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? Romans 9:19-21
"Thou wilt say then." With these words the apostle introduces an objector to the doctrine of predestination as set forth in the preceding verses of this important chapter of the epistle to the Romans. One objection had already been met. It was expressed in the question: Is there, then, unrighteousness with God, if sovereignly and without regard to their works He chooses the one and rejects the other? This question is now settled. The objection was removed by appealing to Scripture twice, in order to learn what God Himself has to say on the matter. We cannot summon God before the tribunal of our human and sinful judgment. If we would have a true and proper answer to the question concerning God's righteousness in the matter of sovereign predestination, we must hear what He will say. And God declareth to Moses that He will have mercy on whom He will have mercy and that He will show compassion unto whom He will show compassion. Salvation is not of him that willeth, neither of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy. And to Pharaoh it was said by the Scriptures (and notice that this is only another way of saying: "by God"), that God had raised him up for the very purpose that He might show His power in him and that His name might be declared throughout all the earth. The conclusion was: Therefore hath He mercy on whom He will have mercy and whom He will He hardeneth!
A hard doctrine, however, this is for sinful and proud man. The living God is not in all his thoughts. Rather than submit himself to God, he will invent his own idols, gods after his own heart, sweet little vanities, that are subject to his will and 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. Small wonder that our sinful heart rebels! And the inspired apostle, realizing this rebellious state of the sinful heart, introduces a second objection that will undoubtedly be lodged against his doctrine to the teaching contained n the preceding section of this chapter as concluded in vs. 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 objection refers. "Thou wilt say then unto me, if the case be really thus, if God not 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.
I am glad because of the very fact that this objection is found here. Its presence here may serve as a check upon the interpretation of this part of the Word of God, as we have offered it thus far. The objection is a very common one. It is as old as the truth and as modern as the present day. It is sure to be raised wherever the truth of predestination is preached in all its purity. When all other objections and arguments have been exhausted, the opponents of this truth usually advance this one. I am glad, therefore, that we find it in this very chapter, that it is raised against the doctrine of the inspired apostle, against the Word of God itself; for it shows that thus far we interpreted the Word of God in this chapter correctly. It is quite impossible to advance this objection against the Arminian interpretation of this chapter. Fact is, that Arminian interpreters themselves usually raise it. And they always attempt to offer an interpretation of Romans 9 that eliminates the reason for any such objection arising in the heart of sinful man. But let us notice that when the apostle Paul discussed the doctrine of sovereign predestination, he expected the objection: why doth He yet find fault, for who hath resisted His will? And, therefore, the fact that this objection is found in this connection corroborates our interpretation: why doth He yet find fault, for who hath resisted His will? And, therefore, the fact that this objection is found in this connection corroborates our interpretation and proves that we have understood the apostle correctly.
The question of the objector, therefore, is: why doth God find fault if it is true that He hardens whom He will? And the answer prostrates the proud and rebellious objector in the dust, reminds him of his proper place in relation to the Most High: "Who art thou, O man? The potter hath power over the clay!" My text, therefore, calls me to speak to you on God's absolute sovereignty in the matter of predestination. This is, perhaps, the clearest revelation of the living God in distinction from all our idols, that could ever come to us, and for sinful man, also for our own sinful nature the hardest to receive. Let us not forget this, and prayerfully humble ourselves as we hear the Word of God concerning:
God's Absolute Sovereignty in Predestination
Let us see:
II. How it is contradicted.
III. How it is maintained against the contradiction.
I. How it is expressed in the text.
The apostle uses a common and homely figure to impress us with the truth of the absolute sovereignty of God, the illustration of the potter and the clay. There is a potter, busily shaping vessels or 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 unto things of beauty, into pretty vases that you give a place of honor to adorn your sitting-room table or the mantle above your fireplace 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 main idea expressed is that the potter has full and absolute power over the clay to do with it as he pleases, to make it subservient to his good pleasure. And when you read in the text of the power this potter has over the clay, you must not think of strength or ability to do or to make something. Of course, the potter is stronger than the clay; it cannot resist him. And he is able to make vessels unto honor and vessels unto dishonor. But this is not the meaning of the word power in the text. It is rather the idea of authority that is meant. The potter has the right, the absolute authority to make vessels of it according to his good pleasure. He is sovereign over the clay. And, therefore, the vessels, could they talk, whether they be shaped unto honor or unto dishonor, have no right whatever to protest against the potter because of what he produces. This is the fundamental thought illustrated by the figure.
