Perfectly Perfect – God’s Holiness and Goodness

I am sometimes surprised to find out that a person’s first name by which I’ve known them for years is not actually their given name. They may go by a middle name, or even a name they adopted as a preference along the way. God has a clear preference for the attribute by which He most clearly likes to be known and referenced – and that is “holy.”  More often than being described as mighty or loving or anything else, God is referenced as holy and the embodiment of holiness.

Holiness – This speaks of God’s perfection – his perfect character that is flawless and beyond reproach. More than any other attribute, the Scriptures say that it is celebrated around the throne itself.  “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” it says in Isaiah 6:3. And this triplet of ascription is picked up again in Revelation 4:8 – “And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’”

Obviously we live in a very fallen world, and it often feels like everything is going wrong. So it is a wonderful comfort to know that there is a perfect and divine person who is ultimately in control of it all and who will make all things right in the end.

We can be thankful for the perfect standard that was not undone by sin entering the created order through the Evil One and his cohorts, extending ultimately to mankind. And though there was a curse of death for sin, a holy plan was launched from Day 1 (actually before that, if we understand theology properly!). This redemptive story that would bring a restored state of holiness to sinners who trusted in this gracious provision was marvelously illustrated and pre-figured through the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. And it was fulfilled and transacted perfectly in the work of Christ. Being offered to us and received by us, it gives the penitent believer a perfect standing of holiness and righteousness with God in ultimate sanctification upon our translation out of this world.

Since our future is to be perfectly sanctified through new life in Christ, it would make sense that we should even now find motivational interest in being progressively more and more what we truly are in Christ. By doing so, we are fulfilling the admonition of 1 Peter 1:13-16 – “Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’”

Goodness – An expression of God’s character of holiness is evident in His display of consistent goodness.

We may say of someone, “He’s a good guy.”  This is because we have learned through experience with a person that they can be trusted to have our best interests in mind.  But we’ve all had experiences where someone has turned on us and displayed the very opposite trait.

We can count on God consistently to be good. “For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.” (Psalm 100:5)  There is never a time – in our lives or anyone else’s – where God has not been good. Now that does not mean He always gives us what we want when we want it, or answer every prayer as we would like. But we can count on Him in the big picture that He is good to us. Even when He does not answer the prayer that saves our life, He is still good to have prepared an eternal and better home for us – if we have trusted in Him.

It would behoove us to seek to be like God in desiring to function with everyone around us in goodness – looking to enhance peoples’ lives toward their greatest good, even if it involves saying some hard things. And the foundation of being able to do this is to have a life that is characterized by goodness, which is essentially the outgrowth of the attribute of holiness. We can always grow more and more toward being like God, increasingly having these attributes that are perfectly possessed by the Lord.

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The Possibility of Being Like God

Can we be like God? The answer is both a “yes” and a “no.”  It might be said of a person that “he is a chip off the ole block” – meaning that he is just like his father … or that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”  But even so, no two people are completely alike, even those genetically related. So there is a matter of degree in the reference to ever being like God. We may be a lot like God, yet still actually far from being truly like God.

Of course there is also the matter of the divine creator versus the human creation. There are certain qualities or characteristics – called “attributes” when studying the person of God – that are simply “other” than us.  These attributes were those of our studies and writings last week – things like God’s total self-sufficiency, immutability, and His omnipresence, omnipotence and omniscience.

In the theological realm of discussion, we speak about God’s attributes in two broad categories: communicable and incommunicable. Those are a couple of big words, and you’ve probably not heard them very often.

As I think about it, the only time I’m very familiar with these words being used is in the context of speaking about diseases as either communicable or non-communicable. I had to laugh yesterday during the sermon when using this illustration – asking how many people use these words in conversation – that quickly the hands being raised were all of the medical field people in the church.

Communicable diseases are diseases that can be spread from person to person. Some examples are the Common Cold, Chicken Pox, and Strep Throat. It is easy to share and pass on these diseases.

Non-communicable diseases are those that can’t travel from person to person. These diseases include such as allergies, diabetes, and sickle cell disease. During my teen and early adult years, I had a lot of trouble with seasonal allergies, and I always felt bad that I made people nearby think I was contagious when all it was, was the pollen count. Likewise, I’m not worried about getting diabetes by being around my diabetic son.  It is not possible to share these diseases.

The attributes of last week that Chris spoke and wrote about are those in the category of incommunicable – God has them, and we aren’t going to get them. But this week we turn to the other category as we examine some of the long list of attributes that we call “communicable.”  You can catch these!  You can grow in these areas toward the end of being more like God. And yes, that’s a good thing.

