As an introduction study to the topic of Trinitarianism, in today’s post we are looking at the communicable and incommunicable attributes of God. These might be new terms for you, but they basically mean two things:
- Communicable Attributes – These are the things that God shares with humans to some degree.
- Incommunicable Attributes – These are the things that God does not share with finite humanity.
Sometimes, in our effort to understand God we “shrink” God. For example, we might see God as a policeman, ill-humored parent, grand old man, heavenly bosom, or distant unloving father. Based on our physical experiences here on earth we might use those “lenses” to try to understand our God. In this post I want to give a thorough and clear explanation of the being of God.
Photo Credit: “Holy Trinity” by Hendrick van Balen
The Being of God
I. COMMUNICABLE ATTRIBUTES
First, I would like to look at the attributes of God that we more easily can understand because we share them to some degree. Let’s take a look at God’s communicable attributes.
A. God Is Truth
In Jesus’s prayer to God just before he was betrayed he asks God to help his disciples. He prays to God asking,
“Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth.” (John 17:17, NLT)
Once Jesus left, the disciples would work with the Holy Spirit to spread the Gospel. Jesus asks God to make the disciples holy with God’s truth. Also see Isa 40:8.
B. God Is Holy
One of my coworkers (who I was not sure is a Christian) at my part-time job outside of church once asked me, “Hey Christopher, what does it mean in Isaiah when the angels say, ‘Holy, holy, holy’? Why would the angels say it three times?” It was very exciting to hear him share this for two reasons. First, I love the fact that anyone knows what the book of Isaiah says because it is an Old Testament prophet which many people neglect. Second, I was comforted by the fact that while this guy might not be a Christian, he does have an interest in the Bible and God.
Here’s the verse in its entirety.
“They were calling out to each other, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Heaven’s Armies! The whole earth is filled with his glory!’” (Isaiah 6:3, NLT)
In the Hebrew language there was not a way to emphasize things with adjectives like we do in English. For example, there were not words like “very,” “increasingly,” “truly,” “especially,” “sure enough,” or “exceedingly.” Instead, if a writer in Hebrew really wanted to emphasize something he would repeat it two or three times. Here, the mighty seraphim (angels) were declaring the Lord is truly holy by saying the word three times in a row. For a similar scene see Rev 4:8.
C. God Is Just
The book of Revelation predicts the future events of God judging this world and taking it back under his control. During the judgments the kings, rulers, wealthy people, powerful people, slaves, and free people will go to the caves and mountains to hide from God.
“And they cried to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb.'” (Revelation 6:16, NLT)
The judgments of the wicked people of the earth are so harsh that they want to hide. God–who is mighty and just–will judge this world. He will reclaim it and take it back as his rightful possession. God is a just God and things done wrongly against him must be punished.
Other examples of God being just are seen in God’s “fierce anger” (Exod 32:10), how he shows his “anger from heaven” against all who are sinful and wicked (Rom 1:18), and how there will be a day of God’s “righteous judgment” (Rom 2:5). In addition to Rev 6:16 which I quoted above, the book of Revelation also shows the “just” attribute of God when the people call God “just” and “true” (Rev 15:3), when all the nations eventually “come and worship” God (Rev 15:4), and in the last days when God will “rule with an iron rod” (Rev 19:15).
D. God Is Merciful
God is just as I have shown above, but God is also merciful. Perhaps the best known and clearest expression of God’s mercy is seen in Paul’s letter to the Romans.
“For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins.” (Romans 3:23–24, NLT)
We’ve all sinned, we’ve all fallen short of God’s standard, but God is merciful and in his grace he makes us right through Jesus Christ! The American “I earned everything I got” view of these two verses usually includes, “Well I did my part.” Um, no you did not. This was something freely and graciously given by God in his mercy. Warren Wiersbe comments on these two verses, “We are justified without a cause! There is no cause in us that would merit the salvation of God! It is all of grace!” (Wiersbe, Be Right, 47).
Other examples of God’s mercy seen in Scripture are when the Lord passes in front of Moses and tells Moses that the Lord is a “God of compassion and mercy” (Exod 34:6). In one of David’s psalms he says that the Lord is “compassionate and merciful” (Pss 103:8). The introduction to Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians says that God is “merciful” (2 Cor 1:3). Lastly, Jesus Christ is our high priest and the writer of Hebrews says that we can go to the throne of our “gracious God” because we will receive his “mercy” and “help” when we need it (Heb 4:16).
E. God Is Wise
The book of Job was likely the first book of the Bible to be written (even before Genesis) and in it we learn that God is wise. Job says that God is “so wise” (Job 9:4). The Psalmist explains the many things that God has created and writes, “O LORD, what a variety of things you have made! In wisdom you have made them all” (Pss 104:24). Perhaps the clearest explanation of God’s wisdom is in Paul’s letter to the Romans.
“Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways! For who can know the Lord’s thoughts? Who knows enough to give him advice? And who has given him so much that he needs to pay it back? For everything comes from him and exists by his power and is intended for his glory. All glory to him forever! Amen.” (Romans 11:33–36, NLT)
In other words, God’s ways are so wise and amazing, sometimes it is hard to understand him and what he is doing. Yet, he is in control and he knows what is best. He is truly wise. Paul ends his letter with one final thought, “All glory to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27, NLT). Among all the theology Paul has taught them and explained in his letter to them, he reminds them that God is wise.
In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians he explains that Christ is God’s wisdom. For Christ is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24). Later he writes, “God has united you with Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made him to be wisdom himself” (1 Cor 1:30). In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he explains God’s mysterious plan for salvation which has been slowly revealed over time.
“God’s purpose in all this was to use the church to display his wisdom in its rich variety to all the unseen rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” (Eph 3:10, NLT)
The church was the manner in which God displayed his wisdom.
II. INCOMMUNICABLE ATTRIBUTES
When studying the being of God we have to also look at the attributes of God which he does not share with us.
A. God Is Tripersonal
In the first chapter of Genesis there is a glimpse of multiple members of the Godhead.
“Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.’” (Genesis 1:26, NLT, emphasis added)
This was on the sixth day when God was about to create Adam. God uses first person plural pronouns of “us” and “our” to describe his creative act making humans. While it is not clear here that there are three members of the Godhead, it is clear that more than one person exists within God.
Other evidence that God is tripersonal is seen in the book of Daniel when the “Son of Man” (which is Jesus) approaches the “Ancient One” (which is God the Father) in Daniel 7:13-14. Additionally, the three members of the Godhead are perhaps most seen in the Great Commission in Matt 28:18-20.
B. God Is Self-Sufficient
When I say “self-sufficient” I mean that God does not rely on anyone or anything for his existence. In other words, he needs nothing. He is whole and complete.
Near the end of the book of Job, God responds to Job’s harsh words to God by saying,
“Who has given me anything that I need to pay back? Everything under heaven is mine.” (Job 41:11, NLT)
God clearly owns everything and does not need anything from anyone. Similarly, it is said in the Psalms about God,
“For all the animals of the forest are mine, and I own the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird on the mountains, and all the animals of the field are mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for all the world is mine and everything in it.” (Pss 50:10–12, NLT)
God is self-sufficient and in possession of everything.
In Athens, the apostle Paul told the men about God saying,
“He is the God who made the world and everything in it. Since he is Lord of heaven and earth, he doesn’t live in man-made temples, and human hands can’t serve his needs—for he has no needs. He himself gives life and breath to everything, and he satisfies every need.” (Acts 17:24–25, NLT)
These men in Athens had lots of idols and icons about gods, but Paul wanted to point them to the true and amazing God who did not need thse men and does not need the men’s temple.
C. God Is Perfect
God is unlike humans because he is perfect. Need proof that humans are not perfect? Just look at my life! I mess things up every single day. I think evil thoughts, say inappropriate things, and do not always follow God’s will for my life. God is unlike me because he is perfect.
“When we read the Psalms, we discover the world around us and the God who created it, and we bow in worship: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork’ (Ps. 19:1). Whether we look up, down, or around us and feel the sun or the wind or the rain, God is in control. Those who worship nature are blind idolaters; those who worship the God who created all things have eyes to see the bounty and beauty of God’s universe” (Warren Wiersbe, The Delights and Disciplines of Bible Study, p. 89).
The prophet Habakkuk was giving prophecies to the nation of Judah telling them that they better turn from their evil ways because they were not following God’s will for their lives. Habakkuk bases his argument on who God is saying that God is “pure and cannot stand the sight of evil. Will you wink at their treachery? Should you be silent while the wicked swallow up people more righteous than they?” (Hab1:13, NLT). This is because-according to the apostle Paul-“everything God created is good, we should not reject any of it but receive it with thanks” (1 Tim 4:4, NLT). God is perfect. For “God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all” (1 John 1:5, NLT).
D. God Is Omniscient, All-Knowing, All-Wise, All-Seeing
God knows everything and sees everything. The clearest passage on this is the 139th Psalm.
“O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away. You see me when I travel and when I rest at home. You know everything I do. You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord. You go before me and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great for me to understand!” (Psalm 139:1–6, NLT)
A few important observations here. God knows “everything” about David (v. 1). God knows when David “sits down” and when he “stands up” (v. 2). God knows his “thoughts” (v. 2), and sees David when he “travels” and when he rests “at home” (v. 3). God knows “everything” that David does (v. 3) and what he is going to say even before he says it (v. 4). God is with David wherever he goes (v. 5).
Later in Psalm 139 David continues to reveal how God knows everything.
