Misunderstandings: The image of the potter

For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

With these triumphant words of faith, Paul closed chapter eight of his epistle to the Romans. In that epistle he orderly and extensively explained the only way to redemption for a sinner. He had not ignored questions like "I still discover so much inclination to evil in me", or "why has a christian to suffer that much in the world?". In Romans eight verse 31 he finally asked "What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who against us?" And he closed his exposition of the doctrine of salvation with the above quoted words of faith. 

Chapter 9 is the beginning of the second part of the epistle. In the second half of his epistle the apostle did not again give an exposition of the way to salvation, but instructions and exhortations with relation to the practical christian life. 

Properly speaking the part with practical exhortations does not begin in capter 9, but in 12 with the words: "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the compassions of God, to present your bodies....." 
Before giving his directions for the practical life of the christian, he treated a particular subject in chapters 9, 10 and 11, the question in fact, whether his teaching of grace for all could be reconciled to the promises and special position for Israel. Did he not neglect that position and was not his teaching contrary to the Old Testament? 

In Romans 1 till 8 the apotle had lined out the way to salvation and made no difference between Jews and heathen. He had written about the gospel, that "it is God's power to salvation, to every one that believes, both to Jew first and to Greek" (Romans 1:16), and of the situation of the unconverted he said: "we have before charged both Jews and Greeks with being all under sin: according as it is written, There is not a righteous man, not even one" (Romans 3:9-10). 

By using those words: "to Jew first and to Greek", and "we charged both Jews and Greeks" the Apostle placed Jews and heathen on the same level with regard to both, their being lost and their salvation. And that was for the Jews something calling for protest and questions, they being the chosen people with very plain and exclusive promises for blessing. How could Paul write as if there were no difference between Jew and Greek before God? He, himself a Jew, seemed to be an adversary of the Jews, not loving his own people. 

Those considerations have been a reason for the Spirit of God to devote the three mentioned chapters to the position and expectation for Israel, for that people has a special place indeed in the councils of God. 

Romans 9 concerns Israel.

Paul began chapter 9 as follows: 
1 I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience bearing witness with me in the Holy Spirit, 
2 that I have great grief and uninterrupted pain in my heart, 
3 for I have wished, I myself, to be a curse from the Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen, according to flesh; 
4 who are Israelites; whose is the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the law-giving, and the service, and the promises; 
5 whose are the fathers; and of whom, as according to flesh, is the Christ, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen. 

So nobody could say, that Paul did not love his people, on the contrary. He was the apostle for the heathen, but was ardently longing to get an opportunity to preach to his own, in order to save some of them. 
He fully recognised the special position of Israel and let it sufficiently know in verses 4 and 5. 
But a Jew could say, that nevertheless his exposition of the doctrine meant, that the promises for Israel were no longer valid or would never be fulfilled. 
The answer to that is: It is not as though the Word of God hath taken no effect. For they are not all Israel, who are of Israel (verse 6). 

The Jews cherished the idea, that their being descendants of Abraham was a guarantee, that they had a right to the promised blessings. The apostle however made it clear, that descent was no guarantee for a right to the blessings. 

