Has the Potter No Right Over the Clay?

by James White


Numerous biblical passages can be cited that plainly teach the divine truth that God predestines men unto salvation. John 6:35-45, Romans 9:10-24, and 2 Timothy 1:8-10 all teach this truth. But I shall focus first upon the classicus locus, Ephesians 1:3-11, for my initial exegetical defense of this divine truth. As space permits, I will then briefly address Romans 9 and John 6. I invite the interested reader to follow along. I shall use as my base text the Nestle-Aland 27th edition of the Greek New Testament. English translations are my own.

Ephesians 1

Paul begins this tremendous introduction to his letter1 with a word of blessing addressed to God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (1:3). All of salvation comes from the Father, its source, and its end. It is the Father who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ. Immediately we encounter three vital truths: 1) God is the one who has blessed us (we did not bless ourselves); this is seen in recognizing that ho eulogasa refers to the Father specifically; 2) that Paul is not speaking of all mankind here, but specifically of the redeemed, for he uses the personal pronoun hama (us) when speaking of the scope of the blessing of the Father; we will see this is continued throughout the text; and 3) the phrase en Christo (in Christ) or its equivalent in Him, is central to Paul’s thought. All of salvation takes place only “in Christ.”

Verse 4 is central to our subject: “just as He chose us in Him before the creation of the world so that we should be holy and blameless before Him.”2 Again the Father is in view, for He is the one who chose us (hama, accusative, indicating direct object of “to choose”). This choice is exercised only in Christ (there is no salvation outside of the Son). It is vital to recognize the personal aspect of this choice on the part of God the Father. The passage says that we were chosen by God the Father, not that a mere “plan” was chosen, or a “process” put in place. The choice is personal both in its context (in the Son) and in its object (the elect). Next, the time of this choice by the Father is likewise important: before the creation of the world. This is a choice that is timeless. It was made before we were created, and therefore cannot possibly be based upon anything that we ourselves do or “choose.”3 This is sovereignty-free and unlimited.

God does nothing without a purpose. Both the means, and end, are in view. God chooses the elect to the end that they should be “holy and blameless before Him.” God is redeeming for Himself a people, and no power in heaven or earth can stop Him from accomplishing His intention.

Paul continues to expand upon the nature of the Father’s choice: “In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will” (v. 5). This is the first appearance of the word “predestined” in the text. The exact same term (proopizo) is used in verse 11 as well. The meaning of the term is not ambiguous, no matter how hard some might try to avoid its impact. It means “to choose beforehand” or “to predestine.”4 In this context, it is unquestionably personal in its object, for again we find hama as the direct object of the action of predestination. This is truly the key element of this [issue], for grammatically there is no escape from the plain assertion here made: God the Father predestined us. He did not predestine a plan, He did not merely predestine a general conclusion to all things, but He chose us and predestined us. The “us” of Ephesians 1:5 is the “we” of Ephesians 1:11 and the “elect” of Romans 8:33 and those who are “given” by the Father to the Son in John 6:37.

Often we are asked “upon what basis does God choose one person, and leave another in their sins?” Paul answers in 1:5b-6, “according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace which he freely gave us in the Beloved One.” We note that there is nothing whatsoever here about man doing anything. Instead, we have the good pleasure of God’s will, nothing more. And this is perfectly logical, for, as Paul says, this is to result in the praise of His glorious grace. If salvation were the result of man’s choosing God (rather than God choosing man), then God’s grace would not be the sole and sufficient basis for salvation, and it would not, therefore, be the object of our praise in eternity to come. But Paul here sums it all up for us, indicating that the basis is solely God’s will, and therefore all praise and honor and glory will go to God’s glorious grace, that grace whereby the elect of God are saved, and will persevere into the eternal state. Such a truth is utterly shattering to human pride, and to all systems of works salvation. But it is the truth nonetheless. And note as well: again hama appears, this time as the direct object of the free giving of God’s grace. This is saving grace, efficient grace, that actually accomplishes the salvation of its object. And hence, it is given to the redeemed, to the elect, and they alone. This is no mere “common grace” given to all: this is specific, saving grace. And, as is his constant strain throughout this opening passage of Ephesians, Paul emphasizes once again the fact that this saving grace is only in Christ, here described as “the beloved One.”

