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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine the providence of God. Dr. Spencer, we made the case in Session 88 that there are no chance events in this universe, God rules over every detail. And in our last Session, 89, we provided some of the Biblical data to support the case, showing that God controls every aspect of his physical creation and of human history. And we closed by noting that God’s providence is personal and moral, that it deals with specific individuals, and that it has a purpose. But all of this raises an obvious question, which we have dealt with before, but I think it bears looking at again in light of God’s providence. The question is this; if God controls every detail, what room is there for human freedom?

Dr. Spencer: Well, as you noted, we have dealt with this question before. In fact, we’ve discussed it twice; once in Session 65 when we examined God’s sovereignty, and once in Session 86 when we discussed God’s will. God’s sovereignty, will and providence are, of course, closely related topics since God brings about his sovereign will through his works of creation and providence.

Marc Roby: Which is again an illustration of God’s simplicity, that all of his attributes work together all of the time.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. In any event, the short answer to the question is that God can ordain every detail of human history without having to force us to do anything. In other words, he can control everything and still have us be really and truly free to make decisions for which we can be justly held accountable. The Bible does not tell us exactly how God does this, but as we noted in Session 65, unless we want to claim our own decisions are purely random, there is no logical contradiction.

Marc Roby: I remember that discussion, and as I said at the time, I certainly wouldn’t want to claim that my decisions are random, and I don’t think many others would either.

Dr. Spencer: Of course not. We may not always make our decisions in the best way possible, in fact, to be honest I should probably say that we often don’t make decisions as carefully as we should. But, nevertheless, we do make decisions for reasons, and those reasons are based on our nature and all of the information available to us at the time, and all of our decisions are perfectly predictable by God since he knows us even better than we know ourselves.

Marc Roby: But, of course, predicting what we will do is not the same thing as controlling what we do.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true, there is obviously a radical conceptual difference between predicting what I will do and controlling what I do. But, in practice, this may be a distinction without a difference. Consider the following facts. First, God knows exactly what I will do in any and every possible situation. Second, although God will never tempt me to sin, he can place thoughts in my mind, he can cause me to remember certain things I have seen or heard or thought about before, and he can directly control any aspect of my circumstances if he chooses to. Given those two facts, it is pretty obvious that he can bring about exactly what he wants to have happen without ever forcing me to do anything against my will.

So, without going into the topic in depth, suffice it to say that there is no contradiction between God’s sovereignty and our freedom, and they are both clear teachings of Scripture.

Marc Roby: The Westminster Confession of Faith says it well. We quoted this passage in Session 65, but it is well worth repeating. In Paragraph 1 of Chapter 3 the confession says that “God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a wonderful statement and, most importantly, it is completely biblical. But now let’s get back to specifically talking about God’s providence. Theologians have often divided God’s providence into three subtopics:[1] preservation, government and concurrence, which is sometimes called confluence,[2] concursus or cooperation.[3] Others have used only the two topics of preservation and government, in which case concurrence is considered under the topic of government.[4]

Marc Roby: We already covered concurrence, which refers to God’s will and our will both being operative in bringing about events, when we discussed God’s will in Session 86.

Dr. Spencer: And that is why in our present discussion I plan to break providence down into two topics, preservation and government. It is interesting to note that these two topics are those given in the answer to Question 11 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which says that “God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.”

Marc Roby: That is a great short definition, well worth memorizing.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. So, let’s begin, by looking at God’s preservation in more detail. Wayne Grudem has a good definition of preservation, he writes that “God keeps all created things existing and maintaining the properties with which he created them.”[5]

Marc Roby: And when the apostle Paul was speaking about God to the Athenians at the Areopagus, we read in Acts 17:28 that he said, “For in him we live and move and have our being.” [6] Grudem’s definition completely agrees with this statement.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it does. The reality is that God upholds all of creation all of the time. Job’s friend Elihu knew this. We read in Job 34:14-15 that he said about God, “If it were his intention and he withdrew his spirit and breath, all mankind would perish together and man would return to the dust.” And we could add to Elihu’s statement that the dust itself would disappear if God didn’t uphold it.

Marc Roby: Yes, you’re correct in that addition, a more comprehensive statement is found in Hebrews 1:3, where we are told that Jesus Christ “is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.”

Dr. Spencer: That is, perhaps, the best verse to make this point. But it isn’t the only verse. Another good one is Colossians 1:17, where the apostle said that Jesus Christ, “is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

The Bible clearly teaches that God upholds his creation. The whole of creation is completely dependent on him for its existence. He created it out of nothing, and if he ever ceased willing it to exist, it would disappear in an instant. But Grudem’s definition goes even further than saying that God preserves the universe, it says that “God keeps all created things existing” and here comes the additional part, “and maintaining the properties with which he created them.” In other words, things remain the same because God causes them to remain the same.

Marc Roby: And Grudem supports this contention, in part, by looking at the Greek for the verse I just read from Hebrews 1. Where our translation says that Christ is “sustaining all things by his powerful word” the Greek says, more literally, that he carries all things.

Dr. Spencer: And the Greek word used for carry in that verse is φέρω (pherō̄), which Grudem says, “has the sense of active, purposeful control over the thing being carried from one place to another.”[7] He also notes, as we have before, that the fact that God preserves all things provides the rational basis for science. We tend to take it for granted that the physical laws of our universe and the properties of materials stay the same from day to day, but why should they? We believe there is randomness in the quantum realm, why should there not also be randomness in the very laws that govern our universe?

Marc Roby: I don’t think anyone can give a reason why things should remain the same if they don’t believe in God. The best they can do is to simply argue that we believe they will remain the same in the future because they have in the past.

Dr. Spencer: I think that is the best anyone can say. And, of course, we can’t entirely dismiss that reasoning, it is proper as far as it goes. But there is a deeper reason why things remain the same. The verses we’ve quoted, along with others, show that God sustains things. He is carrying all things along to a specific end. We should never forget the point we made at the end of our previous session, that God’s providence is purposeful. He has a purpose for creation and he is guiding all things toward the fulfillment of that purpose.

Marc Roby: We see that in 2 Peter 3:5-7, where the apostle wrote about the great power of God’s word and about the flood in Noah’s time being a foreshadowing of God’s final judgment. Peter wrote that people “deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a very clear teaching about the power of God and the fact that he has a plan for creation. We recently buried a woman in our church and, as always, the death of someone we know is a reminder to all of us that life is short. But death is not the end of life, it is just the end of life on this earth in this body. As our pastor likes to say, the important question is not whether she died, we will all die sooner or later. The important question is, where did she go?

