The Potter and the Clay

Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God … has endured with much patience vessels of wrath … in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy?” (vv. 21-23).

- Romans 9:20b-24

John Calvin remains well known by his admirers and detractors for His affirmation of double predestination, that God elects some people for salvation and chooses to leave others to damnation. Yet Calvin did not have some cold view of reprobation—the choice to pass by some and leave them to damnation. He called reprobation a “horrible” or “awful” decree. The great Reformer did not mean by this that reprobation is motivated by injustice or that the Lord takes sadistic delight in letting some people go to hell. He meant that reprobation is a hard thing to think about, a most difficult reality for us to fathom.

We do not want to underestimate the difficulty of this teaching, but we must point out that one reason we have a hard time with reprobation is that we have a poor understanding of sin and God’s holiness. None of us gets a full glimpse of His holiness in this life, though that is by His grace, for none of us could endure meeting our Creator face-to-face while sin abides. Because we can only progress so far in understanding the holiness of the Lord, however, we must continually return to the biblical teaching that God is so pure so as not to look at sin (Hab. 1:13). He hates sin as well as the sinners who refuse to turn from it (Ps. 11:5).

Paul’s teaching on reprobation is somewhat easier to accept when we realize that in reprobation, God is not taking people who otherwise want to be with Him in heaven and keeping them out of His blessed presence for the sake of irrational malice. We see this in today’s passage when the Apostle distinguishes God’s fashioning of some vessels for glory (the elect) from His making some vessels for destruction (the reprobate) out of the “same lump” of clay (Rom. 9:21). This lump of clay is the mass of humanity in Adam, the same group he describes in Romans 3:9-18 as “worthless” and without any fear of God. In fashioning vessels fit for destruction, the Lord is not taking otherwise good people and making them evil. They are already evil, and all they deserve is destruction. As Dr. R.C. Sproul writes in his commentary Romans: “The elect get grace; the non-elect get justice. Nobody gets injustice.” Along similar lines, Martin Luther says, “All men are equally a part of the mass of perdition and no one is righteous before God unless he receives mercy.”

Election and reprobation are related, but they are not parallel in every way. In electing children of Adam for salvation and making them vessels for mercy, the Lord overcomes the fallenness of the clay. In reprobation, He confirms this fallenness.

Coram Deo

Election and reprobation are deep truths that defy our attempts to grasp them fully. God has told us some things about His purposes in election and reprobation, but He has not answered every question we have. In cases like these, John Calvin says that “a mystery which our minds cannot comprehend ought to be reverently adored.” Let us reverence the Lord for His love and justice shown in election and reprobation even though we cannot understand these doctrines completely.

Passages for Further Study

Deuteronomy 2:30
John 12:36b-42
1 Peter 2:7-8
Jude 4

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 500 physical copies. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred (where applicable). If no such link exists, simply link to www.ligonier.org.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: From Ligonier Ministries, the teaching fellowship of R.C. Sproul. All rights reserved. Website: www.ligonier.org | Phone: 1-800-435-4343