Western theology has committed a terrible disservice to this imagery of a potter and clay by making it seem as if God is a deterministic puppet master up in heaven pulling the strings of people and nations down here on earth.
This is exactly the opposite of what Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Paul meant by using this terminology.
The Potter and the Clay in Jeremiah 18
In Jeremiah 18, for example, while God is equated with the potter, God calls upon Israel to turn from her wicked ways and obey His voice so that they, as the pot which God is fashioning, will not be marred (cf. Jer 18:8-11).
God calls upon Israel to come into conformity to the work of His hands. If they do not, they will become marred, and He will have to reform the clay again into another vessel (Jer 18:4). He does not destroy or discard the clay; He simply forms it into another pot which will be used for a different purpose.
A similar understanding is seen in Isaiah 54 and Romans 9.
The Potter and the Clay is not teaching Determinism
There is no deterministic message in the image of the potter and the clay in Isaiah 54, Jeremiah 18, or Romans 9. If we accept the deterministic perspective of these texts, just imagine for a moment what sort of God is being portrayed. H. H. Rowley sums it up best:
Neither Jeremiah nor Paul had in mind an aimless dilettante, working in a casual and haphazard way, turning out vessels according to the chance whim of the moment … To suppose that a crazy potter, who made vessels with no other thought than that he would afterwards knock them to pieces, is the type and figure of God, is supremely dishonoring to God. The vessel of dishonor which the potter makes is still something that he wants, and that has a definite use … The instruments of wrath … were what the New Testament calls ‘vessels of dishonor,’ serving God indeed, but with no exalted service. They were not puppets in His hand, compelled to do His will without moral responsibility for their deed, but chosen because He saw that the very iniquity of their heart would lead them to the course that He could use (Rowley, Doctrine of Election, p. 40-41)
Neither Isaiah, nor Jeremiah, nor Paul had in mind a potter who purposefully created pots just so that He could smash them. No potter would do that, then or now. Instead, God is the wise potter who works with the clay to form useful tools. The vessels of “dishonor” are not vessels which are destroyed, but vessels which will be used in “ignoble” ways. They still serve important purposes and help with vital tasks, but they are not vessels of honor.
Typically, vessels of dishonor do end up being destroyed (which is not necessarily hell!), but this is not because the potter made them for such a purpose, but because unclean vessels, when they have served their purpose, are usually not useful for anything else.
And what makes one vessel clean or unclean? As H. H. Rowley pointed out above, God allows humans to determine what kind of vessel they will be, and then He uses those who have made themselves vessels of dishonor.
A careful reading of Romans 9:22 reveals this very point. W. E. Vine, in his Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, says that the word “destruction” is used “metaphorically of men persistent in evil (Rom 9:22), where ‘fitted’ is in the middle voice, indicating that the vessels of wrath fitted themselves for destruction” (Vine’s Expository Dictionary, 2:165)
None of this Relates to Person’s Eternal Destiny
Again, none of this has anything to do with whether or not a person goes to heaven or hell after death. The way a vessel is used refers primarily to how God uses individuals, kings, and nations in this life. Marston and Forster add this:
The basic lump that forms a nation will either be built up or broken down by the Lord, depending on their own moral response. If a nation does repent and God builds them up, then it is for him alone to decide how the finished vessel will fit into his plan … God alone determines the special features / privileges / responsibilities of a particular nation (Forster & Marston, God’s Strategy, 74).
To read more on Romans 9, get my book The Re-Justification of God.If you want to read more about Calvinism, check out other posts in this blog series: Words of Calvinism and the Word of God.
I all honesty, it’s very tough to deal with certain biblical matters. I understand that God uses whomever He wants in order to fulfill His sovereign will. When God is using these vessels in an ignoble ways to fulfill a very specific purpose. After being used, what about their evil deeds? Can we just say that God gives them a chance for them to come to their senses and acknowledge their sinfulness to Him?
