Rev. Steven Key, emeritus minister of the Protestant Reformed Churches and
member of Loveland PRC in Loveland, Colorado. This is the text of the pre-synodical
sermon he gave on June 12, 2023 in Southwest PRC.

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. Jeremiah 18:1-6

Jeremiah lived and prophesied around 600 years before Christ’s incarnation. Jeremiah’s ministry spanned almost 50 years, during that time when the abomination of Israel’s apostasy had reached the depths from which there would be no revival as a nation. At the time that Jeremiah was called to the ministry, however, the situation appeared quite promising. He was called during the reign of Josiah, who restored the worship of Jehovah with a completeness that had not been seen before. It appeared that the sick nation was healed!

Yet Jeremiah was given to see that something was seriously lacking among the people of God. Though outwardly there was improvement, inwardly there was no real change. As one who was only serving in the typical office of the theocratic king, Josiah could not do what the true King, Christ, would do in bringing true reformation. That is, Josiah could not write God’s laws upon the tables of the heart. When he died, therefore, the repressed apostasy and corruption would only break out anew and with even greater pollution than before.

So God sent Jeremiah to prophesy judgment in Israel and salvation only through that judgment. The Messiah must come! To his calling to proclaim, “Thus saith the Lord,” Jeremiah would be faithful, even though his ministry would be one of almost unbearable difficulty. To minister faithfully in Judah, also for the sake of that elect remnant, Jeremiah had to live in the consciousness of God’s absolute sovereignty. That would be his strength. That would be his comfort.

And that is the comfort of the people of God in all ages. Christ’s church always faces trials and they bring to expression her sad imperfection and sins. We labor also as a synod in the midst of imperfect churches, even as we strive for faithfulness to God’s Word and our Reformed confessions. We labor in the knowledge of Christ’s perfect work and as those washed with His precious blood. We must remind ourselves repeatedly that our lives are in the Potter’s hands.

The sovereign Potter

God sent Jeremiah on a trip to the potter’s house, that he might watch what takes place in the pottery shop. Jeremiah watched as the potter put a lump of clay in the middle of his stone wheel. Then, as he turned the wheel, the potter began to shape the clay with his hands. Very soon that clay had been formed by the hands of the potter into a vessel. But the potter, masterful in his work, spotted a flaw in that clay. It was marred. It did not fit the purpose that he had intended and was not marked by the quality of the other pieces that he had formed. So the potter beat that clay and reshaped it, skillfully forming it into another vessel as seemed good to him as the potter. Jeremiah watched with deep appreciation the skill of the potter and the choice that he made in reshaping that marred lump of clay.

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.

We find the same figure and question in Romans 9. The potter’s wheel and work is a lesson in the absolute sovereignty of God. God condescends to our level and uses this earthly figure to show us the most basic fact of life.

God is the Potter, we are the clay. Everything is in His hands as the Potter. That is the doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty. That is the truth that Jeremiah and Israel needed to hear, as do you and I. Many do not want to hear it. When Jeremiah left that potter’s house and brought this Word of God to the people, they rejected it. They said, “We will walk after our own devices!” Then they turned to each other and said concerning God’s servant Jeremiah, “Come, and let us smite him with the tongue, and let us not give heed to any of his words.” Such is the burden God’s servants have to bear sometimes. But Israel’s response did not change the truth that Jeremiah preached: God is God.

The picture of God as the Potter is especially appropriate, which is why we find it used not only here but also in Romans 9, as well as in Isaiah 45 where the sovereignty of God is set forth against the brazen opposition of those who so foolishly insist on attempting to kick Him off His throne. In Isaiah 45:9, the inspired prophet says, “Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! Let the potsherds strive with the potsherds of the earth. Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? or thy work, He hath no hands?”

How presumptuous for us to assume that God is obligated to do what we want Him to do! How arrogant for us to complain about the work of the Potter! We are but clay! That truth is elementary to the Christian faith. God alone has complete mastery over us. That is true not only in our lives individually, but that is true as churches. God takes that marred clay and pounds it and reshapes it into a work that reflects His own will.

The purposeful work

God’s work as the Potter is purposeful. As a master Potter, He accomplishes by His hands that which He has perfectly designed in His own mind. With the slightest adjustment of His thumbs or fingers, as it were, He changes the contours of that object that He has in His mind. John Calvin, in his treatment of this text, pointed out that until we come to grips with that truth in our own lives, until we realize that we are so subject to God’s power that our situation can be changed in moment, we will never be as humble as we ought to be. We are always subject to God, always dependent upon Him who alone is the Potter. And shall we not trust Him? His way is perfect.

But that also means that He alone has the right to determine our way. This figure of the potter and the clay is only a figure. It has its limitations. The limitation of this figure is this: The fact that we are denoted as clay does not mean to deny that God deals with us as the rational-moral creatures that we are. He created us this way—responsible creatures. And as such He holds us to account. Such were those whom He addressed by His Word in this figure. We find the same thing in Isaiah 29:13-16. There, nearly 100 years before Jeremiah prophesied, the prophet Isaiah was called by God to bring His Word of judgment to a rebellious people. They would thrust God from His Potter’s stool and sit there themselves.

And that is the perversity of our own sinfulness. That is what sin does—it attempts to thrust the sovereign Lord from His throne and to seize authority from Him. It rejects what He says and makes the determination, “I will do what I determine.” So great is that perversion, that the consequence, says Isaiah, is that God removes wisdom from those who walk in such a way. What a horrible judgment! That is why you find those caught in the snares of their own sinful walk, making such horrifying decisions and choices that they simply fall deeper and deeper into their abominations. That is what God does with us, when we attempt to live as though God cannot see us.

