The fact of God’s existence, that “He is there” as Francis Schaeffer said, is the foundation of sound thinking. But how does He exist? Does He exist like you and I exist? Is He subject to the same limitations of time, space, and matter that define human existence? Did He at some point begin to exist, like I began to exist at some point in the Fall of 1961? How should we think about this “God who is there”?
In the first place, it is important to understand that He is a transcendent Being. Fallen and finite human beings tend to define the character of God in terms with which they are familiar: “Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself” (Ps. 50:23). But God is not like us. “We must not think,” said Paul, “that the Godhead is like unto gold or silver, graven by art or man’s device” (Acts 17:29). No, He is different; He is separate; He is other. In a word, God is Holy.
The Holiness of God
The Holiness of God refers to everything that is distinctive about God in contrast to man. It is a composite attribute of God, that is, an attribute that includes all others. More frequently than any other adjective in Scripture, the adjective “holy” is employed to describe God’s name (Is. 57:15). It is the only attribute raised to the third power, for He is never called “Justice, Justice, Justice” or “Love, Love, Love”, but He is said to be “Holy, Holy, Holy” (Is. 6:3).
Holiness means separateness. It expresses the idea of distance. God is different, in other words, than us. He is great and we are small; He is powerful and we are weak; He is pure and we are vile; He is eternal and we are temporal. He is distinct from and transcendent to His creation.
Usually when we think of God’s holiness, we think only in terms of His moral purity: “God is light and in Him is no darkness at all” (I Jno. 1:5). That’s certainly a part of God’s Holiness, but the concept itself is even broader. Holiness means that not only in terms of moral purity, but also in terms of all of the other characteristics of God’s nature, He is so far above us and so distinct from everything with which we are familiar that we have no point of reference to even begin to fathom His infinite glory (Rom. 11:33). “Who is like unto Thee, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like Thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?” (Ex. 15:11). God’s nature is incomprehensible by man. He can never be completely comprehended (Job 11:7).
When we speak of the characteristics of God’s nature that distinguish Him, as a transcendent Being, from everything and everyone else, we are thinking in terms of what theologians call God’s incommunicable attributes. These are attributes that are exclusive to God.
One characteristic that distinguishes God from all creatures is His self-existence. He does not exist like we do, but He exists by Himself. He is the “I AM” (Ex. 3:14), the self-existent, self-sufficient, sovereign savior God.
What does self-existence imply? First, it means that God is eternal. He is without a beginning. There was never a time in which He was not God or a point at which He began to be. God is the “I AM” forever (Ex. 3:15).
Something in the universe must be eternal. The things that exist today, in other words, must have a first cause. Even people who believe in evolution understand this principle. For example, modern science says that the universe came to be through a great explosion spawned by colliding asteroids and meteors. The question that begs an answer, however, is “Where did the asteroids and meteors come from?” Further, if human life came from a primordial slime mold, where did the primordial germ come from? Modern science answers by claiming the eternality of matter, a philosophy known as materialism.
So either an intelligent God is eternal or an inanimate rock is eternal, but some thing or Being in the universe must be eternal, i.e. ungenerated by another source but existing essentially on its own. The challenge facing the materialist, however, is the difficulty of explaining how animate life sprang from an inanimate rock. Usually, the explanation is given that an electrical charge, like a lightning bolt, struck the rock, generating life. But that explanation only complicates the issue, for it raises a new question, “Where did the electrical charge come from if all that existed was matter? Further, what was the stimulus of the electrical response? Could it have been atmospheric conditions? If so, where did the atmosphere come from and what influenced the atmosphere so that it suddenly generated an electrical charge…ad infinitum?” Clearly, the idea that animate life evolved randomly from inanimate matter is a logical absurdity. The source of all life must of necessity be an eternal Being who has life within Himself, “who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light to which no man can approach unto” ( I Tim. 6:16).
John Gill writes, “He is the first Being…from whom all others have their being: ‘Before him there was no God formed, neither shall there be after him’ (Is. 43:10)”. God is not bound by time, but He inhabits eternity (Is. 57:15). “Before the mountains were brought forth,” said Moses, “or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God” (Ps. 90:2).
Self-existence means secondly that God is an independent Being. He does not need anything or anyone external to Himself to sustain life. Unlike us, God needs neither air, nor food, nor water, nor shelter, nor companionship to maintain His existence (Acts 17:25; Ps. 50:8) . Like Moses’ burning bush, God is self-sustaining, expending energy but not Himself expended. His decisions are not influenced by factors external to Himself, for He is self-determining (Job 23:13). His joy and pleasure is not derived from any source outside of Himself, for He is self-sufficient (Pro. 8:30). Neither does He need any external means of accountability, for He is self-governing (Is. 40:13-14; Ps. 115:3). Nothing that man does or says or is either improves, enhances, or depreciates God (Job 22:2-3; 35:6-7)
Since He is a holy, eternal, and independent Being, God must of necessity be perfect and that which is perfect cannot change. This is termed His immutability. “I am the Lord; I change not” (Mal. 3:6). With Him there is “no variableness neither shadow of turning” (Jas. 1:17). Though the earth and heavens will pass away and be folded as a garment, yet He “is the same and His years shall not fail” (Heb. 1:11-12; cf. Ps. 102:25-27). He is “the same, yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8).
