The God Who Can Fail
Have you not known? Have you not heard? The everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, neither faints nor is weary. His understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the weak, and to those who have no might He increases strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall, but those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint (Isaiah 40:28-31).
For those who believe in a God who is omnipotent, it may sound very strange to hear someone teaching that God can fail. Of course, this is exactly the idea being formulated by Process theologians and some New Testament Christians. I first heard this idea being actively expressed by brethren some thirty-plus years ago. Who and where are not important to this study. In all fairness, let me say that I do not believe any of these people, and this includes the process folks, advocate their position out of animosity toward the one true God. The problem, once again, is the free will issue. It is unfortunate that something so wonderful (viz., free moral agency) can be so misused by the evil one. Even so, we have learned by now that the Devil is a master at perverting things that, in and of themselves, are wonderful and good. Actually, God’s gracious gift of free will, which is the key to understanding so much that transpires between God and His creatures, is sorely misunderstood by many people. Consequently, before proceeding further, permit me to make a needed observation or two.
If man is truly free, if only in a limited sense, then God’s power is self-limited. For instance, God cannot (unless you hold the determinist view) force someone to obey the gospel. Why? Because man has free will, and if man has free will, then God, no matter how powerful He is, cannot make (in a determinist sense) a free moral agent obey Him. If this is true (and again, only a determinist would deny it), then there are some things an all-powerful God cannot do. But don’t panic. This truth is not quite the breeding ground for error that you might think. Any self-imposed limitation that God might place upon Himself is not actually a limitation at all, ontologically speaking. For example, the Bible makes it clear that God cannot lie. Does this impinge on His omnipotence? No, God is still omnipotent — that is, He can accomplish (make happen) anything He purposes to accomplish (make happen) — even though He cannot lie.1 Further, the things God cannot do are not limitations imposed upon Him from outside of Himself. If they were, of course, then they would negate His omnipotence. God is limited only by the necessity of being He Who Is Who He Is and the free exercise of His own will; neither of which abrogate His all-powerfulness. That He has freely chosen to be limited (at least in some sense) by the free moral agency of His creatures — the very creation of which necessitated omnipotence — does not nullify His omnipotence. In fact, it serves only to enhance and exhalt it. Indeed, we join with the heavenly host in saying: “Alleluia! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigns!”2
Rice and Swinburne et al. argue that because His creatures have free will, God does not have foreknowledge of their future, contingent, free will choices.3 If this is true, they argue, then God is limited in what He can do. He can, for instance, determine to redeem fallen man, He can even implement the plan, but He cannot actually know whether the plan will be successful because of the free moral agency of those who are the objects of the plan. I know of several well-known gospel preachers who teach this. Specifically, they teach that God’s plan to redeem man through His Son, Jesus Christ, could have failed. Quite frankly, the first time I heard one of these “God can’t know what can’t be known, therefore, God could have failed” brothers teach this doctrine, I was shocked. I have now heard it articulated enough that I am not quite as shocked as I was at the beginning. Even so, I am still troubled every time I hear this erroneous argument expressed.
In essence, this doctrine teaches that Jesus Christ was not the plan, as the Bible teaches, but was, instead, a plan. If the Son would have failed in His mission to redeem fallen man, then according to these brethren, the Father would have had to implement some other strategy to salvage His original Scheme of Redemption. But what other strategy? If Jesus would have failed in His mission, then God in the flesh would have failed. As the whole undertaking was, in fact, the Father’s plan, then He, too, would have failed. For the sake of argument and clarification, let’s indulge this theological delusion for a moment so that we can discover its inescapable conclusion.
Speculating, one might say that even though the Father and Son were unable to effect man’s salvation, maybe the Holy Spirit would be able to come up with a plan to redeem man. But, by this time, the Godhead (viz., the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) would have been corrupted by sin and failure. Ergo, the triune God, the one who revealed Himself to us in the Bible, would no longer exist — He would have decayed, or disintegrated, or whatever happens to a sham god of this sort. Brethren, this sort of theological gibberish cannot be right. But unfortunately, not only do some preachers believe and preach this, they are even considered by some to be the epitome of true wisdom and orthodoxy.
The Scheme of Redemption was “predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will.”4 Does this sound like a plan that could fail? Certainly not! Nevertheless, the plan would be no insignificant undertaking. It would ultimately take the sacrifice of the heavenly Father’s only begotten Son,5 the divine Logos,6 who would sooner or later have to leave heaven, take upon Himself the mantle of flesh,7 and finally shed His blood on the cruel cross of Calvary for the remission of our sins.8 As such, this was not simply a plan — it was, instead, the plan. It was the plan that would work because God’s foreknowledge would allow Him to not just design a plan that could, under certain circumstances, work, but it would also allow Him to carry out the plan with absolutely impeccable precision.9 As the result of this perfect plan, the heavenly Father would be able to “bring many sons unto glory.”10 This plan could not, and would not, fail. How can I be so sure? Because, it was God’s plan, and He is the one who said:
Remember the former things of old, for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure,’ calling a bird of prey from the east, the man who executes My counsel, from a far country. Indeed I have spoken it; I will also bring it to pass. I have purposed it; I will also do it.11
Does this sound like a God who could fail? Again, in Proverbs 19:21, the Scriptures say: “There are many plans in a man’s heart, nevertheless the Lord’s counsel — that will stand.”
