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The Potter and the Clay

Rev. Herman Hoeksema

God's child loves to sing: "Have Thine own way, Lord! Thou art the Potter; I am the clay. Mold me and make me after Thy will, While I am waiting, yielded and still." And no wonder: he is a vessel of mercy, prepared afore unto glory by God's sovereign grace. And therefore, he can well entrust himself to God as the Potter, confident that He will mold him unto everlasting glory. The hymn is undoubtedly an allusion to Isaiah 64:8, "But now, O Lord, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou art our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand."

But the viewpoint of the text in Romans 9:19-21, which also speaks of the potter and the clay, is nevertheless different from that in the hymn we just quoted. This passage speaks not only of vessels of mercy, prepared unto glory, but also of vessels of wrath, prepared unto dishonor. And it maintains the absolute sovereignty of God with respect to both. Let us first read the text: "Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? 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? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor?"

Let us note that the apostle once more intercepts an objection here against the doctrine of God's absolute predestination. The apostle realizes that this is a hard doctrine for the proud and haughty sinner; for sinful man, rather than submit himself to God, will invent his own idols, gods after his own heart, sweet little vanities that are subject to his will and that inspire no fear whatsoever. But the truth the apostle had been developing brings us face to face with the revelation of the absolute Sovereign, who accomplishes all His good pleasure and does all things for His own Name's sake. And the apostle, realizing the rebellious state of the sinful heart, introduces a second objection that will undoubtedly be lodged against his doctrine, and especially to the teaching contained in the preceding section of this chapter, as concluded in verse 18: "Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth." Especially to the very last clause of this eighteenth verse the apostle refers: "Thou wilt say then unto me; -- if the case be really thus, if God only shows mercy unto whom He wills, but also hardeneth whom he will; -- Why doth he yet find fault, seeing that surely no man can ever resist his will? If it pleases him to harden me, I certainly cannot help it. And if I cannot help it, he surely does not have to find fault with me if I sin." Such is the objection the apostle considers in the words of our text.

In the present lecture we must consider first of all the figure of the potter and the clay, and explain its significance.

The figure which the apostle uses to illustrate the relation of the absolute sovereignty in which God stands to man is a very familiar one. There is a potter, busily shaping vessels of pottery from the clay he uses as his material, which was done, as we learn from the Old Testament, on a frame or wheel. He has, according to the presentation in the words of my text, one lump of clay. There is, therefore, no difference in the quality of the material from which he shapes his vessels. But out of that same lump of clay he makes different vessels to serve different purposes: vessels unto honor and vessels unto dishonor. Some of these vessels he shapes into things of beauty, into pretty vases, that you give a place of honor to adorn your living-room table or the mantle above your fireplace. And some he makes crude and unfinished, to serve as ash cans and garbage containers, vessels unto dishonor. He makes them all out of the same lump of clay, to suit his own purpose and fancy. Such is the figure of the potter and the clay.

And the meaning of the figure is very plain. The whole emphasis in the text falls on the power, that is, on the right, the authority, the sovereignty of the potter over the clay. When of the same lump he makes definite vessels, ash-pots, garbage containers, on the one side, and beautiful vases, ornamental vessels that receive a place of honor in your home, on the other hand, the vessels have no right to protest, whatever they may be and whatever purpose they may serve in their finished form. The vessels unto dishonor, if they could protest and talk to the potter, have no right to say: "We had some rights of our own to begin with, and these rights you violated when you shaped us into ash-pots and garbage cans." They had no rights whatever. They were originally a mere lump of clay. This central idea of the figure the apostle himself emphasizes when he explains: "Shall the thing formed say unto him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?"