Another way of saying all of this is that we turn our attention this week to study about God’s “nearness” rather than His “uniqueness.”  These “near” attributes we may share with God as a result of being created in the image of God. In three large categories, we may speak of them as follows…

  1. God is personal—attributes that relate more directly to His person, such as wisdom and faithfulness
  2. God is creative—attributes that relate to God’s beauty, glory, and creative power
  3. God is moral—attributes that relate to God’s unchanging moral character and standards

Under this third category we have scheduled for today to mention the attribute of justice.

Justice

It is one of the great sadnesses of life to see the prevalence of injustice in our contemporary world. We see it on display every day with the news. Evil prospers in varied corners of the world, with the fallout of refugees by the millions and the sadness especially of children’s lives ruined.

In that injustice is sin, it is hated by God … For I the Lord love justice; I hate robbery and wrong; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. (Isaiah 61:8)

As well, the #1 persecuted entity in the world today is Christians – much being written about this fact in just the last month of published statistics from around the planet. Obviously, if God was about bringing justice upon the earth now, there would be no martyrs. But justice prevails in the end.

And in that God loves justice, it is a “just” calling for us to contend for it wherever we may have ability and opportunity.

It is a wonderful truth to know that there is a God of justice – being that it defines him characteristically – as a final judge of the affairs of this world. Often judges in our fallen world are thought to be either too lenient in sentencing or else very arbitrary and inequitable. This is not (and in the final day will not be) a problem with God. There is great peace in that knowledge, especially knowing that in Christ we are not under a debt of transgression – that debt having been paid for by Christ. Therefore God is faithful and JUST to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Omniscience: The God of Limitless Knowledge

Say what you will, but I maintain that the smart phone is the closest I’ll ever come to knowing everything. In my pocket is a device that grants me access to just about every fact you can ever come up with. And with Siri, I just have to verbally ask her the weight of the earth, and she replies instantly—and backs up her sources.

But there are certain “facts” we just can’t Google. What’s the meaning of life? Should I take that job or not? What’s my kid struggling with that he’s not telling me?

But God knows. He knows it all, even the facts that Google just can’t shake out.

OMNISCIENCE

In theology, we say that God is “omniscient”—meaning “all-knowing.” And like His other characteristics, God’s limitless knowledge stems from the fact that He exists outside of creation and outside of time. He never has to “learn” anything, because He Himself is the very author of history. “He counts the number of the stars,” the psalmist writes. “He gives names to all of them” (Psalm 147:4). Isaiah also records God as saying:

remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
10 declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ (Isaiah 46:9-10)

God knows everything there is to know—His knowledge is truly limitless.

DID JESUS KNOW EVERYTHING?

What about Jesus, though? Did He know everything? On the one hand, John tells us that Jesus would “not entrust Himself to [the people], because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man” (John 2:24-25). Because Jesus is both fully God and fully man, He shared God’s ability to know all things.

But what about the second coming? Jesus tells His listeners that “no one knows” the “day and hour…not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matthew 24:36). Some might insist that when Jesus became human, He only possessed the knowledge His Father allowed Him to have—and this lay outside that scope. This is possible, though it seems to drive a bit of a wedge between Jesus’ divine and human natures.

I would take it this way: there is a difference between knowing everything and having the ability to know anything. Jesus didn’t have to know everything to be truly omniscient; He simply had to have the ability to “stretch out” His mind, so to speak, and take hold of whatever knowledge He wished. But I think that because He lived in submission to His Father’s will, Jesus chose not to know this detail of God’s plan; it simply wasn’t for Him to know. And that tells us something of our own submission to the Father: He knows our steps, we can only trust Him.

FULLY KNOWN, FULLY LOVED

For David, God’s knowledge was deeply intimate:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
3 You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
5 You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it (Psalm 139:1-6)

It’s difficult, I think, for us to be known. We go to such great lengths to avoid being known. We go to social media and self-edit; we want to put our best foot forward by selecting just the right profile picture and crafting just the right status update to make our friends think of us as witty, attractive, and charming. We fear that if anyone knew us—and I mean really knew us—they would reject us outright.

In other words, our desire to be loved supersedes our desire to be known. Pastor and author Tim Keller writes:

“To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.”

Jesus tells His listeners that even “the very hairs on your head are numbered” (Matthew 10:30). If it weren’t for the mercy of the gospel, being known by God would be terrifying. But because Jesus takes the burden of our darkest secrets, then in Christ we can be fully known, and fully loved.

Omnipresence: The God of Limitless Presence

Ever have those days when you wish you could be in two places at once? When life gets busy, you start to feel your limitations—not just physically, but geographically. Fighting traffic to “get it all done” is a reminder—once again—that we are limited, while God is limitless.

