The Potter and the Clay

Title: The Potter and the Clay

Text: Romans 9:19-33

Time: October 27th, 2006

There is a famous church hymn that goes, “Have thine way Lord, Have thine own way. You are the potter, I am the clay. Mold me and make me after thy will, While I am waiting, yielded and still.” That old hymn uses the example of the potter and clay just as the Apostle Paul uses it to illustrate man’s relationship to God in Romans 9. Paul is talking about predestination in order to answer the question about why God’s chosen people the Jews are not being chosen by God for salvation through faith in the gospel. God has now opened the hearts of the Gentiles to believe in Jesus, while his own chosen people, the Jews, have closed their hearts to their own Messiah’s salvation. How can this be? Paul’s answer: it was predestined to be. God is the potter; we are the clay. Behind all human choices, God makes his own choices. Beyond all human understanding and comprehension, God already knows, God has already decided. And yet we are all called to choose because our choices will have eternal consequences. How can this be? How can our choices and God’s choices fit together? Paul never answers that question, yet he accepts both predestination and human free will as both true. Some people say that explaining predestination is an attempt to know the unknowable. That is probably true, which is why the Apostle Paul never tries to explain predestination; he only teaches that it is true. Paul uses it as an explanation as to why God’s chosen people haven’t chosen salvation in Jesus. Paul’s answer: God hasn’t chosen his chosen people for salvation in Jesus. Why haven’t the Jews chosen the gospel? Because God hasn’t chosen the Jews to believe the gospel. Why have the Gentiles chosen the gospel? Because God has chosen the Gentiles to believe the gospel. Now in saying this, Paul explains why the chosen people haven’t chosen their own Messiah; because God hasn’t chosen them. But it raises still more questions about the fairness of God towards people, particularly those who aren’t chosen. Paul answered a few of these questions in the last section, Romans 9:1-18, but in this section, Romans 9:19-33 (read) he answers more questions about predestination. Romans 9:18 ends this way, “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.” In this we hear Paul teaching about the core of predestination, but he answers more questions and explains more objections. “Have thine own way Lord, Have thine own way. You are the potter, I am the clay. Mold me and make me after thy will, While I am waiting, yielded and still.” Let’s see if we can understand this old church hymn better in this passage in Romans. Here’s what Paul says.

First, Don’t question God. Romans 9:19-21, “One of you will say to me: ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?’ 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?” In explaining the question why have God’s chosen people the Jews not chosen God’s Messiah, Paul answers that God has not chosen them to believe and be saved, whereas God has chosen the Gentiles to believe and be saved. But that explanation raises the question: if this is so, how can the Jews and other unbelievers be blamed for not believing in Christ, since their unbelief is the result of God not choosing them to believe? To which Paul answers: who are you to question God? If this is God’s way, who are we to question and object to it? Doesn’t a potter have a right to make a pot any way he wants? Does the pot have the right to say, “Why did you make me this way or that?” Doesn’t the potter have the absolute right to do whatever he wants with his pots? Can’t he make one pot for one thing, and another pot for another thing? Now that isn’t the answer we humans like to hear because we don’t like to be compared to pots, but when you come to think about it, it’s true what Paul is saying. God is God. He has a right to create or not create. And then if he decides to create, he has a right to create anything he wants, and do whatever he wants with whatever he creates. We would give this right to a potter in respect to his pots, but when it comes to God and us, we don’t like to think of ourselves as pots and God as the potter, because we like to think of ourselves as more important than pots and God as different from a potter. But when we really think about it, God really is like a potter, in complete control, and we really are like pots, totally dependent on the potter. The old hymn again, “Have thine own way Lord, Have thine own way. You are the potter, I am the clay. Mold me and make me after thy will, While I am waiting, yielded and still.” It might seem like a slap in the face to us, but God is in control and we are not. It might wound our pride, but God is the Creator and we are the creation, the creature. In living in world of human civilization, among people all day long, we might get the impression that everything rises and falls with humanity. Human decisions, human history, human accomplishments, human wisdom, human thoughts, feelings, actions. Our world is usually filled with the interaction of humans with humans, but here in Romans 9 we are faced with the cold, hard reality that contrary to our normal experience, God is in control, not humans. It does us all good to be humbled once in a while with the realization that ultimately God is in control, not any human or humans. This is Paul’s second point.

