What did you teach?
What did you learn?
Did you hear the Gospel?
The Apostles’ Creed
The Creed declares faith in God the Father almighty. Does the adjective matter? Yes, a great deal. It points to the basic Bible fact that God is the Lord, the King, the omnipotent one who reigns over his world. Note the ecstatic joy with which God’s sovereign rule is proclaimed and praised in (for instance) Psalm 93, 96, 97, 99:1–5, and 103. Men treat God’s sovereignty as a theme for controversy, but in Scripture it is matter for worship.
We need to realize that you cannot rightly understand God’s ways at any point till you see them in the light of his sovereignty. That, no doubt, is why the Creed takes the first opportunity of announcing it. But, though the believing heart warms to it, it is not an easy truth for our minds to grasp, and a number of questions arise.
What God Cannot Do
First, does omnipotence mean that God can do literally anything? No, that is not the meaning. There are many things God cannot do. He cannot do what is self-contradictory or nonsensical, like squaring the circle. Nor (and this is vital) can he act out of character. God has a perfect moral character, and it is not in him to deny it. He cannot be capricious, unloving, random, unjust, or inconsistent. Just as he cannot pardon sin without atonement, because that would not be right, so he cannot fail to be “faithful and just” in forgiving sins that are confessed in faith, and in keeping all the other promises he has made, for failure here would not be right either. Moral instability, vacillation, and unreliability are marks of weakness, not of strength: but God’s omnipotence is supreme strength, making it impossible that he should lapse into imperfections of this sort.
The positive way to say this is that though there are things which a holy, rational God is incapable of intending, all that he intends to do he actually does. “Whatever the Lord pleases he does” (Psalm 135:6). As, when he planned to make the world, “he spoke and it came to be” (Psalm 33:9; see Genesis 1), so with each other thing that he wills. With men, “there’s many a slip ’twixt cup and lip,” but not with him.
Human Free Will
Second, is not God’s power to fulfill his purposes limited by the free will of man? No. Man’s power of spontaneous and responsible choice is a created thing, an aspect of the mystery of created human nature, and God’s power to fulfill his purposes is not limited by anything that he has made. Just as he works out his will through the functioning of the physical order, so he works out his will through the functioning of our psychological makeup. In no case is the integrity of the created thing affected, and it is always possible (apart from some miracles) to “explain” what has happened without reference to the rule of God. But in every case God orders the things that come to pass.
So, therefore, without violating the nature of created realities, or reducing man’s activity to robot level, God still “accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11).
But surely in that case what we think of as our free will is illusory and unreal? That depends on what you mean. It is certainly illusory to think that our wills are only free if they operate apart from God. But free will in the sense of “free agency,” as theologians have defined it—that is, the power of spontaneous, self-determining choice referred to above—is real. As a fact of creation, an aspect of our humanness, it exists, as all created things do, in God. How God sustains it and overrules it without overriding it is his secret; but that he does so is certain, both from our conscious experience of making decisions and acting “of our own free will,” and also from Scripture’s sobering insistence that we are answerable to God for our actions, just because in the moral sense they really are ours.
Evil is Mastered
Third, does not the existence of evil—moral badness, useless pain, and waste of good—suggest that God the Father is not almighty after all?—for surely he would remove these things if he could? Yes, he would, and he is doing so! Through Christ, bad folk like you and me are already being made good; new pain- and disease-free bodies are on the way, and a reconstructed cosmos with them; and Paul assures us that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18; cf. 19–23). If God moves more slowly than we wish in clearing evil out of his world and introducing the new order, that, we may be sure, is in order to widen his gracious purpose and include in it more victims of the world’s evil than otherwise he could have done. (Study 2 Peter 3:3–10, especially verse 8ff.)
The truth of God’s almightiness in creation, providence, and grace is the basis of all our trust, peace, and joy in God, and the safeguard of all our hopes of answered prayer, present protection, and final salvation. It means that neither fate, nor the stars, nor blind chance, nor man’s folly, nor Satan’s malice controls this world; instead, a morally perfect God runs it, and none can dethrone him or thwart his purposes of love. And if I am Christ’s, then—
A sovereign protector I have,
Unseen, yet forever at hand,
Unchangeably faithful to save,
Almighty to rule and command …
If thou art my Shield and my Sun
The night is no darkness to me,
And, fast as my moments roll on,
They bring me but nearer to thee.
Good news? Yes, the best ever.
Packer, J. I. (1996). Growing in Christ (30–33). Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.