Having mentioned Christ, the beloved Son of the Father, Paul goes on to assert that it is in Him alone that we (again the elect, this time found in the first person plural ending of hama) have, present tense, redemption through His blood (literally, the redemption), which Paul then re-describes appositively5 as “the forgiveness of our sins.” The standard of God’s forgiveness is said to be “according to the riches of His grace,” which surely means that there is no limitation to the scope, nor power, of Christ’s redeeming blood. This grace, verse 8 goes on to say, was “lavished” on us, or “super-abounded” toward us (the now almost ubiquitous hJma once again); obviously, it has not so abounded toward all, hence, again, the specificity of Christ’s work of salvation, including His work of atonement, is seen.6

In the next phrases (1:8b-10), Paul explains the centrality of Christ, both in the work of redemption as well as in the revelation of God’s intention, will and purpose. All is summed up in Christ, Paul says. The Father’s will is that everything be done in Christ. This “mystery of His will” He has made known to us (here hamin, dative, because of gnorisa).

We come then, far too quickly, to the eleventh verse... “In Him (that is, in Christ) also we have been claimed as God’s own possession,7 having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the council of His own will.”

Note how this passage functions as a “bookend” to sum up the preceding section:

1) The Father’s work of salvation takes place exclusively in the realm of the Son, “in Him.” It is in Christ that we have “been claimed as God’s own possession,” that is, have received the promised inheritance, though the emphasis is upon the God-ward side of this transaction, not the human side. The concept of “God’s own possession” comes up again in verse 14. The elect are God’s people, “a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:14).

2) Those who are God’s people are so because they were “predestined.” Again, no ambiguity exists in the meaning of the term, nor its use in the passage. [Some believe] that God had predestined a plan in this verse. I [point] out to [them] that proopisthente is an aorist passive participle, 1st person plural. A “plan” would call for a singular form, not a plural form. Why is it plural? Because is it referring back to “we have been claimed....” The subject of the participle is found in the plural ending of eklarothamen. It cannot be a “plan” but it is a people, God’s people, the elect, who are here plainly seen to be the object of God’s act of predestination.

3) The basis for God’s choice is again removed from the human realm and placed squarely and inalterably in the divine. God chooses on the basis of His own purpose (not on the basis of what we do). When Paul speaks of God’s purpose, He attaches a clause that describes his God. Literally, it would read, “the all things working according to the council of His will One.” The emphasis in the clause is on ta panta, “all things.” God works all things after the council of His will. Not some things, not most things, but all things. This is true in all aspects of His creation: the God Paul proclaims is sovereign over all things, is in control of all things, and all things exist at His command, and for His purpose. That is why the Psalmist could say, “Whatever the LORD pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps” (Psalm 135:6).

Paul then applies this eternal truth to his immediate audience, those who were “the first to hope in Christ.” Thanks be to God that He has continued to draw His elect over the ages, so that we living in our present day can likewise join with them in hoping in Christ, and hence resound to the “praise of His glory.” But I hasten to emphasize: His glory is only praised when His complete sovereignty in salvation is plainly seen and proclaimed. Even saving faith in Christ is a gift of God given to the elect.8 Men dare not intrude upon God’s sole glory: and that is exactly what we see in those systems that attempt to place man in control of God, and make God dependent upon man and the puny creature’s will in the matter of redemption.

Romans 9

Space will demand a less in-depth look at my other two passages, Romans 9 and John 6. Both, however, will be seen to repeat the same concepts found in Ephesians 1.

The relevance of Romans 9 is obvious upon the most casual reading. It comes on the heels of a passage that again uses the specific term “predestined” of the elect people of God (8:29-33). Paul begins by illustrating God’s electing grace in the patriarchs of the Jewish people, proving, thereby, that the Jews have no basis upon which to complain now that God, in His grace, has chosen to extend His covenant mercies to the Gentiles as well. Paul points to Jacob and Esau (9:10-13) as an example of this: “before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad” God said, “the older will serve the younger.” Why does Paul emphasize that this was said before the birth of the twins, and before they had done anything good or bad? The text is plain: “in order that God’s purpose according to election would stand—not on the basis of works, but on the basis of the One calling.” God’s purpose in election will stand, infallibly. The choice of Jacob over Esau was not on the basis of the actions of the twins (indeed, both showed themselves unworthy by their sinful attitudes of any of God’s blessings). Instead, the basis is always found in God, “the One calling.” Because of this, it is written in Scripture, “Jacob I loved, and Esau I hated.”