Now, this figure of the potter and the clay was a very familiar one for Israel. It is used more than once in the Old Testament. It is employed rather at length, for instance, in Jeremiah 18. It is of interest for us to compare the use of this figure in that chapter of Jeremiah with its occurrence in the words of our text, for the latter is often erroneously interpreted in the light of the former, though there are important points of difference between the two passages. The passage to which I am referring (Jeremiah 18:1-10) reads as follows, "The word which came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying, Arise, and go down to the potter's house, and there I will cause thee to hear my words. 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 it seemed good to the potter to make it. Then the word of the Lord came unto 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 my hand, O house of Israel. At what instant I 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 will I repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them."
It will be clear that there is considerable difference between the passage just quoted from Jeremiah and the words of our text. In Romans 9 the reference is to individual men: the vessels unto honor and the vessels unto dishonor are individuals. In Jeremiah, however, the vessel that is made, marred, and made into another vessel is the nation of Israel. In Romans 9 the potter is represented as forming several vessels out of the same lump of clay, according to his good pleasure. The vessels are not first marred and then reshaped into other vessels; they are made according to a preconceived purpose. In Jeremiah, however, the one vessel is marred in the hands of the potter and then made over into another vessel. This is a very important difference. The viewpoint of the figure in Jeremiah is quite different from that in Romans 9; and so is the purpose. In the passage from Jeremiah the purpose is, evidently, to show Israel that it has the right to appeal to the promises of God when it walks in sin and iniquity: Israel, the broken, marred, misshapen vessel, wicked Israel certainly had merited rejection by Jehovah. But in Romans 9 the purpose of the figure is to vindicate God's absolute sovereignty to determine the final destiny of men, either to honor or dishonor, to salvation and glory, or to damnation and desolation, without regard to their works. The two passages, therefore, complement each other. For, even though God determines with absolute sovereignty who are to be saved and who are not, yet, in the working out of their salvation and damnation He never fails to treat them as rational, moral, responsible creatures.
The point of the figure in the words of our text is plain. The whole emphasis falls on the power, i.e., the right, the authority, the sovereignty of the potter over the clay. When of the same lump he makes different vessels, ashpots, garbage-containers on the one hand, and beautiful vases, ornamental vessels that receive a place of honor in your home, 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 ashpots and garbage-cans." It had no rights. It was 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. There is no difference of opinion 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. Nor can it be gainsaid that men in their final state are presented by the figure as being the handiwork of God. And the point of the text is, therefore, also 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. That He determines man's eternal state righteously was maintained in the preceding section; that He makes this determination sovereignly is the point of this passage. And this sovereignty of God is, as is evident from the objection that is raised, maintained especially with a view to the eternal state of the lost. No more than the finished vessel unto dishonor can say to the potter, "Why hast thou made me thus," no more do the damned in hell have the right to raise this protest. The damned in hell can never say, "We had certain rights which Thou didst violate, and Thou didst not have the right to make of me a manifestation of Thy righteous wrath"; 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. 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. Then there will be no more objection. Even the lost will have to confess that God made them. Of course!! For, He is the potter and must be acknowledged forever as such. But the proud question shall nevermore be heard, "Why hast thou made me thus?"
So much is clear. No interpreter can deny this without doing violence to the text.
But difference of opinion arises as soon as we attempt to apply the figure somewhat more in detail, and especially when the question is asked, "What precisely is illustrated by the lump of clay out of which the potter shapes his vessels? Different answers have been given to this question, some of which are motivated by the desire to limit God's sovereignty by the freedom of man. One of these finds that "the lump of clay therefore represents the whole of humanity, not the 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 implies 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 the 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!
But how remote from the clear language of this text is this interpretation and are all similar explanations of this passage! For, first of all, how could such a doctrine ever give rise to the objection that is raised and to which the text is a reply: "Why doth He yet find fault, for who hath resisted His will?" The objection would be absurd on the surface. Secondly, this interpretation stands in conflict with all the apostle has been teaching in the context. Has he not 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 now 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? And, thirdly, how utterly this interpretation ignores 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 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 the clay, i.e., 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 the different vessels, already prepared, to the purpose unto which they are most nearly adapted. We cannot subscribe to this interpretation. It really ignores the text entirely. To be sure, it may be admitted readily, 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 an injustice to any, can form into vessels of mercy those whom He wills 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 that 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 both. God is equally sovereign both with regard to the salvation of the elect and the damnation of the reprobate. This is also the meaning of the immediate context: He is merciful to whom He will be merciful and whom He will, He hardeneth!