The Scheme of Redemption originated in, and will eventually culminate in, eternity:
For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.12
Hence, in the mind of God, and this is a mind that knows the future, contingent, free will choices of men and women, the Scheme of Redemption was and is a “done deal.” Now, please do not misunderstand me. I am not talking about a done deal the way the Calvinists do. Although the Greek word proorizo, translated in the KJV as “predestinate,” does mean, according to Strong’s Greek and Hebrew Lexicon, to “predetermine,” “decide beforehand,” or “foreordain,” this does not mean that God, in eternity, made a choice of those He would save independent of anything they would do of their own free wills. Rather, God ordained or decreed, in eternity (i.e., He predestined), that those who were going be saved would have to be conformed to the image of His Son.13 This means that God did not choose individuals to be saved unconditionally, as Calvinism teaches. Instead, based upon His foreknowledge of the future, contingent, free will choices of His creatures, God predestined (i.e., determined beforehand) those who would be saved conditionally (viz., the condition being conformity to His Son’s image). This is what the apostle Paul was writing about when he said: “…just as He [the Father] chose us in Him [Jesus Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will.”14 Again, does this sound like a plan that could have failed?
Acts 2:23 is the key to understanding the dichotomy that some think exists between foreknowledge and free will. It demonstrates how God works through His foreknowledge and is the perfect illustration of why God cannot fail. The passage says: “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death.” This passage does not teach that God’s foreknowledge depends upon His determinate counsel, as determinists, and some of my brethren, teach. What this passage really says is that the death of Jesus happened the way it did because of God’s predetermined plan and foreknowledge. Both of these factors were involved in Jesus’ death on the cross. On the one hand, God determined that Jesus would become the propitiation for the sins of the world. On the other hand, the details of how this would be accomplished were planned in connection with God’s foreknowledge of the historical situation and the character and free will choices of men like Judas and the other actors in this real-life drama. In Acts 4:27-28, the Bible says, “For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done.” Therefore, if man is truly a free moral agent, and the Bible says he is, then God’s foreknowledge of the future, contingent, free will choices of men and women is the only way He could have carried out His predetermined plan without destroying man’s free will.
The Bible says that the same foreknowledge that allowed God to know His plan for redeeming fallen man would not fail15 is the same foreknowledge that allowed Him to know that “many sons” would, in fact, be brought to glory.16 I believe the “glory” in this verse is equivalent to the “glory” of 2 Corinthians 3:18 and is, therefore, the eternal glory that we, if we remain faithful, will one day share with our glorified Lord in heaven.17 Now, if God does not have actual foreknowledge of the future, contingent, free will choices of men, as some are claiming, then how could He possibly have known that there would be any sons who would be brought to glory? But God actually speaks of “many sons” in Hebrews 2:10 and “many brethren” in Romans 8:29, the mentioning of which speaks conclusively regarding His actual foreknowledge of the future, contingent, free will choices of men and women. The immediate context of these two passages makes this a necessary conclusion, which is as binding as any direct statement or approved example derived from God’s Word.
If God does not have actual foreknowledge of the future, contingent, free will choices of men, that is, if He is truly a God who can fail, then He is nothing more than a sham God whose claim of superiority over the false gods of paganism is nothing but deception and fraud,18 all of which makes Him but little more than the two-faced, impotent, and very finite Wizard of Oz. “No,” a thousand times “No.” For such a God could not be YHWH, the Almighty God, the I Am that I Am, the Creator, Sustainer, and Savior of the universe! As the true God said in Isaiah 40:28-31:
Have you not known? Have you not heard? The everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, neither faints nor is weary. His understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the weak, and to those who have no might He increases strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall, but those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
The God of the Bible does not — indeed, He cannot — fail! Anyone who thinks He can is wrong. Furthermore, anyone who thinks He can, while giving lip-service to His omnipotence and omniscience is engaged in orthotalksy. Remember, idols are not just found on pagan altars, but in the hearts and minds of well-educated men and women as well.
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- See Titus 1.
- Revelation 19:6.
- It has already been demonstrated that this idea is not only contrary to the Scriptures, but is nothing more than an unproved philosophical assumption.
- Ephesians 1:11.
- See John 3:16-18.
- See John 1:14.
- See Matthew 26:28.
- See Acts 2:23.
- Hebrews 2:9-10.
- Isaiah 46:9-11.
- Romans 8:29-30.
- See Romans 8:29.
- Ephesians 1:4-5.
- See Acts 2:23.
- Hebrews 2:10.
- See Romans 8:18-23; 2 Corinthians 4:17-5:5; Philippians 3:20-21; Colossians 3:4; 1 Peter 5:1-4,10.
- See Isaiah 41:21-29.