The Jews moreover meant, that their keeping of the law gave them rights above the heathen, who even did not know the law. But the apostle showed, that this assumption was wrong as well. He did so by pointing to Isaac and Ishmael: 
neither because they are the seed of Abraham are they all children; but, "In Isaac shall thy seed be called." 
8 That is, they who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; rather, the children of the promise are counted as the seed. 
9 For this is the word of promise: "At this time will I come, and Sarah shall have a son." (verses 7-9). If natural descent would be decisive, Ishmael would have had as many rights as Isaac. Their history however proves, that it was different. 
A plea of keeping the law was without force as well. History showed, that the bondmaid Hagar and her son had to be sent away. Israel under the law was in bondage as a slave and that position gave no rights to the blessings, as we see in the case of Ishmael. Paul has written about it in Galatians: 
For it is written that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. 
23 But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, but he of the freewoman was by promise. 24 These things are an allegory, for these are the two covenants: The one is from Mount Sinai, which engendereth bondage; this is Hagar. 
25 For this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and answereth to Jerusalem as it is now, and is in bondage with her children. 
26 But the Jerusalem which is above is free, and is the mother of us all. (4:22-26) 
In this chapter Ishmael, the son of Hagar, is a type of Israel, that is in the position of a slave, being under the law. That imagery we find in the epistle to the Galatians as well as in this epistle, and here the intention is to show with this image, that descent nor position give any rights, 
The apostle enforced this part of his reasoning with: 
10 And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one, even by our father Isaac 
11 (for the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, in order that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not by works, but by Him that calleth), 
12 it was said unto her, "The elder shall serve the younger." 
13 As it is written: "Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated." (verses 10-13). If a Jew would answer, that Ishmael was not qualified, because not born from the right woman, the answer was verse 10, pointing to Jacob and Esau. They were sons of the same parents. Nobody could say, that Esau was born from a wrong mother. They even were twins. Still his birth from Isaac did not automatically give him a right to the blessing. Therewith the protesting Jew was silenced again. 
Moreover, humanly speaking Esau had rights, the rights of the first born. Nevertheless God did not destine him for the great blessing, but gave him a lesser place. 

Esau, the first born, is a type of Israel as well. Among the peoples on earth Israel is Gods first born, as stated in Exodus 4:22 And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, `Thus saith the LORD: Israel is My son, even My firstborn. The example of Esau however makes clear, that primogeniture gave no rights. 
We know, that Esau despised his birthright and with that the blessing of the Lord. He sold his birthrights for a plate of food. He therefore is called a profane person (Hebrews 12:14). How could that profane man, who despised the blessings of God by selling his birthright, claim any right to the blessing? 

We see, that Gods choice has been according to his foreknowledge for him, who believingly coveted the blessing, and against him, who despised it in unbelief. The words of Peter in Acts 2 make it clear to us, that Gods foreknowledge has been incorporated in his decrees: Him, being delivered up in accordance with the determinate will and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken and by wicked hands have crucified and slain (verse 23). 

Like Esau Israel despised in unbelief the blessings of God by rejecting Jesus Christ. How could those despisers claim any right to Gods blessings: 

Behold, ye despisers, and wonder and perish; for I work a work in your days, a work in which ye shall in no wise believe, though a man declare it unto you.'" (Acts 13:41) 

Did Jacob have any right? 
No, he had not. Nobody can claim any right before God. If God deals with men according to the principle of right, judgment is inevitable. But there is another principle, that of compassion and mercy: 
What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid! 
15 For He saith to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion." 
16 So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God who showeth mercy (verses 14-16). God shows mercy to them that believe. 
Esau wanted to be blessed by his father and consequently hunted well, in order to satisfy his father. Likewise Israel wanted to be blessed and they therefore had a zeal of God. 
Esau deceived his father, for he did not tell him, that he had sold his birthright and consequently had no right to his blessing.
Jacob deceived his father as well, saying he was Esau. 
In that they were equal. 
How then could Jacob get the blessing? 
By Gods mercy alone. Not based upon any right. 
So Israel as well could not claim any rights. They too were dependent upon mercy, which is there for believers. 

The words in verse 15 God had spoken, when Israel had made the golden calf. Nevertheless God had shown mercy. So the Jews could not complain, if God showed mercy to the heathen. They owed their existence as a people to that mercy of God. 
Why did the unworthy Jacob receive the blessing and not the unworthy Esau? Because of God mercy, he shows upon faith. 
Why received unworthy heathen salvation? Owing to Gods mercy, He bestows upon faith. Not because faith made them worthy or gave them some rights, but because God shows mercy to anyone who believes the message of his grace. 