If we would consider the matter from a historical viewpoint, we are not even compelled to explain that the lump of clay represent mankind as it was originally created. For, we may go a step farther back. Fact is, that the divine Potter formed 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 a 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 the making of 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, it is according to His eternal good pleasure and by His omnipresent providence, even though it be through the willful and wanton disobedience of man in conjunction with the temptation of the devil, that sin is introduced and in the first Adam the whole human race becomes guilty and corrupt, subject to the wrath of God and dead in sin and misery. 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, Who is a light and there is no darkness in Him. But with equal abhorrence we reject as unscriptural the view that sin was a mere accident, that God did not hold the reigns 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 the entrance of sin was merely the second step toward the formation of the vessels unto honor and unto dishonor. In the third place, 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; while He hardens the rest and through every means forms them into vessels unto dishonor. For, He is merciful unto whom He will to 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?
Thus the sovereignty of God in His predestinating purpose and counsel is maintained without compromise. For, back of this entire course of history stands the counsel of God, according to which He loved Jacob and hated Esau. The former is the revelation and realization of the latter. And in as far as we can speak of an order in that eternal counsel (order not in the sense of time, but in the logical sense of purpose and means), we shall always have to conceive of such an order in such a way that God remains sovereign. That order may not be conceived as if God first determined to create a human race, then decided to permit the entrance of sin and, finally, purposed to save some out of the whole and fallen race, in order to make of them manifestations of His grace, while reprobating others to leave them in their sin and fallen state. On the contrary, it was God's sole and eternal purpose to glorify His name through His Son in the flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ. Unto that end He 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, without interruption, everything being subservient to 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. No one can say: what doest Thou? Hath not the potter power over the clay?
II. How It is Contradicted
If we thus maintain the sovereignty of God in the salvation of the elect and the damnation of the reprobate, we can, at least, conceive of the reason why the objection, which the apostle mentions in the words of my text, is raised at all, arises in the rebellious heart of proud and sinful man. I say, we can conceive that this objection is raised. Only, beware, lest you fall into the error of the objector that is here introduced! Do not listen to this truth concerning the sovereignty of God with the rebellious question in your heart and mind: "Why doth He yet find fault, for who hath resisted His will?" For, the objection is one that can only arise in the heart of the enemy of the truth. Oh, I realize full well, that wherever and whenever this truth is preached in all its purity, this objection must be raised. If it were not raised against my preaching on this tremendous truth, I would consider it a proof that I were not dividing the Word of God aright among you. For, when the Holy Spirit through the apostle Paul revealed the truth of God's absolutely sovereign purpose of election and reprobation, sinful men opposed it and uttered the rebellious question: "Why doth He yet find fault, for who hath resisted His will?" And when the same and similar objections are raised against my preaching of this truth, I will comfort myself with the assurance that it is only a proof that I have understood the apostle correctly on this point and am not distorting or adulterating the truth of God, the consciences of the objectors bearing me witness that this is, indeed, the truth as revealed in the ninth chapter of Romans. But let us not fall into the same error. Rather let us bow our heads in humble adoration and confess that our God is GOD indeed!
What does the objector say? What is the sense of the question by which he expresses his objection to the doctrine of God's absolute sovereignty? Emphatically he states that no one hath ever resisted the will of God And no one is able to resist the will of the Almighty. And upon the basis of this indisputable fact, he draws the conclusion, that, if it please the Most High to make of him a vessel unto dishonor, He certainly can not find fault with him if he be wicked and walk in the way of sin. He speaks as follows: "Is not the will of God irresistible? Is He not stronger than I? Can I, then, frustrate His purpose to harden me and to make of me a vessel unto dishonor? Am I not passive, mere clay in His hand? If I, then, cannot resist His will to harden me, I cannot be held responsible for my sin. God surely cannot find fault with me, seeing I am His own handiwork, and I could not prevent His forming me into just what I am." Thus the objection runs. It maintains that the doctrine of the absolute sovereignty of God necessarily involves the denial of the responsibility of man. And the purpose of the objection is to bring the truth into discredit, to maintain man's sovereignty over against that of the living God!
Let me say just a few things about this objection.
First of all, beloved, I would like to emphasize once more, that here we meet with one of the commonest objections against the truth of the absolute sovereignty of God in the matter of the salvation and the damnation of man. You may study the history of the Church and its doctrine along its main and positive line, which runs, by the way, not over Pelagius and Arminius to the modern free-willist, but over men like Augustine and Calvin to those that maintain the truth of divine predestination in the present day, -- and you will discover that the principal objection of the opponents, when all other arguments are exhausted, was always this: You make God the author of sin and you deny the responsibility of man. It is the same objection raised already against the teaching of the apostle in this ninth chapter of the Romans and expressed in the question: why doth He find fault, for who hath resisted His will?
