Yes Single


[Download PDF Transcript]

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. We have shown that spirits are self-conscious, intelligent, moral, volitional, personal beings. And we have noted that although God created angels, which are pure spirits, God’s spirituality is qualitatively different than theirs. We have also discussed the fact that we have a spirit in addition to our body and that our spirit is the essential part of us and will continue to exist even when our body is dead. Dr. Spencer, what else do you want to say about spirits and God’s spirituality?

Dr. Spencer: I want to wrap up the discussion by making a couple of brief comments. First, let me read Grudem’s statement defining this attribute of God. He wrote that “God’s spirituality means that God exists as a being that is not made of any matter, has no parts or dimensions, is unable to be perceived by our bodily senses, and is more excellent than any other kind of existence.”[1]

Marc Roby: That seems to be a reasonably complete summary of much of what we have said.

Dr. Spencer: It is. He makes four points. First, God is not made out of matter. As we have noted, Jesus’ statement in John 4:24 that “God is spirit” [2] tells us that God’s essence is entirely different than the stuff this physical universe is made of. Second, he says that God “has no parts or dimensions”, which is a result of the fact that he is present everywhere in the totality of his being as we noted in discussing his omnipresence. When the Bible tells us that God is everywhere, as in Psalm 139 for example, it makes no sense to think of just some part of him being there. To use anthropomorphic language, it isn’t as though there is a hand here, an arm there and an eyeball somewhere else.

Marc Roby: That is a rather gruesome picture and clearly would not do justice to the biblical passages we looked at.

Dr. Spencer: No, it wouldn’t. The third thing that Grudem says is that we cannot perceive God by our bodily senses. Which is true, but we must also remember that he is able to make his presence manifest to our senses when he chooses to, and he can do so in different forms. With the Israelites in the desert after the exodus from Egypt he showed himself as a pillar of cloud in the daytime and a pillar of fire at night as we read in Exodus 13:21, which says “By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night.” But then there are also times when God shows up in the form of an angel or of a human being. In Genesis 18:1-2 for example, we read that “The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby.”

Marc Roby: What amazing condescension that was on God’s part, to come in a human form and speak with Abraham.

Dr. Spencer: It is hard to imagine. What must Abraham have been thinking during that conversation? But, getting back to Grudem’s statement about God’s spirituality. The fourth and final thing he says is that God’s spirituality “is more excellent than any other kind of existence”.

Marc Roby: That phrase should win an award for understatement.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it should. As we noted, God’s spirit is eternal, omnipresent and so on. In other words, all of the incommunicable attributes describe his essence. It is far beyond anything we can imagine. But there is one more important thing to say about God’s spirituality.

Marc Roby: What is that?

Dr. Spencer: That we can have fellowship with him. God made us in his image, which is a mysterious statement, but certainly includes the fact that we have spirits and can have fellowship with God as a result.

Marc Roby: And that is our greatest joy and the source of our hope. Are we done talking about God’s spirituality?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we are.

Marc Roby: Alright. What attribute are we going to look at next?

Dr. Spencer: We’re going to continue following the presentation in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology book, which means the next attribute I want to consider is God’s invisibility.

Marc Roby: Isn’t that really the primary aspect of God’s spirituality?

Dr. Spencer: I would say so, but there are a couple of things to say about this that will be useful. First, Grudem writes that “God’s invisibility means that God’s total essence, all of his spiritual being, will never be able to be seen by us, yet God still shows himself to us through visible, created things.”[3]

Marc Roby: Like the theophanies we have already discussed.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. But independent of the fact that God has shown himself in some way through these theophanies, the Bible is clear that no one has ever seen God. In fact, with our standard five senses it is evident that would be impossible since he is spirit and we can’t see spirits unless they make themselves visible, in which case we are obviously seeing only what they choose to have us see. In John 1:18 we are told that “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” Which is an amazing statement that we have looked at before. First, it tells us clearly that no one has ever seen God. But then, even more amazingly, it speaks of Jesus Christ and tells us three things about him. First, he is “God the One and Only”, second, he is “at the Father’s side”, and third, he “has made him known”, meaning he has made the Father known.

