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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine God’s spirituality, which is the first of his communicable attributes we are considering. Dr. Spencer, you ended last time by saying that God has revealed a number of things about the nature of spirit to us. What has he revealed?

Dr. Spencer: Let’s first look at the words used. I mentioned last time that both the Hebrew and Greek words that are translated as spirit in our Bibles also mean breath or wind. Let’s stick with looking at the Greek word for spirit, which is πνεῦμα (pneuma). This is a very interesting word and has a long history of usage in classical Greek prior to the time of the New Testament.[1]

Since breath is associated with living beings it should not be surprising that the word for breath would be closely associated with the idea of life. In the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Gerhard Friedrich notes that “it is natural that via the sense ‘breath of life’ πνεῦμα itself should take on the direct sense of ‘life’ or ‘living creature’.[2]

Marc Roby: That does make sense. Certainly, the expression “breath of life” is a familiar one even today.

Dr. Spencer: It definitely is a familiar way to speak of the vital force that animates physical bodies. Also, since wind is capable of doing significant work, it also should not be surprising that the word for wind would be associated with a forcible influence of one being on another. In his section dealing with the use of the word in ancient Greek myths and religion, Friedrich writes that “The ‘breath’ of wind or of breathing is a form of being and mode of presentation in which especially higher divine powers of the most varied kinds, which man cannot control, impart something of the vital essence and power which they are to man or nature, whether it be for good or evil.” [3]

When he speaks of “higher divine powers of the most varied kinds” we must remember that he is writing about the usage in Greek myths and religion. But this makes it clear how the word was used and how it would have been understood even prior to the writing of the New Testament.

Marc Roby: In other words, one spiritual being can influence another, just as the wind can influence objects.

Dr. Spencer: I think that is the idea. And that influence can be for good or evil as he says, which is a point we will come back to later. Another interesting point that Friedrich brings out is that wind does not have a beginning.[4]

Marc Roby: That is an interesting observation.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it is. It isn’t something you normally think about, but where does a wind begin? There is no answer to that question. Of course, we all understand that if we are going to be scientific about it a wind is just the movement of air in the atmosphere, which is a continuous entity surrounding our earth, but if you think about it more poetically, the wind has no beginning or end, it simply exists. It can be stronger or weaker and it can change direction, but it has no beginning or end.

Marc Roby: I like the poetic view better. Does Friedrich say anything else that will be helpful to our discussion?

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely, there are three more things I would like to mention. First, he points out that because of the use of πνεῦμα as the breath or principle of life, it is often synonymous with the Greek word for soul, which is ψυχή (psuchā).

Marc Roby: That shouldn’t be a big surprise to anyone. The words soul and spirit are often used interchangeably in English as well.

Dr. Spencer: They certainly are. And they are often used interchangeably in the Hebrew Old Testament too. But going into that would get us very much off topic, so for the time being let’s stick with the Greek word for spirit.

Marc Roby: Alright. What is the second thing you wanted to mention?

Dr. Spencer: Friedrich notes that because the wind is seen as having no beginning, “The concept of the generative and life-creating cosmogonic power of wind is thus widespread in primitive mythology.” Cosmogony is the study of the origin of the universe, so when he refers to the “life-creating cosmogonic power” of the wind I take it to mean the origin of life in our universe.

Marc Roby: That is again interesting, and certainly fits with God, who created all things, being the only life-giving spirit. In Genesis 2:7 we read that “the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” [5] What is the third thing you want to tell us about?

Dr. Spencer: I want to point out that even though there is a long history to the use of the Greek word, the New Testament use is still very different. Friedrich notes that “The constitutive factor of πνεῦμα in the Greek world is always its subtle and powerful corporeality. Because of its material character it is never spiritual in the strict sense, as in the NT. It is never wholly outside the realm of sense.”[6] This is a clear difference between the use of the term in the Bible and its prior use prior to that outside of the Bible. In the Bible, the word spirit is never used of a physical being.

Marc Roby: I guess it is hardly surprising that the New Testament usage would introduce a unique element. After all, the New Testament is not telling us about some mythological character in a story, it is telling us about the true and living God, the Creator of the universe. What else do you want to say about the word spirit?

Dr. Spencer: There are a number of things about the word that are fairly obvious, but it will be worthwhile to list some of them. I think the first thing anyone thinks of when you see the word spirit is that it is something that is invisible. In other words, it is not made of ordinary matter.

Marc Roby: I would think that is one of the primary things that Jesus is teaching us in John 4:24 when he says that “God is spirit.”

Dr. Spencer: I think you’re right about that. And it is worth noting that this is again primarily, although not entirely, a negative description of God. He is not visible.

Marc Roby: In that sense this is like the incommunicable attributes we discussed, which we noted are often described negatively.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right.

Marc Roby: What else can we say about a spirit?

Dr. Spencer: Another thing that comes readily to mind is that a spirit does not have a body. This goes along of course with being invisible, if by “body” we mean a body made out of matter as we are. But it is an important thing to say. Remember that when we discussed God’s omnipresence we noted that God is everywhere in the totality of his being. That is not possible if he has spatial dimensions at all, even if they are in different dimensions than the three spatial dimensions we experience.

At the same time, we must recognize that the Bible clearly indicates that at least some spirits can make themselves visible to us as having bodies. For example, in John 20:11-12 we read about Mary Magdalene going to visit Jesus’ tomb on Sunday after his crucifixion and we are told that “Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.”

Marc Roby: An even more dramatic interaction is described in Genesis 32, where we read about Jacob wrestling with God in the flesh. We are first told that Jacob was wrestling with a man and the man touched his hip and somehow disabled him. Then, in Genesis 32:28, we read that “the man said, ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.’”

Dr. Spencer: That is a better example. Not only could Jacob see this man, he could wrestle with him. Now, there is debate about whether Jacob wrestled with an angel or a theophany, which is a manifestation of God himself. Hosea 12:4-5 tell us about this wrestling match; and we read there, “He struggled with the angel and overcame him; he wept and begged for his favor. He found him at Bethel and talked with him there—the LORD God Almighty, the LORD is his name of renown!” For our present purposes it doesn’t matter whether this was an angel or God himself. The point is that some spirits can manifest themselves in physically tangible ways.

Marc Roby: That is one of the most amazing events described in all of Scripture.

Dr. Spencer: It is. And the name Israel means one who struggles with God.

Marc Roby: Alright. We have established that spirits are invisible and do not have bodies, although some of them can in some way at least manifest themselves as visible, physical beings. What else do we know about them?

Dr. Spencer: We know that that they are self-conscious, moral and volitional beings. This is obvious from the fact that Scripture consistently portrays God and angels as being personal beings who make real decisions and that angels are morally accountable for their decisions. It is also something we can deduce based on our own nature.

Marc Roby: Can you explain that last statement?

Dr. Spencer: Sure, I have two different arguments to present to support this position. First, I noted last time that it is impossible to explain volitional creatures like us if the material universe is all that exists. Atoms in motion according to the laws of physics cannot explain any creature that makes real decisions. And I noted that the Bible calls this non-physical part of us our spirit.

So, the spirit is the part of us that makes us self-conscious, volitional beings and it is our decisions that can be judged as morally good or bad. Our bodies simply carry out the decisions we make. I don’t think you can blame your feet and legs for carrying you into sin. Our physical brains are obviously involved as well and even though we know a great deal about the electrochemical functioning of the brain, we know next to nothing about how thoughts and memories work and we know absolutely nothing about how the spirit works with our physical brains.

