Dear Radio Friends,
The truth of sovereign predestination has stood firm and sure throughout the course of history. It is a blessed truth, which has provided strength and comfort for God’s children in the midst of trials and afflictions. The child of God finds in it the very reason for his existence in this world.
And yet we know it is a truth hated by the wicked world and its prince of darkness, Satan. This is understandable. The truth of God’s predestination of some to eternal life and of others to everlasting destruction stands as witness against those who walk in sin and rebellion against God. To them the doctrine of predestination, particularly reprobation, is cruel and harsh, because they refuse to bow the knee before God. The fact remains unshakable, however. God has ordained some to life everlasting and others to everlasting death and condemnation.
It is this great and notable truth of God’s Word that we intend to consider today. Romans 9 speaks plainly of this truth. And the verse we consider today explains it using a very earthy example. We read in Romans 9:21 , “Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonor?”
We are going to consider that divine Potter today. And we are going to consider also the clay that He forms by His own will into the use that He has planned for it. We consider the truth of predestination.
A man enters a small shop and takes his place before a table much stained by constant use. On the table before him is a turntable, which, when he turns on the switch or pumps his feet, begins to spin before him rapidly. The man is a potter, who sets himself to the task of creating different sorts of clay vessels. As an artist, the potter skillfully creates vessels of different shapes and sizes that are to be used for various purposes.
This potter does not sit down at his table and simply begin to play with a piece of clay until some shape or form emerges from it. The potter is highly skilled, and in his profession he is most wise. He forms a conception of what he wishes to make in his mind, or even perhaps on paper. Then he places a lump of clay on the spinning turntable. And as it rapidly turns before him, he begins to shape and mold it into the vessel he has determined it to be.
On the foreground of this passage before us today is the choice that the potter makes with respect to that lump of clay he has before him. You see, before he begins his work in his shop, the potter gets a large lump of clay that he can use for the various vessels that he makes. Once in the shop the potter divides that lump into parts and chooses what he has in mind for each part of that lump of clay.
Out of that same lump of clay, the potter chooses to make several different vessels. One vessel he chooses to shape and mold into a vessel of honor. Perhaps it will be a priceless vase that will eventually be set on a table and used as decoration in the home of the rich and famous. Everyone will gaze upon it and praise its beauty and its worth, and will in turn praise the potter who has formed and fashioned it.
Out of that same lump of clay, however, the potter will make another vessel. But this vessel is not meant to be one of extreme beauty and worth. This time he chooses to make a wide bowl—nothing fancy, which will set on the floor by the door. People will use it to wash their feet after coming in from the hot, dusty outside. People will pay no particular attention to it because this is a vessel that is made for a dishonorable use. But such the potter, in his wisdom, chose to make it.
Now the apostle Paul calls our attention to this figure in this chapter in connection with his discussion of divine predestination. That, as is obvious from even a cursory reading of this chapter, is the subject that Paul deals with in this chapter of Romans. And by means of this figure, Paul explains in simplest terms a profound reality that belongs to God’s eternal plan. And that reality is this: In eternity, before time began, before this world was even created, God chose a certain people unto honor—a people who would receive a place in His kingdom. At the same time, He appointed others to dishonor, that is, those who would not receive a place in His kingdom but, instead, would be appointed to everlasting destruction.
By means of a very earthy figure, as we said, we are given a glimpse into the workings of God in eternity. You see, God is the divine Potter. He is the divine Potter for two reasons. First of all, because God is God. God has created everything by the Word of His power. He alone is Creator. All else are creatures. All are subject to God’s will because, after all, God is the One who has made all things. And He has made them in order to fulfill His own sovereign will and good pleasure. God has created this world and everything and everyone in it in order to fulfill His design, His purpose, with respect to all things. That purpose is to bring glory to His own name. And God carries out that divine will in His creation by means of His providence.
He does that, in the second place, according to His own sovereign plan for all things. This is why we can say that God is the divine Potter. He has, from eternity, planned all things, everything that was going to take place in this world at large, in brute creation, as well as in the lives of men. God had all of this, so to speak, mapped out from eternity, before He made all things.
Furthermore, God is all-wise in what He has created and how He performs His will and good pleasure in this world. He knows how to form and adapt everything that He makes to fulfill perfectly His will and good pleasure. Everything God plans in eternity, everything He does in time, is perfect, therefore, and infinitely wise. Unlike an earthly potter, who can make mistakes when he makes a clay vessel, God never makes a mistake. Nothing mars the work of God’s hands. He does everything without a flaw—the divine Potter.
But, once again, we must understand that that which is on the foreground in this particular verse here in Romans 9 is what the divine Potter chooses to do with that lump of clay. In this passage, Paul is addressing the subject of God’s choice of some men to salvation and His choice of other men to condemnation. This choice is what the Scriptures refer to as predestination.
