Guide to the Attributes of God

ZA Blog on May 17th, 2018. Tagged under ,,.

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Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology

Between the things God says and does, what other people say about him, and the life of Jesus, the Bible gives us numerous descriptions of God’s character. These passages are often sorted into “attributes of God,” a biblical framework we can use to talk about what God is like and how we know that. Exploring the attributes of God helps us prepare for evangelism, learn church doctrine, and most importantly, understand who God is.

There are several different methods for categorizing God’s attributes. This post will use the most common classification system, adapted from Wayne Grudem’s online systematic theology course.

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The two general categories of God’s attributes

The most common way to classify God’s attributes divides them into incommunicable attributes (traits that God doesn’t share or “communicate” to others) and communicable attributes (traits that God shares or “communicates” with us).

Some of God’s incommunicable attributes include his:

  • Eternal nature (he is infinite, but we are finite)
  • Unchangeableness (he never changes, but we do)
  • Omnipresence (God is everywhere at once, but we can only be in one place at a time)

Some of God’s communicable attributes include his:

  • Love (God is love, and we’re capable of love)
  • Knowledge (God has knowledge, and we can have it, too)
  • Mercy (God is merciful, and we’re also capable of mercy)
  • Justice (God is just, and we’re capable of justice)

This breakdown seems pretty straightforward, but while it can be helpful, it isn’t perfect. No attribute of God is completely communicable, and no attribute of God is completely incommunicable. We can be wise, but we can never be as wise as God. We can express and experience love, but we’ll never be infinitely loving like God. Really, we should say that “communicable” attributes are the ones that are somewhat shared with us.

Learn more in Wayne Grudems’s Systematic Theology online course.

Incommunicable attributes of God

Independence

In several places, Scripture teaches that God is absolutely independent and self-sufficient. He’s independent because:

1. He doesn’t need creation for any reason. Paul proclaims to the men of Athens, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:24–25).

God asks Job, “Who has given to me, that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine” (Job 41:11). No one can give God anything that he didn’t first give them.

2. He created everything. In John’s apocalyptic vision, the 24 elders proclaim, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being” (Revelation 4:11). John’s gospel opens with the claim that, “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”

  • He created everything (Revelation 4:11, John 1:3, Romans 11:35–36)
  • He’s eternal (Psalm 90:2)
  • He’s completely unique (Isaiah 46:9)

Unchangeableness

Scripture shows us that God is unchanging in his being, perfections, purposes, and promises (Psalm 102:27, Malachi 3:6, James 1:17). God’s unchangeableness is also referred to as his immutability.

So what about passages where God appears to change his mind? For example:

  • Moses prayed to prevent the destruction of the people of Israel (Exodus 32:9–14)
  • God added fifteen years to the life of Hezekiah (Isaiah 38:1–6)
  • The people of Nineveh repented and God withheld his promised wrath (Jonah 3:4, 10)

Aren’t these instances where God did change? These instances should all be understood as true expressions of God’s present attitude or intention towards the present situation. If the situation changes, then of course God’s attitude or expression of intention will also change. This is just saying that God responds differently to different situations.

Eternal

God has no beginning, end, or succession of moments in his own being—he is timeless—and he sees past, present, and future equally vividly. The psalmist affirms that God is timeless in Psalm 90:2: “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.”

We read in Psalm 90:4, “For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.” The phrase “a thousand years” is a figurative expression for as long a time as one might imagine. This means all of past history is viewed by God with great clarity and vividness. To God, all of time since the creation is as if it just happened.

In the New Testament, Peter tells us, “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8). Since “a thousand years” is a figure of speech, one day lasts forever in God’s mind.

God-exists-outside-time

Taking these two considerations together, we can say the following: in God’s perspective, any extremely long period of time is as if it just happened. And any very short period of time (such as one day) seems to God to last forever. Thus, God sees and knows all events past, present, and future with equal vividness.

Omnipresence

Just as God is unlimited or infinite with respect to time, so God is unlimited with respect to space. God doesn’t have size or spatial dimensions and is present at every point of space with his whole being.

