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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine God’s communicable attribute of goodness.

Dr. Spencer, at the end of our last session, you said that we need a proper biblical perspective to understand how a completely good and omnipotent God can allow evil into his creation. How would you like to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to spend more time on the topic of evil and its relation to the goodness of God because it is an extremely important and difficult topic.

I noted last time that many people in history have argued that the existence of sin and suffering prove that God must either not be good, or not able to prevent evil, in other words, not be omnipotent. I also pointed out that that argument is wrong because it assumes the unbiblical, that is to say, incorrect, idea that the purpose of creation is, or should be, to maximize our pleasure in this life.

Marc Roby: Perhaps we should mention that a defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence given the fact that evil exists, that’s called a theodicy.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, I think it’s good for people to know that term. And that is exactly what I want to do today. I want to explain, or justify, how it is possible for evil to exist in a universe ruled by an all-powerful, or omnipotent, and all-good, or omnibenevolent, God.

Marc Roby: You noted last time that a proper biblical perspective requires us to recognize that God’s purpose in creation is the manifestation of his own glory and that we also need to recognize that there is an eternal destiny for human beings. In other words, this life is not all there is.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right, this life is definitely not all there is and we’ll deal with that more in a minute. But first, let me say a little more about the first of those two points, God’s purpose.

Marc Roby: Please do.

Dr. Spencer: We spoke in both Sessions 2 and 67 about God’s purpose in creation, but it would be good to give just a couple of Scriptures at this time to support the claim that his purpose is the manifestation of his own glory.

Marc Roby: I agree, what Scriptures would you like to cite?

Dr. Spencer: Let’s begin with the prophet Isaiah. God spoke through the prophet about his redeemed people, meaning the church, and in Isaiah 43:6-7 we read that God said, “I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’ and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’ Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth—everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” [1] There are many other verses as well that tell us God’s purpose in creation and redemption is the manifestation of his glory. But to give just one more example, Psalm 19 famously begins, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Psalm 19:1)

Marc Roby: I think it is also helpful to remember one other thing you said before, that there is no better purpose for creation than the manifestation of the glory of God. He chose the best possible purpose.

Now, returning to the second point, that this life is not all there is, it’s also pretty easy to come up with Scriptures that support the idea that human beings have an eternal destiny.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, the first one that pops into my mind is the 25th chapter of Matthew.

Marc Roby: Where Christ describes the final judgment.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And after separating the sheep from the goats and telling the goats that they must depart from him, he ends, in Verse 46, by saying, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” And the same exact Greek word for eternal is used in both places in that verse, which makes it clear that it is exegetically impossible to believe in eternal heaven and deny the existence of eternal hell.

So, getting back to your statement that this life is not all there is, we can go further and say that that is, in fact, a gross understatement. When compared with eternity, this life is, quite literally, nothing. There really is only one important question to answer in life, and that is, “Where am I going when I die?” The Bible tells us that there are only two possible places. I will either go to eternal hell and suffer for my sins, or eternal heaven and live in bliss forever in the presence of the perfect God.

Marc Roby: Of course, not everyone is going to agree that those are the only two destinies.

Dr. Spencer: I’m well aware of that, but those are the only two destinies described in the Bible, which is the infallible Word of God, so I’m confident that that is the truth. And I would point out that even people who say they believe that we simply cease to exist when we die frequently speak and act in ways that make it clear they know it isn’t true.

Marc Roby: Yes, especially when someone close to them dies.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely, that is the most common time. You will often hear them say something like, “Aunt Mary will be very pleased to see you graduate” or whatever. But, of course, if Aunt Mary is dead, and if people simply cease to exist, then Aunt Mary can’t possibly know that someone is graduating, let alone be pleased by it.

Marc Roby: I’ve certainly heard people say many things that would indicate they know there is some mode of existence beyond the grave.

Dr. Spencer: And not only do they know that, but they also know there will be a judgment. That is one of the major reasons people fear death. They know they will be judged, and they aren’t confident it will go well for them in that judgment.