Now that term “predestination” is not one that somebody has pulled out of his hat. It is something that is used in the Bible in several different places. Romans 8:29, 30 , for example, speaks of God’s predestination, as does also Ephesians 1:3ff . That term is easily divided into two parts: the prefix, “pre,” which means “before,” and “destination,” which refers to the place that is set for the end of a journey—one’s destiny. In Scripture, this term is used to denote the spiritual end, the spiritual destiny, to which all are appointed by God after they die. It is that destiny to which God appoints all men, when they reach the end of their earthly life or journey. And, as is obvious from all of Scripture, that end is going to be one of two places. A person will either end up in heaven or he will end up in hell. Predestination refers, then, to the fact that God has determined that eternal end of every purpose. He has determined whether a person will go to heaven or to hell. A person does not make that determination himself. God makes it, as the divine Potter, for him. And God does this pre, pre-destination. He does that before.
Before what? According to verse 11 of this chapter here in Romans, it refers to before the birth of a person takes place, before a person is born. Before a man is able to do any good or evil, God has made a determination as to his eternal destiny. Besides that, we can even go farther back. That “pre” in predestination goes back to before time, before the earth was even created. In Ephesians 1:4-6 we read that God has chosen us from eternity, before He laid the foundations of this world, that is, before He created all things. This eternal decree of God’s counsel, or plan, by which He determined the eternal destiny of all men, as well as the road that leads to that destiny, is called predestination.
It is to predestination that this particular passage (this chapter, but especially this verse that we consider) refers. By the figure that is used here—the divine Potter and the clay—Paul is making reference to that truth.
The lump of clay in this passage refers to the mass of humanity, all of humanity lumped together, so to speak. That lump of clay includes everyone that is born into this world, everyone that has gone before, that is living now, and that will be born in the future—they all belong to that one lump of clay.
Out of that lump of clay, that is, that mass of humanity, God has from eternity chosen a certain people unto honor, that is, unto salvation and unto a place in His kingdom. These are the “vessels of mercy…afore prepared unto glory” that Paul speaks of in verse 23 of Romans 9 . In Scripture, these people, chosen in Christ unto salvation, are known as God’s elect. They are elected, that is, chosen by God from eternity unto glory in heaven. Honorable vessels they are, because of what Christ has done for them.
On the other hand, out of this same lump of clay, out of this mass of humanity, God has also selected others that He appoints to wrath and condemnation in hell, that is, to a place of dishonor. These Paul refers to in verse 22 as “vessels of wrath…fitted to destruction.” To these vessels whom God has chosen unto dishonor is given the name: non-elect, or, in some circles, reprobate. That the Bible does indeed speak of these men that were appointed from eternity to condemnation in hell is evident not only in this particular passage. We do not have time to quote them in our broadcast today but, when you have some time, look up I Peter 2:8 and Jude 4 . Some God chooses to honor. Others to dishonor.
Now the doctrine of predestination, election and reprobation, seems clear enough from Scripture. It cannot be overlooked or ignored because it is easily discerned. But consider once the implication of this truth of God’s Word. It is a hard truth to understand. If God, in eternity, in His counsel, appoints certain people unto salvation and others unto damnation, this means that man in no way controls his eternal destiny. Before a man is born, before God even created the earth, He had already determined where this man would go when he dies. That choice is not left up to man. The apostle Paul makes reference exactly to that fact in verse 16 of Romans 9 . “So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.” Or a little later on, in verse 18: “Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.” That is the choice of the divine Potter.
Man cannot change that choice or determination of God. God is unchangeable. His decrees stand unto all eternity. Some men are destined by God to be beautiful vases. Others a foot-washing basin. Some men are elect in Christ and therefore will walk by faith. Other men are appointed to wrath and will walk in unbelief and sin. That is the way that God purposed it. And that is the way it will remain.
Now when we state the truth of predestination in this way, that begins to rub against the grain of our sinful natures, does it not? I can hear the objection. I mean, it is in my own flesh. Wait a minute. If all of this is true, how can God find fault with a wicked man? How can God justly send a man to hell because of his sin and unbelief if that man cannot help but do what God has determined for him to do? Who can resist the will of God? If God says a certain man is going to hell, that man does not stand a chance, does he? He cannot change God’s mind, no matter how good he is. And then, on the other hand, that elect person cannot go to hell even if he walks in every way of sin. That simply is not fair of God. It is not just of Him to make this predetermination concerning man’s destiny. And more. How then can God hold man responsible for what man does? This doctrine of predestination robs man of his responsibility.
