The Omnipotence of God: Power Without Limits – Part 2
Introduction: Our English word omnipotent is derived directly from the Latin OMNIPOTENTIA, which, as you can see, is formed by OMNIS (all) and POTENTIA (power), thus it’s meaning, “having all power or might.” In classical Christian theism, omnipotence is one of the attributes of God.[i] We find this attribute repeatedly underscored throughout the Scriptures. The book of Revelation, in particular, accents this attribute of God. “Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth” (KJV).[ii] You may have encountered in a college class or elsewhere some smart aleck asking the question, “Can God make a rock so big He can’t move it?” Such questions contain obvious contradictions and are therefore strictly meaningless.[iii]
The omnipotence of God is limited only by His essence or nature and not by anything external to Himself. “Thus,” notes Richard Muller, “the fact that God cannot do evil, cannot die, and cannot cease to be Father, Son, and Spirit is not a limit on or a contradiction of His OMNIPOTENTIA.”[iv] The opening verse of the Bible declares the omnipotence of God (Gen. 1:1). He is the almighty Creator of all things. The early church grasped the critical importance of this doctrine and this is reflected in the Apostles’ Creed. According to the Catechism, God is all powerful (omnipotent), and his power can be neither increased (since it is already infinite) nor diminished. This means God is able to do whatever he wills in the way in which he wills it. God is not subject to another’s dominion but is King and Lord of all is a legitimate inference from his attribute of omnipotence. Again, the Scripture passages to these effects could fill several pages, the following among them:
Genesis 18:14: “Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.”
Psalm 115:3: “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.”
Jeremiah 32:17, 26-27: Jeremiah prayed: “Ah, Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you.”…Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: “I am the Lord, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?”
Luke 1:34, 37: To Mary’s question, “How will this be since I am a virgin?” Gabriel replied: “Nothing is impossible with God!”
Ephesians 1:19-20: “His incomparably great power…like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead.”
Revelation 19:6: “The Lord God omnipotent (HO PANTOKRATŌR, lit. “the Almighty One”) reigns.”
In addition to these didactic statements, the Holy Scriptures consistently and repeatedly represent God’s works of creation (Rom. 1:20), providence (Heb. 1:3), and redemption (Rom. 1:16; Eph. 1:19) to be effects of his almighty power. As Bavinck once remarked, “Scripture nowhere sets bounds to God’ power.”[v]
I. The God Men Invent: Wrong views of God and of our relationship to Him are the chief source of false religion and idolatry. God is not:
A. A Limited Being: This was one of the major problems that Paul saw in much of pagan religion (verse 24).
B. A Remote Being: God is not removed from us. He is not an absentee-landowner. Because He is a God that is near to us (verse 27), we are responsible and accountable to Him.
C. An Abstract Concept: God is not simply a force or a source of energy. He is a person and acts according to His nature.
II. The God of the Bible: When we speak of divine omnipotence, however, we do not mean that God can do anything. There are certain things God cannot do.
