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?”
These words don’t occur in a vacuum in the New Testament. They occur in the context of a specific divine revelation, with a precise view of God. In other words, that the God of the Bible created in the beginning into nothingness the universe by his own decree and power. He alone said, “Let there be . . .” and there was. No one was with him. The whole Bible has this emphasis on the absolute sovereignty and unquestioned supremacy of Almighty God. Even a pagan king, Nebuchadnezzar, in the book of Daniel, after God greatly humiliated him, saw this fact and said about the God of Daniel, “He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No-one can hold back his hand or say to him: ‘What have you done’?” (Dan 4:37). You can’t slap down God’s hand and cry, “Don’t lay your fingers on me!” The Lord has absolute dominion over all his creatures, and he may do with them, by them, for them and upon them as it pleases him. If you sing the song, “Our God reigns,” then this is what you’re singing about. He reigns over heaven and earth and hell, over all his creatures and all their actions. We will never understand this chapter in Romans, and we will never relate rightly to the glory of our God if we are not clear on that, or if we doubt for one moment its emphasis on God’s unconditional sovereignty.
1. THE POTTER HAS TOTAL RIGHT OVER THE CLAY
Paul asks here, “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” (v.20). Do you see the cartoon image? It’s of a mouth spontaneously forming in a piece of clay which lies on the potter’s bench, and then a voice comes out of the clay’s mouth and it is whining away to the potter, “Oh no, you’re not going to make another three ducks out of me are you for people to stick on the living room wall? I want to be something different. I want to be a big white swan.” No. The clay has no life in itself, and no choice, and no voice in the matter of what the potter is going to do with it. The decision is 100% the potter’s, and we are being told by the apostle that that is the relationship of man to God; he is clay in the hands of the Potter. A potter may impart to clay any form that he pleases. He may assign it to any use he pleases. He may apply it to any end he pleases. He may make one piece of clay a chamber pot. He may make another piece of clay a beautiful ballerina, erect on her toes, with her arms extended, a picture of elegant poise. One object he has made is destined for common use, for daylight obscurity, and at night it is under the bed while the other will stand in a glass cabinet to be constantly protected and admired for centuries to come. And it is thus that men and women stand in relationship to God. God may impart to people any form that he pleases. He may assign to them any use and any destiny that God pleases. That is how the early church looked at itself. It possessed a glorious treasure, Jesus Christ, the one in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. They had the Son of God in their hearts. God had given them the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ. But what were they in themselves? Jars of clay. They hung their heads, saying; “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Cors. 4:7). They considered themselves to be earthern vessels.
Why did they see themselves like this? First of all because man has been created by God; he is a creature who lives and moves and has his being sustained by his Creator. That is the Maker’s absolute right over what he has made, and I ask, “Do we question that?” Then beyond that, not only a creature in the hands of God its Creator, man is also a sinner in the hands of the God who is light. Man is not a being that deserves something; he is not even a being that deserves nothing; he is a being that deserves condemnation. He merits being exposed to the unlimited wrath of a sin-hating God. We have no claims as creatures. We have less claims as sinners.
That is the biblical background of this emphasis on the apostle’s teaching on election. Man has fallen; man is a rebel; man is at enmity with God. Every imagination of the thoughts of our hearts only evil continually, dead in trespasses and sins, covered in sores, hearts deceitful and desperately wicked, and we live at the discretion of the Almighty who has unquestioned right over those in his creation, those who have defied him. It may seem a horrific doctrine. It is not, but it is awesome. It is one that has its elements of paradox, and its elements of mystery, and its own unfathomable depths. But I have no qualms about taking you with me and saying to you, “Now look at this” and making us all look straight into it, and down and down into its depths, and being sore amazed and filled with a sense of trembling and a sense of awe before what we see to be the unquestioned supremacy of God, feeling terribly small as God’s mere creatures and as sinners.