Marc Roby: But we can say that our spirit must, somehow, be able to influence our physical bodies.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. Although my spirit is what makes real decisions, my physical brain must send certain signals down the nerves of my body in order for my body to do anything, even just to continue breathing or to keep my heart pumping. Now it is certainly possible that thinks like my heart pumping and breathing, in other words functions of what is called my autonomic nervous system, may not need to involve my spirit; they could very well be entirely physical. But if I do something voluntary, like lifting my arm, that decision is made by my spirit but my arm only raises when the proper signals are sent to the muscles involved, which requires my physical brain to also be involved. At this time we have no idea how the spirit might interact with our physical brains, but we don’t need to worry about that. All we need to notice for now is that spirits are obviously able to interact in some way with our physical universe.

Marc Roby: I agree that it is obvious there must be interaction. You said you had two arguments to support the contention that we can deduce the fact that spirits are self-conscious, moral, volitional beings from our human nature; what is the second?

Dr. Spencer: The second is that our spirits can exist independently of our bodies, but the opposite statement is not true. The Bible is clear about this. First, you have the statement in Hebrews 12:23 about “the spirits of righteous men made perfect” being in heaven. When we die, our spirits go to either heaven or hell and await the second coming of Jesus Christ, which is when there will be a resurrection of our bodies as well. But during that time, we exist as pure spirit.

Marc Roby: And in Luke 23:43 we read that Jesus Christ told the thief who repented on the cross that “today you will be with me in paradise.” That had to have been in his spirit since he body was still hanging on the cross and we know that our bodies will not be resurrected until Christ returns.

Dr. Spencer: That definitely is further evidence of the clear teaching of the Bible that our spirits, or souls, will exist independent of the body after we die. Theologians call this the intermediate state. Further biblical support is provided by what the apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:8. He wrote that he “would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” So, it is clear that he expected to come into the Lord’s presence immediately after dying, which again had to be in his spirit. There are many other examples we could give from Scripture, for example the parable of Lazarus and the rich man from Luke 16. In Verse 22 we read that when Lazarus died, “the angels carried him to Abraham’s side.” Notice that not only is Lazarus portrayed as going to heaven immediately, which had to be in his spirit, but we are also told that Abraham was there even though Abraham had been dead for nearly 2,000 years at that time. We also have the evidence of the mount of transfiguration, which we read about in Luke 9:28-36. In that instance, Peter, James and John were witnesses not only of Christ’s glory, but also of his talking with Moses and Elijah. Moses and Elijah were obviously not there in their physical bodies, those had been dead for over 1,000 years. And yet they were talking with Jesus.

Marc Roby: I also think about Paul’s comment about his experience of heaven, in 2 Corinthians 12:2 he says, “Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows.”

Dr. Spencer: That is another interesting example. Paul leaves open the possibility that it was only his spirit that was shown heaven. It may have been a true out-of-body experience.

Marc Roby: I think that is enough evidence to make the case that our spirits can exist without our bodies and that they are still conscious persons and able to interact with others.

Dr. Spencer: The biblical view is clear that our spirit is the seat of who we are. The body is merely a physical house for the spirit.

Marc Roby: But we don’t want to go the way of the ancient Greeks then and conclude that the body is evil and the spirit is good.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely not. That is a heresy which is, in fact, completely the opposite of the truth. We are told in Genesis 1:31 that when God finished creating this universe, including man, he “saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” We can conclude that our physical bodies were very good in their original state. We are sinners as a result of the fall of Adam and it isn’t our physical bodies that are the seat of our sin, it is our spirit, or soul. The spirit is the seat of who we are, our personality and thinking. Therefore, it is our spirit that is the cause of sin, not our body. Remember that a minute ago I read Hebrews 12:23 about “the spirits of righteous men made perfect” being in heaven. Think about that; if our spirits need to be “made perfect”, it is obvious that they have something wrong with them now. Of course, our physical bodies have much that is wrong with them too, but this is the result of sin, not the cause of sin.

Marc Roby: Let me summarize what we have learned so far. Spirits are self-conscious, intelligent, moral, volitional, personal beings. There are beings that are pure spirit, including God and angels, but man has a dual nature, he has both a physical body and a spirit. Our spirit is the essential element. It is the seat of our personality and decision-making ability and can exist without the body.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a good summary.

Marc Roby: And I think that is about all the time we have for today. I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email any questions or comments they might have to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We appreciate hearing from you and may answer your question or present your comment in a future session.

[1] Gerhard Friedrich (Trans. By G. Bromley), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. VI, Eerdmans, 1964-1976, pp 354-359

[2] Ibid, pg. 336 (parenthetical reference omitted)

[3] Ibid, pg. 343

[4] Ibid, pg. 340

[5] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[6] Friedrich, op. cit., pg. 357

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine God’s incommunicable attributes. Dr. Spencer, we ran out of time in our last session while discussing God’s attribute of omnipresence. What else do you want to say about that attribute?

Dr. Spencer: We noted last time that God can be present to bless or to punish, but we should also mention that he is present to sustain. In fact, this particular function is specifically ascribed to Jesus Christ. Most famously in Hebrews 1:3, where we read that “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” [1] This passage in Hebrews 1 also provides tremendous evidence for the deity of Christ as we have noted before.

Marc Roby: It certainly does. It would be illogical in the extreme to think that Jesus Christ could be a part of creation and yet simultaneously be the one who sustains, or upholds, all of creation.

Dr. Spencer: It would indeed be a serious logical problem. But getting back to discussing God’s omnipresence, we also read about Christ being the one who is present to sustain in Colossians 1:17. It says there that Christ, “is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Marc Roby: Alright, we have established that God is present everywhere in creation to sustain it, and that he may be present either to bless or to punish. What else do you want to say?

Dr. Spencer: I want to point out that when the Bible speaks of God’s presence, it is almost always talking about his presence to bless. Therefore, when you read in the Bible that God will be present in some situation, you should assume it means to bless unless there is a compelling reason to conclude otherwise. For example, in the verses we cited last time that say God will never leave us nor forsake us, the clear intent is that he will be present to bless us. Also, in John 14:23 Jesus tells us, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” This is, again, clearly speaking about God being present to bless.

The opposite is also true, when the Bible speaks about God being absent, it really means that he is not present to bless, but rather to judge. That is why, as you noted last time, Hell is sometimes described as being a place where God is absent.

Marc Roby: But, as you pointed out, in the case of hell, God is not absent at all, rather he is present to pour out his wrath.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is the terrifying truth. But the Bible itself speaks about God being distant as a way of expressing the idea that he is not present to bless. For example, look at Isaiah 59:2, which is a well-known verse, it says that “your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.”

Marc Roby: It is, of course, not possible for God to not hear us. He not only knows what we say, he knows it before we say it as we are told in Psalm 139. He knows our every thought. But to say that he has hidden his face and will not hear sounds like someone getting angry and turning his back to you.

Dr. Spencer: I think that is exactly the picture that is being presented. The Bible often uses anthropomorphic language to explain God’s actions to us. When it tells us that he will not hear us, it means that he will not respond favorably to our requests. And we see the same kind of language in Proverbs 15:29 where we read that “The LORD is far from the wicked but he hears the prayer of the righteous.” This does not mean that God is literally far away from any part of his creation, but it is figurative language to refer to God not being present to hear and bless.

