Doctrine of God (Part 17)

July 15, 2015

Practical Applications of God’s Omnipotence

We’ve been talking about God’s attribute of divine omnipotence. I suggested that the doctrine that God is omnipotent doesn’t mean that you can say God can do “blank” and just combine that with any sort of words like “make a round square” or “sin” or “act contrary to his nature.” I suggested that a rough-and-ready definition of “omnipotence” would be that God can bring about any state of affairs which is logically possible for someone in that situation to bring about. That would mean that the limits to God’s power are simply those of logic. When people talk about logically impossibilities they are not really talking about things that God cannot do because those are not things at all. They are just contradictory combinations of words.

So when the Scripture says that God can do all things, I think that what it means is what this definition implies – he can bring about any state of affairs which is logically possible to bring about for someone in such a situation. [Dr. Craig then repeats the definition for someone in the class.] No one could bring about the state of affairs, for example, of God making a rock heavier than he can lift. Nobody can bring about the state of affairs of God’s sinning, of a morally perfect being committing a sin. Nobody could bring it about the different counterfactuals of creaturely freedom are true than the ones that are true – that correspond to persons other than the agent. In every case it is simply a matter of logic that circumscribe the limits of God’s power. And that makes him omnipotent.

START DISCUSSION

Student: I know you said it was a minority position, but do you know of any philosophers or theologians that disagree with that definition?

Dr. Craig: Yes. We mentioned Rene Descartes. He historically thought that God could bring it about that 2+2=5, that logical and mathematical truths depend not upon God’s nature but upon his will and that he could have willed otherwise. The Oxford Christian philosopher Brian Leftow has recently published a book called God and Necessity where he tries to ground logically necessary truths in God. He will ground the truths of logic and mathematics in God’s nature. That is the mainstream Christian position, not Descartes’ position. Leftow is not a voluntarist about the truths of logic and mathematics. Those are grounded in God’s nature. But he does defend the very radical view that other sorts of necessary truths are grounded in God’s will. He thinks that it was in God . . . This is the locution he uses – you can’t say it was possible for God to do these things because what is possible and necessary has now been determined by God so it would be impossible. It lay within God to have made cats be reptiles, or to have lizards be mammals. That is logically impossible for a cat to be a reptile. And Leftow would agree. Yes, now that God has made his decree it is logically impossible but it was within God to have decreed otherwise. There are examples of voluntarism with respect to certain kinds of necessary truths on the scene today. This is a brand new book so I don’t know if Leftow will generate any following in this regard. He admits that the mainstream Christian position on these issues is that modality or whether truth is necessary or possible is grounded in God’s nature and not in his will.[1] It is not as though God could have made it up that cats be reptiles on the mainstream position. But the question is a good one, and there are minority representatives of this view. Leftow has a different definition of omnipotence because he doesn’t want to say that God’s power is circumscribed by logic. Certain logically necessary truths depend upon God’s will and had been freely decreed by God. So he has a different definition of omnipotence that is very convoluted and very philosophically dense that I am not going to try to unpack in this class.

Student: When I heard the definition last week, I mentioned to my son that to me it sounded limiting, (he corrected me), in the sense that to me it doesn’t lend to the fact that God can do things that no one else could do, i.e. create something out of nothing, raise the dead. I just wanted to hear your answer to that.

Dr. Craig: I am not suggesting that God’s power is limited to what any other persons (creatures) could do. The point there that one was trying to get at is that God finds himself confronted with these true subjunctive conditionals like “If Peter were in C he would freely deny Christ three times” or “If Pontius Pilate were in circumstances C he would sentence Christ to the cross.” The truths of these counterfactuals, though contingent (they are not logically necessary, right?), are not within God’s power because they depend upon the free decisions of creatures. The point of the definition was that omnipotence shouldn’t require someone to have power over these counterfactuals about what other people would do. Anybody who was in this situation of being confronted with these counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (what other people would freely do) shouldn’t have to have power over them in order to qualify as omnipotence. That was the reason for the clause. But when we say “anyone” that would include God as well because he is someone who is in that situation. That was the point of universalizing it to any agent. I certainly didn’t mean to restrict God’s power to what actual agents can and cannot do. You can see that this can get very complicated the minute you scratch beneath the surface, but I think it gives us, as I say, a kind of rough-and-ready idea of what omnipotence is. The only “limits” on God’s power are purely logical, which is to say they are not really limits at all.