But as I say this I ask you also to recall this, that we are in the hands of God the Potter, that he is at work with us now, I mean, this past year right up to this very moment our whole personalities have been and are in God’s hands, every beat of our hearts, every breath we take, every lesson learned, every desire to go a certain way and do certain things – it all comes from God. We are clay in the hands of a potter. But then you remember two things . . .
i] What clay! God formed this clay from the dust of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living creature. This clay became alive and self conscious and had a sense of deity. It could create, and could appreciate beauty and speak and see God’s glory in creation. This clay could sing and could talk to God and could defy him. This clay could shake its fist at its Maker. This clay was warned whenever it did wrong by a conscience and by the same means would be commended when it did right. It could make right decisions and wrong decisions, but one thing that it could not do, it could not save itself. For that it was as helpless as the very clay. It could not redeem itself from sin. It could not enter heaven by its own efforts. It was unable to please God, any more than a piece of clay could save itself. However noble and brilliant a man may be he is utterly unable to glorify himself.
ii] What a Potter! What a God! You remember that greatest of all biblical questions, “Who is God?” and the great refrain of the psalmist, “Know that the LORD, he is God. Jehovah is God.” So when Scripture says that we stand, you and I, as clay in the hands of the potter, it is not saying that we are clay in the hands of some unpredictable God, that we are in the hands of some demon god, that we are clay in the hands of some malicious god or in the hands of some unknown God, but every man and woman is in the hands of the God of the Bible.
I will tell you more; the only God there is became incarnate in Jesus Christ. The only God there is is expressed in total clarity in Jesus Christ, and what Jesus is God is. Now when Scripture says that we are clay in the hands of the potter he is saying that we are clay in the hands of Jesus, because he is the only God, and he is the electing god, and there is no God besides him and the Father and the Holy Spirit, the one true and living God. There is no dark shadow of unpredictability and of contradiction lurking away in some corner of our universe. Behind this God we see Jesus beholding the city and weeping over it as he says, “I would have saved you but you would not be saved.” As we look upon God in Christ and we see him time and again in his glory then it is the glory of his grace and truth that we focus upon. The only God there is, and the only glory he has is the glory of grace and truth.
I am saying to you that what Romans chapter nine presents so clearly is not a horrific doctrine. It is certainly an awe-inspiring doctrine, but at the last it is a glorious doctrine that we are clay in the hands of Jehovah Jesus. So, though inscrutable and mysterious distinguishing mercy may be, it is nonetheless the election of the God who is the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. It is the predestination of the God whose glory is his grace and his truth. Rabbi Duncan insisted that the church must call divine election, ‘The Sovereignty of Grace.’ That is the potter, and he is the only potter. We are in his hands. The one who imparts to mankind his form and assigns to mankind his destiny. It is that God who has predestinated multitudes of men and women as innumerable as the sands on the seashore in their number, to be conformed to the image of his Son. It is this God who has determined to reveal to them his glory in the face of Jesus Christ. It is this God who has set in their lives the salvation of Jesus Christ, having fore-ordained that these clay pots should be foreknown, and predestinated, and called, and justified, and glorified because that is what election mean. It is the experience in the life of the individual of the absolute supremacy of the God who saves.
The issue I am facing when I read Romans 9 is my response to the supremacy of God. That is where I am being searched. I am being asked whether today I take the posture of a creature before its Creator. Do I realise that I no more understand my God than a worm understands me? Do I know that I am not merely a creature before God but that I am a sinner, and so I’m asked again, “Do you submit?” Paul has no other answer to your resistance to God’s supreme authority except that answer given by God to Job. The patriarch had lost his business, his family, his health and the support of his wife, and finally he began to crack under all he has lost, and the clamour of his so-called friends insisting that he had to confess his secret sins to God. God must show Job the pride and the folly of his seeds of resentment. God asks him whether he realises what he is doing. He confronts Job with the question, “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer God” (Job 40:1). Job is humbled; “I am unworthy – how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer – twice, but I will say no more” (Job 40:4&5). Job is silent, but God is relentless; he replies to Job, “Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me [in order] to justify yourself?” (Job 40:8). Job is brought low. That is exactly what he’d been doing! He says his final words, “Then Job replied to the LORD: ‘I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You asked, “Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?” Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:2-6). Those were Job’s final words; he does not speak again, and with the news of the blessing that God gives him the book of Job ends. He was brought where every Christian must be brought, to stand before the throne of God Almighty and see him in all his glory, a I have done today, and then in that place every mouth will be stopped. No one will be condemning God to justify themselves.
Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? Only in the character of our God, the Father of lights, in whom there is no darkness, no shadow of inconsistency, no malice, no tempting of men to do evil, no impurity, in whose hands is the whole world can we rest now and for ever. Come unto me and I will give you rest. I don’t know why he loved me and loved many of you. He had no grounds to love us. Why shouldn’t we have been passed by? We deserved nothing less. But I do know this, that the Lord is holy in all his ways and righteous in all his works. I don’t know the reconciling logic of divine sovereignty, and human responsibility, but I know this, that my God shines in the anguish of Golgotha, in the incarnate love of Calvary. I know that there is nothing in election, and there is nothing in predestination that is a contradiction of the love that gave his Son for the salvation of the world. I am to look on the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, and all the assurance I need is that election is the election of God! And I shall not face the angry rebuke that Job received from God, “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer God” (Job 40:1). I am not going to protest that election is an immoral action, or that it is an arbitrary decision. What would I have done if one day my Lord and my God had said to me, “Take thy son, thine only son, the son whom thou hast come to love, and offer him for a burnt offering upon the altar”? Where is the logic of that? Where is the morality of that? Where is the patient love and integrity of God at that moment? I have got to learn that lesson, that I am a man, and I am a sinner, and God is righteous and holy in all his ways, and the only justification needed in sovereign election is that it is the election of God, and he elected me because he loved me with an everlasting love.
2. THERE ARE ‘NOBLE PURPOSES’ FOR WHICH SOME CLAY IS MADE..
Paul uses this phrase ‘noble purposes’ (v.21) to describe the work of God in choosing and empowering his elect. What are God’s noble purposes for his people?
i] Who set out before them their chief end? It was God. They were told that their end was to glorify God and to fear and enjoy God for ever. It was not that they got a name for themselves; not that they became happy and always enjoyed peace of mind. Their noblest purpose was henceforth to glorify God in whatever they did. The question was always this, after every achievement and every new understanding and every victory won; “To whom does the glory belong?” Have they blamelessly kept the law of God? No. Have they been sincere in everything that they’ve done? No. Were they the ones who achieved reconciliation with God? No. Who devised the plan of redemption? God. Who provided the Lamb? God. Who bore the whole cost of their salvation? The Lord. Who appeased the wrath of a sin-hating God? The Lord. Who rose from the dead? The Lord. How little impressed they are with that, that he has borne their sin deep in his own heart; that he bore it in his own body on the tree. He bore all that their sin deserved and he made peace by the blood of his cross. You ponder the marvel of that, “the blood of his cross.”
Who is he who on the tree died in shame and agony?
‘Tis the Lord, O wondrous story, ‘Tis the Lord the king of glory,
At his feet we humbly fall, Crown Him, Crown Him, Lord of all.
ii] Who achieved their redemption? Then you go further down . . . have these earthern vessels kept the law . . . have they found the Lamb . . . have they made the peace . . . were they on the cross? No. It was all of God. But surely their faith is their own, and their repentance is their own? No, they were “born again by the Spirit of God . . . God separated them from their mothers’ wombs and called them by his grace . . .” Or can they look today at their peace with God and say to their souls, “What a marvelous job you made of being justified!” Can they do that? No it was God’s gift. Can they look at their union with Jesus Christ and say to their souls what a marvelous job they’d done of being united with Christ? No. He justified them freely by his grace. He joined them to him. He took away their hearts of dead clay and made them living flesh. It excludes any boasting whatsoever. What do we have that we have not received from God?
iii] Who sustains them in living the Christian life? Surely the transformation in their lives and the revolution that has taken place in their daily living, surely this is their own? But no. Again it is this same God who began the good work in them who also carries it on to completion in the day of Christ (Phils. 1:6). This God works all things together for their good because he has called them according to his purpose. This God has ensured that nothing shall separate them from his love in Jesus Christ their Lord. He gives them the most marvelous assurances that one day they are going to see Christ as he is; they are going to be with him for ever; they will be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation. How is the apostle so sure of these things because he assures them all that they have been grasped by a love that will not let them go? He is absolutely certain of this because he knows it doesn’t all hang on man’s decision and on man’s consistency, and on man’s stability. These things are not going to determine their perseverance or their falling away. Jesus the shepherd and guardian of their souls, ever lives for them, and ever intercedes for them and he saves them to the uttermost. Paul knows that he is the object of the Lord’s invincible determination to save them. He who has suffered the agony and the bloody sweat and tasted eternal death will keep all for whom he died..