Secondly, in as far as the question represents an attempt of the wicked to excuse himself and escape the righteous judgment of God by an appeal to the sovereignty of God and the irresistibility of His will, it is a lie! Why? Because the objector presents the matter as if God's act of hardening were ever in conflict with the will and desire of the one that is hardened. The supposition underlying the question is, that the one hardened would resist the process of hardening if only he were able. And, beloved, let me set your hearts at rest, for this never occurs. The objector complains: who can resist His will? as if he actually seriously attempted to serve the Most High and escape this hardening, but was forced into it against his will by a certain fatal power, stronger than he. Such a process of hardening never occurs. The will of the wicked that are formed into vessels unto dishonor always co-operates with the sovereign will of God, never attempts to resist Him. God hardens the heart of man, and man hardens his own heart. Do not misunderstand me. Even in the process of hardening, man is not first. On the contrary, God is sovereign, not man. But the fact remains that when God hardens a man, and shapes him into a vessel unto dishonor, the man that is so hardened stands in perfect agreement with this will of God. For, he loves iniquity and seeks his own damnation. He even does so consciously and knowingly. He hardens himself even in spite of the Word of God that is brought to his knowledge and understanding, calling him externally to repentance. This is very clear from the history of Pharaoh to which reference is made in this ninth chapter of the Romans. Never does it occur that a man sincerely repents, or would repent and says: "Oh, how I would wish to be a child of God and to serve Him," while God hardens him. If it is your sincere and earnest desire to be saved, to be redeemed and delivered from sin, to be called a son of God, He does not harden you, but has even now wrought His grace in your heart. Just as I said a few weeks ago, the truth of sovereign predestination is not at all in conflict with the truth that whosoever believeth on Him shall be saved, and whosoever will may come and drink of the water of life freely. The hungry soul shall be filled. The thirsty soul shall be fully satisfied. The weary shall find rest. To him that knocks it shall surely be opened. He that seeks shall surely find. And they that mourn shall be comforted. And it never happens that God forms a man into a vessel unto dishonor, and the man struggles against that sovereign will of God. That is a moral impossibility. And, therefore, the objection is a lie. When anyone replies to the doctrine of divine sovereignty: "Oh, well, who can resist His will? I tried it, and He is much stronger than I," he lies! And there is no one among you, as you hear the truth concerning God's sovereign predestination, that can honestly and sincerely come with this objection: why doth He yet find fault? for who hath resisted His will? Your own conscience bears you witness that you would be dishonest with yourself and over against God!
III. How It is Maintained Against the Contradiction
And how does the apostle meet this objection? Does he say of his opponent that he misunderstood the doctrine of God's sovereignty, that his objections are due to a misapprehension on his part of the apostle's teaching? It is evident from the objector's question that he understood Paul's doctrine of absolute predestination and God's sovereignty as I have interpreted it to you, not in the Arminian sense. And if the objector had misconstrued the meaning of the apostle's words, so that his objection was occasioned by a wrong conception of Paul's doctrine, it would have been easy to correct him on this point, and this is the place where we would find such correction. The apostle would then have written something like this: "But, O man, thou misunderstoodst me altogether. I certainly do not mean to teach that God is absolutely sovereign even over the will of man. On the contrary, His sovereignty is limited by the sovereign freedom of man's will. God, therefore, hardens only those that resist His sincere desire and efforts to save them, and He makes vessels unto honor of those that are willing to co-operate with Him and seek His grace. Man is always first; God follows the determinations of the will of man!" Such an answer would have removed the very ground of the objection and the opponent would have been silenced. But we read nothing of the kind. Tacitly the apostle admits that the objector understood this correctly. The truth of sovereign election and reprobation is left unchanged. Or does, perhaps, the apostle answer his opponent by appealing to "another side" of this question? Does he shift to "another track?" As you well know, there are those "double track" theologians among them that assume the name of being Reformed. They profess to believe in the truth of absolute predestination and the sovereignty of God. But when the objection is raised, that by this doctrine they violate the freedom of man and deny his responsibility, they shift to another "track," virtually the Arminian "track" of theology. On the one hand they claim to be Reformed and to believe the doctrine of the absolute sovereignty of God; on the other hand they teach that God earnestly seeks the salvation of all men and graciously offers them His salvation in the preaching of the gospel. And if you still object that this two-faced theology is untenable, they seek refuge in the haven of "mystery." And well we, too, understand that God's ways are mysterious, that they are past finding out. We can only bow down in worship and humbly believe what God will say! But this double-track theology is no mystery, but plain evasion and nonsense. Either God wills that all men be saved, or He wills to be merciful to some and to harden others. It is quite impossible to maintain both. However this may be, if there were such "another side" of the truth, we certainly would find it here. For, the apostle has been expounding the truth of absolute predestination and the sovereignty of the Most High in the clearest and strongest language, in words we would certainly never employ were they not found in Holy Writ. And he meets with an objection, the objection that man is no longer responsible if the truth is as the apostle expounded it. Surely, if there were another "track" of truth, this is the place in which we would find it.
