Matthew 11:20-24 (ESV) Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. 21“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”
Among the issues in theology which can give one a brain cramp, this one ranks right at the top: How a sovereign God can use the word “if”? “If” is a word, and a concept which Jesus clearly builds the rebuke in our text upon. It shows up in many other Scripture passages as well. So how are we to think in terms of “possibility” or something which may or may not happen, in light of the revelation both of God’s omniscience and sovereignty over all things?
Typically there are two responses to this issue.
First, are those who, to varying degrees simply deny God’s sovereignty and/or knowledge and thus postulate that God either does not know all things, or that He does not have or exercise power in all things. The most recent manifestation of this form of thought is to be found in the thinking of what is called “Open-Theism” or “Openness-Theism.” In this system, God does not know everything. He grows and learns as we do. “If” exists exactly the same for Him as it does for us. He cannot know the free choices of men (for instance) before they themselves actually make those choices, and so He has to wait for them to come to pass to get certain knowledge of them just like you and me. The result is, God is stripped of some aspect of His revealed transcendence. God in a very sense can become a reacitve victim in His own universe, and become captive to the fallen wills of mankind.
The opposite approach (most often taken by orthodox Christians) is to deny any real notion of possibility or “if” at all. And when this happens, our doctrines of sovereignty and omniscience begin to border upon (if not cross over into) fatalism. The problem here is that it completely obliterates man’s moral responsibility before God. There is no category for true disobedience because everything that happens, is simply God’s will. It isn’t long before we make God the author of sin. And we do not know then how to respond to sin and evil either within us or around us. “Whatever will be, will be” becomes the overarching thought. So urgency in evangelization goes out the window – after all, if God wants to save them, He will. And things like our own struggles with indwelling sin fail to arouse any action on our part, since we cannot overcome sin until God sovereignly acts – right? Wrong.
Let’s try to bring this down to its root. In the first instance, the attempt is to make God subject to our realm of time and space. And in the second, the attempt if to make us live in God’s realm outside of time and space – where we rightly belong. Both then fail to recognize that while God Himself lives outside of time and space – eliminating any sense of “if”, of probablity or possibility for Him – we do not. We live within time and space and possibility is VERY real for us. Hence Jesus’ rebuke here. “If” then plays a major role in Jesus’ letters to the Churches in Revelation 2 & 3, because it exists for us, and He condescends to deal with us and interact with us in a very real give-and-take dynamic in our realm, even while existing in His own above it all. When WE try to blur these distinctions, or make them all one, we cannot help but err in any number of ways. “If”, doesn’t exist for God, but it does for us. Luke 13:3 (ESV) “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Jeremiah 26:3 (ESV) “It may be they will listen, and every one turn from his evil way, that I may relent of the disaster that I intend to do to them because of their evil deeds.” These are real possibilities for us. Let us live that way.