In Jeremiah, God rebukes the prophets who think their words or thoughts are hidden from God. He is everywhere and fills heaven and earth: “‘Am I a God at hand, says the Lord, and not a God afar off? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him?’ says the Lord. ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’ says the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:23–24).

David also declares God’s omnipresence:

“Whither shall I go from your Spirit?
Or whither 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,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.”
—Psalm 139:7–10

There’s nowhere in the entire universe, on land or sea, in heaven or in hell, where one can flee from God’s presence.

Unity

When Scripture speaks about God’s attributes it never singles out one attribute as more important than the rest. Every attribute is completely true of God and God’s character. John can say that “God is light” (1 John 1:5) and then a little later say also that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Each attribute is simply a way of describing one aspect of God’s total character or being. God himself is unified, completely integrated, and infinitely perfect in all of these attributes.

God’s whole being includes all of his attributes: he is entirely loving, entirely merciful, entirely just, and so forth. Every attribute of God that we find in Scripture is true of all of God’s being, and every attribute of God qualifies every other attribute.

We should never think, for example, that God is a loving God at one point in history and a just or wrathful God at another point in history. He is the same God always, and everything he says or does is fully consistent with all his attributes. It is not accurate to say, as some have said, that God is a God of justice in the Old Testament and a God of love in the New Testament. God is and always has been infinitely just and infinitely loving as well, and everything he does in the Old Testament as well as the New Testament is consistent with both of those attributes.

Learn more in Wayne Grudems’s Systematic Theology online course.

Communicable attributes of God

Spirituality

God isn’t made of matter, has no parts or dimensions, cannot be perceived by our bodily senses, and is more excellent than any other kind of existence. He doesn’t have a physical body, nor is he merely energy, thought, or some other element of creation. God is spirit.

To think of God in terms of anything else in the created universe is to misrepresent him, to limit him, to think of him as less than he really is. While we must say that God has made all creation so that each part of it reflects something of his own character, we must also affirm that to picture God as existing or being like anything else in creation is misleading and dishonors who he is.

Invisibility

God’s total essence, all of his spiritual being, will never be seen by us, yet God still shows himself to us through visible, created things.

Many passages speak of God’s invisibility:

  • “No one has ever seen God” (John 1:18).
  • “Not that anyone has seen the Father except him who is from God” (John 6:46).
  • “To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen” (1 Timothy 1:17).
  • “who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has ever seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:16).

These passages were all written after events where people saw some outward manifestation of God. For example, in Exodus we read, “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11). Yet God told Moses, “You cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). Nevertheless, God caused his glory to pass by Moses while he hid Moses in a cleft of the rock, and then God let Moses see his back after he had passed by, but said, “my face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33:21–23). This passage and others like it in the Old Testament indicate that there was a sense in which God could not be seen at all, but that there was also some outward form or manifestation of God which at least in part was able to be seen by man.

So although God’s total essence will never be able to be seen by us, God still reveals himself to us through visible, created things.

Omniscience

Elihu says that God is the one “who is perfect in knowledge” (Job 37:16), and John says that God “knows everything” (1 John 3:20). The quality of knowing everything is called omniscience, and because God knows everything, he is said to be omniscient (that is, “all-knowing”).

Here are a few examples of God’s limitless knowledge as portrayed in Scripture:

  • He knows what we need before we ask him (Matthew 6:8)
  • He knows the number of hairs on our heads (Matthew 10:30)
  • He knows when we sit, when we rise, and what we think (Psalm 139:1–2)
  • He knows words we will say before we speak them (Psalm 139:4)
  • He knows the days of our lives before we are born (Psalm 139:16)
  • He knows every possible future (1 Samuel 23:11–13)

Wisdom

Wisdom goes beyond knowledge and specifies that God always chooses the best goals and the best means to achieve those goals. Scripture affirms God’s wisdom in several places:

  • He is called “the only wise God” (Romans 16:27).
  • “With him are wisdom and might; he has counsel and understanding” (Job 12:13).
  • “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures” (Psalm 104:24).

