Eugene Cho

god can create a stone he can’t move…

Bigrock

Let me attempt to postulate some of my beliefs about God’s sovereignty. I have been called by some as a borderline heretic for my views.

For me, God’s sovereignty is directly linked to God’s love. We often see the cross of Jesus Christ and the sacrament of communion as beautiful expressions of God’s love and while it’s hard to argue against those powerful truths, I would contend for another possibility as the ultimate sign of God’s love.

Creation is a beautiful reflection of God’s character. And in that creation, he gives to humanity what I often interpret as the greatest expressions of His love: Freedom or Free will.

What’s even more amazing is that God gives us the gift of freedom knowing the possibility that humanity could sin and rebel. For me, this is stunning.

In giving the gift of Free Will, I believe God actually chooses to “relinquish” power. He still remains in control because power or authority isn’t stripped away from him but in His love, benevolence, and grace, God chooses to give the gift of ‘free will’ to humanity.

In essence, I believe that God is the one True God and sovereign over the entire cosmos and all that is within it. God creates man and woman and gives them this profound gift of free will & freedom and in so doing, chooses to place Himself within the framework that honors the true integrity of free will. In as much as he doesn’t violate the integrity of free will, God exercises his now “self-limited sovereignty” to work in, for, and through circumstances and situations as He pleases – for His Glory, purposes, and plans.

While I can write so much more, let me refrain and seek to answer the one question one may naturally ask:

How is God’s power and authority limited by this “self-limited sovereignty?”

My answer: In the end, God will accomplish and fulfill everything. His will … will be done.  But in the process, I believe He will honor the integrity of free will and exercise this “self limited sovereignty.”

Some time ago, one of my parishioners asked me a question that in various forms have been asked of theologians and pastors:

  • Question: “Can God do anything?
  • My answer: “Yes, God can do anything.”
  • Question: “Can God create a stone He can’t move?”
  • My answer: “Yes, God can create a stone He can’t move?”
  • Question: “Then, how can you believe God is all powerful?”
  • My answer: “Because while God can do all things and can create a stone – philosophically speaking – He can’t move, He can then create (or send) Someone that can move the stone…” In the end, God will accomplish His purposes and plans.

Have I thoroughly confused you? (Think John 3:16)

In our human finitude, how can we possibly understand the infinitude of God?  We simply marvel and worship the Loving Creator.

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This post was originally written as a contribution to Tyler‘s series on the Sovereignty of God.

Filed under: bible, christianity, Jesus, religion

32 Responses

  1. ransom33 says:

    “What’s even more amazing is that God gives us the gift of freedom knowing the possibility that humanity could sin and rebel. For me, this is stunning”.

    An statement I myself wrote too in my last post. I agree with all you say, but I have to say too that I believe anything God creates He can destroy too, so therefore there is no stone, mountain or planet which He can’t move, alter or eliminate. There are no limits to what God can do because He is all powerful. One only has to read the Old Testament to see dozens of examples where God’s power is displayed.

    Blessings,

    ransom33

  2. Bruce says:

    @ransom33

    I think this is what Eugene is saying. God can do anything but he chooses not to in regards to certain situations.

    And how about Noah’s flood and the covenant.

  3. Tim says:

    I think I believe that God can do anything that is possible to be done…

  4. Eric says:

    Well stated! Thanks for sharing!

  5. Katie says:

    Gulp.

    I hope God doesn’t strike you down.🙂

  6. daniellui says:

    hardly heretical🙂

    makes me want to read barth.

  7. jeff greer says:

    thank Eugene… nicely put… i also see how God if having ultimate power, can limit himself from his own sovereignty, that he can also, having ultimate knowledge, choose to limit himself from all knowledge, meaning that he can keep himself from knowing, for the sake of allowing things to play out ‘naturally’ (i.e. Jesus in the Garden, ) I believe this belief is called ‘open theism’… not sure how you feel about that, but would love to hear your perspective.

  8. DK says:

    How do you explain verses that people do not have free will?

    For example, “God hardened Pharoah’s heart…”

  9. Liz says:

    Eugene – Thank you for this post. I am so weary of the pat answers that Christians so often offer up in difficult situations… “God is in control” “It must have been his/her time” and such things. After many years of being immersed in such a culture I began to realize those answers don’t make sense because if they did then we would have to say that God means for people to be starving, to be homeless, to be abused, to be murdered, to be raped etc. etc. etc. I find it offensive to paint God in such a light and I find it incompatible with his nature and character. I think that kind of interpretation can cause people to reject God.

