DOES ROMANS 9:20-21 SUPPORT CALVINISM?
by Shawn Brasseaux
“Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?” (Romans 9:20-21). We have all heard the phrase, “God is the potter and we are the clay.” This expression is derived from the Bible. However, people assume that that is God talking about us as individuals. They say that He will mold each and every person to be just what He wants him or her to be. The Calvinists take it a step further and say God is particularly molding “the elect,” those whom (they allege) He has chosen to save unto eternal life. Is this a proper understanding of Romans 9:20-21? We will take the Bible and search it for insight.
The Holy Spirit through the Apostle Paul, when writing Romans 9:20-21, reached back into the “Old Testament” Scriptures and alluded to something that the Prophet Jeremiah had written many centuries prior. We read in Jeremiah chapter 18:
“ The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying,  Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will cause thee to hear my words.  Then I went down to the potter’s house, and, behold, he wrought a work on the wheels.  And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it.  Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying,  O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the LORD. Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel.  At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it;  If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them.  And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it;  If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them.
“ Now therefore go to, speak to the men of Judah, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, saying, Thus saith the LORD; Behold, I frame evil against you, and devise a device against you: return ye now every one from his evil way, and make your ways and your doings good.  And they said, There is no hope: but we will walk after our own devices, and we will every one do the imagination of his evil heart.  Therefore thus saith the LORD; Ask ye now among the heathen, who hath heard such things: the virgin of Israel hath done a very horrible thing.  Will a man leave the snow of Lebanon which cometh from the rock of the field? or shall the cold flowing waters that come from another place be forsaken?  Because my people hath forgotten me, they have burned incense to vanity, and they have caused them to stumble in their ways from the ancient paths, to walk in paths, in a way not cast up;  To make their land desolate, and a perpetual hissing; every one that passeth thereby shall be astonished, and wag his head.  I will scatter them as with an east wind before the enemy; I will shew them the back, and not the face, in the day of their calamity.”
Verse 6 says that as a potter sculpts a clay pot, so God forms the nation Israel. “O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the LORD. Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel.” This is a national issue, not an individual issue. The clay of Romans 9:20-21 is the nation Israel. Contrary to Calvinism, the passage has nothing to do with an individual. Furthermore, contrary to Calvinism, it has nothing to do with any person today in the Dispensation of Grace. Jeremiah spoke in context of the Babylonian captivity, when sinful Israel would be punished, shaped into a vessel worthy of God’s wrath. A similar “re-shaping” has happened to Israel with respect to Romans chapter 9. Israel, having rejected Jesus Christ at Calvary, and having rejected the Holy Spirit in Acts chapter 7, was fit for wrath—the completion and culmination of the wrath that began with the Babylonian captivity centuries earlier.
Romans chapter 9 once again: “ Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?  Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?  Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?  What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction:  And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory,  Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?”
Whether in Jeremiah or Romans, the clay is a national issue, not an individual issue. God can mold Israel into whatever shape He wants. We read about the “vessel unto honour” (Romans 9:21), the “vessel unto dishonour” (Romans 9:21), the “vessels of wrath” (Romans 9:22), and “the vessels of mercy” (Romans 9:23). When Israel enjoyed her privileged position in the prophetic program, she was the vessel of honor. However, as Paul notes, God turned her into the vessel of dishonor when she fell into unbelief and rejected her Messiah Jesus (Matthew through John). Those unbelieving Jews were the vessels of wrath, ready to experience God’s judgment against sin (early Acts). Paul himself, as Saul of Tarsus, had been one such rebellious Jew. See Acts 7:54-60; Acts 8:1-4; Acts 9:1-9,13-14; Acts 22:1-10; Acts 26:9-11; 1 Corinthians 15:9; Galatians 1:23-24; 1 Timothy 1:13-16.
First Thessalonians 2:14-16 is Paul’s commentary on the unbelieving Jews’ activities during his “Acts” ministry: “ For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews:  Who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men:  Forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins alway: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost.”
The wrath of God was about to fall on unsaved Israel in Acts chapter 7. But, God took the unbelieving Jews, took the unbelieving Gentiles, lumped them together, and changed their status to “the vessels of mercy.” Rather than pouring out wrath on unbelieving Jews and unbelieving Gentiles, God pours out His mercy in this the Dispensation of the Grace of God. Repeating Romans 9:22-24: “ What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction:  And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory,  Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?”
Romans 11:30-32 provides additional insight: “ For as ye [Gentiles] in times past have not believed God, yet have now obtained mercy through their [Israel’s] unbelief:  Even so have these also now not believed, that through your [Gentiles’] mercy they [unbelieving Israel] also may obtain mercy.  For God hath concluded them all [Jews and Gentiles] in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all [Jews and Gentiles].” Today, God is forming the Church the Body of Christ using any Jews or any Gentiles who will trust His Son exclusively as their personal Saviour (verses 23-24). This operation of the mystery program explains the delay in the fulfillment of the prophetic promises delineated in Romans 9:1-13. Prophecy is postponed that mystery might operate: “For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in” (Romans 11:25).
For more information on Romans chapter 9, please refer to the companion studies, “Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated?” and “Does Romans 9:14-18 support Calvinism?” See links below.