OMNIPRESENCE

When Solomon contemplates the task of building God’s temple, he remarks:

27 “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built! (1 Kings 8:27)

Solomon is only affirming what we’ve said earlier this week: that God is eternal, and distinct from His creation. Here, though, the text indicates that God cannot be “contained” by physical structures. Likewise, Jeremiah remarks that God’s presence is infinite:

24 Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 23:24)

In theology we call this “omnipresence”—literally meaning “all-present.” It refers to God being unlimited in His ability to make Himself known at anywhere at anytime. Again, this naturally flows from God’s simplicity. Because God is independent of His creation, He is not limited by things like space or distance.

For David, this truth was deeply personal:

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you (Psalm 139:7-12)

For David, God’s omnipresence was reason for praise, reason for joy. Why? Because there was nowhere in creation—or beyond—that was outside the limits of God’s will, and if God’s presence is without limit, our trust in Him can be also.

IS GOD PRESENT IN HELL?

David mentions that God is present in “Sheol.” Now, it’s unclear what Israel believed about the afterlife at this time—it wasn’t until Jesus came on the scene that a clear understanding of “heaven” and “hell” began to emerge. But David’s mention of “Sheol” or “the grave” might prompt some to wonder: can God be present in Hell?

Once again, we must admit that we are only human minds seeking to understand an infinite God. We have good reason to admit our confusion and our lack of understanding. We can at least start by re-framing the question a bit.

First, what does it really mean to be “present?” Does this mean that God is literally, physically present everywhere? Well, if God is independent of creation, He can’t be—because to be everywhere at once would unite Him with creation. So in one sense, God can’t physically be present everywhere because to do so would be to violate His nature.

So what does it mean to “fill heaven and earth,” as Scripture affirms? Well, it means that God can make His character and His will known anywhere at anytime. There is nowhere in creation–or perhaps even the world beyond–that is outside of God’s jurisdiction. So is God present in Hell? Well, as bleak as the subject may be, do we not see God’s justice made known, His judgment carried through? So yes; God is truly present in all places.

IS JESUS OMNIPRESENT?

What about Jesus, then? We’ll learn in a week or so that Jesus is fully God but also fully human. Since Jesus became a human being, did His lose His ability to be omnipresent?

The short answer is “no,” though this is also hard to fathom. Jesus, of course, never stopped being human. Following His resurrection His body transformed into some sort of glorified state, but remained human nonetheless. This means that Jesus is still human, today.

But that doesn’t stop Jesus from being present among His people. On two separate occasions Jesus affirms that His presence is limitless:

“…where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20)

“…behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

In the sixteenth century, John Calvin wrote:

“Here is something marvelous: the Son of God descended from heaven in such a way that, without leaving heaven, he willed to be home in the virgin’s womb, to go about the earth, and to hang upon the cross; yet he continuously filled the world even as he had done from the beginning!” (John Calvin, Institutes, 2:13:4)

I admit that I can’t quite understand how Jesus’ divine and human natures relate to one another in this context. But we can be thankful that this means that Jesus has no blind spots. There is not a single square inch of creation that is not His. And that also means there is nowhere we can go that lies outside of God’s protection and care. And that is a reason for trust.

 

 

Omnipotence: The God of Limitless Power

Few feelings are worse than powerlessness. You turn the key in the ignition—and the engine won’t turn over. You need to make a phonecall—but your battery is dead. These sorts of minor inconveniences remind us that we are not as in control of our destiny as we might think. And when we face the far more difficult challenges of broken hearts and oncology reports, we see our powerlessness writ large.

OMNIPOTENCE

God’s power is limitless. In theology, we call this His omnipotence, meaning that God is “all-powerful.” His greatness is revealed in His power and accomplishments:

For I know that the Lord is great,
and that our Lord is above all gods.
Whatever the Lord pleases, he does,
in heaven and on earth,
in the seas and all deeps. (Psalm 135:5-6)

We should point out that in the context of this psalm, the Lord’s power makes Him superior (that is, “above”) to gods of Israel’s neighbors. Nothing in our world can ever match or rival the power of the God we serve.

This is why Jeremiah writes:

17 ‘Ah, Lord God! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you. (Jeremiah 32:17)

I’d really like to think of myself as powerful. With just the phone in my pocket, I can take calls, order food, watch movies, order products, predict the weather—even find a romantic partner so long as I have the right app. But think about just the weather app for a moment. We think we have power over something just because we can predict its patterns (and even then, not so reliably).  But our ability to do that is dependent on the fact that God, in His limitless power, has established rhythm and order to His creation that ultimately points to His character. We have no control over it; we can only marvel at God’s faithfulness in the regular rising of the sun or the changing of the seasons.

