God’s Patience with the Vessels of Wrath

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

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. 207-210).

5.2 God's patience with the vessels of wrath

The strongest argument against saying that God sustains and tolerates vessels of wrath in order to show his wrath and power is that this seems to contradict the fact that God is sustaining and tolerating these vessels "in much long-suffering" (ἐν πολλῇ μακροθυμίᾳ). This argument gains force also from Romans 2:4,5: "Or do you despise the wealth of his kindness and forbearance and long-suffering (μακροθυμίας), not knowing that the kindness of God is leading you to repentance? But according to your hardness and unrepentant heart you are storing up for yourself wrath on the day of wrath and the revelation of the righteous judgment of God." From this text it appears that God's long-suffering is an expression of his kindness and has the purpose of leading men to repentance.27

The problem encountered here is the same as the one we encountered in connection with the hardening of Pharaoh and discussed in Section 3 (pp 192). God addresses Pharaoh through Moses: "Let my people go." This corresponds to the kindness and long-suffering of pointing the way to repentance (Romans 2:4). Nevertheless, God has already told Moses that he is going to harden Pharaoh's heart so that he will not let the people go. This corresponds to the intention of God expressed in 9:22 to show his wrath precisely by means of enduring in much long-suffering vessels of wrath. If God's command to Pharaoh can be thwarted by God's own decree to harden Pharaoh's heart, then in the same way God's command to men to repent and the time he gives them to obey (Romans 2:4) can also be thwarted in the case of the vessels of wrath by God's decree to harden whom he wills and thus show his wrath on the day of judgment.

One could argue as Beyschlag (Theodicee, 63) does that Romans 2:4,5 constitute "an acknowledgment of the real freedom men have—a freedom whose highest decision cannot be predicted even by God." But if Romans 9:14-23 is taken seriously and if Paul has not contradicted himself, then such an inference from Romans 2:4,5 is premature. Is it not possible that what Paul means in Romans 2:4 is that in the interval of life given to men and nations, everything in nature (Romans 1:18-23; Acts 14:17) and history (Acts 17:26f) and the human conscience (Romans 2:15) is pointing (i.e. "leading") men to repentance and faith? God has not left himself without a witness and has not left man without an occasion to respond. No man will ever be able to say that God did not provide an opportunity for him to repent, nor that God did not give evidence that should have led him to do so.

That God should then act, as he did with Pharaoh, so that some are hardened and do not come to repentance and are yet held to be blameworthy is not an idea forced onto Paul by Calvinistic exegetes. Rather, it is precisely what the spokesman in Romans 9:19 saw in Paul's theology and so strongly objected to. Therefore, the summons to repentance in Romans 2:4 (even more pointedly expressed in 10:21) must not be used to silence the absoluteness of God's sovereignty expressed in Romans 9:21-23. Such a procedure (followed by Beyschlag) is based on a philosophical conception of the prerequisites of human accountability which Paul evidently did not share. In its haste to preserve the free will of the creature, it fails to perceive the complexity (and far deeper unity) of the will of the creator.

But we have yet to answer the question why Paul says the vessels of wrath are endured "in much patience" if he does not mean that they are being given time for repentance (which the context seems to rule out), but that they are only storing up wrath for themselves (as 2:5 says) in order that God's "desire to show his wrath" (9:22) might be fulfilled in them.28 Is there any evidence that μακροθυμία could mean patiently holding back judgment with a view to a greater display of wrath and power?

There are several analogies of "patience" being exercised in this way. From IV Ezra (probably first century) we read,

For this reason, therefore, shall all the sojourners in the earth suffer torture, because having understanding they yet wrought iniquity, and receiving precepts they yet kept them not, and having obtained the law they set at naught that which they received. What then will they have to say in the judgment, or how shall they answer in the last times? For how long a time hath the Most High been long-suffering with the inhabitants of the world—not for their sakes indeed, but for the sake of the times which he has ordained! (7:72-74)

The least this passage shows is that among Jews of the first century it was not unheard of to speak of God being patient with man for some reason other than man's good.

