Theology in 3D

Sovereignty of the Potter, Freedom of the Clay

Layton Talbert | August 5, 2019

What are the implications of a claim like Psalm 33:15? The word fashion (yatzar) means to form, frame, shape, craft, even to purpose. It describes God’s action in fashioning Adam’s body from the dirt (Gen 2:7, 8, 19). The word occurs 62 times in the OT, but Isaiah corners the usage market (27x) followed by Jeremiah (14x), and Psalms (8x).

And he does this coordinately, simultaneously (yachad), among the inhabitants of the earth (Ps 33:14)—like a conductor orchestrating a symphony of many different people playing many different notes on many different instruments, and yet they are all freely choosing to play what they are playing at that time.

But how exactly does God do what Ps 33:15 describes? The Bible offers very little explanation of the dynamics of this process. But it does teach the same principle elsewhere (Prov 21:1). And it also fences that process with certain boundary principles. For example, God’s shaping never compels anyone to sin (Jas 1:13), not only because of God’s character but because of ours—that is, not only because God is holy but because man is fallen and doesn’t need any help sinning. Read James 1:14-15 and you find no mention of God or even Satan in the temptation process; temptation works not from the outside in but from the inside out, so that man is still responsible for his own choices and actions. Jesus taught the same thing (Mk 7:20-23).

So, the Bible’s pretty clear about how it doesn’t work. Does it shed any light on how it does work? The word yatzar itself suggests a helpful metaphor. The noun form is the word for a potter (Isa 29:16, 64:8). God took Jeremiah on a field trip to a potter’s shop to make a theological point about his dealings with Israel (Jer 18:1-2).

Last Christmas my family took a day trip to a little pottery shop in North Carolina, where we got to watch a potter at work. Slap a lump of wet clay onto a spinning wheel and the centrifugal force naturally wants to throw it off in every direction. The potter prevents that, not by fighting against the centrifugal force of the wheel but by harnessing and using the natural effect of that force to shape the clay.

By loosening the restraining pressure of his hands, he may permit that centrifugal force to have its natural effect, allowing it to throw out a bulge around a portion of the clay. At other points, he presses and restrains the effects of that centrifugal force.

So, what is the centrifugal force that drives human nature—that would, if permitted, throw the clay off the wheel and destroy it. What is the natural inertia of the human soul that God, the Fashioner and Potter of all men, sometimes restrains and sometimes permits, in order to create a vessel of his choosing for his purposes? I think Scripture is as clear as it can be without saying it outright: it is our sin nature, our human fallenness.

Other passages are consistent with this image (Ps 76:10). This helps explain a lot that is recorded in Scripture and a lot that goes on in the world. It explains, for example, how prophecy “works”—how God can foreknow and foretell and even fore-purpose events without infringing on man’s freely chosen actions at the time. (I’ve written before about the nature of freedom—both divine and human in Does God Have Free Will.)

That imagery also helps answer some important questions about how God fashions not just people’s bodies (Gen 2:7) or limbs (Ps 139:16) or organs (Ps 94:9), but their hearts (Ps 33:15). That doesn’t mean everyone’s the same on the inside, that God places in everyone an identical chambered, muscular organ at the center of their circulatory system. The heart here is the inner person. Like a potter, God providentially molds and shapes the hearts of all people —their thoughts, desires, intentions, decisions—simultaneously in order to accomplish his sovereign purposes. That sounds profoundly personal, even invasive. And yet all the time they are making their own free decisions and freely choosing their own actions. A sovereign God has no need of automatons. The ventriloquist who swears that the dummy is speaking on his own is a charlatan or a lunatic; God is neither, and humans are not dummies. (Well, not in that theatrical sense.)

Illustrations are helpful conceptually, but actual demonstrations make the abstract concrete. What does it look like in real life when God fashions the hearts of people simultaneously in order to accomplish his purposes without infringing on their freedom to make their own decisions?

In 1 Kings 11, when Solomon turned from the Lord near the end of his life, the prophet Ahijah told him that God was going to tear away ten of the tribes of Israel and give them someone else to be their king. When Solomon’s heir, Rehoboam, became king in 1 Kings 12, the people petitioned him to lighten their load a little (Solomon’s rule had been rather heavy-handed). So, Rehoboam asked the advice of the older counselors of his father: “Do what they ask and they’ll serve you forever.” Then he asked his peers, flush with fresh power and eager to make their mark: “Don’t buckle! Show them who’s boss!” Inexplicably, Rehoboam made the really dumb decision to listen to the voice of youth and inexperience and, as a result, the bulk of the people rebelled, abandoned Rehoboam, chose their own king, and formed their own separate kingdom. Rehoboam freely chose to follow bad advice. And yet here is the explanation in the text: “This turn of affairs was from the Lord, that he might fulfill his word which he had spoken by Ahijah the prophet” (1 Kin 12:24).

God sovereignly and providentially fashions multiple human hearts simultaneously to accomplish his purposes through their own free choices.

One response to “Sovereignty of the Potter, Freedom of the Clay”

  1. Jeremy Conn says:

    Great article and defense for the compatible nature of human freedom and God’s sovereignty!! (1 Samuel 2:25; 2 Chronicles 36:22). Thanks Layton.

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