CAN GOD REALLY DO ANYTHING?

But can God really do anything?  Are there things beyond His ability?  If I were to show you the sheer volume of ink that’s been spilled debating and discussing this subject throughout history, it would overwhelm you.

Historically, there have been those who say that God’s power is truly and completely limitless. Others have said that God’s power is always dependent on the circumstances around Him. I think there’s an alternative, and that is to say that “omnipotence” means that God can do anything that is consistent with His character. That is, God’s omnipotence can’t be understood apart from God’s goodness, His love, or His ordered nature.

This means two things. First, God can do nothing that violates the laws of logic. God is a God of order and truth; His actions must be consistent with that. This means that God can’t do something like make a four-sided triangle, or create a married bachelor. But wait, you might object; what about miracles? Turning water into wine seems an awful stretch.  True, but in the case of miracles, God transcends the laws of nature, not the laws of logic. We can conceive of a miraculous healing or the transformation of water into wine. But a four-sided triangle can’t be conceived of; it makes no sense.

Secondly, and more simply, God can do nothing that violates His moral character. It is not possible for God to sin, because to do so would be a direct violation of God’s holiness and perfection.

But what about evil? Did God create evil?  If we read Isaiah, we might stumble on this verse:

I form light and create darkness;
I make well-being and create calamity;
I am the Lord, who does all these things. (Isaiah 45:7)

The old King James translation actually uses the phrase “create evil.” But thankfully, the ESV translation above helps us see that the original Hebrew word refers to “calamity” or “disaster.” God is not the author of moral evil, but—in the context of Isaiah—God does bring justice to wayward people.

SO WHY DOES GOD SEEM SO POWERLESS?

The question of evil raises another, far more troubling set of questions. If God is all powerful, why would He allow people to suffer? Even if we grant that God enacts justice on those who disobey Him, why would God allow seemingly innocent people to suffer?

Historically, this question has been used to challenge belief in God. The argument has been variously stated, but it boils down to two objections:

  • If God is all-loving, but allows evil to exist, then He must lack the power to stop it.
  • If God is all-powerful, but allows evil to exist, then He must lack the love to stop it.

Let’s start by admitting that there is no easy answer to this question, nor, I suspect, a satisfactory one. Most often, we’ve understood evil and suffering to be the product of sin and the evil choices of man. And we can’t have it both ways. We can’t have a God who allows us freedom of choice and a God who protects us from the consequences of those choices.

Still, I suspect those seem hollow words for those facing the pain of real situations. The gospel might not have an immediate answer to these questions, but it helps us see what the answer can’t be.

The cross shows us that God can’t be unloving, because He sent His only Son to die in our place. And the empty tomb shows us that God can’t be powerless, because through His power He raised His Son from the dead, proclaiming victory over the grave.

In a world of power—and the illusion of power—we can be thankful we serve a God beyond limits.

“You never change…” Can God change His mind?

They say the only constant in life is change.

Life bombards us with an endless sequence of events.  Sometimes that sequence rushes by us like the swift currents of a river.  As much as we try to grab them, hold on to them, never let them go, time slips through our hands with terrifying swiftness.

Sometimes change is good: it speaks to our ability to grow, to mature.  The downside to this is that time brings on the problems of age: graying hair, aching joints, fading memories of happier years and the laughter of children.  And, of course, the currents of time often bring us circumstances that challenge us, hurt us—or break us entirely.

God isn’t like that.  We’ve pointed out that God exists independently of His creation, therefore God is not affected by time.  Without time, there can be no change, therefore God is eternal and changeless.  In theology we therefore say that God is “immutable,” which simply means He is unable to change. He doesn’t need to grow toward maturity; He’s already perfect in every way.  He will never be slowed by age, for He is already ageless.

DOES GOD CHANGE HIS MIND?

This leads to a natural question: can God change His mind?  It’s a fair question, and actually a deeply practical one.  Because if God is changeless, how does prayer work?

The Hebrew Scriptures testify to a God that is changeless, and whose word is binding:

God is not man, that he should lie,
or a son of man, that he should change his mind.
Has he said, and will he not do it?
Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? (Numbers 23:19)

This sounds simple enough.  God does not change His mind.  Yet we can find other passages that seem to challenge this.  During their years of wandering, Israel strayed from their faith commitments by constructing an idol to worship in place of God.  God is naturally incensed by this, and says to Moses:

“I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. 10 Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.”

11 But Moses implored the Lord his God and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’” 14 And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people. (Exodus 32:9-14)

The reason this is confusing is because in verse 10 God seems bent on delivering justice, but in verse 14 He “relented from the disaster that He had spoken.”  Does this mean that God changed His mind?

