Theology ProperThe Pardox of Omnipotence by Benjamin B. Warfield
The Paradox Of Omnipotence
“All things are possible with God.”—Mark 10:27 (R. V.).
Oliver Wendell Holmes tells us that some ideas are so great that when they once find entrance into a human mind they permanently stretch it, and leave it for ever afterwards bigger. Surely this declaration of our Lord’s embodies one of these mind-expanding ideas. For we must observe that its astounding declaration is not a mere hyperbole of careless speech, the negligent exaggeration of a proposition which has only relative validity. It is the well-weighed and precise assertion of a great fact. It does not mean merely that God is greater than man, and may accordingly be believed to be capable of doing some things which man cannot do. It means just what its startling words declare: that “all things”—taking the term in its unlimited absoluteness—that “all things are possible with God.” Perhaps the conception is too large to find entrance into our minds at all. Perhaps none of us will fail to trim it down on this side or that in order to make it fit our several capacities of belief. But surely if it once gets into the mind, in the fullness of its meaning, it cannot fail permanently to enlarge it, to revolutionize all its points of view, and to raise it to a higher plane of both thought and feeling.
Benjamin B. Warfield, The Power of God unto Salvation (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1903), 91–94.
We may assure ourselves of the absoluteness of the meaning which our Lord intended to inject into the words by attending to the circumstances in which He announced them. The rich young ruler had come to Him, seeking eternal life; not with the simple-hearted trustfulness of a little child, nor yet with the self-despair of the publican who could only smite his breast and cry, “God be merciful to me, a sinner”; but, led by a rich man’s instinct, with his thoughts bent on purchase. “Good Teacher,” he asked, “what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” Jesus had probed his heart by setting a price on future blessedness which the young man was loath to pay: “Go, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give it to the poor; and come, follow Me.” And when, with his countenance fallen, the young man had turned sorrowfully away, the great teacher improved the occasion for the instruction of His followers. “How hardly,” he exclaimed, “shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!” Perceiving the amazement of His disciples, He repeated the declaration, and this time, if we may trust the form in which the words have come to us in some of the oldest documents, in that universalized sense which is attached to them, in any event, in the sequel: “Children, how hard it is to enter into the kingdom of God!” And then, reverting for a moment to the specific case which was the occasion of the remark, and devoting Himself to driving home the impression which it was His prime object to make on their hearts, He gave utterance to that extraordinary comparison which has confounded the minds of His followers from that time until to-day: “It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
We all know how men have labored to rid this limitless assertion of the human impossibility of salvation of its necessary meaning. Some have thought to lessen at least the extremity of the affirmation by reading “cable” instead of “camel”—under the impression, apparently, that as a “cable” has some relation to the thread that would pass through a needle’s eye, extreme difficulty might be expressed by it indeed, but not absurd impossibility. Others would have us believe that our Lord but “paltered here in a double sense,” and had in mind not a real needle’s eye, but some narrow gateway in Jerusalem, through which a camel could squeeze itself only with difficulty, and with the loss of whatever load it might essay to carry with it. All such emasculating interpretations, however, are shattered by our Lord’s own explanation of His words. For when He observed His astonished disciples—who certainly understood Him to assert an unconditioned impossibility—asking wonderingly among themselves, “Who then can be saved?” He turned to them and said—what? “It is indeed difficult, but not impossible”? “I did but jest in ambiguous words; I meant, not an actual needle’s eye, but that narrow passage you know of in Jerusalem”? No, but directly and emphatically this: “With men it is impossible.”
It was an absolute impossibility He meant to affirm. Men can no more press themselves into the kingdom of heaven than a camel can force himself through a needle’s eye. His solution of the paradox turns on no attenuation of the meaning the language is fitted to convey, but on a lofty appeal to the omnipotence of God. “With men it is impossible,” he affirms; “but,” he graciously adds, “not with God: for all things are possible with God.” This special case of the impossible He meets by referring it to the general fact of the divine almightiness. This generalized enunciation of the divine almightiness is therefore to be taken in the height of its meaning. It is not to be weakened into the mere affirmation that God is very strong and can do things which man cannot understand. It is the ringing assertion of the true omnipotence of God. It is the grand announcement that the impossible constitutes the very sphere of the divine operation.
