The Omnipotence of God

by Jerome Zanchius

POSITION 1.—God is, in the most unlimited and absolute sense of the word, Almighty. "Behold Thou hast made the heaven and the earth by Thy great power and stretched-out arm, and there is nothing too hard for Thee" (Jer. 32.17). "With God all things are possible" (Matt. 19.26). The schoolmen, very properly, distinguish the omnipotence of God into absolute and actual: by the former, God might do many things which He does not; by the latter, He actually does whatever He will. For instance, God might, by virtue of His absolute power, have made more worlds than He has. He might have eternally saved every individual of mankind, without reprobating any; on the other hand, He might, and that with the strictest justice, have condemned all men and saved none. He could, had it been His pleasure, have prevented the fall of angels and men, and thereby have hindered sin from having footing in and among His creatures. By virtue of His actual power He made the universe; executes the whole counsel of His will, both in heaven and earth; governs and influences both men and things, according to His own pleasure; fixes the bounds which they shall not pass, and, in a word, worketh all in all (Isa. 45.7; Amos 3.6; John 5.17; Acts 17.26; 1 Cor. 12.6).

POSITION 2.—Hence it follows that, since all things are subject to the Divine control, God not only works efficaciously on His elect, in order that they may will and do that which is pleasing in His sight, but does, likewise, frequently and powerfully suffer the wicked to fill up the measure of their iniquities by committing fresh sins. Nay, He sometimes, but for wise and gracious ends, permits His own people to transgress, for He has the hearts and wills of all men in His own hand, and inclines them to good or delivers them up to evil, as He sees fit, yet without being the author of sin, as Luther, Bucer, Augustine, and others have piously and Scripturally taught.

This position consists of two parts: (1) That God efficaciously operates on the hearts of His elect, and is thereby the sole Author of all the good they do. (See Eph. 3.20; Phil. 2.13; 1 Thess. 2.13; Heb. 13.21.) Augustine*[De Grat. and lib. Arb. a c. 1. usque ad c. 20.] takes up no fewer than nineteen chapters in proving that whatever good is in men, and whatever good they are enabled to do, is solely and entirely of God, who, says he, "works in holy persons all their good desires, their pious thoughts, and their righteous actions; and yet these holy persons, though thus wrought upon by God, will and do all these things freely, for it is He who rectifies their wills, which, being originally evil, are made good by Him, and which wills, after He hath set them right and made them good, He directs to good actions and to eternal life, wherein He does not force their wills, but makes them willing."

(2) That God often lets the wicked go on to more ungodliness, which He does (a) negatively by withholding that grace which alone can restrain them from evil; (b) remotely, by the providential concourse and mediation of second causes, which second causes, meeting and acting in concert with the corruption of the reprobate's unregenerate nature, produce sinful effects; (c) judicially, or in a way of judgment. "The King's heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of waters; He turneth it whithersoever He will" (Prov. 21.1); and if the King's heart, why not the hearts of all men? "Out of the mouth of the Most High proceedeth not evil and good?" (Lam. 3.38). Hence we find that the Lord bid Shimei curse David (2 Sam. 16.10); that He moved David himself to number the people (compare 1 Chron. 21.1 with 2 Sam. 24.1); stirred up Joseph's brethren to sell him into Egypt (Genesis 50.20); positively and immediately hardened the heart of Pharaoh (Exod. 4.21); delivered up David's wives to be defiled by Absalom (2 Sam. 12.11; 16.22); sent a lying spirit to deceive Ahab (1 Kings 22.20-23), and mingled a perverse spirit in the midst of Egypt, that is, made that nation perverse, obdurate and stiff-necked (Isa. 19.14). To cite other instances would be almost endless, and after these, quite unnecessary, all being summed up in that express passage, "I make peace and create evil; I the Lord do all these things" (Isa. 45.7). See farther, 1 Sam. 16.14; Psalm 105.25; Jer. 13.12,13; Acts 2.23, & 4.28; Rom. 11.8; 2 Thess. 2.11, every one of which implies more*[Vid. Augustin. de Grat. and lib. Arbitr. c. 20 and 21, and Bucer in Rom. 1 sect. 7.] than a bare permission of sin. Bucer asserts this, not only in the place referred to below, but continually throughout his works, particularly on Matt. 6. § 2, where this is the sense of his comments on that petition, "Lead us not into temptation": "It is abundantly evident, from most express testimonies of Scripture, that God, occasionally in the course of His providence, puts both elect and reprobate persons into circumstances of temptation, by which temptation are meant not only those trials that are of an outward, afflictive nature, but those also that are inward and spiritual, even such as shall cause the persons so tempted actually to turn aside from the path of duty, to commit sin, and involve both themselves and others in evil. Hence we find the elect complaining, 'O Lord, why hast Thou made us to err from Thy ways, and hardened our hearts from Thy fear?' (Isaiah 63.17). But there is also a kind of temptation, which is peculiar to the non-elect, whereby God, in a way of just judgment, makes them totally blind and obdurate, inasmuch as they are vessels of wrath fitted to destruction." (See also his exposition of Rom. 9.)

