Are God’s Attributes Relevant Today?
Does This Matter?
Do God’s attributes matter to Christians today? Most of us take them for granted and seldom think about them specifically. Does anybody seriously discuss why God’s invisibility is important? Theologians may argue over things like impassibility and eternity, but most people do not. They assume that God is eternal and that he cares about us, but they do not puzzle over whether he himself suffers. The divine attributes appear to be abstractions and are therefore best left to specialists who are free to argue about them in theological faculties and academic journals, without any impact on everyday life.
This attitude may be widespread, but it is irresponsible and dangerous. God’s attributes may be hard to fathom, but they matter greatly for our relationship to him. We live in a culture where anything “spiritual,” transcendent, or metaphysical is at best marginalized, if not denied altogether. Ours is a material world, where every thought and action can be measured in finite terms and even programmed, thanks to the marvels of modern technology. We are of the impression that the only happiness we can find is one we create for ourselves, not by looking beyond our universe but by stretching it to the limit and exploiting its potential. The assumption is that if we do that, we shall resolve the problems that continue to plague human life and advance toward paradise.
In such a vision, there is no logical place for God, and the religious view of life is excluded either explicitly or simply by being ignored and relegated to private opinion. No Christian can accept such an outlook. For us, the finite world is the creation of an infinite and eternal God who exists above and beyond it. He has made us as we are, he governs us by his almighty power, and one day he will bring it all to an end. There will be a new heaven and a new earth, still finite in a created sense but no longer bound by the limitations of time or subject to the ravages of sinful human beings (Rev. 21:1–8). This transformation will come about not by some internal development of the existing material order, nor by human ingenuity, but by the direct intervention of the God who transcends it. The attributes of God bear witness to that transcendence, and it is because we believe in him that we can consider the world as it truly is. We are material creatures designed to live in the present finite order, but we have a relationship with the God who has made it and who gives us the ability to rise above it in our own spiritual life and experience.
The Attributes of God
In this addition to the Short Studies in Systematic Theology series, theologian Gerald Bray examines the communicable and incommunicable attributes of God.
Let us look at how this works out in practice. It is because God is infinite and invisible that he can be omnipresent, and it is because he is omnipresent that we have ready access to him at all times. The relationship we have with God would not be possible if he were limited by time and place—we would have to go to him (and perhaps confine ourselves to “office hours”) in order to speak to him, and his help would not be readily available to us. That was the case with the pagan gods of antiquity, as we can see from the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:20–40). Elijah worshiped a God who was always present and prepared to act in power, whereas Baal was basically “asleep at the wheel”—unreliable and unavailable when called upon. Christians, on the other hand, know that God is always present with us, and that we can call on him wherever we are and whenever we want, especially in light of the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, God with us. Nothing in heaven or earth can separate us from the love of God, because he is always present with us in power (Rom. 8:38–39).
Recent debates over God’s impassibility have also taught us the importance of understanding God’s attributes correctly. The modern emphasis is on a God who shares our pain, and for that reason the traditional doctrine of his impassibility has come under attack on the ground that his inability to suffer makes him remote and even robotic in his relationship with us. But the love of God toward us is not manifested by “sharing our pain”; rather, it is seen in the compassionate way in which he meets us in our suffering and delivers us from it in Christ. Jesus taught his disciples to put spiritual healing before its physical counterpart, and we must follow him in this (Matt. 10:28). If our spiritual condition is right, then we shall bear our physical pain, knowing not only that we will experience suffering in this world but also that he has overcome that (John 16:33). He will not abandon us in our need any more than he abandons the rest of his creation; in his infinite power he is able to do immeasurably more than we can ask or think (Matt. 6:25–33; Luke 12:22–32; Eph. 3:20).
The all-important distinction between God’s essential attributes and his relational ones is the key to understanding how God can understand our suffering and at the same time be able to rescue us from it. God’s eternity and his immutability are necessary for us to have assurance of our salvation. If God could change his mind, there would be no guarantee that his promises to us would be fulfilled, and we would not be able to trust him. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). The writer to the Hebrews knew how important it was to say that, because Christ’s atoning sacrifice was made once for all on the cross. It is eternally valid because it is the work of God the Son, which has been accepted and validated by the Father, who raised him from the dead. It is easy for human beings to fall into sin, to doubt the saving power of God, and to wonder whether he can ever forgive us for the things we have knowingly done to offend and deny him. But while we go up and down, changing constantly as our mood swings, God remains the same—what he has promised, he will fulfill, because he is eternal and immutable. It is a message of hope to those in despair, an assurance that however far we may wander from the sheepfold, the good shepherd will never let us get away.