Nor is it difficult to apply the figure. God is, of course, represented by the potter; and there is no difference on this point. Neither can it be denied that the vessels, both unto honor and unto dishonor, signify the finished work of God with men, their final, eternal state. The vessels unto honor are the glorified saints in the eternal kingdom; the vessels unto dishonor are the damned in hell. The former are the objects of His eternal mercy; the latter of His sovereign wrath. The final state of the saved and of the lost is illustrated, therefore, by the vessels unto honor and the vessels unto dishonor. And both are presented by the figure as being the handiwork of God. The point of the text, therefore, is very evident. Scripture here teaches very plainly that God has the indisputable right to do with men, even with a view to their eternal destiny, as He pleases. No one has the right to call Him to account for what He does. No more than the finished vessel unto dishonor can say to the potter, Why hast thou made me thus?" no more can the damned in hell have the right to raise this protest. No more than the glorified saints will have occasion to claim that they were made manifestations of God's mercy because they had a right to be, nor more can the damned in hell ever say: "We had certain rights which Thou didst violate, and Thou didst not have the right to make of us vessels of wrath unto destruction." And although the wicked sinner here in the world, not knowing his proper place, may rebel against God's sovereignty, in hell this rebellion will be silenced forever. There no more objections will ever be heard.

So much is clear. No interpreter can deny this without violence to the text.

However, interpreters differ in their answer to the question what precisely is illustrated by the lump of clay of which the potter shapes his vessels. Some of the answers to this question are motivated by the desire to limit God's sovereignty by the freedom of man. Thus a well-known commentator writes: "The lump of clay, therefore, represents the whole of humanity, not humanity as God creates it, but in the state in which He finds it every moment when He puts it to the service of His kingdom. This state includes for each individual the whole series of free determinations which have gone to make him what he is." (Godet). What this interpretation means is evident. Man first makes himself into a vessel unto honor or unto dishonor, and then God uses him to whatever purpose He may. The honor or dishonor to which God turns man in the execution of His work is dependent on the attitude taken by man in relation to God. Man shapes himself first, and then God sees what He can do with him. God found righteous Moses and the wicked Pharaoh; and the former He uses as a vessel unto honor, the latter as a vessel unto dishonor. According to this interpretation the text would intend to maintain that God has the sovereign right to use the wicked as vessels unto dishonor and the righteous as vessels unto honor.

We cannot subscribe to this interpretation. It really ignores the text entirely as well as the context. As to the text, this interpretation is in conflict with the plain meaning of the figure of the potter and the clay. The figure speaks of one and the same lump of clay; and there certainly is no distinction of quality in the clay that would induce the potter to make different vessels.

The sole reason why vessels unto honor and unto dishonor are made out of the one lump of clay is the purpose and the good pleasure of the potter. But the interpretation referred to above really finds the ground of the action of the potter, by which he shapes different vessels, some to honor and some to dishonor, in clay, that is, in the free determination of men with respect to their relation to God. Besides, according to the illustration the potter has the indisputable right to make vessels unto honor and vessels unto dishonor. He shapes them so that they can serve an honorable or dishonorable purpose. But the interpretation would defend the right of the potter to use different vessels already prepared to the purpose to which they are most nearly adapted. Nor is this explanation in harmony with the entire context of Romans 9. Has not the apostle clearly set forth that salvation is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy? Did he not conclude that God hath mercy on whom He will have mercy, and whom He will He hardeneth? How then could he mean to deny all this by teaching that God makes vessels of honor of them that first make themselves worthy of such use, and vessels unto dishonor of those that make themselves wicked first? How, in the light of this interpretation, could the objection be raised that is implied in the question: "Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?" The objection would be absurd on the very surface. And therefore, we cannot accept this interpretation. It may be fairly admitted that when God sovereignly prepares men for eternal glory and eternal desolation, He does not violate the moral nature of men; but the fact remains that His determination of men's eternal destiny, whether they shall serve as vessels unto honor or as vessels unto dishonor, is, according to the text, free and sovereign, and not limited by man's disposition or choice.

Another and rather common interpretation is that the lump of clay represents fallen humanity. Mankind is fallen in Adam and is become a corrupt mass, without any claim to God's mercy. God, therefore, without doing any injustice to any can form into vessels of mercy those whom He will to save according to His sovereign good pleasure, while He has the sovereign right to leave others in their corrupt and damnable state. But also this interpretation does not do justice to the figure as it is found in the text. The figure of the potter and the clay does not merely illustrate the sovereignty of God with regard to the vessels of mercy, to make them into vessels of honor, but also His prerogative to make vessels unto dishonor. The potter does not make vessels unto honor, and permit vessels unto dishonor to develop by themselves; but he forms them both. And therefore, God is equally sovereign, both with regard to the salvation of the elect and the damnation of the reprobate.

