What Is God? (WSC Q. 4)

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In the final analysis, we must believe what the Bible says about God regardless of what we would want it to say. Otherwise, we are merely making idols in our own image.

What Is God?

Rev. Matthew J. Stanghelle
February 16, 2020

What is God? Few questions have stretched the minds of philosophers and religious men like this one. To know God is the greatest human pursuit, and it is a daunting spiritual and intellectual quest. Is God, as the Greek philosopher Plotinus taught, the One that cannot be described by human words? Or, can he only be known by what he is not, as some have taught? What is God?

But it is not just philosophers who ask these questions. What kid hasn’t asked his parent about God?—Where did God come from? Did he have a beginning? What does it mean that he doesn’t have a beginning? Where does God live? What did God do before he created the world? How can he be everywhere at once? In fact, we all try to comprehend him, but we come up short every time. 

Without God’s help, we could never know who he is with any accuracy. We need divine revelation! Thanks be to God that he reveals himself in the Bible. Last week, we concluded the introductory section of the catechism which covers man’s chief end and the doctrine of the Holy Scriptures. We saw last week that the Scriptures principally teach what we are to believe about God and what duty God requires of us. 

This week we begin to unpack the doctrine of God. This doctrine carries us from question 4, which we will look at tonight, all the way to question 38. We will cover a lot of ground over the coming weeks. The doctrine of God covers everything from God’s nature to the application of redemption. All of which is subsumed under the header of what man is to believe concerning God.

It is sheer grace that enables us to say anything about God. The only reason we can is because God has condescended to reveal himself to us in human words in the Bible. The Bible is the only authorized revelation about him (and we addressed that exclusive claim in question two). To try to say anything meaningful about God by any other source is a vain pursuit. 

This is, in fact, what makes philosophy so unsuccessful. Indeed, it is the most failed discipline in the entire field of humanities. Philosophy, as a discipline, has never been able to answer its own basic questions. It has never made any meaningful progress. John Frame explains, 

Yet in secular philosophy, none of these [basic] questions are ever answered. In other disciplines, such as astronomy, history, geology, and linguistics, one can trace progress to some extent (except when their questions are linked to philosophical questions). But in philosophy itself, thinkers today discuss essentially the same questions that Plato and Aristotle did. That interesting fact suggests that the history of philosophy might be to an extent a history of wrong turns. —John Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology[1]

The reason that philosophy is to an extent a history of wrong turns is that philosophers deliberately try to understand God and the universe apart from divine revelation. They rely on their minds and reason alone. Thus, they place the authority of their mind and intuitions above, and most often times against, divine revelation. When you do that you will fail miserably at coming to terms with God. 

At the end of the day, each one of us has to make the choice: Is my ultimate authority the Word of God or the reasoning of men (whether that be your own or someone else’s)? I would urge you to choose the former, because the latter is nothing but a three-thousand-year history of failure. 

So many people today, and sadly too many Christians, make their final judgments about God based on their own feelings and desires about what they think God should be, rather than how he is revealed in the Bible. The Arminian theologian, Roger Olson, exemplifies this problem when he makes the chilling statement,

I have said that if it were revealed to me in a way I could not doubt that the God of consistent, five point Calvinism is the one true God over all, the maker of heaven and earth, I would not worship him because I would not think him worthy of worship. —Roger E. Olson, “Do Calvinists and Arminians Worship the Same God”[2]

We do not enter the Calvinist-Arminian debate tonight. But what you need to see here is that Olson is putting his own personal feelings about God above what Scripture teaches, if what Scriptures teaches is different than what he wants to believe about him. He makes himself the final judge of truth concerning God when he says, “I would not worship him because I would not think him worthy of worship” (emphasis mine). 

This is a chilling statement and I shuttered when I read it. Olson is saying that if God is not who he thinks God should be, he would not worship him. That is a startling example of a man who has placed his mind and feelings about God above divine revelation, and you need to make the choice of what your final judge of truth will be—yourself or the Bible. 

The view of this church, as well as this catechism, is that the Bible is the only infallible source of truth concerning God. In the final analysis, we must believe what the Bible says about God regardless of what we would want it to say. Otherwise, we are merely making idols in our own image. So, the catechism keeps pointing us to the Bible so that we have a right view of the God we worship and obey.