A. God Cannot Act Contrary To His Nature: For example, he cannot lie (Heb. 6:17-18; Tit. 1:2), break his promise (II Cor. 1:20), disown himself (II Tim. 2:13), or change (Num. 23:19; I Sam. 15:29). “It is not presumptuous for us,” observed John Murray, “to say that certain things are inherently necessary or impossible for God. It belongs to our faith in God to avow that he cannot lie and that he cannot deny himself. Such divine “cannots” are his glory and for us to refrain from reckoning with such “impossibles” would be to deny God’s glory and perfection.”[vi]
B. God Cannot Do The Irrational Or Absurd: That which is inherently self, contradictory is likewise not possible for God.[vii] Ronald Nash writes, “If God can do self-contradictory acts, then there is no inconsistency in His promising eternal life to all who trust in Christ but actually condemning to everlasting damnation all who trust in Christ. Such duplicity (inconsistency) would be entirely in character for a God not bound by the law of noncontradiction since, in a world where the law does not apply, there is no difference between eternal life and eternal damnation.”[viii] Since God is rational He will not act in a way that constitutes a disruption in His rationality. He cannot make two and two equal five, or create adjacent mountains with no valley between them, or make a stone too heavy for him to lift, or make a four-cornered triangle or a square circle. As Buswell rightly observes, all one has to do is to ask himself: “How much power would it take to accomplish the self-contradictory, for example, to make a wrong answer in arithmetical calculation, without changing it, the right answer?” to realize that such “irrationalities” belong to the domain of logic (and are condemned by it) and not to the domain of power at all.”[ix]
C. God’s Omnipotence Is Not Subject To Change: It is inherently impossible for God to exhaust his power, that is, to exercise all of it at any given moment. God cannot place a finite limitation upon his power. The fact of the matter is, nothing that we can point to is the evident effect of his omnipotence—only his divine potence. He did not exhaust his power when he created the finite universe. There is no reason to believe that he could not have made more stars or more land and sea creatures or more varieties of flora if he had willed to do so. In fact, he was not “exercised” by his creative activity in the slightest degree. He merely spoke and it was done (Ps. 33:9). Job speaks of the universe and its workings as “but the outer fringes of his works,” a “faint whisper” of his might. “Who then,” he asks, “can understand the thunder of his power?” (Job 26:5-14). What the Scriptures intend then when they ascribe omnipotence to God is that God has the power to do whatever it takes power to do. He has the power to do even that which he does not will to do, and the only reason he does not exercise his power in this area is that he does not will to do so (this truth points up the fact that God has full authority over his power at all times; it is ever under the governance of his eternal plan and wise control). But whatever he wills to do he has the power to do. In other words, God can do, and does, all his holy will. But God does not will to do all that he has the power to do. God has the power, for example, to rid thefoundation, sermons, Jonathan Edwards, world of all evil right now, but for wise and holy reasons, determined from all eternity, he does not will to do so.[x]
Conclusion: The Apostle Paul proclaimed to the Athenians the God of the Bible. He is not far from any one of us, but is everywhere—beholding (Heb. 4:13), directing (Eph. 1:11) and controlling all things (Rom. 8:28). We are dependent and responsible to Him. This is Paul’s underlying premise. All that exists does so because God is the Creator. We are dependent on Him because we are His creatures and as believers we are dependent on Him in a special sense. Our spiritual life and continuance is not due to any law, nor is it innate—we are absolutely dependent upon Him for everything. This then is the conception of God’s omnipotence as Christian theism has perceived it: God has the power to do everything that he has determined that he will do, and even the power to do that which is noncontradictory which he does not will to do. The Christian should have no problem accepting this since there is nothing in the conception, when properly explained, that is self-contradictory. John Piper in his treatment of Jonathan Edwards’s sermons provides us with an excellent illustration of how the truth of God’s great sovereignty (and omnipotence is an important aspect of God’s sovereignty) affected Edwards. “For Edwards the infinite power, or absolute sovereignty, of God was the foundation of God’s all-sufficiency. And this all-sufficiency is the fountain of his perfect holiness, and Edwards said in A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections that God’s holiness comprehends all his moral excellency. So the sovereignty of God for Edwards was utterly crucial to everything else he believed about God.” When he was twenty-six or twenty-seven, he looked back nine years to the time he fell in love with the doctrine of the sovereignty of God and wrote, “There has been a wonderful alteration in my mind, in respect to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, from that day to this…God’s absolute sovereignty…is what my mind seems to rest assured of, as much as of any thing that I see with my eyes…The doctrine has very often appeared exceeding pleasant, bright, and sweet. Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God…God’s sovereignty has ever appeared to me (a) great part of his glory. It has often been my delight to approach God, and adore him as a sovereign God.” As Edwards beheld God, and stood entranced by his absolute sovereignty, he didn’t see this reality isolation. It was part of God’s glory. It was sweet to Edwards because it was a great and vital part of an infinitely glorious Person whom he loved with tremendous passion. Two inferences follow from this vision of God The first is that the goal of all that God does is to uphold and display his glory. All God’s actions flow from fullness, not from deficiency. Most human actions are motivated by the need to make up some deficit or supply some lack in us. God never takes steps to supply his insufficiency. He performs no remedial exercises. As an absolutely sovereign and all-sufficient fountain, all his actions are the overflow of his fullness. He never acts to add to his glory but only to uphold it and display it.”[xi]
[i] There are, as we have observed, a number of theologians claiming the Evangelical label known as Open-View Theists. They unabashedly and openly repudiate classical theism with its emphasis on God as being all-knowing (omniscient), all-powerful (omnipotent), and unchangeable (immutable). For a critical evaluation of this school of thought, see Robert B. Strimple, “What Does God Know?” in The Coming Evangelical Crisis, ed. J. H. Armstrong (Moody, 1996), pp. 139-154.