    I remember once when my son who was in college had an auto accident and the car was totaled and we were trying to figure out how we were going to replace the car a Christian said to me “maybe God doesn’t want him to have a car”. I was thinking that they probably wouldn’t say that if they were without a car or a home or food? It didn’t affect my faith in a negative manner but it could have if I had been in a different place or time in my life.

    I also want to say that I dislike the old “can God make a stone he can’t move” sort of argument because it sets up more of a debate than a conversation. I find that most people want to understand how a God who loves them would make them lose their job, or cause their infant to die, or their daughter to be raped, or their loved one to have cancer and on and on. I think you do a good job of explaining that although God is in control of everything he does not choose to control everything because out of love he has chosen to give us the gift of free will.

    The question that often comes up in conversations like this is about why God would choose to heal one person and not “my loved one” or save someone from dying but not “my loved one”? Which leads me to ask what you think about us proclaiming in a small group or bible study about how grateful we are for God doing this or that in our lives (giving us a job, healing someone, and such)? Is it insensitive to those who may be sitting in our midst who have been out of work for a long time, or haven’t been healed etc? What should we do? We want to be thankful but at the same time sensitive. Do you have any thoughts or guidance to offer?

  10. mirianne says:

    this reminds me of how responsable we are – as humans of faith (or not) – for whatever miracle or destruction.

  11. Eugene Cho says:

    @katie: i hope i don’t get struck down by lightning either. i’ll let you know if i do – or someone will.

    @DK: i don’t have the energy to respond to the good questions that were raised via the dialogue here but want to comment on the God hardened Pharoah’s heart bit. Mainly because it’s one of the most common verses used to support God stripping free will.

    in my reading, i have to remind myself not to isolate a verse outside the larger meta narrative – both of the narrative of the entire Scriptures but also of that specific context.

    That verse by itself is pretty clear…God…hardened…his…heart. But in the larger context, God sent Moses (and others) to Pharoah on numerous occasions to repent. Pharoah had the capacity to choose to repent but chose not to…

    and thus, God hardened his heart.

  12. joe says:

    Thanks Eugene. You’ve very clearly and simply (and bravely) articulated something that I’ve been wrestling with, generally believe myself, but have been afraid to express as strait forwardly as you have here.

    Perhaps one thing I could add to the conversation as I see it is that I still do believe God can reasonably in love exercise His sovereignty over our free will from time to time. One of the most compelling images of election I’ve heard (given actually by Mark Driscoll) is that of a father pulling his young daughter out of a traffic filled road she unknowingly ran into. In other words, a father with “sovereignty” over his young daughter in a moment like this should and will exercise his authority over the will of his daughter to rescue her. It would be silly to tell this father that the greatest act of love he could extend her is to let her run freely into traffic. You see this reality play out time and time again both in scriptures and real life where God seems to come out of the silence and intervene with our sometimes crazy and destructive behaviors and plans (perhaps Paul riding to Damascus is a perfect example).

    On the other hand, there are many other times in my experiences with relationships where the extension of free will truly does seem like the most loving gesture one could give. I think of a time when I was talking to my dad about my decision to go into full time ministry. As much as he hated the idea and thought I was throwing my life away (rightfully so in his worldview), he blessed me and allowed me my freedom (as best as a non-believing father could). This in my mind will always be one of the greatest acts of love extended to me by my earthly father. And so in this way, I completely agree with your general principals of God’s “self limited sovereignty” for the sake of love.

    So then, when does God exercise His sovereignty and when does He not? Well, I would imagine it being sort of like parenting a teenager. There are times that in the life a teenager that it is still in the parent’s reasonable right to exercise his or her authority over a teenager’s free will to protect them or even rescue them from danger. Yet at the same time, a good parent to help their child enter adulthood will also extend love to their teenager by beginning to bless and flame their sense of freedom and responsibility over their actions. If you run into a parent who can perfectly balance between the two, you would call him or her extremely wise. With that said, I would imagine that God in His infinite wisdom can perfectly play the role of balancing having “self limited sovereignty” and complete control over our lives and in this tension emerge as a perfectly loving God. This, I believe, is the reality that we currently live in (at least currently in my faith journey) where our sovereign God extends true free will in love, but also at times elects to rescue us out of that same love. Why God chooses one over the other in a particular situation? That I think just gets lost in the infinitely mysterious nature of God and His ability to ensure the full arrival of His Kingdom in the midst of protecting man’s freedom.