Time cannot change God, for He is eternal. Circumstances cannot change Him, for He is sovereign. Praise cannot change Him because He deserves it. Criticism cannot change the Lord, for He is holy and transcendent. Though this world is characterized by change and decay, God is immutable; therefore, He is today what He has always been and will be forever what He is today.
‘The God who is there’ is truly great. How majestic is His name in all the earth! (Ps. 8:1). None can compare to Him (Is. 40:18, 25). In this day of “God shrinking” and trivialization of the greatness and transcendence of God, the rediscovery of the high view of God depicted in Scripture is of the essence. Let us “publish the name of the Lord and ascribe greatness to our God” (Deut. 32:3).
The attribute employed to describe His transcendence to space is omnipresence. Omnipresence means that God is everywhere simultaneously. He is “not far from every one of us” said Paul (Acts 17:28). He “fills heaven and earth” (Jer. 23:23). The Psalmist asked, “Whither shall I flee from thy presence? Or whither shall I go from thy spirit? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there” (Ps. 139:7-10). The attempt to flee from His presence, therefore, is futile (Jonah 1:3), for none “can hide himself in secret places” where God cannot see him (Jer. 23).
Is the assertion that God is everywhere, then, a form of pantheism. No, for pantheism, while it admits the pervasive presence and ubiquity of God, fails to distinguish between God and matter. The pantheist believes that God is in every tree, rock, and animal. God, however, is a Spirit, separate from the material world, yet nonetheless in every place at once. He is both a God afar off and a God at hand. The challenge facing the believer is the challenge of cultivating the habit of practicing the presence of God (Ps. 16:8).
Another quality that sets God apart from men is His omniscience. Omniscience means that God has all wisdom (Ps. 94:10). He has perfect knowledge of all things, events, persons, and circumstances (Heb. 4:13; I Jno. 3:20). His understanding is infinite (Ps. 147:5). Nothing escapes His notice, for “the eyes of the Lord are in every place beholding the evil and the good” (Pro. 15:3; cf. Job 34:21). He knows our “downsittings and uprisings” and “understands our thoughts afar off” (Ps. 139:2). There is not a word in our mouths but what He knows it altogether (v. 4).
He also knows how to deliver the godly out of temptation and to reserve the unjust to the day of judgment to be punished (2 Pet. 2:9). This all-knowing and all-wise God always chooses the perfect means to the perfect end. Such wisdom was manifested in the scheme of redemption, and such is the incentive for confidence in Him as our guide.
God also has all power. Theologians call this Divine feature omnipotence. Nothing is too hard for the Lord (Gen. 18:14; Jer. 32:17). Hence, His name is El-Shaddai (lit. “God Almighty” – Gen. 17:1). His arm is not shortened that it cannot save (Is. 59:1). He is “able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20). There is not a burden so heavy, a task so difficult, or an enemy so strong to challenge His almighty power. The universe is the product of His powerful spoken word, both in its creation and its maintenance (Jer. 10:12-13; Heb. 11:3; Heb. 1:3) and the starry heavens were the sheer work of His fingers (Ps. 8).
Perhaps the greatest demonstration of God’s power is the resurrection. Romans 1:4 says that Jesus was “declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.” What tremendous power is this that can raise the dead to life! That same Divine power operates in the life of the believer enabling him to do the impossible (Eph. 1:19; Eph. 3:20; Eph. 6:10).
God is Tripersonal
This God, who is so majestic and holy, is a triune Being. He is one God in three distinct Persons ¾ Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (I Jno. 5:7; Mt. 28:19). In the Godhead, there is a plurality of persons but a unity of essence. In other words, the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. This doctrine, of course, is a divine mystery: there is more to it than we can understand. Formulae like the one above are not meant to explain the Trinity so that no mystery remains, but to safeguard it so that God is not misrepresented by those who speak in His name. The one eternal God exists in three Divine Persons. (Cf. Eph. 2:18; Gen. 1:26; Ps. 110:1; Jno. 14:16; Mt. 3:16-17; I Pet. 1:2; etc.)