END DISCUSSION

Let me say something now about what practical application the attribute of divine omnipotence has to our lives. I have three that I wanted to mention.

1. The first application of our serving an omnipotent God is that you are a walking stick of dynamite because the same power that brought the universe into being out of nothing and that raised Jesus from the dead is at work in you to do God’s will. Look at 2 Corinthians 4:6-10 for Paul’s affirmation of this truth. Paul says,

For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” [the God who spoke the universe into being in Genesis 1] who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels [our frail, weak, mortal bodies], to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.

Our bodies are frail, mortal, and wasting away.[2] Yet, while death is at work in these mortal bodies there is the powerful transcendent life of God that is resonant there and is working through us. It gives us strength to endure every affliction and trial such as Paul describes.

If you look at Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church, Ephesians 1:19-21, you’ll see there that Paul prays for the Ephesian Christians that they might know

what is the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe, according to the working of his great might which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.

Just as in 2 Corinthians, Paul says it is the God who spoke the world into being whose transcendent power is in work in us. Here in Ephesians Paul says it is the immeasurable greatness of the power of him who raised Jesus from the dead that is now at work in us.

Flipping over to Ephesians 3:20-21, Paul gives this wonderful doxology:

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.

I firmly believe that we limit God through our reduced vision of what he can do in our lives. Paul says the power of God at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think. We need to ask and think for greater things from God – for him to do great works through us and not to limit him because of our limited vision of what he can do through his power within us. Even though we ourselves may be weak and impotent, Christ living in us gives us tremendous power.

Look at the interesting contrast between John 15:5 and Philippians 4:13. John 15:5 is Jesus’ word or parable about the vine and the branches. In John 15:5 Jesus says, “He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” That shows how much power we have. Jesus says, “Apart from me you can do nothing” of any spiritual significance. Yet, turning over to Philippians 4:13, Paul affirms this: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!” What a wonderful paradox that is. Apart from Christ you can do nothing, but I can do all things through him who strengthens me. So it is through that abiding power of Christ within us that we can accomplish God’s will for our lives.

The remarkable thing about this is that God’s power works through our weakness, not just simply in spite of it. Paul, as you may know, suffered from some sort of debilitating chronic disease or disability that hindered him in his travels and ministries. He speaks about this in 2 Corinthians 12:8-10,

Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me [he wanted to be healed of this physical condition[3]]; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.

Isn’t that a remarkable affirmation on Paul’s part? He rejoices in his weakness because in his weakness the power of God is made all the more manifest.

I imagine you have seen, as we have, Christians in whom this is exemplified. I think, for example, of our friends, Fred and Elaine. Fred was a vibrant Christian man, active in his church and in his apartment community that he helped to manage. Then he suffered a massive stroke that left him half-paralyzed, seriously debilitated. He had to go into a nursing home and then into an assisted living facility where he still lives today. He cannot be at home. He cannot care for himself. When you see how Fred’s life has been utterly transformed (and Elaine’s as well) I think to myself it would be so easy to lapse into deep depression, if not even despair, over having one’s life ruined in this way. Yet, in the midst of this assisted living care facility, Fred and Elaine have begun to minister to other people in that facility. Today they have a Bible study going where they are leading other people in the home through Bible study and prayer and being a bright light for Christ in the midst of that condition. I look at Fred and I think, goodness sake, there is a man in whom the power of God is so evident because I know in my strength I couldn’t do such a thing if such an accident befell me. Yet the power of God in Fred and Elaine shines through all the more brightly because of the terrible weakness that he now suffers.