    Anyways, thanks for your post. It’s really helped me solidify my thoughts along with this response… haha, still, perhaps my thought of it being both is a cop out answer.

  13. great post Eugene. we might be on a similar wavelength because you keep writing about stuff that I have been planning to write about myself.

  14. larryboatright says:

    Good stuff… doesn’t seem heretical to me…

    I guess I believe everything you said (and yes, I’ve been to seminary too and had to write papers on this stuff just as you did and yes, like you, I still wrestle with it from time to time!) but would like to respond to the comment someone made about “God’s timing”, etc.

    God’s gift of free will means that yes, there are kids starving in Africa-there are many things “wrong” in our world. But He allows them, but isn’t caught off guard by them. He is working through others and redeeming things too… He is working good amidst the bad that the enemy seeks to destroy. Yes, God is in those things. we don’t see it but we aren’t privy to His perspective. We simply need to be available and when we see needs, meet them. In this way, His gift of free will truly becomes a gift that keeps on giving.

    I understand that Christians have all too often defined what God means or doesn’t mean amidst circumstances (like the man who said “Maybe God doesn’t want your son to have a car”). petty. stupid, even. But I do believe that saying God is in control, etc is an accurate depiction of the nature and character of God. Sometimes His ways are confusing and we may not understand them, but our response is to be obedient to what it is that He asks us to do.

    I’m tired. That all may have been a ramble and senseless, I’ll look tomorrow. Good words from all.
    Blessings!

  15. chad says:

    free will – the ultimate gift, the capacity for failure, loss, pain, emptiness, poor choices, loneliness… and all by my own hand.
    some gift. sounds like socks at Christmas

  16. Jim Chen says:

    GOD is the man!

  17. Kim says:

    Off the cuff here…to me the statement that because God has chosen to give us free-will means that He cannot do everything is not a valid argument. It is comparing apples and oranges…the two sides of that equasion are not equal, so to speak. Still pondering…

  18. Ruthie says:

    Just finished reading a book called “God of the Possible” by Gregory A Boyd. Really recommend it as it delves into this exact subject. He gives biblical examples of this “open” view of God’s sovereignty and explains how the Church has been influenced by Plato’s view of an unchanging God.

  19. elderj says:

    Sounds like heresy only if you believe that Jean Calvin was the 13th apostle

  20. aaron says:

    Man bro! I love this blog and frequent it often but I have to whole heartily disagree with this idea of open theism or open sovereignty or what ever the word is for it.

    I really don’t think scripture just throws out a “few” verses that leads one to think that God is sovereign over our wills but all of scripture seems to bend towards that… Especially Romans 9!

    But I would say God’s sovereignly choosing Israel apart from their rebellion, His choice of Jacob before he was even born and His pursuit of fulfilling His covenant in spite of how Jacob ran for the better part of his life, and many other text in the scriptures that seem to suggest that at the end of the day even our salvation is pre ordained before the foundations of the world.

    I want to believe at times that God is somewhat not in control because of the AIDS epidemic, child trafficking, etc. but at the end of the day scripture from start to finish suggests that God is using all things for His purposes and nothing or no one is going to thwart His plans and He knows the beginning from the end.

    As a pastor I take great comfort in God’s control over my life and the affairs of this world.

    The only free will I believe man has is which sin are they going to do. Yes we can walk an elderly lady across the street but even this as Martin Luther would say has “self” at the root of it.

    Free will is only present after regeneration because then you actually have two “wills” to choose from but before then we are just dead in our trespasses unable to choose life because we are well… dead.

    When I became a Christian (by grace alone) I then was able to “battle” but before then I was lost and a enemy to God who didn’t want anything to do with God.

    Anyway I know I am the “minority” in this discussion but I just thought I would throw it out there.

    Keep being courageous for the Kingdom Homie!

    your fellow pastor,
    Aaron

  21. Eugene Cho says:

    aaron et al,

    thanks for the comments and good questions.

    while holding to my beliefs, i don’t think they contradict – in the slightest big – god’s power, control, and sovereignty.

    he’s in full control. and as i shared, God’s will (trajectory)… will be done.

