The Attributes of God - by William PlumerThe Attributes of God and the Doctrine of God
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The Attributes of God by William S. Plumer
The Attributes of God
I. All God’s attributes are perfections; and all God’s perfections are immutable, without bound, eternal, consistent with each other, and essential to his glorious character. Without any one of them he would not be God, nor could we adore him.
II. Many attempts have been made to classify the attributes of God; nor would it be safe to assert that these have been of no service. Some have spoken of them as positive and negative; others as absolute and relative; others as natural and moral; and still others as communicable and incommunicable. Perhaps the latter of these has been as helpful as any other; but none of them completely covers the whole case. When we look at a rainbow we see a variety of colors, yet blended into one rainbow. So is the character of God one perfect whole, though he has various attributes. We cannot exactly define the limits of one color in the rainbow, and tell where it blends with another. In like manner there is a blending of one divine perfection with another, yet the whole is one infinitely beautiful and perfect character. There is nothing in excess; there is nothing lacking. We do not separate the rays of the rainbow, though we distinguish between them. Neither do we separate, but merely distinguish between the attributes of God. In the Bible the place given to the divine attributes is very large. The subject is vastly important. It ought to fill a large space in all our religious teachings and thoughts. Yet we cannot go beyond what we are taught from above. We know not God, except as he reveals himself in his word and in his works.
III. In forming our ideas of God’s character we ascribe to him all that we esteem perfection, and refuse to ascribe to him anything that we esteem an imperfection. So that if we should learn of any excellence of which we are now ignorant, we should at once, if piously disposed, say that God had it. It is hardly possible for anyone to value too highly the knowledge of God’s perfections. The best way of studying the subject is by comparing Scripture with Scripture. Beware of one error sometimes committed in studying God’s character: never imagine that one of his perfections is in conflict with another. His justice perfectly agrees with his mercy.
IV. In teaching us the nature of God the Scriptures often use two figures of speech. One is where they employ the parts of the human body to represent to us the acts or attributes of God. As men see with their eyes, so to teach us God’s omniscience the Scriptures speak of the eyes of the Lord. And as men hear with their ears, so God’s gracious attention to our prayers is spoken of as his ears being open. Sometimes we have both these figures in the same verse: “The eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears are open unto their cry.” Psalm 34:15; 1 Pet. 3:12; 2 Chron. 6:40. Oftener perhaps they are spoken of separately: “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good.” Proverbs 15:3. Compare Amos 9:8. “Lord, hear my voice: let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication.” Psalm 130:2. Compare Psalm 10:17. In like manner we often read of the face of God, the hand of God, and the arm of the Lord. Isaiah 51:9; Psalm 34:16; 1 Pet. 3:12; Deut. 5:15; Acts 3:17. In like manner the earth is called God’s footstool, as if he trod upon it; and the sea is the path for his footsteps. Isaiah 66:1; Acts 7:49; Psalm 77:19.
The other figure of speech is where the feelings of the human heart are used to teach us the mind or nature of God. Thus the Most High is said to be pleased or displeased. 1 Kings 3:10; Isaiah 53:10; Gen. 38:10; Psalm 60:1. So God is said to be wearied with the tiresome iniquity of men, Isaiah 43:24; Mal. 2:17; and to be angered with men’s sins, Psalm 106:32. But none of these things need perplex any one. We have such forms of speech employed to aide our conceptions of God. They are intended to give us some idea of the nature of God, who has neither passions nor bodily parts, and yet surely acts in a way pointed out by these figures.
V. These attributes certainly belong to God: self-existence, independence, eternity, immutability, infinity, spirituality, simplicity, majesty, omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience, wisdom, truth, faithfulness, benevolence, holiness, justice, glory, happiness or blessedness, greatness, incomparableness, unsearchableness, and unity. In studying the divine character, it is very safe to follow the Scriptures and admit such distinctions as are made in his holy word.
VI. The self-existence of God is his having life in himself. John 5:26. God owes not his existence to any other. He would exist if there were no other being in the universe. We live and move and have our being in God; but he lives and acts and has his being in himself. He is never strengthened or weakened in his existence, by others. There is no greater mystery than God’s self-existence. He is deathless, immortal. 1 Tim. 1:17.
VII. Of course he is independent. Were he not self-existent he would be dependent. He who has his life by the will or power of another, is in the highest degree dependent. But he who has his life without and beyond the will of others, must be God, and must be independent in all his perfections. He is far above his highest creatures. Of course creatures can lay God under no obligations. And it is both folly and wickedness to claim for ourselves or to ascribe to any creature independence of God. God often asserts his own independence, and devout men love to know that he is wholly beyond need, or the help of man. Job 15:1 5; Psalm 50:9-12; Isaiah 40:13, 14; Romans 11:35.