I have to say even this morning, sitting in the balcony during the morning worship service, as I was waiting for the service to begin, my eye was caught by a man pushing a woman in a wheelchair down the front aisle of the sanctuary and back to the pew where they would sit. As I watched them I noticed that this elderly woman was crumpled over in the wheelchair. Her head was hanging over her chest. She was slumped down. He finally got her to the pew. She was able to stand and shift herself into the pew. Then he took the chair away. Then she sort of crumpled again into the pew as she sat in the service. As I watched her, I noticed her gray hair was beautifully quaffed. She had on her finest Sunday clothes, beautifully dressed. She had a Bible on her lap that the man picked up off of her lap and then handed back to her as she sat in the morning service. I thought to myself, think of the effort that this woman has to exert in order to come to church this morning compared to me. It would be so much easier just to stay home and watch the service on live stream. But she makes the effort to get dressed up and to come with her Bible. She wants to be in the pew in the service live. I thought it is the power of God that is manifest in this woman that I was looking at. It was really, again, just convicting to me about the way in which the Lord’s strength and power can be so manifested through human weakness.

That is the first point that I wanted to share. The power of God is at work within us, and we must not underestimate that. When we are weak, when we go through afflictions and hard times, those are the times when that power can be most manifest in our lives.[4]

2. The second practical application is that nothing can defeat God’s purposes. In Ephesians 1:11 Paul says this: “In him [Christ], according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will,” and the sentence then continues. That phrase “him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will” – all the will of God – will be done. It will be accomplished, and nothing is going to be able to defeat God’s purposes. If God wants something for you, you will get it. If he wants you to accomplish something then as you trust in him and rely upon his power you will accomplish it.

You can see this, for example, in the life of a biblical character like Joseph. God had a plan for Joseph, didn’t he? That he would save his family from famine by rising to be the right-hand man of Pharaoh when the famine hit Palestine. Even beyond that, God’s plan to have Israel be in Egypt for those four hundred years until the land of Canaan was ripe for judgment and it was time for God to bring Israel out of Egypt into Canaan. God’s purpose would be accomplished. But along the way, look at the disasters that befell Joseph. Being sold to a caravan of traders. Being betrayed by Potiphar’s wife on false charges. Thrown into prison. It seemed like nothing was going right for Joseph at times; that God’s plan wasn’t being accomplished. But all of it fit in to God’s ultimate providential purposes for Joseph despite how seemingly disastrous it may have seemed.

As we trust in him, walk with him, and rely upon his power, we can have confidence that God’s purposes for our lives will be accomplished.

Here a note of caution, I think, is necessary because I have come to understand that God’s will for your life can include failure. When I say “nothing will defeat God’s purposes” that doesn’t mean you are going to be a success in everything you undertake. In a spiritual sense you can be a success, but in a worldly sense God may lead you into failure. The will for some Christians’ lives is to suffer persecution and die in Iraq or in Syria under horrible conditions. For others it may be to lose your job or business position, or to be a failure as a pastor in a church. God’s will for your life can include failure because he has things to teach you through failure that you would never learn through success. His long-range purposes may be accomplished through bringing failure and defeat and suffering into your life. But this is all under the providential plan and guidance of an omnipotent and sovereign God.

This is the central failing, I think, of the health and wealth gospel which says that if you just believe God that God is going to give you great success (in a worldly sense) in this life. That is a false gospel that is not promised biblically and it certainly is not true when you look at Christians around the world, many of whom are suffering terribly and die in horrible conditions because of their faithfulness to Christ. But what we can trust God for is that as an omnipotent provident governor of the world his providential purposes will not be thwarted. Therefore when we go through these difficult times of affliction and failure and defeat we go through them in the confidence that God is still on the throne and that his purposes will be done.