Marc Roby: That is a sobering thought. God’s providence has an end in view. And we have clear biblical support for the idea that God’s providence includes his preserving, or sustaining, his creation.

Dr. Spencer: We certainly do. The theologian Charles Hodge went further and examined the nature of God’s preservation. He pointed out that there have historically been three general views held about this topic. The first view he presents is basically the view of most deists. He describes this view as believing that God “created all things and determined that they should continue in being according to the laws which He impressed upon them at the beginning. There is no need, it is said, of supposing his continued intervention for their preservation. It is enough that He does not will that they should cease to be.”[8]

Marc Roby: In other words, this view thinks of the world as a wind-up toy. God created it and set things in motion, but then backs up and watches without intervening in any way.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right. The first objection that Hodge raises to this view is that it is opposed to the clear teaching of Bible. We’ve just read several verses that are simply incompatible with this idea.

Marc Roby: And that argument alone should be sufficient for any Christian.

Dr. Spencer: It should be, yes. But he also points out that this view, as he puts it, “does violence to the instinctive religious convictions of all men.”[9]

Marc Roby: In other words, people often speak and act in ways that make it clear that they don’t believe the universe is a big wind-up toy. Which is a point we made last time in discussing the sorts of things people say when a loved-one dies.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. The other views Hodge mentions are all types of what he calls continued creation. These views are certainly less common, especially today, and come in different forms, so I’m not going to examine them all or in any detail. Probably the most important one of them says that since God cannot be described by a succession of acts, therefore you can’t separate creation from providence. Another form of this view denies the reality of secondary agents altogether and says that God directly causes everything.

Marc Roby: Now that is a completely unbiblical view, and also not very appealing to logic and experience. It makes God the creator of evil and all of us just puppets.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. In fact, Hodge points out that it is indistinguishable from pantheism, it essentially makes God out to be the universe.[10]

Marc Roby: Which is certainly not a view to be taken seriously by anyone who has a meaningful conception of God, let alone by a Christian.

Dr. Spencer: No, we shouldn’t take it seriously at all. If it were true, which it obviously isn’t, we wouldn’t be able to seriously consider it in any meaningful sense since we wouldn’t really exist as independent sentient beings.

Marc Roby: Good point, the view is incompatible with true volitional creatures.

Dr. Spencer: That is why I will only consider the one form of continuous creation, which denies you can think about a succession of acts in God. This view allows for real secondary agents and attempts to deal with the fact that God is not subject to time in the same way we are. But it goes too far based on speculation and denies the clear teaching of the Bible. We can’t understand how God views time, but it is clear that independent of the fact he is, in some sense, outside of both space and time, he nevertheless acts in his creation in space and time.

Hodge correctly says that “It is the height of presumption in man, on the mere ground of our speculative ideas, to depart from the plain representations of Scriptures”.[11]

Marc Roby: It is, admittedly, difficult to understand God’s relation to time as we experience it.

Dr. Spencer: It is, but there is a good analogy presented by Wayne Grudem, which may help to understand this point.

Marc Roby: What analogy is that?

Dr. Spencer: It is the analogy of a human author writing a story. Grudem uses this to help understand the idea of concurrence, the fact that the free-will actions of secondary agents can work together with God’s will to produce his desired outcome.[12] The idea is simple. If you are writing a fictional story, you know all that is going to happen to your characters in the future and you weave the story together to produce the end that you have chosen. But, if you are a good author, you also make sure that your characters do and say things that are appropriate and fitting for their given natures and knowledge of events at any given moment of time. In other words, you, as the author, experience time – in the sense of the story – completely differently than your characters do.

Marc Roby: That is a useful analogy, although very limited given the fact that God has created real people, not just characters in a story.

Dr. Spencer: Obviously God is infinitely greater than we are, but the analogy is useful nonetheless. And with that, we have said all I want to say for now about preservation, and we are ready to move on to discuss God’s government.

Marc Roby: And that makes this a perfect place to end for today, so I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we’ll do our best to respond to them.

 

[1] E.g., Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 315

[2] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, P&R Publishing Co., 2006, Vol. 1, pg. 152

[3] John Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pg. 275

[4] E.g., Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, pp 575-616

[5] Grudem, op. cit., pg. 316

[6] 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.™.

[7] Grudem, op. cit., pg. 316

[8] Hodge, op. cit., Vol. 1, pg. 576

[9] Ibid, pg. 577

[10] Ibid, pg. 580

[11] Ibid, pp 578-579

[12] Grudem, pp 321-322

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine God’s communicable attributes. Dr. Spencer, we ended last time by briefly discussing the fact that God did not need to create this universe. Is there anymore that you want to say about that?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, there is. In his systematic theology, Wayne Grudem lists God’s Freedom as one of his communicable attributes and he defines it in the following way: “God’s freedom is that attribute of God whereby he does whatever he pleases.”[1]

Marc Roby: And his definition is completely biblical since we are told in Psalm 115:3 that “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.” [2] But I think we should perhaps head off a possible objection at this point. In Session 85 we made the point that God’s will is not absolutely free, in other words there are things that he cannot do. And, in fact, we discussed God’s will of disposition and noted that his perfection constrains him to do some things that don’t, in and of themselves, please him. I can easily imagine one of our listeners thinking that there is a problem reconciling those statements with this definition of Grudem, that God does whatever he pleases.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, there does appear to be a problem there. For example, we read in Ezekiel 18:32, “For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” And yet people clearly die, not just temporally, but in the ultimate sense of being sent to hell. It is therefore reasonable to ask whether Grudem is right when he says that God does whatever he pleases.

I think however, that this only appears to be a problem until you look at it more carefully. Grudem’s statement is correct, but we need to realize that, ultimately, what pleases God most is to do what is perfect. And as we pointed out in Session 85, the perfect goal for this universe must be the goal that God has revealed to us, which is the manifestation of his own glory. And it must be true that to perfectly manifest that glory God has to send some people to hell, even though, in and of itself, that does not please him.

Marc Roby: I think this goes along with the idea that even God can’t make a square circle. Some desirable things are mutually contradictory. In this case, God chose the greater good of making his glorious justice manifest in judging some people.

Dr. Spencer: I think that’s right. And Grudem goes on in that section to make clear that what he has in mind is that God has no externally imposed constraints on his being or actions. Nothing in creation in any way constrains God. The only constraints he has are the result of his own perfect nature; they are internal.

Marc Roby: Which is, of course, very different from us.

Dr. Spencer: It is as different as you can possibly imagine. This is a communicable attribute and we do have real freedom of will, but not absolute freedom. Our wills are strictly constrained by the will of God. It is completely impossible for any human being, or even for all of humanity acting together, to change even the tiniest detail of God’s decrees. What he has decreed will, without any doubt at all, take place.