God will preserve these jars of clay that are so fragile in all kinds of difficulties. He will keep them as they pass through the fires and the deep waters and through the valley of the shadow of death. He will keep them when they are attacked by principalities and powers and the rulers of the darkness of this world. He will keep them from the sorrows of things present and things to come. Paul had his terrible days, days when the outward man perished, days when he was pressed down beyond measure with all the things that crushed him, his failures and his guilt and the weight of opposition and the thorn in the flesh and demonic assault and the hatred of the world and the cares of all the churches. How this disturbed him, but that could never dislodge him from the loving grip of his heavenly Father. “He will keep me fast for he loves me so.” God had apprehended him and none could pluck him out of God’s hands. So there was always a melody in his heart to the Lord. He who exhorted others to rejoice in the Lord did himself always rejoice in the Lord, because the Lord’s love had erupted into his life, and that love was determined to keep him, that where his Lord was Paul would one day also be.
iv] Who encourages them in their evangelism? There are those great words that God spoke to Paul as he surveyed his mission field, the vast city of Corinth. It was a great centre of commerce with many ships sailing in and out each day and the apostle was given sole responsibility of taking the gospel to that place. Maybe Paul was daunted by the challenge and felt his great weakness. “Where do I begin? What do I do?” He knew one thing with the uttermost certainty that there were people in that city for whom Jesus Christ had suffered and died on Golgotha’s cross. The Lord had made a full atonement for their sins. Now in the providence of God Paul had been led to Corinth to acquaint them with the gift of salvation in order that they should lay hold of it. Would God send his Son to die for favoured Corinthian sinners and then fail to send his servants to preach this good news to them, and not send his Spirit to open their hearts and minds and enable them to receive Christ as their Saviour? What sort of love would that be, to accomplish their redemption and not send to them preachers and the Holy Spirit for them to benefit from the salvation of Christ?
So it was that the Lord drew Paul to the city and then in his mercy he came very close to Paul to encourage him in the work. He said to him that it was all right, that he was in control of Corinth, and that in that city there were not a few people whom Christ had died for but many men and women whom he had redeemed by his precious blood. “I have many people in this city. Speak up boldly. Do not be silent for another single day. Don’t be afraid. They are not going to kill you. I will protect you.” Paul doesn’t sit back and think that God is the potter and Corinth is the clay so it is all God’s responsibility to make pots to his glory there; “I can’t do it. I will stand by and watch the salvation of God.” No. Paul did not think to himself that he ought to shut this doctrine of election out of his life or he would never be able to evangelize effectively. No! Paul was told that God has many of his elect ones in the city and so he had better speak up and preach to the whole city and that would be the way he would find them. So for eighteen months, day after day he spoke and prayed and debated and visited publicly and house to house, persuading and encouraging the people to trust in Jesus Christ and repent of their sins.
It is the most marvelous encouragement to us all as we look down the main street in our town, under the banners announcing the Farmer’s Markets, or see the students walking up and down the hill, or watch the Antiques Roadshow from Aberystwyth and see hundreds of local people whom we’ve never spoken to or seen before, ordinary men and women who frequent the pubs and the supermarkets and attend the schools and visit the local library and work in the offices and serve at the tills at check-out counters. We think that among them are those on whom God’s hand rests. He has chosen them. They are his people and we are to go and look for them. They don’t look as if they are Christians at all. They don’t look anything like Christians. They are clay, and yet the Lord says, “They are mine!”
There are many like Saul of Tarsus, arrogant intellectuals. There are people like him who hold God’s church in contempt, but God has them. There are young people like Timothy and maybe they are in this audience today, not yet Christians, not behaving like Christians, and yet God has them. There are people out there who are sensitive, religious, moral people, like Lydia and Cornelius, and God has them. There are people out there who are brutal men, criminals, the dying thief, the Philippian jailer, and God has them. Today they are not giving any indication that they are seeking God. That is not the point. They are not showing any interest in the gospel. They look as devoid of spiritual life as clay. They are not looking promising; it’s not that, but the point is that God has them.
God’s sovereignty in grace is the one thing that prevents evangelism from being pointless. God has chosen a people and he has put them in a place where his servants work and evangelize and pray and live the Christ-centred life, and that creates the certainty that those whom Christ has died to save will be discovered and will confess him as their God. Apart from that there is no certainty that any evangelism will be fruitful. Were it not for the sovereign distinguishing grace of God then evangelism would be the most futile and useless enterprise that this world has known. Imagine asking people to take up their crosses and follow Christ. Imagine telling such people that they will discover true blessedness by doing this, the happiness of being persecuted for Christ’s sake! Imagine us telling this message to people whom we diagnosed as being as devoid of spiritual life as a corpse, dead in trespasses and sins. It would all be a complete waste of time were it not for electing mercy and sovereign grace bringing them to meet gospel people, and the Holy Spirit making them new creatures and giving them faith to entrust themselves to Jesus for time and eternity. What an encouragement to know that God has a people and that we earthen vessels are his method of contacting them with his love.
