By Pastor Glenn Pease
It is a great paradox, but the fact is, the real test of omnipotence is what it can do when it limits itself, and gives up absolute and total control. Absolute and total control means the power is not shared with other being. All is just as you will, and there can be no freedom of choice made by any other will. That is one concept of omnipotence, and it is a powerful picture, for there is no power other than the one with this kind of omnipotence. This would seem, on the surface of things, to be the ultimate in power. To have all power so completely that there is no other source of power in existence. It would seem that you could go no higher, or could there be a higher way?
Yes there could be! Just do as God does in the Bible. He creates other beings who also have power. Some of them have very great power, like the angels and archangels. Satan had enough power to challenge his creator, and even take a vast host of other beings with him in rebellion. Then God created man with the power of free will, and it is also capable of choices that are not His will. This is all so risky, for it puts God's omnipotence to the test. The God who takes no much risk, but keeps all in His own control, is no where near as powerful as the God of the Bible, who can take these kinds of risks, and still be able to have ultimate control, and victory in achieving His purpose.
The God of the Bible has the ability to give up control, and still win and achieve His goal. God takes on enormous limitations to His power. He cannot let men be free to choose, and at the same time force them to choose only good. He could have, had He made them mere machines, but He made them persons in His own image, and so they are free. This puts a limit on His power. God says that they are not to steal, but gives them the power to steal. They will have to pay for their disobedience, but they are free to choose. Cannot God stop people from stealing? Yes He can, but He will not, for His purpose is not to force people into obedience, but to persuade them to choose obedience.
If God has really created beings who can choose, then there is a multiplicity of power sources in the world. He can no longer then be the only cause for all that is. There are now other power sources who can cause things to be that He does not will to be. Since He chose this sharing of power, He can also freely change it if He chooses. His limiting of His own power does not in any change His sovereignty, He is still the source of all power, and He can make all other sources of power cease to be. But by going through with the plan to the end, God will demonstrate a far greater omnipotence than a God who fears to take a chance, and holds onto all power for Himself. That would be taking the easy way out, but the God of the Bible is a risk taker.
If love, justice, holiness, truth, and beauty are the end result for all eternity after the risk of evil, hate, war, injustice, and all the ugliness of sin, then God will have demonstrated an omnipotence that is not a mere victory of power, but of love and wisdom, and this is the kind of omnipotence that is worthy of our love, worship, and praise.
So now we have a logical answer to all of the why questions. Why doesn't God do something to stop or prevent all the evil? All such questions are based on the omnipotent God concept which we have shown is a philosophical illusion, and is not the God of biblical revelation. All such questions imply that God can do whatever He wants. This leads to all sorts of false conclusions. God can do whatever He wants, but He does not want to take full control of all power and end His experiment of giving freedom to other powers. Those who condemn God for doing so would not want the alternative of all humans being mere robots programmed to do everything as God wills. We do not like the evil that freedom produces, but we also would not want to give up our freedom, and so we live in a world where much is evil, and not what God wills.
The biblical concept of omnipotence reveals a God who not only cares about the suffering that evil produces, He enters into the suffering Himself. We seldom think of it, but God has problems that He must solve also. The problem He had was in how to save fallen man, and the only He could justly do it was to enter the world of suffering Himself. The cross was the price that God had to pay for allowing man to be free. It was that important to God to keep men free. Jesus was the only one who could pay the price to redeem man, and He did it with joy because of the eternal fellowship He would have with all of those who would receive His salvation by faith.
An omnipotent God who can do as He pleases, and who would still send His perfect Son into the world to die and endure hell for sins not His own, would be a sadistic tyrant impossible to admire. If He could save man by sheer power, and then chose the way of the cross, it would be as immoral as I would be if I had a rope tied to my valuables as my house was burning, and all I would have to do is pull it and they would be spared, but instead I would send my son into the flames to get them, and he dies in the effort. Do not say God can do anything He pleases lightly, for He if could have saved man any other way, He had a moral obligation to choose it. His Son even prayed, "If there is another way let this cup pass from me." God had no other choice.