VIII. God is also eternal. A deaf mute beautifully said, “Eternity is the lifetime of God.” And a great prophet more beautifully says of him, “He inhabits eternity.” Isaiah 57:15. In his sublime psalm Moses says, “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” Psalm 90:2. So in like manner the prophet says, “His goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.” Micah 5:2. God’s existence is not measured by minutes, hours, days, years, or centuries. With the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. God’s eternity is matter of worship, not of curiosity. “An eternity past puzzles all human comprehension.” No less incomprehensible is an eternity to come.
IX. God is immutable in his nature, attributes, and purposes. Infinitude does not create a greater gulf between man and his Maker than does immutability. With the Most High is “no variableness neither shadow of turning.” Jas. 1:17. All things else change, because they are finite or created. Not so with God. Psalm 102:26; Heb. 1:12. It is a great mercy to godly men, that they can change for the better; but it is a joy to them that the Most High changes not. 2 Cor. 3:18. The wicked often pervert this doctrine to the worst purposes, even to the restraining of prayer, but that is their folly and their sin. Every change in character is for the better or the worse. If God could change for the better, that would show that his character is not now perfect. If he could change for the worse, we could not adore an imperfect being. “I am the Lord; I change not.” Mal. 3:6.
X. God is also infinite. Both God’s unchangeableness and infinitude relate to all his perfections and to his very being. In every sense God is unlimited. No wise being could limit himself, and none could limit the Almighty but himself. It is as clear as day that he who made all things must be boundless. The Scriptures expressly declare that in several of his perfections he is infinite. Psalm 16:2; 147:5; Isaiah 6:2-6; Job 4:17, 18; Romans 1:20; Heb. 11:3.
XI. God is a Spirit. We read of the Spirit of God in the second verse of Scripture, and often afterwards; but this refers to the third person of the Trinity. God’s spirituality is implied in all the Old Testament Scriptures. But our Lord says expressly, “God is a Spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” John 4:24. While God’s will is the rule of worship, his nature is the foundation of worship. When we say God is a Spirit, we reject all gross conceptions of him as possessed of bodily parts, or personally connected with matter. It is because God is a Spirit that he is unchangeable, for matter is always changing. For the same reason he is the “incorruptible God,” as Paul calls him, Romans 1:23. For the same cause he is “invisible.” Romans 1:20; 1 Tim. 1:17; Heb. 11:27. He is alike imperceptible to all our senses. “No man has seen God at any time.” 1 John 4:12. The perfection of the character of God is essentially connected with his spirituality. God is not only a Spirit, but he is uncreated spirit. This is the great difference between God on the one side, and angels and men on the other; so that the difference between him and them must forever be immeasurable. He is the Father of our spirits. Heb. 12:9. We are his offspring. Acts 17:28. But God is a Spirit existing forever, uncaused, uncreated. No wonder God forbids men to worship him by images. Exod. 20:4, 5.
XII. Because of the divine spirituality we must believe in the divine simplicity. God is an uncompounded essence. His attributes are all essential. They all inhere in his infinite excellence. His nature is not complex, though his attributes are distinct. Not only is there no deceit, no subtlety in the divine mind, but everything is unmixed, uncompounded in his being and nature.
XIII. With God also is solemn majesty, unequaled grandeur. An ancient king of Egypt rode in a chariot drawn by four conquered kings. But Jehovah “rides upon the heavens of heavens, which were of old.” Psalm 68:33. “Behold, the Lord rides on a swift cloud.” Isaiah 19:1. There are two passages of Scripture which evidently describe the same august scene. The first is 2 Sam. 22:8-18; the other is Psalm 18:7-17. No good man can read either of these passages without being impressed with the solemn majesty of God. There is another extended portion of Scripture on the same subject which has been thought by some to be the sublimest part of the oracles of God. It is found in Hab. 3:3-16. Read it. “Yours, O Lord, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty.” 1 Chron. 29:11. “The voice of the Lord is full of majesty.” Psalm 29:4.
XIV. God is omnipotent. The power of God is sufficient to effect whatever he is determined to do. This is called his ordinate power. It also could do whatever involves not a contradiction. This is called his absolute power. His ordinate power produced and sustains heaven and earth. By it he has wrought all his pleasure in all places of his dominion. By his absolute power he could have made more worlds and more orders of beings than he has made, if he had seen fit to do so. None can think of greater power than that by which something is made out of nothing. Yet out of nothing God has made all things. Nor do any of his works cost him labor. He said, “Let there be light; and there was light.” Gen1:3.” He spoke, and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast.” Psalm 33:9. He upholds all things by the word of his power. Heb. 1:3. “He stretches out the north over the empty place, and hangs the earth on nothing.” Job 26:7. “He binds up the water in his thick clouds, and the cloud is not rent under them.” Job 26:8. “The pillars of heaven tremble and are astonished at his reproof.” Job 26:11. “He takes up the islands as a very little thing.” Isaiah 40:15. “He weighs the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance.” Isaiah 40:12. Lo, these are parts of his ways, but how little a portion is heard of him! The thunder of his power who can understand? The stability of the universe depends upon the power of God. If any says that God cannot make a thing to be and not to be, at the same time and in the same sense, and thence argue that his power is limited, the answer is, that we ascribe to God nothing but perfection. Absurdities are far from him. It was a great revelation which God made to the patriarch, “I am the Almighty God.” Gen. 17:1.