Christ is “the wisdom of God” to those who are called (1 Corinthians 1:24, 30), even though the cross is “foolishness” to those who reject it and think themselves to be wise in this world (1 Corinthians 1:18–20). Yet even this is a reflection of God’s wise plan:

“For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. . . . God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise . . . so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” —1 Corinthians 1:21, 27, 29.

Truthfulness (and faithfulness)

The God revealed in Scripture is real, and all other gods are idols. “The Lord is the true God; he is the living God and the everlasting King. . . . The gods who did not make the heavens and the earth shall perish from the earth and from under the heavens” (Jeremiah 10:10–11). Jesus says to his Father, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

God is reliable and faithful in his words. He always does what he promises to do, and we can depend on him never to be unfaithful to his promises. Thus, he is “a God of faithfulness” (Deuteronomy 32:4). This specific aspect of God’s truthfulness is sometimes viewed as a distinct attribute: God’s faithfulness means that God will always do what he has said and fulfill what he has promised (Numbers 23:19, 2 Samuel 7:28, Psalm 141:6). He can be relied upon, and he will never prove unfaithful to those who trust what he has said.

Goodness

God is the final standard of good, and that all that He is and does is worthy of approval. Here are a few passages that speak of God’s goodness:

  • “No one is good but God alone” (Luke 18:19).
  • The Psalms frequently affirm that “the Lord is good” (Psalm 100:5).
  • “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good” (Psalm 106:1).
  • “O taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Psalm 34:8).

Scripture also tells us that God is the source of all good in the world. “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). God has given us some reflection of his sense of goodness, so that when we evaluate things in the way He created us to evaluate them, we approve what God approves and delight in things he delights in. When we realize that God is the definition and source of all good, we realize that God himself is the ultimate good that we seek.

Love

John tells us that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). We see evidence that this attribute of God was active even before creation among the members of the Trinity. Jesus speaks to his Father of “my glory which you have given me in your love for me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24), indicating that there was love from the Father to the Son from all eternity. It continues at the present time, for we read, “The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into his hand” (John 3:35).

We imitate this communicable attribute of God, first by loving God in return, and second by loving others in imitation of the way God loves them. All our obligations to God can be summarized in this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. . . . You shall love your neighbor as yourself ” (Matthew 22:37–38). If we love God, we will obey his commandments (1 John 5:3) and thus do what is pleasing to him. We will love God, not the world (1 John 2:15), and we will do all this because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).

Mercy, grace, patience

God’s mercy, patience, and grace may be seen as three separate attributes, or as specific aspects of God’s goodness. These three characteristics of God’s nature are often mentioned together, especially in the Old Testament. When God declared his name to Moses, he proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). David says in Psalm 103:8, “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

Mercy is often emphasized where people are in misery or distress. David says, for example, “I am in great distress; let us fall into the hand of the Lord for his mercy is great . . .” (2 Samuel 24:14). When Paul speaks of the fact that God comforts us in affliction, he calls God the “Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). We are to imitate God’s mercy in our conduct toward others: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

God’s grace, or his favor toward those who deserve no favor but only punishment, is always freely given. God says, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Exodus 33:19). In the New Testament, and especially in Paul’s letters, the entire Christian life can be seen as a result of God’s continuous offering of grace.
As with most of the God’s attributes that we are to imitate, patience requires a moment-by-moment trust in God to fulfill his promises and purposes in our lives at his chosen time. Our confidence that the Lord will soon fulfill his purposes for our good and his glory will enable us to be patient. James makes this connection when he says, “You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (James 5:8).

Holiness

God himself is the Most Holy One. He’s called the “Holy One of Israel” (Psalm 71:22, 78:41, 89:18; Isaiah 1:4, 5:19, 24). The seraphim around God’s throne cry, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3). “The Lord our God is holy!” exclaims the psalmist (Psalm 99:9).

God’s holiness provides the pattern for his people to imitate. He commands them, “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). When God called his people out of Egypt and brought them to himself and commanded them to obey his voice, then he said, “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:4–6).

