be with the apocalyptic tradition reaching its climax in the double predestination of Qumran. (See Section 4.16 and Chapter Three, p 71, and Maier, Mensch und freier Wille, 381.) The word καταρτίζω (cf Romans 9:2a) translates the Hebrew kûn three times in the LXX (Psalm 67:9; 73:16; 88:37). This lends even greater credence to the suggestion that Paul is at home with the Essene doctrine of predestination31 for we find the word kûn used in predestinarian contexts which resemble the thought of Romans 9:22f. For example, 1 QH 15:12-22 (translation from Dupont-Sommer):

And I, because of Thine understanding, I know
that [the righteousness of man] is not in the hand of flesh [and] that man [is not] master of (13) his way
and that mankind cannot strengthen his step.
And I know that the inclination of every spirit is in Thy hand (14) [and that] Thou hast ordained [the way of every man] before creating him.
And how can any man change Thy words?
Thou alone hast created (15) the just
and established him from his mother's womb
unto the time of good-will (cf Romans 9:23)
that he may be preserved in Thy covenant
and walk in all Thy way.
. . .
And Thou hast raised up (17) his glory from among flesh whereas Thou hast created the wicked [for the time of] Thy [wr]ath and hast set them apart from their mother's womb for the Day of Massacre.
. . .
(19) Thou hast created all [them that despise] Thy [will] to execute judgment against them (20) in the eyes of all Thy works that they may serve as a sign, and wo[nder unto] everlasting [generations] that [all] may know Thy glory [cf Romans 9:23] and awful might [cf Romans 9:22].

This use of kûn (which can be rendered by καταρτίζω) in a context so much like Paul's (cf also 1 QS 11:10,11) increases the probability that with κατηρτισμένα Paul has in view the divine agency.

To the Qumran analogies may also be added at least one example of a rabbinic conception of predestination which, though late (about 340), may reflect early tradition. According to Midrash Ester 1,1 (829) a rabbi said,

From the beginning of the creation of the world God prepared what he chose: Adam (he prepared) to be the first creature, Cain to be the first murderer, Abel to be the first one murdered, Noah to be the first one saved, etc. [cf Strack-Billerbeck, 1, 982].

I conclude, therefore, primarily from the context of Romans 9 (but also with some corroboration from Paul's Jewish milieu; cf also Apocalypse of Abraham 22) that it accords best with Paul's intention to see the divine agency behind the passive κατηρτισμένα in Romans 9:22.

We can only guess why Paul used this passive verb in reference to vessels of wrath and an active verb (προητοίμασεν) in reference to vessels of mercy. Since the grammar of Romans 9:22,23 is awkward, it is not unreasonable to suggest that a shift occurred in Paul's thought as he was writing the sentence. Thus at first he may have intended to express the divine action in both cases with the passive voice. But then as he began to formulate 9:23 he also conceived how he would continue it in 9:24 ("whom he also called . . ."). This continuation may have been suggested to him by the earlier sequence in Romans 8:30 (οὓς δὲ προώρισεν, τούτους καὶ ἐκάλεσεν)—a sequence which commended not only the active voice for προητοίμασεν but also the relative clause and the prefix προ–.

Another possible explanation for the passive κατηρτισμένα, if we assume a good bit more grammatical reflection on Paul's part, is that he really does want to make a statement about the way God works: though God does accomplish all things by the counsel of his will, he does not bring about all things in the same way. In the accomplishment of some things he employs intermediary agents perhaps. Or to put it another way, his heart is engaged differently in different acts, loving some deeds in themselves and inclining to others only as they are preferable in relation to greater ends (cf Lamentations 3:33). If this is the case, Paul would be implying that not wrath but mercy is the greater, overarching goal for which God does all things.

29 Michel, Roemer, 244: both the passive "fitted" and the active "he prepared before" "point back to the pretemporal-prehistorical action of God." So also Kaesemann, Romans, 271; Kuss, Roemerbrief, III 732f; Luz, Geschichtsverstaendnis, 245; Maier, Mensch und freier Wille, 381; Calvin, Romans, 212.

30 K. Mueller, Zuvorersehung, 16: "Certainly κατηρτισμένα cannot mean that they fit themselves for destruction; nor can it be given merely an adjectival meaning. The lost have to be fit for destruction—by whom? That remains a mystery, exactly as in 1 Corinthians 1:18; 2 Corinthians 2:15."

31 Cf Michel, Roemer, 244; Kaesemann, Romans, 272; Luz, Geschichtsverstaendnis, 244; Maier, Mensch und freier Wille, 381.

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John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books.

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