Let’s at least start by admitting that so many of our questions are the result of time-bound human minds trying to understand a timeless, infinite God.

What we find throughout Scripture is a God who reveals Himself in various ways throughout human history, and sometimes this takes on a relational dynamic.  Robert Chisholm of Dallas Theological Seminary writes:

“When we say that God changes His mind, are we denying His immutability, which affirms that God’s essential being and nature do not change? No. God is sovereign, but our sovereign God is also personal and often enters into give-and-take relationships with people. While the human mind cannot fully understand the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom, the Bible teaches that God sometimes announces His intentions and then subordinates His actions to the human response. When God announces His intentions conditionally, He allows people to help determine the outcome by how they respond to His word.”[1]

SO WHAT ABOUT PRAYER?

Naturally, we can see how this applies to prayer.  God may be in sovereign control, but He pursues relational connections with His people—including through prayer.

Think of it this way. Imagine you’re a kid, and your parents decide to get you a bicycle for your birthday, but they are waiting for you to ask them for it. Time goes by; your birthday approaches. Then one day you ask your mom or dad if you could get a bike for your birthday. And then, on your birthday, you get a bike. Did your request “work?” Didn’t your parents intend to get you a bike all along? Perhaps, but they were also lovingly waiting for you to ask them for it.

The same is true of God.  Granted, the analogy above only works because we know the bicycle is in your parents’ will.  We don’t always know what God’s will is.  But this also means that we should pray all the more boldly, because it is in God’s eternal will to bless His children with good and perfect gifts.  That’s why Jesus teaches His followers to “ask, seek, and knock:”

7 “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 9 Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7-11)

Granted, God doesn’t always say “yes,” but we mustn’t let the abuses of the “prosperity gospel” (the belief that God’s greatest purpose is to bless us with health and wealth) to diminish our confidence that God desires our joy.

WHY DOES IT MATTER?

There are many people in our lives that we might place confidence in.  Pastors, politicians, maybe even our family members.  But sooner or later these people will let us down. God does not change.  His “immutability” leads us to trust Him more, because only God can be our true constant in the rushingly unpredictably waters of time.

 

[1] Dr. Robert Chisholm, “Does God Change His Mind?” in Kindred Spirit Magazine, Summer 1998

“From everlasting:” Why God is simple and eternal

“Great is the Lord,” David once wrote; “his greatness is unsearchable” (Psalm 145:3). There are certain characteristics of God that we share with Him. We call these “communicable” attributes, and they include things like love, holiness, wisdom, etc. While we don’t manifest these character traits to the infinite degree as God, we nevertheless can display something of God’s moral character, His love, His wisdom.

But there are other characteristics that are unique to God Himself.  We call these “incommunicable” attributes, and they include things that center around God’s essential greatness. What this means is that while we may have no trouble seeing God’s love in ourselves or others, we can’t possibly place ourselves in David’s Psalm without it seeming…well, silly.  “Great am I…My greatness is unsearchable.” Sure, we may have days when we think it, but we’re a far cry from God’s greatness.

This week our aim is to explore at least some of God’s unique, incommunicable attributes. God is wholly different from you and I—and that’s a good thing.

IMMEASURABLE

In her book on  God’s unique attributes, Jen Wilkin points out that the difference between ourselves and God is obvious from the day we’re born.  Every time a new mother has a baby, everyone wants to know the details: length, weight, eye color, you name it.  And the measuring doesn’t stop there.  Every day of our lives from birth to death we are measured, evaluated, judged.  So ingrained is this in us that we probably do it without thinking.  Grades.  Salary.  Brand of smart phone or automobile.  The number of social media followers we have, the number of “likes” we receive on Instagram, the numbers on our bathroom scale—all of these can be a source of measurement, and all of these can lead to feelings of either pride or self-reproach.  God isn’t like this.  God is beyond measure.  We see this in two distinct ways:

  • GOD IS SIMPLE

First, God is “simple.”  Simple?  Isn’t this the same God who invented particle physics?  “Simple” means that God is self-sufficient; He is self-sustaining. He needs nothing to exist; He is perfect in Himself.

We see this from the Bible’s opening pages:

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  (Genesis 1:1)

The creation story affirms that there is an essential difference between Creator and His creation.  God exists independently of the created world, a point that Paul repeats in front of a panel of skeptics in the city of Athens:

24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. (Acts 17:24-25)

What this means is that God isn’t what we would call “high maintenance.”  We’ve all seen couples where one partner is high maintenance.  We usually blame the woman for her chronic need to re-apply makeup or for her massive collection of shoes.  But really men can be just as high-maintenance, with their expressed need for their “man-cave” with their deer heads positioned just right.  Every single one of us depends on everything else in creation to be happy—even to survive.  You’re only here because your parents created you.

