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The Omnipotence of God

A highly simplistic definition of "power" would be that it is the ability to produce effects, or to accomplish what one wills. The Scriptures clearly affirm not only that God has such an ability but that he has it without limitations. Hence, we speak of God as being omnipotent, infinite in power.

His "power is vast" (Job 9:4). He is "the Lord strong and mighty" (Ps. 24:8), "great and awesome" (Deut. 7:21), "the Lord Almighty, the Mighty One of Israel" (Isa. 1:24). "Ah, Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you. You show love to thousands but bring the punishment for the father's sins into the laps of their children after them. O great and powerful God, whose name is the Lord Almighty, great are your purposes and mighty are your deeds" (Jer. 32:17-19a). Creation is a testimony to "his great power and mighty strength" (Isa. 40:26). He is Lord, Owner, Ruler, and King of all creation, whom none can resist or overpower (Matt. 11:25; Rev. 1:8; Ps. 29:10; Jer. 10:7,10). He is "the Lord Almighty" (2 Cor. 6:18; Rev. 4:8; 11:17), "the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords" (1 Tim. 6:15). Nothing is too difficult for him; all things are within his power (Gen. 18:14; Zech. 8:6; Jer. 32:27).

When Mary asked Gabriel how she, a virgin, could conceive a child without the involvement of a man, his response was: "For nothing will be impossible with God." After comparing the difficulty of a rich man getting into heaven with a camel passing through the eye of a needle, Jesus said: "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."

"But our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases" (Ps. 115:3).

"Whatever the Lord pleases, he does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps" (Ps. 135:6).

"For the Lord of hosts has planned, and who can frustrate it? And as for his stretched-out hand, who can turn it back?" (Isa. 14:27).

"Declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, 'My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure'" (Isa. 46:10).

"Then Job replied to the Lord: 'I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted'" (Job 42:1-2).

"And all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but he does according to his will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off his hand or say to him, 'What hast Thou done?'" (Dan. 4:35).

See also 2 Chron. 20:6; Job 23:13; Prov. 21:30; Isa. 43:13.

A. Power without Limit

We must remember that divine power is optional in its exercise. Whereas God is infinitely powerful in his eternal being, it is not necessary or an essential part of this attribute that he always and in every way exercise his power. As William G. T. Shedd explains,

"God need not have created anything. And after creation, he may annihilate. Only when he has bound himself by promise, as in the instance of faith in Christ, does his action cease to be optional" (Dogmatic Theology, I:359).

It is also important to note that God accomplishes his will in one of two ways.

(1) He accomplishes much by appointed means, i.e., by the uniform and ordered operation of what are called second causes. This would include God's providential activity in which he makes use of existing things. God utilizes what we erroneously call "laws of nature" to carry out his purpose (e.g., sustaining human life by means of food and water, providing warmth for our atmosphere via the heat of the sun, etc.).

(2) God also accomplishes much by divine fiat, i.e., directly and immediately without the use of means or secondary causes. Creation, for example, as well as certain miracles (such as the resurrection) are expressions of this kind of divine power. They are actions which are the operation of the first cause (God) alone.

It is also the case that the actual exercise of God's power does not represent its limits. God can do all he wills (and does) but need not do all he can (and does not). That is to say, God's infinite power is manifested in the works of creation, but is not exhausted by them. God could have created more than he has, if he so pleased. What God has done, therefore, is no measure of what he could have done or can do.

B. Power without Self-Contradiction

Can God do anything and everything? Certain medieval theologians and later philosophers such as Rene Descartes argued that God has an absolute power that is free from, indeed often contradictory to, all reason and morality (God is ex lex, outside of or beyond law) . Thus, they concluded that God can sin, lie, and die, among other things. He is not only able to do all he wills, but he is able also to will everything, even the logically contradictory. Most theologians, however, have pointed to several texts of Scripture that indicate otherwise:

"Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged" (Heb. 6:17-18).

"If we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot deny himself" (2 Tim. 2:13).

"When tempted, no one should say, 'God is tempting me.' For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone" (Js. 1:13).

Charles Hodge, 19th century Princeton theologian, makes this observation:

"It is . . . involved in the very idea of power, that it has reference to the production of possible effects. It is no more a limitation of power that it cannot effect the impossible, than it is of reason that it cannot comprehend the absurd, or of infinite goodness that it cannot do wrong. It is contrary to its nature. Instead of exalting, it degrades God, to suppose that He can be other than He is, or that He can act contrary to infinite wisdom and love. When, therefore, it is said that God is omnipotent because He can do whatever He wills, it is to be remembered that His will is determined by His nature. It is certainly no limitation to perfection to say that it cannot be imperfect" (Systematic Theology I:409).

These would appear to be those things God cannot do: (1) the logically contradictory (God's inability to be illogical is prevented by his truth, righteousness, faithfulness, etc.); (2) immoral actions (again, because of his moral excellency and consistency); (3) actions appropriate to finite creatures; (4) actions denying his own nature as God; and (5) the alteration of his eternal plan.

Augustine concurs: "God is omnipotent, and yet he cannot die, he cannot lie, he cannot deny himself. How is he omnipotent then? He is omnipotent for the very reason that he cannot do these things. For if he could die, he would not be omnipotent."

But how is it that to say God cannot do something is power, and to say God can do something else is weakness? Augustine answers:

"The power of God is not diminished when it is said that he cannot die, and cannot sin; for if he could do these things, his power would be less. A being is rightly called omnipotent, from doing what he wills, and not from suffering what he does not will."