Marc Roby: That is incredible. But it is also what the writer of Hebrews tells us. In Hebrews 1:3 we are told that “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being”.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. We have spoken about these verses before in the context of examining the biblical evidence for the deity of Christ, so I don’t want to spend more time on them now. But I do want to mention what is often called the beatific vision.

Marc Roby: And the word beatific means to make happy or blessed.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right.

Marc Roby: I assume this is the second thing you said you wanted to point out from Grudem?

Dr. Spencer: You’re right again. The beatific vision refers to the fact that when we die we shall see God “face to face” as we are told in 1 Corinthians 13:12, which says, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

Marc Roby: That promise is enough to blow your mind.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly is. When it says we shall see “face to face” it isn’t implying that God has a literal face of course, but it is using a common expression for being in intimate fellowship.

Marc Roby: Although Jesus Christ does have a human face.

Dr. Spencer: That’s very true. And we will see him in the flesh. But we will also somehow see God the Father. We have this wonderful promise given to us in 1 John Chapter 3. The first two verses say, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

Marc Roby: I love that passage. What we will be has not yet been made known. We have the most incredible surprise possible awaiting us in heaven!

Dr. Spencer: It will be the greatest surprise ever. And the reason I read both verses is that it makes it clear that John is talking about God the Father. It started off saying “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us”, so when it says in Verse 2 that “we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” the antecedent is the Father. Many, if not most, people assume that it is speaking about Jesus Christ and his second coming, but I think John Murray is correct in saying that it is referring to the Father. Murray wrote that “It is of the Father that John is speaking in this context, and so it is likeness to the Father he has in view. Seeing the Father as he is does not refer to physical sight, but to the fulness and clearness of the knowledge of the Father that will follow upon understanding undimmed by sin, and the revelation of the full splendor of the Father’s glory.”[4]

Marc Roby: Now that is something to look forward to!

Dr. Spencer: Yes, with great joy and anticipation. The Bible explicitly tells us that we can have great joy even though we don’t see God with our physical eyes. 1 Peter 1:8 and 9 tell us that “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

Marc Roby: That is truly a great comfort. Do you have anything more to say about God’s invisibility?

Dr. Spencer: No, that was all I wanted to cover. So, I think we are ready to move on to God’s knowledge.

Marc Roby: And a brief statement about God’s knowledge would simply be that he knows everything.

Dr. Spencer: Which is why this attribute is also called God’s omniscience. The word omniscient means to know everything. But I think we can profit from looking at the topic in more depth. Let me begin by reading Grudem’s statement about this attribute. He says that “God fully knows himself and all things actual and possible in one simple and eternal act.”[5]

Marc Roby: The word “simple” is obviously not being used in its normal way in that statement.

Dr. Spencer: No, it isn’t. It is being used in the same way we did when we spoke of God’s simplicity. It means not broken into parts. God knows all things immediately, and I mean immediately both in the spatial and temporal sense. He doesn’t have to scratch his head and try to dredge up some memory, nor does he have to go out and investigate. Grudem notes that “If he should wish to tell us the number of grains of sand on the seashore or the number of stars in the sky, he would not have to count them all quickly like some kind of giant computer, nor would he have to call the number to mind because it was something he had not thought about for a time.”

Marc Roby: That example makes me think of Luke 12:7, where Jesus tells us that “the very hairs of your head are all numbered.” It’s impossible for us to understand that kind of comprehensive and perfect knowledge of absolutely everything.