God isn’t like that.  He needs nothing. Jesus even affirmed that “as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son also to have life in Himself” (John 5:26). Everything in modern science today tells us that creation comes first, then life begins. God’s story tells us that life has always existed, and creation springs up as an extension of the life that has always been in God.

You may have wondered from time to time: Who created God?  But divine simplicity tells us that no one created God; no one had to. Like an artist at his canvas, God paints His character across the fabric of the universe—but He always remains separate from the painting.

  • GOD IS ETERNAL

Secondly, God’s simplicity naturally means that God is eternal.  Why are these ideas connected?  Because if God is independent of His creation, He is likewise independent of time.  What is time?  Time is a sequence of events: one rotation of the earth gets called a “day;” one trip around the sun gets called a “year.”  But if God is self-sufficient, He is unaffected by these events and these changes.  He is outside of time, and therefore can’t be measured the same way.

This seems positively mind-boggling.  As much as we might appreciate the explanatory power of science, I for one am thankful that these truths are recorded in the more-universal language of poetry:

Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You return man to dust
and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night. (Psalm 90:2-4)

Again, God is not limited by time in the same way that we are.  This same truth is repeated in the text of Isaiah:

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable. (Isaiah 40:28)

God is eternal because God cannot be measured by time.

Now, this might provoke a question: What was God doing before the world was created?  Well, that’s simple—yet unfathomable(!). There was no “before.”  Where there is no time, there can be no “before.” Time came into existence only when God spoke the universe into being. If we insist on asking about God’s activity “prior” to that, we can only speak of God’s self-sufficient community of persons (Father, Son, and Spirit) existing in perfect, timeless harmony

WHY IT MATTERS

Why does any of this matter? Because all of us are changed and affected by circumstance. All it really takes is for our car to break down and we feel like life is in shambles.  God is immeasurable; He is beyond limits.  I can’t trust my car to keep running, I can’t trust my career not to end, I can’t trust my spouse or my friends to always keep me happy.  I can trust that the God of the universe, the God of interstellar space and the Higgs Boson, is immeasurable and beyond my wildest dreams.  He never changes.  He never fails.

Divine choreography: Made in the image of community

If you take a good look at your average dollar bill, you’ll notice that the reverse side features the Great Seal of the United States—you know, the eagle holding both an olive branch and a bundle of arrows. And above the eagle’s head you’ll find the traditional national motto of the U.S.: E pluribus unum.  Don’t be scared off by the Latin; it simply means “Out of many, one” or “one from many.” It refers to the fact that though America is a land of great diversity, we still find common unity in our identity as American citizens.

Humans are, indeed, a diverse group. Social science has long insisted that we are not merely homo sapiens but homo duplex, meaning we exist on two distinct levels: as individuals and also as participants in a larger social fabric. We need each other. “No man is an island,” as they say. And what we’re talking about can ultimately be traced back to God’s perfect character.

In the creation story of Genesis, we’re told that men and women were created in the “image” of God (Genesis 1:26). In the original context, this had to do with being a ruling representative of God, an agent of God’s sovereign kingdom on earth. Human beings are capable of this because we share certain characteristics of God—we “take after” God, so to speak, much the way we might say a toddler “takes after” one of his parents.

But, as we’ve been emphasizing this week, God reveals Himself as an eternal community of persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three are one, yet they fulfill unique roles within God’s divine community as well as the gospel story.

If you and I are made in the image of a divine community, it follows that we are made for community with one another. In Bruce Ware’s careful study of the Trinity, he points out that “we are created to reflect what God is like, and this includes a reflection of the personal relationships within the Trinity.”

So it should not surprise us that the pattern of unity-and-diversity can be found in so many places of our society. In what ways does the Trinity impact the way humans reflect God’s image? We can highlight three:

  • WE ARE WIRED FOR INTIMACY

First, we must acknowledge that the members of the Trinity exist in a perpetual state of intimacy. The early Church even found a word for this—they called it perichoresis. If you look closely enough you’ll see the resemblance to the word “choreography.” “God is not a static thing,” wrote C.S. Lewis, “but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance.” What we find in God is a kind of “divine choreography,” where the various members of the Trinity exist in close, intimate fellowship, such as when Jesus tells His followers: “I am in the Father and the Father in me” (John 14:11).

