A Commentary by John Stott
If salvation is due entirely to God’s will (which it is, as stated twice in verse 15 and twice more in verse 18), and if we do not resist his will (which we do not, and indeed could not), *one of you will say to me: ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?’* (19). In other words, is it fair of God to hold us accountable to him, when he makes the decisions? To this question Paul makes three responses, all of which concern who God is. Most of our problems arise and seem insoluble because our image of God is distorted.
First, *God has the right of a potter over his clay* (20-21). Paul’s first response to his critic’s two questions is to pose three counter questions which all concern our identity. They ask whether we know who we are (*Who are you, O man…?* 20a), what kind of relationship we think exists between us and God, and what attitude to him we consider appropriate to this relationship. Moreover, all three counter-questions emphasize the gulf which yawns between a human being and God (20a), between a crafted object and the craftsman (between *what is formed* and *him who formed it*, 20b), and between a *lump of clay* and *the potter* who is shaping it (21). Since this is the relationship between us, do we really think it fitting for a human being to *talk back to God* (20a), for art to ask the artist why he has made it as he has (20b), or for a pot to challenge the potter’s right to shape the same lump of clay into a pottery for different uses (21)?
We need to recall the Old Testament background to Paul’s questions. The village potter at his wheel was a familiar figure in Palestine, and his craft was used to illustrate several different truths. For example, Jeremiah watches the potter’s skill and determination in re-shaping a vessel which had been spoiled (Je. 18:1ff.). This is not in Paul’s mind here, however. He is alluding rather to two texts in Isaiah. The first contains God’s striking complaint to Israel, ‘You turn things upside down.’ That is, refusing to allow God to be God, they even attempt to reverse the roles, as if the potter had become the pot and the pot the potter (Is. 29:16). In the second text God pronounces a ‘woe’ to ‘him who quarrels with his Maker’, to him who is himself only a potsherd, yet challenges the potter to explain what he is making (Is. 45:9).
What then is Paul condemning? Some commentators betray their embarrassment at this point, and others are brash enough to reject Paul’s teaching. ‘It is the weakest point in the whole epistle,’ declares C.H.Dodd. But we need to draw a distinction. Paul is not censuring someone who asks sincerely perplexed questions, but rather someone who ‘quarrels’ with God, who talks back (20) or answers 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. Instead of such presumption we need, like Moses to keep our distance, take off our shoes in recognition of the holy ground on which we stand, and even hide our face from him (Ex. 3:5f.). Similarly, we need, like Job, to put our hand over our mouth, confess that we tend to speak things we do not understand, despise ourselves, and repent in dust and ashes (Jb. 40:4; 42:3, 6). Job had been right to reject the traditional claptrap of his so-called ‘comforters’, and in his dialogue with them he had been in the right and they in the wrong (Jb. 42:7f.). Where Job had gone wrong was in daring to ‘contend’ with the Almighty, to ‘accuse’ him and attempt to ‘correct’ him. (Jb. 40:2; cf. 1:22; 2:10).
But still the whole story has not been told. For human beings are not merely lumps of inert clay, and this passage well illustrates the danger of arguing from an analogy. To liken humans to pottery is to emphasize the disparity between us and God. But there is another strand in biblical teaching which affirms not our unlikeness but our likeness to God, because we have been created in his image, and because we still bear it (though distorted) even since the fall (E.g. Gn. 9:6). As God’s image bearers, we are rational, responsible, moral and spiritual beings, able to converse with God, and encouraged to explore his revelation, to ask questions and to think his thoughts after him. In consequence, there are occasions in which biblical characters who have fallen on their faces before God are told to stand up on their feet again, especially to receive God’s commission (e.g. Ezk. 1:28; 2:1f.; Dn.10:7ff.). In other words, there is a right kind of prostration before God, which is a humble acknowledgement of his infinite greatness, and a wrong kind which is a grovelling denial of our human dignity and responsibility before him.
Returning to Romans, Paul is not wishing to stifle genuine questions. After all, he has been asking and answering questions throughout the chapter and indeed the whole letter. No, ‘it is the God-defying rebel and not the bewildered seeker after the truth whose mouth he [sc. Paul] so peremptorily shuts’.
Paul’s emphasis in this paragraph is that as the potter has the right to shape his clay into vessels for different purposes, so God has the right to deal with fallen humanity according to both his wrath and his mercy, as he has argued in verses 10-18. ‘In the sovereignty here asserted,’ writes Hodge, ‘it is God as moral governor, and not God as creator, who is brought to view.’ It is nowhere suggested that God has the right to ‘create sinful beings in order to punish them’, but rather that he has the right to ‘deal with sinful beings according to his good pleasure’, either to pardon or to punish them.