Hath not the Potter Power Over the Clay

by Robert Haldane

Commentary on Romans 9:21

"Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?"

This is the Apostle's second answer to the objection contained in the 19th verse, in which, by another reference to Scripture, he asserts that the thing formed ought not to contend with Him that formed it, who has a right to dispose of it as He pleases. The words in the original, translated 'power' in this verse and the following, are different. The word here employed is variously applied as signifying authority, license, liberty, right; but in its application to God there can be no question that it denotes power justly exercised. The mere power or ability of doing what God pleases, cannot be the meaning, for this is not the thing questioned. It is the justice of the procedure that is disputed, and it is consequently the justice of this exercise of power that must be asserted. With respect to all other beings, the license, liberty, or right referred to, may be, as it is, derived from a superior; but in this sense it cannot refer to God. When, therefore, it is said here that God has 'power,' it must mean that He may, in the instance referred to, use His power in conformity to justice. The right has not a reference to a superior as conferring it, but a reference to His own character, to which all the actions of this sovereignty must be conformable. Power, then, in this place, signifies right or power which is consistent with justice. It is this right or power according to justice that is here asserted.

When the potter molds the clay into what form he pleases, he does nothing contrary to justice; neither does God do injustice in the exercise of absolute power over His creatures. Out of the same original lump or mass He forms, in His holy sovereignty, one man unto honor, and another unto dishonor, without in any respect violating justice. Here it is implied that as there is no difference between the matter or lump out of which the potter forms diversity of vessels, so there is no difference in mankind, Romans 3:22; all men — both those who are elected, and those who are rejected, that are made vessels of mercy, or vessels of wrath — are alike by nature in the same condemnation in which God might in justice have left the whole, but out of which in His holy sovereignty He saves some, while He exercises His justice in pouring out His wrath.

That we are all in the hand of God as the clay in the potter's hand, is humbling to the pride of man, yet nothing can be more self-evidently true. If so, God has the same right over us that a potter has over the clay of which he forms his vessels for his own purposes and interest. The same figure as is employed by the Prophet Isaiah, in declaring the right that God had over him and all the people of Israel, God likewise employs, Jeremiah 18:6: 'O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the Lord. Behold, as the clay is in the potter's hand, so are ye in Mine hand, O house of Israel.' A potter forms his vessels for himself, and not for his vessels. This determines the question with respect to God's end in the creation of man. Philosophers can discern no higher end in creating man than that of making him happy. But the chief end of the potter in molding his vessels has a reference to himself, and God's chief end in making man is His own glory. This is plainly held forth in a multitude of passages in Scripture. Let man strive with his Maker as he will, still he is nothing but the clay in the hand of the potter. There cannot, indeed, be a question but that God will act justly with all His creatures; but the security for this is in His own character, and we can have no greater security against God's power than His own attributes. God will do His creatures no injustice; but this is because justice is a part of His own character. Our security for being treated justly by God is in Himself. One vessel unto honor and another unto dishonor. — Some endeavor to explain this as implying that certain vessels may be made for a less honorable use, while they are still vessels for the Master's service. But it is not said that they are made for a less honorable use, but that they are made to dishonor, is the Apostle's assertion. It is true, indeed, that even vessels employed for dishonorable purposes are useful, and it is equally true that the destruction of the wicked will be for the glory of God. If any are condemned at all, and on any ground whatever, it is certain that it must be for the glory of God, else He would not appoint it to take place. On the verse before us, and the preceding, it is to be observed that the Apostle does not say that his meaning in what he had previously affirmed had been mistaken, and that he had not said that it was agreeable to the will of God that the hardness of men's hearts should take place as it does; he implicitly grants this as truth, and that he had asserted it. And so far from palliating or softening down the expression to which the objection is made, if possible, he heightens and strengthens it. All mankind are here represented as originally lying in the same lump or mass; a great difference afterwards appears among them. Whence does this difference arise? The Apostle explicitly answers, It is God who makes the difference. As the potter makes one vessel as readily as he makes another, and each vessel takes its form from his hand, so God makes one man to honor and another to dishonor. And God's sovereign right to do this is here asserted; and he who objects to this, the Apostle says, speaks against God. Shall the thing formed say to Him that formed it, Why hast Thou made me thus? This representation is entirely consistent with all that the Scriptures elsewhere teach. In the fundamental doctrine of regeneration and the new creation in Christ Jesus, it is expressly inculcated, and is entirely coincident with the question, 'Who maketh thee to differ from another?' 1 Corinthians 4:7.


Excerpt from Commantary on Romans by Robert Haldane (free pdf)

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