Q. What is God?
A. God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.

Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 4

We will look at this answer in two parts: the greatness of God and the goodness of God.[3]

The Greatness of God

The Westminster divines point us first to the greatness of God. In theological language, the greatness of God is historically known as his “incommunicable attributes.” That means that these are the attributes that God does not share with us.

1. God is a Spirit (John 4:24)

The catechism points us to John 4:24. Jesus is speaking to the woman at the well and he reveals the true nature of God as spirit.

God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. —John 4:24

Jesus shows us that God does not have a material substance. He does not have hands and feet. He has no body parts at all. There will be times when the Bible describes God using the image of the body. For example, Moses says in Exodus 15:12, “You stretched out your right hand; the earth swallowed them.” This is called an anthropomorphism. 

The Bible uses language that is familiar to us to understand God. It says something true about God, but it uses analogical language. So, the Bible will talk about the eyes of the Lord, or his face, or his hands, or his arm or his ear, etc. These are all cases of the Bible revealing something true about God in a way that we can understand something that is completely foreign to us. 

God does not have a material substance. This means that God is not the tree or the rock, or mother earth. God is spirit and he has no material substance. There are other spiritual beings, but they are created beings. We have souls, but they are created. Angels are spirits, but they are created, too. 

What about the incarnation? Doesn’t God become man? God does take on human flesh in the mystery of the incarnation. But the distinction of Christ’s divine and human natures is clearly maintained—this topic will be covered at a later time. The point here is simply that God is Spirit. You can’t see him. God is as Paul says in 1 Timothy, the one “who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Tim. 6:16). God is pure spirit.

2. God is Infinite (Job 11:7-9)

God is also infinite. He is without limit in every way. Job exclaims, 

Can you find out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty? It is higher than heaven—what can you do? Deeper than Sheol—what can you know? Its measure is longer than the earth and broader than the sea. —Job 11:7-9

God is without limits. He is everywhere at once. God is right here, right now with us, and he is simultaneously in the farthest corner of the galaxy. The earth cannot contain him. The heavens cannot wrap around him. Indeed, the entire space-time continuum cannot contain God.

You cannot outrun him, you cannot hide from him, God is everywhere at once at all times. Nor can you out love him, or outthink him, or out judge him. God is love, he is truth, he is justice. Both in respect to his greatness and his goodness, he is inexhaustible. God is infinite.

3. God is Eternal (Psalm 90:2)

Related to God’s infinite nature is his eternality. God is eternal. Moses testifies to this when he says 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. —Psalm 90:2

There is not time when God did not exist. Indeed, God supersedes time. Right there is enough to throw your brain into a tailspin. How can you conceive of anything without time? To say that God came before time is still describing God in temporal terms. How can God just be?

So, God does not have a birthday. God will never die. This entire universe will wear out like a garment, but God goes on. 

4. God is Unchangeable (James 1:17)

And this leads us to the next attribute: God is unchangeable. James says,

Every good gift 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

Human beings are fickle creatures. We change, we grow old, we gain weight, we get wrinkles, we get achy, we decay, and we die. Likewise, our mood can change from one day to the next—sometimes even from one moment to the next. Our tastes for food and music and recreation change over time. Our thoughts and attitudes about this or that evolves over time—maybe sometimes they even devolve. 

We can barely keep a new year’s resolution longer than three weeks. We set out with one goal in mind and turn out to do something different, entirely. We break promises all the time. We are fickle and unstable creatures. But God never changes. His word holds true. His purpose stands fast. His covenant he will not break. For God is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb. 13:8). 

The Goodness of God

God is great and he is also good. The catechism now turns to God’s communicable attributes. I borrow the phrase “good” from the theologian Millard Erickson. Perhaps we are a little inconsistent here since goodness is listed as one of the communicable attributes itself. Nevertheless, I find that it is easier to remember God’s attributes by the categories “greatness and goodness” than “incommunicable and communicable.” God is infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his communicable attributes. 

1. In His Being (Exodus 3:14-15)

God is not a nameless void. He is a being, and he has a name. In the book of Exodus, God reveals his timeless, memorial name to Moses,

God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’ ” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. —Exodus 3:14-15

There a few things that will draw the world’s ire more than the name of God itself—I AM WHO I AM. God is what he is and he couldn’t care less what anyone thinks about it. God does not need to explain himself. He has no need to justify himself. Human beings can rant and rail at God, but that won’t change a thing because God simply is what he is! He is YHWH, the great I AM.[4]

When you read your Bible and you see the word “LORD” spelled with all caps, this signifies that Yahweh is being used in the original Hebrew manuscripts. This name, this memorial name, is how God chooses to be known and remembered throughout all generations. So, when we say, “Praise the Lord,” or we call upon the name of the Lord, we are referring to Yahweh. Jesus is himself Yahweh, and that will be explained in question 6.