Marc Roby: That makes me think of Proverbs 19:21, which tells us that “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, I also think of Proverbs 21:1, which says that “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.”

Marc Roby: That verse presents a great analogy. The water in a stream still does exactly what it naturally does, it follows the path of least resistance as it moves under the influence of gravity. And yet, we can direct the water where we want it go by how we shape a ditch or a canal.

Dr. Spencer: That is a great analogy. And not only is the heart of every individual king in God’s hands, but in Psalm 2 we read about many, if not all, of the kings of earth coming together to oppose God. In Verses 2-6 we read, “The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One. ‘Let us break their chains,’ they say, ‘and throw off their fetters.’ The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. Then he rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, ‘I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill.’”

Marc Roby: Which is speaking about the Lord Jesus Christ.

Dr. Spencer: Of course. God laughs at the greatest power man can muster. He has decreed that Jesus Christ redeem a people for himself, to be his eternal treasured possession, and so it will be.

Marc Roby: Praise God for that.

Dr. Spencer: Indeed, we should praise God for that. If men, or Satan and his demons, or any combination of powers were able to thwart God’s plans, then we could never trust in his promises. We are not able to keep all of our promises, even if we intend to. For example, I may promise to take my grandson to play golf on Saturday and then I may get sick or even die on Friday and not be able to fulfill my promise. But nothing can prevent God from fulfilling all of his promises, as well as all of his threats.

Marc Roby: And so, the next attribute that Grudem examines is God’s omnipotence.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it goes hand-in-hand with his freedom. Grudem writes that “God’s omnipotence means that God is able to do all his holy will.”[3] We have already used the term omnipotence a number of times in these podcasts, but this is a good definition of it. We discussed in Session 85 that it does not mean that God can do anything, which is why Grudem only says that it means that God is able to do all his holy will.

Marc Roby: And the Bible clearly tells us that this is true. For example, when God told Abraham that he and Sarah would have a child in their old age, Sarah laughed because she thought this was clearly impossible. She had been past child-bearing age for quite some time. But we read the Lord’s answer in Genesis 18:14, “Is anything too hard for the LORD? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.”

Dr. Spencer: And, of course, she did have a son in the next year. We also read that God said to the prophet Jeremiah, in Jeremiah 32:27, “I am the LORD, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?” And when the angel Gabriel told Mary that she was going to have a child even though she was a virgin, he said to her, as we read in Luke 1:37, “For nothing is impossible with God.”

Marc Roby: And when Jesus told his disciples that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to be saved, they were troubled and asked, “Who then can be saved?” To which Jesus replied, in Matthew 19:26, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Dr. Spencer: And, clearly, by “all things” in that verse Jesus does not mean things that are logically impossible or things that violate God’s own nature. We have to be intelligent when we read the Bible, no less so than when reading books by human authors. As we discussed when we talked about hermeneutics, the word “all” does not always mean “all” in a completely exhaustive sense.

God’s omnipotence describes his awesome power. And Grudem then notes that “God’s exercise of power over his creation is also called God’s sovereignty.” God is the Sovereign Lord over his creation and he rules it with mighty power. He is the eternal King.

Marc Roby: Grudem then closes his discussion of God’s attributes by looking at what he calls the “summary” attributes.

Dr. Spencer: And he tells us why he calls them summary attributes. He wrote that “Even though all the attributes of God modify all the others in some senses, those that fit in this category seem more directly to apply to all the attributes or to describe some aspect of all of the attributes that it is worthwhile to state explicitly.”[4]

I like that statement because it reminds us of God’s simplicity. He is not composed of parts and we dare not think of his attributes that way. They all work together all the time. We list them individually as an accommodation to our own inability to think about God on a higher plane.

Marc Roby: And the first of these summary attributes that Grudem lists is God’s perfection, which we have already discussed a number of times in dealing with the other attributes.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we have mentioned God’s perfection a number of times, precisely because it is so important. Grudem defines it this way: “God’s perfection means that God completely possesses all excellent qualities and lacks no part of any qualities that would be desirable for him.[5]

Marc Roby: We have previously noted Matthew 5:48, where Jesus tells us to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Dr. Spencer: And in the Old Testament there are a number of places where we are told that everything God does is perfect. For example, in Psalm 18:30 King David writes, “As for God, his way is perfect; the word of the LORD is flawless. He is a shield for all who take refuge in him.” The Hebrew word translated as perfect in that verse means to be complete, or without blemish or defect.[6]

John Frame ties this idea in with the fact that God is the ultimate standard in many ways,[7] which is something we have discussed. We have, for example, mentioned a number of times that God is the ultimate standard for truth, and in Session 73 we noted that he is also the ultimate standard for what is good. We judge all other things as being true or good based on how they compare with God.

Marc Roby: And that leads us to the next summary attribute Grudem presents, which is blessedness, which means to be happy in a very deep and meaningful way. He cites 1 Timothy 6:15 where Paul calls God, “the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords”.

Dr. Spencer: Grudem goes on to define this attribute by writing that “God’s blessedness means that God delights fully in himself and in all that reflects his character.”[8] We have noted before that for a human being to delight in himself more than anything else would be incredibly arrogant and unseemly. But the same is not true of God.

I like how Grudem puts it. He wrote that “It may at first seem strange or even somewhat disappointing to us that when God rejoices in his creation, or even when he rejoices in us, it is really the reflection of his own excellent qualities in which he is rejoicing. But when we remember that the sum of everything that is desirable or excellent is found in infinite measure in God himself, then we realize that it could not be otherwise: whatever excellence there is in the universe, whatever is desirable, must ultimately have come from him, for he is the Creator of all and he is the source of all good.”[9]

Marc Roby: That is a great statement. And he quite properly backs it up by quoting James 1:17, which says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” And he also quotes 1 Corinthians 4:7, where Paul writes, “For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?”

Dr. Spencer: And, of course, we are no better than anyone else, and we have nothing good that we have not received from God, so we should not boast in ourselves. We need to remember that we are creatures. God takes pleasure in us, but it is to some extent analogous to the pleasure an artist takes in a painting or sculpture he has made. The pleasure is in the artist’s accomplishment and his abilities, it is not pleasure brought about by the canvas, or the paints or the marble themselves.

Marc Roby: That analogy has clear limitations though. Obviously, God has created sentient beings with some degree of free will and he takes pleasure in our willing obedience to his commands.

Dr. Spencer: Very true, but let’s move on. The next summary attribute that Grudem lists is beauty. He writes that “God’s beauty is that attribute of God whereby he is the sum of all desirable qualities.” King David wrote, in Psalm 27:4, “One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.”