Marc Roby: And it immediately makes you think of the opposite promise that’s given to believers. Perhaps most famously in Romans 8:35-39, where the apostle Paul asks, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” And then he goes on to say that he is “convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a glorious promise that all true Christians should rejoice in and keep in mind to strengthen us to do God’s will.

And with that I think we are done discussing God’s omnipresence and, even more, we are done examining God’s incommunicable attributes. Although, before we move on, I’d like to read the answer to Question 4 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism because it is an excellent summary statement about the nature of God. In fact, I highly recommend memorizing this answer. Question 4 asks, “What is God?” And the answer is, “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” You can spend a long time meditating on that statement.

Marc Roby: I agree, it is a wonderful statement.

Dr. Spencer: And it begins by saying that God is a spirit, which is the first communicable attribute I want to discuss. But before we start that, we should also notice that the catechism answer next says that God is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable. These refer to the incommunicable attributes we have been discussing. The fact that God is infinite is tied to his omnipresence and his eternity; remember that God’s eternity can be called his infinity with respect to time and his omnipresence can be called his infinity with respect to space. Then also remember that the fact he is unchangeable, or immutable, implies his eternity. These attributes all work together and we must guard against thinking of them separately.

Marc Roby: We mentioned what theologians call God’s simplicity in Session 49, which means that God’s attributes are not separable in any way.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a good thing for us to constantly keep in mind as we go through God’s attributes. They all work together. We break them out and examine them individually to help ourselves try and grasp the totality of God’s being to whatever extent we are able, but God is not made up of different parts as we are.

Marc Roby: And, once again, we find ourselves not able to comprehend fully even that which God has chosen to reveal to us about himself! I assume that we are now ready to move on to look at God’s communicable attributes?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we are. And I want to begin by reminding our listeners that while these categories are not absolute or perfect, the basic idea is that God’s communicable attributes are ones which we share to some degree. Therefore, they will also naturally lead into a discussion of biblical anthropology; in other words, what the Bible teaches us about ourselves.

Marc Roby: I look forward to that. And you said you want to begin by examining God’s spirituality first?

Dr. Spencer: I do want to begin with that. We are continuing to follow the order used in Grudem’s Systematic Theology.[2]

Marc Roby: And we just noted a moment ago that God’s spirituality is the first thing said about him in the answer to Question 4 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. It begins by asserting that God is a spirit. And this attribute is considered communicable because we also have spirits, although our spirits are confined in space in some way, which is not true of God. And our spirits did not exist prior to God’s creating this universe, so there is a clear difference between God’s spirit and our spirits.

Marc Roby: That is certainly a huge difference.

Dr. Spencer: It is an extremely important difference. As always, we must remember that God is the Creator and we are creatures. Nevertheless, getting back to our having a spirit, it is clear that there is more to a human being than just this physical body. In fact, way back in Session 1, where I gave my top four reasons why I think it is intellectually untenable to be an atheist, the fourth reason I gave was that it is impossible to explain volitional creatures like you and me and all of our listeners if you consider the material universe to be all that exists. Atoms in motion according to the laws of physics cannot explain any creature that makes real decisions. Therefore, something beyond our physical body is needed to explain us, and the Bible calls that something else our spirit.

Marc Roby: But the clear contrast is that God does not have a physical body as we do, he is pure spirit.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, he is. Jesus told his disciples, in John 4:24, that “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” That first statement, that “God is spirit” is very important. Louis Berkhof notes that it is the closest thing in the Bible to a definition of God.[3] And the Greek construction is interesting as well. The Greek language has no indefinite article, so the difference between saying “God is a spirit” and “God is spirit” is indicated in a different way than it is in English. I think it will be worthwhile to take a moment to discuss the grammar, and hopefully some of our listeners will find it interesting, but if not, at least the conclusion will be useful and the discussion will be short.

Marc Roby: We don’t want to trigger any terrible memories of high-school English class.

Dr. Spencer: I can’t imagine why anyone should have terrible memories of English class!

Marc Roby: Nor can I, but not everyone is as enamored with language as we are.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. But if those who aren’t interested will put up with this for just a minute, we will arrive at a useful, interesting and important result. First, let’s examine the English. Consider the sentence “God is spirit”. The subject of this sentence is God, the word “is” is the 3rd-person, singular, present tense form of the verb “be”, and the word “spirit” is the predicate, meaning it is the part of the sentence that tells us something about the subject. A sentence like this, where we equate the subject with the predicate, is called an equative sentence. For example, if I say that “Knowledge is power”, that is also an equative sentence.

Now, in English, the difference between saying “God is spirit” and “God is a spirit” is in the predicate. When we include the indefinite article in the predicate and say “God is a spirit”, the sentence means that there is a class of objects called spirits and God belongs to that class, he is one of them. When the article is not present and we say “God is spirit”, it means that God is spirit in a deeper sense, it isn’t just that he is one of a class of objects, it is his essential nature.

Marc Roby: And how is that distinction indicated in the Greek?

Dr. Spencer:  It is indicated by the structure of the sentence. In the case of the first clause in John 4:24 there isn’t any explicit verb, it is implied. If we were to stupidly render the Greek word-for-word into English, the clause says “spirit the God”, which clearly makes no sense in English. In the Greek however, the verb “be” is implied and the article in front of God tells us that God is the subject of the sentence. The question then becomes whether it should be rendered “God is a spirit” or “God is spirit”.

I should state right up front that there is no theological problem with saying that “God is a spirit”. In fact, that is how the King James Version translates that clause and the American Standard Version follows. That is not however, the best translation. There has been a great deal learned about New Testament Greek in the past 100 years and current scholarship would say that the right way to translate that clause is “God is spirit.” Daniel Wallace, in his book Greek Grammar, Beyond the Basics, says that the Greek noun for spirit in this clause “is qualitative – stressing the nature or essence of God”.[4] And he gives a detailed explanation of why the best translation is “God is spirit” in case some of our listeners are interested in looking at that.

Marc Roby: This is similar to the question of how to translate the last clause in John 1:1, which we talked about translating in Sessions 51 and 52. But that verse, which says “the Word was God”, does explicitly include the verb.

Dr. Spencer: You’re right, the two verses have a similar construction in the Greek. Leon Morris agrees with the meaning we are giving to John 4:24, he writes that “Jesus is not saying, ‘God is one spirit among many’. Rather His meaning is, ‘God’s essential nature is spirit’. The indefinite article is no more required than it is in the similar statements, ‘God is light’ (1 John 1:5), and ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8).”[5] Berkhof also agrees with this analysis of the Greek and says that “This is at least a statement purporting to tell us in a single word what God is. The Lord does not merely say that God is a spirit, but that He is spirit.”[6]

Marc Roby: That is a somewhat subtle, but significant difference. I also remember that in Session 55 you quoted from the 19th-century theologian William Shedd, who commented on the meaning of John 4:24.

Dr. Spencer: You have a good memory! I did quote from Shedd. He wrote that the “omission of the article, implies that God is spirit in the highest sense. He is not a spirit, but spirit itself, absolutely.”[7]

Marc Roby: But the Bible doesn’t define for us precisely what is meant by spirit, does it?