2. In His Wisdom (Psalm 147:5)

God is the only wise God (Rom. 16:27). The psalmist writes,

Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure. —Psalm 147:5

Philosophers and men in every generation have railed against the wisdom of God. They have propped themselves up as the final arbiter of truth and wisdom. Philosophy itself means, “the love of wisdom.” And yet, the wisdom by which it speaks is man’s wisdom. In fact, the French and atheist philosopher, Luc Ferry, says that philosophy claims to save us apart from God—he says, “the great philosophies can also be defined as doctrines of salvation (but without the help of God).”[5]

To this kind of folly, Paul wrote many ages before,

Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” —1 Corinthians 3:18-20

Elsewhere he writes,

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. —Romans 11:33-36

3. In His Power and Holiness (Revelation 4:8; 15:4)

God’s power and holiness are seen in two key texts in Revelation. John writes in 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!” —Revelation 4:8

God alone can be described as almighty. In his power and glory, God is set apart from all other beings. In fact, this is the basic definition of holiness—to be set apart. Because God stands far above all other beings in his power and might, the angels worship him saying, “Holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty.”

Likewise, in Revelation 15:4, John highlights the fact that God alone is holy. And because God alone is holy, he alone is worthy of our worship,

Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.” —Revelation 15:4

4. In His Justice, Goodness and Truth (Exodus 34:6-7)

We return to the name of Yahweh. The Lord is not a fickle god. He is not like a god in the Roman pantheon or in Norse mythology. He is not like those gods who were selfish, sneaky and greedy. He was not like them in rejoicing in evil and trickery and lies. God is just, he is good, and he is truth. These realities are imbedded into the name of God itself.

The Lord defines his own name when he passes by Moses in Exodus 34:6-7. There we read,

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” —Exodus 34:6-7

God is the true and only God. He is like no other pretended god conceived by the mind of man. He is just, he is good, and he is truth.

How Is God Infinite, Eternal and Unchangeable in His Communicable Attributes?

Question 4 gives us a picture of God, from the Bible, that no philosopher or philosophy could every give us. The Bible teaches that God is infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being wisdom, power, holiness, justice goodness and truth. God is all of these things. But one question remains, and we will close with this. How is God infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his communicable attributes? To answer that question, Thomas Vincent writes,

How is God said to be infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth?… Creatures have a being, but it is a finite being—a being in time, a changeable being; God’s being is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable… Creatures may have wisdom, but it is finite and imperfect wisdom; God’s wisdom is infinite and absolutely perfect… Creatures may have some power, but it is finite and limited power…but God is infinite in power—he is omnipotent, and can do all things independently…Creatures may have some holiness, and justice and goodness, and truth; but these are qualities in them—they are finite, and in an inferior degree…but these things are essence in God—they are infinite and perfect in him; his holiness is infinite, his truth is infinite; and all these are eternally in him, without any variableness or possibility of change. —Thomas Vincent, The Shorter Catechism Explained from Scripture[6]

Beloved, God is inexhaustibly good, and God is inexhaustibly great. Who is like him? Who but he deserves all glory and honor and praise? Therefore, we can worship our Lord with Paul when he says,

To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. —1 Timothy 1:17

[1] John M. Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology (1st Ed.; Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2015), 36.

[2] Roger Olson, “Do Arminians and Calvinists Worship the Same God,” 5 September, 2019. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2019/09/do-arminians-and-calvinists-worship-the-same-god-how.

[3] Baptist theologian, Millard Erickson, helpfully labels the incommunicable and communicable attributes of God as his greatness and goodness in: Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology. (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1998), 289.

[4] YHWH is God’s eternal name, as revealed in the Bible (e.g. Exod. 3:14-15; Exod. 34:6-7, et. al.). This is known as the Tetragrammaton. YHWH is pronounced Yahweh. Older renderings use the word, “Jehovah.”

[5] Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living (New York: Harper Perennial, 2011), 6.

[6] Thomas Vincent, The Shorter Catechism Explained from Scripture (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2010), 28-29.