XV. God is everywhere present. He fills immensity. He is a spirit, and cannot be divided; yet he is always present in every place with the whole of his being and nature. No limits can bound him. A good part of the one hundred and thirty-ninth Psalm is taken up in celebrating God’s omnipresence. “You both precede and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great for me to know! 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 place of the dead, 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.” Psalm 139:5-10. Nowhere does the Psalmist use more beautiful imagery than here. The sun is distant from the earth ninety-two millions of miles; and yet ninety-two millions of times ninety-two millions of miles beyond the sun in every direction God is, as much present as in our earth.
XVI. God is also omniscient. His knowledge is infinite in kind and extent. It is wholly underived. Job 21:22. There is no succession in God’s knowledge. It is eternal. He knows all things past, present, and future; all things that ever have been, are, or ever shall be. All actual existences are before his mind. “Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world.” Acts 15:18. “His understanding is infinite.” Psalm 147:5. “Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight; but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do.” Heb. 4:13. “Hell is naked before him, and destruction has no covering.” Job 26:6. To him the gates of death have been opened, and he has seen the doors of the shadow of death. Job 38:17. In heaven, earth, and hell, nothing is hid from his all-seeing eye. God knows the hearts of all his creatures. Psalm 17:3; 139:1-5. How this omniscience troubles the wicked many have felt and declared. The darkness hides not from God, but the night shines as the day; the darkness and the light are both alike to him. Psalm 139:12.
God also knows all things which ever could have been, could now be, or could hereafter be on any conceivable supposition. His intelligence embraces all plans, all truths, all systems. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it.” Psalm 139:6. Ignorance is a great imperfection. God can neither learn nor forget anything.
XVII. Of course God is infinitely wise. He orders all things to a right end–even his own glory. In every part of creation his wisdom shines forth. “By wisdom he made the heavens.” Psalm 136:5. “O Lord, how manifold are your works; in wisdom have you made them all.” Psalm 104:24. Creation has sometimes been criticized. The result has been the folly of fools. Every muscle, fiber, joint, gland, vein, and artery of an animal frame is well fitted to the use for which it was intended. The blindness of men concerning the displays of God’s wisdom is one of the firmest proofs of a sottish depravity. “The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God; for it is written, He takes the wise in their own craftiness. And again, The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain.” 1 Cor. 3:19, 20. Never did folly show itself more clearly than when Pharaoh said to his great men, “Come, let us deal wisely.” The masterpiece of divine wisdom is the plan of redemption, where “mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” It is wiser for us to cry, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments and untraceable His ways!” than to say, “We are the men; wisdom will die with us.”
XVIII. Jehovah is a God of truth. As he cannot die, so he cannot lie. He is infinitely removed from everything like insincerity or deception. God tempts no man, mocks no man, deceives no man. All his calls and offers and statements are sincere. “It is impossible for God to lie.” Heb. 6:18. The truth of God is the basis of all our reasonings in natural religion. Admit that God will favor a lie, and miracles prove nothing in favor of any teaching. All that he has said is true. God’s truth relates to all that he has spoken.
XVIX. The divine faithfulness, strictly speaking, relates to the divine promises, though in Scripture faithfulness and truth are sometimes used interchangeably. Whatever God has engaged to do, he will certainly perform. “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise.” 2 Pet. 3:9. “Your counsels of old are faithfulness and truth.” Isaiah 25:1. His faithfulness reaches unto the clouds, yes, unto all generations. Psalm 36:5; 119:90. The hopes of the pious neither have nor need any firmer rock on which to rest than that found in the absolute certainty that God will make good all his engagements.
XX. Jehovah is a God of infinite benevolence. His good-will has no parallel. The terms used to express this divine perfection are such as love, pity, goodness, kindness, mercy, patience, forbearance, and long-suffering. That was a great revelation of himself which God made to Moses: “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty.” Exod. 34:6. Because God is pure he has delight in all his holy creatures; but because he is kind he pities the distressed, is patient towards the rebellious, offers grace and life to the guilty, and is good to all. In any other being, benevolence would be exhausted by the perversity and ingratitude of men. “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed.” Lam. 3:22. All creation is but the overflowing of his love. Jehovah is infinitely removed from all malice, or evil intention. In creation, providence, and grace–are many and amazing wonders of love. The whole story of the divine kindness will never be told, though saints and angels will be telling it forever.