Another helpful analogy comes from 2 Maccabees 6:12-14. In this context the Jews had been brutally treated by the Seleucids and the writer says,

Now I urge those who read this book not to be depressed by such calamities but to recognize that these punishments were designed not to destroy but to discipline our people. In fact, not to let the impious alone for long, but to punish them immediately is a sign of great kindness (εὐεργεσίας). For in the case of other nations the Lord waits patiently to punish them until they have reached the full measure of their sins; but he does not deal this way with us (οὐ γὰρ καθάπερ καὶ ἐπὶ τῶν ἄλλων ἐθνῶν ἀναμένει μακροθυμῶν ὁ δεσπότης μέχρι τοῦ καταντήσαντος αὐτοὺς πρὸς ἐκπλήρωσιν ἁμαρτιῶν κολάσαι).

Here the patience of God with the nations has a view to giving them an occasion to fill up their sins and make their judgment worse.

Finally, we may look at an example of human patience used in a similar way. From 1 Maccabees 8:1-4 we read:

Now Judas heard of the fame of the Romans that they were very strong and were well disposed toward all who made an alliance with them. . . . Men told him of their wars and of the brave deeds which they were doing among the Gauls, how they had defeated them and forced them to pay tribute, and what they had done in the land of Spain to get control of the silver and gold mines there, and how they had gained control of the whole region by their planning and patience (τῇ βουλῇ αὐτῶν καὶ τῇ μακροθυμίᾳ), even though the place was far distant from them.

Here we see expressed what is commonly known: that in a conflict, a measure of patience and restraint at one point in the battle may secure a greater victory later.

This insight into the patience of a military commander may help explain how it is that God's "desire to show his wrath and make known his power" motivates him not immediately to overthrow the enemy but rather to patiently sustain and tolerate him. The glory and power of a commander are more remarkably displayed in a combination of calm, patient restraint and swift, decisive advance than they would be if he were capable of only one or the other. And when one reads Exodus 4-14, this is just the impression one gets. God endures the repeated insults of Pharaoh's disobedience, yet turns every moment of patient restraint into an occasion to display his power.

Finally in Exodus 14:1-4 God maneuvers his people into an impossible position and incites Pharaoh to pursue. God tells Moses why: "I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and he will pursue them and I will get glory over Pharaoh and over all his host; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord" (14:4). So Moses says to the fearful people, "The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still" (14:14). And thus by his patient restraint the great Warrior of Israel draws Pharaoh and his hosts into an awesome display of wrath and power which had been long in coming.

Since the language of Romans 9:22 is so clearly reminiscent of 9:17, where God's dealings with Pharaoh are in view, there is good reason, therefore, to infer that the divine action of 9:22 is indeed the action of a mighty commander who wills to display his power and wrath in defeating his enemies (the "vessels of wrath") for the sake of his people, the "vessels of mercy." Against this contextual backdrop the idea of sustaining and tolerating the enemy in much patience is not inconsistent with, but conducive to, God's "desire to show his wrath and make known his power."


(See the next section, "Fitted for Destruction".)


27 W. Beyschlag, Die paulinische Theodicee (1868), 62: "The patience of God refers to his leaving room and time for repentance (4:24), but how could God wait for a repentance from those from whom he has withdrawn the possibility of repentance? So in the Calvinistic conception the noble expression of love, which we call patience, becomes a heartless preservation for judgment for the sake of others."

28 J. Horst, TDNT, IV, 382f: "While τὸ χρηστὸν τοῦ θεοῦ in Romans 2:4 leads to μετάνοια. . . it has also to be recalled that the capital of wrath (θησαυρίζεις) increases with the μακροθυμία shown, and this side is emphasized even more clearly in Romans 9:22. Here the reason for μακροθυμία is not so much to allow time for repentance. The delay is simply to bring out more clearly what God already wills (θέλων) and knows, but allows to come to plain fulfilment in man." H.A.W. Meyer, Romans, II, 150: μακροθυμία in Romans 9:22 "is not that which waits for the self-decision of human freedom . . . , especially for amendment . . . , but that which delays the penal judgment (cf Luke 18:7), the prolongatio irae, Jeremiah 15:15 et al. The passage Romans 2:4f is no protest against this view, since the apostle does not there, as in the present passage, place himself at the standpoint of the absolute divine will." Cf also Hans Lietzmann, Roemer, 93, and Otto Kuss, Der Roemerbrief, III, 732.