To us whom He has chosen to look upon in Christ, and therefore to form as vessels that show forth the beauty which is His grace, we can only stand in deepest humility and awe at what God has made of us. But there are always those who rise up against such a portrayal of God as absolutely sovereign. When Satan has so long attempted to deceive and to teach, “You shall be as God,” the sinfulness of the human heart is such that it is given to swell itself in pride and to think that way. It is easy to begin to think of ourselves that way. How many decisions do not we make without God in our thoughts, let alone seeking His will?

But to be told that our heads are far too big, and that we are not so important as we might think, that is not easy to take. The apostle Paul, in facing that natural but very wicked argument against God’s sovereignty, says, “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?” I like the way Calvin put it: “Here Saint Paul sheers off our horns.”1 He says, “You poor wretch, you dare talk back to God? You are less than a clay pot!”

We must humble ourselves. Always we must humble ourselves before God, asking, What wilt Thou have me to do?” We must do that as a synod. The nature of a broader assembly being a deliberative assembly means that we do not always have the answers as individuals. Iron sharpens iron. We have to take into account what our brothers have to say. But ultimately we have to answer to God. How does He direct us in His Word? What are the means that He has appointed to accomplish His purposes in the midst of His church? When we remember what it cost Him in shaping us as His own, how important it is that we remember to live in humility before Him. Remember that as the delegates of synod. Labor in humility, remembering Him before whom and for whom you labor.

But the purpose of this lesson in the pottery shop, as God tells Jeremiah here, is to demonstrate what that clay is in the hands of an angry potter! God gives a message here that not only reveals His sovereignty, but reveals the expression of His sovereignty over against those who forsake Him. Jeremiah, in the face of raging apostasy in Israel, God’s church, must warn God’s people about the pending wrath of the Potter! He is to call them to repentance. With urgency he is to call them to repentance! “Now therefore,” the Lord says to Jeremiah in verse 11, “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.” But the response was this: “We will walk after our own devices, and we will every one do the imagination of his evil heart.” They said that, paying no regard to the stark reality that they were but clay in the Potter’s hands. Instead, they said, “Let us do away with that miserable prophet!” By their actions they showed that the judgment of God that would come upon them was a righteous judgment.

These verses contain a strong warning for us who represent Christ’s bride. Though we confess that God has richly blessed us, we must remember that we are but clay, unworthy of any of those rich blessings. What we have, we have by grace alone. And the purpose for which God has formed us comes with a calling. He has formed us that we might show forth His praise. Or to use the language of Ephesians 1:3, God has chosen us in Christ “that we should be holy and without blame before him.” We must remember that—not only as individuals, but also as churches. To wander from God’s Word and to defile His holy standards for our lives is to invite the most severe judgments. For Jerusalem, organically considered, it was too late. The execution of God’s judgment was very soon to fall. The sudden devastation of Jerusalem would be shocking. But all these things would also serve God’s purpose in making His final masterpiece.

The final masterpiece

While in His just judgment He must break that pot which is apostate and impenitent Israel, God still will form out of that marred clay a vessel that is beautiful in His sight. He goes to the work of forming that beautiful object in Christ that He has in His own mind. And in that work there is another lesson for us in the pottery shop. The potter does not just form a clay pot. Pottery is an art form. A potter artistically shapes and designs his work. He will paint and glaze and fire that work until it is exactly what he would have it to be.

But if that work will be useful as well as beautiful, the potter does his work with amazing patience and carefulness. The pot that God Himself forms is a spectacular demonstration of His longsuffering care. Think of what God has made of you. As clay, we are neither useful nor beautiful. In fact, we have shown ourselves very difficult material to work with. Our lives are a pitiful testimony to what blemishes and impurities mar us because of sin. In fact, the Bible tells us—John 3:3, for example—that we have to be created all over again. That is what the Spirit does when He regenerates us. But then He points us to what God has made us in Christ, giving life to that which was dead, and doing so by the death and resurrection of His only begotten Son. God has taken marred clay vessels and formed them to His own praise—at the expense of His own dear Son. But to fit us to that union with Christ, He performs a work, a testament of His own patience and devotion in accomplishing that which He has determined would best glorify Himself as the master Potter. He does whatever it takes to shape us after the image of His own dear Son. Having molded us, He takes the blood of Christ and paints us, and then He applies heat to us until through the fires of trials and tribulation He has purified us. There is nothing that occurs in your life and mine that does not serve that glorious purpose of God, and that does not show the amazing artistry of the master Potter.

But the masterful work that He does in your life and mine is the work that He also performs in His whole church. He gives to Christ a glorious bride, fit for His Son. He shapes and molds a church for His own glory, even leading that church through many trials, always preserving that clay remnant that He has determined to be for His praise. The Protestant Reformed Churches belong to the manifestation of that glorious bride. With longsuffering carefulness the Potter has been shaping us, taking these marred vessels of our various congregations, turning us on His wheel, correcting, molding, and shaping us to reflect the beauty of what we are in Christ Jesus, as churches being representatives of Christ’s bride. Do you trust Him to do that work well?

Amen.


1 John Calvin, Sermons on Jeremiah, Blair Reynolds, trans. Texts and Studies in Religion, Vol. 46 (The Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston/Queenston/Lampeter, 1990), 240.