The Potter/Clay Metaphor:

       In follow-up to his discussion about Pharaoh, Paul uses the potter and clay metaphor which is used several times in the Hebrew Scriptures. 

       Romans 9: 20-21:  But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, `Why did you make me like this?'"  Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?

       Is Paul teaching God makes some individuals for good purpose and others for evil purpose?  It is in part from this passage of Scripture that Calvinists conclude that God predetermines some to be saved and others to be lost.  Let’s look at the OT passages where this metaphor is found.

      Isaiah 29:13-16:  The Lord says: "These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men. Therefore once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder; the wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish."  Woe to those who go to great depths to hide their plans from the LORD, who do their work in darkness and think, "Who sees us? Who will know?" You turn things upside down, as if the potter were thought to be like the clay! Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, "He did not make me"? Can the pot say of the potter, "He knows nothing"?

       As can be seen, there is nothing in this passage to suggest God predestinates some to be saved and others to be lost or some to do good and others to do evil.  This pot and potter metaphor is all about Israel relating to God as though He didn’t exist and doesn’t see what they are doing.  God had called Israel to be righteous and an example to the nations.  What they were doing was behaving totally contrary to God’s purpose for them which was akin to telling God they weren’t obligated to behave for the purpose He formed them. This passage also shows freewill at work as Israelites were able to freely behave contrary to God's will that they obey Him.  Throughout Scripture we see it is God's will we obey Him and also His will we have the freedom to disobey Him.  

       Isaiah 45:9: Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker, to him who is but a potsherd among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, `What are you making?' Does your work say, `He has no hands'?

       Isaiah 45 is all about the sovereignty of God.  The chapter begins with God telling how He will raise up Cyrus and insure his success against other nations.  God instructs that He will rise up Cyrus in His righteousness and will make all his ways straight.  Cyrus will rebuild Jerusalem and set the exiles free (45:13).  There is nothing here, however, to suggest that God made Cyrus a robot making it impossible for Cyrus to act differently from what God intended.  The very fact that God gives a warning of “Woe” to those who quarrel with Him demonstrates we have the freedom to think and behave contrary to what God intends.  God allows us the ability to quarrel with Him.

       God, in His sovereignty, will always bring about fulfillment of His will. Bringing about fulfillment of His will, however, does not mean God forces us to carry out His will.  There are many examples in Scripture where God wills one thing but allows us to do something else. For example, it is God’s will that we obey Him.  Yet we can choose not to obey Him and God allows this. God will, from time to time, interfere with the choices we make in order to facilitate or prevent a specific event.  As will be seen in our discussion of Balaam later in this series, it was Balaam's will and choice to curse Israel. God didn't prevent Balaam from making that choice.  He did prevent Balaam from facilitating that choice.  God created circumstances that resulted in Balaam abandoning his desire to curse Israel and instead follow God's will to bless Israel. 

       It was God’s will that King Saul utterly destroy the Amalekites.  He didn’t and God removed him from being King.  Saul was not forced to utterly destroy the Amalekites.  God apparently did not know Saul would fail to follow His instructions as it is recorded God was grieved that He had appointed Saul king over Israel. 

       It was God’s will that Pharaoh let Israel go.  Pharaoh would not and He suffered the consequences.  The plagues God brought upon Egypt brought Pharaoh to his knees and he let Israel go.  It didn’t have to go that far.  Pharaoh could have chosen to let Israel go much earlier than he did and could have avoided many of the plagues.  Let's now return to the potter/clay metaphor.

       Isaiah 64:4-8: Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins.  Yet, O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.

       Here the potter/clay metaphor is used in the context of God responding to the clay that is Israel on the basis of how they behave.  Isaiah concludes by acknowledging that Israel was formed to be molded by God as a potter molds clay.  However, the reality is that Israel by and large refused to be molded by God and this angered God.  Here is another example of God allowing the expression of freewill.  Even though Israel was the work of God’s hands and God willed that they be obedient to Him, He allowed them to be disobedient.  This is a clear example of the operation of freewill expressed through the exercise of choice. 

       Jeremiah 18: 1-10:  This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD:   "Go down to the potter's house, and there I will give you my message." So I went down to the potter's house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. Then the word of the LORD came to me: "O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?" declares the LORD. "Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.

