Lecture 2: Attributes of God
Login to download lecture and curriculum
In this lesson, Dr. Ware discusses the Doctrine of God proper: why we need to know God, his incommunicable attributes, and those attributes that in some sense are communicable to humans.
A. Need to Know God!
B. Classification of Attributes
1. Incommunicable vs. Communicable
2. Transcendent vs. Immanent
C. Need for Methodological Balance in the Doctrine of God
II. Incommunicable Attributes
A. Self-Existence (Aseity)
1. Isaiah 40:12ff
2. Acts 17
1. In His Being
2. In His Promises
3. Responsive in Relationship
III. Communicable Attributes
A. Intellectual Attributes
B. Moral Attributes
C. Attributes of God’s Rulership
Course: Understanding Theology
Lecture: Attributes of God
A. Need to Know God!
A. W. Tozer wrote in a little book of his on the attributes of God entitled, The Knowledge of the Holy, his very first line of the first chapter reads, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” That is an amazing statement. I remember when I first read this as a freshman in college how deeply moved I was by it and how much I benefited from this book that I read back then. I have never been the same since; this book had such an impact on my life. I have ever since believed, even more strongly over the years, that what A. W. Tozer says here is true, that what comes into our minds, that is, our minds, our hearts, our souls when we think about God is the most important thing about us because it shapes everything else.
God has made us so that we instinctively, naturally become like whatever it is we esteem most highly. Whatever it is we value, cherish, prize, love, adore; we gradually, instinctively move in the direction of that. And of course, if this is a false god, an idol, then we become like that idol. We take on those characteristics and qualities. How important it is for Christian people to know God as He is, and in knowing Him to find Him, and Him alone, as worthy of their highest esteem and so become like him. Really, one of the greatest and most important truths I have ever learned in my life, I learned from A. W. Tozer, that we become like what we love.
May we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and then become like Him increasingly. The greatest need in the church, I believe, in every generation and certainly in our generation now, is the need to know God as He is. May God help us to accept his revelation and discard notions that are misconceptions of God that are prevalent in our culture and accept God for who He has told us He is and to love Him as He is.
B. Classification of Attributes
As we take a look at this study of God, we will be using a particular classification of attributes that is a bit cumbersome, perhaps, to some, but I find it very helpful, incommunicable and communicable attributes. These are old-fashioned terms that simply mean: 1) incommunicable; these are attributes that are true of God alone. They are not true of any finite part of His created order. In that since, they are incommunicable. They are not communicated. That does not mean he does not tell us about them, but they are not carried over to any part of the finite creation.
2) As opposed to that are communicable attributes. Those are attributes that are shared at least in some finite measure with a portion of the created order. There, of course, we will look at attributes about God’s goodness and His holiness. Of course, we are called to be good, we are called to be holy as He is holy, and these are communicable attributes; attributes in which we participate in some finite measure.
Now there are other classifications of attributes that might be used as well. For example, a very useful one is a distinction between transcendent and immanent attributes. Transcendent, that is ways in which God is other than us or separate from us; ways in which God is by Himself, as it were, God over all and exalted and holy and separate and [there are] ways in which God is immanent, that is, with us, close at hand, caring, comforting, providing, a God who is for his people. Listen to Isaiah 57: 15, “For thus says the high and the exalted One Who lives forever, whose name is Holy, ‘I dwell on a high and holy place.’” You see there the emphasis on transcendence? He is beyond us, above us, high and holy. But listen how the verse ends, “‘[I dwell] also with the contrite and lowly of spirit in order to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.’” God is immanent, He is with us, He is for us, He is caring and compassionate and provider and protector for His people. One could use, I suppose, this other category, transcendence and immanence.
There are other possibilities. For example, some have argued for attributes of God’s greatness and His goodness or His absolute and relative attributes. Some have used the category of natural and moral. There are various ways that one could classify these. I think for analysis purposes, in thinking through the attributes of God, I find the distinction between incommunicable and communicable most helpful.
C. Need for Methodological Balance in the Doctrine of God
And by this I simply mean that there is a tendency in the history of the doctrine of God to exalt one side of attributes and to diminish the other. Let’s take transcendence and immanence here to think this through. If God is exalted and other and holy and separate and perfect, there are ways in which the church can think about those things of God and that make Him really untouchable and not really with us, not really related to the world in which He has created. I think that the history of the doctrine of God has shown that there has been excess in this direction.
