Many readers of Romans have understood Paul to be speaking of predestination in his discussion of God as a “potter” forming clay (Rom 9:19-23). The apostle states, “Who are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molded it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” (9:20-21). This molding metaphor sounds like God predestines some people for a negative outcome and others for a positive one, and human beings have no say in how God creates them. However, Paul’s words reiterate those of Jeremiah, and the prophet’s original Hebrew context points in a different direction from predestination.
Based on Paul’s reference to God as a molder of clay, the apostle concludes, “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand (προητοίμασεν; proetoímasen) for glory” (Rom 9:22-23). Paul’s allusion to the Lord prepping pots ahead of time seems to suggest predestination: God chooses some people for good outcomes and some for destruction. Yet the apostle’s rhetoric comes from Jeremiah’s similar speech about God as a potter—and a closer look at the prophet’s original context makes Pauline predestination improbable.
When God tells Jeremiah to watch a potter at work, the prophet sees a spoiled batch of clay being reworked into a useful vessel. Then the Lord declares to Israel, “Can I not do with you as this potter has done? […] Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand…. At the moment I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, if that nation… turns from its evil (שׁב… מרעתו; shav… mera’ato), I will relent (נחמתי; nahamti) of the disaster that I intended to do to it. But if at the moment I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, [that nation] does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it” (Jer 18:5-10).
In the original prophetic context, God describes a causative relationship between the divine directive and collective conduct; the Lord predetermines a particular posture towards a badly behaved nation, but if the citizens repent, then God changes course. Likewise, if the people switch from saintliness to sin, then God reevaluates the relationship. This is the exact opposite of predestination. God makes an assessment ahead of time, but human beings have the ability to alter their fate. It is this biblical scenario that Paul draws upon in Romans, so the apostle is not suggesting that everything is predetermined. On the contrary, Paul recycles Jeremiah to say that God extends much “patience” (μακροθυμίᾳ; makrothumía) as Heaven appraises human actions—of course, such patience would be unnecessary and illogical if the Lord had already predetermined the outcome! Thus, Paul’s rhetoric does not point to predestination; rather, God waits mercifully for people to make their own choices, and then the Lord adjusts the divine decree in response to humanity’s decisions.