What Augustine is saying is this: to be able to do all that one wills to do is to be omnipotent. But to be unable to do what one does not will to do is not weakness, for power is the ability to do one's will, not the ability to do what is not one's will. Ronald Nash puts it yet another way:

"The power to sin is the power to fall short of perfection. Since this is the opposite of omnipotence, God's inability to sin is not inconsistent with His omnipotence; rather, it is entailed by His omnipotence" (40).

Whereas both Hodge and Augustine are correct, in yet another sense it must be said that God can, in fact, do everything. When I say God can do everything, someone will respond by pointing out that God cannot do the logically absurd or self-contradictory. For example, this objector would say: "God cannot create a round triangle!" But a "round triangle" is a non-entity, a nothing. To say that "something" is round at the same time and in the same sense in which it is triangular is to utter a contradiction. Such contradictions do not exist, indeed cannot exist, in fact cannot even be conceived as existing. It is, of course, possible to conceive of the proposition, "Here is a round triangle." But it is not possible to conceive of a "round triangle" as actually existing. If you think you can conceive of one, describe it to me. What does a round triangle look like? What are its properties? Therefore, God's supposed "inability" to create a round triangle is not a result of his being limited by uncreated conditions in the universe. Rather, it is an inability to do nothing, since that is precisely what a round triangle is: nothing! And to say that God is unable to do a "nothing" is a meaningless assertion. Consequently, God can do everything, for "round triangles" are not "things" subject to being done. Thus, Carl F. H. Henry concludes:

"That God will not alter his own nature, that he cannot deny himself, that he cannot lie and cannot sin, that he cannot be deceived, and that, moreover, he cannot die, are affirmations which historic Christian theology has always properly associated with divine omnipotence and not with divine limitation or divine impotency, because the 'possibility' as stated is a logical impossibility. Any conception of omnipotence that requires God to contradict himself reflects a conjectural and ridiculous notion of absolute power" (God, Revelation, Authority, V:319).

The objection that this puts God in subservience to the laws of logic, as if to say he is restricted by something external to himself, fails to realize that the laws of logic are simply the way God thinks. The so-called "laws of logic" are the organization of the divine mind.

Let us apply the preceding to the age-old conundrum: can God create a stone too heavy for God to lift?

"If God can create the stone too heavy for God to lift, there is something God cannot do (namely, lift the stone). And if God cannot create the stone too heavy for him to lift, there is still something he cannot do (in this case, create the stone). Either God can or cannot create such a stone. Therefore, in either case, there is something God cannot do; and in either case, we seem forced to conclude that God is not omnipotent" (Ronald Nash, 47).

But again, for this objection to hold, it must propose a "thing," a genuine "task" for God to do. But it does not. The request that "the Being who can do anything, which includes creating and lifting all stones, create a stone too heavy to be lifted by the Being who can lift any created thing" is incoherent. It proposes nothing. It is a pseudo-task. That is to say, a stone too heavy to be lifted by him who can lift all stones is contradictory. Likewise, for God to create something which is a nothing (namely, a stone too heavy to be lifted by him who can lift all stones), is contradictory. That God cannot create a stone which logically cannot be created is no more a threat to omnipotence than his alleged "inability" to create a round triangle. Thus, praise be to God who can do all things!

C. Practical Implications

1. A reason to praise - Stephen Charnock explains:

"Wisdom and power are the ground of the respect we give to men; they being both infinite in God, are the foundation of a solemn honour to be returned to him by his creatures. If a man make a curious engine, we honour him for his skill; if another vanquish a vigorous enemy, we admire him for his strength; and shall not the efficacy of God's power in creation, government, redemption, inflame us with a sense of the honour of his name and perfections! We admire those princes that have vast empires, numerous armies, that have a power to conquer their enemies, and preserve their own people in peace; how much more ground have we to pay a mighty reverence to God, who, without trouble and weariness, made and manages this vast empire of the world by a word and beck! What sensible thoughts have we of the noise of thunder, the power of the sun, the storms of the sea! These things, that have no understanding, have struck men with such a reverence that many have adored them as gods. What reverence and adoration doth this mighty power, joined with an infinite wisdom in God, demand at our hands" (Charnock, 429).

2. A warning to the rebellious - Divine omnipotence is an ominous warning to those who think they somehow can resist God's judgment. "How foolish is every sinner," writes Charnock. "Can we poor worms strut it out against infinite power?" Oh, that every obstinate sinner

"would think of this, and consider his unmeasurable boldness in thinking himself able to grapple with omnipotence! What force can any have to resist the presence of him before whom rocks melt, and the heavens at length shall be shrivelled up as a parchment by the last fire! As the light of God's face is too dazzling to be beheld by us, so the arm of his power is too mighty to be opposed by us" (437).

3. A comfort to the saved - God's omnipotence is a comfort to us when we are persecuted and oppressed (Ps. 27:1). It is a comfort and encouragement to us when we are tempted (1 Cor. 10:13). It is especially a comfort to us when we pray, for it reassures us that God is altogether able to do what we ask. See Eph. 3:20-21. Here are John Stott's comments:

"(1) He is able to do or to work, for he is neither idle nor inactive, nor dead. (2) He is able to do what we ask, for he hears and answers prayer. (3) He is able to do what we ask or think, for he reads our thoughts, and sometimes we imagine things for which we dare not and therefore do not ask. (4) He is able to do all that we ask or think, for he knows it all and can perform it all. (5) He is able to do more . . . than (hyper, 'beyond') all that we ask or think, for his expectations are higher than ours. (6) He is able to do much more, or more abundantly, than all that we ask or think, for he does not give his grace by calculated measure. (7) He is able to do very much more, far more abundantly, than all that we ask or think, for he is a God of superabundance" (139-40).