Romans 9: The Potter and the Clay

, posted by SEA

Up to this point in this series on Romans 9, I have argued the following points:

  • The passages dealing with election in Romans 9 must be interpreted in the context of Paul’s overall theme in chapters 9-11 of the implications of the Gospel for ethnic Israelites
  • Paul’s use of the examples of Isaac and Jacob refer not to each as an individual and to election to salvation, but rather to the nation of Israel that descended from them and election to membership among the covenant people.
  • Paul’s use of the example of Pharaoh is not that God had mercy on Moses and reprobated Pharaoh, which would easily fall in line with the Jewish self-understanding; his point is that God has the right sovereignly to set the criteria on which he will have mercy or harden.

So, the questioner asks, “Why does God still blame us?” It has always been the contention of Reformed interpreters that if Arminians were right, the obvious response to the questioner should be that the questioner should use his free will to come to God in faith; if he does so, he will not be condemned. However, this misunderstands the question. The questioner is not asking why Pharaoh or the Jews cannot come to God in faith; the questioner is asking why faith in Christ should be necessary. That is, how can God blame the Jew for expecting to be among the chosen people because he’s a Jew—in other words, because he’s descended from Abraham and because he’s kept (in a relative sense) the Law? How can God blame the Jews for failing to come to faith in Christ, since faith was not what the Jews were led to expect to be the criterion of election?

It may be responded that neither the Jew/Gentile question nor faith are in the immediate context. One must remember that justification by faith forms a major crux of Paul’s argument throughout Romans 1-8, and that Romans 9-11 forms an extended answer to the question of what this doctrine means for ethnic Jews. Paul is defending his thesis that God’s word had not failed, in that not everyone descended from Israel constitutes the Israel of God (9:6). Paul explicitly draws this conclusion from his argument in 9:30-32. It is only by divorcing vv. 10-24 from the surrounding context that this passage has been interpreted primarily in terms of unconditional individual election.

Paul therefore responds to his questioner, “Who are you, O man, to talk back to God?” (9:20). If the question in v. 19 means, “Why are the reprobate judged for not having come to faith?” the answer continues to seem unsatisfying. But if the question means, “Why should God’s chosen people—Israel—have to come to faith in Christ?” then the answer makes quite a bit of sense. It is not up to us to determine God’s criteria of inclusion in the covenant community.

The Potter and the Clay

Paul then paraphrases a portion of Isaiah 29:16 in support of his rebuff of the questioner. “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” (9:20). The section from Isaiah from which it is taken is worthy of quoting:

The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men. Therefore once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder; The wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.”
Woe to those who go to great depths to hide their plans from the LORD, Who do their work in darkness and think, “Who sees us? Who will know?” You turn things upside down, as if the potter were thought to be like the clay! Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, “He did not make me”? Can the pot say of the potter, “He knows nothing”? (Is. 29:13-16

This clearly refers to people whose worship of God is mere pretense, and who think that they can plan and do evil without the Lord’s knowledge or interference. Not only this passage, which is directly quoted (in part), but in fact the OT passages in which this type of potter-clay illustration is used (Isa. 45:1-13; 64:4-8; Jer. 18:1-10) all refer to people who are under judgment for their own false worship and disregard of God and His Law, and either imply or specifically offer restoration to those who repent (e.g., Isa. 29:17-19; 45:14, 22; 64:9-12). Jeremiah 18:6-10 clearly indicates that the “clay” is not merely passive:

“O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.”

God has sovereignly chosen what he will do regarding the clay, in that he has chosen to respond to the clay according to its repentance or lack of repentance. By quoting the potter/clay metaphor in Romans 9:20, Paul essentially tells the Jews that God will deal with them based on their repentance—as he has always said he would deal with them. The “clay” in this quotation is not the non-elect; it is Israel, which does not feel it needs to come to Christ. The questioner who believes that Israel should be saved because of its ethnic descent is reminded that repentance has always been required for God’s salvation—even of the Jew. The image is that of the clay blaming its position on the potter, rather than humbly asking to be made anew.

Paul goes on to ask, “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?” The offense here is precisely that Israel, which would have thought of itself as the “pottery for noble purposes” in comparison with the gentiles, is being placed in the position of being the pottery “for common use.” Significantly, in 2 Timothy 2:20-21, Paul indicates that a person’s choices determine to what kind of uses he will be put:In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for noble purposes and some for ignoble. If a man cleanses himself from the latter, he will be an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.