Second, God is in control. Romans 9:22-29, “What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath – prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory – even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? As he says in Hosea: ‘I will call them my people who are not my people; and I will call her my loved one who is not my loved one.’ And, ‘It will happen that in the very place where it was said to them, you are not my people, they will be called sons of the loving God.’ Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: ‘Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved. For only the Lord will carry out his sentence on earth with speed and finality.’ It is just as Isaiah said previously, ‘Unless the Lord Almighty had left us descendants, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been like Gomorrah.’” Here Paul goes even deeper in developing the potter and pot illustration: he talks about preparing objects for destruction and preparing objects for glory. If Paul’s first point wasn’t enough to upset someone, Paul’s second point is certainly upsetting to everyone. According to Paul, not only did God as the potter prepare some pots for his own special use, he also prepared some pots for destruction! Yes, that’s what Paul says. The application to salvation is clear: God chooses for some people to believe for glory in heaven, while he chooses some other people to disbelieve for destruction in hell. Now this is the hardest and harshest part of the teaching about predestination. What it means is that somewhere, someplace, in the deepest recesses of God’s mind, all the ultimate decisions about human destiny have already been made. But in spite of all that, all of us still have perfectly free wills to choose. How these two things, God’s predestination and human free will, can exist together is impossible to explain, but they do. The only place they make perfect sense is in the infinite, un-searchable mind of God. Rather than understand it, we are called to accept it by faith – and most of all, thank God that we are among the chosen! Paul says, “The objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory – even us, who he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles,” Romans 9:23-24. He then goes on to show from the prophets that God has chosen both Jews and Gentiles to share in eternal glory. But predestination isn’t the only thing that Paul wants us to know, because his last point is that everyone is personally responsible to believe by faith if they want eternal life.

Third, salvation comes by faith not works. 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 trust in him will never be put to shame.’” Just when we think the whole thing is about predestination, Paul turns the page and begins to explain free will. He talks about Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness, obtaining it by faith or belief. He talks about Jews who pursued righteousness by law and works, didn’t obtain it because they didn’t pursue it by faith. Finally, he talks about anyone who trusts in the rock will never be put to shame. Language using words like “pursue” and “faith” and “trust,” all speak of human free will. In fact, most of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, speaks more about human free will than predestination. That means that it is natural that we should think and speak more about free will than predestination because it pertains more to us than does predestination. Predestination is something that exists in the infinite mind of God; free will is something that exists in our own minds, because we must make choices with our lives and live with those choices. While predestination is true, it is something beyond our own human minds. While we can accept that it is true from the Bible, it is something that we cannot understand and so thinking about it is limited. That’s probably why the Bible mentions it, but not very often. But free will is something that is not only understandable, it is practical. I am called by God to faith, I’m called to believe, I’m called to trust, I’m responsible for my response. I can’t use the excuse of predestination because I don’t know or understand enough about it to use it as an excuse; nobody can. So God is calling me to exercise my free will and believe in him, trust and obey. The old church hymn goes, “Have thine own way Lord, Have thine own way. You are the potter, I am the clay. Mold me and make me, after thy will, While I am waiting, yielded and still.” I think that wise, old hymn strikes a good balance for what Paul is teaching about predestination and free will. It talks about the potter and clay, mold me and make me after thy will – that speaks of predestination. It talks about waiting, yielded and still – that talks about free will, me responding in humility to God’s call to trust and obey. Everything fits together in perfect harmony with God, but for now we have to take this by faith because we can’t see it as God sees it.

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