Marc Roby: What a glorious thought that is. To see God face to face. We are told in 1 John 3:2, “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.”

Dr. Spencer: And John Murray argues, I think successfully, that the apostle is speaking of God the Father when he writes that “we shall see him as he is.”[10] In Revelation 21 and 22 we are told about heaven, and in 22:3-4 we read, “No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face”. What a glorious future we have. To be able to see God as he truly is.

Marc Roby: That is an amazing thing to think about. And that brings us to the last summary attribute that Grudem presents, the glory of God.

Dr. Spencer: And, as Grudem himself notes, this is not really an attribute of God in the normal usage of that term. We have used the term glory a number of times in these podcasts without stopping to define it because I think most people have a reasonable sense of the meaning of the term. In one sense it refers to praise, honor, or fame. And, as Grudem says, it “describes the superlative honor that should be given to God by everything in the universe”. We have noted multiple times that the Bible tells us God’s purpose in creation is the manifestation of his own glory. The great Puritan William Perkins defined God’s glory as “the infinite excellency of his most simple and most holy divine nature.”[11]

Marc Roby: But there is another meaning of the term as well. It can just mean brightness.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true, and it is biblical. The Bible certainly talks about the glory of God in that sense. But, as Grudem notes, in that sense God’s glory is a created thing, it is “the created light or brilliance that surrounds God as he manifests himself in his creation.”[12] We see this, for example, when the angels announce the birth of Christ to the shepherds. In Luke 2:9 we read that “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”

Marc Roby: It is amazing to consider that God promises us that we will share in his glory. We read in Romans 8:17 where the apostle wrote, “Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is a wonderful promise. And it is not the only place we see that promise. We also read in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that “we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” And later in that same letter, in 2 Corinthians 4:17, Paul wrote, “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”

Marc Roby: I can’t wait for that day. But we should emphasize that our glory is a reflection of God’s glory. The only glory we have is by virtue of being created in his image.

Dr. Spencer: And we are to live for the praise of his glory as Paul tells us in Ephesians 1:12. And Jesus showed us how we can bring glory to God. In John 17:4 Jesus said to the Father, “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.” And in Ephesians 2:10 we are told that “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Therefore, it is really very simple. The way we glorify God is by obeying him and doing the work he has prepared for us to do.

Marc Roby: Are we now finished with God’s attributes?

Dr. Spencer: Well, we could spend the rest of our lives on them and not exhaust them, but we are done with what I hope is a reasonable short summary of them, yes.

Marc Roby: Very well. Then let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we’ll do our best to respond to them.

 

[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 216

[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. 216

[4] Ibid, pg. 218

[5] Ibid

[6] See Vine, W.E., Merrill F. Unger, William White, Jr., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, Thomas Nelson, 1996, pg. 176 or Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pg. 403

[7] John Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pp 405-409

[8] Grudem, op. cit., pg. 218

[9] Ibid, pg. 219

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

[11] Quoted in Beeke, Joel R. & Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, Reformation Heritage Books, 2012, pp 120-121

[12] Grudem, op. cit., pg. 221

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine God’s will. Dr. Spencer, in our previous discussion, you made the point that God truly desires that all people be saved, and yet he does not in fact save everyone because to do so would not serve his ultimate purpose of making his own glory manifest as well as the universe we live in does. Doesn’t this leave you open to the charge of somehow limiting God’s options?

Dr. Spencer: Well, I’m not limiting God’s options, but his options are, in fact, limited. God is not free to do absolutely anything. We mentioned this briefly before when we were discussing God’s Sovereignty and man’s free will in Session 65. For example, we are told in Hebrews 6:18 that “it is impossible for God to lie”. [1] But there are many other things God cannot do.

Marc Roby: I think John Frame has a useful discussion on this topic in his book The Doctrine of God.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, he does. He lists six kinds of actions that God cannot perform.[2] First, he cannot perform logically contradictory actions.

Marc Roby: Like making a square circle.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And Frame makes an important point in this regard. When we say that there are things God cannot do, this is not to say that there is a weakness in God. God cannot do things that are logically contradictory because, as Frame says, “The laws of logic are an aspect of his own character.”[3] We could reasonably call logic one of God’s attributes, although that is not normally done. It is not a weakness that God is unable to go against his own character.

Marc Roby: What else does Frame say that God cannot do?

Dr. Spencer: He cannot do anything immoral.

Marc Roby: And, certainly, no one could rationally consider that a weakness. It is, in fact, a great strength. As you noted a moment ago, he can’t lie. And James 1:13 tells us that “God cannot be tempted by evil”. What else does Frame say God cannot do?

Dr. Spencer: He cannot do things that are appropriate only for creatures, like celebrating a birthday. He can do these things in the incarnate person of Jesus Christ, but not in his deity. But this inability is again an indication of his strength, not a weakness. He also cannot deny his own nature as God by, for example, ceasing to be God. God can’t commit suicide.

Marc Roby: Well, that seems pretty obvious, and certainly can’t be thought of as a weakness. What else?

Dr. Spencer: God can’t change his eternal plan. In a sense, to do so would be to deny his nature as the perfect, unchangeable God.

Marc Roby: Okay, I believe that is five things, but you said Frame listed six, so what is the last one?

Dr. Spencer: The last one is more interesting, although it sounds silly at first blush. It is the age-old question of whether or not God can make a stone so large that he can’t lift it.

Marc Roby: Okay, I’ll be honest and say that that does sound downright silly at first blush.

Dr. Spencer: Well, I’ll admit that I was surprised when I read in Frame’s book that philosophers have written about this question fairly recently. The problem of course, is supposed to be that if God can make such a stone, then he can’t lift it and is therefore not omnipotent. And, on the other hand, if he can’t make such a stone, then he again is not omnipotent. The question is an attempt to show that God’s being omnipotent is somehow a logical contradiction.

But I don’t think it presents a serious challenge to the idea of God’s omnipotence. We have already said that God’s omnipotence does not mean he can do anything, and we have already listed five kinds of things he can’t do. Frame suggests that this one fits into the category of God not being able to do things that are appropriate only for finite creatures. We, for example, are certainly capable of making things too heavy for us to lift without machines, just think of a bus or truck, or even an automobile.

Marc Roby: That is obviously true, but it is also true that we can’t create anything out of nothing, meaning no pre-existing matter, which is the kind of creating God has done.

Dr. Spencer: You’re right, and Frame doesn’t address that point. He uses the human example simply to show that the question does not fit into the category of logically contradictory actions. I’m not going to spend any time to get into the fine points of logic that I assume must be involved in the philosophical discussions about this question. I would simply say that since God can create this universe out of nothing, and is also capable of destroying it in an instant, it is pretty clear to me that he can’t create a stone too heavy for him to lift. But that is not a sign of weakness, nor does it challenge his omnipotence. It is, rather, a sign of his unlimited power.