More recently, Cornelius Plantinga says it this way:

“The persons within God [Father, Son, and Spirit] exalt each other, commune with one each other, and defer to one another…Each divine person harbors the others at the center of his being.  In constant movement of overture and acceptance, each person envelops and encircles the others…God’s interior life [therefore] overflows with regard for others.”[1]

If we are made in the image of this “divine choreography,” then it follows that you and I are called for relationships with one another. Jesus hints at this when He prays that the Church “may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you” (John 17:21).

Marital intimacy, of course, is the deepest expression of this divine community. Two becoming “one” is the closest expression we have to the intimacy found in the Godhead. But even outside of marriage, the Trinity forms a pattern for how we as individuals form relationships with one another in society as well as in the Church.

  • WE MAY SUBMIT TO AUTHORITY WITHOUT LOSING DIGNITY

Some of the hardest teachings in the Bible have to do with submitting to authority. Wives are called to submit to their husbands, children called to obey their parents, and all people are called to submit to human government.

In our Western way of thinking—nay, our human way of thinking—submission is more than a loss of personal freedom, but an affront to our personal dignity. Submission is assumed to be a sign of inferiority. “Who is he to tell me what to do?” we might catch ourselves thinking, and on a larger level we can see the consequences of a society that refuses to recognize anyone’s authority except their own.

In John’s gospel Jesus tells the religious leaders: “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise” (John 5:19). Jesus submits to the Father’s authority. Granted, there are other passages that indicate that Jesus still had a will of His own, but Jesus emphasizes His desire to do the will of the Father who sent Him (John 4:34). Jesus never stopped being God, never ceased to be worthy of honor and praise. Yet Jesus was willing to obey the authority of His Father in His earthly mission.

If Jesus could submit to authority without losing dignity, why can’t we?  The Trinity helps us understand that sometimes hierarchy is necessary for an ordered society, and we should never see our submission to authority as indicating inferiority.

  • WE VALUE HARMONY, NOT MERE “UNITY”

Sometimes I suspect that we use the word “unity” all wrong. Sometimes we take the word “unity” to mean “uniformity”—that is, if we are to truly be “one,” we must think and act the same.

The Trinity teaches us that because Father, Son, and Spirit are one God yet different persons, they exist not only in unity but in harmony.  They are different pieces coming together to make a whole.

No one goes to the symphony to hear a group of flautists all playing the same note. No; a symphony—like all forms of art—requires both unity and diversity in the way the varied notes and instruments come together to form a unified, beautiful composition.

In the book of Revelation, we find something similar going on in the worship of God:

9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9-10)

Read that carefully; note all the plural nouns: “all tribes…peoples…languages” but “crying out with a loud voice.” From the many, one.

If this is what God’s future is meant to look like, should we also not seek to embrace diversity in our midst even today?

*   *   *

It hasn’t escaped my notice that you’re reading this on inauguration day. Few things divide us like politics. In the coming years, I can easily imagine there will be a great many opportunities to witness social and political division. But this is all the more reason to pursue harmony and to not allow ideas—however precious they may seem—to damage the kinds of relationships that reflect God’s image.

And I realize, of course, that there are many ideas that cannot coexist harmoniously—just as there is a limited range of notes that can be played together to make a musical chord. This side of the resurrection, it’s rare that our ideas about morality and human society are ever in perfect agreement. There’s room for dialogue, even debate. What there’s not room for is anger and childish name-calling. For if we are indeed fashioned in the image of a divine community, there is something noble about seeking peace where others stir division. We are many indeed, but in God we can be unified.

[1] Cornelius Plantinga, Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living. (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2002), 20-23.

Unison and Harmony: Are the Members of the Trinity Equal?

As a vocal music major in college, I was required to participate and sing in a wide variety of groups. There was the annual oratorio choir and orchestra, the college chorale, and a smaller select group called the Chamber Singers. At various times I toured and concertized with all of them, sometimes as a tenor, though more often later as baritone/bass.

There was a regular sort of competition that went on among the voice parts as to which was the best and most important. The sopranos were often a bit high and mighty (pun intended); and while carrying the melody most of the time (though not always) they perceived themselves as the most indispensable. I always thought the bass section had a strong argument as saying that they were the foundation of the chordal structure upon which all else musically rested (though colorful chord inversions messed with this theory – just went music geek on you there). And the altos and tenors would argue that they were responsible for the bulk of the harmonies that made a choral production colorful and beautiful.

The fact is of course that all of the parts were necessary, and though they played different roles, none was more technically important than the others. The strength expressed in unison singing brought power to a composition, whereas the delicate harmonies contributed a rich context of refinement.

We may apply this to the discussion of the roles of the Trinity, though as with any and all natural world explanations, it will fall short of fully illustrating the impossible to completely grasp and comprehend.

The members of the Trinity are co-equal and co-eternal. There is equality, yet mutual submission in the roles each plays.