For example, the doctrine of immutability that we will talk about in a moment here, was understood by many in the early church, really most in the early church and all the way through, as God’s absolute changelessness, unaffected by anything whatsoever and not changing in any respect at all. It is hard to see that when you read the Bible. When God encounters sin, it looks like He has a change of heart and He becomes very angry and yet when people repent, say the people of Nineveh in the book of Jonah, well then God shows compassion to those people. Aren’t these changes that take place in God relational changes, not changes of the act of His attributes, not changes of His being but relational changes?
And so it looks to me like we need to be careful not to speak about God in ways that really, on one side, exalt Him but on the other side really diminish or negate other truths that are stated in Scripture about Him. In our contemporary era the mistake has been made more in the other direction to exalt the imminence of God, His presence with us, His closeness, His nearness. And so we negate or diminish His transcendence, His holiness. Just think how often you hear of the love of God these days in our culture and how seldom you hear of God’s holiness, His justice, His righteousness, His wrath against sin. This is an imbalance. My plea for you is to think about God as God has revealed Himself, who is both transcendent and immanent, both incommunicable attributes, things true of Him Himself and other attributes true also in the created order that He has made and to hold these in balance together.
II. Incommunicable Attributes
These are attributes that are true of God alone and not true of the created order.
A. Self-Existence (Aseity)
And by this, we simply affirm that God contains, as it were, His own existence within Himself. It is the very nature of God to exist. It is his essence to exist. These are all different ways of saying the same thing and that is that God by His own being is a being who exists. He is not brought into existence nor can He fail to exist; it is His very nature to exist.
This is implied, I believe, in Genesis 1:1 where we read, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Obviously, the beginning spoken of there is not the beginning of God; it is the beginning of the created order. He precedes the beginning. God is the One who always is. I think other passages that speak of God who is, for example, the term Yahweh, I Am, implies the ever-existing reality of God, Exodus 3:14, for example, where God gives his name to Moses, Yahweh, “I Am that I Am.” I believe, among other things, implies the is-ness of God, that is, God always is. And other passages we will look at for his self-sufficiency imply his existence that endures forever.
This refers to the fact that God possesses within Himself all that is required for His being God. To put it differently, God is in and of himself sufficient for all things. For God to be God he does not need to go outside of Himself to get something that he lacks because, in fact, God does not lack anything. He possesses every quality in infinite measure within His own being.
And when you think of it, it is just a remarkable thing isn’t it, to realize that all goodness resides in God, all holiness resides in God, all love, any quality you can think of, beauty, strength, knowledge resides in Him. You think, well what about us? Don’t we have some knowledge, some goodness and love? Yes, but where did this come from? All that we have is derivative. What God has is intrinsic. It is His. We simply share in the fullness of what is God’s intrinsically as He graciously grants to us some measure of the fullness that is His in infinite measure.
Let me give you some passages that speak of the self-sufficiency of God. Isaiah 40:12ff would be a good place to look at. In verse 12 God says with a rhetorical question, rhetorical meaning the answer is so obvious you don’t need to give the answer, “Who do you know who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand or marked off the heavens by the span or calculated the dust of the earth by the measure or weighed the mountains in a balance or the hills in a pair of scales?” Wow! Do you know anybody that big who can measure the waters, the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea in the hollow of his hand? Imagine someone that big, that immense.
Or who can mark off the heavens, the various constellations and the heavenly bodies by the span, which is the distance between your thumb and little finger. Do you know anybody that big who can do this? Who can calculate the dust of the earth by the measure; weigh the mountains in the balance and the hills in a pair of scales? Who do you know who could hold a pair of scales and weigh on them the mountain ranges of the world? Obviously, the point of this is God is immense and powerful. Now look at verses 13 and 14.