Marc Roby: I completely agree. It’s amazing the lengths people will go to sometimes to try and disprove the existence of God. They really don’t like the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient, all holy and just God judging them at the end of their life.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. But, as we’re told in Romans Chapter 1, they are suppressing the truth because in their heart of hearts they know that God exists.

Marc Roby: We got onto this topic of things that God cannot do because you were answering my challenge that you might have left yourself open to the charge of limiting God’s options when you argued that God didn’t create a universe without sin, even though such a universe would please him, because such a universe would not accomplish his main goal of making his own glory manifest as well as this one does.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. Even God is limited by his own perfect, unchangeable, eternal, holy nature. He can’t die, he can’t lie and he can’t do anything that contradicts his own nature. We’ve argued before that he is perfect and all he does is perfect. We are told in Deuteronomy 32:4 that “He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.”

Marc Roby: We also read in 2 Samuel 22:31 that “As for God, his way is perfect; the word of the LORD is flawless.”

Dr. Spencer: And, perhaps most famously, in Matthew 5:48 Jesus himself told us, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” There are other Scriptures we could cite as well, but it is clear that God is perfect and all he does is perfect. Therefore, when he chose to create this universe for the manifestation of his own glory, that was the best possible purpose for creation.

Marc Roby: We have made that argument before, in Session 75. And since we are talking about God’s will, there is one more verse I would like to cite about God’s perfection because it tells us specifically that his will is perfect. In Romans 12:2 we are commanded, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a great verse for our present purposes. And the point I’m trying to make is that in accomplishing that purpose, even God is limited. Not by weakness, but by his perfections. Because all that he does is perfect, he was constrained to create the perfect universe to accomplish his perfect purpose, even if there were some things about that universe that he himself didn’t like.

Marc Roby: Now that’s a difficult concept to wrap your brain around.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. But I think that it is a necessary conclusion based on what we are told in the Bible. So, let’s get back to the verse that started this whole discussion and state our conclusions.

Marc Roby: You mean 2 Peter 3:9 of course, where we read that “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s the verse. And the problem we have been addressing is, if God wants everyone to come to repentance, then why don’t all people repent, trust in Christ, and be saved? And the answer is that this verse is speaking about God’s will of disposition as we saw last time. In other words, it is telling us something real and true about the nature of God, he does not take pleasure in the fact that people sin, refuse to repent and, as a result, go to hell. And yet, he is the one who sends people to hell. He does this because it is necessary to accomplish his overall purpose for creation.

Marc Roby: And, again, we struggle to grasp and accept this truth because it implies the necessity of evil and of eternal hell.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. But, as we have noted before, what I like doesn’t have any bearing on what is true. I don’t like the fact I’m growing old. I don’t like the fact that I get sick. There are all kinds of things I don’t like that are, nonetheless, true. The astounding thing is that we can conclude from 2 Peter 3:9 combined with the obvious fact that not everyone repents, that there are some things that God doesn’t like, but which are, nonetheless true.

Marc Roby: But, as you have been careful to point out, this is not because there is any weakness in God.

Dr. Spencer: No, it is definitely not because of weakness. There doesn’t need to be any weakness or imperfection in order to be constrained. God is constrained by his own nature, which includes his perfect mercy and love, but also his perfect justice and wrath. As human beings we understand the idea of being constrained by things outside of our control. And even in our case it is not always a sign of weakness or imperfection. I’ve spent most of my life as an engineer and engineers deal with constraints all the time. Some of those constraints are caused by our limitations, but others are not.

Marc Roby: It seems like the really important question would be then, which constraints are fundamental and therefore, insurmountable.

Dr. Spencer: That is an important question, and for us it isn’t always easy tell which is which. I’ve seen a number of technological advances in my lifetime that were at one time considered fundamentally impossible. So I’m not about to go out on a limb and say which specific constraints are fundamental and which are due to our own limitations, but it would appear, for example, that travelling faster than the speed of light is impossible. And, to be far more mundane, it is almost certainly impossible to build a comfortable, quiet car that uses water for fuel, goes 1,000 miles on a tank of water, and costs only a $1,000 to build.

Marc Roby: And the point we’ve been making is simply that even God is constrained in some ways, but not because of any weakness or imperfection in him. In fact, his constraints are the result of his perfections.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. Theologians talk about God’s decretive will, which is those things which God has decreed will happen. And his decretive will is not the same as his will of disposition, which is those things that God would like, at least in some sense, to have happen. You could truthfully say that God decrees some things that he doesn’t like.

Marc Roby: John Frame says something very similar. He notes that “there are some good things that, by virtue of the nature of God’s plan, will never be realized.”[4] And that “God’s broad intentions for history may exclude the blessing of a world existing without any history of evil.”[5]

Dr. Spencer: Frame also gives an important warning. He notes that “God’s will is, of course, one; but since it is complex, some have distinguished different aspects of it – different ‘wills.’ We should be careful with this language, but it does make it easier for us to consider the complications of our topic.”[6]

Marc Roby: That’s a good warning. We always have to keep in mind God’s simplicity – that he is not made up of parts. We can talk about his will of disposition or his will of decree as a way to help us to understand, but we must not think there are different parts of God that are somehow in conflict with each other.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely true. God has one will and he has one overarching purpose for creation, which is the manifestation of his own glory. But there are also a number of other purposes that we could say are subordinate to his overarching purpose. Foremost among those subordinate purposes is his redeeming a people for himself.

Marc Roby: And these people comprise the church, the body and bride of Christ. They are those who have been chosen from before the creation of the world as we read in Ephesians 1:4, which says, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.”

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And all of those whom God has chosen either have been or will be called, regenerated, sanctified and glorified. We read an abbreviated description of this process in Romans 8:30, which says that “those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” To achieve this goal, God has given man his revelation, which tells us how we should live.

Marc Roby: And theologians refer to that as God’s revealed will.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. Although Frame prefers to call it God’s preceptive will, which refers to his precepts, or commands. There are other names used as well, but I don’t want to get into all of them at this time. The main point here is that God has revealed to us what we are to do. And he doesn’t tell us everything we might like to know, but he has told us what we need to know.