Not the will of Israel, nor their running or working would open the door to salvation. Gods mercy alone. It was offered to them in Jesus Christ, but they rejected it. 
(We should keep in mind, that Israel and not any individual is the subject in this chapter and that it is not a chapter treating election.) 

The Jews who could not accept, that God showed mercy to those despised heathen, should keep in mind, that God is free to show mercy and to harden as well: 
17 For the Scripture saith unto Pharaoh, "Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might show My power in thee, and that My name might be declared throughout all the earth." 
18 Therefore hath He mercy on whom He will have mercy, and whom He will, He hardeneth. Does then God harden arbitrarily? 
No. The example of Pharaoh shows, that God does not. 
Many know, that God hardened Pharaoh, but few realise, that God only did so, after Pharaoh had said seven times "no" to God, and that in spite of the many signs God had given him and the many times God had heard the prayer of Moses in his behalf. 
Whom does God harden? 
Anyone, who after repeated offer of mercy goes on in enmity and refuses to hear God. The time for it is known by God, for He is long-suffering. 
To whom does God show mercy? 
To anyone, not less guilty, but accepting the gospel and Jesus as Saviour. 

Here Pharaoh is another type of Israel, that, like that Egyptian monarch, had been repeatedly warned by the prophets, had experienced Gods goodness, had seen and enjoyed many signs and wonders, but refused to repent. So that people was finally hardened as well. 
God bestowed his mercy upon heathen, that believed. Because they were a better kind of people? No, because they had accepted Gods message of grace through Jesus Christ. The words in verse 17: For this very thing I have raised thee up from amongst men, that I might thus shew in thee my power, and so that my name should be declared in all the earth, do not signify, that Pharaoh was doomed to perish, because God had destined him for it. The meaning is, that God in his foreknowledge has known his character, his behaviour, his hardening. God could have interfered before the man revealed his wickedness, but has not done so. God worked upon his heart by many signs and warnings, but in vain. It is wrong to suppose, that God has wanted the wicked behaviour of this man. He has known it and incorporated it in his plan, but that is quite different from inciting someone to wicked behaviour or giving him wickedness and perdition as destination 

The words "whom He will, He hardens" say, that God is free to harden someone when He judges the time and occasion for it has come, as with Pharaoh and with Israel. They do no say, that the Lord closed the way to salvation from the beginning for someone. 

The apostle goes on with the image of the potter: 
19 Thou wilt say to me then, Why does he yet find fault? for who resists his purpose? 
20 Aye, but thou, O man, who art *thou* that answerest again to God? Shall the thing formed say to him that has formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? 
21 Or has not the potter authority over the clay, out of the same lump to make one vessel to honour, and another to dishonour? 

In relation to these verses it is often said, that God is sovereign and can decide the destination of men as He will. If He decides to destine someone for salvation and glory, nobody can deny his right to do so, nor fight his right to destine another one to eternal perdition. 
Now God is sovereign indeed and nobody can say "What doest thou?" Nobody fights the sovereignty of God, but in this chapter that sovereignty is not at issue. It is therefore wrong to speak about it in relation to Romans 9. The chapter gives no reason for it.

The image of a potter. No unchangeable decree.

The apostle did not invent himself the image of a potter. The subject still is the question "What about Israel and the promises for that people"? And about that the Lord had spoken by the prophet Jeremia: 
1 The word that came to Jeremiah from Jehovah, saying, 
2 Arise and go down to the potter's house, and there I will cause thee to hear my words. 
3 And I went down to the potter's house; and behold, he wrought a work on the wheels. 4 And the vessel that he made was marred, as clay, in the hand of the potter; and he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make. 
5 And the word of Jehovah came to me, saying, 
6 House of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith Jehovah. Behold, as the clay in the potter's hand, so are ye in my hand, house of Israel. 
7 At the moment that I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to break down, and to destroy,
8 if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turn from their evil, then I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. 
9 And at the moment that I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant, 
10 if it do evil in my sight, that it hearken not unto my voice, then I will repent of the good wherewith I said I would benefit them. 
11 And now, speak to the men of Judah and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, saying, Thus saith Jehovah: Behold, I prepare evil against you, and devise a device against you: turn ye then every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your doings. 
12 But they say, There is no hope; for we will walk after our own devices, and we will each one do according to the stubbornness of his evil heart. 
People think, that in Romans 9 Paul is saying, that God in his unchangeable decree has decided, what will be the destination of everyone, as well for good as for evil, like a potter making of the clay, what he wants. 
But that is not what the Lord made clear to Jeremia. 
Does the image of the potter show, that God has an unchangeable decree, in which everyones destination has been laid down? 
No. That is not what the image of the potter tells us. 