You mention that this doesn’t imply whether or not a person goes to heaven or hell after death. But, in their current lost state, they still have to come to God if they want to escape eternal destruction.
hey i know its like a year later and you have probably had this question answered but if you read Romans (i would just read the whole thing in one sitting it makes much more sense if you do) He does indeed give them a chance romans 11:23″And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again” this verse is specifically talking about Israel. BUT again if you read romans in context and especially the bit your referring to you will see that no the vessels are not damned and could indeed be saved if they call upon the name of the Lord.
How do you explain how God hardened Pharaoh’s heart? I do agree that God can do whatever he wants. After all he is the creator and the one who’s worthy to receive honor and Glory. The scripture say that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart to bring about His glory. I’ve been doubting my salvation because I do not pass the test of 1 John or Galations 5:22 which describes the character of those who are saved. Sometimes I think that I am a, common vessel for God’s glory. I serve many people and God but I do not have the joy. Most the time I serve out of obligation. I have a specific sin in my life that I hate but I keep doing. All this leads me to believe that I am a common vessel to be used for God’s purposes to help believers through service and especially financially.
No, no, no! Don’t let the devil blind you. Paul speaks in long complex arguments, but he gives conclusions and then we have to pay attention. In this whole argument (Rom 9-11) he is speaking about Israel being blinded for a purpose, being to bring salvation to the gentiles. But it is not final! The conclusion is that he will not cast them away! God included all in disobedience so He can have mercy on all. If the hardening is final then why does he say he wants to make them jealous to save some? What would be the point of that? And why does he say in the beginning of the argument that he has deep sadness about the Jews. If you think it is just Paul’s human compassion then why does he say that he speaks the truth in the Holy Spirit when he says this. The truth is, I believe, that the Holy Spirit desires their salvation and shares this desire with Paul. God has mercy on whom he wants and hardens whom he wants when he wants. No one can come to Jesus unless the Father draws them but if Christ is lifted he will draw all men to Him. They will not see Him until they will say Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord. Oh how I wish that you would see this? Do not say: who will bring Christ down from heaven? The word is in your mouth and in your heart: Jesus is Lord and God raised Him from the dead! Say it now and look upon Him and be saved to the uttermost daughter! It is not the will of God that any should perish. What is it that you must believe? That He died for you! If he didn’t what would be your sin for not believing it, because then you are not rejecting his salvation if it is not offered to you in the first place. Yet Hebrews says how shall we escape if we reject such a great salvation! ALL our sins are forgiven! The only sin we are punished for is rejecting Christ and the punishment is sin itself and the wages of sin is death! The very reason you can’t break free of sin is because you labor under condemnation. Don’t you see it? Oh fool, can’t you see that the kindness of the Lord leads you to repentance. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Arise daughter for your light is come! Praise the Lord!
Chris Longhurst says
How does God harden Pharaohs’s heart? I believe it was when God asked Pharaoh to release His people that was when pride in Pharaoh was manifest, it was Pharaoh who stubbornly said no! The more God asked Pharaoh to release His people the more Pharaoh said no, and thus God hardened his heart. The scripture says, He, that being often reproved hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy Proverbs 29:1. Scripture also warns us to head God’s voice when He speaks Hebrews 4:6 Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” There are more scriptures to emphasise this point. Scripture shows us that God has given man free will and we can choose, so the scripture shows God’s sovereignty and man’s will and responsibility remain intact. It was Pharaoh who kept resisting and eventually was destroyed. That’s how I see it.
Linda Bolton says
How does a vessel, something that is made by another, choose?
Jeremy Myers says
Are you a vessel made by God. Answer: yes.
Have you ever made any choices? Answer: yes.
Paul is not saying these vessels have no choice.
Theodore Bolha says
To say that we are “Formed into a different pot, which will be **USED** for a different **PURPOSE**” is no different than saying our lives are determined by God.
If a person uses you for a purpose, and you were made to be used for that purpose, then tell me where the freedom in that is? What freedom does a person born to be used for a specific purpose have? Sounds like slaves born into slavery. You’ll say “you have the choice to be used by God”, but then that contradicts the idea that we’re created for a purpose.