God is not only transcendent, i.e. distant from man; He is also immanent, i.e. near to man. He is a God “afar off”, but He is also “at hand” (Jer. 23:22). He is “the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, dwelling in the high and holy place.” But He also dwells “with him that is poor and of a contrite spirit” (Is. 57:15). Yes indeed! God is Light, but God is also Love (I Jno. 1:5; I Jno. 4:7). Both His holiness and His love find expression in everything He says and does. These characteristics of God’s nature that depict Him moving near to communicate to man are termed the communicable attributes of God.
“Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God,” wrote Paul to the Romans (Rom. 11:22). In His holiness, God executes His perfect justice upon sin. His wrath is severe. In His love, however, God bestows amazing grace upon sinners, for “the Lord is good; His mercy is everlasting; and His truth endureth to all generations” (Ps. 100:5).
As He revealed His character to Moses, God made “all His goodness pass before” him (Ex. 33:19), proclaiming “The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty…” (Ex. 34:6-7). This verbal description of God depicts Him as a complex Being the focal point of whose moral perfection is “goodness”.
The simple child’s prayer “God is good” expresses a profound theological truth. Goodness means that He is kind, benevolent, and generous to His creatures, both in a general and in a special sense. J. I. Packer says, “He is good to all in some ways and to some in all ways.”
In general terms, the whole creation benefits from God’s goodness: “The Lord is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works” (Ps. 145:9). As Creator, God “rejoices in the habitable part of His earth and his delights are with the sons of men” (Pro. 8:31). He is pleased to “give us richly all things to enjoy” (I Tim. 6:17). Who can smell the fragrance of a rose, hear the song of the robin, view the colors of a sunset, taste the sweetness of a Washington apple or Georgia peach, or feel the relief of a summer rain shower and doubt that God is generous and kind and good? “The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord” (Ps. 33:5).
In a special sense, God is good to His people: “Truly God is good to Israel; even to such as are of a clean heart” (Ps. 73:1). Psalm 107 catalogs God’s goodness to His children in terms of deliverance from distress, and calls upon them to respond in praise: “O that men might praise the Lord for His goodness and for His wonderful works to the children of men.” To them, all good things come from the God who is good (Jas. 1:17), and all things that come from God are deemed good. They can even say, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted that I might learn thy statutes” (Ps. 119:71).
God’s love is an expression of His goodness toward sinners. It is a holy, not a soft, sentimental, or indulgent, love. To say that “God is love” is to say that God seeks the welfare of individual sinners. He is not vindictive, malicious, or cruel. He is not capricious or arbitrary in afflicting men (Lam. 3:33). He is not indifferent. On the contrary, God delights to deal bountifully with His own.
Love is the heart of God. It is His affection for and desire to bless His people, not because they are lovely or lovable, but because He, in His own sovereign good pleasure, has been pleased to love (Deut. 7:8). In contrast to God’s goodness, a Divine attribute that extends to all His creatures in the form of general good-will (theologians call this “common grace”), God’s love is a particular affection toward His people. He delights to enrich and bless them (Ps. 84:11).
God’s love is expressed in daily blessings (Ps. 68:19). Even Divine chastening is an evidence of His love (Pro. 3:12). His love makes Him patient with His own (Is. 9:12, 17, 21; 10:4). His love makes Him gentle with us (Ps. 103:14). But the greatest manifestation of God’s love is the cross (I Jno. 4:7-10). Such love is our incentive in prayer (Jno. 16:27).
Grace is God’s initiative in love to bestow blessing upon people who deserve cursing. In Scripture, “grace” is a picture word meaning “to bend or stoop.” It speaks of “condescending favor.” The picture is a superior stooping to show favor to an inferior
Grace is the keyword of Christianity. God is “the God of all grace” (I Pet. 5:10); the Lord Jesus Christ is “full of grace and truth” (Jno. 1:16); the Holy Spirit is “the Spirit of grace” (Heb. 10:29); the gospel is “the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24) and the Bible is called “the word of His grace” (Acts 20:31).
The Greek word charis, translated “grace”, is the root of the word “charity”. Love and grace, therefore, are virtually synonymous in Scripture. Grace is God’s unmerited love bestowed on people who have no claim to it. The Hebrew word chesed, frequently translated “lovingkindness” in the Old Testament, is a parallel concept. It speaks of “covenant loyalty” and means “faithful love to an unfaithful object”. Chesed, then, is grace¾ God blessing where He is not obliged. In the words of J. I. Packer, Grace is,
“God acting in spontaneous goodness to save sinners: God loving the unlovely, making covenant with them, pardoning their sins, accepting their persons, revealing himself to them, moving them to response, leading them ultimately into full knowledge and enjoyment of himself, and overcoming all obstacles to the fulfillment of this purpose that at each stage arise. Grace is election-love plus covenant-love, a free choice issuing in a sovereign work.” (God’s Words, p.97).