3. Finally, third (by way of summary), God is adequate to all your needs. We serve an omnipotent God. He is adequate to all of your needs. There is no prayer too hard, no need too great, no temptation too strong, no misery too deep but that God is not adequate to meet your needs in that situation.[5] We need to remind ourselves as we go through life that we serve an omnipotent God who, through the indwelling power of Christ works within us and through us to accomplish his will.

I want to just end this application section by quoting again from Ephesians 3:20-21:

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.

START DISCUSSION

Student: Could you comment on Romans 8:28 as an aspect of that? That all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to his purpose. Even what seems to us to be irredeemably negative or bad can, in a way we can’t predict or foresee, be used for good. You mentioned Joseph. Maybe the martyrdom of Stephen or John the Baptist, or Paul’s thorn in the flesh.

Dr. Craig: Yes, Romans 8:28 says, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” Notice that that is a promise just for the elect – for those who love him and who are his elect. They can claim this promise, not non-believers who are separated from God and wandering in spiritual darkness. Their lives may go terribly wrong because they are not in God’s will. But for someone who loves God and is part of the elect, the promise is that God will work everything for good. But when you read the context (and I know you recognize this) that doesn’t necessarily mean good in this life. He goes on to say,

those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, . . . And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

Ultimately, this good will be brought about in the afterlife in heaven as we are conformed to the image of Christ and given rewards and heavenly recompense. But in this life, as I say, for Christians living in North Korea or Lebanon or Syria, things may not look very good in that sense for them in this life. But God is at work even in those circumstances to ultimately bring about good as they are conformed to the image of Christ and then ushered into eternity where they will enjoy tremendous reward for their faithfulness.

Student: In support for your first point that God works within us, there is a very succinct verse, Philippians 2:13, “for God is at work in you, both to will and to act according to his good purpose.” That word “will” - there is a little theological bombshell to a certain extent because we have free will – we know that – but it may well be that once you choose God . . . say you have a problem in your life you are trying to get rid of. I know I had to say, “God, just take the desire for that out of me. Take the will of that out of me.” In that case it not only empowers us to act but actually changes our thinking, according to this verse.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, that is nicely said. In the context, this is right after his saying to them “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for God is at work in you” as you say. The promise of Romans 12:1-2 is that as we are committed to Christ, body and soul, he does transform our minds, doesn’t he? By the transformation of your minds so that you may prove the will of God. That is a good verse. Thank you for sharing that.

Student: In my own personal spiritual walk, and being with other Christians, sometimes it is easy for us to write off somebody as being too hardened or too far away from God. We’ll say God couldn’t change that person’s life. I think if we meditate on how powerful God is and realize that God can change anybody's life around that we shouldn’t write off anybody. A person like a Richard Dawkins could, by the power of God who created the universe out of nothing, bring him to faith. I think that we shouldn’t write someone off like him.

Dr. Craig: A great biblical example would be Saul of Tarsus who was a persecutor of the early church. When he did come to faith in Christ the early Christians didn’t believe it.[6] They thought it was a subterfuge and that he was trying to get an inside position in the movement he was persecuting. You are right. Sometimes those who are most resistant and hardened may actually be closer to the Kingdom than someone who is indifferent and apathetic. That is a good reminder.

Student: I was just adding to your list Newton who wrote “Amazing Grace” would be an example (a slaver). Dr. Joad. C. S. Lewis.

Dr. Craig: Yes. That is right.

END DISCUSSION

The next section of the class is going to consider God’s moral attributes. Insofar as God is a person, we’ve looked at his intellectual attributes (his omniscience), his volitional attributes (his omnipotence), and now we are going to turn to a discussion of God’s moral attributes. We will explore the doctrine of the holiness of God and what implications that has for us.[7]



[1] 5:10

[2] 10:19

[3] 15:05

[4] 20:06

[5] 25:10

[6] 30:02

[7] Total Running Time: 31:39 (Copyright © 2015 William Lane Craig)