Marc Roby: We see the difference between God’s decretive will and his revealed will clearly in Moses’ statement to the Israelites on the plains of Moab, to the east of the Jordon river, just before he died and Joshua led them into the Promised Land. He was going over the laws God had given them and in Deuteronomy 29:29 he told them, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”

Dr. Spencer: And “The secret things” refers to God’s decretive will, those things which he has foreordained should come to pass, which is also sometimes called his secret will. And notice that Moses says they “belong to the LORD our God”, meaning that we often don’t know them until they come to pass and, since they belong to God, we aren’t to pry into them. But then there are the “things revealed”, which “belong to us and to our children forever”. This is God’s revealed will, or his preceptive will, and Moses gives us the reason for God’s giving it to us; it is so that “we may follow all the words of this law.”

Marc Roby: And we should take a moment to point out that it is great mercy on God’s part that he has given us this revelation.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we should all take time to meditate on God’s amazing goodness and mercy to us. But before we finish for today there is a major difference between God’s decretive will and his preceptive will that we should point out. Let me quote from John Frame again. He correctly states that “God’s decretive will cannot be successfully opposed; what God has decreed will certainly take place. It is possible, however, for creatures to disobey God’s preceptive will – and they often do so.”[7]

Marc Roby: But, praise God, he also decreed, from before the creation of the world, to send a Savior to redeem his people. We read about that in 1 Peter 1:18-20, “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.”

Dr. Spencer: That is wonderful. And it shows that God was not surprised by the fall. He planned all of creation and all of history before anything in this universe existed. He knew Satan would fall. He knew Adam would fall. He had it all planned. As you just read, Jesus Christ “was chosen before the creation of the world”. And what was he chosen to do? He was chosen to become incarnate, to be born to a virgin, to live a perfect sinless life and then to die a horrible death on the cross as a substitute for us. All of this was according to God’s decretive will.

Marc Roby: That’s astounding. And I look forward to continuing our discussion of God’s perfect will next time, but now it is time to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we’ll do our best to respond to them.

 

[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 Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pp518-521

[3] Ibid, pg. 518

[4] Ibid, pg. 530

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid, pg. 531

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

Before we begin I’d like to let our listeners know that we have added a new feature to the website for this podcast. At the top of the transcript for every session, including all previous sessions, is a link to a pdf file for the session. You are free to download, save and share these files with others. In addition, if you go to the Archive link at the top of the home page for whatdoesthewordsay.org, you will also find links to pdf versions of three indexes. An index of references, an index of topics, and an index of Scriptures. These are updated with each new podcast. And now, let’s get back to our topic.

Dr. Spencer, we finished last time by noting that God is truth in all three of the meanings of that term; that is, metaphysical, propositional and ethical. What do you want to look at today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to discuss the topic of ethical truth a little more. Remember that ethics refers to the set of moral rules that govern how we live. In my experience, most people seem to agree with the idea that morality is absolute. They may say that morality can be different in different cultures, but then they will strongly denounce and even work to change practices they disagree with, even practices in other countries with completely different cultures.

So, for example, I doubt that very many women in the United States would have said that it was just a matter of culture and not a problem when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan and prevented women from working, attending school, or being in public places without a male family member.

Marc Roby: I’m quite sure you are right about that. Women, and most men as well, would agree that such rules are a violation of basic human rights.

Dr. Spencer: I think they would. So, independent of the politically correct postmodern notion that truth and morality are social constructs and vary from culture to culture, we see that most people prove by their actions that they firmly believe in moral absolutes. This is especially true when you discuss hot-button issues like abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage and so on.

The problem, as I demonstrated by talking about slavery last time and Hitler in the session before that, is that without God, there is no absolute authority anyone can point to as a basis for these moral absolutes. Therefore, if atheism were true, morality would be determined solely by the group with the power to enact and enforce the laws in a given time and place and we would have no basis for saying that the laws put in place by the Taliban were wrong.

Marc Roby: And, even within one culture, laws change over time.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, they do. Is that because what is moral changes over time? I think most people would say it does not. But, when you and I were young, it was illegal to be a practicing homosexual in this country, it was illegal to get an abortion, and it was out of the question for same-sex couples to get married. And yet, a large percentage of our population, including some who call themselves Christians, now approve of such practices and they are legal. In fact, if you disagree with these practices, the so-called progressives will call you hateful and send you to sensitivity training to try and correct your socially aberrant views.

Marc Roby: It is really difficult to believe how much has changed since the 1950’s.

Dr. Spencer: It is unbelievable how much they have changed. But, independent of what any of our listeners may think about such changes, I challenge them, as I did when we talked about slavery, to explain – without reference to God – on what logical basis someone could say that we are right now and the people were wrong 60 years ago? Or that the people were right 60 years ago and we are wrong now?

Marc Roby: I don’t think that’s possible without reference to God.

Dr. Spencer: And that is my point. Without God, it isn’t possible. In fact man, because he is a creature, has no authority to decide for himself what is right or wrong. God alone has the authority to tell us what is sin and what is pleasing to him, and he has done that in the Bible. And, not only has God clearly told us what behavior he approves, he has clearly warned us of the penalty for disobedience. The moral laws are no different than any other laws in the sense that there is a penalty to be paid for violating them.

Marc Roby: But, there is a huge difference between God’s enforcement of his laws and the state’s enforcement of our civil laws.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, there is. In fact, there are at least three major differences I can think of.

Marc Roby: What are those?

Dr. Spencer: The first is that God does not always enforce his laws immediately, or even in this life. For his own purposes he sometimes allows people to do wicked things without being justly punished in this life. Of course the state also fails to punish people sometimes, but only because the state is incapable of perfectly enforcing its laws.

But, even though God may choose to not enforce his laws immediately, the second major difference I see is that God does, ultimately, enforce his laws absolutely perfectly. He has perfect knowledge of everything and everyone, including our thoughts and motives and he is absolutely sovereign, so no violation of his law will ever go unpunished. Every single sin ever committed will receive the punishment that justice demands. Either we will be punished for our sins or, if we have accepted God’s gracious offer of forgiveness based on the atoning sacrifice of Christ, Jesus will have borne the penalty for our sins on the cross.

Marc Roby: Which is absolutely amazing grace. What is the third difference you see in God’s enforcement of his laws versus the state’s enforcement of its laws?

Dr. Spencer: God’s penalty for disobedience is far more severe than the greatest penalty man can mete out. People don’t like the doctrine of hell, but it is a clear teaching of the Bible. If you are a Christian, you really have no option but to believe that hell exists. You don’t have to take my word for it, read your Bible. Jesus Christ himself spoke of eternal hell more than anyone else. You have to do exegetical backflips, or simply not believe God’s Word, to not believe in eternal hell.

Marc Roby: But, of course, different sins will not all receive the same punishment.

Dr. Spencer: No, they won’t. The Bible indicates that there are different levels of punishment in hell. But no matter the level of punishment, hell is a terrible place, and it is eternal, with no hope of escape.