Dr. Spencer: No, it doesn’t. But it doesn’t define for us precisely what the nature of our physical universe is either, and we still haven’t figured it out ourselves, so I doubt we could understand God’s explanation.

Marc Roby: Which may be why he doesn’t give us one.

Dr. Spencer: That is a definite possibility. But returning to the idea of what is meant by the word spirit, it is helpful to note that both the Hebrew and Greek words that are rendered in our English Bibles as “spirit” also mean wind or breath. But we don’t want to conclude that spirit is referring to some power, we must remember that it is God’s essence. The whole issue is complicated by the fact that the third person of the Trinity is called the Holy Spirit, which you might think could imply that the other two persons are not spirit, although that would be wrong. God is spirit, not just one person in the Trinity, but God in his essence. Although it is also true that the eternal Son became incarnate and exists in union with the man Jesus Christ.

Marc Roby: And with regard to knowing exactly what spirit actually is, as you noted about our physical universe, we probably couldn’t understand God’s explanation if he gave us one.

Dr. Spencer: I think that is a very safe bet. Especially given the fact that spirit, whatever it is, is not something that is restricted to existing in the same spatial dimensions in which we exist. Which implies that there is no way we can make any measurements or do any kind of direct experiments to study the nature of spirit.

Marc Roby: Although that doesn’t mean that we can’t know anything about it.

Dr. Spencer: No, it doesn’t mean that at all. That would be a completely erroneous conclusion. God has revealed a number of things about the nature of spirit to us.

Marc Roby: And I look forward to getting into that next time, but we are out of time for today. I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We’d love to hear from you.

 

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994

[3]Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1938 (This can be purchased as a combination of his Systematic Theology and Introductory Volume to Systematic Theology in one text from Eerdmans, 1996), pg. 65

[4] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar, Beyond the Basics, Zondervan, 1996, pg. 270

[5] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, part of the The New International Commentary on the New Testament, F.F. Bruce Gen. Ed., Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971, pg. 271

[6] Berkhof, op. cit., pg. 65

[7] William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1888, pg. 151

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine God’s omnipresence, which means that he is present everywhere. We ended last time by reading a few verses from Psalm 139, in which the psalmist poetically expresses God’s omnipresence by declaring to God, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.”[1] So, Dr. Spencer, how do you want to proceed with this topic?

Dr. Spencer: I want to begin by reminding everyone that we have to guard against thinking of God in terms of spatial dimensions at all. When we speak of God’s omnipresence, we aren’t saying that God is so huge that he won’t fit in this universe, what we are saying is that he cannot be described by spatial dimensions at all. God is a Spirit as we are told in John 4:24. And, as a Spirit, he is present everywhere in our universe in his totality all the time. We aren’t told exactly what spirits are, and we probably couldn’t understand it anyway, but they are not physical. They are not confined to the four dimensions of space and time that we experience, although they can certainly interact with us in space and time.

Marc Roby: God’s omnipresence is a concept that blows the mind, and Psalm 139 probably describes it as well as it can be expressed.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. Sometimes poetry can express a complicated idea better than simple prose. But, we are still to exercise our minds and to do the best we can to understand the nature of God as he has chosen to reveal it to us. It may help us gain a better understanding of God’s omnipresence to realize that it is related to his eternity and immutability, both of which we have already discussed.

Marc Roby: How so?

Dr. Spencer: We noted last time that God’s eternity can be called his infinity with respect to time and his omnipresence can be called his infinity with respect to space. And we noted in Session 58 that God’s immutability implies his eternity. One way to see that is to realize that we experience the passage of time precisely because we change. I have forgotten some things I used to know and I’ve learned some things I didn’t used to know. I don’t remember what happened in the past perfectly and I don’t know what will happen tomorrow and so on. If none of those changes and limitations were true, then we would cease to experience time the way we do now.

The English puritan theologian Stephen Charnock explains the connection between God’s eternity, his omnipresence and immutability well in his large volume called The Existence and Attributes of God. He writes, “As eternity is the perfection whereby he has neither beginning nor end, immutability is the perfection whereby he has neither increase nor diminution, so immensity or omnipresence is that whereby he has neither bounds nor limitation.” (English updated)[2]

Marc Roby: It is interesting that all three of these attributes are described negatively. Eternity is the lack of a beginning or end, immutability is the lack of change, and omnipresence is the lack of boundaries.

Dr. Spencer: That is interesting. When we are discussing God’s incommunicable attributes, we often have to use negative terms. It is easier to say what he is not than it is to say what he is because God is unique. We usually describe things in terms of other things, and when you have a being that is unique in his essence, you lose that ability to some extent. As God himself says in Isaiah 40:25, “To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?”.

If a person is unique simply because he is the largest, or oldest, or smartest, or strongest or whatever, we can still describe him easily in terms of other people. Differences like that are only quantitative as we discussed last time. But God is unique in his essence, the difference is qualitative, not quantitative. And, as a result, we often end up using negative statements to describe his incommunicable attributes. When it comes to his communicable attributes, we can use positive statements and make comparisons, although we have to resort to superlative statements. So, for example, we have knowledge and God has knowledge, so there is a point of comparison. But God’s knowledge is exhaustive and perfect, and ours is not. The 19th-century theologian Charles Hodge has an interesting discussion about this in dealing with how we classify the divine attributes.[3]

Marc Roby: That is useful in understanding the problem inherent in trying to describe God. I also noticed that Charnock referred to God’s “immensity or omnipresence”, which seems to indicate that he uses those two terms synonymously.

Dr. Spencer: They are often used as near synonyms. The difference between immensity and omnipresence is one of perspective and I think it will help us to read what Charles Hodge said about this. He wrote that God’s “immensity is the infinitude of his being, viewed as belonging to his nature from eternity. … His omnipresence is the infinitude of his being, viewed in relation to his creatures. He is equally present with all his creatures, at all times, and in all places.”[4]

Marc Roby: That is helpful. The idea that God is equally present with all his creatures at all times and places reminds me of what Moses said to the Israelites just before he died, which was also just before they were to cross over the Jordon to take possession of the Promised Land. He wanted to encourage them and in Deuteronomy 31:8 he said to the Israelites, “The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a great encouragement for God’s people. And that same idea, that God will never leave nor forsake his people, is stated twice by Moses in Deuteronomy 31 and is then repeated by God in speaking to Joshua to strengthen him in Joshua 1:5. It is also used as a request by King Solomon in his prayer of dedication for the Temple in Jerusalem in 1 Kings 8:57 and is then quoted in the New Testament in Hebrews 13:5. But we must also remember that God is not only present to bless his people, he is also present to punish his enemies, which is terrifying.

Marc Roby: And yet, hell is often portrayed as being a place where the sinner is shut out from the presence of God.

Dr. Spencer: It is often described that way. But what is meant is that those in hell are shut out from God’s merciful and beneficent presence. He is present in hell, but he is present there to pour out his wrath on those who have rejected him. We are told in Hebrews 10:31 that “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” And the reason why it is terrible is stated in Hebrews 12:29, where we read that our “God is a consuming fire.” Revelation is even more terrifying. In Revelation we read several times about a lake of burning sulfur. Now this is a figurative description of course, not a literal one, but sulfur burns at over 800 degrees Fahrenheit, so the imagery is certainly terrifying.