What a marvelous thing if we walked home today or we went to work tomorrow and we glanced at people’s faces, and sometimes looked into them, and we pondered this great issue, “Perhaps God has that woman. Perhaps God has that man. Perhaps God has this boy or girl. Perhaps one day we will all meet at Jesus’ feet and we will cast our crowns before him lost in wonder, love and praise.”
There’s a world out there of men and women who are dead clay, at enmity with God, a world that is utterly indifferent to Jesus Christ, who cannot abide his gospel. I am saying, “Don’t be overwhelmed with the impossibility of the task, because God’s church is there and we have been sent to gather God’s elect from the four corners of the earth. Shall I today take my belief in the sovereignty of God, and shall I derive from that, “Well, that means I don’t have to evangelize.” No! It means, “Don’t be afraid. Don’t hold your peace, Speak for the Lord has people in this small town.” and surely that is motivational and inspirational. When I look at the methods we use, the gifts we have, the earnestness of our prayers, and the purity of our lives then I could get little encouragement, but when I look at his mighty love to so many I am encouraged.
3. HOW CAN I KNOW IF GOD HAS MADE ME A PIECE OF POTTERY FOR NOBLE PURPOSES?
How can I know if God loved me from the foundation of the world, and that he has purposed to make me a holy and useful vessel on the world? In other words, how can I know if I am elect, one of God’s chosen ones? I believe that there is just one criterion and it is this, do I have Christ? If I have Christ then I know that God has determined to make me some of his pottery that has the most noble of purposes. I am asking can’t we put our confidence in that? Do we have Christ in the grasp of our own faith? Do we have Christ in the reception of his gospel invitations and promises?
Remember how the prophet Isaiah preached so powerfully, and eloquently, and poetically, and movingly. It was great preaching. It was Christ-anointed preaching, and yet to his hearers the Messiah whom Isaiah preached seemed like a root out of dry ground. The figure had no form or beauty to be desired by any of his hearers. They didn’t want him, and Isaiah turned to the Lord and he said, “Who has believed our report of the virgin born Messiah, the Wonderful Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father and the Prince of Peace, the suffering Servant”? They had rejected the seed of the woman whom Isaiah had told them about. They didn’t even desire him.
But we know that it is impossible for the natural man to take Christ. It is impossible for him even to desire him. He can want to become a member of the church. He can even want to become a minister. He can want to take a theological course, but he cannot want Jesus Christ as his Sovereign Lord. Our Saviour has no attractiveness to the natural man. And I am saying that the great sign that a man is elect and knows he is elect is if he has a desire for the Christ of the Bible, and if he knows he needs Christ, and if he says what Augustine said, “Let me have a glimpse of him even if I die lest I die of longing to see him.” That man has Christ. That kind of having the Lord Jesus is the seal that he is elect. He may not have strong faith; he may not have heroic faith; he may not have mountain-moving faith, but if he has a faith that longs, and a faith that yearns, and a faith that needs then it is a faith that saves in the moment of encounter with Christ.
William Guthrie said of a man who takes Christ, “Less would not satisfy him and more is not desired by him.” That is what faith says, that is the great sign of our election that we have Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour, that we have an emotional dependence on him, that there is in the depth of our being an elemental yearning and longing and urgency to have Christ for our souls. If to lose him would be desolation. If the proof of his non-existence would drive us to the verge of insanity then those are great signs of our election, that God has made us pieces of pottery for a wonderfully noble purpose. We have Christ in our hope, Christ in our penitence, Christ in our longing, that he should abide in our hearts for ever. It is there, and then we can know that we are elect.
Is that longing in you today? Is it impossible for you to shake off that yearning? You know you have to be with the people of God on a Sunday. You must return. You must hear more of Christ. You must have him and he must have all of you. You are not sure if you have him but you are sure that if you had him you would be saved. That’s a vessel of God made for a noble use. Only the elect of God feel like that.
9th December 2012 GEOFF THOMAS