Marc Roby: Although most people flatter themselves and think they aren’t really all that bad. They might admit that they deserve a mild rebuke for some things they have said or done, but they don’t believe they have done anything deserving of real wrath.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. And there are two reasons most people think they will get a passing grade. First, they grade themselves on a curve, in other words, they compare themselves to other people. But God doesn’t grade on a curve. Jesus commands us in Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Marc Roby: That is definitely not grading on a curve. What is the second reason people think they will get a passing grade?

Dr. Spencer: It’s because they only consider external sins, not sins of the heart. So, since most people have never murdered, or raped or committed grand theft or anything like that, they assume that they are relatively good. And, of course, they may actually be good in a relative sense. But there are two problems with that view.

Marc Roby: What problems are those?

Dr. Spencer: First, as I mentioned, they are ignoring the heart. We are told in 1 Samuel 16:7 that “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” And in Hebrews 4:12 we read that “the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

Marc Roby: That’s a problem for us.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it is a serious problem. And Jesus illustrated just how serious that problem is when he told the people in Matthew 5:27-28, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Now many men can truthfully say that they have never committed the physical act of adultery, but how many can say that they have never once looked at a woman lustfully?

Marc Roby: I’d rather not answer that question.

Dr. Spencer: I think you just did. And, of course, adultery isn’t the only sin for which this applies. We are also told that unholy anger is committing murder in the heart and so on. When you apply the true standard, even most law-abiding people do not do very well.

Marc Roby: Alright. You said that there are two problems with the view that we really aren’t all that bad; what is the second one?

Dr. Spencer: The second problem is even more serious. It is that we misjudge sin itself. The worst sin of all isn’t something I do to other people, it is my attitude toward God. If I don’t consciously give him thanks for life and material blessings, and if I don’t live to please him, I am insulting the living God, my Creator. Even if I murder someone, the worst sin involved is not what I did to that person. The worst sin involved is that in murdering the person I rejected God’s law and his authority to command me to not murder. And, even worse, if I live as though I am independent and he doesn’t exist, that is a huge insult to God. Rejecting the sovereign Creator and Lord of all is a very serious offense, it is an offence that deserves God’s wrath.

Marc Roby: That makes perfectly good sense. In fact, the Bible tells us that anything not done in obedience to God and for his glory is sin.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. In 1 Corinthians 10:31 we are famously told, “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” And the Greek verb in that sentence is in the imperative mood, so it is a command. And in John 14:15 Jesus told us that “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” We can conclude therefore, that any disobedience is a lack of love for God, which is most certainly a sin because Jesus told us in Matthew 22:37-38 that the greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Therefore, anything that is not done in conscious obedience to God and for his glory, is sin.

Marc Roby: That is a very convicting, but true, statement. But we were justifying God’s goodness given the presence of evil. How does this all tie back into that topic?

Dr. Spencer: It ties back in in at least two ways. First, because there is an eternal destiny awaiting every human being, we can’t judge what is good in any meaningful ultimate sense by looking at what happens just in this short life. And secondly, if we recognize that the worst sin is not murder, or any thing like that, but rather is rejecting the sovereign God who made us, then we will understand that we all deserve punishment. And if we then receive what we deserve, that is certainly just and we must agree that is good. And when we consider those to whom God has granted repentance and saving faith, we see that they receive mercy, rather than justice, and spend eternity in heaven. And certainly we must agree that is also good.

Marc Roby: I think everyone would agree that bringing people to heaven is good. I’m not sure many people are willing to accept that hell is good, although the fact that guilty sinners deserve God’s wrath certainly argues that it is. But I suspect that many people would ask why God can’t simply show mercy and forgive. After all, God commands us to be merciful and to forgive others.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a great question, and we dealt with it in Session 24. I pointed out then that God cannot forgive sin without the penalty being paid because he is the judge of the universe. If I steal from someone who happens to be a judge, he can forgive me on a personal level. But, if the case comes before his court and I am found guilty of the crime, as judge he cannot simply say that he forgives me. Justice demands that I be punished and he must abide by the laws of the state and sentence me appropriately. As Judge of the universe, God must do what is just and right, and the just and right penalty for sinning against God is death—eternal death.

Marc Roby: That helps. And it is also important to remember the fact you pointed out in Session 72, that people in hell do not repent and seek God’s forgiveness, but continue to hate him and rail against him in their hearts, which actually increases their guilt every day.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. When you put all of this together, you realize that hell is good. It is not pleasant, but it is just and fair and right. And so, in a deep sense of the term, it is good.