Luther*[De Serv. Arb. c. 8 and 146 and 147, usq. ad c. 165.] reasons to the very same effect; some of his words are these: "It may seem absurd to human wisdom that God should harden, blind and deliver up some men to a reprobate sense—that He should first deliver them over to evil, and then condemn them for that evil—but the believing spiritual man sees no absurdity at all in this, knowing that God would be never a whit less good, even though He should destroy all men." And again, "God worketh all things in all men, even wickedness in the wicked, for this is one branch of His own omnipotence." He very properly explains how God may be said to harden men, etc., and yet not be the author of their sin. "It is not to be understood," says he, "as if God found men good, wise and tractable, and then made them wicked, foolish and obdurate; but God, finding them depraved, judicially and powerfully excites them just as they are (unless it is His will to regenerate any of them), and, by thus exciting them, they become more blind and obstinate than they were before." (See this whole subject debated at large in the places last referred to.)

POSITION 3.—God, as the primary and efficient cause of all things, is not only the Author of those actions done by His elect as actions, but also as they are good actions, whereas, on the other hand, though He may be said to be the Author of all the actions done by the wicked, yet He is not the Author of them in a moral and compound sense as they are sinful; but physically, simply and sensu diviso as they are mere actions, abstractedly from all consideration of the goodness or badness of them.

Although there is no action whatever which is not in some sense either good or bad, yet we can easily conceive of an action, purely as such, without adverting to the quality of it, so that the distinction between an action itself and its denomination of good or evil is very obvious and natural.

In and by the elect, therefore, God not only produces works and actions through His almighty power, but likewise, through the salutary influences of His Spirit, first makes their persons good, and then their actions so too; but, in and by the reprobate, He produces actions by His power alone, which actions, as neither issuing from faith nor being wrought with a view to the Divine glory, nor done in the manner prescribed by the Divine Word, are, on these accounts, properly denominated evil. Hence we see that God does not, immediately and per se, infuse iniquity into the wicked; but, as Luther expresses it, powerfully excites them to action, and withholds those gracious influences of His Spirit, without which every action is necessarily evil. That God either directly or remotely excites bad men as well as good ones to action cannot be denied by any but Atheists, or by those who carry their notions of free-will and human independency so high as to exclude the Deity from all actual operation in and among His creatures, which is little short of Atheism. Every work performed, whether good or evil, is done in strength and by the power derived immediately from God Himself, "in whom all men live, move, and have their being" (Acts 17.28). As, at first, without Him was not anything made which was made, so, now, without Him is not anything done which is done. We have no power or faculty, whether corporal or intellectual, but what we received from God, subsists by Him, and is exercised in subserviency to His will and appointment. It is He who created, preserves, actuates and directs all things. But it by no means follows, from these premises, that God is therefore the cause of sin, for sin is nothing but auomia, illegality, want of conformity to the Divine law (1 John 3.4), a mere privation of rectitude; consequently, being itself a thing purely negative, it can have no positive or efficient cause, but only a negative and deficient one, as several learned men have observed.

Every action, as such, is undoubtedly good, it being an actual exertion of those operative powers given us by God for that very end; God therefore may be the Author of all actions (as He undoubtedly is), and yet not be the Author of evil. An action is constituted evil three ways—by proceeding from a wrong principle, by being directed to a wrong end, and by being done in a wrong manner. Now, though God, as we have said, is the efficient cause of our actions as actions, yet, if these actions commence sinful, that sinfulness arises from ourselves. Suppose a boy, who knows not how to write, has his hand guided by his master and nevertheless makes false letters, quite unlike the copy set him, though his preceptor, who guides his hand, is the cause of his writing at all, yet his own ignorance and unskillfulness are the cause of his writing so badly. Just so, God is the supreme Author of our action, abstractedly taken, but our own vitiosity is the cause of our acting amiss.

I shall conclude this article with two or three observations, and—

(1) I would infer that, if we would maintain the doctrine of God's omnipotence, we must insist upon that of His universal agency; the latter cannot be denied without giving up the former. Disprove that He is almighty, and then we will grant that His influence and operations are limited and circumscribed. Luther*[De Serv. Arb. c. 160.] says, "God would not be a respectable Being if He were not almighty, and the doer of all things that are done, or if anything could come to pass in which He had no hand." God has, at least, a physical influence on whatsoever is done by His creatures, whether trivial or important, good or evil. Judas as truly lived, moved and had his being from God as Peter, and Satan himself as much as Gabriel, for to say that sin exempts the sinner from the Divine government and jurisdiction is abridging the power of God with a witness, nay, is rasing it from its very foundations.