Nor have the followers of Jesus ever feared to take Him at His word. The heathen, the unbeliever, the infidel might scoff at the preachment, which has been to the Greeks of every age alike foolishness, and to the Jews a stumbling-block. But the offensive facts of this great gospel have ever been boldly proclaimed on the faith of a God to whom nothing is impossible. The incarnation, the redemption, the resurrection, the descent of the Spirit, regeneration, the entempling of God within the heart of man—these things may be pronounced by men preposterously impossible. Our fiery Tertullians have shown no wish to minimize their preposterous impossibility. They have rather drawn out in detail all the incredibilities, all the absurdities that may be thought to be inherent in them. Could the omnipotent God indeed be inclosed in a woman’s womb? Could the infinite God really be pillowed on an earthly mother’s breast? Could the omniscient God actually lisp in the prattle of a child? Could the self-existent One really die? The All-blessed hang a bruised and wounded sufferer upon the accursed cross? Do dead men ever rise again? Can they whose flesh has been dissolved in the corruption of the grave, take on again the firmness and freshness of youthful life? Can one who Himself died on a cross, between two thieves, be indeed the Life of the world? He who could not save Himself, can He really save others? Can a splash of water on the forehead wash away sin? Absurdities, impossibilities, enough! “I believe,” cries Tertullian, “though they be impossible.” And myriads have since boldly echoed his faithful cry.
Nay, the fervid old saint would turn the tables upon the objector. “I believe,” he cries, “not merely though they be impossible: I believe because they are impossible!” For the impossible is the very sphere of God’s activity; and we most readily credit the divine interposition in matters beyond the power of man. It is human to err: God’s hand is seen when man waxes infallible. Man can slay: when dead men rise again we must needs perceive the finger of God. If water will not cleanse the soul, then it must be God who cleanses it in baptism. When those who are dead in trespasses and sins walk in newness of life we cannot choose but see displayed the power of God. Man’s despair is indeed God’s opportunity; and the things which are impossible to man are the very things which would be like God, which would be worthy of God, and which we should expect God to do. Tell me that God has left His throne to do what I am each day doing for myself, and what I am entirely competent to do for myself, and how can I believe? But tell me that God has descended from heaven to work what were impossible to His suffering creatures—then indeed I may believe the word. It is because man cannot save himself, that I may believe that God has intervened to save him. It is because man cannot cleanse his soul, that I can believe that God will interfere to cleanse it. It is because this world lies dead and corrupted in its sin, that I can believe that God will implant in it a germ of life which shall grow until it leavens the whole mass. It is because there are so many things impossible to poor puny man, that our hearts bound with joy at our Saviour’s declaration that “all things are possible with God.”
Now we must not fail to take very careful note that the matter which Jesus had in immediate mind when He made this great declaration was the salvation of the soul. “Good Teacher,” was the young ruler’s question, “what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” “Who then can be saved?” was the astounded question of the disciples, to which Jesus directly addressed His reply: “With men it is impossible, but not with God: for all things are possible with God.” These words are, therefore, a direct assertion of the impossibility to man of salvation—of the “inheriting of eternal life,” of “entering the kingdom of God,” of “being saved,” as it is variously called in the context—and the casting of man, therefore, for all his hope, on the God whose almighty power alone can do the impossible.
Speaking in theological language, here is then the sharpest possible enunciation of the doctrine of “inability.” Man is unable to do anything that he may inherit eternal life, enter the kingdom of God, obtain salvation. These things are not merely difficult to him—to be done at all only at the cost of some great effort, some supreme expenditure of energy. They are impossible to him, as impossible as it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle; and are, therefore, not to be done by him at all. An astonishing doctrine, men are accustomed to declare—rendering salvation hopeless to man. This, we must observe, is just what the disciples of Jesus said when He announced it to them. “And they were astonished exceedingly,” we read, “saying among themselves, Then who can be saved?” We need not be surprised that a teaching which was a “hard saying” to the closest companions of Jesus still arouses hesitation in the minds of men. And our answer must still be the same which Jesus addressed to His astonished disciples; not an attempt to explain away the difficulty, not a minimizing of it, but a calm reiteration of the fact. “With men it is impossible.”
