“Does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?” (Romans 9:21)
Jeremiah had used it centuries before Paul did (Jeremiah 18:10-6). Before him, Isaiah had also employed the analogy (Isaiah 45:9; 65:8). The value seems obvious. It reminds us that the potter and the clay function differently. They are not equal or the same. The one shapes the other; not vice versa. The Potter takes responsibility for working; the clay should yield.
However, the analogy also has some obvious limitations. While God created us from the dust of the ground (Genesis 2:7), we are far more than inert matter. We bear the image of God. We have emotions, will, and intellect.
So how should we understand the sovereignty of God? Do we have no say whatsoever? What about those biblical texts that affirm “whosoever will may come”? Is our freewill not authentic? Is our freewill merely an allusion?
Not at all.
Years ago, Eugene Petersen made a fascinating discovery while studying the ancient Greek language (see The Contemplative Pastor, pp.102-105). Follow this for a moment.
In Greek, verbs have an active voice (“I counsel”) or passive voice (“I am counselled”). English is the same. It’s a dualistic way of thinking about the world. Either I’m doing it or it’s being done to me.
But the further we go back in the Greek language (and all languages) the more prevalent another option becomes; the middle voice (“I take counsel”). To quote Peterson: “Two wills operate, neither to the exclusion of the other, neither canceling out the other, each respecting the other.”
The farther we travel from Eden, the less use we have for the middle voice, until it finally atrophies for lack of use. We either take charge of our own destinies (active voice) or let others take charge and slip into animal passivity before forces too great for us (passive voice). The gospel restores the middle voice. We learn to live with praying-willing involvement in an action that we do not originate…. Eden pride and disobedience delete the middle voice and reduce us to two voices, active and passive. We end up taking sides…. But no friendship, no love affair, no marriage can exist with only active and passive voices. Something else is required, a mode of willingness that radiates into a thousand subtleties of participation and intimacy, trust and forgiveness and grace.
We have polarized God’s sovereignty against our freewill, because our language is so limited. This blinds us to the powerful middle ground identified by the middle voice. In fact, the middle voice also makes great sense of prayer!
Today (as with every day), we come under the sovereignty of God. However, He does not seek power over us but to work with us. Let’s practice prayerful engagement with Christ, knowing that the greatest joy comes when we live in the middle voice: “Two wills operating, neither to the exclusion of the other, neither canceling out the other, each respecting the other.“