(2) This doctrine of God's omnipotence has a native tendency to awaken in our hearts that reverence for and fear of the Divine Majesty, which none can either receive or retain, but those who believe Him to be infinitely powerful, and to work all things after the counsel of His own will. This godly fear is a sovereign antidote against sin, for, if I really believe that God, by His unintermitted operation upon my soul, produces actions in me, which, being simply good, receive their malignancy from the corruption of my nature (and even those works that stand opposed to sins are, more or less, infected with this moral leprosy), and if I consider that, should I yield myself a slave to actual iniquity, God can, and justly might, as He has frequently done by others, give me up to a reprobate mind and punish one sin by leaving me to the commission of another, surely such reflections as these must fill me with awful apprehensions of the Divine purity, power and greatness, and make me watch continually as well against the inward risings as the outward appearance of evil.

(3) This doctrine is also useful, as it tends to inspire us with true humility of soul, and to lay us, as impotent dust and ashes, at the feet of sovereign Omnipotence. It teaches us, what too many are fatally ignorant of, the blessed lesson of self-despair, i.e., that, in a state of unregeneracy, our wisdom is folly, our strength weakness and our righteousness nothing worth; that therefore we can do nothing, either to the glory of God or the spiritual benefit of ourselves and others, but through the ability which He giveth; that in him our strength lieth, and from Him all our help must come. Supposing we believe that whatsoever is done below or above, God doeth it Himself; that all things depend both as to their being and operation upon His omnipotent arm and mighty support; that we cannot even sin, much less do any good thing, if He withdrew His aid; and that all men are in His hand, as clay in the hand of the potter—I say, did we really believe all these points and see them in the light of the Divine Spirit, how can it be reasonably supposed that we could wax insolent against this great God, behave contemptuously and superciliously in the world, or boast of anything we have or do? Luther*[De Serv. Arb. c. 161.] informs us that "he used frequently to be much offended at this doctrine, because it drove him to self-despair, but that he afterwards found that this sort of despair was salutary and profitable, and near akin to Divine grace."

(4) We are hereby taught not only humility before God, but likewise dependence on Him and resignation to Him. For if we are thoroughly persuaded that of ourselves and in our own strength we cannot either do good or evil, but that, being originally created by God, we are incessantly supported, moved, influenced and directed by Him, this way or that, as He pleases, the natural inference from hence will be that with simple faith we cast ourselves entirely as on the bosom of His providence; commit all our care and solicitude to His hand; praying, without hesitation or reserve, that His will may be done in us, on us, and by us; and that, in all His dealing with us, He may consult His own glory alone. This holy passiveness is the very apex of Christianity. All the desires of our great Redeemer Himself were reducible to these two: that the will of God might be done, and that the glory of God might be displayed. These were the highest and supreme marks at which He aimed throughout the whole course of His spotless life and inconceivably tremendous sufferings. Happy, thrice happy that man who hath thus far attained the mind that was in Christ.

(5) The comfortable belief of this doctrine has a tendency to excite and keep alive within us that fortitude which is so ornamental to, and necessary for us while we abide in this wilderness. For if I believe, with the apostle, that "all things are of God" (2 Cor. 5.18), I shall be less liable to perturbation when afflicted, and learn more easily to possess my soul in patience. This was Job's support; he was not overcome with rage and despair when he received news that the Sabeans had carried off his cattle and slain his servants, and that the remainder of both were consumed with fire; that the Chaldeans had robbed him of his camels, and that his seven sons were crushed to death by the falling of the house where they were sitting: he resolved all these misfortunes into the agency of God, His power and sovereignty, and even thanked Him for doing what He would with His own (Job 1.21). If another should slander me in word, or injure me in deed, I shall not be prone to anger, when, with David, I consider that the Lord hath bidden him (2 Sam. 16.10).

(6) This should stir us up to fervent and incessant prayer. For, does God work powerfully and benignly in the hearts of His elect? and is He the sole cause of every action they do, which is truly and spiritually good? Then it should be our prayer that He would work in us likewise both to will and to do of His good pleasure, and if, on self-examination, we find reason to trust that some good thing is wrought in us, it should put us upon thankfulness unfeigned, and cause us to glory, not in ourselves, but in Him. On the other hand, does God manifest His displeasure against the wicked by blinding, hardening and giving them up to perpetrate iniquity with greediness? which judicial acts of God are both a punishment for their sin and also eventual additions to it, we should, be the more incited to deprecate these tremendous evils, and to beseech the King of heaven that He would not thus "lead us into temptation." So much concerning the omnipotence of God.

From, The Doctrine of Absolute Predestination. Jerom Zanchius. (Free eBook)

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