       Here God is seen as molding His human clay according to how they behave.  If they repent God will mold them one way and if they don’t repent He will mold them another way.  Jeremiah goes on to say the following:

       Jeremiah 18:11-12: Now therefore say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, `This is what the LORD says: Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.' But they will reply, `It's no use. We will continue with our own plans; each of us will follow the stubbornness of his evil heart.'"

       God was going to punish Israel for its sinful behavior.  In His mercy He gave them opportunity to repent.  If they would have repented, God would have turned from the disaster He had planned for them.  The disaster God planned for Israel was not inevitable or irrevocable. It is evident from the potter/clay metaphors that God forms us in response to our behavior which testifies to our God given ability to exercise freewill in choosing to obey or disobey God.

       Paul used the potter/clay metaphor in response to someone questioning the justice of God in rising up Pharaoh to do his will and then punishing Pharaoh for doing it.  The potter/clay metaphor as used in Jeremiah 18 shows God ordains the rise and fall of nations but always allows for a change of plans based on how humans behave. The potter/clay metaphor in Isaiah 64 shows God allows us the choice of obedience or disobedience to His will and responds to us accordingly.  God molds our human clay according to how we respond to His will.  God will always allow for repentance to occur which will alter how He relates to us.  Human repentance will alter what God does.  This is a reflection of God’s compassion and mercy.  We plainly see this in God withdrawing  His intention to destroy Nineveh in response to their repentance.  Pharaoh could have repented. God actually gave him ample opportunity to repent.  

       Throughout Scripture we see God always giving man opportunity to repent.  This presupposes having the ability of choice which presupposes having freewill.  The potter and clay metaphor does not show God predetermines our behavior in absolute terms.  This metaphor shows God molding us according to our choices. 

       In Romans chapter 9, Paul uses a number of OT events to show first century Israel that God does what He needs to do to carry out His will.  From the beginning God willed that both Jew’s and Gentiles become reconciled to Him through the Christ event.  The Old Covenant system was implemented to provide a pathway for the establishment of the New Covenant system.  The Old Covenant system was based on law keeping and physical linage.  The new system is based on grace and faith.  Paul was teaching the new system and was met with much resistance from the Jew’s who by and large believed the only way to relate to God was through ethnicity and adherence to the Old Covenant law.     

       Paul’s statement that, “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel,” (9:6) sounded heretical to most first century Jew’s.   Paul’s teaching that Gentiles could have a covenant relationship with God based on faith and not on works sounded equally heretical.  Paul was showing that just as God had chosen certain individuals in the past to fulfill His will, so now He had chosen Gentiles to equally share a covenant relationship with Him.  Paul is telling Israel that the criterion has changed as to how one relates to God.  It is now based on faith in Christ not on ethnicity and works.     

       In Chapter 11, Paul speaks of some Israelites being chosen by grace and others being hardened.  Are the chosen predestinated to be chosen and the hardened predestinated to be hardened?   Some apparently believed Pharaoh was predestinated to be hardened and felt he was unjustly being punished by God since he was only doing God’s will.  The question also being asked is how God can blame those in Israel who are being hardened if they have no choice in the matter (9:19). 

       Paul’s point is that God has the sovereign right to set the criteria as to upon whom He bestows mercy and whom he hardens.   The criterion for receiving mercy was placing faith in Christ.  The criterion for hardening was the refusal to place faith in Christ.  Many Israelites remained entrenched in their thinking that by being a descendant of Abraham and their keeping the law, they were the ones to have a relationship with God.  Paul was teaching that such relationship was only possible through the Christ event.  Bringing Gentiles into the fold served to harden much of first century Israel because they believed only they had the right to have a relationship with God based on their heritage and law keeping.

       God wasn’t purposefully hardening Israel.  They became hardened because they believed having a relationship with God through Christ rather than ethnicity and law keeping was pure nonsense.  They were hardened by their refusal to accept the new order of things.    

       What is being asked is why faith in Christ should be necessary in order to have a relationship with God.  It is being asked how God can blame the Jew for expecting to be among the chosen people as a descendant of Abraham and because they kept the Law.  How can God blame the Jews for failing to come to faith in Christ, since faith was not what the Jews were led to expect to be the criterion of election.

       Remember that justification by faith is the major focus of Paul’s argument throughout Romans 1-8.  Romans 9 to 11 forms an extended answer to the question of what this doctrine means for ethnic Jews.  Paul is defending his thesis that God’s word had not failed, in that not everyone descended from Israel constitutes the Israel of God (9:6). The real question being asked is why should God’s chosen people have to come to faith in Christ.  Paul is simple saying it is not up to us to determine God’s criteria of inclusion in the covenant community.