If we would consider the matter from an historical point of view, we are not even compelled to explain that the lump of clay represents mankind as it was originally created. We may go a step further back. Fact is that the divine Potter forms man literally out of the ground. He took the dust of the ground, or reddish clay, and formed Adam out of it. Literally He began with a lump of clay, He made man out of that lump of clay, and in that one man He formed the entire human race. This formation of Adam out of the dust of the ground was the very first step in making vessels unto honor and vessels unto dishonor. For it was God's sovereign purpose, even in the formation of Adam, to make these two kinds of vessels in the way of sin and grace and along the line of election and reprobation. And this purpose He carries out. For sin entered into the world, to be sure, by the wanton disobedience and the will of man, yet also according to God's eternal good pleasure and His omnipresent providence. No, God is not the author of sin; far be it from us even to think such a thing of Him Who is absolutely holy and righteous. But with equal abhorrence we reject as unscriptural the view that sin was a mere accident, that God did not hold the reins as the governor of the universe when man fell and all the world was submerged in the darkness of sin and death. From God's viewpoint, therefore, the entrance of sin was merely the second step toward the formation of the vessels unto honor and the vessels unto dishonor. Now, from that fallen race, corrupt and dead in sin, He takes His own in Christ Jesus, those that are chosen in Him before the foundation of the world, redeems them through His blood, justifies them through His resurrection and by the power of His irresistible grace makes them the objects and products of His mercy, vessels unto honor in His eternal kingdom of glory. And the rest He hardens, and through every means forms them into vessels of dishonor. For He is merciful unto him to Whom He will be merciful, and whom He wills He hardens. Thus the figure in the words of my text is strictly maintained. Hath not the potter power over the clay, to make of the same lump vessels unto honor and vessels unto dishonor?

Back of this entire course of history stands the counsel of God, according to which He loved Jacob and hated Esau. According to that counsel it was God's sole and eternal purpose to glorify His name through His Son in the flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ. In the eternal counsel of God Christ is first; and that, too, as the Crucified One, Who was raised from the dead and exalted in the highest heavens to be Lord of all forever and ever. For thus we read in Col. 1:15, ff.: "Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: For by Him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence." In the same eternal counsel God chose the vessels unto honor in Christ Jesus, gave them unto Him, a glorious church, His body, an organic whole, the fullness of him that filleth all in all, in order that the glory of God in the glorified Christ might be abundantly multiplied through them. And He determined to make vessels unto dishonor not merely to show His righteous indignation, but also in order that the latter might be subservient to His purpose in the formation of the vessels unto honor. This is God's eternal purpose. And this purpose He carries out without fail throughout the history of the world, even unto the end, without interruption, everything being subservient unto this purpose of the Most High. Always He is God. Nowhere does He merely permit. Not for a moment do the reins slip out of His hand. He is the Lord, sovereign over all. He performs all His good pleasure. And always He forms His vessels unto honor and His vessels unto dishonor for His own sovereign purpose. And no one can say: "What doest thou?" Hath not the potter power over the clay?

Let us, then, humble ourselves and bow down in the dust before this great and glorious and absolutely sovereign God. We may not understand, we may not fathom the truth of God; we do not; I do not, and you do not; and I am glad to make the confession. God is infinitely great and glorious in majesty. I am infinitesimally small, and, besides, by nature corrupt. The finite does not, and does not have to comprehend the Infinite. But when He speaks, let us listen. Just hear what God will say. That is our salvation. And when He places us where we ought to be, prostrate in the dust; when He takes that darkness of sin out of our mind and that rebellious pride out of our heart, we will no longer reply against Him, but humbly worship with fear and trembling, and confess: Thou art the Potter; we are the clay; have Thine own way, Lord, forever and ever, and I will be still.

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