We know that the Bible everywhere teaches us the responsibility that each of us bears for the sins that we commit. But if that is true, then the doctrine of predestination cannot possibly be true. The appeal of that argument in my flesh is strong. I can understand the point of those who raise this kind of objection—except that the Bible is so clear in its teaching of sovereign predestination. It cannot be denied.
Now because this truth of Scripture rubs against the grain of natural man, there have been many attempts to soften it or even to get rid of it altogether. There have been attempts to make this truth more palatable for sinful man. Historically there were the Pelagians, who did this at the time of Augustine, and the Arminians, who did this shortly after the time of the Reformation. Today we find it in so much modern theology—always an attempt, you see, to be rid, somehow, of that obvious and clear teaching of the Bible on God’s predestination.
But the Bible very clearly teaches that man does not determine his eternal destination. God does. Look at the figure Paul uses in this passage: Does the clay say to the potter, “I want to be the part of that lump that you use to make a beautiful vase”? Does the clay say to the potter, “I really do not appreciate being made into a vessel of dishonor”? Obviously not. The clay cannot say that to the potter. The potter makes that determination.
Read the verses 19 and 20 here of Romans 9 , “Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he (God) 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?” God is sovereign in His predestination. He sits in the heavens and does whatsoever pleases Him ( Ps. 115:3 ). God controls all things. And God controls all things because He is God! Being God, He is sovereign. He is independent. He is free. He is under no obligation to anyone. He is above all things and, therefore, He rules over all things. He is in control. No one dictates to God what is to be done.
That is the one thing that fallen man is unwilling to admit about God. If God does not know who will be saved, if that is something that stands outside of God’s control, then God is no longer God! How clear is this teaching of God’s sovereignty in this chapter before us as regards the destiny of man. There is simply no getting around the sovereignty of God in election and reprobation. The only answer that Scripture gives to us in this chapter to the accusation that God is not being fair is what we read: “Who are you, O man, that you reply against God? You’re the clay! God is the Potter. We are the thing formed. God is the One who has formed us. Does the clay have the right or even the power to say to the Potter, ‘Why did you make me this way? Why am I a washbasin for a person’s feet and not the beautiful vase sitting there on the table?’ God is God! We are the creatures of His hand. We are the product of God’s all-wise counsel and His skillful creating. The Potter has the power.”
Yet that simple answer is so hard for us to swallow—because it hurts our sinful pride. It humbles man. It horrifies the elect sinner who is still walking in his unbelief. It brings him to his knees, for he fears the wrath of almighty God. It humbles him, so that he does not dare raise his eyes in pride against God or against others. Yet, at the same time, it hardens the non-elect man and causes him to turn on the God of the Scriptures. He will believe in his own god, the god that will follow after the whim and the wishes of man.
The child of God has come to believe and rest in the comfort that he is held in the hand of an almighty God who will not let him go.
Does this mean that God does not elect us or choose us in the way of faith? Of course not. Those whom God chooses are, as a result, believers who walk in righteousness. Then, certainly, we cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven except that we believe. Does this doctrine mean that man is not held accountable before God for his sins? By all means, No! Man is always held responsible for his sin. God rejects those who in hardness and unbelief walk in the way of sin. The Bible is clear on that! But that does not mean that God is not the divine Potter. He is.
Perhaps the best way to explain election and reprobation is in this way. Just as the chaff is needed in order that the seed of wheat might grow, so also wicked men in this world, the non-elect, are used by God in order that His church might be gathered in this world. When once that church is gathered, then the non-elect are done away with, just as the chaff is done away with for the wheat. In that way reprobation serves election. God sovereignly determined to place in this world unbelieving men alongside of His elect believers.
The child of God is called to bring forth praises to God, not only positively, but also by means of an antithetical walk in this world. We bring glory to God by following after God’s goodness and glory as opposed to following after man’s sinfulness and unbelief. That is how God has chosen us to serve Him.
Hard? Cruel? Only to those whom God has not chosen to eternal life. We who are saved, however, stand in awe before God. We rejoice that He has chosen us to be numbered among His people in life eternal. And we are humbled. Why me, Lord? Why me? I do not deserve this any more than anyone else. Why me?
And the Lord answers, “For so it seemed good in My sight.”
Let us pray.
Father, humble us by Thy Word in order that that Word might speak to our hearts, in order that we might bow before Thy majesty, Thy power, and Thy sovereignty, and in order that we might be humble, that Thou wouldst choose us to be a people unto Thee who are not in the least sense deserving and yet to whom Thou didst show mercy and grace. Forgive us our sins and our weaknesses, our doubts and our fears. Use Thy Word to strengthen us to walk in this world. For Jesus’ sake we pray, Amen.