“‘I have loved you,’ says the Lord. ‘Yet you say, “In what way have you loved us?” Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?’ says the Lord. ‘Yet Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.’” – Malachi 1:2-3 (NKJV)
God is Savior. But does he want to save everyone? No. Some people are vessels of God’s mercy (Romans 9:23). Others are vessels of his wrath (9:22). Some people are godly like Jacob, King Nebuchadnezzar, and Paul (Genesis 28:12-22, Daniel 4:1-37, Acts 9:1-18). Others are profane like Esau, the Pharaoh of the Exodus, and King Belshazzar (Genesis 25:32-34, Exodus 9:16, Daniel 5:22-31, Romans 9:17, Hebrews 12:16-17). It takes divine wisdom to know the difference.
Esau, Pharaoh, and Belshazzar may have been cute as children (or not), but their true natures were revealed when they grew up. Esau despised his birthright (Genesis 25:34). Pharaoh rejected divine revelation (Exodus 5:2). And Belshazzar used temple vessels to drink and pray to idols (Daniel 5:23). Praying for these men’s repentance and salvation would have been a waste of time.
Why would God create a man or woman, knowing they were vessels of his wrath who would one day reject him and spend eternity in hell? Why would he let their mothers endure nine months of pregnancy and then 15-20 years of childcare? Doesn’t this seem cruel?
God is in control. He is sovereign. This means that God has mercy on whomever he wants and he hardens whomever he wants (Romans 9:16, 18). Therefore, salvation is not of man’s works or will but of God’s mercy (9:11, 16). Only then will he receive the glory due to his name. God is the potter; we are the clay (9:21). So he can do with us whatever he wants.
Just what is it that God does with us? He endures the sinfulness of the vessels of wrath in order to “show his wrath” – his judgment – and “make his power known” (Romans 9:22). God also “makes known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy” (9:23). The best example is Israel’s Exodus from Egypt. God endured Pharaoh’s “no” ten times as he demonstrated the wrath of his judgment and set Israel free. God let Pharaoh know who was boss: Jehovah, the great “I AM.”
“He who is often rebuked, and hardens his neck, will suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy.” – Proverbs 29:1 (NKJV)
Vessels of wrath don’t care about God’s salvation and sovereignty. After he confronts them with his righteousness and their sinfulness, then God cuts them off – literally. They die in their sins, unrepentant. Vessels of mercy, however, do care. After he confronts them with his righteousness and their sinfulness, then God gives them grace. They confess, repent, and are saved.
So how do we approach sinners with the gospel? Do we watch their attitudes, words, and actions and decide for ourselves if they’re vessels of mercy? Do we then refuse to give the gospel to sinners whom we consider vessels of wrath? If we’re wrong, God will find gospel preachers elsewhere. Vessels of his mercy will be saved. But we will have robbed ourselves both of seeing a sinner saved, which increases our own faith, and of eventual fellowship with a believer.
Sometimes we can discern vessels of mercy from ones of wrath. More often we cannot. Nebuchadnezzar and Paul resisted God before they were saved. How many Christians today would have judged these men’s sinfulness and prayed that God cut them off like Pharaoh? If God had answered their prayers, ancient Babylon and the early church would have been robbed of spiritual treasures. Not only that, Daniel 4 and most of the New Testament would not exist!
Nothing happens without prayer. Prayers for sinners are no exception. When God plans to save vessels of mercy, he softens the hearts of his people and leads them to pray. This is prevenient grace. So we must ask God about each sinner we meet – in person, print, film, radio, TV, or online. Through his Spirit and his Word, God will guide us in prayer and in our approach.
God is in control. He is sovereign. And he will have his church. So let us pray.