       God has sovereignly chosen what he will do regarding the clay, in that he has chosen to respond to the clay according to its repentance or lack of repentance.  In using the potter/clay metaphor in Romans 9:20, Paul is telling the Jews that God will deal with them based on their repentance, as he has always dealt with them. The questioner who believes that Israel should be saved because of its ethnic descent is reminded that repentance has always been required for God’s salvation. The image is that of the clay blaming its position on the potter, rather than humbly asking to be made anew.

       Paul goes on to ask, “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?”  Israel thought of itself as the “pottery for noble purposes” in comparison to the Gentiles.  But what was happening was that Israel was being placed in the position of being the pottery “for common use” because of their refusal to accept Christ.  They became objects of wrath not because God made them so or willed they become so but because of their stubborn refusal to change.   Significantly, in 2 Timothy 2:20-21, Paul indicates that a person’s choices determine to what kind of uses he will be put:

       2 Timothy 2:20-21: In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for noble purposes and some for ignoble.  If a man cleanses himself from the latter, he will be an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.

       Paul makes it clear that we have the ability to choose whether we are used for noble or ignoble purposes.  We have the ability to choose to be cleansed (repent) or not be cleansed. 

Objects of Wrath and Mercy:

       In the larger context of chapters 9 through 11, Paul’s main concern is the Jews who have not come to Christ.  The “objects of his wrath,” are the majority of the Israelite nation.  The patience with which God has borne them reflects his desire for their repentance (Romans 2:4). Paul writes that "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? (Romans 9:22). Paul is not saying that God predestinated these folks for destruction. Instead we see God exercising great patience with them.  They remain objects of his wrath and prepared for destruction only because of their refusal to repent. They are prepared for destruction because of their unwillingness to change.

      We read in Proverbs 16:4, “The Lord works out everything for his own ends—even the wicked for a day of disaster.”  But “the wicked” are not a static category.  God’s desire for them is that they “turn and live.”  God makes it very clear through the prophet Ezekiel how He relates to man.

       Ezekiel 18:20-32:   The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him.  But if a wicked man turns away from all the sins he has committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die. None of the offenses he has committed will be remembered against him. Because of the righteous things he has done, he will live. Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?  "But if a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits sin and does the same detestable things the wicked man does, will he live? None of the righteous things he has done will be remembered. Because of the unfaithfulness he is guilty of and because of the sins he has committed, he will die.  "Yet you say, `The way of the Lord is not just.' Hear, O house of Israel: Is my way unjust? Is it not your ways that are unjust? If a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits sin, he will die for it; because of the sin he has committed he will die. But if a wicked man turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he will save his life.  Because he considers all the offenses he has committed and turns away from them, he will surely live; he will not die. Yet the house of Israel says, `The way of the Lord is not just.' Are my ways unjust, O house of Israel? Is it not your ways that are unjust?   "Therefore, O house of Israel, I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live! 

       God makes it clear that we die because of our own sin and not because of the sin of others.  If we behave wickedly we engender the wrath of God.  If we repent, God’s wrath is lifted.  Conversely, if we behave righteously but turn from righteous behavior and behave wickedly, we will engender God’s wrath.  Ezekiel shows that God is just in that He judges us according to how we behave.  God clearly reveals that He does not take pleasure in having to punish the wicked.  It is His will that all repent and live.  It is evident that God does not predetermine our behavior.  God allows us to choose whether to obey Him or disobey Him and God responds accordingly.  

       In Romans, the categories of people designated as “objects of his mercy” and “objects of his wrath” are dynamic categories, not static.  The inclusion of an individual in either category is based on that individual’s own response to the offer of grace.  In 9:24, Paul becomes more explicit in his identification of the “objects of his mercy.”   He says they are “us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles.” Here Paul explicitly comes back to his original theme (Romans 1 to 6), lending support to the fact that he has never really departed from it. 

       The offense to the Jews is that God is now openly calling people from among the Gentiles, as well as those from among the Jews who have accepted Christ in faith.  Paul buttresses his comments with more Old Testament quotations.  He cites Hosea 2:23 and 1:10 to the effect that those who were previously not included in the covenant nation will be included among those whom he calls “my people.”  Moreover, he cites Isaiah 10:22-23 and 1:9 to the effect that those who are saved among Israel will be merely a “remnant.”