In His omnipotence He could have sent ten thousand angels to spare His Son, but there was nothing that power could do to save the world of sinners. Only love could do that, and not all the power of heaven. But that is the very point I am making. Power limited by love is not less power, but it is greater power. The mere power concept of omnipotence could not save man. It was only the love limited power of the God of the Bible that could. Love limited power has to be distinguished from total power. If might is right, then God can do anything. But if what is right is a matter of respect for the freedom of other persons, then God cannot have His own way by the mere fact of being the strongest of persons. God has to play by the rules of His own making. He has to allow His opponents to play by those same rules, and this means they have the right to will what He does not will.
Those who have a concept of the absolute omnipotence of God with no limits so not realize that logic forces them to accept some limits. If God can make rules that bind him to them, then He has limited Himself by those rules. If He cannot make such rules, and must be always free to do anything, then He is also limited by not being able to make such rules. Either way, God cannot be conceived as having no limit whatever to His omnipotence. If He is a God who cannot make other creatures who have wills that can freely obey or disobey Him, then He is limited in His omnipotence. There is no way to have a biblical image of God without self-limitations to His omnipotence, and again, thank God it is so.
God had the absolute omnipotence before He created the universe. He was free to make any decision that was possible, and there was nothing existing to hinder that absolute control. But once He chose to make other creatures with a will of their own, He gave up total control, and imposed limits on His power to get His own will done all the time. Unqualified omnipotence is what He was willing to give up in order to have an eternal family of children who freely chose to love Him. So history is filled with much that is not His will, because He cannot let man be free and still force him to do only what is right and good.
Do men have rights that God cannot dissolve by sheer power? Of course they do. It is God's own gift to them, and He is no Indian giver who will take it back as soon as they express the right to choose what is not pleasing to Him. That would be like me giving you a gift of a radio with the demand that you listen only to Christian stations. You are free to use it as you wish, but as soon as you turn to any other than a Christian station, I will take it back. If it is truly a gift, and you are truly free to use it as you wish, then I cannot control your use of this gift. I may have the power to so control it, but if I love you, I will not exercise that power, but leave you free to make your own choice.
So God respects our freedom to choose that which is not Christian, and not according to His will. It is not that He cannot for lack of power prevent our foolish choices, but He will not for His is not the omnipotence of the tyrant, but the omnipotence of love. The omnipotence of the tyrant is most costly to the subjects. The omnipotence of love is most costly to the King.
The true image of God is always the highest conceivable by man. He will always be more than we can conceive, but never less, and so the highest conception is always closest to the truth. Is it the highest conception to imagine God as a ruler over puppets who can do nothing but what He decides, or is it a higher conception of God's power and wisdom to imagine Him ruling over a world of free beings who can choose to cooperate compete with Him? We could put this on a more human level and ask, which is the greatest trade-to operate a machine, or to raise a child? You have the choice of a God who operates by sheer power, or a God who operates on the basis of love, and if you are choosing the God of the Bible, you will choosing a God who operates on love, for God is love.
We need to stress that the love of God does not weaken His omnipotence. It is the view of those who make His omnipotence absolute who make Him weak. They reject the idea of freedom in any other. There is no freedom but in God, and all is in His control. This seems like a God exalting view, but it degrades God terribly. It means that even though God has all power and is the only will that can determine what is, we still have a world that is full of evil, suffering and folly beyond measure. This makes God look like an omni-incompetent rather than an all wise ruler. What king can be adored who has full control of all power, and yet has a kingdom filled with evil and suffering that is destroying his people. There is nothing exalting in the view that God is fully in change and responsible for everything being just as it is. If this is true of God, then He is also the One who wills for some of us to undermine this view and exalt Him as the God who has the courage to let other wills make choices in the freedom He grants in love. A self-limited God is a God who is lovable, but an all -powerful God who can do anything He chooses, but does not choose to prevent the evils we see daily in this world, is the God so many atheists do not believe in, for they would rather there be no God at all than such a God as that.