Marc Roby: Which is, of course, one of the main reasons many people reject the doctrine; it seems completely unfair to punish people eternally.

Dr. Spencer: Well, I don’t personally like the doctrine either. But God didn’t ask me, and he isn’t going to, and, more to the point, what I think doesn’t matter. I am a sinner and don’t fully grasp God’s holiness and the depth of sin. What does matter is that we grasp the fact that even the smallest sin you can imagine is motivated by a rebellious heart, and that rebellion is against the infinite, almighty, all holy, perfectly just Creator, so it deserves eternal punishment. Not only that, but people in hell do not repent and seek God’s forgiveness. Without his saving grace they cannot do so. Therefore, they continue to hate him and rail against him in their hearts, which increases their guilt every day.

Marc Roby: Hell is an unpleasant topic to say the least, but I think we have said enough about God being the one who has authority to establish moral law, that he will, ultimately, judge everyone, and that we will all either receive mercy based on the merit of Jesus Christ, or be eternally punished for our sin.

So, we have now established that God is truth in all three biblical senses of the term: he is metaphysical truth because he is the genuine God, he is epistemological, or propositional, truth because all that he says is perfectly true, and he is ethical truth because he establishes and enforces the moral law. What else do you want to say about God’s truthfulness?

Dr. Spencer: It is important to point out that God’s moral law is not arbitrary. It is based on God’s own character, it is a reflection of his perfect character. And we are made in God’s image and are made for fellowship with him. So, obeying God’s moral law is what is best for us. A Christian should delight in God’s moral law, even if it goes against what the person has believed all of his or her life prior to becoming a Christian. Romans 12:2 commands us, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” [1]

Marc Roby: And our minds are renewed by meditating on God’s Word and submitting to it as our ultimate authority.

Dr. Spencer: That’s exactly right. Our minds are very important. Christianity is not all about feeling. Feelings are there of course, and they are important. But our emotions are not to rule us in any way. Our minds – which really means our spirits – are to rule us, and our minds are to be submitted fully to the Word of God. In 2 Corinthians 10:5 the apostle Paul tell us, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” Therefore, it doesn’t matter what I think about homosexuality for example, nor does it matter what society says. God says it is sin. And unrepentant sinners will go to hell. Therefore, the only loving thing for me to do with a homosexual is to tell that person of God’s law and of the consequences for violating that law, and then to tell him or her that Jesus Christ has provided a way to be saved.

Marc Roby: But, that salvation requires true biblical repentance.

Dr. Spencer: Yes it does, and true biblical repentance requires forsaking our sin and walking in holiness. It does not, praise God, require perfection or none of us would be saved. But when we sin, we must repent and ask for forgiveness and, as Paul said in Acts 26:20, prove our repentance by our deeds.

Marc Roby: And praise God that he has made salvation possible. Do you want to say anything else about God’s truthfulness?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, I have a three more short points make. First, in examining God’s truthfulness, we again see God’s simplicity.

Marc Roby: We should remind our listeners that by God’s simplicity we mean the fact that his attributes cannot be thought of separately, they all work together.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right. And with regard to God’s truthfulness, we have argued that he is truth in the propositional sense precisely because he has the power necessary to make what he thinks is true actually be true. And, even more than that, when you look at the different possible meanings of the word true, you see that God’s truthfulness also includes his perfect knowledge in knowing what it means to be the only true God, his faithfulness in always keeping his word, his unchangeableness in not changing his word, his moral perfection in establishing and enforcing the moral law and so on.

Marc Roby: It is clear that his attributes all work together. And it makes me remember Question 4 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which we have mentioned before. The answer to that question says, “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” But, you said you had three more points to make, what is the second?

Dr. Spencer: The second point I want to make is that God’s truthfulness was what Satan challenged when he first tempted Eve. We read about this in Genesis Chapter 3. The serpent came to Eve and asked, in Verse 1, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” Of course, that is not what God had said. God had said that they could eat of any tree in the garden with the sole exception of one tree. But, as James Boice points out in his commentary on Genesis, Satan’s question was meant “to suggest that God is not benevolent and that His word cannot be trusted.”[2]

Marc Roby: Now, we must say that Eve didn’t completely accept Satan’s suggestion. She answered, in Verses 2 and 3, that “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, you’re right, she didn’t accept Satan’s lie completely, but notice that his lie had already borne some fruit; she added to God’s word by saying “you must not touch it”. God had not said that. He had said that the day you eat of it you will die, not that you will die if you touch it. In any event, Satan then goes on to directly contradict God. He says, in Verse 4, “You will not surely die”. And then he gives his false explanation for God’s prohibition. He says, in Verse 5, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” John Murray explains that at this point, Satan “accuses God of deliberate falsehood and deception. God has perpetrated a lie, he avers, because he is jealous of his own selfish and exclusive possession of the knowledge of good and evil!”[3]

Marc Roby: And, sadly, Eve believed Satan. We read in the first part of Verse 6 that “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.”

Dr. Spencer: That is the sad truth. Paul writes about this in 1 Timothy 2:14. He wrote that “Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.” But Adam is a different story. He was not deceived, his sin was far worse for at least two reasons. First, it was worse because he was the one put in charge by God and he was the representative for the human race. Greater responsibility always implies greater culpability. And secondly, he sinned out of pure rebellion against God as James Boice notes.[4] This is why Scripture always lays the blame for the fall on Adam, not on Eve. In Romans 5:12 we read that “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” and Verse 14 clearly tells us that one man is Adam.

Marc Roby: Paul also tells us this in 1 Corinthians 15:22 where he says that “in Adam all die”.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right. But, let’s get back to the point I wanted to make about God’s truthfulness, which is simply this; it is an absolutely essential aspect of the being of God. If God were not truthful, then having his infallible word would be of no real value. How would we be able to tell which parts where true and which were lies? And his threats and promises would have no value either, how would we know that they were true? Now, it must be said that God’s other attributes are essential too. For example, if he were not omnipotent we couldn’t be sure that he had the power to keep his threats and promises. But his truthfulness somehow seems to more directly impinge on his holiness, justice, goodness and so on.

That is why Satan didn’t question God’s power to bring death, nor did he question God’s knowledge about the tree, instead he directly questioned God’s truthfulness. A God who is not truthful is no god, he is a devil.

Marc Roby: Jesus Christ himself said to the Jews, as we read in John 8:44, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

Dr. Spencer: And, a little earlier in the same discourse he had said that “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)

Marc Roby: I see your point. Truth is an essential characteristic of the true and living God and is essential for salvation. Lies destroy, truth saves.

