GOD’S ESSENTIAL CHARACTER
A first lecture in a seven part series on the Godhead.
To introduce a subject so vast as this, we need to discuss the attributes and characteristics of God. The philosophical distinction between attributes and characteristics is this:
- An attribute is a derivative aspect or feature of something; e.g. dogs make good companions.
- A characteristic is an intrinsic part of the nature of something; e.g. dogs are loyal.
First we will look at the attributes of God; what makes Him God? There are an infinite number of attributes, but I have chosen ten chief attributes to examine. After, we will look at His characters, of which the Bible speaks of two.
Ten Attributes of Deity
Human thought, let alone human words, cannot describe God. God is the creator of the universe, the source and sink of all everything that exists. As humans, we cannot comprehend the infinite, nor would we dare to try. Yet God has manifested Himself to us that we might know Him, and so we can rejoice in what we know of His attributes.
God is beyond or above the range of normal or merely physical human experience. We are told in Col. 1:15 that He is “invisible” to the eyes of men, and in John 4:24 that “God is a spirit.” We are told in 1 Tim. 6:16, that the natural man cannot approach unto God. He is infinite… impossible to measure, and impossible to comprehend. (But not impossible to know!)
He is “the eternal God” (Deut. 33:27), “from everlasting” (Hab. 1:12). His being is without reference to time; existing in the past, present, and future; for He “inhabits eternity” (Isa. 57:15). His deity is eternal as well (Rom. 1:20) meaning that God has always been God, and always will be; “from eternity to eternity thou art God” (Psa. 90:2). He is the immortal “King of the ages” (1 Tim. 1:17).
God has the divine prerogative to orchestrate persons, places, things, events, etc. (“all things”) and work them together “according to the counsel of his own will” (Eph. 1:11). “Has not the potter authority over the clay, out of the same lump to make one vessel to honor, and another to dishonor?” (Rom. 9:21).
God is present everywhere at the same time. “If I ascend up into the heavens thou art there; or if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, thou art there, etc.” (Psa. 139:7-10). “Can any hide himself in secret places, that I shall not see him? saith Jehovah. Do not I fill the heavens and the earth? saith Jehovah.” (Jer. 23:23, 24).
God is all-powerful, one of His names being “El-Shaddai”… or, ‘God Almighty’. There is no limitation on God’s abilities; for “with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). This is an exclusive claim, referred to in 1 Tim. 6:15 as the “only Potentate”.
God is all-knowing, there being nothing hid from his sight; be it the unborn child (Psa. 139:15), or the very thoughts in the hearts of men, for “the LORD searcheth all hearts, and understandeth all the imaginations of the thoughts” (1 Chron. 28:9, see Heb. 4:13). His knowledge is not limited by time, He knows all beforehand (Isa. 42:8-9, Rom 8:29-30)
God does not change with time. “For I am the LORD, I change not” (Mal. 3:6). With Him, there “is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (Jam. 1:17). Even the heavens and earth will be changed, “as a vesture shalt thou fold them up, and they shall be changed: but thou art The Same“ (Heb. 1:12). His word is also immutable (Ecc. 3:14), for it is impossible for God to lie (Heb. 6:18).
Faithful, or Righteous
God always acts perfectly consistent with His own character. He always does what said He would do, even if it is at infinite cost to Himself. “He is faithful that promised” (Heb. 10:23). The righteousness of God is revealed in the Gospel (Rom. 1:16), in that God gave His Son as a propitiation, “that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Rom. 3:25-26).
God’s essential character will never be corrupted. He is called “the uncorruptible God” (Rom. 1:23). We are also told that “God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man” (Jam. 1:13). His character is impeccable, which means no fault or imperfection can be found in it.
God is the the single un-caused effect. He is the Absolute to which all real things are referenced. “And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.” (Exo. 3:14). He is the ever existing one, and the Absolute; for “he is before all things, and by him all things consist” (Col.1:17). He is the one causeless Effect; the self-sufficient One.
The Book of Job brings out many of these attributes in an experiential way. Job was an upright man, but he did not have a proper understanding of God. He thought God was bound by a set a moral equations; if a person lives a good life they will be materially blessed by God, and vice versa. God tested Job to the extreme, not only by taking away his family, business, reputation, and health, but also by allowing Job’s friends to accuse him of secretly living a double life. Job struggles with comparing his experience to his understanding of who God is. As his patience wears thin, be begins to mourn the fact that God is at a distance, and unable to relate to men. He states his desire to “reason” with God concerning his circumstances, and bemoans that God won’t listen to him. “Oh that my words were now written! oh that they were printed in a book!” (Job. 19:23).
He struggles with the problem of pain, why does God allow bad things to happen to good people, and good things to bad people. “Wherefore do the wicked live, become old, yea, are mighty in power?” (Job 21:7). He doesn’t want to question God’s righteousness, but he cannot help but wonder. He clings to his own righteousness rather than God’s, saying “My righteousness I hold fast, and will not let it go: my heart shall not reproach me so long as I live” (Job 27:6). Job begs God to give him “a day in court”… he thinks that if God would just hear him out, He would take Job’s side. Under the pressure, Job loses sight of these attributes of God: His majesty, His glory, His absolute sovereignty.