Marc Roby: But, at the same time, God does show mercy to some and save them. And that brings up another problem for many people. It seems unfair for God to choose some people to be saved while leaving others to suffer for their sins.

Dr. Spencer: That is a very common complaint. You’re speaking about the doctrine of divine election, and we dealt with that doctrine back in Session 15, but we must say a few words again here. The basic problem is that we think we want to be judged based on our own effort. That somehow sounds fair to us because in terms of dealings with other human beings that is, in general, fair. But, as I noted a minute ago, when we consider the true nature of sin, and we judge the heart and not just the external actions, we find that we all have a serious problem. We are all sinners in need of a Savior. As Paul wrote in Romans 3:23, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. So, if we think more carefully, we will recognize that we don’t really want to be judged fairly, or justly, we want mercy.

Marc Roby: And, of course, by definition mercy is not something we deserve, so God is not under obligation to show mercy to anyone.

Dr. Spencer: No, he isn’t. It would be completely just and fair for God to send all of us to hell. The huge surprise, the great mystery and amazing demonstration of God’s love and mercy is that he chose to save anyone at all. Especially when you consider the cost.

Marc Roby: Which was the sacrifice of Jesus Christ himself.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And we find ourselves right back at John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” And this is good in the most profound possible sense of the word, even though perishing in this verse refers to eternal hell. And notice that it is only those who believe who will not perish. In fact, just two verses later, in John 3:18, we read that “whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

Refusing to believe in Jesus Christ is the most serious sin a person can commit it is, ultimately, the sin that sends you to hell. In 1 John 5 the apostle tells us about God’s testimony about Christ and he says in Verse10 that “Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart. 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.

Marc Roby: Calling the perfectly holy and just Creator a liar is a terrible thing. And I think we have made a good case for the fact that the existence of hell is actually good, given the fact that evil does exist.

We got onto this topic because of the importance of having an eternal perspective in understanding the presence of evil. Can we go back now and tie it all together somehow? Why is it good that God allowed evil to enter his creation?

Dr. Spencer: Because it allowed a more complete manifestation of God’s multifaceted glory. Without allowing evil to enter creation God would not have been able to demonstrate his just wrath against evil, nor would he have been able to demonstrate his astounding merciful love in redeeming some people. I don’t think we can understand it fully, but you have to consider the finished product so to speak. Years ago I read something very profound that is relevant to this topic in, of all places, a devotional my wife and I were reading with our children when they were young.

Marc Roby: What was that?

Dr. Spencer: The author used the analogy of a cake to illustrate Romans 8:28, which says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

Now I don’t remember the story in detail, but it went something like this; a child had asked the mother about something that wasn’t good, and questioned whether God was good for allowing such a thing. The mother’s response in the story was great. She asked the child, “Do you like chocolate cake?” And, like most children, the child responded, “Of course.” And then the mother said, “Well, do you like to eat flour?” And he said, “No.” Then the mother asked if he liked to eat baking powder, and he said no. Then she asked if he liked to eat salt, and he said no. Then she asked if he liked raw egg and he said no. But she then told him that all of those things were used in making chocolate cake.

Marc Roby: That is a great illustration. The ingredients may not be good in and of themselves, but the final result is good.

Dr. Spencer: And so it is with God’s works. We do not know enough or have a wide enough perspective to properly judge his works. We know that evil exists and we know that evil is not good in itself. In fact, it is the opposite of good. But we know that God is not the author of evil and God is good. In fact, he is the standard of good. He is absolutely, perfectly and immutably good. And he is omnipotent. Therefore, we can conclude that the presence of evil was necessary for the accomplishing of God’s perfect eternal plan for creation, which is good.

Marc Roby: And I think that is a good place to end for today – pun intended. I want to remind our listeners that they can email any questions or comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We will do our best to answer.

[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.™.

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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. Last time we established that spirits are self-conscious, intelligent, moral, volitional, personal beings. Dr. Spencer, what else do you want to say about spirits and God’s spirituality?

