Is Anything Too Hard For God? The Doctrine of God’s Omnipotence
March 9, 1997
This is the third and final sermon on the “omni” attributes of God. I have remarked earlier that these attributes are difficult to grasp because they describe truths about God that have no analog in human experience. We are limited as to place, power and personal knowledge. God is not. Thus we say that God is omniscient (all-knowing), omnipresent (present everywhere), and omnipotent (all-powerful).
Theologians sometimes speak of God’s attributes in two categories—communicable and incommunicable. That sounds strange until you remember that we commonly speak of communicable diseases—diseases that can be spread from one person to another, such as chicken pox. Incommunicable diseases are those that cannot be spread from one person to another, such as rheumatoid arthritis or most forms of cancer.
When this distinction is applied to God, communicable attributes refer to those aspects of God’s character that we may share in some way—such as mercy, grace, anger, justice, and holiness. Incommunicable attributes are those that are unique to God and unshared in any way by his creatures. The three “omni” attributes fall into this category. I have always remembered that distinction because that was the subject of the very first question on my ordination exam almost 20 years ago—Define the communicable and incommunicable attributes of God and give an example of each. Talk about a tough way to get started. I’m not sure how I answered, but I must have done all right because they voted to ordain me.
With that as background, we turn now to the final “omni” attribute: omnipotence. The word means “all-powerful” and refers to the fact that God’s power is infinite and unlimited. He can do with power anything that power can do. Said another way, God has the power to do all he wills to do. He has both the resources and the ability to work his will in every circumstance in the universe.
If you prefer a simpler definition, just think of these three words—”God is able.” That’s what omnipotence means. He is able to do everything he needs to do or wants to do.
This doctrine is assumed everywhere in the Bible. One might easily find 500 verses that either teach omnipotence or implicitly assume it. Although the word is not found in our modern translations, the concept might be truly said to be assumed on every page of the Bible. (It is found in the King James Version of Revelation 19:6, “For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.” George Frederick Handel composed his majestic “Hallelujah Chorus” around that phrase.)
To make matters easy to understand, let’s list four categories of scripture that lead us to the doctrine of omnipotence:
A. Nothing is too hard for God.
“Ah, Sovereign LORD, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you.” Jeremiah 32:17
“For nothing is impossible with God.” Luke 1:37
B. No one can stop God’s plans.
“I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted.” Job 42:2
C. He made all things and all things serve him.
“Your laws endure to this day, for all things serve you.” Psalm 119:91
D. He does whatever he pleases.
“Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.” Psalm 115:3
Seven Stages of God’s Power
In his commentary on Ephesians (God’s New Society, pp. 139-140), John Stott shares a delightful analysis of Paul’s famous benediction at the end of Ephesians 3:
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21)
I am going to retrace his comments, with one or two slight changes. Let’s call this the Seven Stages of God’s Power.
1. He is able, for he is the TRUE AND LIVING GOD.
2. He is able to do, for he is neither inactive, idle, nor dead.
3. He is able to do what we ask, for he hears and answers prayer.
4. He is able to do what we ask or imagine, for he reads our thoughts, and sometimes we imagine things for which we do not dare to ask. But he can do those things anyway.
5. He is able to do all that we ask or imagine, for he knows it all and can perform it all.
6. He is able to do more than all we ask or imagine, because his expectations are higher than ours.
7. He is able to do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine, because his power is unlimited.
As a simple summary statement we may say that there are no limits to what God can do because there are no limits to GOD.
Among the many titles given to God in the Old Testament is one that relates directly to his omnipotence. In Genesis 17:1 God speaks to 99 year old Abraham who has been promised a child by God. By this time his body is “as good as dead” (see Romans 4:19-22). In the face of all his very understandable doubts God reassures him by calling himself El Shaddai, which means Almighty God. It was God’s way of saying, “Don’t look in the mirror, Abraham. Look at me. If I say you’re going to have a son, it’s going to happen. Age means nothing to me. I am Almighty God.”