Dr. Spencer: It is absolutely impossible for us to understand. And notice that Grudem said it was “one simple and eternal act.” Not only does God not have to think about it or try and remember, but he also never learns anything. He already knows everything that ever will or could happen. And notice that saying God can’t learn anything new and that his knowing is not a process that uses different parts of his being – like eyes and ears – is really a restatement of his incommunicable attributes of simplicity and immutability. So, it is in fact a good illustration of God’s simplicity! We can’t think about any of his attributes without thinking about others too. For example, his knowledge is a simple and immutable knowledge.

Marc Roby: The Bible does tell us some astounding things about God’s knowledge. John states it quite boldly in 1 John 3:20 where we read that “God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.”

Dr. Spencer: That is an amazing statement, and it is not the only place where the Bible makes such a claim. Psalm 147:5 says, “Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit.”  And when Jesus asked Peter the third time if he loved him, Peter responded, in John 21:17, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Marc Roby: It can be terrifying to think that God knows absolutely everything about us, even our thoughts as we read in Psalm 139:2.

Dr. Spencer: That is terrifying, and we must think about that. We are told in Hebrews 4:13 that “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” But we will deal with the implications of and reactions to God’s omniscience later.

Marc Roby: Alright, getting back to Grudem’s statement then, it’s also amazing to think about the first thing he said; namely, that “God fully knows himself”. It almost seems impossible for anyone to fully know themselves. You would think that you need to be greater than someone to fully understand that person.

Dr. Spencer: I agree, it seems that way. But God is infinite and we really can’t grasp the meaning of infinity. In fact, there are some very interesting paradoxes having to do with infinity. For example, there is Hilbert’s hotel. Imagine a hotel with an infinite number of rooms, all of which are occupied. Now suppose that an infinite number of new guests show up and want rooms. Can the hotel accommodate them?

Marc Roby: Do I have to answer that question?

Dr. Spencer: No, I’ll answer it for you. The answer is, surprisingly, yes! The full, but infinite, hotel can accommodate an infinite number of new guests. All you have to do is move everyone to a different room. For example, have everyone move to a room whose number is twice the number of the room the person is in now. So, the person in room 1 moves to room 2, the person in room 2 moves to room 4, the person in room 3 moves to room 6 and so on. When you are done with all of these moves, all of the odd rooms are empty. And, since there are an infinite number of odd rooms, you can accommodate the infinite number of new guests who want rooms.

Marc Roby: I think my head is starting to hurt.

Dr. Spencer: Sorry about that. But I’ve been a bit loose here since there are different kinds of infinities and to keep things simple I wasn’t specifying which type I was talking about. But the point I am trying to make is simply that infinity is a very difficult concept and an actual infinity cannot exist in our physical universe, it leads to logical contradictions like Hilbert’s hotel.

Marc Roby: And it also leads to headaches.

Dr. Spencer: I can certainly see that it does. But, everything that is revealed to us about God teaches us that he is, in some sense, infinite. Eternity is infinitely long. God’s knowledge is without limit, which means infinite, and so on. I’m again using the word loosely, but my point is that we should not expect to be able to understand God. We’ve said that before, this is just the latest manifestation of the fact.

Let me remind our listeners of the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s answer to Question 4, “What is God?” The answer is, “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” That is a short listing of attributes and it does not explicitly include God’s knowledge, but it is there implicitly. Wisdom is the ability to make right decisions, but to be infinitely wise God must also be infinite in knowledge, otherwise he might make an unwise choice out of ignorance, which is unthinkable and unbiblical.

Marc Roby: I think this is a good place to stop for today, we can pick up this topic again next time. So, I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We’d appreciate hearing from you.

 

[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pp 187-188

[2] 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.™.

[3] Grudem, op. cit., pg. 188

[4] John Murray, Collected Works, Vol. 2, Banner of Truth Trust, 1977, pg. 310

[5] Grudem, op. cit., pg. 190

Play
Yes Single


[Download PDF Transcript]

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

Play
Yes Single


[Download PDF Transcript]

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

Play
Yes Single


[Download PDF Transcript]

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

Play
Yes Single


[Download PDF Transcript]

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

Play