Objects of Wrath and Mercy

To suggest that the purpose of the pottery is determined and unalterable from God’s point of view flies in the face of the way this imagery is used in the rest of scripture.“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?” (Rom. 9:22). Again, it is usually assumed here that the “objects of his wrath” are the non-elect, as represented by Pharaoh, Ishmael, and Esau. But in the larger context of chapters 9 through 11, Paul’s main concern is the Jews who have not come to Christ. The “objects of his wrath,” then, are the majority of the Israelite nation. The patience with which God has borne them reflects his desire for their repentance (2:4). Nonetheless, as long as they remain objects of his wrath through their refusal to repent, they are prepared for destruction. “Prepared for destruction” echoes Proverbs 16:4, “The Lord works out everything for his own ends—even the wicked for a day of disaster.” But “the wicked” are not necessarily a static category: God’s desire for them is that they “turn and live” (Ezek. 18:23, 30-32).

“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” (Rom. 9:23). One of the reasons that God bears with the wicked—even those whom he knows beforehand will not repent—is to make “the riches of his glory known.” It may reasonably be asked how God’s forbearance actually accomplishes this. One can easily understand how God’s judgment would accomplish this, by demonstrating to the “objects of his mercy” the righteous judgment from which they have been rescued. But this does not explain how God’s forbearance from immediate judgment accomplishes this. Perhaps it simply exalts God’s sovereign majesty—he does not need to panic and “do something” about the wicked: their end is assured. But it seems more reasonable to recognize that the “objects of his mercy” were at one point “objects of his wrath” (cf. Eph. 2:3) but escaped that wrath through repentance and faith. For them, certainly, God’s “riches of his glory” are truly revealed, because they recognize that only through God’s forbearance during their former life of rebellion did they receive any hope of salvation. Thus, the categories, “objects of his mercy” and “objects of his wrath,” are dynamic categories, not static. The inclusion of an individual in either is based on that individual’s own response to the offer of grace.[1]

In the next verse, Paul becomes more explicit in his identification of the “objects of his mercy.” They are “us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles” (9:24). Here Paul explicitly comes back to his original theme (vv. 1-6), lending support to the idea that he has never really departed from it. The offense to the Jews is that God is now openly calling people from among the Gentiles, as well as those from among the Jews who have accepted Christ in faith. Paul buttresses his comments from more Old Testament quotations. He cites Hosea 2:23 and 1:10 to the effect that those who were previously not included in the covenant nation will be included among those whom he calls “my people.” Moreover, he cites Isaiah 10:22-23 and 1:9 to the effect that those who are saved among Israel will be merely a “remnant.”

In other words, to those Jews who counted on ethnicity and adherence to the Law for their inclusion among God’s people, Paul demonstrates from the Hebrew scriptures themselves that they had no reason to count on that. Therefore he sums up his own argument in vv. 30-32. “The Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it.” In what way? “By faith.” Paul makes clear that this is the criterion, this is the issue: Gentiles are coming to righteousness by faith. Israel, meanwhile, “pursued a law of righteousness…. not by faith, but as if it were by works.” The issue is not that God has sovereignly elected only a few Jews but many Gentiles; the issue is that Israel rejects faith as the defining characteristic of the covenant people, in favor of continuing to trust in Law. Thus, God’s gracious gift of salvation through faith in Christ is a stumbling stone to those who will not believe, but “one who trusts in him will not be ashamed” (v. 33; cf. Isa. 8:14, 28:16).


Of course, all this begs the question of whether and how the reprobate are enabled to come to faith in Christ. If they are not, apart from the application of irresistible grace to the elect alone, then the Calvinist position holds, even with the interpretation here presented for Romans 9.

A detailed discussion of the relevant passage from Ephesians 2 is outside the purview of this post; however, it is arguable that the first two chapters of Ephesians also deal with the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, as is made clear in the rest of that book, and that Paul’s point in Ephesians 2 is to identify Jewish believers (“we also,” Eph. 2:1) with Gentile believers (those being addressed) in their common experience of being “dead in trespasses and sins” before conversion, without specific reference to how their conversion was enabled.

Keith Schooley
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