It is fascinating to note that Paul had obviously heard all the objections against the Gospel many times before. He includes an “imaginary objector” in this section to voice all the common complaints about God’s absolute sovereignty and man’s complete dependence upon Him. Fallen man outside of Christ hates the truth that God is the Potter, we are the clay. The unregenerate heart rebels against such a truth. When we read, “Jacob I loved, Esau I hated,” we say, “that is not fair! That is unjust!” And indeed, Paul immediately voices that objection, and then answers it as well. But before looking at his answer, do remember this: the amazing thing about the statement “Jacob I loved and Esau I hated” is not that God hated Esau: Esau was a sinner, an enemy of God, and God’s wrath abides upon anyone still in their sins. The amazing thing about the statement is “Jacob I loved.” That is grace undeserved.

“What will we say, then? There is no injustice with God, is there?” (v. 14). As soon as sovereignty is seen, man cries foul. Paul’s answer is quick: “May it never be! For he said to Moses, `I will have mercy on whom I have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ Therefore it does not depend on the one who wills, neither on the one who runs, but on God, who shows mercy.” The NET translates it, “it does not depend on human desire or exertion, but on the mercy of God.” In either case, the actions and will of man are utterly removed from consideration by Paul’s response. God’s choice is totally free. Mercy and compassion cannot be demanded of the Righteous Judge of all. They must be free. Rather than defending the “freedom of man,” the truly regenerate heart should be jealous for the freedom of God instead.

The Scriptures go on to illustrate this truth in the life of Pharaoh. Paul asserts (9:17) that God raised up Pharaoh for a specific purpose: that God’s name might be proclaimed in all the earth. Again the rebellious heart cries out in complaint, while the believer bows in humble adoration. “May I be used only to bring honor and glory to the name of my God” is the cry of the broken heart. So Paul goes on to press the point home in verse 18, “Therefore He has mercy on whom He wishes; but He likewise hardens whom He wishes.” How much more plainly can it be stated? The context is clearly personal: Pharaoh was a person, as were Jacob and Esau. God shows mercy to individuals, and, likewise, whether we like it or not, He hardens individuals as well. This is predestination, plain and clear.

Of course, immediately the creature rebels and cries out (v. 19), “Why does He still find fault? Who has ever resisted His will?” The clay attempts to demand of the Potter a reason for His actions. The creature climbs onto the throne of the Creator and acts as if he has a right to be there. Make no mistake: this response, natural as it is for the sinful heart, is, itself, a symptom of sin, and is an act of rebellion. As Paul will point out, it is as foolish as a cup demanding its Maker give an account for its size, color, or shape. Cups have no such rights, and neither does the creature, man... As the NET renders it, “But who indeed are you—a mere human being—to talk back to God?” More traditionally, “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, `Why did you make me like this,’ will it?” The answer is devastating, but only when, by grace, your heart is “given ears to hear” what it is saying. It is a shattering experience to really come to see yourself as you are: a creature, formed and made by another for His own purposes (not yours!), utterly dependent upon Him. There is no room for pride in such a truth—and so the natural man rejects it, and indeed, in my experience, hates it. Man is the “thing molded.” God is the molder. God is God, man is man...

Paul presses onward to his conclusion: “Or does not the Potter have authority over the clay, to make from the same lump of clay one vessel for honorable use, and yet another for common use?” His illustration is striking. Potters have full authority to do with a lump of clay whatever they wish. It is irrational to insist that the potter has to make from one lump of clay all honorable vessels or all common ones. He can do what he wishes. But what bothers us so tremendously here is the obvious fact that we are the vessels formed from clay! And we have no say over the purpose for which we have been made: that is the right of the Potter.

Paul goes on in verses 22-23, “What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath made for destruction, in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy which He prepared beforehand for glory?” Who are these vessels prepared beforehand for glory? The elect of God, the people He has redeemed for His own name’s sake. It is hard to see how Paul could have been any more clear, any more direct in his presentation of the absolute sovereignty of God in election.

John 6

It has been my experience over the years that some people... have an implicit distrust in “things Pauline.” Hence, it would be good, very briefly, to demonstrate that the Apostle Paul was simply presenting the same truths enunciated by the Lord Himself in the synagogue at Capernaum. Here is the relevant passage, John 6:35-40, 44-45.9

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. The one coming10 to Me will never hunger, and the one believing in Me will never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen Me, and yet you do not believe. All that the Father gives to me will come to Me, and the one coming to Me I will never cast out, for I have come down out of heaven not to do My own will, but the will of the One who sent Me. This is the will of the One who sent Me: that of all that He has given Me I lose none of it, but instead raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone looking on the Son and believing in Him should have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day. . . . No one is able to come to Me unless the Father, who sent Me, draws him, and I will raise him up on the last day. It stands written in the prophets: and they shall all be taught by God. Every one who hears from the Father and learns comes to Me.”

