Describing God

Describing God
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, September 30, 2010 at 2:09pm

QUESTION: How would you describe God?

ANSWER: I appreciate the questioner’s wanting me to “describe God,” but I must confess that a thorough answer to this question requires an answer that would be much too large for a brief piece like this. In the early 1980s I set out to answer this question by writing a book on “What the Bible Says About God.” Before I finished, I had three large volumes totaling 1,500 pages. Originally published by College Press, they are still available from Wipf and Stock Publishers: “What the Bible Says About God the Creator,” “What the Bible Says About God the Ruler” (on the subject of providence), and “What the Bible Says About God the Redeemer.” When I wrote my systematic theology, “The Faith Once for All” (College Press) in 2002, I included a shorter answer to the question as chapter 3: “The Nature of the Creator-God” (pp. 67-99).

In the chapter just mentioned, I divided twenty-five attributes of God into four main categories, and gave a brief explanation of each one. Here I will explain those four categories, and explain the attributes included in each of them even more briefly.

I. The first category is GOD’S NONRELATIONAL ATTRIBUTES. These explain the essence of God as He exists in Himself. I.e., the expression and meaning of these attributes do not depend upon the existence of created beings and God’s interrelationships with them. They are true of God and are understandable apart from any connection with creation.

A. God is SPIRIT. This means He has life and personhood; He is a living, personal being. Being “composed of” spirit, He is also nonmaterial and invisible. See John 4:24. B. God is SELF-EXISTENT. This is also called His “aseity.” It means that His being is not derived from anything outside of Himself. He is self-sufficient, inherently immortal, indestructible, and independent. See Exodus 3:14; John 5:26; 1 Tim. 6:16. C. God is ONE. This includes the unity of simplicity, which means God is not composed of parts and His essence is indivisible. It also includes the unity of simplicity, meaning He is the only true God. See Deut. 6:4; 1 Cor. 8:4. D. God is THREE. This is the Trinity: He is three persons who share one essence or substance. This does not mean there are three gods, but three distinct centers of consciousness who are eternally equal in essence and authority. Each person within the Trinity takes on distinct roles in the working out of redemption. See Matt. 28:19; 1 Peter 1:2. E. God is INFINITE. This means He is not limited in any of His attributes, contrary to the inherent limitations of created beings. E.g., He is not limited by time and space; His power and knowledge are not limited. The only thing that limits God is His own nature; He cannot do things that are contrary to His nature. F. God is ETERNAL. This is true in a quantitative sense. He has existed from eternity past and will by nature continue to exist into eternity future. He has no beginning and no end. See Psalms 90:2; 102:25-27. Also, this is true in a qualitative sense. Though He is not completely timeless, His consciousness is not limited by time; He has perfect knowledge of the past and the future. See Isaiah 40-48. G. God is RIGHTEOUS. This means that God is always true to Himself; all His actions are perfectly consistent with every aspect of His nature. He is self-consistent and faithful to His word. See Psalms 129:4; 145:17. H. God is IMMUTABLE. This means that God does not and cannot change in His nature, character, and purposes. See Psalm 102:25-27; Malachi 3:6. He does change, however, in His mental states (e.g., emotions) and in His activities, especially in the sense that He genuinely reacts to what goes on within His creation.

II. The second category is GOD’S ATTRIBUTES AS SEEN IN HIS RELATIONS WITH CREATURES AS SUCH. These are attributes that become manifest once God has brought the creation into existence.

