Calvinistic theology teaches that God holds all of humanity responsible (defined as “justly punishable”) for that which God Himself unchangeably determined would come to pass. <link> When pressed about the troubling aspects of this belief, many Calvinists will appeal to mystery and rely on misapplied biblical analogies to support their claims. Please allow me to demonstrate my point.
In our last article, we unpacked the biblical references to man’s “deadness” and the implication Calvinists read into that terminology to support the idea of “total inability.” In this article, I would like us to consider the biblical analogy of the potter and his clay, which Calvinists heavily lean on to support this troubling doctrine.
Notice that I called it a “biblical analogy.” These are analogies and terms drawn directly from the scriptures, which is why Calvinists are so insistent that their doctrines originate from the Bible. And I concede that Calvinists are drawing some of their phraseology and illustrations directly from the inspired text, but I am specifically taking issue with their interpretation and application of those biblical analogies. We agree that the bible speaks of mankind being dead in sin and we acknowledge the potter and clay analogy in Romans 9. We simply reject the view that these analogies prove the Calvinistic concept of total inability.
Let’s look at a passage most often cited by Calvinists when defending their belief in total inability:
“But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?” (Romans 9:20–21).
On the one hand, Calvinists will often argue (using passages like this one) that mankind has as much control over how he believes and behaves as a piece of clay has over its own shape, while on the other hand vehemently objecting to their opponent’s accusations of making men into mere puppets.
Some Calvinists want to have their cake and eat it too on this point. If they are going to interpret these biblical analogies in such a way that removes mankind’s responsibility in the process, then they cannot object to another analogy which draws the exact same conclusion. After all, what more or less responsibility does a puppet have in relation to the puppet master than a lump of clay has in relation to the potter on Calvinism’s interpretation? If you want to interpret Paul’s analogy of the potter and the clay literally to mean that man has no say in how he believes and responds, then own it. Don’t object to other analogies that draw the exact same implications unless you are not willing to live with those implications.
So, what else could Paul mean in this passage if not what Calvinists insist? Let’s explore:
First of all, who is bringing this objection? Some Calvinists would have us believe it was a first century “Arminian” (or “synergist”) objecting to the idea that God chooses to condemn some people to hell before they ever do anything good or bad. But that interpretation simply ignores the context of the scripture.
This is not the first time Paul anticipates this interlocutor’s questions. Back in Romans 3:1-7, Paul goes through virtually the exact same diatribe as he does here in Romans 9. Allow me to place the parallel verses side by side for your consideration:
As you can see, the parallel is very clear. Paul’s objector is not a “man-centered synergist” accusing God of being unfair for predetermining most of humanity to eternal torment before they were born. The objector is a self-righteous Jew who has been cut off, or hardened in his rebellion by God for a redemptive purpose.
Generally speaking, Israel was a hell-bound lump of clay that had already grown calloused in self-righteous, legalistic religiosity (Acts 28:21–28). Despite their rebellion, the gracious Potter had patiently held out his hands to them for generations (Rom. 10:21). At this time in history, the Divine Potter selects a portion from this lump to carry His redemptive message to the rest of the world. This is to ensure His purpose for electing Israel will stand. The Potter remakes some of this lump for the noble purpose of carrying His Word to the rest of the world. He uses persuasive signs, like a blinding light, to mold the wills of these otherwise rebellious messengers from Israel. He leaves the rest of this already-calloused lump in their rebellion, through which He accomplishes ignoble but necessary and redemptive purposes.
In this text, Paul was likely drawing upon the analogy introduced by God through the prophet Jeremiah, which reads:
“This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me. He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel” (Jer. 18:1–6).
Paul’s fellow countrymen, like their fathers before them, were flawed pots in the hands of the Potter. It pleases the Potter to remake them into vessels to use for the accomplishment of His redemptive plan. Did the clay come to the Potter flawed already, or did the Potter Himself spoil the clay? If the clay represents all of humanity from birth, in accordance with His eternal decree, then it would imply that the Potter did the spoiling and the remaking. But if the clay is understood to represent Israel, then it is clear that the spoiling (or callousing) is a direct result of their own rebellious choices over the years, not the molding of the Potter.
The Potter merely reshapes the already-flawed clay into something useful for a greater good, such as accomplishing redemption through their unrighteous actions. Some vessels are selected to be used for noble purposes, like apostleship, while others are sealed in their calloused condition to fulfill God’s redemptive plan. This indeed would give cause for all to glory in the free choices of such a righteous Potter sovereignly working to fulfill His promise.
The context of the Potter and clay analogy, recorded first in Jeremiah, goes on to shed more light on the responsibility of the clay in relation to the potter:
“If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it. “Now therefore say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, ‘This is what the Lord says: Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.’ But they will reply, ‘It’s no use. We will continue with our own plans; we will all follow the stubbornness of our evil hearts’” (Jer. 18:7–12).
Some Calvinistic scholars attempt to disassociate this text with Paul’s use of the analogy in Romans. For instance, James White writes, “Where is there a discussion of vessels of honor and dishonor in Jeremiah 18? Where is there a discussion of vessels of wrath and vessels of mercy? There is none.” Only someone set on dismissing human responsibility would be unwilling to acknowledge the clear connection. Richard Coords explains:
The vessels of honor can be seen in God’s fashioning to “bless” (v. 10), “build,” and “plant” (v. 9), while the vessels of dishonor can be seen in the fashioning to “uproot,” “pull down” and “destroy” (v.7) including “fashioning calamity” and “devising a plan against” (v. 11), which is also consistent with the Jewish hardening described in Romans chapter 9 and at Romans 11:25.
Paul is not oblivious to the need of the clay to respond to the expressed will of the Potter, as Paul draws upon this analogy again in his letter to Timothy:
“Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work” (2 Tim. 2:20–21).
Clearly, the biblical authors speak of the clay as if it is able to respond (and thus be held responsible) to the will of the Potter. The vessel must “cleanse himself” so as to be “useful to the Master,” which clearly illustrates that Paul does not necessarily intend to remove man’s part in the process by way of this kind of analogy.
God, a patient and trustworthy Potter who genuinely loves the hardened clay (Rom. 9:1–2; 10:1, 21), has remade some of it to be used for “noble purposes,” such as proclaiming the inspired truth to the lost world. The rest of the lump, still genuinely loved by the Potter despite their turning to other gods (Hos. 3:1), is used to bring about the ignoble purpose of crucifixion and the grafting in of other vessels for redemption (Rom. 11:25). All the while, the Potter is holding out hope for the spoiled lump to turn from its evil and be cleansed through repentance and faith (Rom. 11:11–23).
Romans 9-11 is about God expanding his redemption, not limiting it. And the analogy of the potter and his clay is about God’s sovereign plan to fulfill His promise of redemption through both the hardening and mercy-ing of natural born Israelites.
 James White, The Potter’s Freedom (Amityville, NY: Calvary Press, 2000), 225.
 Richard Coords, “Jeremiah 18:6,” Examining Calvinism, web page, available from http://www.examiningcalvinism.com/files/OT/Jer18_6.html; Internet; accessed 08 June 2015.