“Oh that I knew where I might find him! that I might come even to his seat! I would order my cause before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would know the words which he would answer me, and understand what he would say unto me. Will he plead against me with his great power? No; but he would put strength in me.” (Job 23:3-6)
Finally, Job gets his day in court. “Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind…” But the discussion did not go the way Job had thought. God does not reason with Job about his methods in chastening, but rather he makes Job to feel his smallness in comparison to God.
“Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said, Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me. Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.” (Job 38:1-4)
After two chapters of cross-examination, God gives Job a chance to answer, but Job only lays his hand upon his mouth… silenced (Job 40:1-7). You would think God would stop there, but instead He launches into two more chapters of cross-examination! After this Job can say that he has finally “seen” God, and the effect is profound:
“I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5-6).
May a glimpse of these attributes of deity cause us to “see” God with spiritual eyesight, and may it give us a proper prospective as we walk the path of life.
The Essential Characteristics of God
Even if we knew all the attributes of deity (previous section), we would still not know God’s heart. We also must learn His character. Later we will show that God’s character can only truly be seen by looking at the Son… but before we get to the Son, we should mention these two essential characters:
God is Light
The first essential character is Light, which has the thought of holiness, or purity.
“This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5)
We get a good definition of “light” in Ephesians 5:13, which says “that which makes everything manifest is light”. Light manifests man’s true moral condition, and cannot rest with sin in its presence. Holiness implies not only a separation from evil and occupation with good, but a hatred for evil and a love of good. Jesus was “the true light”, which, “coming into the world, lightens every man” (John 1:9). As such He was the “light of the world” (John 8:12). John 8:1-11 gives us an example of Light in action. Light is the essential character of God’s own nature; recall the words of the seraphim when “one called to the other and said, Holy, holy, holy is Jehovah of hosts” (Isa. 6:3). God insists on holiness in His children, and as the necessary condition of fellowship with Himself… “holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).
God is Love
The second essential character is Love. We know from other scriptures that God loves (John 3:16, etc.) but the expression “God is love“ has a much deeper thought.
“He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” (1 John 4:8)
God is both light and love. The Christian is “light in the Lord” (Eph. 5:8), because we are “partakers of His holiness” (Heb. 12:10), partakers morally “of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4), yet it never says that the believer “is love”, although we are told “to love”, and to “walk in love”. This distinction helps is to understand what it means that God “is love”. Love is sovereign goodness; a source towards others. God is sovereign in His love (agápe). As creatures, we are not sovereign. Only God himself can be love, but we can be channels of that love, flowing out to others. If it weren’t for the source, we could never love others with that same settled disposition; “we love because he has first loved us” (1 John 4:19). However, light is the state and character of a nature, which we share. Therefore, we “are light” in the Lord.
Light is not at the Expense of Love, or vice versa
Many have the idea that God is walking a tightrope between Light and Love; on one hand His desire for man’s blessing, on the other His hatred for sin. But the idea that God has somehow struck a balance of 50% love and 50% light is misleading. Rather, God is 100% love and 100% light! Man’s sin was the occasion for the display of God’s holy judgment and matchless love, both were never seen so clearly as at the cross of Christ.
“In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.” (1 John 4:9)
The only way to really know the character of God is though His Son. In a certain sense, this is the central message of Christianity. Think of a few Old Testament examples:
- Moses. It says that “there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” He knew God face to face, but he did not know Him in the same way we do. He did not know God as Father, and he did not see light and love manifested at the cross.
- Abraham. Recall the time (Gen. 20) when the Lord was communing with Abram over the righteous in the city of Sodom. Abraham knew God was one of mercy, and also one of judgment. He knew the outright sin of Sodom demanded the judgment of God, but he also knew God’s desire to spare the righteous. He keeps whittling the number down, attempting to find a balance, of which none exists, between God’s righteousness and His grace. Once again, though he was called “the friend of God” (James 2:23), Abraham had only a partial knowledge of God.
- Job. As we already showed, God’s purpose in chastening was to bring Job into closer fellowship with Himself. By the end of the book that purpose was accomplished; but it was still only a partial knowledge of God.
- Habakkuk. The prophet speaks with God in a remarkable way, asking the candid questions on his heart concerning God’s ways in judgment. By the third chapter, Habakkuk (like Job), has settled peace about the whole matter, and obtains joy as a result. Yet still, he only had a partial knowledge of God.
And the list could go on. The scriptures are abundantly clear that the only way to know God is to look at His Son.
“No one has seen God at any time; the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, *he* hath declared him.” (John 1:18)
The Son of God is the perfect manifestation of God, “whom no man hath seen, nor can see” (I Tim. 6:16). The Son is the Logos (the “Word of God”) or expression of who He is. The Son is the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), and the “expression of [God’s] substance” (Heb. 1:3). He alone can reveal God to us.