Roaming Through Romans: The Potter and the Clay (v21)
“Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?”
The potter sustains the relation to the clay, out of which he makes vessels, as God does to man whom He has made.
Barclay objects to Paul's argument. He says it is “not good analogy ... the argument is not good...” that “Paul is speaking emotionally here ... not logically...”; that “clay cannot argue ... does not feel ... cannot speak back.”
John Stott refers to some commentators who are “brash enough to reject Paul’s teaching,” citing C.H. Dodd who said: “It is the weakest point in the whole epistle.”
Stott replies, “Paul is not censuring someone who asks sincerely perplexed questions, but rather someone who ‘quarrels’ with God, who talks back (v. 20) or answer’s back (RSV). Such a person manifests a reprehensible spirit of rebellion against God, a refusal to let God be God and acknowledge his or her true status as creature and sinner…”
We who have a higher view of inspiration are moved to ask again, “who are you, O man, to reply against God?” As Godet expressed it, “the potter does not commit the absurdity of holding the clay responsible for its superior or inferior quality.”
But, he continues: “the question is not in the least about the production of the clay, and consequently about its qualities, but solely about the use made of it by the potter. He does not create the clay; he takes it as he finds it, and adapts it as best he can to the difficult uses he proposes to himself.”
There's a lot of difference in clay and men. Clay is completely passive. Paul is not arguing that man is. The clay is fashioned directly by the potter. Paul is not arguing that man is fashioned so. Such is not his point.
Paul is not saying that one is created good; another evil. Rather, one is assigned to an honorable use and another to a dishonorable or common use. Of the same lump of clay, he has the authority to assign either purpose. One vessel might be designed as a thing of beauty, perhaps a decorative, ornamental vase; another might be made a vessel for some menial use.
The lump represents humanity. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their descendants were designed as vessels unto honor (verses 4, 5). Pharaoh and the Egyptians were vessels unto dishonor. God decides whether a man will be a Moses or a Pharaoh. But He doesn't remove personal responsibility from either.
In fact, a man can so order his life that he can be “a vessel for honor, sanctified and useful for the Master, prepared for every good work” (2 Tim. 2:20, 21).
It would be useful to read carefully Jeremiah 18:1-12 where the prophet expands upon this figure of the potter and the clay, making application especially to nations. The conditionality of the potter's activity is clearly demonstrated in that chapter.
Now if God is just and righteous in doing all of this, why should He be charged with unrighteousness if He chooses to honor Gentiles and not Jews; or more accurately, Gentiles as well as Jews? Paul now comes to this application. –Ken Green