Hell is an unpopular topic, but the Bible is very clear in its teaching about hell because God wants to warn us about the eternal consequences of rejecting him.

Marc Roby: Of course, most non-believers would deny that they have rejected God. They would claim that either he has never shown himself to them or that he doesn’t exist, or something like that.

Dr. Spencer: I’m quite sure that you’re right about that. But the Bible tells us the truth in Romans 1. In Verses 18-21 Paul writes that “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.”

This truth is extremely unpopular, but it is simple. The Bible is telling us that everyone knows in his or her heart that God exists, but people suppress that truth and because of that God gives them over to futile thinking and foolishness, particularly with regard to the things of God.

Marc Roby: And Psalm 14:1 tells us that “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. To be a fool in the biblical sense does not mean that you aren’t intelligent in worldly matters, it means that you have denied the existence of God; your Creator, Sustainer, Judge and the only self-existent, necessarily-existent, completely independent being in existence. You can be a fool biblically and win a Nobel prize in physics.

That is why Paul goes on in Romans 2:5-8 to write, “because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God ‘will give to each person according to what he has done.’ To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.”

Marc Roby: A most terrifying thought. To experience the wrath and anger of God Almighty and to know that it will never end and there is no escape.

Dr. Spencer: It is absolutely terrifying. But I think it is important for us to discuss here because while God is present everywhere, he is not present everywhere to bless everyone. Stephen Charnock wrote that “there are several manifestations of his presence; he has a presence of glory in heaven, whereby he comforts the saints; [and] a presence of wrath in hell, whereby he torments the damned”.[5]

Marc Roby: And, as you noted earlier, he is a consuming fire.

Dr. Spencer: And he knows absolutely everything. So the people in hell will know that they are being justly punished. They will know that they did, in fact, reject God in this life. They chose to focus on earthly riches and pleasures rather than God. And, if they heard the gospel, they will have the added guilt of knowing that they rejected God’s offer of grace.

Marc Roby: We are told about that in 1 John 5:10, which says that “Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son.”

Dr. Spencer: There is truth in the saying that the only people who go to hell are those who chose to go. But don’t misunderstand what that means. I’m not saying that anyone is given a simple choice between everlasting punishment and everlasting bliss with no other difference. If that were the case, I can’t imagine anyone choosing punishment.

But the choice is between standing on your own in the judgment, in other words, trusting in yourself, verses acknowledging that you are a wretched sinner deserving of wrath and acknowledging Jesus Christ as the only Savior and Lord, in which case you become a bond-slave to Christ. That is what it means for him to be Lord. He now has an absolute claim to your obedience in thought, word and action. So, although you cannot in any way earn your salvation, it is a free gift, it nonetheless costs you everything because receiving this gift makes you recognize that you are a dependent creature who is totally under the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Marc Roby: We should point out that those who have not surrendered to Christ as bond slaves are not free, they are slaves of sin and Satan.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. The choice is not between autonomy and the lordship of Christ. Autonomy is an illusion. Those who think they are autonomous are being deceived. Paul tells us in Romans 6:16, “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?” When we are outside of Christ we can only sin, so we are slaves of sin. But, don’t think that Satan has to force people to sin. We all start off with a sinful nature, so that is our natural proclivity. All Satan has to do is provide the opportunities and make suggestions, we quite naturally take care of the rest ourselves. The paradoxical truth is that it is only when we surrender to become slaves of Jesus Christ that we experience true freedom.

Marc Roby: And what a glorious freedom that is! But it seems that we have once again gotten off topic. We were discussing God’s omnipresence.

Dr. Spencer: I’m not sure that we have been off topic. It is important to make the point that no one will escape God’s presence, his omnipresence is not always a pleasant thing. He will either be your Savior and Lord and, therefore, your greatest joy, or he will be your worst nightmare. But no one can avoid him. He created all things, he sustains all things and he will judge all things.

Marc Roby: OK, so we have been on topic then. What Scriptures can you adduce to show that God is omnipresent?

Dr. Spencer: The classic verse is Jeremiah 23:24, which asks a couple of rhetorical questions. We read, “Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him?” declares the LORD. ‘Do not I fill heaven and earth?’ declares the LORD.” The obvious answers to these rhetorical questions are that no one can hide from God, there are no “secret places” he cannot see, and yes, God “fills” heaven and earth in the sense that he is present everywhere.

Marc Roby: That makes me think of Ephesians 1:22-23, which ascribe this incommunicable attribute of omnipresence to Jesus Christ. Paul wrote that “God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a great statement, which also provides evidence for the deity of Christ. Another good passage is Acts 17:27-28 where we read that God “is not far from each one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being.” Which is again a poetic way of saying that God is everywhere. Also, in King Solomon’s prayer of dedication to the Temple in Jerusalem he asks and answers his own question about God; we read in 1 Kings 8:27, “will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!”

Marc Roby: That is a great verse. We need to remember that God is not some stone or wood idol. The temple in the Old Testament was not a place for God to dwell in the normal sense of that word, it was just a building. But its purpose was to remind the people of God and his law and to provide a place for them to come and worship him.

Dr. Spencer: Stephen Charnock makes an interesting comment on this verse, specifically about the statement that “The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain” God. He writes that as God’s “power is not limited by the things he has made, but can create innumerable worlds, so can his essence be in innumerable spaces; for as he has power enough to make more worlds, so he has essence enough to fill them, and therefore cannot be confined to what he has already created.”[6]

Marc Roby: All very true, and impossible to grasp fully. And I think we are out of time for today, so let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We look forward to hearing from you.

 

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, Two Volumes in one, Baker Books, 1996, Vol. I, pg. 367

[3]Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, Vol. I, pg. 375

[4] Ibid, pg. 383

[5] Charnock, op. cit., pg. 370

[6] Ibid, pg. 376

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine the doctrine of God’s eternity. Dr. Spencer, we ended last time by noting that God does not experience time in the same way we do, although he certainly understands how we perceive time. How do you want to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to express this in a different way to help us grasp it a bit better. God’s experience of time is not just greater than ours in some quantitative sense, it is qualitatively different than ours.

Marc Roby: What do you mean by that?

Dr. Spencer: A quantitative difference is one that is not fundamentally different in kind or essence, but is different only in amount, or quantity. So, for example, there is a quantitative difference between how fast I can run and how fast Usain Bolt can run; for those who don’t know he is the current world record holder for the 100 m dash. The difference there is admittedly quite large, but it is still just a quantitative difference. We are both human beings and we are both men, he’s just a whole lot faster than I am. But, if you compare me with a Cheetah, now there is both a quantitative and a qualitative difference. The Cheetah is not only much fast than I am, but it is also qualitatively different from me. It is a four-legged animal, not a human being.

Marc Roby: Alright, how do you relate that to what you were saying about God’s experience of time?

Dr. Spencer: Let me use an example. I experience time differently than my grandchildren do, that is a quantitative difference. If you tell me that I have to wait a few weeks for something, that doesn’t seem very long to me. But if you tell my grandchildren that they have to wait a few weeks, that seems like a very long time to them. We need to guard against thinking that the difference in how we experience time and how God experiences time is just quantitative.