[ii]] The NIV Bible reads, “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns.” The Greek word PANTOKRATŌR is the compound of PAS (all) and KRATEŌ (power, might), thus the equivalent of omnipotent. This designation of God is used nine times in Revelation, cf. 1:8; 4:8;11:17; 15:3; 16:7,14; 19:6,15;21:22.
[iii] cf. A. J. Hoover’s excellent little book, Don’t You Believe It! Poking Holes in Faulty Logic (Moody, 1982), where he says, “People pose many questions that contain contradictory assumptions. The question, “What will happen when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?” is technically nonsense since the two things could never exist at the same time. If a force were truly irresistible, then there could be no immovable object, and vice versa. To ask, “What lies beyond the end of space?” is to assume that you have reached a terminal point, which is not a terminal point. To ask, “What happens at the end of our individual existence?” presupposes that our existence comes to an end and that it does not come to an end. Did you hear of the man who trusted in dreams dreaming that he should not trust in dreams? Atheists often taunt theists with cute little questions like, “Could God create a rock He couldn’t lift?” or “Could God think up something He couldn’t do?” Such questions usually demand the exercise of omnipotence or omniscience and the denial of the same traits at the same time. Since they contain contradictions they are strictly meaningless.” (p. 17).
[iv] R. A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Baker, 1985), p. 208.
[v] H. Bavnick, The Doctrine of God trans. W. Hendrickson (rpt. Banner of Truth, 1979), p. 241.
[vi] J. Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Eerdmans, 1955), p. 16.
[vii] As Carl Henry correctly noted, “Christianity is rational religion because it is grounded in the rational living God and his meaningful revelation. Secular theories elaborated independently of the truth of revelation either exaggerate or limit the nature of reason and thought and language in a manner that the Christian knows distorts the actual state of things.” God, Revelation and Authority I (Word, 1976), p. 244.
[viii] R. Nash, The Concept of God p. 40.
[ix] J. O. Buswell, A Systematic Theology of the Christian Theology of the Christian religion (Zondervan, 1962), p. 63.
[x] Cf. the excellent discussion on this subject by Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Thomas Nelson, 1998), pp. 191-193.
[xi] J. Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Baker, 1990), p. 76.
Archibald Alexander’s A Brief Compendium of Bible Truth is a welcome addition to the growing corpus of reprinted material from early faculty members of Princeton. First printed in 1846 and now newly edited, this summary of Christianity’s major doctrines is a pocket theology for “plain, common readers” who do not have the time or opportunity to study larger works of systematic theology, but still want to grow in their spiritual understanding. Reading this book will enable you to better comprehend those biblical truths that matter most for your walk as a believer in today’s world, making you, by God’s grace, a stronger and more godly Christian.
Containing 38 short chapters on everything from the “Being of God” to the “Mediatorial Offices of Christ” to the “Final Judgment,” Alexander’s Compendium is a unique introduction to the core doctrines of the Christian faith. As an early American proponent of “experimental” theology, Alexander had little patience for mere intellectual pursuits. His book is as intensely practical as it is thoughtful. Even after more than 150 years, modern readers would be hard-pressed to find a more accessible, yet thorough, introduction to Christian doctrine than A Brief Compendium of Bible Truth. Excellent for personal and devotional reading, small-group and Sunday school study, and elder and deacon training classes.
“[Archibald Alexander teaches] that Christianity is more than an affirmation of intelllectual propositions; it is also a personal experiential relationship with Jesus Christ.” from the Preface (by James Garretson and Joel Beeke)
About the author: Archibald Alexander (1772-1851) served as the first professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and was the founder of the Princeton Theology, which merged Reformed experiential theology as found in the Westminster Standards with Scottish Common Sense Realism.