The power of God must also be unlimited, because if there were obstacles that he could not overcome, our salvation would be insecure. What would happen if we were to face a challenge too great for God to handle? Would we be destroyed because we had come up against a force stronger than God? No Christian can believe that. We are “more than conquerors” because of God’s loving presence in our lives, and the entire book of Revelation is a song of praise to the victory of the Lamb who was slain and who now reigns in glory. He is the one who is, who was, and who is to come—the Almighty (Rom. 8:37: Rev. 1:8). Thus, those seeming abstractions that appear on paper when we discuss God’s attributes in fact turn out to be fundamental principles that undergird our experience of his saving power in our lives.
What is true of God’s essential attributes is equally true of his relational ones, which often appear to be more immediately relevant to us. God does not expect us to be invisible or immortal, which would be impossible, but he does want us to be holy, righteous, and good. As I have pointed out, these qualities are meaningful to us because they instruct us how to live in a way that pleases him. For us to be holy means believing, understanding, and obeying God’s will within the confines of our human nature. We are not expected to become something we were not created to be, but we are to fulfill our calling as his children here on earth.
Whether we believe that we can succeed at this depends on how we understand what is expected of us. If we think that being holy means becoming a different kind of being, then we are certain to fail. This was the problem that the Protestant Reformers had to confront; the official theology of their time taught that human nature had to be supplemented and transformed by the superimposition of “grace,” which was understood as a kind of medicine that would heal the defects of our physical being and make it possible to be more like God.
We understand our relationship with God more clearly when we see not only how he differs from us, but also how we can relate to him in spite of that.
When Martin Luther proclaimed that the Christian is a sinner saved by grace through faith, he was rejecting this understanding and replacing it with something quite different. It is not possible for us to be physically transformed into something more spiritual or “divine” than what we already are, but by the indwelling presence of God’s Spirit we can live in a way that conforms to his will as we are transformed by the renewal of our minds (Rom. 12:1–2). Our “success,” if that is the word for it, is measured by our faith in Christ, not our achievements; or, to put it in theological language, we are justified in God’s eyes by our faith and not by our works.
It is here that holiness intersects with righteousness. Holiness describes what we are in the sight of God. As his children, we have been adopted into his family, set apart from the world, and equipped to live in a way that pleases him. Righteousness describes how this works out in practice. God is perceived to be righteous because of the way he acts (Gen. 18:25). The same is true of us. What we do ought to conform to what God expects from us, but we can only act within the limits of our finite capacity. It is for that reason more than any other that no temporal act on our part can earn us eternal salvation. It is not the content or quality of what we do that counts us as righteous but placing our faith in the content and quality of who Christ is and what he has done.
“Goodness” is the term that describes what happens when a holy person acts in a righteous way. In God there is no question about this—he cannot do otherwise. But human beings are good only insofar as our humble obedience to God’s will leads us to act accordingly. This is possible not in our own strength but only as we are guided and strengthened by his Holy Spirit, who dwells in our hearts by faith. To put it another way, our goodness is not ours at all, but the reflection of God’s work in us. That is why, even when we have done what God wants us to do, we must still confess that we are “unworthy servants” who have done no more than is expected of us (Luke 17:10).
Holiness, righteousness, and goodness are not abstract qualities that belong to God and are somehow measured out to us according to our capacity to receive them. Rather, they describe different aspects of our relationship to him as believers. “Holiness” speaks of our status as children of God; “righteousness,” of our faithful obedience to his commandments; and “goodness,” of the results that flow from congruity between who we are and what we do. It is not the being of God that determines this but his will, revealed to us in Holy Scripture and applied to our lives by the indwelling of his Spirit.
We understand our relationship with God more clearly when we see not only how he differs from us, but also how we can relate to him in spite of that. The study of his attributes, therefore, lays the proper foundation for our lives with him.
This article is adapted from The Attributes of God: An Introduction by Gerald Bray.
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