The subject shifts now to His wisdom and knowledge, “Who has directed the Spirit of the Lord or as his counselor has informed him, with whom did he consult, who gave him understanding, who taught him the path of justice, who taught him knowledge and informed him of the way of understanding?” Of course the answer to that, or those series of rhetorical questions, is no one has. No one has instructed God. No one has informed Him. No one has counseled Him. Look at the immensity and the power and the wisdom and the knowledge of God and then, verse 15, look at the nations. “Behold, the nations,” in comparison to the greatness of God, “are like a drop from a bucket, and are regarded as a speck of dust on the scales; behold, He lifts up the islands like fine dust. Even Lebanon is not enough to burn, nor its beasts enough for a burnt offering. All the nations,” (notice by the way verse 17 and verse 15; it is the totality of humanity taken together; all that we have and all that we can muster taken together), “are as nothing before Him, they are regarded by Him as less than nothing and meaningless.”
Now, please be careful, he does not mean that the nations do not mean anything to God, that He does not care about them. No, that is not the point. Read the rest of the chapter. He cares much that His people acknowledge His greatness so that He can help them, so that He can come and strengthen them when they are weak, to help them mount up with wings like eagles so that they run and are not weary. God cares very much for these weak feeble people, that is you and me; but his point is, compared to My greatness, compared to My knowledge, compared to My wisdom, compared to My immensity and power the nations and all that they have to offer amount to nothing. God has everything and lacks nothing within His own being.
One other passage, turn to Acts 17, Paul’s sermon on the Areopagus in Athens where he had been preaching in the marketplace, and they asked him if he would come and speak to them about this God they have never heard of. The irony of this, of course, was that the people in Athens prided themselves about knowing about every known deity, but the one god they did not know about was the true and living God.
Let’s pick up in verse 23 Paul says to these philosophers at the Areopagus, “For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an alter with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore, what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.” Here is Theology 101 for Paul, bedrock, absolutely essential for understanding a Christian world-view, understanding truth about who we are and who God is.
Verse 24, “The God who made the world and all things in it, since he is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything,” Do you see self-sufficiency there? “Since He Himself gives to all life and breath and all things.” Now, look with me real briefly, the God who made the world is this self-sufficient God. Do you see the connection between God as creator and self-sufficiency? Clearly, because God created all, everything that exists came out from Him. Nothing that exists can contribute something that He lacks.
All of creation is derivative upon God, nothing in creation could add to the fullness of God because it is from God and He rules over heaven and earth, therefore, nothing that we give Him have we ever withheld from Him; it is all His already. Anything that we might have is God’s. He has rights of rulership over it, everything. He ends verse 25 by saying, “He is the one who gives to all people life and breath and all things.” Look at the two alls there, “He gives to all people, all things.” He possesses all things in order to give all things. He alone is self-sufficient. As A. W. Tozer says in The Knowledge of the Holy, “Need is a creature word not appropriate to the Creator.” God has no intrinsic needs but rather possesses within himself every quality in infinite measure.
This simply means that God has no boundaries on the qualities that are His or His very being and existence. There are no boundaries, no limitations, no restrictions on the qualities that are His or in His very being and existence. God never runs out of power, for example.
I remember as a boy, I grew up in a Christian home and of course was taught Christian truth growing up in this home, and I remember wondering when I read Genesis 1 and 2 that God rested on the seventh day thinking, “Well, he must have been awfully tired after doing that.” No, I learned later that that was not the case. He didn’t rest the seventh day because he was out of strength. He never runs out of strength. He could have continued creating other universes had He chosen to do so. God is never limited in any respect in His own being, attributes, or existence. Job 11:7-9 and Psalm 147:5 are indicators of this truth.
Two ways in which the church has understood God as not limited is in regard to space and time. And here, omnipresence refers to God not being limited by space. Unlike you and me that occupy one space at one time, God occupies all spaces all of the time. He is everywhere present, hence the term omnipresent.
Think, for example, of Psalm 139:7-10 where the Psalmist extols wherever he goes in all of creation, behold, God is there with him. Listen to these words, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to the heavens, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the dawn, if I dwell in the remotest part of the earth, even there Your hand will lead me, Your right hand will lay hold of me.” Other passages, Isaiah 66:1-2, Jeremiah 23:23-24 speak of the omnipresence of God.
Just as God is not limited in His existence by space; likewise, he is not limited in His existence by time. So God is omnitemporal, we might say, as well as omnipresent. He exists in all of time as well as all of space. In both cases, in regard to space and time, I think it is important for us to say that before God created the heavens and the earth there was no space or time. He brought both into existence. When He created the heavens and the earth He created the realm in which He would then live with us. He chose to abide with His people in the realm He had created. He enters our space and time, but God in Himself, apart from creation, is neither spatial nor temporal.