Every word the Lord Jesus speaks is filled with meaning. He introduces Himself as the bread of life, the only true source of spiritual nourishment. Yet, the Jews do not believe. Why? The very incarnate Son of God was standing right in front of them! Why would they not believe? Because, as Jesus explained in John 10:26, they were not of His “sheep.” They were not given to Him by the Father, for all that the Father gives to the Son will, without question, without failure, come to Him. Note that for the Father to be able to give men to the Son we must be talking about the same Father of Ephesians 1 and Romans 9: the sovereign God who is maker and creator of men, not merely an exalted man. He has the sovereign right to give certain men to Christ, but not others. Those who are given come: those who are not do not. The divine order is clear: God’s giving of men to the Son precedes and determines their coming to Christ. First comes the action of God, and then the action of men. God acts, man responds, never the other way around, in the matter of salvation.

The security of the elect is plainly seen in this text: Christ will never cast out the one who has been given to Him by the Father and has come to Him as a result; indeed, it is the very will of the Father that the Lord Jesus lose nothing of all that has been given to Him! What a wonderful promise to realize that the Lord Jesus will never fail to do the Father’s will, and hence, the salvation of God’s people is as sure as the power, purity, and purpose of the very Son of God Himself!

Briefly, the final verses likewise present the utter sovereignty of God in predestination. Jesus makes it clear: No one has the ability to come to Him unless something else happens: the drawing of the Father. Now, many would say, “Well, the Father draws everyone.” That is untrue. The Father draws the elect, including the elect of all nations and tribes and tongues and peoples.11 Even this passage makes this clear, as it is obvious that all who are drawn are also raised up on the last day, a phrase that in John is equivalent to being given eternal life. Hence, here we are told that God draws the elect to Christ, and outside of that effectual drawing, there is no person who will come to Christ. Indeed, as Paul said, “there is no God-seeker” (Romans 3:11).


The thesis [here] is clear: does the Bible teach predestination? The answer is obvious: yes, it does. It teaches the specific, personal, individual predestination of the entire body of the elect people of God. God chooses the objects of His mercy and grace, and others He leaves in their sin and rebellion.


  1. I believe the letter to the Ephesians was a circular letter, i.e., meant to be read in all the churches in the Lycus River Valley (cf. Col 4:16).
  2. There are a number of punctuation variants in this passage. At this point, I think “in love” would go best with the following phrase, providing the realm in which predestination itself takes place, that being God’s loving purpose. The NASB follows this understanding.
  3. For a discussion of the common use of the term “foreknowledge,” see Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (NICNT), Eerdmans, 1996, pp. 532-534, John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans Eerdmans, 1997, pp. 315-319, and White, God’s Sovereign Grace, Crowne Publications, 1991, pp. 117-122.
  4. See any standard lexical source, such as BAGD (p. 709) or Louw & Nida (pp. 360-361).
  5. Syntactically the accusative in simple apposition. This is important since some groups separate redemption and the specific forgiveness of sins.
  6. I refer here briefly to the biblical teaching on the specific purpose of Christ’s atoning sacrifice: the redemption of the elect. For more on this, seen John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Eerdmans, 1955.
  7. So NET (cf. 1:14); “we were also chosen” (NIV), “obtained an inheritance” (NASB, NRSV).
  8. See Colossians 1:3-4, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, Acts 3:16, Hebrews 12:2, Philippians 1:29, Galatians 5:22, Ephesians 2:8-9.
  9. For a fuller exposition of John 6:35-45, see my work, Drawn by the Father, Crowne Publications, 1991).
  10. Both “coming” and “believing” are present-tense participles. Saving faith is a persevering faith, for it is the gift of God, and it accomplishes what God intends it to accomplish, through grace.
  11. John 12:32, Revelation 5:9-10.


James White is the director of Alpha and Omega Ministries, a Christian apologetics organization based in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a professor, having taught Greek, Systematic Theology, and various topics in the field of apologetics. He has authored or contributed to more than twenty books, including The King James Only Controversy, The Forgotten Trinity, The Potter's Freedom, and The God Who Justifies. He is an accomplished debater, having engaged in more than one-hundred moderated, public debates with leading proponents of Roman Catholicism, Islam, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Mormonism, as well as critics such as Bart Ehrman, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and John Shelby Spong. He is an elder of the Phoenix Reformed Baptist Church, has been married to Kelli for more than twenty-eight years, and has two children, Joshua and Summer.

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