Vessels of Mercy

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on February 27, 2022.

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to      Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 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 (Rom. 9:14-23).[1]

God called Moses with specific purpose, saying, “behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians   oppress them. Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt” (Ex. 3:7-10). In humility and perhaps fear, Moses responded, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Ex. 3:11). He did not yet understand that his identity was integrally tied to him who called him. And so Moses asked, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (Exodus 3:13-15). The question is fair: To know there is a God is good but to know him by name is essential.

Of course, we must be careful here, not going beyond what God reveals. As Wendell Berry cautions, “Any definition is a limit, which is why the God of Exodus refuses to define himself,”[2] saying to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex. 3:14). Derived from this statement is the revealed, revered name of God, YHWH, a proper noun derived from the Hebrew verb meaning “to be,” typically translated “LORD” in our English translations. And it is the LORD who tells Moses to go to the people of Israel and say, “‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations” (Ex. 3:15). What Moses learned was far more than a name but in it who God is: “I AM” called and sent him (Ex. 3:14).

As called and sent, Moses went first to Israel and then to Pharaoh, but Pharaoh’s reception of God’s Word was far different. Moses said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness’” (Ex. 5:1). What Moses delivered to the king was the Word of God, not a request but a command from “I AM WHO I AM.” But unlike Moses, Pharaoh’s response was neither humble nor fearful but telling, not “Who am I?” but “Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go?” Revealing not only a lack of knowledge but a hardened heart, Pharaoh tragically confessed, “I do not know the LORD, and moreover, I will not let Israel go” (Ex. 5:2).

Though often overshadowed by the subsequent plagues, it is Pharaoh’s question that underlies God’s judgment: Who is the LORD? Often, we think of the plagues upon Egypt through the lens of Israel’s redemption, and indeed Israel was ultimately delivered, but it was not the ultimate reason. God’s ultimate reason for decimating Egypt is found in his answer to Pharaoh’s question, when God said to him, “for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth” (Ex. 9:16). It took destruction and death for Pharaoh to learn something about himself and about the Lord. Though his culture taught him that he was the embodiment of the Egyptian gods, the revelation of God’s power revealed Pharaoh’s mortality. And it was not as a so-called god but as a man that Pharaoh witnessed the awesome power of the one, true God, the Lord.

Who are you?

One may wonder: after which plague did Pharaoh have an identity crisis? Perhaps never, but surely who he thought he was changed from when Moses first delivered God’s Word to when Egypt’s army was destroyed in the Red Sea. It’s not an enviable position, to have a false impression of who you are before God. But of course, our culture fans the flame of the individual sovereignty of self. Even in our own day, we have witnessed the replacement of “We the people” with “Me the person,” and watched as community has lost to individuality. As one early twentieth-century thinker put it, “the inferior judges the superior, ignorance sets bounds to wisdom, error prevails over truth, the human is substituted for the Divine, earth has priority over heaven, and the individual sets the measure for all things.”[3] This is most tragic as we consider ourselves in relation to God, where we seem less willing to ask, “Who am I?” or even “Who is the Lord?” but instead, “God, who do you think you are?” At the root of this problem, is an age-old problem, one of identity before God: Who are you?

To answer this perhaps we should begin by asking, who are you not?  According to God’s Word, you are neither prosecutor nor judge over God. God loved Jacob and hated Esau before either were born (Rom. 9:10-13), which may strike you as unjust. God had no compassion but hardened Pharaoh’s heart, leading to nationwide destruction and the death of many, which you may consider unmerciful. God “has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (9:18), which you may think tyrannical. God reveals his power that his name may be proclaimed in all the earth (9:17), which to you may sound egotistical. But the problem with each and all of these opinions is that they assume an authority you do not have. Who are you? You are not God.

You were created from dust, “a mere human being” (9:19 NET), not the Creator. He is the “molder”; you are “molded” (9:20). He is the “potter”; you are the “clay” (9:21). And as such, it is neither your prerogative nor privilege to “answer back to God” (9:20) or question why he does what he does. You may fight this in arrogance only to reveal your ignorance. God does what he does not according to your reason or for your approval but for his pleasure and “the glory of his sovereign power over his creatures.”[4]

Yet, there is more to you than a lump of clay. If you, like Pharaoh, are not of the elect, though you were created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27), you were molded like clay into a vessel of wrath whose sole purpose is to reveal God’s patience in your sustenance and his power in your destruction. You are a living, breathing bearer of God’s wrath personally, awaiting imminent judgment, and doomed to eternal torment both body and soul. You were created for destruction (9:22). But if you look in faith to Christ for salvation, confirming not your reprobation but predestination, you are not a vessel created for God’s wrath but his glory. Even in this moment, do not assume your destiny but call on the name of the Lord for salvation, “because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Romans 10:9-10).