I think theologians through history have been correct to talk about God as timeless in His own nature. Obviously, we cannot comprehend what this means because we can’t think of how existence can take place apart from time. It is just impossible for us to imagine this, but we believe that God created space and time and yet God predates, as it were, both space and time. God in Himself is timeless and spaceless, but God in relation to creation is both everywhere present, omnipresent, and every time present, omnitemporal, with all of us.
This refers to the fact that God cannot change in regard to His very attributes or being or in the ethical commitments that are an extension of His moral nature. God cannot change in his attributes or very being, that is who God is as God, or in His ethical commitments that are an extension of His moral nature.
For example, God’s attributes of holiness, love, righteousness, goodness, His attributes of eternity and omnipresence, His attributes of knowledge, omniscience, and wisdom, omnisapience, these are always true of Him and cannot be other than they are. There is a sense in which these have a primary kind of ultimate truth to them.
Secondly, his immutability refers also, though, to ethical commitments that God has made. Now these are not as ultimate as God’s nature because the reality is that God did not have to make the promises, the ethical commitments that He made. He did not have to create a world. He did not have to promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 that, “Through you Abraham all the nations of the world will be blessed.” He made that promise freely; he did not have to do it. But once God has made it then His promise is irrevocable, it is immutable, so there is a secondary sense in which the promises of God are immutable. I call the first kind of immutability, the immutability of His attributes and very being, His ontological immutability. Ontos (Gk.) refers to being. Who God is, is immutable. I call the second kind of immutability, the immutability of His promise or oath, ethical immutability.
I think it is also important to affirm that God changes in some respects, that is, He changes in relationship with His people. He changes from wrath; we are “children of wrath even as the rest,” (Eph. 2:3) to acceptance and peace when we put faith in Christ. God’s relationship toward us is appropriate to the moral disposition we have toward Him and that can change as we change. I think you see that witnessed in Scripture in various ways in which God encounters people and changes in regard to His disposition toward them. Key passages for immutability are the following; we will not take time to look at them but please read them on your own: Psalm 102:25-27, Malachi 3:6, and James 1:17.
III. Communicable Attributes
These I have organized under three categories of attributes, intellectual, moral, and rulership attributes. Please understand that these categories are more like a screen door than they are a brick wall, that is, they let things pass; they are not airtight categories. Certain intellectual attributes obviously have implications for morality and for rulership, and the same could be said for the others. All that these categories do is give the prevailing sense of these attributes not the exclusive sense of them. And again, these are communicable attributes, that is, they are attributes that are true in some finite measure of us, his finite creatures, as well.
A. Intellectual Attributes
Here there are two we will look at, omniscience and omnisapience.
1. Omniscience. This is the attribute that affirms of God that He knows all that is knowable. God knows all that is knowable. This has been understood through the history of the church to mean that God knows everything actual and possible and He knows everything past, present and future. Actual and possible, God not only knows what the world is and will be like but He also knows what could be the case, what might have been if something were to have happened differently than did happen.
For example, do you remember in Matthew 11, I mentioned this in the first lecture to you where Jesus says to Chorazin and Bethsaida, “Woe to you! If the miracles performed in you had been performed in Sodom and Gomorrah they would have repented in dust cloth and ashes.” Here Jesus is claiming what would have been the case. He knows what possibly might have been if this had been different.
A similar passage is in 1 Corinthians 2:7-8 where Paul says concerning the rulers of this world who crucify Christ that if they had known this particular truth about Him, this “hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages, none of the rulers of this age has understood them; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory.” Here we have another example where God knows what would have been or what possibly could have been as opposed to what actually was the case. Some people refer to this category specifically as middle knowledge and a lot more can be said on that that we don’t have time to here, but it is a very interesting and fascinating category of God’s knowledge. God knows everything that is possible, middle knowledge, and He also knows everything actual. And the actual He knows in the entirety of history. He knows everything past, everything past; everything present, absolutely everything present that is happening; and everything future including the future free actions of human beings.
Of course, this is a point at which there is a tremendous dispute taking place now with a movement called open theism that denies of God that He can know what free creatures will choose at any point in the future, claiming that since they have not chosen it yet there is nothing to be known. The fact is they will choose something and theologians have affirmed from Scripture that God knows what that will be.