Jesus does not stop here to tell us why it is impossible with men. He merely asseverates the fact. The incident which gave rise to His remarks and which determined their form may, indeed, help us a little way into the problem. Obviously the rich young man did not lack any human endowment. He had intellect to know the commandments of God; he had freedom of will to keep them; he had the moral sanity that comes from an upright life; he had the beauty of character that calls out the love of good men—“and Jesus,” we are told, “looking upon him, loved him.” Surely here is one, who, were it possible to man at all, might be expected to do what was necessary to inherit eternal life: one who, if any might, might well ask in some perplexity, “What lack I yet?” Nevertheless there was a fatal lack—not resident in his fundamental being as such by which he was a man, but in his ingrained disposition by which he was the man he was. And this prevented him from estimating at their true relative values the riches of this earth and the treasures in heaven; rendering it, as Jesus says, “impossible” for him to enter into the kingdom of God. And like him, every son of man, though possessed of treasures of knowledge and crowned with the most striking virtues, will be found to lack the power to put in their relatively proper places the things of God and the things of this world. With one it is riches, with another it is pride, with another it is ease, with another ambition, that has taken possession of the soul. With all there is real inability to rid themselves of “whatsoever they have” and turn single-heartedly to God.
If we probe deeply enough we shall find the root of this inability in sin—in a sin-distorted vision, feeling, judgment—in a word, in a sin-deformed soul, to which it is just as impossible “to be perfect” as it is for the lame leg not to limp or the misshapen pupil not to see awry. And therefore theologians are accustomed to say that the correct formula for human inability—while it certainly is not that man is unable to perform the right which he wills—just as certainly will not transmute the cannot into a mere will not, but will recognize a true inability even to will the right; a true inability rooted in a heart too corrupt to appreciate, desire or go out in an active inclination toward “the good.” What is in itself corrupt cannot but be corrupted in all its activities.
Of all this, however, our Saviour says nothing in this context. It was not the uncovering to His disciples of the source of human inability in human sin to which He was here addressing Himself. He was occupying Himself entirely with the far more pressing task of detaching their hearts from trust in themselves and casting them upon God. Therefore He contents Himself with the emphatic assertion of the bare fact of human inability, and, fixing that with His pointed illustration well in their minds, directs them at once, in strong contrast, to the plenary ability of God. His sharp asservation had wrought its work by arousing excessive astonishment in the minds of His hearers. The proof of its working came out in their wondering demand, “Then who can be saved?” No explanation follows: simply the calm reiteration of the astonishing declaration, “With men it is impossible.” But therewith a call to them to raise their eyes, therefore, above man: “With men it is impossible, but not with God: for all things are possible with God.”
These words constitute, therefore, the core of the whole conversation. To them everything else had been leading up. And it was that He might assert them with due force and fix them in the hearts of His disciples with absolute firmness that everything else had been spoken. The great lesson that the Saviour was seeking to read His disciples was not that of human inability, but that of the divine ability. Human inability is dwelt upon only that in contrast with it the divine ability might be thrown out in strong emphasis. That man cannot save himself He would have them know; but the great truth on which He would have their minds rest was not that man cannot save himself, but that God can save him. Therefore everything is so ordered—incident and subsequent conversation alike—as to fix attention first on the helplessness of man, and then, by a powerful revulsion, to throw a tremendous emphasis on the almighty salvation of God. “With men it is impossible, but not with God: for all things are possible with God.” Here, and here only, He would say, can you establish your feet, can you safely cast your hope.
It is almost impertinent to stop to admire the dialectic skill with which the desired impression is made. Our hearts cry out at once for the preciousness of the assurance that is given. We are men; and, like men, have been and are prone to think we can do “some good thing” by which we may earn eternal life. None know better than we how hard it is to be weaned from self-trust; how persistently we cherish the hope that thus, or thus, we may win for ourselves a title to bliss. But none know better than we the inevitable bitterness of the ensuing disappointment. It may be that, like the rich young ruler, we have kept the commandments from our youth up. It has not satisfied our hearts. We still are asking in unstilled longing, “What lack I yet? What good thing shall I do?” Nor is the longing ever thus satisfied. We may have piled Pelion on Ossa in our insatiable search after service. The ends of the earth may know our voice. And yet we may be pursued with the inextinguishable conviction that though we may preach to others we may yet ourselves be castaways. Though we may have bestowed all our goods to feed the poor, and though we may have even given our bodies to be burned, it profits us nothing. Still the cry rises in our soul, “What lack I yet? What good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?”
