The Potter Has Rights Over the Clay
Space will demand a less in-depth look at my other two passages, Romans 9 and John 6. Both, however, will be seen to repeat the same concepts found in Ephesians 1.
The relevance of Romans 9 is obvious upon the most casual reading. It comes on the heels of a passage that again uses the specific term "predestined" of the elect people of God (8:29-33). Paul begins by illustrating God's electing grace in the patriarchs of the Jewish people, proving, thereby, that the Jews have no basis upon which to complain now that God, in His grace, has chosen to extend His covenant mercies to the Gentiles as well. Paul points to Jacob and Esau (9:10-13) as an example of this: "before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad" God said, "the older will serve the younger." Why does Paul emphasize that this was said before the birth of the twins, and before they had done anything good or bad? The text is plain: "in order that God's purpose according to election would stand—not on the basis of works, but on the basis of the One calling." God's purpose in election will stand, infallibly. The choice of Jacob over Esau was not on the basis of the actions of the twins (indeed, both showed themselves unworthy by their sinful attitudes of any of God's blessings). Instead, the basis is always found in God, "the One calling." Because of this, it is written in Scripture, "Jacob I loved, and Esau I hated."
It is fascinating to note that Paul had obviously heard all the objections against the Gospel many times before. He includes an "imaginary objector" in this section to voice all the common complaints about God's absolute sovereignty and man's complete dependence upon Him. Fallen man outside of Christ hates the truth that God is the Potter, we are the clay. The unregenerate heart rebels against such a truth. When we read, "Jacob I loved, Esau I hated," we say, "that is not fair! That is unjust!" And indeed, Paul immediately voices that objection, and then answers it as well. But before looking at his answer, do remember this: the amazing thing about the statement "Jacob I loved and Esau I hated" is not that God hated Esau: Esau was a sinner, an enemy of God, and God's wrath abides upon anyone still in their sins. The amazing thing about the statement is "Jacob I loved." That is grace undeserved.
"What will we say, then? There is no injustice with God, is there?" (v. 14). As soon as sovereignty is seen, man cries foul. Paul's answer is quick: "May it never be! For he said to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.' Therefore it does not depend on the one who wills, neither on the one who runs, but on God, who shows mercy." The NET translates it, "it does not depend on human desire or exertion, but on the mercy of God." In either case, the actions and will of man are utterly removed from consideration by Paul's response. God's choice is totally free. Mercy and compassion cannot be demanded of the Righteous Judge of all. They must be free. Rather than defending the "freedom of man," the truly regenerate heart should be jealous for the freedom of God instead.
The Scriptures go on to illustrate this truth in the life of Pharaoh. Paul asserts (9:17) that God raised up Pharaoh for a specific purpose: that God's name might be proclaimed in all the earth. Again the rebellious heart cries out in complaint, while the believer bows in humble adoration. "May I be used only to bring honor and glory to the name of my God" is the cry of the broken heart. So Paul goes on to press the point home in verse 18, "Therefore He has mercy on whom He wishes; but He likewise hardens whom He wishes." How much more plainly can it be stated? The context is clearly personal: Pharaoh was a person, as were Jacob and Esau. God shows mercy to individuals, and, likewise, whether we like it or not, He hardens individuals as well. This is predestination, plain and clear.
Of course, immediately the creature rebels and cries out (v. 19), "Why does He still find fault? Who has ever resisted His will?" The clay attempts to demand of the Potter a reason for His actions. The creature climbs onto the throne of the Creator and acts as if he has a right to be there. Make no mistake: this response, natural as it is for the sinful heart, is, itself, a symptom of sin, and is an act of rebellion. As Paul will point out, it is as foolish as a cup demanding its Maker give an account for its size, color, or shape. Cups have no such rights, and neither does the creature, man... As the NET renders it, "But who indeed are you—a mere human being—to talk back to God?" More traditionally, "Who are you, O man, to answer back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,' will it?" The answer is devastating, but only when, by grace, your heart is "given ears to hear" what it is saying. It is a shattering experience to really come to see yourself as you are: a creature, formed and made by another for His own purposes (not yours!), utterly dependent upon Him. There is no room for pride in such a truth—and so the natural man rejects it, and indeed, in my experience, hates it. Man is the "thing molded." God is the molder. God is God, man is man...
Paul presses onward to his conclusion: "Or does not the Potter have authority over the clay, to make from the same lump of clay one vessel for honorable use, and yet another for common use?" His illustration is striking. Potters have full authority to do with a lump of clay whatever they wish. It is irrational to insist that the potter has to make from one lump of clay all honorable vessels or all common ones. He can do what he wishes. But what bothers us so tremendously here is the obvious fact that we are the vessels formed from clay! And we have no say over the purpose for which we have been made: that is the right of the Potter.
Paul goes on in verses 22-23, "What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath made for destruction, in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy which He prepared beforehand for glory?" Who are these vessels prepared beforehand for glory? The elect of God, the people He has redeemed for His own name's sake. It is hard to see how Paul could have been any more clear, any more direct in his presentation of the absolute sovereignty of God in election.