For example, when Jesus says to Peter, “Before the cock crows you will deny me three times,” (John 13:38). I just do not think that this was a good guess in terms of what Peter was going to do. No, Jesus announced what Peter would do, that is, this is what you will do Peter, before the cock crows you will deny me three times. And just previously to that in John 13 Jesus had just said to them that, “I tell you things now before they come to pass so when they do you may know that I am He.” The point of it, of course, is that this proves my deity that I am able to know in advance, which, of course, is the main point in Isaiah 40 to 48 where God states over and over again, “My claim to deity rests upon my ability to announce ahead of time what the future will be,” so that when those things happen you can declare He is God. Yes, the Bible does teach that God knows everything exhaustively and definitely in regard to the future.
2. Omnisapience. This is the wisdom of God, His being all-wise, not only all knowing but here all wise. The wisdom of God is the application of God’s infinite knowledge in a manner that accomplishes his morally perfect ends by the best means possible. Our wisdom often suffers for lack of knowledge. We don’t know everything we need to know in order to make the right decisions.
We plan out a route to take to drive somewhere and sure enough there is a traffic jam. “Well, if I had just known that there would be this accident here I would have gone this way instead.” God’s wisdom never suffers for lack of knowledge. His knowledge is perfect and hence His wisdom is built upon that perfect knowledge, infinite knowledge.
But also our wisdom fails because we are sinners. We have morally compromised dispositions. We plan things and do things for self-serving purposes and not what is truly right, but all of God’s plans are based upon his moral nature so that he plans morally perfect ends and the very best ways to accomplish those ends. God’s wisdom, then, is pure and without blame and perfect in every sense. Some passages that support the wisdom of God, Psalm 104:24, Proverbs 3:19, 1 Corinthians 1:18-26 (which is one of my favorite passages because here you see the cross spoken of as the Wisdom of God and the Power of God together), Daniel 2:20, and Jeremiah 10:12, are all passages that extol the wisdom of God.
In some cases, the power of God is linked with them too. It is so important to realize that the true and living God is both all-wise and all-powerful, an attribute we will come to in a few moments. If He were all-wise but not all-powerful we would pity Him because He would have the best ideas but couldn’t pull it off. If He were all-powerful but not all-wise, it would be a time to be terrified before Him, for he was not governed by what is morally pure. But God is, in fact, all-wise and all-powerful.
B. Moral Attributes
Let me suggest to you that there are two broad moral attributes that I think the best names for them would be the goodness of God, for the broadest of this kind, and the holiness of God of the broadest of the other kind. Now goodness and holiness are not contradictory to one another.
In fact, as one grows in the Christian life one realizes that the holy life is the happy life. The godly life is the good life. This is one of the things that God wants us to see is that goodness and holiness go together. It is good to be holy. Holiness promotes goodness. These are not by any means contradictory, but it does say that the goodness of God has a special emphasis on His relationship both within the Trinity and toward others in which there is kindness shown. Holiness is manifest in an insistence upon moral standards being upheld.
Of course, again, you can see how these go together because the kindest thing you can do for another person is insist that moral standards be upheld, that is, it is good for them to live holy. In God, these things are combined, and they ought to be combined in us.
1. Goodness. Goodness is defined as the intrinsic disposition of God by which He shows kindness to others. Think, for example, of Romans 2:4, which speaks of the kindness of God that leads us to repentance. Think of another passage, Psalm 119:68, says that, “God is good and he expresses good to others”. It is God’s very intrinsic nature to be good. Nobody makes Him good, nobody forces His hand, it is his very nature to be good. Under this I have three attributes: love, grace, and mercy, which are all expressions of his goodness.
a. Love. Love is God’s unconditional and selfless commitment to seek the wellbeing of his creatures. If you look in the Old Testament the main Hebrew word used for the love of God is the word, hesed. This word really means the loyal love of God or a steadfast love. It has covenant connotations. It has the notion of God’s covenant faithfulness being attached to these people so that He will bring about what is best for them.
Think, for example, of Psalm 106:1, “The love of the Lord is everlasting.” That is the hesed of the Lord. Lamentations 3:22, “God’s, hesed, his loyal love never ceases.” This is a beautiful idea that expresses the covenant commitment of God’s love, His desire for the wellbeing of his own.
