A Potter Looks at Romans 9

Have you ever wondered why Jesus spoke in parables? Concerning the Messiah to come, the Old Testament indicated that He would open His mouth in parables (see Matthew 13:35 and Psalm 78:2). And throughout His ministry, Jesus used countless illustrations in His teachings. For some, He became a “stumbling block and a rock of offence” even as He shared spiritual truths with earthly illustrations. And I’ve pondered from time to time of both the positive impact to those who understood and the negative repercussions of those who took His statements the wrong way. As an ex-Roman Catholic, I am particularly concerned with how one takes His statement, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35) because I understand now that His statement was spiritual and not physical (see John 6:63). But, over the centuries, the Roman Catholic Church has tortured and executed many people over this very point.

Before making the above statement, Jesus had the following discourse with the people who were flocking to Him:

Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled. Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed. Then said they unto him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent. (John 6:26-29; emphasis added)

From the above dialogue, it becomes clear that Jesus wanted them to believe the Gospel. The Gospel was never intended to become a works-based religion of literally ingesting Jesus in the sacrament of the Eucharist but the Good News that God bestows eternal life to those who put their trust in the complete and finished work of Christ at Calvary in redeeming us from our sins. Unfortunately, even though Scripture refutes an earthy, physical view of how God redeems us, people remain blind to the meaning of the Gospel until they humbly and whole-heartedly turn to Christ. Until then, there is no assurance of salvation because they have never laid hold of it.

Likewise, Calvinism offers a distorted view of salvation based largely on a misconceived idea of what God is like. And while Catholicism is rooted in a misconstrued perception of what John 6 is talking about, Calvinism, likewise, is founded on an equally misconstrued view of what Romans 9 is talking about. In fact, Calvinist leaders will often guide their students to Romans 9 (isolating it from other Scriptures) because it is one of the very few passages in Scripture that remotely appears to support the conclusions of John Calvin—namely that man really has no free will and consequently anything and everything that happens on planet Earth has been preordained by God and is according to His own good pleasure; likewise, according to this view, it is God’s good pleasure to send most people to Hell. Romans 9 is often used to lure unsuspecting people into debates about predestination in that it gives the Calvinist a sense of security that he will win his hearer to his side.

This, of course, is a misuse of Scripture because while Romans 9, when isolated from the rest of Scripture, may seem to hold to the fatalistic viewpoint of Calvinism, the whole of Scripture absolutely refutes the findings and conclusions of John Calvin. Like Calvin, the Calvinist is now left with a lifelong task of having to read all of Scripture through a filter, where the meanings of words must be altered and Scriptures twisted and distorted to fit the Calvinist view.
It is therefore often unproductive to try to have any intelligent debate by looking only at Romans 9 as it seems to defy resolution by mulling over it in isolation from the rest of Scripture.

However, there is a passage in Jeremiah that not only refutes Calvinism it also addresses Romans 9. And while there are countless Scriptures that equally refute Calvinism, this passage has special significance because it speaks of the potter referred to in Romans 9:19-23 where Paul uses the illustration of a potter in similar fashion to why Jesus spoke in parables. The things of God, being spiritual, are often difficult to understand and can often be best explained by way of illustration. However, earthly illustrations need to be nonetheless spiritually discerned as we have already seen in Jesus’ referral to Himself as “the bread of life.” We must, therefore, take care not to distort an illustration from its actual and intended meaning.

With that said, let’s take a look at Jeremiah 18:1-12:

1The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying, 2 Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will cause thee to hear my words. 3 Then I went down to the potter’s house, and, behold, he wrought a work on the wheels. 4 And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it. 5 Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying, 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. 7 At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it;8 If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. 9 And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; 10 If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them.

11 Now therefore go to, speak to the men of Judah, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, saying, Thus saith the LORD; Behold, I frame evil against you, and devise a device against you: return ye now every one from his evil way, and make your ways and your doings good. 12 And they said, There is no hope: but we will walk after our own devices, and we will every one do the imagination of his evil heart. (emphasis added)

First of all, we should establish who the potter is in this passage. Rather than giving Jeremiah a vision, God instructed him to observe an actual potter at work. However, we learn in verse 6 that this potter served as an illustration of God as the potter of humanity—something that is both symbolic and quite literal. For in Genesis 2:7, we read that “the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground” making Him a potter in a literal sense of unequalled skill and intelligence. The capitalized word “LORD” refers to the Jehovah of the Old Testament whom John refers to as “the Word” in the New Testament who created all things (John 1:3) and “was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (v. 14), referring to Jesus. The same word for “LORD” is also what is used in this passage from Jeremiah, which identifies this Potter as our Creator who later became man to be our Redeemer.