       In other words, to those Jews who counted on ethnicity and adherence to the Law for their inclusion among God’s people, Paul demonstrates from the Hebrew Scriptures themselves that they had no reason to count on that. Paul sums up his argument as follows:

       Romans 9:30-33: What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not?  Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the "stumbling stone." As it is written:  "See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame."

       In this passage it is clear that the Gentiles, have obtained righteousness by faith.  Paul makes clear that this is the criterion, this is the issue.  Gentiles are coming to righteousness by faith. Israel, meanwhile, pursued a law of righteousness, not righteousness by faith.  The issue is not that God has sovereignly elected only a few Jews and Gentiles, the issue is that Israel rejects faith as the defining characteristic of the covenant people.  Instead they  continue to trust in Law and ethnicity.  Thus, God’s gracious gift of salvation through faith in Christ is a stumbling stone to those who will not believe.

       The Jews are hardened just as Pharaoh was hardened by their own stubborn refusal to repent.  Paul therefore rebukes them, and uses the potter-clay illustration to point out that God has always dealt with Israel on the basis of their repentance, and it is only those who refuse to repent who argue back to God that he made them as they are.

       In essence, Paul is telling ethnic Israel that God has the right to choose whoever he wants to be among his covenant people.  God is not telling them this because He has chosen not to elect most of them.  He’s telling them this because the paradigm for inclusion in the covenant has shifted from national Israel following the Law to anyone who comes to faith in Christ.  Israel feels betrayed by this paradigm shift, so Paul explains that God has no obligation to Israel based on their being physical descendants of Abraham.  A relationship with God must be based on faith in the Christ event and not on ethnicity or law keeping. This is the whole focus of Paul's letter to the Romans.  Paul's discussion of election has nothing to do with who is ultimately lost or saved. His discussion of election pertains to the unique circumstances of covenantal change that was occurring in the first century and what that change meant for first century Israel. Paul's discourse is all about convincing first century Israel that it is only through Christ one can be righteous before God.  

       Romans 10:3-4:  Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.

        Paul indicates there is righteousness through Christ for everyone who believes. To conclude that God, in his sovereignty, has in advance limited the number who can believe and has condemned those who aren't predestined to believe to be eternally lost is contrary to the entire focus of the Gospel message.

       Romans 10:9-13: That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. As the Scripture says, "Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame."  For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile--the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."

      John 3:17: For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

       In Romans eleven, Paul makes it clear that the first century Israelites who were rejected by God became hardened because of their choosing not to believe and not because God predetermined that they not believe. Paul warned the Gentles the same would happen to them if they choose to reject Christ.

       Romans 10:19-22: You will say then, "Branches were broken off so that I (the Gentles) could be grafted in."  Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid.  For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off.

       Paul clearly shows here, as he has done throughout his letter to the Romans, that God responds to us based on our choice to either believe or not believe. Paul analogizes first century Gentles and Israelites to branches. The Israelite branches were broken off because of unbelief. The Gentile branches were grafted in because they did believe. Israel fell under the wrath of God because of their unbelief while the Gentiles fell under God's mercy. Paul clearly warns the Gentles not to be arrogant about this or they too will be cut off.  Paul also shows that the Israelites can be grafted back in if thy repent and come to believe in Christ.

      Romans 11:23: And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.

       These passages clearly give evidence to our having the freewill to choose to believe or not believe.  God does not predetermine how we believe.  What God has predetermined are the consequences associated with our belief or unbelief.  That's the reality we see from Genesis to Revelation.

       Predestination in Scripture is not about determining in advance who is ultimately saved or lost.  It is not about predetermining our behavior.  Does God predetermine some things?  Of course He does.  A major predetermination was God predetermining events to the extent necessary to ensure that it would be through Jacob’s lineage that Christ would come.   It should be readily apparent; however, that God does not predetermine human behavior in general.  What God has predetermined is that we have freewill.  Freewill is an attribute of being human that is clearly demonstrated throughout the Scriptures. 

       It is clear that to behave righteously or unrighteously is a choice.  Humans are not inherently predisposed or predetermined to do one or the other.  What we inherently are predisposed and predetermined to do is make choices.  In Romans 6:15-18, Paul complements the Romans for having turned from being slaves to sin (choosing sin) to being slaves to righteousness (choosing righteousness).  Sin and righteousness are manifested through behavioral choices not through inherent predispositions or Divine predetermination's.  Jesus showed this to be the case when He said; If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (John 7:17)