And then, in the New Testament the main word for God’s love is agape, which many of you are probably familiar with. Agape is an in-spite-of love rather than a because-of love. God loves us not because we are smart or cute or strong or rich. He loves us in spite of the fact that we have nothing about us that commends us to Him. Think of Romans 5:8, “God demonstrates his love, agape, toward us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us.” We deserved his condemnation but look what he gave us instead; his Son to die for us. That is love, unconditional love. 1 John 4:9-10, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
Clearly this is a love that loves even though we have rejected God, even though we have turned from His Word, in spite of the fact that we are before Him unlovely, God shows his love to us. Let me say one more thing here about the love of God and that is that there is a special kind of love that God has for His own that is clearly indicated in Scripture.
A very good book, on this is a book by Don Carson entitled The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God where he actually distinguishes five different senses of God’s love. Listen to this one, the love of God for his own, in Isaiah 43. He says in verse 2 to his people, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, nor will the flame burn you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; I have given Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in your place. Since you are precious in My sight, since you are honored and I love you.” It is very clear from this passage that God has a special love for His own people that will lead Him even to sacrifice others for the sake of these whom He loves.
It is very similar to Romans 9:13, “Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated.” Yes, while there is a general sense of God’s love for all the world, John 3:16, there also is a very specific sense of God’s saving love, redeeming love, toward His own people. Romans 9:13 would be an example of that.
b. Grace. Grace and mercy are very similar in what they communicate but there is a nuance of difference that is important to notice. Grace is the unmerited favor of God, which is given to those totally undeserving of that favor or good pleasure. It is important to realize that grace is the expression of God’s favor to those who don’t deserve it, those who do not merit it, they have not earned it. That is why so often in Scripture grace and gift are linked together in the same passage. “By grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one should boast,” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
We see that grace is given to those who do not deserve, have not earned, do not merit what God gives them. And for any of us to think that God’s saving favor is given because we deserve it or we worked for it absolutely undermines the nature of God’s saving favor being shown in grace. It is given to those who do not deserve it. Key passages are Ephesians 2:8-9, Romans 3:24, Romans 5:15 and Romans 11:6.
c. Mercy. Mercy is the compassion or pity of God expressed to those who are in dire need, those who are downcast, ruined, and dismayed. Mercy is shown to people who are in a desperate situation. They have ruined their lives and they have no hope and are without any means of bringing restoration to themselves.
Of course, sin is the reason, in regard to grace, that we do not merit the favor of God and sin is the reason, in regard to mercy, that we stand in this dire condition, ruined, desperate people. Because of sin we are unable to help ourselves. God in His mercy comes and grabs us “even when we were dead in our trespasses and sins,” we read in Ephesians 2. “God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions,” (Ephesians 2:4-5) has brought us this saving mercy. In Titus 3:5, “He saved us … according to his mercy.”
Of course, he saved us out of our hopelessness and helplessness. Take this to heart that God’s saving work toward us is a saving work that comes to those who are both unworthy, who do not deserve what God brings them, they cannot work for it or earn it and they are hopeless, helpless, destitute, desperate people. This is the mercy and the grace of God shown to those sinners by His kindness in bringing them salvation in Christ.
2. Holiness. To say that God is holy is to say that He is eternally separate and distinct from all impurity. The term holiness in Hebrew, qodesh, has the notion of separation, of uniqueness, of one-of-kindness as it were. It is helpful to realize that this is the basic meaning of the word holy because sometimes we come across the word holy in context in the Bible that are a little bit difficult to understand.
For example, in Exodus 31:15, the Sabbath day is described as holy. You think how can a day of the week be Holy? Saturday or Sunday? It is just one day like another day; the sun rises, the sun sets, it’s a day. It is holy because it is one-of-a-kind, it is different, it is set apart. Six days of the week you work but the seventh day you rest. It is a one-of-a-kind day, hence, it is holy.
In Leviticus 11 the people are told that they cannot wear certain kinds of clothes or eat certain kinds of foods because they are holy. This has nothing to do with those foods or those clothes being immoral. It is simply that God is establishing this people as a different people; separate, distinct from all others. Holiness contains the notion of separation and distinctness but is also contains the notion, especially in relation to the nature of God, of His being separate and distinct from all impurity.
