Main point summary
God's purpose in election, of having mercy on some and hardening others, is not unjust. Furthermore, man does not have the right to even question this, because God has the absolute right to do whatever He wants, much as a potter can do as he wishes with his clay.
What shall we say then?
w Is there injustice on God’s part?
By no means!
For he says to Moses,
x “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
So then it depends not on human will or exertion, 1
but on God, who has mercy.
For the Scripture says to Pharaoh,
y “For this very purpose I have raised you up,
that I might show my power in you,
and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”
So then he has mercy on whomever he wills,
and he hardens whomever he wills.
You will say to me then,
“Why does he still find fault?
For z who can resist his will?”
But who are you, O man, a to answer back to God?
b Will what is molded say to its molder,
“Why have you made me like this?”
c Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump
d one vessel for honorable use
and another for dishonorable use?
What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power,
has endured with much patience e vessels of wrath f prepared for destruction,
in order to make known g the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy,
which he h has prepared beforehand for glory—
I think this is effectively asking "How should we respond" to the notion of God's purpose of election in the previous verses. And then the second question draws out the real purpose of the first; namely, is God unjust in election?
I probably should have picked an easier passage for my first published page. But this one has always troubled me, and I figured I'd try applying bracketing to it. Let's just say bracketing really doesn't make this any less troubling for me. So, the most important point of the passage is probably verses 15-18, where Paul goes over how God's mercy is the deciding factor. Pharaoh is brought up as an example of God hardening someone back in the OT, showing that not only does God not have mercy on some, but that he even hardens their hearts. Paul then sees the natural objection coming in verse 19: If God is actively hardening someone's heart, how can He then justly judge that person? Is that person supposed to somehow resist and overcome God? And Paul pretty much shouts it down. Man has no right to question God in this matter; what is molded does not ask the molder "Why did you make me like this?". He points to the metaphor of the potter and the clay, stating that God has the absolute right to make men for honorable or dishonorable purposes as he pleases. Verses 22 and 23 give a possible answer to the question, that maybe God hardens some people in order to better display his power and glory for others, but Paul doesn't commit to it. (I'm not aware of another "What if?" about God's motivations in the entire Bible) Ultimately, the question in verse 19 gets rebuked, but not firmly answered. Which I honestly find really odd, because the main point of the passage in verse 14 is precisely that God's purpose in election is just. So what's the actual conclusion here? The only one I've been able to come to is that the passage seems to support Calvinism pretty firmly. It doesn't make me any less troubled by Calvinism's view of the unsaved (i.e. no mercy offered, no chance at forgiveness, do not pass Go, do not collect $200), but as far as I can tell, that's what the passage points to. And I guess my secondary conclusion is that we really aren't told why this is just. Paul offers a hypothetical, but doesn't commit to it, and I think that means that this is one of those mysteries we just aren't told.