That might be the impression you get when you read in Psalm 90 Verse 4 that “a thousand years in [God’s] sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.”[1] But we have to remember that this expression is not meant to be taken literally, it is figurative language that is pointing to some reality. And when we look at everything else the Bible says we realize that the reality is not just that God is much older than us and doesn’t think of a thousand years as being all that long, the difference is much deeper than that. We gave some of the other Scriptures last time and I don’t want to repeat them, but God experiences time in a way that is fundamentally different than we do, which means that it is impossible for us to truly grasp it.

Marc Roby: And so the best we can do is something like the definition we quoted from Wayne Grudem last time, which says in part that “God has no beginning, end, or succession of moments in his own being, and he sees all time equally vividly”[2].

Dr. Spencer: That is about the best we can do. But it is very important for us to meditate on that a bit, as we should with all of God’s attributes. It helps us to be humble and to gain a greater awareness of the vast gulf that separates us, as creatures, from God, who is our Creator. But now I want to turn our attention to the last line of the definition we quoted from Grudem. He added “yet God sees events in time and acts in time.”

Marc Roby: What do you want to say about that?

Dr. Spencer: I want us to know for certain that God understands completely how we experience time. And even though his experience of time is fundamentally different, that does not prevent him from interacting with us in time. We see this clearly in many ways. For example, the mere fact that God gave a command to Adam to not eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden shows that God clearly understood that Adam had not yet done so and that God was giving him a command that limited what was lawful for him to do in his future, even though in God’s view the fall had already occurred.

Marc Roby: That does clearly show that God understands how we experience time, but it also highlights once again how difficult it is for us to grasp God’s knowledge of future events.

Dr. Spencer: It does highlight that difficulty. And there are professing Christians who do not believe that God can know the future. But, as we have noted a number of times, a Christian’s ultimate standard for truth must be the Bible, and the Bible clearly tells us that God knows the future. You quoted from Isaiah 46:9-10 last time, and the verses bear repeating. God speaks through Isaiah and says, “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come.”

Marc Roby: Those verses certainly rule out believing that God doesn’t know the future.

Dr. Spencer: It definitely does rule out that view. And it isn’t just those verses. There are many places in the Bible that speak about future events. For example, when we discussed extra-biblical evidence that corroborates the Bible we mentioned the prophecies Isaiah made about Cyrus, the king of Persia. We find those in Isaiah 44 and 45. We discussed those at some length in Session 20, so I won’t repeat them here. In that same session we also looked at some Old Testament prophecies that were fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. And we limited ourselves to Old Testament passages that are attested to in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are known for certain to have been written before the time of Christ, so there is no chance that they have been modified.

Marc Roby: That was a fascinating session. And it might be good to remind our listeners that all past sessions, with their full transcripts and references, are on the whatdoesthewordsay.org website.

Dr. Spencer: That is a good reminder. And we could add that they can request a free copy of the book Good News for All People if they go to the website.

But, getting back to the Bible telling us about future events, if you think about it for just one minute, the entire Christian faith makes no sense if God cannot tell us about future events! The whole point of the faith is that we are all sinners, deserving God’s judgment, and he has told us, most explicitly in Hebrews 9:27 that “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment”. And the whole message of the Bible is that there are only two possible outcomes at that judgment: either we will stand on our own and be condemned to an eternity in hell, or we will have surrendered to Jesus Christ in this life, in which case he will own us as his possession and we will go to spend eternity in heaven.

Marc Roby: I like that idea!

Dr. Spencer: So do I. And we are told in 2 Peter 3:13 and in Revelation 21:1 that there will be a new heaven and a new earth; which implies that this earth will be destroyed as we are told in 2 Peter 3:10, where the apostle wrote that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.”

Marc Roby: Now that will be global warming on steroids!

Dr. Spencer: That’s a fair description. But it is also a very serious matter. The entire Christian faith is predicated on the truthfulness of the biblical view of history. As Paul wrote in 1Corinthians 15:19, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” The Christian faith is not focused on this life. It is focused on the life to come.

The biblical view of history is linear; time and space and this universe had a beginning, and this universe as we know it will have an end. And there is a purpose to that history. The purpose is for God to gather together and perfect all those whom he has chosen to be part of his eternal kingdom. Everyone else will go to hell. Starting with those who have never heard the gospel, because they still had sufficient evidence to know that God exists and yet they did not seek him, and including those who outright reject the gospel and, finally, also including those who falsely claim to be Christians.

Marc Roby: That is very serious indeed.

Dr. Spencer: And none of this makes any sense unless God knows the future with absolute certainty. Which, if you think about it for a minute, also means that he has control over the future. We will discuss that more in a later session, but it is a logical necessity; if there is anything outside of God’s control, then he cannot know for certain what will happen.

Marc Roby: I think we have established that the Bible teaches us that God does know the future.

Dr. Spencer: There are many verses we could cite to support that fact, but it isn’t necessary. If anyone seriously doubts it, they can go back and listen to some of our earlier podcasts and they can just read the Bible for themselves. It is filled with statements about the future.

Marc Roby: If we say that God knows the future perfectly, does that exhaust what he knows that we don’t?

Dr. Spencer: Definitely not. God also knows about events that would happen if things were different. For example, in 1 Samuel 23:9-13 we read about David seeking God’s counsel when he was being pursued by Saul. He was in a walled city at the time, called Keilah, which could be trap. And when he hears that Saul is coming for him we read, in Verse 12, that “David asked, ‘Will the citizens of Keilah surrender me and my men to Saul?’ And the LORD said, ‘They will.’” As a result, David left the city, so the citizens never did surrender him.

Then, to give an example from the New Testament, in Matthew 11:22-23 we are told that Jesus said, “Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.” Which clearly states that God knew what would have happened if circumstances had been different. This is, again, a logical necessity if God is able to tell us the future with absolute certainty.

Marc Roby: We’ve spent several minutes now proving that God knows the future and all possible events as well, but you were talking about the fact that God sees events in time and acts in time. Do you have more to say about that?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, I do. In Galatians 4:4-5 we read, “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.” This statement clearly shows that God understands and acts in our time frame. Otherwise, the statement “when the time had fully come” would make so sense.

Marc Roby: Good point.

Dr. Spencer: Another example is seen in Acts 17:30-31. We read there that “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” And this passage speaks explicitly about God acting in the past, but now doing something different, and about his having “set a day” in the future when he will do something else. That should be more than sufficient to show that God understands and acts within our experience of time.

Marc Roby: I agree. Are we done with discussing God’s eternity?

Dr. Spencer: We will be as soon as I mention that God’s eternity is sometimes also called his infinity with respect to time.[3]

Marc Roby: Alright. Let me summarize what we have said. We have been speaking about the doctrine of God’s eternity and have established that God does not experience time the way we do. For him the distant past and the distant future are known just as immediately as the present is. And yet, he understands how we experience time and he acts in time to bring about his eternal purposes. What attribute would you like to discuss next?

Dr. Spencer: I want to talk about God’s omnipresence.

Marc Roby: Which means that he is present everywhere.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. Just as there is no time which is somehow more vivid in God’s sight, so there is no particular place that is more immediately experienced by him. And just as God’s eternity is sometimes called his infinity with respect to time, so his omnipresence can be called his infinity with respect to space. Charles Hodge wrote that “The infinitude of God relatively to space, is his immensity or omnipresence; relatively to duration, it is his eternity.”[4] That language is a bit outdated, but I think the point is clear.