Peace (or order)

In 1 Corinthians 14:33 Paul says, “God is not a God of confusion but of peace.” Although “peace” and “order” have not traditionally been classified as attributes of God, Paul here indicates another quality that we could think of as a distinct attribute of God. Paul says that God’s actions are characterized by “peace” and not by “disorder” (akatastasia, a Greek word meaning “disorder, confusion, unrest”). God himself is “the God of peace” (Romans 15:33, 16:20, Philippians 4:9). But those who walk in wickedness do not have peace: “‘There is no peace,’ says the Lord, ‘for the wicked’” (Isaiah 48:22, 57:21).

We can see an imitation of this attribute of God not only in “peace” as part of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22–23, but also in the last-mentioned element in the fruit of the Spirit, namely, “self-control” (Galatians 5:23). When we as God’s people walk in his ways, we come to know more and more fully by experience that the kingdom of God is indeed “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17), and we can say of the path of God’s wisdom, “Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace” (Proverbs 3:17).

Righteousness (or justice)

God always does what is right, and He is the final standard of what is right. Scripture attests to God’s righteousness and justice:

  • “All his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and right is he” (Deuteronomy 32:4).
  • “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25).
  • “The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart” (Psalm 19:8).
  • “I the Lord speak the truth, I declare what is right” (Isaiah 45:19).

Paul says that when God sent Christ as a sacrifice to bear the punishment for sin, it “was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:25–26). When Christ died to pay the penalty for our sins it showed that God was both righteous and just, because he paid the wages of sin (Romans 6:23) and forgave his people.

Jealousy

People sometimes have trouble thinking that jealousy is a desirable attribute in God. This is because for us, jealousy is almost always wrong. But jealousy can be a positive thing, too. Paul says to the Corinthians, “I feel a divine jealousy for you” (2 Corinthians 11:2). Here the sense is “earnestly protective or watchful.” This is the jealousy we attribute to God. He protects his honor. God deserves all honor and glory from his creation, and it is right for him to seek this honor.

He commands his people not to bow down to idols or serve them, saying, “for I the Lord your God am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:5). He desires that worship be given to himself and not to false gods. Therefore, he commands the people of Israel to tear down the altars of pagan gods in the land of Canaan, giving the following reason: “For you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exodus 34:14, Deuteronomy 4:24; 5:9).

This is also why pride is sinful for us: we do not deserve the honor that belongs to God alone (1 Corinthians 4:7; Revelation 4:11).

Wrath

God loves all that is right and good, for rightness and goodness conforms to his moral character. So it shouldn’t be surprising that God intensely hates sin. Scripture’s narrative frequently describe God’s wrath, especially when God’s people sin against him.

  • “I have seen this people . . . now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.” (Exodus 32:9–10)
  • “Remember and do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness. . . . Even at Horeb you provoked the Lord to wrath, and the Lord was so angry with you that he was ready to destroy you.” (Deuteronomy 9:7–8)
  • “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.” (John 3:36)
  • “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men.” (Romans 1:18)

Christians shouldn’t fear God’s wrath. For although “we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:3), we now trust in Jesus, “who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10). Jesus Christ bore the wrath of God that was due to our sin, in order that we might be saved (Romans 3:25–26).

Will

God approves and determines every action necessary for the existence and activity of himself and all creation.

Scripture frequently indicates God’s will as the final or most ultimate reason for everything that happens. Paul refers to God as the one “who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). The phrase here translated “all things” (ta panta) is used frequently by Paul to refer to everything that exists or everything in creation (for example, Ephesians 1:10, 23, 3:9, 4:10; Colossians 1:16, 17; Romans 11:36; 1 Corinthians. 8:6, 15:27–28). The word translated “accomplishes” (energeō, “works, works out, brings about, produces”) is a present participle suggesting continual activity. Paul’s statement might be more explicitly translated, “who continually brings about everything in the universe according to the counsel of his will.”