God is essentially a gracious God. He delights to sovereignly extend favor to the undeserving. The greatest demonstration of God’s grace is in the forgiveness of sins: “Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of thy heritage…?” (Mic. 7:18). No wonder Samuel Davies worshipfully exclaimed,
Who is a pardoning God like Thee,
And who has grace so rich and free?
A concept closely akin to God’s graciousness is the attribute of mercy. Mercy is God’s compassion and pity to the miserable. If grace is God’s favor to people who lack merit, mercy is God’s compassion to those with a positive demerit, that is, who deserve the very opposite of blessing. God is “rich in mercy” (Eph. 2:4) and “very pitiful and of tender mercy” (Jas. 5:11). Like a “father pities his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him” (Ps. 103:13).
This does not mean, however, that God is made miserable by the misery of others. No, God is free from all passion. He can never be victimized by another. Thelogians call this the aseity of God. Aseity means that when God feels any kind of pathos, it is because He chooses to feel, not because pain is inflicted upon Him. He is not made miserable by man’s misery; rather, He takes man’s misery to heart and sovereignly wills to demonstrate compassion to people who are in distress.
Like His love and His grace, God’s mercy is sovereign. John Gill writes,
“Though mercy is natural and essential to God, it is not…exercised on every object in misery…but is guided…by the love of God, and is governed and influenced by his sovereign will, who ‘hath mercy on whom he will have mercy’ Rom. 9:15, 18” (Body of Divinity, p. 61).
To every person saved by His mercy (Titus 3:5), God promises to deal compassionately. His mercies are new every morning; His compassions fail not (Lam. 3:22-23). He who notes every sparrow that falls (Mt. 10:39) also “knoweth our frame and remembers that we are but dust” (Ps. 103:14), tempering every trial with mercy “that we may be able to bear it” (I Cor. 10:13).
Holy Scripture is a catalog of God’s acts of mercy in history. Consider His commitment to take sides with the defenseless, the poor, the widow, the fatherless, the stranger, and the oppressed (Lev. 19:9-10; Ps. 68:5-6; Hos. 14:3). Such compassion to those in misery is the quintessence of mercy. Elizabeth understood that the birth of a child is a manifestation of mercy (Lk. 1:57-58), and Solomon, that a life companion is a mercy from God (Pro. 18:22; cf. Gen. 2:18). Scripture also depicts the privilege of worship (Ps. 5:7) and answered prayer (Ps. 27:7) as mercies from God. The greatest display of Divine mercy, however, is the salvation of sinners (Lk. 1:78; Rom. 9:23; Eph. 2:4). Because of Jesus, our “mercy seat”, every child of God can pray with the publican, “God be merciful to me the sinner” (Lk. 18:13), in confident trust that “as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is His mercy to them that fear Him” (Ps. 103:11).
In Exodus 34:6, the next attribute is longsuffering. Longsuffering is Divine mercy expressing itself in patience to man. God is “the God of patience” (Rom. 15:5), so called because He bears long with creatures and is slow to anger (Ps. 103:8).
It is this attribute that explains what appears to us to be Divine delays in judgment. He “endures with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction” (Rom. 9:22). Toward the elect while still in an unregenerate state, God waits until his own appointed time of quickening grace (Is. 30:18). He suffered long with Paul, for instance, through all his persecutions of the church and blasphemies in a state of nature, until at last He showed him mercy (I Tim. 1:16). Longsuffering means that God moderates and restrains His anger for a time when the crimes deserve severe and immediate retribution because He has a greater purpose.
He bore with the sins of Old Testament saints, for example, taking them to heaven when they died, because Christ became their surety in Covenant before the world began: “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past through the forbearance of God” (Rom. 3:24).
Further, longsuffering means that God allows trouble to continue or evil to prevail for a season while He apparently delays to deliver His people. While the ark was being built, God suffered the wickedness of Noah’s day to continue (I Pet. 3:20). That He is slow to wrath is displayed by the fact that He bore the provocations of Israel for forty years in the wilderness (Acts 13:18). Finally, He suffers evil to continue, waiting until the last heir of promise is effectually called and brought to Him, before the Savior returns the second time (2 Pet. 3:9). Christ delays to return not because of any “slackness” in God, but because He is longsuffering to “usward who believe”. One day, “in His times, He will show who is the only Potentate, King of kings and Lord of lords” (I Tim. 6:15).
Even now, in His providential dealings with the church, He “stretches forth his hand all day long,” patiently calling His disobedient people to repentance. Can we not rejoice that our God is longsuffering? May we never “despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering,” for the goodness of God leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4).
This is our God, almighty, all-knowing, unchangable, faithful, holy, generous, kind, loving, and abundant in goodness. With such a view, do you wonder why Doddridge asked:
“Who can forbear to love a God so good and kind? Sure He is worthy to be loved, by me and all mankind.”