“You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed. How precious are your thoughts about me, O God. They cannot be numbered! I can’t even count them; they outnumber the grains of sand! And when I wake up, you are still with me!” (Psalm 139:16–18, NLT)
God “saw” David even before David was born (v. 16). God knew “every moment” and “every day” of David’s life (v. 16). God’s thoughts about David are so amazing that they cannont be numbered (v. 17). Also see Ecc 6:10.
In addition to David’s psalm the prophet Isaiah records God’s words where he declares, “I alone am God! I am God, and there is none like me. Only I can tell you the future before it even happens. Everything I plan will come to pass, for I do whatever I wish” (Isa 46:9–10, NLT). God knows the future and nothing happens without his direction or permission. Perhaps this amazing quality of God is what would lend Job’s friend Zophar to say, “Can you solve the mysteries of God? Can you discover everything about the Almighty? Such knowledge is higher than the heavens— and who are you? It is deeper than the underworld— what do you know? It is broader than the earth and wider than the sea. If God comes and puts a person in prison or calls the court to order, who can stop him?” (Job 11:7–10, NLT)
As mighty and knowledgeable and intelligent as man thinks he is, he can never compare to the all-knowing and all-wise God.
E. God Is Omnipotent, All-Powerful
In addition to being all-knowing God is also all-powerful. In the last book of the Bible, Revelation, the end times events are occurring and the people acknowledge that God is the omnipotent all-powerful God when they declare that he is the “Almighty” (Rev 1:8; 15:3; 16:14; 19:15). In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he also says that God is “Almighty” (2 Cor 6:18). The prophet Isaiah recorded God saying to the nation of Israel,
“From eternity to eternity I am God. No one can snatch anyone out of my hand. No one can undo what I have done.” (Isaiah 43:13, NLT)
Another prophet, Jeremiah, says something similar,
“O Sovereign Lord! You made the heavens and earth by your strong hand and powerful arm. Nothing is too hard for you!” (Jeremiah 32:17, NLT)
Additional passages that describe God as omnipotent and all-powerful are Pss 135.5-6; Isa 9:6; 44:24; 45:7; Matt 19:26; Eph 1:4-11; Heb 2:10; Rev 4:11; 22:13.
F. God Is Omnipresent, All-Existing
While God is all-knowing and all-powerful, he is also existing and present everywhere. This quality is known as God’s “omnipresence” or his “all-existing.” The clearest passage on this is in the Psalms.
“I can never escape from your Spirit! I can never get away from your presence! If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I go down to the grave, you are there. If I ride the wings of the morning, if I dwell by the farthest oceans, even there your hand will guide me, and your strength will support me. I could ask the darkness to hide me and the light around me to become night—but even in darkness I cannot hide from you. To you the night shines as bright as day. Darkness and light are the same to you.” (Psalm 139:7–12, NLT)
David reveals God’s omnipresence in this Psalm by saying that God is always with him (v. 7), that God is in heaven and the grave (v. 8), God is in the sky and in the ocean (vv. 9-10), and lastly that nothing can hide from God (vv. 11-12).
Similarly, the Lord reveals himself to the prophet Jeremiah by saying,
“’Am I a God who is only close at hand?’” says the Lord. ‘No, I am far away at the same time. Can anyone hide from me in a secret place? Am I not everywhere in all the heavens and earth?’ says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 23:23–24, NLT)
When David’s son Solomon builds a magnificent temple for the Lord, Solomon acknowledged that a simple man-made temple could not contain the ever present God. Solomon declared, “But will God really live on earth? Why, even the highest heavens cannot contain you. How much less this Temple I have built” (1 Kings 8:27, NLT). Solomon knew that God was greater and more powerful and could not be limited to one single place. In the New Testament Paul affirmed what Solomon already knew: “He is the God who made the world and everything in it. Since he is Lord of heaven and earth, he doesn’t live in man made temples” (Acts 17:24, NLT).
The richest passage about God’s omnipresence is too long to quote here, yet I encourage you to read it on your own: Isaiah 4:12-26.
III. CONCLUSION AND APPLICATION
A. God is holy and we are to be holy too.
I hope that this post, “The Being of God,” has shown you that God is different than us, yet he shares some of this characteristics with us. We are created in God’s image and made by him; therefore we resemble some of God’s character and qualities. We bear his image. With that, let’s seek to be holy just as God is holy. We may not have the “incommunicable attributes” listed above, but I do believe we have the “communicable attributes” which allow us to follow God and be transformed into an image that reflects him.
B. The Christian God is both infinite and personal.
Our God is infinite by the facts that he is all-knowing, all-wise, all-seeing, all-powerful, and all-existing. Yet, God had made himself known to us (Eph 1:4-11). God sent his Son–Jesus Christ–to live and dwell with us (John 1:1-3, 14) so that we could know God and follow him. What an amazing gift that is! Our God is so mighty and so powerful yet he also has made himself known to us in a personal way.