Who are you? In Christ, you are a sinner saved by grace alone, through faith in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone! You are now a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). You are not a slave to sin nor a child of wrath but a child of God (Gal. 3:26; 4:7). In Christ, you are blessed with every spiritual blessing (Eph. 1:3), saved from death and brought to life (Eph. 2:4-5), and truly loved by God (Rom. 8:28-29). You are a citizen of heaven (Phil. 3:20-21), and a co-heir of the kingdom with Christ (Rom. 8:17). Together in the invisible church, you are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession,” united with all who are in Christ, a people who have received God’s mercy (1 Peter 2:9-10). Neither a prosecutor nor a judge of God, in Christ you are his child.

Who is God? Just as Moses learned that his identity was integrally tied to who God is, such is the case with us, which should lead us to ask then, who is God? When God revealed his name to Moses, he was revealing more than a name: “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex. 3:14). He was revealing who he is as the self-existent, eternal Creator and sustainer of all things. The Westminster Shorter Catechism helpfully teaches, “God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.”[5] And because of who God is, he is sovereign over all: “Whatever the Lord pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth . . .” (Ps. 135:6).

It is then really astounding to think, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5). It is quite extraordinary to consider, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to [the] fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son . . .” (Hebrews 1:1-2). He who revealed himself to Moses as “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex. 3:14),   revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus said to the unbelieving Pharisees, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58), for he “who is and who was and who is to come” is the Lord (Rev. 1:8). And it is in Christ alone God redeems his elect, as “vessels of mercy, which he prepared beforehand for glory” to make known “the riches of his glory” (9:23).

How shall we then live?

Understanding who we are and who God is, understanding that he predestined us and redeemed us as vessels of mercy, how shall we then live? Let us humbly trust the Lord. When God says, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (9:15). Even when we don’t understand, let us never cry, injustice, but say with Eli, “He is the LORD; let him do what is good in his eyes” (1 Sam. 3:18 NIV). If he loves Jacob and hates Esau (Rom. 9:13), do not question why but trust him, knowing his thoughts are not our thoughts nor his ways our ways; they are higher than we can comprehend (Isa. 55:8-9). “The secret things belong to the LORD our God” (Deut. 29:29), so leave them to him.

Let us show compassion and mercy as God has shown compassion and mercy to us. Our standard for mercy is neither our neighbor nor ourselves but God, as Jesus said, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). Just as we are not God’s judge, we are not our neighbor’s either. Jesus said being a “neighbor” is defined by showing mercy (Luke 10:36-37), and James taught, “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (Jas. 2:13). If we are indeed “vessels of mercy” it stands to reason that mercy will flow from us to others.

And finally, let us humbly yet fervently rejoice in the sovereign grace of God. For those whom he foreknew and predestined he has called and justified as vessels of mercy. Why he has done this no one knows. That he has done this is clear in his Word. So, we rejoice that he is the potter, and we are the clay, that he molds and makes us after his will, conforming us to the image of his Son by his Spirit. And as vessels of mercy we pray,

            Have thine own way, Lord!

            Have thine own way!

            Hold o’er my being absolute sway!

            Fill with thy Spirit till all shall see

            Christ only, always, living in me![6]

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] Wendell Berry, The World-Ending Fire (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2017), 207.

[3] René Guénon, The Crisis of the Modern World, quoted in Matthew Rose, “The Imagined,” First Things, March 2022, 29.

[4] “The Westminster Confession of Faith” 3.7, in The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (Lawrenceville: Christian Education & Publications, 2007), 16.

[5] “The Shorter Catechism” Q. 4, Ibid., 357-358.

[6] “Have Thine Own Way, Lord,” Trinity Hymnal, rev. ed. (Suwanee, GA: Great Commission Publications, 1990), 688.

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