We cannot still our craving with such things as these. Despair ever treads hard on hope, and the conviction is never shaken within us that by the work of the hands shall no flesh be justified. Earth’s altars are the proof at once of the universal longing for salvation, and of the universal despair of salvation. No offering has been too precious to be immolated in expiation of sin; and none has been so precious as to take away the consciousness of sin. Else would they not have long since ceased to be offered? Least of all can we Christians, in whom the sense of sin has been quickened by the revelation of the righteously loving God in the face of Jesus Christ, ever still our hearts’ despair with any deed of our own hands. If in times of forgetfulness we have been tempted to think well of ourselves and of our claims on God, it has required but a glance at Jesus and at our hearts in contrast with Him to awake us to a deeper sense of our unworthiness and helplessness. And when the veil is thus lifted, and we see ourselves in this true light, our temptation is not that we may hope to be saved without Him, but that we can scarcely hope to be saved with Him.
Let each of us to-day look within his own heart; let each of us permit to roll before the mind’s eye the history of his soul’s struggles—its hopes, its fears, its despairs. How much of it is a history of doubt, discouragement, and despondency! We know we cannot save ourselves. Our best efforts—have they not always ended in disillusionment? Our best hopes—have they not always gone out in failure? Our best determinations—have they not always sunk in gloom? Salvation—do we not ourselves know that it is impossible with men? Is it possible even with God? Then comes, like balm to our bruised hearts, our Lord’s gracious assurance, “It is impossible with men, but not with God: for all things are possible with God.” What an assurance! We are to trust in God for the salvation of our souls not because their salvation is easy. So soon as our eyes are open to what sin is, and to what God is, and to what we are, we know it is not easy. We are to trust in God for the salvation of our souls because He is one who does the impossible.
Do we clearly see that salvation is impossible to us, that a load of guilt rests upon us which we can never expiate? Our Saviour says, not that we are mistaken, not that if we will but try hard enough we may roll off the burden. No; He does not mock our despair. He fully recognizes the impossibility which our hearts have found. He says, “It is impossible with men, but not with God: for all things are possible with God.” Thus He places the rock under our feet—the rock of the omnipotence of God. To nothing less than omnipotence can we trust to do this impossible thing. But we may well believe that there is no impossible to it. And resting on it our fretted souls may at last find peace.
It was, thus, that He might give us hope in the highest concerns that may awaken our anxieties, that our Lord enunciated in this startling manner the great fact of the divine omnipotence: “All things are possible with God.” But the enunciation itself is quite general, and we should be wrong not to take comfort from the great truth here brought home to our hearts, in lesser affairs also. It is not so set forth as to suggest that it has no further application than that which Jesus gives it in this passage. On the contrary, this application is put forward as only a single instance under the general law. It is because “all things are possible with God” that we are bidden to be of good cheer with reference to eternal life, though to win it is obviously impossible with men. The fundamental proposition which our Lord emphasizes, therefore, is the broad and general declaration of the divine omnipotence. And He but teaches us how to take our practical comfort out of it when He applies it to calm our fears as to the possibility of salvation.
In how many other concerns of life do we need to find comfort in a similar application! We men are but puny creatures. We prate about being the architects of our own fortunes, the carvers of our own destinies, the masters of circumstance, who mold the world itself to our liking. We are but as children whistling to keep our courage up. There is none of us so young, so untried as not already to have learned that all things are not possible with men. In what bitter experiences this knowledge has come to us let each one’s heart tell him to-day. Happy is he who has not been forced to learn it in wringings of soul and through blinding tears. We are set in this world in a vortex of forces. They beat, they seize upon us from every side; they whirl us this way and that, and drive us headlong often whither we would not. How often, when we would fain hew our passage through them, we stand blankly in the face of the impossible! How often, when the fight has been fought and the last possible blow has been struck, we stand aghast before obvious failure, and can but lift weak hands of prayer through the darkness up to God! Ah, it is in times like these that we may taste the sweetness of the great assurance of our Saviour: “All things are possible with God.” How great, how inestimable a privilege to have the omnipotent God for our refuge!