Dr. Spencer: Since we are talking about God’s spirituality, I want to look at what is unique to God. We examined our spirituality last time because it helped us come to a better understanding of what is meant by spirit, but as always there is a significant difference between the Creator and the creature. God’s spirituality is qualitatively different from ours.

Marc Roby: In what ways?

Dr. Spencer: First of all, he is the only eternally existing spirit. We sometimes talk about the fact that we will spend eternity with God in heaven, which is true. But we are being a bit sloppy with our language. Only God is eternal in the fullest sense of that term, so perhaps we should talk about eternity past and eternity future, or say that our spirits are everlasting. We all had a beginning, and that includes our spirit as well as our body, but God had no beginning. He has always existed as we have discussed several times. He exists necessarily. He alone has the power of life within him as part of his essential being, and his essence is spirit. So, we could say that spirit is the only absolutely necessary essence that exists. Our physical universe of matter and energy is unnecessary and contingent. It exists only because God chose to create it and chooses to sustain it.

Marc Roby: That is indeed a very significant difference. What else do you want to say about God’s spirituality?

Dr. Spencer: I think that Wayne Grudem is right to connect God’s spirituality with the Second Commandment. We read that commandment in Chapter 20 of Exodus. Verse 4 says, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.” [1] Grudem writes the following about this commandment, “The creation language in this commandment … is a reminder that God’s being, his essential mode of existence, is different from everything that he has created.”[2] God is spirit and so it is obvious that he cannot be represented by anything we can make out of the material universe.

Marc Roby: That makes good sense. And you noted last time that God’s spirit is qualitatively different than all created spirits. And, now that I’ve said that, I realize it’s a tautology; of course a created spirit is different from the Creator!

Dr. Spencer: That’s very true. We can’t escape the creator-creature distinction. Even angels, who are spirits and don’t have physical bodies, are so radically different from and below God that they are not to be worshiped. In Revelation 19:10 the apostle John tells us about his wanting to worship an angel, he writes, “I fell at his feet to worship him. But he said to me, ‘Do not do it! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God!’”

Marc Roby: That’s a good point. But let’s get back to God’s spirituality.

Dr. Spencer: Alright. There is another passage of Scripture that we should look at because it tells us something about the spirit of God. In Isaiah 11 the prophet speaks about the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ, who we must remember is a descendent of King David, whose father was named Jesse. In Verse 1 the prophet says, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” And then, in Verse 2 he tells us that “The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD”. From this verse we learn first that the spirit of God is a spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, power and knowledge. These five things can all be considered communicable attributes of God. The last thing mentioned seems a bit strange though, we are told that the Spirit of the LORD is a spirit of the fear of the LORD.

Marc Roby: That does sound strange when you put it that way. Why would the LORD fear himself?

Dr. Spencer: He obviously wouldn’t. But we are told three times in the Bible that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. For example, Proverbs 9:10 says that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” I think it is useful to see what the great Old Testament theologian E.J. Young said about these verses.

Marc Roby: What does he say?

Dr. Spencer: Before I quote Young, we must first notice that “The Spirit of the LORD” does not refer to God’s essence, it refers to the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Second, we must remember that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man. It was in his humanity that he had to obey God’s laws perfectly and suffer the penalty due us for our sins. In order to accomplish that, the man Jesus Christ needed the help of the Holy Spirit. And we are told in John 3:34 that the Holy Spirit was given to him without measure.

Then, with regard to the fear of the Lord, Young wrote, “The phrase itself is the practical equivalent of true piety and devotion. True religion is a reverent and godly fear, for it recognizes that the creature is but dust before the holy Creator, and it prostrates itself in His presence, expressing itself in reverential awe. … Even the Messiah will be imbued with the fear of the Lord in order to accomplish His mighty work.”[3]

Marc Roby: That is very sobering. If Jesus Christ, the only perfect, sinless human being who has ever lived, if he needed the fear of God and God’s help to do his work, how much more should we fear God and seek his help!

Dr. Spencer: We definitely should both fear God and seek his help all the time.

Marc Roby: I think it would be useful to explain the shift you just made though. You went from talking about God’s spirituality as an attribute of God to talking about the Holy Spirit, who is the third person of the Trinity.