A father can gain the obedience of his children by sheer power. He can make it clear that they will suffer instantly if they step out of line. He can follow his threat with instant and severe punishment to the first offense. His children will live in fear, and they will conform to his will, even though they may be filled with resentment and even hate. By sheer power he has them in control. Another father may take the approach of warning, but be more open to forgiving if the children come and confess their disobedience. He may allow them more liberty, and less severity when they do fall, encouraging them in love to learn from their mistakes to avoid future falls. They may be like the father of the Prodigal and give them freedom to be very foolish, but always have an open door for them to return and be forgiven. If you study the discipline and judgment of God all through the Bible you discover He is like the second father. He gives much warning and time to repent before He punishes. He allows much freedom, and is ever open to the repentant sinner to return and be restored to fellowship. In other words, we see omnipotence of love rather than omnipotence of just power.
I want to conclude this study of God's omnipotence with a focus on His self-imposed limitations based on His character and essence as love. Thank God He is limited, or rather that He has limited Himself. If He was not limited, it would mean that everything in the world is just as He wills it and desires it to be. Even all the evil and tragedy of life is just as God wants it. This is hard to swallow, and so we know that much in life is not God's will, and, therefore, God has chosen to limit Himself, and not always have everything just as He desires. Those who will not accept the reality of God's limitations make God the author of all evil.
The reason people have a problem with the limitations of God is because they jump to the false conclusion that if He has limits, it means that He is not all powerful, and He is not God Almighty. This is foolishness, for you can have limits because you are weak, as is the case with all of us, but you can also have limits because you chose to limit yourself. You can have self-imposed limits. I do not read my sons mail, not because I am weak and cannot do it, but because I choose not to do all I am capable of doing. God has the power to do many things that He does not chose to do. He has the power to send a sinner to hell as soon as he sins, but He chooses to give the sinner time to repent and be forgiven, and to escape judgment. It is not because He is weak, but because He is love, and not willing that any should perish.
When God created free willed being He chose to limit His own will. He made it possible for other wills to choose things that He would not. He gave them power to defy His will even. He could not make this choice without limiting His own will. God cannot make us free and then still force us to do only what He wills, for then we are not free. God does not make our choices for us, but allows us to make them, and this means His will is not always done. Why would Jesus teach us to pray, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," if it was always done anyway? It is not always done, and that means God does not always get His way in the world.
But what about texts like Luke 1:37 which says, "Nothing is impossible with God." Or Matt. 19:26, "With God all things are possible." There is no conflict when you look at the context, for these texts are dealing with what man cannot do, but which God alone can. They are saying what is impossible with man is possible with God. He can do anything that can be conceivably necessary to achieve His purpose. They do not mean that He can even do what is contrary to His nature and what destroys His purpose. Those are the limitations that we are focusing on, and not that there is anything impossible for God to do to achieve His purpose.
These texts are for the encouragement of man. They are not telling us that God is capable of folly and sinful actions contrary to His nature, for that would be discouraging. The texts that tell us what God cannot do are for the same purpose, so that we can count on Him to never change, but always be good and loving and just, and never evil. It is impossible for God to make blunders that do what destroys His chances to achieve His purpose. The two sets of verses that say all things are possible, and those who say some things are impossible are for the same purpose. They are two sides of the one coin of God's omnipotence. He can do anything consistent with His purpose and nature, and He cannot do anything that is inconsistent with His purpose and nature. He is covered both ways for the assurance of His people. We can have absolute assurance is such a God.
The Bible gives us a number of things that God cannot do. He is limited by two things. He cannot do what is contrary to His nature, and He cannot do what He has chosen not to do. The ability to do something does not mean one has to use that ability. There are many things that God could do, but He chooses not to do them. He is free to not do whatever He does not choose to do. John the Baptist said to the Pharisees in Matt. 3:9, "I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham." As far as we know God never did that, and likely never will. It would be a marvelous miracle, but there is no reason why He could not choose to do it. But now we want to look at things that God cannot do because of the self-imposed limitations of His omnipotence.
