Answer # 2: God delays his punishment to some in order to show his mercy to others.

What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory? (vv. 22-23).

These verses teach us that although God is always just, he doesn’t always treat everyone in precisely the same way. That almost sounds un-American because we are used to hearing that all men are created equal. That’s true in one sense and not true in another. It’s true that we are all created in God’s image which gives us dignity and worth. We’re “equal” in that we are all significant to God.

But these verses specify two different groups within the human race. One group is called the “objects of wrath.” They are said to be “prepared for destruction.” The other is called the “objects of his mercy.” They are “prepared in advance for glory.”

W.H. Griffith-Thomas has a helpful word at this point:

The contrast here between “vessels of wrath” and “vessels of mercy” should be closely examined. The “vessels of wrath” are described generally as “fitted to destruction,” that is, fitted by themselves, through their own sin. On the other hand, the “vessels of mercy” are described very significantly as those which “He had afore prepared,” that is, God through His grace and mercy prepared them. Men fit themselves for hell; but it is God that fits men for heaven. (Romans, p. 148)

There is a great mystery here. However, these verses make it abundantly clear that not everyone is going to heaven. Some people are simply “prepared” for destruction. They live in such a way that their only possible destination is hell. It’s easy to think of examples: Hitler comes to mind. Or we might think of someone like Saddam Hussein. 

But Paul’s thought isn’t limited to those we consider gross sinners. It really includes all of us. Left to myself, I deserve to go to hell. Left to yourself, you deserve hell. No one deserves heaven. If you go there, you go as a gift because someone else paid the price of admission for you. You aren’t good enough to get in on your own. Mercy means receiving something you don’t deserve. Paul’s point is that if God were just and not merciful, we’d all go to hell together. But since God is just and merciful, he delays his judgment on sinners in order to show mercy on those he is calling to salvation. He gives everyone more time to be saved.

Yesterday I received the sad news that the brother of a dear friend died from a sudden heart attack. My friend is grieving because of the loss of his brother and because he does not know if his brother was saved or not. He fears that he was not. What can we say in such a situation? I begin with the words of Genesis 18:25, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” When my father died over thirty ago, the minister who conducted his funeral comforted me with that verse. I take it to mean that God will make no mistakes in his dealings with humanity. No one will go to hell by mistake. It’s not possible that God will somehow get the files mixed up or hit the wrong button and send someone to the wrong destination. The Judge of the all earth will do what is right–not just in the mega-sense but also in dealing with my father and with my friend’s brother and with all our loved ones and with each of us individually. There will be no mistakes in eternity. Everyone who truly belongs in heaven will be there. No one will be in hell except those who truly deserve to be there. God’s grace will take care of those who go to heaven. God’s justice will take care of everyone else.