The Radical God-Centeredness of God in Showing Mercy to Sinners

The Rebuke (20)

“But who are your, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘What have you made me like this?’”

Paul answers in fiery rhetoric. He does so because the question doesn’t come from a heart that humbly seeks to understand the attributes of God. The question comes from a heart of rebellion, that shakes a finite fist in the face of infinity, saying, “NO! You can’t operate the universe this way! I should get a vote!” Listen to Calvin, “He [Paul] fitly expresses their mind, not content to defend themselves, they make God guilty instead.” Piper, “They aren’t asking, ‘How can these things be’, but they are stating in their rebellion, ‘These things ought not be!’” Tom Schreiner, “The objection does not represent a humble attempt to puzzle out the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom. The objection manifests a rebellious spirit that refuses to countenance a world in which God is absolutely sovereign and human beings are still responsible. The opponents dig in their feet by insisting that if God decides whom to harden and to whom to give mercy, then it is nonsense to hold human beings responsible for their actions.” One more, Martin Luther. “Mere human reason can never comprehend how God is good and merciful; and therefore you make to yourself a god of your own fancy, who hardens nobody, condemns nobody, pities everybody. You cannot comprehend how a just God can condemn those who are born in sin and cannot help themselves, but must, by a necessity of their natural constitution, continue in sin, and remain children of wrath. The answer is, God is incomprehensible throughout and therefore his justice, as well as his other attributes must be incomprehensible.”  Look at Paul’s rebuke with me.

The first word in verse 20 in the ESV should really be three words, “On the contrary”. The idea of the language is to say, “Wait, wait, wait…are you talking?” Paul makes sure to remind the objector that he is a mere man, answering back to God. The idea of answering back is like the song from the 50’s that said, “Yakity yak…” When you talk back, you’re not querying your parents as to the necessity of cleaning your room. You are standing in judgment over your parents, saying that their ideas are wrong. You’re better, you’re smarter. The root word of answering back is the same word that means “to judge” or to “criticize in return.” While Paul is putting the objector in his or her place, he adds to the equation the idea that God is the molder and you are the thing molded.

The concept of molding and molder is coming from the Old Testament. Look at Isaiah 29:15-16. Keep moving in Isaiah and read 45:9-10. The issue is the creation is talking back to the creator. Bad idea. You don’t have the right to talk back to God. You need to drop to your knees and thank him that he even lets you speak his name. Following his rebuke, Paul gives his reasoning for his rebuke to the objection.

The Reasoning (21-23) 

“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, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory…”

The reasoning for Paul’s stinging rebuke could be summed up in one word: sovereignty. God is sovereign. God’s sovereignty means that he reigns over the universe. Paul merely could have quoted Psalm 115, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” In other words, “God, by definition, can do whatever he wants.” He doesn’t merely give an answer, however. He goes into extremely uncomfortable detail.

God’s Sovereignty Implies God’s Authority: [Read 21] The potter has the right, or the authority to rule as he is the source of all power and legality. The potter owns the clay, and thus has rightful authority over it. God owns the universe and thus has rightful authority over it. That means that as the potter has the authority to take one lump of clay and make a vessel for honorable use and one for dishonorable use, so God has the authority to take one lump of clay called sinful humanity and elect some to display his mercy in and others to display his wrath. John MacArthur said this about this verse, “Although it is to an infinitely greater degree, God is the creator of men much as a potter is the creator of his clay vessels. And it is no more rational, and far more arrogant and foolish, for men to question the justice and wisdom of God than, if such were possible, for a clay bowl to question the motives and purposes of the craftsman who made it.”


God’s Sovereignty Also Implies that His Desires are Always Accomplished: [Read 22-23] Paul posits an explanation of the decrees of God for the readers of this letter by pointing to the purposes of God that are out of reach for finite humanity. Notice the purpose of God: Because of his desire to show his wrath and his power he endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order (this is a purpose clause) to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he prepared beforehand for glory. So God’s purpose in wrath is to demonstrate the glory of his mercy. How does this work out?

  1. God desires to show his wrath, that is, he determines to bring justice to sin. God’s wrath is not equal to his justice, but a part of the justice of God is the wrath of God. We needn’t be afraid of this word. I know it’s more popular to sing about God’s grace, but without wrath, grace means nothing. God is infinitely holy and he will bring justice to his holiness.
  2. God desires to show his power, that is, he determines to demonstrate his ability to deal with sin in the full force of his wrath. Think about the plagues in the Exodus account, or the encounters God’s enemies suffered in the Old Testament and then read the book of Revelation where John makes those accounts sound like a pre-school playground squabble.

These desires are worked out through God’s endurance and patience with vessels of wrath, prepared for destruction, that is, God demonstrates his wrath  and power in the future by bearing with a sinful people in the present.

  1. God is patient: This is very important. There is a purpose behind God’s patience. [Read Romans 2:4-5] God gives time to repent. The patience and kindness of God is meant to lead his people to repentance. God’s enemies don’t repent, however, and thus they store up, or pile up more and more wrath for themselves at the judgment. Don’t you wonder about the judgment of the wicked? Are you like David? “How long, O God, is the foe to scoff? Is the enemy to revile your name forever? Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand? Take it from the fold of your garment and destroy them” (Psalm 74:10-11 ESV)! Or, “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked” (Psalm 82:2 ESV)? Justice is coming. Maybe not today or tomorrow. But justice is coming.
  2. God has prepared: The phrase “prepared for destruction” means what you think it means. It means that before the foundation of the world, God prepared some for heaven and others for hell. That is exactly what we see in verse 21, and the same idea carries through here. We see that he prepared some for destruction and he prepared others for glory. That’s the plan as we see it in Ephesians 1 as well. God elects his children, Christ secures their redemption in his sacrifice and the Holy Spirit seals them in Christ. It is God at the beginning, God in the outworking and God working it out until all things are accomplished. For from him and through him and to him are all things.

God’s desires are always accomplished, and the goal of everything in this passage, in the gospel, the Scriptures and the outworking of salvation in the life of the church is to make known the riches of God’s glory for vessels of mercy.  The glory of God is the goal of this amazing doctrine. Election is the exaltation of God’s glory in Christ. God has all power, all authority and reigns over the universe, and out of his great love, he chose to redeem, through the death of his son, sinful humans who spurned his goodness and fall miserably short of his glory. The fact that God would decide to show us mercy when we deserve nothing but eternal conscious torment in hell is the greatest fuel of worship in the human heart. Our worship is a response to the actions of this great God.


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