The "Inability" of God

Robert Ream

The inability of God? How can God possibly be thought of as incapable, when we know very well that he is omnipotent? He is not only mighty, but almighty! When the angel Gabriel said to Mary, "Nothing will be impossible with God" (Luke 1:37), he was asserting a truth that Jesus would later reassert by stating that "with God all things are possible" (Matt. 19:26).

And Christ's assertion is in perfect harmony with the Lord's rhetorical question to Abraham many centuries earlier: "Is anything too difficult for the Lord?" (Gen. 18:14). The answer is evident. It is what Jeremiah proclaimed in his prayer: "Nothing is too difficult for You" (Jer. 32:17). So then, Scripture is unmistakable in affirming that nothing is impossible with God. And that makes it worse than ridiculous to speak of the inability of God.

What God Is Unable to Do

And yet, the Scriptures just as forthrightly declare that God is unable to do certain things. Hebrews 6:18 tells us in no uncertain terms that "it is impossible for God to lie" (cf. Titus 1:2). And Paul in 2 Timothy 2:13 makes bold to say, "If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself." So, in addition to his inability to lie, we learn that God cannot deny himself.

Does Scripture disagree with itself? Is Paul at variance with his Savior? Matters only seem to get worse when we avow to a skeptical hearer that God is omnipotent and therefore can do anything, only to be met with a rather supercilious smirk and this question: "Well, then, can God make a valley without two mountains?"

At first glance, such a question may be embarrassing, because it exhibits an aura of clever wisdom. It seems to show that our assertion that God is omnipotent is unfounded, because obviously there can be no valley without two mountains. But this is only until we seriously reflect on it. What soon becomes evident is that this "clever" question is but a disguised contradiction, for a valley by definition has mountains on two sides. The question "Can God make a valley without two mountains?" is really the question "Can God make a valley without making a valley?" But this is no longer a question of ability. It is now a question of sense and nonsense. It is like asking, "Can a person stand up and not stand up at the same time?" Now we are dealing with an absurdity, not with God and his ability.

God's Free Acts and His Nature

Returning to the apparent discrepancy between the two sets of passages above, it is important to observe, on the one hand, that verses like Genesis 18:14 and Luke 1:37 are declarations about how God manages what he has created. Hebrews 6:18 and 2 Timothy 2:13, on the other hand, are assertions about God's own nature and character. Whereas God's method of creating human life or bringing human beings into this world are free acts of his will and therefore can be altered, those acts or statements that stem from, and are determined by, his unchanging nature and character cannot be altered and must always reflect that character.

What proceeds from his will (e.g., the Old Testament dietary laws) may change, but what proceeds from his moral, holy nature (e.g., "You shall not steal") can never change. He who devised the way in which children are conceived is free to alter his method, as he certainly did with the conception of Christ. However, he who is holy and true can never be anything but holy and true, or he is no longer God.

The Strength of Moral Perfection

It should now become clear that in the moral realm, it is not only not a sign of weakness that God should be unable to lie, but an unmistakable sign of strength. Moreover, this strength of character is rooted solidly in the immutability of God, in his unchangeableness. God is faithful, says Paul, because he cannot change, because he cannot deny himself. He certainly cannot change for the better. He is already perfect (Matt. 5:48). And he cannot change for the worse and become less than perfect, for then he would not be God. In either case, change would be evidence of weakness and imperfection and not at all an indication of power or strength. Moral unalterability is a clear manifestation of strength, rather than weakness. Therefore, that God cannot do certain things because they are contrary to his nature is a mark of perfection, of power, and of divinity. It is not a sign of weakness or inability.

Now all this should alert us not to say glibly that divine omnipotence means that God can do anything. Rather, we ought to maintain that omnipotence means that God is able to do whatever is in keeping with his nature. Unlike men, whose words and actions are all too often unreliable and vacillating, God is not only true, true to his word, and omnicompetent, but unchangeably so. All around us we see constant change, but one thing remains unchangeable—eternally unchangeable: the Lord himself! "I, the Lord, do not change" (Mal. 3:6) is his infallible testimony.

Thus, his Word, his promise, his faithfulness are ever unalterable. He is utterly trustworthy. What he says, he can and will do. Consequently, our life in Christ—our eternal life—is sure, unshakably so, because of the blessed truth of what is now recognized as the strength of God, rather than his inability. Now we are both saved and safe because "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Heb. 13:8).

The author, an OP ruling elder, is a retired Christian school teacher. He quotes the NASB. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2002.

New Horizons: June 2002

Great Is the Lord

Also in this issue

God Is Great!

The Glory of God: The Sense of All That God Is

God's Remarkable Providence

Is Predestination the Same Thing as Fate?

Does God Give Bad Advice?

Ten Things You Always Wanted to Know about General Assembly

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