    @jeff greer: i’m open to open theism. in fact, i am a quasi open-theist – depending on how one defines open theism.

    we have free will and ability to determine/impact/influence the future – which is unknown to us – but i believe that is it not an uncertainty to God. while God still maintains the integrity of freedom, the past, present, and future does not surprise Him. in fact, he is a transcendent God who is not only everywhere in physical space but also in the continuum of time.

  22. aaron says:

    Pastor Eugene,
    I think we are close to the same idea/thought of God’s sovereignty… I am a little confused about where we are disagreeing🙂 anyway like I said earlier i am so encouraged by your blog and your faith and i pray you and the family endure the current trials (housing) knowing that God is in control! LOL

  23. gregwheeler says:

    @joe, wow, thanks for that comment! made me think and helped reconcile some stuff in my head.🙂

  24. Rick in Texas says:

    The premise that God cannot make a stone so large he cannot move it is not about God’s sovreignty or omnipotency. It’s a premise that violates principles of logic and reason. God will not violate the law of non-contradiction, and question itself contains a contradiction. It premises that nothing lies in the “God can’t” category and then asks if anything fits in the category. There is no reasonable answer. It’s a nonsense question, similar to asking a bachelor “Do you beat your wife?” Nonsense. Game playing.

  25. wasabicoated says:

    But Eugene, there are definitely somethings that God cannot do!?

    Like…God can’t commit suicide can He? Nor can He lie or break a promise…

    I’m not trying to fit God into the puny human categories of epistemology and logic, but I’m just saying, according to human understanding, certain things are impossible for God…there I said it!

  26. Dan S. says:

    Good point wasabicoated. God cannot contradict Himself. If he created a stone he couldn’t move or an evil he couldn’t stop, he would cease to be God.

    Sometimes, I fear that we are so desperate to create God in our image (weak, frustrated, limited etc.) that we have a negative view toward his sovereignty, the dreaded S-word.

    This is tragic because I believe God’s control over everything should be a tremendous source of comfort and hope. After all He alone is truly good, loving and just. Instead of re-defining Him as a frustrated liberal mortal like us, we should rejoice and be thankful for God’s merciful omnipotence that never fails.

  27. Hannah says:

    I agree with what you’re saying, but the idea that God cannot do something bothers me (in your heading). What I believe is that He will not move a certain stone to honor our free will, but He will always possess the power to do so.

  28. Eugene Cho says:

    But why does that bother us?

    As Christians, do we wonder why Jesus had to go to the cross as the Sacrificial Pascal Lamb?

    Why did He have to die?

  29. Dan S. says:

    I agree with Hannah on this one. To answer Eugene’s question, Jesus had to die because God cannot contradict his just and holy nature. For reconciliation to occur, someone had to suffer on our behalf.

    If God is not all-powerful, how can we be assured that He will keep His promises or that He will triumph over the power of sin/evil/death/Satan in the end.

    If God is not omnipotent, how do we know if His plans will succeed or if they can be thwarted despite His best efforts?

  30. Eugene Cho says:

    @hannah @dan s. – i agree with you both.

    i am not saying that god IS NOT powerful. he is. he can. but a better way to say it (as an earlier commenter shared) is “God won’t)…

    when folks ask me this kind of question, they approach it from a very linear perspective of absolutes. but the beauty of the Gospel – as I read it – is that while I believe in Propositional Truth, God reveals himself as Personal Truth through the Personhood of Jesus Christ.

    God is powerful but He has chosen to limit his sovereignty which is why I label this as “self limited sovereignty.” Nothing or no one can infringe on His omnipotence but Himself…

  31. Dan S. says:

    It sounds like we agree, Eugene. There is no conflict between God’s “propositional” Truth as recorded in Scripture and God’s “personal” Truth as revealed in Christ.

    Our understanding of the Gospel’s beauty is only enhanced when we know Christ both personally (through a living relationship with him) AND factually (through study and knowledge of who he is).

  32. Robert says:

    There is no reasonable answer for a question so posed. The logic of the phrasing is flawed, not the underlying concept. Not every question can be answered. How big is yellow? How many is occasionally? This is one of those questions.

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