Clearly, this is the case in Isaiah 6 where God manifests himself, revealed Himself, to Isaiah in this great vision, “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called out to another and said, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory,’” (Isaiah 6:1-3). And upon hearing that Isaiah fell to his face and he said, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts,” (Isaiah 6:5).
The point is very clear is that God’s holiness is not merely his separation but his separation from impurity, from uncleanness. Isaiah felt how utterly unworthy he was before God. Then, of course, in this passage God showed him such mercy by coming to him, touching his lips with a coal, forgiving his sin and restoring him. We see here clearly of God’s holiness as His purity, moral purity. Now two attributes flow out of His holiness and that is His righteousness and His justice.
a. Righteousness. Righteousness, first of all, refers to God’s own perfect conformity to His intrinsic moral law. In other words, God conforms in word, in thought, and action to the moral law that makes up his very nature. When God acts, he acts in a right way, righteous way. What does that mean? His action is in accordance with His moral nature. It does not violate it. It always is right. His word is true; it conforms with His moral nature. His thoughts are correct; they conform to His moral nature. Righteousness refers to the quality of God in action, as it were, always expressing what is true of His intrinsic moral nature.
b. Justice. Justice, the other attribute that flows out of holiness, refers to the fact that God establishes standards for His moral creatures that are in accord with his intrinsic righteousness and He judges His moral creatures by their conformity to these righteous standards. You really see here two aspect of God’s justice.
On the one hand, He establishes standards for His moral creatures. In other words, He is a lawgiver. He is the one who says what the commandments are that are to be followed. God establishes standards for His moral creatures and these standards accord with His own moral nature. They are not ad hoc. He does not make them up, He does not flip a coin, these are standards, which actually flow out of His own moral nature as God.
When he says, “Be holy for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44-45), He is telling us to be a certain way because of who He is. He establishes those standards. Sometimes this is called the legislative justice of God, establishing the standards of the law for us. But then God also holds people accountable. He judges His moral creatures by their conformity to these moral standards. This is sometimes referred to as the distributive justice of God. He distributes either reward or punishment. If people keep His commandments He rewards them, blesses them. If they break his commandments, He punishes them.
We see this clearly taught through Scripture. Perhaps a few passages here, let me give you. First of all, on the righteousness of God look at Ezra 9:15, Psalm 119:137-138, and Revelation 16:5-7. On the legislative justice of God, God as lawgiver, look at Psalm 119, Psalm 19:7-11, and Romans 7:12. On the distributive justice of God, God holding people accountable either by rewarding or punishing them, look at Romans 2:5-11, 2 Corinthians 5:10, and Galatians 6:7-10.
C. Attributes of God’s Rulership
1. Omnipotence. First of all the omnipotence of God, which very simply is God’s ability to perform anything consistent with His nature as God. Now clearly, omnipotence does not mean that God can make a rock bigger than He can lift. No, he can’t do that. But that does not undermine his omnipotence; it simply means that God cannot fail to be able to lift a rock.
To say that God is omnipotent means that God cannot be less than that. This is not a contradiction as some have tried to make it to be. There are lots of things that God cannot do. I don’t know if you have thought about this, but, for example, God because of who He is, eternal and self-existent, He cannot die. God, because He is a moral being and immutable, He cannot lie. These are things that we can do. So bully for us, we can do things that God can’t do. We can lie, we can die, we can cheat, and so on. But God can’t do these things.
As Augustine expressed this in The City of God book 5 chapter 10, he says, “The power of God is not diminished when it is said that He cannot die or cannot sin for if He could do these things His power would be less not more.” I think that is exactly right. The omnipotence of God simply means that God cannot fail to be less than who He is; possessing every quality in infinite measure.
So, God can do everything consistent with His nature as God. This also means for theologians through the history of the church, and certainly I would affirm this, it is very important to understand that God cannot do the logically impossible. He cannot make a round square. When you think about it, the law of non-contradiction really flows out of the very nature of God. God, the true God, is not yin-yang, He is not light and darkness, good and evil. He is good not evil. He is light not darkness. And of course, that implies the law of non-contradiction. He is this not that.
