II. The Attributes of God
“...He is eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, immutable, infinite, almighty, perfectly wise, just, good, and the overflowing fountain of all good.”
1. Incommunicable Attributes
We confess that God has incommunicable attributes. This means that these attributes cannot be communicated, or given, to His creation. These attributes make God uniquely God and distinguish Him from His creation as the Creator.
God is Eternal Negatively, this means that our God is not limited by temporal limits. There are no time constraints with Him. He has no beginning, no end, and no duration of time. Positively this means that our God exists in one indivisible and eternal present. His existence is indivisible because it cannot be divided into beginning, middle, or end. And His existence is eternal because He always is.
Scripture speaks in popular language to us about this eternity of God. It speaks of eternity in terms of God having an endless duration. We read phrases such as “who lives forever and ever” (Daniel 4:34), “from everlasting to everlasting, You are God” (Psalm 90:2), “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last, who is and who was and who is to come” (Revelation 1:8, 22:13).
But do not think of eternity as a timeline, with arrows pointed in opposite directions. God has no time; His plans and works cannot be divided into time, but, simply stated, He is. He is Alpha and Omega. He is Beginning and End. He is First and Last. And because, as we saw last month, God is simple, His wisdom is an eternal wisdom, His justice is an eternal justice. His goodness is an eternal goodness. Everything that God is, He is eternally.
God is Incomprehensible
Can this one, simple, spiritual, and eternal God be known? Yes and no. Yes: He can be known, but only inasmuch as He reveals Himself to us. No: He cannot be known fully and perfectly. This is what we mean when we say God is “incomprehensible.” Because of this we speak of God as “God revealed”and “God concealed.” We know what He reveals about Himself, butwe don’t know what He conceals in Himself.
When we say God can be known we are not saying that we know everything there is to know about God, nor is it possible to fully know everything about Him. There is what we call a “Creator-creature distinction.” Therefore only God knows Himself as He is in Himself fully and perfectly (1 Corinthians 2:6–12). This means that our knowledge of God is a derivative knowledge. We derive our knowledge of Him from Him. He is the source and we are the receivers of that source. Just like a reservoir has to be filled by a river, so too, we can only be filled with knowledge from God.
We can also think of creation and the Word as a mirror. God stands in front of them, as a mirror, and what we can see is not God Himself, but a reflection of Him. As Paul says, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). There is so much about God that we do not know and that which we do know, even this, we know imperfectly.
God is Invisible
We can know this God, but we cannot see this God. The Bible and the Confession speak of God as being “a simple and spiritual being.” These two ideas go hand in hand with God being invisible. Because He is “Spirit,” He is of a substance that is different than this universe. Because He is “simple,” He cannot be divided and made into parts by us. When we say that God is invisible, we are saying that because He is Spirit and because He is simple, He cannot be seen.
Scripture simply states this in texts like “no one has seen God at any time” (1 John 4:12 cf. Exodus 33:20). But what about texts that say Moses saw His “backside” (Exodus 34), or that Isaiah saw the King of glory (Isaiah 6), or that Paul saw heaven (2 Corinthians 12)?
Herman Bavinck says, “Every vision of God presupposes a divine ‘condescension,’ a revelation by means of which God descends to our level and makes Himself known to us” (The Doctrine of God, p. 182). When the saints of old “saw” God, they were not seeing Him in His essence but in a form suited to our capacity. We call these “theophanies,” revelations of God in the likeness of a man, an angel, or an other created form.
God is Immutable
The Confession next speaks of the immutability, or unchangeableness of God. Scripture speaks of God as being immutable in three ways:
God is immutable in His essence - there never was a time when He was not, and there never shall be a time when He shall not be.
God is immutable in His attributes - for example, His truth is unchangeable (Psalm 119:89), His love is unchangeable (Jeremiah 31:3), and His mercy is unchangeable (Psalm 100:5).
God is immutable in His counsel - His “counsel ... stands forever” (Psalm 33:11).
God is Infinite
When we say that God is infinite, we are saying that He is at the same time wholly transcendent above time and space (eternity) and wholly immanent as He fills time and space (immensity). As Solomon prayed, He cannot be contained in temples made with hands (2 Chronicles 6). Johannes Wollebius, the great Reformed theologian said, “God is neither contained in one place, nor limited to one place, not included in, or excluded from, any place” (Compendium Theologiae Christianae, Book I, Ch. 1, sec. 2b:v). Meditate on that statement!
As Psalm 113:5–6 says, “Who is like the LORD our God, who dwells on high [transcends in eternity], who humbles Himself to behold the things that are in the heavens and in the earth?” [immanently immense].
God is Almighty The last of the incommunicable attributes is God’s omnipotence. He has all power, He is totally sovereign, and He is totally in control. His almighty power is best expressed in our beloved Catechism, Q&A 27
2. Communicable Attributes
The Confession then speaks of the communicable attributes of God. These are the attributes that He has and that He communicates to us in part. We are created and re-created in His image, and we reflect a faint image of what God is like as image-bearers.
God is Perfectly Wise
Wisdom is the skillful application of knowledge. It is taking a body of knowledge and using it in a certain situation. For God this means that all He knows, which is everything, is used to bring about the greatest glory for Himself. And it is in the gospel, most particularly, that God is most glorified. Notice how Paul praises God for His wisdom, after speaking of the good news, in Romans 16:27 and 1 Timothy 1:17.
He is Just
To confess the justice of God in our culture is to stand against the false god of tolerance, in which all will be loved by God for eternity – except, of course, really, really bad people who will not be punished, only painlessly annihilated. But the Scriptures teach that God is just, and so should we without shame. Justice is administering the law without discrimination. A judge views a defendant in terms of the law when he pronounces guilt or innocence. And praise God that He does this for us in Christ!
He is Good
The goodness of God is His freely giving to us all that we need as He deals kindly with us. Notice how the Confession of Faith describes God’s goodness further with that beautiful image, “the overflowing fountain of all good.” And He daily showers His blessings upon us as rain waters the grass. He daily gives us more than we can ever deserve. It’s like when we say to someone who gives us a Christmas present unexpectedly, “you’re way too good to me,” or, “you’re so gracious.” With God it is multiplied. As James 1:17 says, “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.”
Goodness is another way of speaking of grace. Notice how Psalm 34:8 says “taste and see that the Lord is good;” this is interpreted in the New Testament by Peter when he says “taste and see that the Lord is gracious” (1 Peter 2:3).
Questions for Further Study/Discussion
- How do God’s incommunicable attributes assure you of your salvation?
- How is God just in saving sinners? (see Romans 3:25–26)
- In what ways can you concretely and gratefully mirror the communicable attributes of God before the world?
Rev. Daniel R. Hyde is the Pastor of the Oceanside United Reformed Church in Oceanside, California.