Now, even though our bodies are mere clay, God did a wonderous work in creating us with an eternal soul (Genesis 2:7) fashioned after His own image (Genesis 1:26). And, while Genesis 1 and 2 are somewhat ambiguous as to what it means to be created in God’s image, Jeremiah 18 gives us insight into how we were created.

It should be pointed out here that while the potter Jeremiah was observing was doing something physical, the work of the Potter referred to as “LORD” is doing a work that is spiritual. The spiritual “clay” really has to do with the fact that God has created all of us with a free will. The idea of free will actually makes a lot of sense from the perspective of God as our Potter (Creator) because if God had created us without it, we would be no more than puppets pleasing God not because we want to but because we would, in effect, be forced to do His will. But Scripture says that “God loveth a cheerful giver” as opposed to one who gives “grudgingly, or of necessity” (see 2 Corinthians 9:7; emphasis added). This, of course, makes complete sense even from a human perspective in that love—given or received— takes on full meaning when it is done freely and by choice.

So God made us of a spiritual “clay” that includes free will. However, this presents a dichotomy for the spiritual Potter in that He now has a substance (“clay”) to work with that is mutually exclusive of the results. For just as the earthly potter finds inconsistency in the clay he uses, the spiritual Potter must deal with the inconsistency of free will in the spiritual clay He uses to create and sustain life in each individual. Such is the situation in Jeremiah 18 where the potter Jeremiah is observing may have exceedingly great skill yet finds that “the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter” (v. 4); but rather than throw the clay away, he reworks the same clay again into “another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it” (v. 4). In other words, he reshaped the clay into a vessel that still seemed good to him though it had failed to take the shape of what he originally designed.

Such is the predicament of our spiritual Potter who fashioned each of us with a free will. But rather than throw us away, He works on us when we stray, refashioning our lives with the hope of repentance. We see this brought out dramatically in this passage from Jeremiah where God, speaking to the nation of Israel, gives opportunity after opportunity for repentance—both individually and as a people. Here God emphasizes that how we live our lives is not determined by our genes but on the choices we make. Ezekiel 18:1-4 elaborates on this point in referring to a proverb that suggested the iniquity of parents is locked into succeeding generations. In response to this, God says, “Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die” (v. 4). In other words, everyone is responsible for him or herself, and it is our own iniquity that brings us down. Likewise, the opportunity for repentance is available to us all, just as God’s forgiveness is available to all.

Thus, as we ponder the workings of the spiritual Potter in Jeremiah 18, it becomes abundantly clear that He has no resemblance to the imaginings of John Calvin. While Calvin’s “God” bestows no free will on all people, Jeremiah’s God is opposite in designing us as our Potter. In fact, beginning with verse 5, it becomes clear that it is God Himself, speaking through Jeremiah, who will now describe Himself as our Potter. Speaking of entire nations, God says that if a wicked nation repents, He will “repent” of the judgement that He meant to bring upon it (vv. 7-8); likewise, if a godly nation turns to wickedness, God will “repent of the good, wherewith [He] said [He] would benefit them” (v. 10). Furthermore, in verse 11, God speaks to the individual when He says, “return ye now every one from his evil way, and make your ways and your doings good” (emphasis added). Here, it is abundantly clear that God sees man as having:

a. A free will (otherwise He would not plead with them to repent)

b. The ability to repent (again, why else would He ask them to repent?)

c. The ability to do good (as seen in verse 11)

But the clay of Calvin is a crippled clay in that Calvin’s creation has no free will (but must act out what God has predetermined him to do), is totally lacking in the ability to repent and believe, and is unable to do good (due to “total depravity”—the “T” in TULIP). Scripture says, “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19) and “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31); but Calvin says the opposite in that we must be converted first before we can repent and believe. Again, Scripture says, “godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation” (2 Corinthians 7:10) and “the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24). What all of this is saying is that we must come to Christ in order to be converted. Conviction of sin enables us to see our need of a Savior while putting our faith in Christ opens the door to receive Him (be converted, born again).

But Calvin has rendered us as a disabled clay totally unlike the clay of Jeremiah 18. It is no wonder we are now receiving testimonies here at Lighthouse Trails of people coming out of Calvinism who thought they could find strength and assurance in it but instead were left with fear and uncertainty.