And let us not fancy that the divine omnipotence is not available to us for such things as these: the grief that crushes our spirit, the failure that blackens our future, the disappointment that makes us at last see that the great design shall lie unfinished, and our lives be for ever incomplete. There is abroad among us far too much of a spurious spiritualism, which would look upon the common affairs of life, as it is pleased to call them—our human joys and hopes and fears and sorrows—as beneath the notice of God; and would steel our hearts in a Stoic’s indifference to them. Our blessed Saviour’s life among men rebukes so cold-hearted an attitude. He came burdened with the great task of the salvation of a world, but found no human pain and no human sorrow too trivial to pierce His heart with sympathetic pangs, too insignificant to call out His helping hand. “He went about doing good.” No sick appealed to Him in vain, no weary came to Him without finding rest. He sighed over every human suffering; He wept with those who mourned; He bore the burdens of all. In His life He revealed the limitless breadth of the divine compassion which grieves with all the sorrows of men; and in His teaching He instructed us to flee to God for needed aid in every time of trouble.
The very hairs of our head, He told us, are all numbered, so that not one of them shall fall to the ground without His knowledge and permission. If in this world we are immersed in a perfect cyclone of forces, driving us this way and that, there is One ever by our side who shall be to us “as a hiding-place from the wind and a covert from the tempest.” We may be weak, but He is strong; and He has bidden us to put our trust in Him, and promised that we shall not be made ashamed. On the omnipotence of God alone can we depend in the midst of the trials of this life as truly as for the hope of the life to come. And what gives the Christian his stability and peace in the strifes and conflicts of the world is naught else than that he feels beneath him the everlasting arms. It is only because he knows that the God to whom all things are possible rules in heaven and on earth, that he can commit his ways to Him, and be assured that all things shall indeed work together for good to those that love Him. The Christian’s strength amid the evils of life is drawn from no lesser source than trust in the omnipotence of his God.
And all this has a very special application to the enheartening of those who have become fellow-workers with God in the salvation of the world. If disappointment and discouragement lie ever in wait for all who would fain do somewhat in the world, surely this is in a very especial sense true of those whose hearts are set upon the rescue of their fellow-men from the dominion of sin. He who would in any measure depend on an arm of flesh in this warfare is foredoomed to a very speedy despair. He may meet with little positive opposition or direct resistance. But oh, the dead weight of passive indifference which he will be sure to encounter! No wonder if the plaint of the prophet early becomes his own: “Lord, who hath believed our report, and to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed?” It will not be strange if he should experience periods of the deepest depression as he more and more realizes that he is crying into deaf ears and seeking to arouse to activity dead hearts. As the servant of the Lord God Almighty it will be strange, however, if he permits his natural sense of insufficiency to grow into a settled habit of despondency, and prosecutes his work under the shadow of an unhoping gloom. Let him, indeed, cry, “Lord, who is sufficient for these things?” Let him remember that even a Paul can do no more than plant, and even an Apollos can do no more than water. But let him remember also that the Lord both can and will give the increase: that the God whom he serves is the omnipotent God whose voice can wake even the dead, and that with Him “all things are possible.”
And when we raise our eyes from the narrow circles of our own labors, and survey the progress of the gospel in the world, what shall we say then? Two thousand years have slipped away since Jesus laid the great commission upon the hearts of His people: “Go, disciple all the nations, … teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you!” We shall not permit ourselves to forget the enthusiasm, the splendid courage, the high hopes, the steadfast labor which many of His choicest servants have brought to the fulfillment of this commandment. Every land and clime has heard their cry and has been watered with their blood. Not least in our own day have the hosts of the Lord risen against the mighty; have His children flung themselves with a holy joy into the great task for which the Church exists. Yet the work still lags. As we stand to-day and survey the heathen world, how little seems accomplished! Surely we shall long since have concluded that the task is impossible—that no man and no body of men are really competent to turn the world upside down!