Marc Roby: That is an interesting connection, and I think it highlights that we have much the same type of difficulty in understanding the doctrine of God’s omnipresence as we did understanding his eternity.

Dr. Spencer: You’re right, it is very much the same difficulty. Especially when we specify that we don’t mean that God is just so big that our universe cannot contain him. If that were what we meant, then we could only say that a tiny part of God’s being is present here on earth. But that is not at all what the Bible teaches. In order to be clear in our discussion, let’s again use the definition that Wayne Grudem gives for this attribute. He defines God’s omnipresence by saying that “God does not have size or spatial dimensions and is present at every point of space with his whole being, yet God acts differently in different places.”

Marc Roby: That definition is again pretty difficult to digest.

Dr. Spencer: It is difficult, but as we have noted before, we should expect God to be difficult to understand and, in fact, impossible to comprehend fully. We are only finite creatures and simply don’t have the mental horsepower necessary.

Marc Roby: I can certainly identify with that statement!

Dr. Spencer: You’re in good company. Not only do you and I not have sufficient brain power, but all of the human beings who have ever lived put together, including Einstein and other geniuses, would not have a fraction of the necessary power to fully comprehend God.

Marc Roby: That makes me feel a little better about it. But we are very nearly out of time for today, so what would you like to say about God’s omnipresence to set the stage for our next session?

Dr. Spencer: I’d like to read the first twelve verses of Psalm 139. They actually speak about God’s eternity and his omniscience – which means that he knows all things – as well as his omnipresence. They are a great comfort to a true Christian, but should be terrifying to anyone who does not believe. The psalmist, who is King David, writes, “O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD. You hem me in—behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.”

Marc Roby: That is a marvelous passage. And I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org, we’d love to hear from you.

 

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 168

[3] Ibid, pg. 168

[4]Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, Vol. I, pg. 385

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine the attributes of God. We have been discussing God’s immutability, which means that he does not change. Are we done with that topic Dr. Spencer?

Dr. Spencer: Not quite. It is such an important issue in the modern church that I want to really drive home the point that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are the very same God, he has not changed.

Marc Roby: Very well, what else do you want to say to support this view?

Dr. Spencer: I want to point out that there has never been a time when anyone was saved by keeping the law. Salvation has always been by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Immediately after the fall God promised a redeemer. And the only way of salvation in the Old Testament times was by faith in that promised redeemer just as it is today.

Marc Roby: When you say that God promised a redeemer immediately after the fall, you are of course referring to Genesis 3:15, sometimes called the protoevangelium, which tells us that when God pronounced his curse on Satan he said to him, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” [1]

Dr. Spencer: That is exactly what I was referring to. Jesus Christ is the offspring of the woman and he figuratively crushed Satan’s head when he died on the cross to pay the penalty owed by all of his chosen followers. And no one was saved in the time before Jesus Christ except by believing in this promised Messiah. And yet, God established both an elaborate system of sacrifices, which pointed forward to Christ and ended when he came, as well as the moral law, which is summarized by the Ten Commandments. So, in order to fully understand that God has not changed, we need to ask what role the law played in the Old Testament, and then we will see that it functions in exactly the same way today.

Marc Roby: What role then did the law play in Old Testament times?

Dr. Spencer: The law played three roles in the Old Testament, just as it does today. John Calvin wrote about the threefold use of the law in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.[2] The first use of the law is that it shows us where we fall short of meeting God’s standard of righteousness. That standard has not changed since Old Testament times and there is absolutely nothing in the New Testament that indicates that God has relaxed his standard in any way. In fact, we are told in Hebrews 12:14 that we must, “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.”

Marc Roby: I’m also reminded of Paul’s introduction to his first letter to the church in Corinth. In 1 Corinthians 1:2 he wrote, “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy” (emphasis added).

Dr. Spencer: Paul also wrote in Ephesians 1:4 that God “chose us in [Christ] before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” And Peter wrote, in 1 Peter 1:15-16, “just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’” And Peter was quoting from Leviticus 11:44 where God said to his people, “I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy.” This demonstrates the continuity of God’s requirement that his people must be holy.

Marc Roby: I think it is important to add that being holy requires obedience.

Dr. Spencer: It absolutely does. Our obedience doesn’t earn anything from God, salvation is by grace, but we can’t allow ourselves to think that the requirement to be holy is only referring to our being united with Christ and clothed with his perfect righteousness. If we have been born again, it will be evident in our lives. We must have obedient lives or our claim to be a Christian is false.

As it says in Hebrews 5:8-9, Christ “learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him”. So, Christ’s obedience in suffering made him the perfect sacrifice required and as a result he is the source of eternal salvation “for all who obey him”. It doesn’t say that he is the source of eternal salvation for those who call themselves Christians.

If some of our listeners don’t like this idea of obedience being necessary, I encourage them to look up the word obey in a concordance and look at the New Testament verses that use the word. There are quite a few that speak about the need for Christians to obey. For example, anyone who is interested should at a bare minimum look at John 14:15 and 15:10, Acts 5:32, Hebrews 13:17 and 1 John 2:3, but there are many, many more.

Marc Roby: Alright, I think that is enough to establish that God’s standard for us in both the Old and New Testament times is that we be holy, which means that we obey God’s commands. And, of course, it is obvious to any reasonable person that none of us are holy. So, you said that the first use of the law is to show us that very fact.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. Calvin wrote that our being convicted by the law of God “is necessary, in order that man, who is blind and intoxicated with self-love, may be brought at once to know and to confess his weakness and impurity.”[3] He also wrote that “the Law is a kind of mirror. As in a mirror we discover any stains upon our face, so in the Law we behold, first, our impotence; then, in consequence of it, our iniquity; and, finally, the curse, as the consequence of both.” In other words, we must conclude from the fact that we don’t measure up to God’s standard that we have a serious problem, which should drive us to cry out “What must I do to be saved?”

Marc Roby: That is the rational response. What is the second use of the law as elucidated by Calvin?

Dr. Spencer: The second use is to restrain moral evil in this world. Calvin wrote that “The second office of the Law is, by means of its fearful denunciations and the consequent dread of punishment, to curb those who, unless forced, have no regard for rectitude and justice.”[4] The fact that there are serious punishments threatened for disobeying God’s law is a strong incentive for people to not break that law. This is the function of the law that Paul wrote about in 1 Timothy 1:9-10, where he said that “We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers”.

This is why properly functioning civil governments should have laws that mirror God’s laws. Not all people will respond to God’s threats – although they are far more consequential and serious than anything man can do to us. And because not all people will respond to God’s threats, our civil governments have the responsibility of imposing sanctions on those who violate God’s laws. That is the basis of any proper legal system.

Marc Roby: That idea is not very popular today.

Dr. Spencer: No, it isn’t, because people have an unbiblical worldview. That worldview ignores what the Bible teaches us about human nature. This false worldview says that man is basically good. The idea is that people only steal because they need something. And people only do terrible things to other people because somewhere along the line someone did something terrible to them.

Marc Roby: I’ve certainly come across that view as well. But all of human history, and any honest evaluation of our own hearts, argues quite strongly against it.

Dr. Spencer: The facts argue very strongly against that view. The human heart harbors tremendous evil. Fortunately, most people keep it under wraps most of the time, and I don’t think that we are all capable of the same depths of evil and depravity, but to deny the existence of real evil in human beings is to put your head in the sand and ignore the obvious. And to think that people only do bad things because bad things have happened to them ignores the obvious problem of how did all these bad things get started? And why are they many people who do terrible things who have never had any terrible thing done to them?