Furthermore, Calvinism renders people ineffective for leading people to Christ.* As an example of this, I remember our neighbors we once had who belonged to the Reformed church who criticized us for reaching out to another neighbor with the Gospel because they had already decided the other neighbor was predetermined to go to Hell. Their son told us he was a Christian because he had been baptized into the Reformed church as a baby (as prescribed by Calvin), but he later turned to the occult walking away from what he knew to be the Christian faith altogether. Calvinism also renders its members ineffective in that it actually presents another Gospel than that taught in the Scriptures. Though Calvinist scholars have much to say, when all is said and done, their only conclusion is that there is only one assurance of salvation, and that is in knowing that they are of the elect; but they can never know if they are of the elect and are therefore left with doubt and fear. Assurance in the Cross has been superseded by election, which turns out to be no assurance at all.

The problem for the Calvinist is that Romans 9, under the tutelage of John Calvin, has become a stumbling block for the Christian in much the same way that the Catholic Church has used John 6 to mean that we are saved through participation in Holy Communion. But just as careful examination of John 6 in the context of the whole chapter and with the whole of Scripture will bring one to the Gospel, Romans 9 will bring one to the Gospel when properly understood.

Unfortunately, the Calvinist is left with thinking that his doctrine is sound when he states: We are saved “by grace alone through faith alone” when all the while under the Calvinist system, he is actually being “saved” by election alone under a very confused theology that turns the steps to salvation around backwards and makes the Cross inaccessible because free will has been made void. In fact, the only assurance he can have is in “the perseverance of the saints” (the “P” in TULIP), but that is no real assurance at all because he can never know if he persevered enough nor if he will persevere to the very end. Ironically, this system of believing is actually works-based and not by grace alone nor is it by faith alone. The Calvinist is caught in a system designed by John Calvin that appears as if it should work but in actuality places the “believer” in a life-long position of questions and doubt. And while there are Calvinists who will proudly go about saying, “I am of the elect,” the truly honest and learned Calvinist knows in his heart that Calvinism offers no such assurance. That is why Calvin himself appealed to God before he died to show him mercy and grant him salvation—if God willed it.

So, even though I cannot relate to you the pain and damage of being raised Calvinist, I can as an ex-Roman Catholic comprehend what it means to take something beautiful in Scripture (i.e., the Gospel) and twist it to mean something else. It is the burden of exchanging the easy yoke of the Gospel for the heavy yoke of man.

If Romans 9 were not offering a Gospel to “whosoever will, let him take of the water of life freely” (Revelation 22:17) but rather only to a pre-selected few, at the very least, the immediate context of Romans 9 would support this. But, in fact, we find this is not so. On the contrary, Romans 9:7-8 indicates that the true children of Abraham are the children of promise (i.e., those who believe in the promises of God just as Abraham did). And while Romans 9:20-23 may seem perplexing, it can only make sense with the rest of Scripture that God was willing to endure (not delight in) the vessels fitted for destruction because He has created everyone with a free will. This is what is so aptly brought out in our Jeremiah 18 passage about the Potter. And, yes, God does have foreknowledge of those who will reject Him, but the decision to receive or reject God’s promises nonetheless resides in the heart of man according to his own will. Hence, according to Romans 9:19-20, those who resist God are guilty because they have freely willed it to be so. As for salvation being freely given, Romans 9:30 goes so far as to say that salvation is available even to the Gentiles if they will but receive “the righteousness which is of faith.” Then, in closing, this chapter, Romans 9:31-33 speaks of the “stumblingstone and rock of offence” (v. 33) referred to earlier in our discussion. It is of paramount importance, therefore, that we do not play games with the Gospel. The Gospel is true, it is of promise, and it is available to whosoever wills it. Finally, Romans 9 ends with these words: “[W]hosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed” [disappointed] (v. 33, emphasis added).

Moving beyond Romans 9, we do not have to look very far to find some of the most comforting and reassuring Scripture to support the idea that God’s salvation is freely given to all who will come to Him. Romans 10:4 tells us that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth” (emphasis added). And perhaps the best way to end this discussion is to look at the words of Scripture that follow in Romans 10: 8-13; the italicized portions are of special relevance to this subject. May God bless you as you give your life freely to Him.

But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach; that if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed. For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. (emphasis added)

Author  David Dombrowski