Dr. Spencer: I should explain that shift. As we have noted, in John 4:24 Jesus tells us that “God is spirit.” So, that statement is true of all three persons of the godhead, in other words, it is true of the triune God in his essence. Nevertheless, the third person of the Trinity is called the Holy Spirit. The Bible makes clear that even though all three persons of the godhead are equal and are all fully God, they nonetheless have different functional roles. That is called the economic trinity as we discussed back in Session 28.

Marc Roby: And the term “economic” here has nothing to do with money.

Dr. Spencer: No, it doesn’t, it refers to the organization of the Trinity. In other words, how the persons of the Trinity work together. In Session 52 we presented clear biblical evidence that the Holy Spirit is a person, and in Session 55 we presented equally clear biblical evidence for the fact that the Holy Spirit is God. But, because all three persons of the Holy Trinity are of the same essence, whatever is said about the Holy Spirit’s essence is also true of the Father and the Son. So, the shift from speaking about an attribute of God to speaking about the person of the Holy Spirit is not as significant as one might think.

Marc Roby: Alright, but getting back to the verses in Isaiah 11. What does it mean when it says that “The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him”? That is an interesting expression independent of whether the spirit refers to God’s essence or the third person of the Trinity.

Dr. Spencer: Before I answer that question, I want to point out that there are other similar expressions used in the Bible as well. For example, in 1 Samuel 10:6, and Luke 1:35 we read of people having the Holy Spirit come upon them. And in Isaiah 63:11 we are told that God “set his Holy Spirit among” his people. In Matthew 3:11 and Mark 1:8 we read about being baptized in the Holy Spirit and in Luke 1:15, 41 and 67 we read about people being filled with the Holy Spirit. Then, in Acts 1:8 Jesus told his disciples, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you”. And in 1 Corinthians 3:16 Paul wrote, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” This list of verses is just a sampling of the different ways in which the Bible describes the Holy Spirit being sent to human beings to influence them. In fact, in Romans 8:14 we read that “those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.”

Marc Roby: And it is a wonderful thing to be led by the Holy Spirit. But we also read about evil spirits coming upon people or even possessing them. What do all these references to being filled, or led, or having the Spirit come upon us, what do they mean?

Dr. Spencer: We need to be very careful here to not go beyond what Scripture explicitly teaches or what can be properly deduced from Scripture. Certainly, all of these expressions tell us that our spirit can be strongly influenced or even controlled by other spirits, which shouldn’t be surprising since our physical bodies can be strongly influenced or even controlled by other physical bodies, especially those who are stronger than we are. We can also say for certain that none of what happens in the spiritual realm is outside of God’s control, just as nothing that happens in the physical realm is outside of his control.

Marc Roby: A great example of that is given in Job Chapters 1 and 2 where we read about Satan receiving permission from God to test Job, but where we also see God setting clear limits on what Satan is allowed to do.

Dr. Spencer: That is, in fact, the classic biblical example. But we also read in a number of places in the New Testament of Jesus casting demons out of people and there are a number of clear indications that those demons all recognize Jesus’ absolute authority over them.

Marc Roby: I’m thinking that this topic, more than most, disturbs modern people. Talk of angels and evil spirits seems very mythological to most people in our culture.

Dr. Spencer: I understand that this topic can be disturbing. I spent the first 38 years of my life thinking that angels and evil spirits belonged in the same category with Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny. But the entire worldview presented in the Bible makes good sense and no materialistic worldview is able to explain all that we observe to be true.

The world laughs at people who really believe the Bible, but I would say that we should laugh at the world for believing in a purely material universe. In order for God to not exist and materialism to be true, it would have to be true that this universe popped into existence out of absolutely nothing with no cause whatsoever. It would also have to be true that living beings came into existence out of inanimate matter and that self-conscious moral beings came from purely physical animals governed by the laws of physics. All of these are impossible as we clearly showed way back in Session 1.

Marc Roby: But what about angels and evil spirits?

Dr. Spencer: I think the arguments I just outlined are sufficient to show that this material universe is not all there is and I encourage any of our listeners who are interested to go back and listen to Session 1, it is available in our archive at whatdoesthewordsay.org.