The very notion of God doing contradictions would be to violate His very nature where God is this but not that, He is good but not evil. We can have confidence in His promises, for example. If God could do the logically contradictory, He could promise blessing but judge us instead. He could promise salvation but send us to hell instead. If we said, “But that is not what you promised!” He would say, “Well I can do the logically contradictory, right?” There is no hope, there is no assurance if, in fact, the law of non-contradiction is not true. Of course, the reason it is true, it does not stand on its own, as it were, it is true because it is an expression of the very nature of God Himself.
2. Sovereignty. Let me give you a definition and then some passages we will look at briefly. The sovereignty of God affirms that God plans and carries out His perfect will completely as He alone knows is best, over all that is in heaven and earth and He does so without failure or defeat. This is a mighty doctrine that God plans and carries out what He knows is best and He does so over everything in heaven and earth, and He never fails or is defeated in accomplishing what He wills. This is taught all through the Bible.
Let me just give you a few passages and then I will list a couple of others at the end. Daniel 4 is one of my favorite passages that affirms the sovereignty of God because it is spoken by a pagan king who came to realize who the true God is. Nebuchadnezzar was blessed greatly. Babylon was blessed by God and it became a great and mighty city and nation. Nebuchadnezzar became very proud and looked at Babylon the great and thought that he had made it, that he was responsible for it, so God put Nebuchadnezzar to pasture, literally. For seven years he grazed with the cattle, this is in verses 28-33, you can read that.
Then his reason returned to him we read in verse 34, “I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven … and I blessed the Most High and praised and honored Him who lives forever; for His dominion,” that is the dominion of God, the true God, “is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” (Dan. 4:34-35). What a strong statement from this pagan king who has come to realize who the true God is.
Look at verse 35, “All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing.” That is very similar to Isaiah 40. Nothing in what sense? In any ability to thwart or defeat the purposes of God. They can’t stand against Him. But, see the contrast, “but he does according to his will,” so the nations cannot successfully stand against God. He does according to his will. And how vast is His reign? “He does his will in the host of the heavens and among the inhabitants of the earth,” that includes everything. Everything is under the dominion of God and “no one can ward off His hand,” that is, no one can thwart God from accomplishing his will or say to him, “What have You done?” charge Him with wrong doing. No one can either thwart Him or charge Him with wrongdoing. That is the sovereignty of God.
Another passage that summarizes it so clearly is Ephesians 1:11 where we are told there of the inheritance that we have received that has come to us, because we have “been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will.” Paul affirms here that God works everything according to the counsel of His will. He has a counsel of His will that He exercises and he exercises it over all things and that is what guarantees to Christian people that their predestination to receive the inheritance will, in fact, happen. It will be true, because God is sovereign over all. Some other passages and then I want to just leave with a couple issues that arise from this.
Look also at Deuteronomy 32:39-43, 1 Samuel 2:6-10, Romans 9:6-29, and Isaiah 45:5-7. Now, obviously this doctrine of the sovereignty of God is very complex and has implications that have to do with how we live as creatures and as God’s people. How can God be sovereign over all and we be free? How can God be sovereign over all and there be evil in this world?
These are very difficult questions. In a very brief answer, let me just say I think it is clear from Scripture we need to hold both together. That, in fact, God is sovereign and, yes, we are given freedom, that is, we are given the ability to do what we most want to do and these things are compatible, they work together.
For example, when Jesus Christ was crucified, you remember in Acts 2:23 we read, “The Christ was put on the cross by the wicked hands of godless men,” but the earlier part of that verse says that “He was put there by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God.” Both work together to accomplish this. They did what they wanted to do and God accomplished His will and they go together. What about evil? Simply that God, although he rules over all that happens including all evil, we understand that his purposes in it always is for good that occurs and we the moral creatures bear the responsibility for the evil that happens. Granted, this is complex and mysterious, but again, I think we need to affirm both are true; God is sovereign and we are responsible for the evil that we do and not minimize or negate either of those truths.
If you are enjoying this lecture, would you consider making a donation so others can learn from it as well?
BiblicalTraining is a non-profit and relies on its users for support.
Big Truths for Young Hearts: Teaching and Learning the Greatness of God, by Bruce A. Ware, pp. 24-36.
Systematic Theology: A Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, by Wayne Grudem, pp. 141-225.