“Will” is a communicable attribute because we exercise choice and make real decisions regarding the events of our lives. Our ability to exercise will and make choices is one of the most significant marks of God-likeness in our existence.

Freedom

God does whatever he pleases. Nothing in creation can hinder him from carrying out his will.

The Psalmist contrasts God’s power and freedom with the weakness of idols: “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). Human rulers can’t oppose God’s will, for “the king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Proverbs 21:1). Similarly, Nebuchadnezzar learns that God, “does according to his will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What are you doing?’” (Daniel 4:35).

While our will isn’t absolutely free in the way God’s is, he gives us relative freedom. When we use our will and our freedom to make choices that are pleasing to God, we reflect his character and bring glory to him.

Omnipotence (or power and sovereignty)

God’s omnipotence refers to his power to do what he decides to do. Omnipotence derives from two Latin words, omni, “all,” and potens, “powerful,” and means “all-powerful.” Numerous passages speak to God’s omnipotence:

  • In context, the rhetorical question, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14; Jeremiah 32:27) implies that nothing is too hard for the Lord.
  • Jeremiah also says to God, “nothing is too hard for you” (Jeremiah 32:17).
  • Paul says that God is “able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20).
  • God is called the “Almighty” (2 Corinthians 6:18; Revelation 1:8), a Greek term (pantokratōr) that suggests the possession of all power and authority.
  • The angel Gabriel says to Mary, “With God nothing will be impossible” (Luke 1:37)
  • Jesus says, “With God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).

However, there are some things that God cannot do. God cannot do anything that denies his own character. For example, Scripture tells us that God can’t lie:

  • In Titus 1:2 he is called (literally) “the unlying God” or the “God who never lies.”
  • The author of Hebrews says that in God’s oath and promise “it is impossible for God to lie” (Hebrew 6:18, Grudem’s translation).
  • 2 Timothy 2:13 says of Christ, “He cannot deny himself.”

Additionally, James says, “God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13). Thus, God cannot lie, sin, deny himself, or be tempted with evil. He cannot cease to exist, or cease to be God, or act in a way inconsistent with any of his attributes.

Perfection

God completely possesses all excellent qualities. Additionally, there’s no quality of excellence that he does not have. He is “complete” or “perfect” in every way.

Jesus tells us, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). And David says of God, “His way is perfect” (Psalm 18:30).

Blessedness

God delights fully in himself and in all that reflects his character.

We imitate God’s blessedness when we find delight and happiness in things that please God. When we’re thankful for the specific abilities, preferences, and other characteristics with which God has created us as individuals, we imitate his blessedness. We find our greatest blessedness—our greatest happiness—in the source of all good qualities, God himself.

Beauty

God is the sum of all desirable qualities. All of our good and righteous desires, all of the desires that really ought to be in us or in any other creature, find their ultimate fulfillment in God.

The beauty of our lives is so important to Christ that his purpose now is to sanctify the entire church “that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:27). Thus, we individually and corporately reflect God’s beauty in every way in which we exhibit his character.

Glory

Scripture presents God’s glory in two major ways. In one sense, God’s glory isn’t an attribute, but the superlative honor that everything in the universe should give to God (Isaiah 43:7, Romans 3:23, John 17:5).

But God’s “glory” also describes the bright light that surrounds his presence. It belongs to him alone and it’s the outward expression of his excellence. We see this glory in several places in Scripture. For example:

  • When the angel of the Lord appears to the shepherds (Luke 2:9)
  • The transfiguration (Matthew 17:2)
  • The heavenly city in Revelation (Revelation 21:23)

God made us to reflect his glory. Paul tells us that even now in our Christian lives we all are being “changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). There isn’t a visible light that surrounds us, but there is a brightness, splendor, or beauty about the life of a person who deeply loves God, and it’s often evident to those around them.

Conclusion

In many ways, God is nothing like us. He, as the creator, will always have unique attributes his creation cannot possess. But we’re also made in his image (Genesis 1:26–28), so
in other ways, God shares his attributes with us. We are finite, created beings, made in the likeness of our infinite creator.

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Learn more in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology online course.