Investigating thoroughly what is presented to us in Jeremia 18, we 'll see, that it does not speak of an unchangeable decree, but the reverse, that God changes the destination He originally had spoken about, either for good after repentance or for evil after deviation from the ways of God. 

That suits exactly the subject of Romans 9, viz. the question, how it can be possible, that Israel is not blessed, whereas He promised blessings, and how it can be, that heathen are blessed, of whom God had spoken of judgment. The answer to those questions Jeremia had given in chapter 18 and the Jews could have known that. 

God has not laid down in an unchangeable decree what will be the destination of this one and the other. He is acting as the potter and will make beloved children of God out of corrupt and wicked sinners if they repent, be they heathen or Jew, and did not bless Israel according to the promises, because they rejected Gods salvation through Jesus Christ, but judged them, just as He had said by Jeremia. 

Election before the worlds foundation is not the subject here, nor is it mentioned, and we should not bring it into the reasoning here. We find it in Epehesians 1 only. Not here. 

(Not being the subject here, it is better not to explain extensively Ephesians 1. Let it only be known, that "election before the worlds foundation" has been "election in Christ", that is "being elected in the election of Gods Elected, Christ".) 

The apostle developed this some further: 
22 And if God, minded to shew his wrath and to make his power known, endured with much long-suffering vessels of wrath fitted for destruction; 
23 and that he might make known the riches of his glory upon vessels of mercy, which he had before prepared for glory. So it is. God is showing endless long-suffering to them, that prepare for themselves no other destination than perdition and judgment. God has been long-suffering with Pharaoh, He has been long-suffering with Israel, but whosoever despises and misuses his long-suffering awaits judgment at the end. 
On the other hand God has been endlessly good for them, that were on their way to perdition as well, but to whom He showed his mercy after they repented. He changed their destination, as a potter does. 

The expression "He had before prepared for glory" does not undoubtedly speak of election before the worlds foundation, which, as said, is no subject here. The words make us think of an act in the past indeed, but the verb in Greek here is an Aoristus, expressing some doing in the past, the present and the future. We might possibly translate: "after having prepared them to glory". 
This is sure, that the image of the potter does not speak of the unchangeableness of Gods decree, but of the right and freedom of God to change in time (not in past eternity) ones lot, for better or for worse. And ought not every christian to be very grateful? We were on the way to judgment, but God changed our lot and put us on the sure way to his glory. 
Here however Israel and the heathen are in view. And Israel, going on in disobedience, misses the blessing, whereas heathen, if they repent, will obtain salvation. With that God does not deviate from what He has said to do in his Word, on the contrary. He is acting in conformity to his words in Jeremia 18. 
Let Him be praised for ever, that he showed mercy to so many vessels of wrath and made them vessels of mercy. 

During and after the reformation the fathers did not understand the chapter, what can be traced in their scriptures. Owing to that the thoughts of many christians are directed in a wrong way and the consequence is much harm with relation to election en predestination. Even many evangelicals have been influnced by the vision of Calvin and have great difficulties in contemplating the doctrine that has been teached them, critically. It is my hope and prayer, that the Lord will use these lines to give the readers light over Romans 9, to his glory.