But the apostle does not mention this other side of the truth here. There is no vestige here of such another "track" of theology. He leaves the truth as it stands. He does not draw back before the sharp attack of the enemy. He does not obliterate any lines. He does not begin to draw another line. He does not apologize. How could he? Had he not written about the sovereignty of the living God? And does God need an apology for His very Godhead, when proud men reply against Him rebelliously? For this is exactly what the objector does in this case. The apostle says: "Thou repliest against God!" And that, according to the original, implies two things. First of all, it means that the opponent contradicts God. And, mark you, the apostle emphasizes that it is God, Whom the enemy here contradicts. The apostle had written the Word of GOD. For, first of all, he was inspired by the Spirit of God and God wrote His Word through him. And, secondly, he had appealed to the Old Testament Scriptures to prove that God is sovereign to have compassion on whom He will have compassion and to harden whom He will. And now the objector came with an answer against this doctrine, not from Scripture, but derived from his own proud and corrupt heart. He, therefore, contradicted God! And this is a heinous sin, the height of presumption! And, secondly, when the apostle writes that the opponent replies against God, he emphasizes that this contradiction is also rebellion. You rebel against the living God! That is the deepest root of all objections against the truth of God's sovereign disposition in the matter of salvation and damnation. It is not a matter of misunderstanding, it is not a matter of the intellect at all; it is a matter of the will, of the heart, of rebellion against God, when a mere man comes with this proud objection against the truth! In his deepest heart he does not want God Who is really GOD!
And, therefore, the real answer of the apostle to this objection of the opponent is contained in the question: "Nay but, O man, who art thou?"
The meaning of this question is emphatically, that this objector does not know his own place, his proper place in relation to God. If he, infinitesimally small speck of dust, who cannot for a moment be compared with the infinite God, knew himself, understood his relation to God, his proud speech would die upon his lips!
Soon it is summer-time again. And the flies will enter our homes; and the mosquitoes will trouble us. And we will go after them, swat the flies and kill the mosquitoes. And we never trouble ourselves about the question whether we have a right to do so. Perhaps, if that mosquito could speak, it would say to us: "What are you doing? You have no right to take my life!" And, to be sure, you could have no sovereignty in yourself to kill another creature. But you would answer, "I claim the right to kill you, because you trouble me!" But beloved, you and I, and all the nations of the earth together are not as significant in relation to God, as that mosquito and that fly we kill are in relation to us! Who art thou, O man? O, thou proud, haughty, rebellious, presumptuous, wicked, utterly foolish speck of dust! Does not God say, that if you would take all nations of the world together, you would still have but a drop of the bucket in comparison with the living God? And notice, that they are not a drop in, but a drop of the bucket, a drop on the outside of the pail, that presently falls off and means just nothing!
Shall, then, that small man, that mere nothing, say to that infinite God, Whom he cannot understand (for if we would understand God, He would not be God but an idol): what doest Thou? Thou hast no right to make me thus!? God forbid! Let the proud speech never cross our lips! 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 to our salvation. And when He places us where we ought to be, prostrate in the dust, when He takes that darkness of sin our 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! I will be still!"
Rev. Herman Hoeksema
Herman Hoeksema (1886-1965) was born in Groningen, the Netherlands on March 13, 1886 and passed away in Grand Rapids, MI on September 2, 1965. He attended the Theological School of the Christian Reformed Church and was ordained into the minitry in September of 1915.
"H.H." is considered one of the founding "fathers" of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America. He and his consistory (Eastern Ave. Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI) were suspended and deposed from their offices in 1924-1925 because of their opposition to the "Three Points of Common Grace" adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in the Synod of Kalamazoo, MI in 1924. He, together with Rev. George M. Ophoff, Rev. H. Danhof and their consistories continued in office in the "Protesting Christian Reformed Church" which shortly thereafter were named the "Protestant Reformed Churches in America."
Herman Hoeksema served as pastor in the 14th Street Christian Reformed Church in Holland, MI (1915-1920), Eastern Ave. Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI (1920-1924), and First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI (1924-1964), He taught in the Seminary of the Protestant Reformed Churches from its founding and retired in 1964.
For an enlarged biography, see: Herman Hoeksema: Theologian and Reformer