Marc Roby: That is a good question.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly is. I remember just a few years ago there was a young man in our town, who hadn’t had anything terribly unusual happen to him, but he brutally murdered an elderly couple in their bed with a knife just because he wanted to know what it felt like to kill people. Now that depth of depravity and wickedness is, admittedly and thankfully, quite rare. But, any theory of human behavior has to take that sort of thing into account because it is not so exceptionally rare that it can be explained away as some extreme aberration. And when you include actions like rape, assault and robbery, which while certainly less wicked are, nonetheless, still wicked, you have a serious problem defending the idea that people are basically good at heart.

Marc Roby: OK. We’ve established two uses of the law: first, to show us that we ourselves do not meet God’s standard and need a Savior, and second, to moderate evil in society. What is the law’s third use?

Dr. Spencer: The third use that Calvin listed, which he called “the principal use, and more closely connected with its proper end”[5], only applies to believers and was to show God’s people how we can please him. Every child who loves his parents wants to know what he can do to please them. And every true child of God will want to live a life that is pleasing to God. But, no one can do that if we aren’t told what pleases God. The law serves that purpose, and every single person who has been born again will lead a changed life; a life that is characterized by obedience to God’s law.

Marc Roby: But, we must be clear that we are not saying that our obedience earns salvation.

Dr. Spencer: Of course not. Our obedience is never perfect in this life, and God’s standard is perfection. Therefore, it is fundamentally impossible for us to earn our salvation. Nevertheless, a born-again person has a new heart and desires to please God and will strive for holiness. We must be different than the rest of the world or we are not truly God’s people.

Marc Roby: And that has not changed since Old Testament times.

Dr. Spencer: No, it hasn’t changed at all. And we can now see that these three uses of the law are the same today as they were at the time of Moses, or King David, or any other Old Testament saint. As we noted in Session 57 there are three things that have changed since the Old Testament: First, we have much greater revelation than even Moses had; Second, the promised Messiah has come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, so the ceremonial law has been done away with because its only purpose was to point to the coming Redeemer; And, third, we no longer live under the same civil government.

So there have been changes, and they are significant. But God has not changed. His standard of holiness has not changed, and the way of salvation has not changed. The Old Testament is still relevant today, but we have to be intelligent in applying it. We no longer stone adulterers for example because that was part of the civil law in effect at that time. But adultery is still a terrible sin and a properly functioning government will have some kind of penalty in place for people who commit that sin.

Marc Roby: But we as individuals do not have authority to punish anyone for their sins, even if the civil government fails to.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. God has only given that power to the state, not to individuals or to the church. As we’ve said, unless we are commanded to sin, we should obey the civil authorities. The church, of course, still has the power of the keys and must exercise authority in disciplining people who sin and refuse to repent.

Marc Roby: Are we done with discussing God’s immutability now?

Dr. Spencer: We are.

Marc Roby: What’s next then?

Dr. Spencer: I want to look at God’s eternity. I want to discuss it next because it is related to God’s immutability. Wayne Grudem defines God’s eternity as meaning that “God has no beginning, end, or succession of moments in his own being, and he sees all time equally vividly, yet God sees events in time and acts in time.”[6]

Marc Roby: Now that’s a difficult definition to wrap your mind around completely.

Dr. Spencer: It is, especially for our listeners who aren’t following allowing in the written transcript. But, I think it will become clearer as I explain how it is related to God’s immutability.

Marc Roby: Alright, please proceed.

Dr. Spencer: If God is immutable as we have claimed, then it follows that his knowledge does not increase or decrease from one moment to the next. In other words, as Grudem said, he has no “succession of moments in his own being, and he sees all time equally vividly”. This is a very difficult thing for us to grasp because we experience only the present vividly. We experience the past less vividly and the further we go back in time the worse our memory becomes in general.

Marc Roby: Although we all have particularly memorable events or experiences that we remember better than others.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we do. But the point is that God sees all times equally well. It is as if everything were the present to him. There isn’t some particular moment in time that God sees or experiences more clearly or vividly than others. If that were not the case, he would not be immutable. Grudem notes that when Jesus said, in John 8:58, that “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I am!” He used the present tense verb in referring to his existence prior to the time of Abraham, which in Greek indicates something that continues to be true.[7] Therefore, Jesus’ statement suggests that every moment in our history is, essentially, the present to God.

Marc Roby: That is extremely hard for us to understand.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. In fact, it is impossible for us to grasp fully. But it is a necessary conclusion based on God’s revelation to us in the Bible. Many of the Scriptures that we cited when we discussed God’s self-existence, or aseity, are also applicable here. For example, the fact that God existed prior to this universe, which is clearly taught in Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1, is evidence that he is not subject to the succession of events that occur in this universe, which is what we think of as defining the passage of time.

Marc Roby: The fact that God can predict the future also requires that he does not experience time as we do.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And God uses that fact to mock idols. For example, in Isaiah 41:22-23 God says to his people, “Bring in your idols to tell us what is going to happen. Tell us what the former things were, so that we may consider them and know their final outcome. Or declare to us the things to come, tell us what the future holds, so we may know that you are gods. Do something, whether good or bad, so that we will be dismayed and filled with fear.”

Marc Roby: And this contrasts with God himself. He tells us, in Isaiah 46:9-10, to, “Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.”

Dr. Spencer: I think this is the hardest thing for us to grasp, that what we think of as future is equally vivid in God’s sight as our present. And yet, as Grudem’s definition says, “God sees events in time and acts in time.” Which means that he understands how we perceive time as a succession of events. He knows that we can’t see the future and he is able to interact with us in time.

Marc Roby: I think a good part of the reason why we can’t understand God’s knowing the future is that the future seems to us to not yet be determined. It depends on exactly what we and billions of other people and animals do, which seems to us to be fundamentally unknowable until it happens.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a good point. God’s eternity and immutability are difficult to reconcile with man’s free will or the free actions of animals. But, I want to leave that topic for later. For now, let me cite one other verse that is very interesting to examine. In 2 Peter 3:8 the apostle wrote that “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” The second part of this statement, that “a thousand years are like a day” is the same point made in Verse 4 of Psalm 90, which says that “a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by”. In other words, God doesn’t have trouble remembering things from a thousand years ago, they are just like yesterday. And this is, of course, a figurative way of saying that he knows all of the past perfectly.

But, the first part of Peter’s statement, that “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years” is new and very interesting. Let me quote from Grudem here. He notes that “since ‘a thousand years’ is a figurative expression for ‘as long a time as we can imagine,’ or ‘all history,’ we can say from this verse that any one day seems to God to be present to his consciousness forever.”[8] In other words, every moment of human history is like the immediate present to God.

Marc Roby: It is clear from these verses that God does not experience time as we do.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly is clear but it is also impossible for us to grasp completely.

Marc Roby: It certainly is, and I think we need to end here for today. But I look forward to continuing this discussion next time. I would like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We appreciate hearing from you.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Translated by Henry Beveridge, Hendrickson Publishers, 2008, 2.7.6

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid, 2.7.10

[5] Ibid, 2.7.12

[6] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 168

[7] Ibid, pg. 169

[8] Grudem, pg. 170

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