But we cannot give way to despair. As we come to know more fully the greatness of the masses of heathendom, and the depths into which they have sunk, and the ingrainedness of their points of view and inherited modes of thinking, we may indeed despair of men. We may readily enough perceive that no human power can avail to reverse the currents of centuries and to eradicate the evil habits of ages. But we cannot despair of God. “With men it is impossible,” we may well say; but we must quickly add, “but not with God: for all things are possible with God.” Resting on the divine omnipotence, we may well be sure that even this desert shall blossom like a rose, and may—not only in hope, but in firm expectation—await the fulfillment of the promises. And now, once occupying this position, how full the very air is of promise! Our eyes have seen the divine omnipotence at work, here and there, in the midst of the encircling gloom. Souls have been born again; Christian lives have shed a broad beam of light into the darkness; churches have been planted; Christian virtues have flourished where erstwhile only pagan vices were visible; the streaks of the dawn are appearing; the very air is palpitant with its prediction of the coming day. Our hope is set on the God who does great things without number. And this too will He in His own good time perform—for all things are possible with God.
Nor is the matter altered when we come nearer home and contemplate the heathen masses which crowd the narrow streets of our great cities. It is one of the signs of our times that the “slums,” as we call them, have come forth to the observation of the world. And as they are brought more fully to public view the sight is not encouraging. Here the Christian worker comes to close quarters with vice and misery. Here his heart sinks within him at the manifest magnitude of the task that is set before him. Here he is gravely tempted to despair as he realizes more and more sharply the inadequacy of human methods and human powers to reach the root of the evil whose dreadful fruits daily smite him in the face. How easy it is to let the great hope die within us and seek to content ourselves with some lesser endeavor! This immense mass of corrupting humanity—we cannot lift it bodily to a higher plane. Shall we not be satisfied to attack the fringes of the evil, and be content with some less, indeed, but at least possible, accomplishment? There is, after all, we may say, only so much spiritual power in the world; why dissipate it in a Quixotic endeavor to reach the core of the evil, and not rather expend it wisely and warily in correcting at least some of its more menacing fruits? “There is, after all, only so much spiritual power in the world!” My brethren, it is an atheistic lie! The spiritual power in the world is the power of the omnipotent Jehovah. It does not waste with use; it does not recoil before the magnitude of any task. Rightly do you perceive such undertakings as these to be beyond the power of men: “with men they are impossible.” But it is not so with God: “For all things are possible with God.” Let us then face with fresh boldness this impossibility: there are no impossibilities with Him whose strength shall be in our right arm, mighty to tear down the strongholds of iniquity.
Ah, I know whither your hearts are wandering, my brethren! Yes, the blessed assurance is for this, too. Our battle with sin is not all with the sin that is without us. Christianity has come not only into the world, but into our hearts as well; and the promise of conquest over sin is not merely for the world, but also for our individual souls. Does the victory lag here also? Are we tempted from time to time to despair here too, as we are made to realize our proneness to evil, our ineradicable readiness to forget our good profession, lay down our arms, and give up the fight against temptation and transgression? Ah, who of us has not long since learned of the conquest over sin in the heart—that with men it is impossible? Let us learn also, with reference to it, too, that it is not so with God, “for all things are possible with God.” I grant you that only He who does the impossible can cleanse the heart from its ingrained corruption, and can free the life from its continual sinning. But the God whom Jesus proclaims to us, in whom we may put our trust, is a God who does the impossible. And when we are tempted to despair, and are ready to yield the battle with the cry that it is impossible, let us raise our eyes to Him to whom there is no such thing as the impossible. And, believing His word, let us go on in His strength to the assured victory.
“O Lord God of Hosts,
Who is a mighty one like unto Thee,
And thy faithfulness is round about Thee!
* * * * * * *
Thou hast a mighty arm:
Strong is Thy hand, and high is Thy right hand.
Righteousness and judgment are the foundation of Thy throne:
Mercy and truth go before Thy face.
Blessed are the people that know the joyful sound:
That walk in the light of Thy countenance, O Lord!”
Benjamin B. Warfield, The Power of God unto Salvation (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1903), 94–118.