Two objections are often raised against the doctrine of omnipotence—one frivolous and one serious. Let’s take the frivolous objection first. It is sometimes put in the form of a question: “Can God make a rock so big he can’t lift it?” Now on the face of it, that seems like a legitimate question, but it actually describes nonsense. It’s like asking if God can make a square circle. It’s a self-contradiction, a confusion of categories. If a circle is square it is no longer a circle. It’s a square. There is no such thing as a square circle or a rock so heavy an omnipotent God can’t lift it. In the words of C. S. Lewis, “We may attribute miracles to God, but not nonsense.”
(I do confess that when I hear frivolous questions like that, I want to reply that there is no such thing by definition as a rock so heavy God can’t lift it, but if there were, God could make it … and then he could lift it! There’s no such thing as a square circle, but if there were, God could make that, too!)
As a passing note, it may be useful to know that there are at least four things the Bible says that God cannot do. He cannot deny himself (2 Timothy 2:13); he cannot lie (Titus 1:2); he cannot be tempted to evil (James 1:13); and he cannot change his basic nature (Numbers 23:19). In short, God will never act contrary to his own righteous, holy, unchanging character.
“If God is All-Powerful…”
With that we pass on to the serious objection. Although it may be stated in many ways, it goes something like this: “If God is all-powerful, why is there so much suffering in the world?” Why do buses crash or tornadoes destroy homes? Why does God allow armies to kill innocent people? Why is there so much disease? Why do good people die of cancer? Why doesn’t God stop the suffering in the world?
Before we say anything else, let us acknowledge the honesty of the question. All of us have wondered about this at some time or other, usually when we or a loved one has suffered a great tragedy. In a fallen world, it’s a very fair question.
Rabbi Harold Kushner
Some years ago Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a best-selling book entitled Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. In it he wrestles with these difficult questions from a very personal point of view. He tells about his own son who died at a young age from a rare disease that caused his body to age rapidly. In the aftermath of his own loss, he came to the conclusion that he could no longer believe the traditional formulations about God’s goodness and God’s power. Finally he came to the only conclusion that satisfied him. Very simply, he concluded that God is not all powerful. At one point he openly declares that “God can’t do everything.” God didn’t want his son to die—not like that, not at such a tender age, not in such a terrible way. God didn’t want that, but he didn’t have the power to stop it either. There are forces in the universe that are beyond even God’s control.
The book is well-written and in many places offers much consolation for hurting people. But when you come to the heart of what Rabbi Kushner says, he does not believe in the omnipotence of God.
This is indeed a difficult question—especially when we are faced with a tragedy we can’t explain. Every Christian wonders “Why?” sooner or later. So we must face this question squarely: If God is all-powerful, why doesn’t he use that power to stop the suffering in the world?
What Kind of God Do We Believe In?
This is an important question because it drives us back to the character of God. What kind of God do we believe in? If Rabbi Kushner is correct, then there is no hope. For if God is not truly omnipotent, then evil is more powerful than God. In the end we must rest our faith on the goodness of God. More and more I am coming to see that this is the crucial issue of life. Is God good and does he care for us? Is God for us or against us? If you say No, you will soon lose your faith altogether. If you say Yes, then Romans 8:28 becomes more than a clichÃ©. It is the heart of the Christian answer.
If our God is good and if he cares for us, then we can believe he has all power, even in the face of sickness, suffering, and death itself. Over the 19 years I have been a pastor, I have discovered that your starting point makes all the difference. If you start with your trials and try to reason back to God, you’ll never make it. Start with lung cancer and it’s hard to find God. Start with divorce and it’s hard to find God. Start with rape and it’s hard to find God. Start with bankruptcy and it’s hard to find God. He’s there, but he’s hard to see when you start with your own difficulty.
You’ve got to start with God and reason from what you know about God back to your trials. There is an invisible line that stretches from God to us. That line is the line of God’s goodness. We rest our faith on that invisible line. That’s why 2 Corinthians 4:18 says that “we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.” As long as you start with what you see around you, you’ll have a hard time finding God in the darkest moments of life. But if you start with God, his light will illumine your darkness.
Let’s think together about three implications of God’s omnipotence.
