The Potter and the Clay

Romans 9:19-21

THe human heart is deceitful but very resourceful. One way it expresses these characteristics is by dismissing God, or blaming Him, or both. It is against this background that Romans 9:19-21 teaches the sovereignty of God in salvation.

In the first half of the chapter God has argued that in salvation He operates by the principles of election and promise, and answered the question, “Is there unrighteousness with God?” But now the wicked resourcefulness of the human heart comes in. For if a person cannot deny God’s sovereignty over the right to save some and pass by others, he will try to deny his own responsibility. Anticipating such an attitude, God says in verse 19, “Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?”

This is a question God answers elsewhere in the Bible. But He chooses not to do so here  because it is really an objection to His right to do what He does. In fact, the very question is rebellious. Hence, God simply reiterates that He has a right to do with His creatures as He will, saying in verse 20, “Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?”

Contrasts and illustration

This retort uses two contrasts that puts the question in its proper perspective and man in his proper place. The first is between “man” and “God”. You and I are mere men and women, and set over against us is the Holy and Almighty God who rules all things. For someone as small, ignorant, impotent and sinful as we are to question the propriety of God’s moral acts is ludicrous.

We may not understand what God is doing in some cases. In fact, most of the time we will not, because “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord” (Isa. 55:8). We can ask God to explain what He is doing. But for us to suggest that He is wrong in what He does is patently absurd.

The second contrast is between “the thing formed” and “him that formed it”. We are only creatures; God is the Creator. Everything we are and have comes from God, including even our ability to ask such a question. If the Creator has the power of forming rational beings, He must Himself be infinitely wise.

As it is written. Significantly, God does not speak just of His right over His creatures as creatures, but as sinful creatures. This is intimated in verse 21—“Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?”

This illustration, drawn from the Old Testament, shows that the principle involved is stated in the Scripture. There are four main passages in the Old Testament in which the illustration of the potter and the clay is found, three in Isaiah (29:16; 45:9,10; and 64:8) one in Jeremiah. The latter is the most explicit. In Chapter 18 God starts by telling Jeremiah to go down to the potter’s house. We then read in verses 3-10:

Then I went down to the potter’s house, and, behold, he wrought a work on the wheels. And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it. Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying, O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the Lord. Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel. At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them.

This passage teaches exactly what our text in Romans is saying: (1) It is absurd for a mere man or woman to fault God; (2) God has absolute sovereignty over His creatures; and (3) God’s judgment is based on His justice in condemning sin. What could be more reasonable than that? Instead of objecting to God’s actions, we should fear them and allow our fear of judgment to drive us to repentance.

A matter of self-examination

Implicit in such an apparently harsh text is the holy justice of God. If God should reject and destroy you, would that not be appropriate, considering how you have behaved toward both God and others? Instead of using the brains God gave you to try to fault Him, you should apply them to right thinking, and the first point of right thinking is to examine how you have treated God.

No Love for God. To begin with, you have not shown any particular affection or love toward God. When people are in love, they think of the loved one constantly and want to be with that person and are always thinking of what nice things they can do for the object of their love. But you have not done that. In fact, you hardly think of Him at all, except to blame Him when things do not go the way you would like them to. You do not want to be with God. If you have not shown any particular affection or love toward God, why should He be obligated to love you? Why should He be obliged to show you any favor whatever?

Again, you have slighted God in thousands of ways throughout your entire life. Everything you are and have comes from God. But you have not been thankful for it. Nor have you made any serious effort to find out why God has given you the abilities, advantages and opportunities that you have.

You have also refused to hear God’s calls to you, even though they have come to you many times and in a variety of ways. You have heard the gospel preached. You have read the good news. In fact, even from the creation you should be able to see God’s eternal power and divine nature. But you persistently turn a deaf ear in God’s direction.

Rejection of Christ. But it is not only God the Father whom you have rejected. You have also despised the work of the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. It would have been just of God if He had rejected you outright without ever having offered you a Savior. But God has not done that. He has provided a Savior, even Jesus Christ, the most wonderful, the most holy, the most merciful, the most gracious person who has ever walked upon the surface of this earth.

The Father even offered Him up to death in the place of sinners who believe. But you don’t care for that. You care only for your own pleasure. You ignore Jesus completely, at least in all practical ways. And if He were here in person to confront you and tell you to repent, you would easily find yourself in a crowd, like that of His day, crying out to Pilate for His crucifixion.

Unjust to others. If God should forever cast you off and destroy you, it would also be agreeable to your treatment of others.

The one thing even sinful human beings find easy to accept is fair play, doing to others as they have done to you. And we acknowledge a certain poetic justice when a person who cheats another gets cheated, or a bully gets beaten, or a thief gets put in jail. You think like that, and you are even so arrogant as to believe that this is how you should be treated by God.

But what if He should treat you as you have treated others? You know that sin hurts and destroys, yet you have not only been sinning alone, you have involved others in your sins. And if you have been unable to do that with some particular person—if he or she has resisted your advances or disagreed with your lies or disengaged from your evil schemes—you have been quick to speak against the person for that very morality you despise.

And even in that you are harming others. Fathers, your examples have harmed your children. Mothers, your sins have left their dark stains on your offspring. Young people, your immorality and your lack of any true seeking after God has damaged your friends and peers.

The day of grace

Yet God’s purpose is not solely to condemn. The demonstration of His power and justice in judging sinners is a true part of what God is doing in human history, but it is not the whole thing. God is also making known the riches of His glory in the salvation of some. So why should you not be among those who are saved, particularly since you are hearing these very truths proclaimed?

If all God wanted to do was send people to hell, He would not have needed to tell us these things or anything else. There would have been no need for a Bible, no need for messengers to explain and teach it, no need for a Savior to be proclaimed as the heart of the Bible’s message. But God has not done that. He has provided a Savior. He has given us a Bible. He has sent messengers and their message, like that of all true prophets sent by God, is: “Repent, turn from your sin now and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

You cannot bring God under obligation to save you by anything you might do, and indeed everything you do is tinted by sin.

But if what you have heard has made sense to you, if you know that God does not owe you anything, that you have actually spurned what good He has shown you and that all you actually deserve from Him is judgment, then humble yourself before God and beseech Him to bring about the needed transformation of your heart. Instead of telling Him that what He does is unjust, call on His name with a humble and contrite spirit. Perhaps you will then find the grace of God as He gives you a new life in Christ.


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