There are clearly entities, which the Bible calls spirits, that are real even though we can’t normally detect them in any direct way. And, given that fact, why on earth would anyone think it impossible for God to create intelligent spirit beings in addition to intelligent physical beings? I can’t think of a single reason what this should be troubling. And since it is only spirits or beings with a spirit that are moral beings, evil is obviously only possible for them. I said last time that you can’t blame your feet for carrying you into sin and I’ll go even further and say that purely physical things, in other words things that do not have a spirit, cannot be evil in and of themselves. My wife may disagree, but a spider cannot be evil.

Marc Roby: I think a number of people would disagree with that. But your point is a serious one, there are living things that are not moral beings and cannot, therefore, be evil. We may not like them, but they are not evil.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. And I think it would be good at this point to define evil. Evil can be used as an adjective or a noun and it refers to actions or things that are morally reprehensible, which of course immediately begs the question of what moral means. Moral can again be an adjective or a noun. As an adjective, it describes whether an action is right or not. A moral action is one that is right, or good, and an immoral act is one that is wrong, or bad. But that again begs the question; right or wrong according to whom? Any real Christian must answer that question by saying that it is God who establishes the standard of conduct. He determines what is right and what is wrong. Doing something God defines as wrong is sin, and failing to do something he requires is also sin.

I wanted to go over this even though it is a seemingly obvious point because I wanted to establish clearly that when we talk about evil or morality, we cannot escape talking about God.

Marc Roby: It really gets back to our ultimate standard for truth doesn’t it?

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. And as we discussed in Session 4, there are only two possible ultimate standards for truth; either revelation from God or human beings. So, getting back to our topic of spirits. Since it is only spirits that make moral choices, it is only spirits who can be morally good or morally bad, which we call evil. The Bible tells us that God created beings called angels who are pure spirits. But they are still created beings, so they are not the same as God himself. They are not omnipresent, omniscient and so on, although they are far more powerful than we are. The Bible also tells us that some of these angels rebelled against God and became his enemies, what we call demons. The head of these demons is Satan. This is all reality, not mythology.

Marc Roby: And a most unpleasant reality I might add.

Dr. Spencer: The existence of Satan and his demons is a very unpleasant reality. But we must remember that all sin is evil. It is wicked rebellion against God. We tend to minimize the seriousness of sin, but it is so serious that Jesus Christ had to come and die to redeem people from it. And we aren’t just talking about murder and other sins that people think of as serious. We are also talking about sins that most people think of as being minor, like laziness, or disrespecting authorities and many other sins. These are all rebellion against God. Outside of Christ we are all slaves of sin as Paul tells us in Romans 6.

Marc Roby: I think we have gotten off topic again, can you tie this all back in to the attribute of God’s spirituality?

Dr. Spencer: It all ties back in because human beings are made in the image of God and have spirits so that we can have fellowship with God. And, as we noted, the Bible clearly speaks in many different ways about our spirits being influenced or even, in some extreme cases, controlled by other spirits. And those spirits can be good or evil. When we become Christians, we immediately have some real and very powerful enemies, Satan and his demons. That is why we are told in Ephesians 6:12 that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

Marc Roby: That verse of course does not imply that we don’t also have flesh and blood enemies, but it is emphasizing the spiritual nature of the warfare.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. We can be influenced by evil spirits and by the Holy Spirit. They can plant thoughts in our minds and we must judge all of those thoughts by the objective word of God. We are told in 1 John 4:1, “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” These false prophets are speaking things given to them by evil spirits, but the evil spirits can also put ideas in our minds directly. So, we must always test these ideas. We are told in 2 Corinthians 10:5 that we should “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”

Marc Roby: Very well. In the last two sessions we have established that spirits are self-conscious, intelligent, moral, volitional, personal beings. We’ve established that God is pure spirit, but he also created angels, who are spirits, and human beings, who have both body and spirit. We have shown that the Bible tells us that our spirits can be influenced by other spirits. You have also established that our spirits can live independently of our bodies and that our spirit is the seat of our personality, our decisions and our morality.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a good summary.

Marc Roby: And we are out of time for today. Let me 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]Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 187

[3]E.J. Young, The Book of Isaiah, W.B. Eerdmans Pub., Vol. 1, 1972, pg. 383

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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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