By Mike Stallard, Int'l Ministries and Bible teacher for foi.org
Although we’ll never grasp God in His entirety, we can still learn about Him through three things in particular.
When I was a PhD candidate, I had to endure a comprehensive oral examination before four professors. The most surprising thing I was asked to do was “Define God.” I had not prepared for such a general, broad inquiry and had only heard that type of “question” from elementary-age children at my local church.
So I started listing the attributes of God: love, justice, omnipresence, etc. I asked the interrogating professor if that was what he wanted. His response floored me. “So far,” he replied, “you haven’t said anything that makes me think you are a Christian. A Muslim could say the same thing.” Obviously, I needed more precision to express what the Bible teaches about who God is.
No technical definition of God appears in His Word. God is incomprehensible. The prophet Isaiah said, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:9). God in His entirety cannot be grasped by man intellectually.
However, God still wants us to know some truth about who He is and how He works in the world. Beyond that, He wants us to know Him personally. So the Bible uses narratives, poetry, prophecy, and epistles to lead us to a definition of God.
Perhaps the best way to outline the Bible’s overall presentation of God is to consider God’s attributes, His acts in history, and the fact that God is a trinity: three Persons in one Godhead.
Instead of the word attributes, many Bible teachers prefer the term perfections because, as theologian Dr. Charles Ryrie explained, “All of the qualities or attributes of God are perfect.”1
To glean how God is characterized, we study the Bible inductively from passage to passage. The resulting list of attributes includes eternity, freedom, immutability, infinity, holiness, love, omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience, righteousness, simplicity, sovereignty, truth, and unity.2 Some theologians organize these attributes into categories to help remember and teach them.
For example, theologian Louis Berkhof follows the popular categories of incommunicable and communicable. The incommunicable attributes belong to God alone, such as omnipresence. The communicable (such as love) God shares with people, although not to the degree that they exist in Him.3
It is important to understand that God is perfectly balanced. Some Bible students make the mistake of emphasizing one attribute to the detriment of others. For example, some speak of God’s love so much they diminish His justice, and vice versa. On the one hand, God is not a harsh judge who delights in punishment. On the other hand, God is not a soft touch who overlooks sin. This balance applies to all of God’s characteristics. In fact, the attribute of simplicity actually affirms that God is not a composite of His perfections. Rather, His attributes all work together in all of His ways.
In addition, God must be understood through His actions. The Bible suggests that we love God for what He does, as well as who He is (Ps. 116:1–2). In fact, what He does expresses who He is. God’s two major actions in all of history are creation and redemption. They are highlighted in Revelation 4—5. God is the Creator who made all things by His will ex nihilo, out of nothing (4:11; Heb. 11:3). He is also the Lamb of God slain to provide the individual redemption of men and women (Heb. 5:9–10; Rev. 21:22; 22:12–16).
In addition to these basic truths, God’s actions in history extend in more directions. For example, He is actively preserving and sustaining the world (Ps. 104; Mt. 6:26–30). Not only does He take care of people, He also preserves plants, animals, and nature through the cycles of life. Moreover, God moves in history to raise up and tear down nations (Dan. 2:20–21). In the end-times, He will execute judgment on the nations (Joel 3; Mt. 25:31–45).
God also created two special institutions: the nation of Israel and the church. God took Abraham from among the nations and promised to create a nation through his son and grandson, Isaac and Jacob, respectively (Genesis). He also changed Jacob’s name to Israel (32:28).
Throughout history God preserved the Israelites despite oppression, slavery, and threats to their existence. Through Israel He brought Messiah Jesus into the world. One day He will restore Israel to national glory and spiritual ascendancy when Jesus returns to establish His earthly Kingdom (Isa. 11; Zech. 14; Acts 3:19–21; Rom. 11:25–27).
God created the church on the day of Pentecost through the special ministry of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2). The church has no national boundaries. Jews and Gentiles are brought together in this one institution for the chief purpose of spreading throughout the world the Good News of eternal life through faith in Christ. Christ, who is God, is actively involved in history as the Head of the church, which also will enjoy God’s coming Kingdom.
Two more of God’s special acts are (1) His giving of the inspired, inerrant Scriptures and (2) His incarnation. Over 16 centuries, 40 different men wrote the various books of the Bible, telling God’s story in history.
However, one of God’s greatest acts was the incarnation. In Christ Jesus, God became the permanent God-Man. He died on the cross to take the punishment we deserve for our sins and rose from the dead so that we could be declared righteous (Mt. 20:28; Rom. 4:25; 1 Cor. 15:1–4).
The incarnation, more than any other act of God, shows both His holiness as He deals with sin and His profound love as He provides a way of salvation for sinners. This great salvation is available to all who put their faith in Christ alone for deliverance.
God also must be understood in view of His trinitarian character. Judaism and Islam, the other great monotheistic faiths besides Christianity, do not understand this aspect of God.
God is one being, or essence, existing in three coequal, coeternal Persons. The New Testament is clear that the Father, Son, and Spirit all are deity (Jn. 1:1; Acts 5:3–4; 1 Cor. 8:6). The Old Testament also teaches these truths (Prov. 30:1–4; Isa. 48:16; 63:16). Yet the Bible is also clear that God is one (Dt. 6:4; Mk. 12:29; 1 Tim. 2:5). This three-in-one nature of the Godhead adds to the uniqueness of the biblical understanding of God.
Perhaps the Trinity’s greatest contribution to our understanding of God is to show how extremely personal He is. He is not an unfeeling, absentee deity or an impersonal force. The highly personal nature of the triune God shows how available He is to having a deep relationship with each one of us.
Who is God? All people ask that question eventually. When the opportunity comes to answer it, we should remember His attributes and actions and His trinitarian nature. After all, He deserves our best efforts to understand who He is.
Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1986), 35.
Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, reprint ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), 55–56.