1. He cannot lie according to Heb. 6:17-19 and I Sam. 15:29, and so cannot destroy the world with another flood, for He promised not to.
2. He cannot deny Himself says II Tim. 3:13.
3. He cannot have respect for persons, or show favoritism-Rom. 2:11, James 2:9
4. He cannot save man without a Savior, who is Jesus. John 14:6. If there would have been another way to save man without the sacrifice of His Son, God would have taken it, but there was no other way.
5. He cannot be pleased apart from faith, for, "..without faith it is impossible to please God.." Heb. 11:6, James 1:5-8
6. He cannot refuse to forgive one who confesses and repents. I John 1:9.
7. He cannot be tempted by evil, nor can He tempt to do evil. James 1:13-15. God is light and in Him is no darkness at all, and so God cannot do anything that is sinful and contrary to His nature of holiness. If He could sin He would deny Himself, which is impossible.
8. He cannot do certain things until other circumstances are in favor of it, or in other words, He cannot break His promise. Gen. 19:22
9. He cannot do away with the freedom of man to choose the path of sin over the path of obedience. Rom. 6:16; Rom. 8:5-13; Gal. 5:19-21. This means He cannot make a choice men make not to have been made. He cannot make one who has murdered not to have murdered, or restore a prostitute to virginity.
10. He cannot make any other of His sons equal to the eternal Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. John 1:1, 14, 18
You can call these the top ten things God cannot do, but there are many other specifics, because He cannot do anything that is contrary to His nature, and which enables the forces of evil to finally win the war of good and evil. In other words God cannot lose. He is a winner, and He will in His sovereignty win the war against evil and accomplish His purpose for history and for men. The self-imposed limitations do not make Him weak, but instead, make Him a loving victor. It is because He is omnipotent that He could risk letting other beings be free. Thomas Aquinas wrote, "To sin is to fall short of a perfect action; hence to be able to sin is to be able to fall short in action, which is repugnant to omnipotence. Therefore it is that God cannot sin, because of His omnipotence." If He was not omnipotent it would have been a foolish risk, for He could have ended up losing to evil forces and Satan would end up ruling the universe. He knew that could never happen, because He always had the ultimate power to overcome all evil, because He could never be tempted to yield to evil. He will demonstrate His ultimate power in the final judgment, but meanwhile He patiently endures the folly of evil because many will come out of darkness into light when they hear the Gospel of His free offer of forgiveness in Christ.
Let me illustrate once more how self-imposed limitations are not a loss of power, but are rather an expression of power. The man with no money has no power to give money to others, or to loan it and invest it. The man with money has the power to limit what he does with his money. He can give it away, loan it, or set up a trust fund for someone. In other words, he can limit his control of his money, and share the power to use it with others. Does this mean that he has less power than one who is a miser and just keeps all control to himself? Not at all! By giving up control he has expressed the power of love to include others in his abundance. His power is used as a means of expressing love for others. That is a far greater power than that of maintaining full control of one's money for pure selfish end.
It is the person whose power is under the control of love who is the most worthy person. And so it is with the omnipotence of God whose power is always under the control of His love. God will only do what power can do lovingly, and this means that judgment of evil is love for the good. Nothing in God's judgments is contrary to His love and goodness. His greatest judgment on sin was at the cross, and it was also His greatest expression of love. God had to win men by means of love and sacrifice for power cannot do it. Someone said, "A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still." In other words, you can force a man to conform to your will, but you do not control his inner man. You do not win his love. God was willing to limit Himself, and even go to the cross in order to win man's inner heart to love. The love of Jesus expressed in His sacrifice for sin accomplished this when nothing else could. That is omnipotence in action, and that is the Bible image of God's omnipotence.