A. God is TRANSCENDENT. This means He is distinct from and different from all created beings, both in His very essence and in the way in which He exists. His essence is “beyond” that of any creature, not in a spatial sense but in a metaphysical sense. In Biblical terminology, God is HOLY in an ontological sense. As the only uncreated being, He is set apart or separated from all creatures. See Exodus 15:11; Isaiah 6:3. B. God is SOVEREIGN, which means He has absolute lordship over all creation. As Creator He owns all things, and thus has inherent authority and power to do whatever He wishes with His creatures. This does not mean that He causes all things; it means He is in control of everything that takes place. See Psalms 47:2,8; 103:19. C. God is OMNIPOTENT, or all-powerful. This is a major aspect of His infinity: His power is unlimited. He can do whatever He chooses, except for things that are inconsistent with His own nature. He is “God Almighty.” See Gen. 17:1; Jer. 32:17. D. God is WISE. Wisdom is the ability to choose the best possible end, and then to choose the best possible means of achieving that end. This applies to God’s choices in creation, providence, and redemption. If we believe that God is all-wise in his sovereign control of all things, we will have complete trust in Him. See Rom. 8:28; 11:33; 16:27. E. God is GOOD. This means He is the standard of excellence and perfection; that He is always morally good; that He is desirable (Psalm 34:8); and that He is kind and benevolent toward His creatures. See Matt. 5:43-45; 1 Tim. 6:17. F. God is OMNISCIENT, meaning that He is infinite in His knowledge. He knows everything there is to know; He knows it perfectly; and He is always conscious of all He knows. He has perfect knowledge of the past, the present, and the future. See 1 John 3:20; Isaiah 46:9-10). G. God is OMNIPRESENT. This is what it means to say that He is infinite or unlimited by space. He is not three-dimensional; His infinite being is always present to every point of space at all times. In this metaphysical sense we can never be separated from God’s presence. See Psalm 139:7-10. H. God is IMMANENT. This means that He is not only present TO every point of space; He is also present WITHIN our space. He is not “outside” our universe (a false understanding of transcendence); He is always with us and near us. See Psalm 34:15; Acts 17:27-28. I. God is GLORIOUS. This refers to His infinite significance, the totality of His perfections, the fullness of His deity compressed into a single concept. He displays His glory in all His works. See Psalm 19:1; 148:13; Isaiah 6:3.

III. The third category is GOD’S ATTRIBUTES AS EXPRESSED IN HIS RELATIONS WITH FREE-WILL CREATURES, not just creation as such. Here we are thinking of His relationships with human creatures who have and use the gift of free will, apart from our identity as sinners.

A. God is HOLY. This is not His ontological holiness, or separation (apartness) from the creation itself, but His ethical holiness, i.e., His separation (apartness) from everything sinful or morally evil. This is His perfect moral excellence, including His own moral purity and uprightness as well as His absolute opposition to and hatred of all sin. Because God is holy, He demands holiness in His creatures as well. See Job 34:10-12; 1 Peter 1:15-16. B. God is LOVING. This includes both AGAPE love, or His genuine and infinite care and concern for our well-being; and also His genuine AFFECTION or lovingkindness toward us. We may define his love as His self-giving affection and selfless concern that lead Him to actively seek the happiness and well-being of His image-bearing creatures. See Psalm 119:64; John 3:16; 1 John 4:8.

IV. The last category is GOD’S ATTRIBUTES MANIFESTED IN HIS RELATIONS TO SINNERS. These are attributes known to us especially in the way God responds to sinners. They are basically the outflowing of the two previous attributes: because God is holy, He is jealous and wrathful in the face of sin; because He is love, He is merciful, patient, and gracious toward sinners.

A. God is JEALOUS. Against the threat of false gods and idols, like a loving husband, God is always zealous to protect the well-being of His people and to preserve our exclusive devotion toward Himself. He is provoked to jealousy when His people go after other gods. See Exodus 20:5; 34:14; 2 Cor. 11:2. B. God is WRATHFUL. Wrath is an essential part of God’s nature; it is the way His holiness responds to sin. It is the natural and inevitable and eternal recoil of the all-holy God against all that is unholy. Its result is vengeance and retribution in the form of deserved punishment, ultimately in hell. See Isaiah 63:3-4; Rom. 1:18; Heb. 12:29. C. God is MERCIFUL. The God of wrath is also the God of mercy. Mercy is the love of God as directed toward mankind in our sin-caused pain, suffering, need, misery, and distress. It means that God hurts because we hurt. It is his sense of compassion that causes Him to want to deliver us from suffering apart from any consideration that we may actually have brought it upon ourselves by our own sin. See Rom. 11:22; 2 Cor. 1:3; Eph. 2:4. D. God is PATIENT, or longsuffering. This means that He withholds our deserved punishment in order to give us the opportunity to repent and be spared. He exercises delay and restraint in the execution of His wrath, simply because He loves us. See Exodus 34:6; Isaiah 48:9; 2 Peter 3:9. E. God is GRACIOUS. Grace as an attribute of God is the most extreme expression of His love when that love comes face to face with sin. It is His willingness and desire to forgive and to accept the inner in spite of his sin, and to give the sinner the very opposite of what he deserves. It is His infinite desire to give sinners this gift of forgiveness even though they deserve His wrath and even though it costs Him the cross. See Psalm 103:8-12; Rom. 3:24-26.

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