XXI. God is holy. In his nature is infinite rectitude. It is forever impossible that he should ever think or do any wrong, or approve of wrong thoughts or acts in others. He is glorious in holiness. He is so pure that the heavens are not clean in his sight. Job 15:15. Every creature is such that but for God’s care and support he might commit moral wrong. To say the same of God would be blasphemy. Men’s views concerning God’s holiness, generally decide their whole system of religious doctrine. He who thinks lightly of the purity of his Maker thinks lightly of sin, and so has wrong views of all evangelical doctrine. Jehovah himself calls sin a horrible thing and an abominable thing. Jer. 5:30; 44:4; Hos. 6:10. All godly men admire God’s holiness. The worship of heaven is much directed to this divine attribute. Isaiah 6:1-5. God’s purity is the rule and the motive of our purity. Lev. 11:44; 19:2; 20:7; Amos 3:3; 1 Pet. 1:15.
XXII. From the holiness of God necessarily flows his justice. Because God is just, he gives to all according to their deeds, whether they be good or evil. To do otherwise would be contrary to spotless purity. “That be far from you to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked; and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from you; shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” Gen. 18:25. Because God is just he cannot clear the guilty. His justice is inflexible. It surrenders nothing, compromises nothing, overlooks nothing. It never fails. Nothing could prevail with God to infringe upon the demands of justice. This is clearly proven by the death of Christ. The blessed Savior was always and perfectly holy; yet when by his own choice he stood in the place of sinners, and bore the curse of the law in their stead, justice turned not aside its flaming sword. The awful language of the Bible is: “God spared not his own Son.” It is joy to all godly men that righteousness and judgment are the habitation of God’s throne. Psalm 97:2. Justice is an amiable perfection in God. The wrath, anger, indignation, vengeance, fury, and hot displeasure of God–are nothing but his justice manifested against sin. “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne.” Psalm 89:14. “Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your justice like the great deep.” Psalm 36:6
XXIII. God is also glorious. Sometimes glory is taken in the sense of splendor or luster. In this sense it differs little from majesty. At least it implies great grandeur. How glorious in this sense God is was wonderfully shown at Mount Sinai. So terrible was the sight that even Moses exceedingly feared and quaked. Heb. 12:21. The pillar of cloud and of fire was a display of this brightness. The Lord is the “God of glory.” The face of Moses in the mount with God contracted such brightness from the beams of the divine splendor around him, that when he came down the light of his face was painful to others to look upon. The glory of the Redeemer covered the eyes of Saul of Tarsus as with scales for days. There is a remarkable passage of Scripture found in Exod. 33:18-23. Let the reader turn to it. Sometimes the word glory means honor or renown. In this sense also God is glorious. Exod. 15:6; Psalm 66:2; 145:5.
XXIV. God is also infinitely happy. His blessedness is without bound and underived. He has all and infinite resources in himself. No man can be profitable to him. Job 22:2, 3. He is the blessed or happy God. 1 Tim. 1:11. God cannot be unhappy. The divine blessedness flows from God’s infinite perfections.
XXV. God is great. He is great in his being and in all his perfections. “O Lord my God, you are very great!” Psalm 104:1. “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; and his greatness is unsearchable.” Psalm 145:3. “Praise him according to his excellent greatness.” Psalm 150:2. There is no absolutely little sin, because He against whom we sin is infinitely great.
XXVI. God is incomparable. In his being, perfections, works, and ways there is none like God. See Exod. 8:10; 15:11; Psalm 86:8; 89:6; Isaiah 40:18; 46:9. To worship God by images or pictures is very offensive to him; first, because he forbids it; second, because it degrades him. See Acts 17:29.
XXVII. God is unsearchable. He dwells in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man has seen, nor can see. 1 Tim. 6:16. “His pavilion round about him are dark waters and thick clouds of the skies.” Psalm 18:11. “Can you by searching find out God? Can you find out the Almighty unto perfection? It is as high as heaven, what can you do? deeper than hell, what can you know? The measure thereof is longer than the earth and broader than the sea.” Job 11:7-9. Even in heaven they sing, “Great and marvelous are your works, Lord God Almighty.” Rev. 15:3. The unsearchableness of God is not cause of grief, but is matter of joy to all right-minded beings.
XXVIII. God is one. “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord.” Deut. 6:4. “There is but one God;” “There is none other God but one;” “God is one;” “There is one God.” 1 Cor. 8:5, 6; Gal. 3:20; 1 Tim. 2:5. There are not three Gods, nor two Gods–but one God. God is one in the highest possible sense. All the gods of the heathen are vanities. We cannot define the unity of God, because unity is a simple idea. When we say that God is one, we assert that he is not two or more; but we do not mean to say that he does not exist in three persons, for that would contradict the Scriptures.