A. No power or will can ultimately thwart his purposes.
This is what Job discovered at the end of his trials. I find it interesting that, as far as we know, Job never discovered the truth about the conversation between God and Satan that started all his troubles. If you take the book of Job at face value, it ends with God interrogating Job in a most humbling fashion. “Job, where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Were you there when I put the stars in their places? By the way, have you ever tried to make a crocodile? What about a rabbit? A simple rabbit, Job, how are you at making rabbits? That’s what I thought.” In the end Job bows in silence before a God whose ways are beyond human comprehension.
Omnipotence teaches us that no power in all the universe can stop God or impede his plans. Not evil men. Not natural catastrophe. Not reversal of fortune. Not fate or luck or chance. Not human error. Not even Satan can hinder God’s plan in the least. In the words of Martin Luther, the devil is “God’s devil” because he serves God’s purposes.
B. What God starts, he always finishes.
This is a most comforting thought because we live in a world where all our best work is necessarily unfinished. Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Hemingway, Wright, Edison, da Vinci—they all left behind unfinished paintings, unfinished manuscripts, plans for buildings that were never built. That’s the way it is in this world. In fact, of all the people who have ever lived on planet earth, only Jesus could truthfully cry out at the end of his life, “It is finished” (John 19:30). And even when we finish something, it’s never really finished. That’s why houses must be repainted and the beds made every morning.
But when God starts to do something, he stays with the job until it is completed. There is never a divine power failure, never a black out, a brown out, or a meltdown. Our eternal security rests on the truth of God’s omnipotence. We are kept by his power, not by ours (1 Peter 1:5). He is the God who is able to keep us from falling (Jude 24). As Tony Evans says, he may let you trip but he won’t let you fall. When God begins a “good work” in a person’s life, he won’t stop halfway through. He continues it until it is finished (Philippians 1:6).
This is a source of great encouragement to every struggling saint.
C. No matter how great the need, God’s resources are never depleted.
I can remember the great gas shortage of 1973 when we stood in line for hours to get a few gallons of gas. The shortage was caused by the OPEC oil embargo that cut supply to a trickle and drove prices through the roof. That never happens with God. Because he is omnipotent, his power knows no limits. He is never worn out, exhausted, or “running on fumes.” It’s no harder for him to create a universe than to create an ant. He says, “Ant, be,” and there’s an ant. He says, “Universe, be,” and there’s a universe. It’s all the same to him.
That’s why you can safely cast all your cares on him. He not only cares for you, he’s got unlimited power to carry your burdens and to solve your problems.
“Do I Know This Man?”
Let’s suppose that one day as you are walking down the street, you see a huge man coming toward you. Let’s suppose he’s really big—say 35 feet tall. Let’s say he weighs in at about 1500 pounds, all muscle. And he’s bearing down on you. As you consider the situation, only one question comes into your mind: Do I know this man? If you don’t, it’s time to start running in the opposite direction. But if you know him, you wait till he comes up to you, you smile, he smiles and greets you, and together you walk side by side down the street. If you know that man, you’re going to stay close by his side and fear nothing at all.
That’s why Psalm 23:4 says, “I will fear no evil … for you are with me.” If God is walking by your side, you have nothing to fear.
The omnipotence of God is thus a doctrine of wonderful comfort to the believer. The all-powerful God is with me. He exercises his power on my behalf. Whenever I need him, and even when I think I don’t, he is there. He never fails. All his plans for me will come to pass. I can trust him completely.
If God Can Raise the Dead
One final word and I am done. First Corinthians 1:18 tells us that the preaching of the cross is foolishness to the world, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. To the world the cross was a terrible waste, a tragedy, an enormous mistake. But to those who believe it is a demonstration of the power of God.
Think about that for a moment. In the very place where God seemed to be defeated, there we see God’s power. Is the all-powerful God good and does he care for us? Look to the bloody cross and judge for yourself.
He who had all power gave it up and became weak like us. He knows what it is to die young and be cut off in the midst of life. When we come to the cross, we come weak, confused, broken, perplexed, bruised, anxious and frustrated. And there at the cross, in that place where the world sees weakness, there we find the power of God. We come helpless to the God who is our help and weak to the God who is our strength.
If God were not omnipotent, Jesus would still be dead. But if God can raise the dead, he can do anything. Let that thought encourage you this week as you face the impossibilities of life. Just remember, you’re not alone for Almighty God walks by your side.