One of the early statements of the faith (The Athanasian Creed) affirmed this truth, and out of it came a graph called the Shield of the Trinity. I shared it on Sunday as a projection in English, but here it is as it looked in Latin …

trinity_triangle_shield_of_trinity_diagram_1896

You can probably figure it out, but a translation would roughly say: The Father is God, The Son is God, The Holy Spirit is God; God is the Father, God is the Son, God is the Holy Spirit; The Father is not the Son, The Son is not the Father, The Father is not the Holy Spirit, The Holy Spirit is not the Father, The Son is not the Holy Spirit, The Holy Spirit is not the Son.

Now doesn’t that just clear up everything?

In biblical study there is a discussion called the theology of procession. This says that the Father sends the Son, and the Father and the Son send the Spirit. That might seem to suggest that the Father is most important, whereas it speaks of the relationship that exists in terms of function. There is yieldedness within the Trinity.

Again, illustratively – is the husband greater than the wife? It speaks in the Scripture of headship for the husband, but he is not greater. Likewise, are certain gifts and positions of service in the church better than others – the speaking gifts better than the serving gifts? No, not really. All parts of the body are necessary and needful.

The Trinity is a model of diversity of roles, yet unity of essence and purpose.

But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that being justified by His grace we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (NASB) Titus 3:4-7

Slicing and Dicing: Trinitarian Heresies

We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. This is true is so many areas of endeavor and knowledge – such as science and medicine, for example – and it is true as well in the field of theology. It is a wonderful era in which we live, inheriting two millennia of theological thinking and articulation that is available literally at our fingertips. The early church fathers of course did not have such resources, and they struggled to fully and accurately articulate complicated truths such as the Trinity and all of the implications of the divinity of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Recall also that the several early centuries of the Church age involved as well the final codification of what were the accepted divine Scriptures (we call this canonization).

Yes, it is all rather complicated. We said from Day 1 of this series on the study of God – called “Theology Proper” – that this was a more academic endeavor than most we take on. But our topic this week of the Trinity is one that is surely taught throughout the Bible and is one that we cannot deny or pull out of the cloth of Scripture without unraveling the integrity of the whole garment. If you lose the Trinity, you lose everything.

And over the years, there are several basic errors espoused by some at various times that result ultimately in nothing short of heresy. In attempting to present these briefly (gigantic tomes have been written upon all that follows), let me use a delineation presented by a theologian of our own denomination and theological seminary – Wayne Grudem (from Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, chapter 14).

Grudem writes that there are three basic statements to be affirmed about the biblical teaching on the Trinity …

  1. God is three persons.
  2. Each person is fully God.
  3. There is one God.

A denial of any one of these three statements leads to one of the historical errors about the Trinity.

To deny the first point – that God is three distinct persons – is an error known within Church history as Modalism.

The idea here is that God is one person who appears in three different ways at different times. In the Old Testament he was God the Father. In the New Testament he is God the Son. And in the church age after the ascension he is the power and influence as the Holy Spirit. It is as if he has three hats and shows up at different times in different forms.

This of course denies the personal relationships within the Trinity, as when Jesus prays to the Father. And think about the baptism of Jesus where the Father speaks from heaven and the Spirit descends as a dove. And if this is true, the atonement for sin is lost – the truth that God sent the Son to be the atoning, substitutionary sacrifice for sin.

To deny the second point – that each person is fully God – is an error known within Church history as Arianism.

This is the more common error that has taken various forms down to our day. It is named after Arius, a Bishop of Alexandria (Egypt). He taught that Jesus and the Spirit were logically creations of the Father. This view was condemned at the Church Council of Nicea in A.D. 325 with a famous creedal statement about the nature of the Trinity.

An Arian way of thinking (then or now) is to say that Jesus was created before the rest of creation and is “like” the Father, but is not the same nature or essence as God the Father. Bolstering this view is an understanding of verses like Colossians 1:15, which calls Christ “the first-born of all creation.”  But the idea of being first here is not #1 in order, but rather #1 in preeminence (supremacy, importance, authority, etc.).

To deny the third point – that there is one God – is an error known within Church history as Tritheism.

Honestly not that many people over the years have held to this view, as it is obviously not much different than pagan religions with multiplicities of gods.

And again, all of this discussion is admittedly rather academic, but it is also of the utmost central importance. Yet also, it is of immense practical understanding. I don’t want a Jesus who is less than divine – nothing more than a great moral example or most-empowered human creation. We need a perfect savior, not an ideal model of godly living. And we need more than a powerful spiritual presence or influence within us. We need not only God the Father; we must have God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit … or all is lost.