Dr. Spencer: We see that even in more mundane matters. If you go to see the doctor and he determines that you have cancer, that isn’t something you want to hear. But if he lies and says you’re fine, you’ll die. If he tells you the truth, then perhaps it can be treated and you may live.

Marc Roby: Very well. You said you had three points to make, what is the third?

Dr. Spencer: It is that because truth is so important, and lies are the “native language” of the devil, we, as Christians must be zealous to know and speak truth. John Murray, in his Principles of Conduct, wrote, “This is why all untruth or falsehood is wrong; it is a contradiction of that which God is.”[5]

Marc Roby: Being truthful is not a common characteristic in this day and age.

Dr. Spencer: No, it isn’t. But a Christian must be. That does not mean that we have to tell everyone all of the truth all of the time of course, but when we do say something, we must seek to convey truth.

Marc Roby: I notice you didn’t simply say that when we do say something it must be true, you said we must seek to convey truth. I assume you have a reason for the more complex statement?

Dr. Spencer: I do. You can tell something that is completely true with the intent of leading people to believe something that isn’t true. But, when you do that, you are lying. The classical biblical example is Abraham telling people that Sarah was his sister. That statement was true, but he said it to make them think that she wasn’t his wife. In other words, it is the best possible kind of lie! If you’re caught, you can always say that what you said was true, even though your purpose was to deceive.

Marc Roby: Alright. Are we done discussing God’s truthfulness?

Dr. Spencer: I think so.

Marc Roby: Then let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We are out of time for today.

 

[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] James M. Boice, Genesis: An Expositional Commentary, Zondervan, 1982, Vol. I, pg. 134

[3] John Murray, The Principles of Conduct, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1957, pg. 126

[4] Boice, op. cit., pg. 136

[5] Murray, op. cit., pg. 125

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Marc Roby: Before we begin our regular session this week, we want to take a moment to let our listeners know about an exciting upcoming series. Dr. Spencer, you’re going to be doing an interview with Prof. Henry Schaefer III. Can you tell us a bit about him?

Dr. Spencer: I’d love to. Prof. Schaefer is one of the world’s most highly regarded chemists. He is currently the Director of the Center for Computational Quantum Chemistry at the University of Georgia. It has been reported that he has been nominated for a Nobel Prize five times.[1]

Marc Roby: That’s impressive.

Dr. Spencer: It is. He has also published over 1,600 scientific papers. There have been scientific conferences held specifically in honor of his work and even a book published in honor of his work. [2]

Marc Roby: I’m no scientist, but 1,600 papers sounds like an awful lot.

Dr. Spencer: It is a huge number. He got his PhD from Stanford in 1969, so that is an average of more than 32 papers a year from then until now, which is a number that simply blows my mind. And these are not fluffy papers, they are mostly published in the best journals in his field and are clearly important papers since he is one of the most highly cited scientists in the world.

Marc Roby: When you say “highly cited”, you are referring to the number of times other researchers cite his work as a reference, right?

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. He has over 67,000 citations to his papers, which puts him in very elite company indeed.

Marc Roby: And yet, Prof. Schaefer is a Bible-believing Christian.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, he is. And he has given talks on his faith hundreds, if not thousands, of times around the world. He will be here in giving a talk on the UC Davis campus on October 3rd and he has graciously consented to letting me interview him for this podcast while he is here.

Marc Roby: Well, I certainly look forward to hearing that interview. But now, let’s get back to our study of systematic theology by continuing to examine God’s communicable attributes. We finished with God’s omniscience last time, are we ready to move on to another attribute?

Dr. Spencer: Not quite. I want to take a few minutes to go over some of the implications of God’s omniscience and people’s reactions to this doctrine. I think these are important because this is an attribute that is frequently denied by professing Christians, in practice if not in word.

Marc Roby: What do you mean by that?

Dr. Spencer: I mean that even Christians who have accepted the biblical teaching that God is omniscient sometimes act in ways that are inconsistent with that belief. For example, we all sin. But every single time we sin we are denying the lordship of Christ and are acting as if God will not know about our sin or that he can’t or won’t do anything about it.

Marc Roby: In other words, we don’t fear God. We are neglecting not only his omniscience, but his omnipotence and holiness as well.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right. But we definitely should fear God. Even when our sin is just in our mind, God knows. In Luke 5 we read an account of Jesus healing a paralytic. But the first thing he did was tell the man his sins were forgiven. As a result, some of the people present were thinking to themselves that Jesus was committing blasphemy because only God can forgive sins. But, in Verse 22 we are told that “Jesus knew what they were thinking”. Psalm 139:2 also tells us that God knows our thoughts.

Marc Roby: Now that is frightening!

Dr. Spencer: Yes it is. We have no privacy from God. He knows every thought, word and deed. He knows our emotions, how we feel about things and so on. This is a clear teaching of Scripture. And that’s why the apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 10:5 that “we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”[3]

Marc Roby: And it certainly doesn’t make any sense to say that we should make our thoughts obedient to Christ if he doesn’t know what they are.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right, that wouldn’t make any sense at all. Hebrews 4:13 tells us 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.” And, in Revelation 2 we read Jesus’ letter to the church in Thyatira, in which he chastises them for tolerating an immoral woman, whom he calls Jezebel.

Marc Roby: People today might not recognize how bad it was to be called Jezebel. Perhaps a modern equivalent would be to call someone Hitler. Jezebel was the extremely wicked wife of King Ahab in the Old Testament.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right, so we get the message quickly that Christ considered this woman to be evil. Based on some of the Greek manuscripts we have, she may even have been the wife of the Pastor of the church in Thyatira. [4] But, whoever she was, she led people in the church into sin, most likely by teaching, as many do now, that because we are saved by grace it doesn’t matter if we sin. But listen to Christ’s condemnation of this idea. We read in Revelation 2:23 that Jesus said to the church, “I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.”

Marc Roby: That is not the Jesus that most modern churches like to preach about; one who will repay people according to their deeds.

Dr. Spencer: No, it isn’t at all. But it is the true Christ as revealed to us in the Word of God. He searches hearts and minds and will repay each according to their deeds. Even those who are truly saved are subject to God’s severe discipline. If you are born again you cannot lose your salvation, but you certainly can bring great trouble to yourself, your family and your church if you sin.

On the one hand that is obvious. If I commit some serious sin and end up in jail or something, that obviously brings shame and real hardship to my family and my church. But, in addition, Paul told the church in Corinth that they were experiencing serious problems because they were not repenting of and forsaking their sins before taking communion. In 1 Corinthians 11:29-30 he wrote that “anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.”

Marc Roby: And “fallen asleep” is an obvious euphemism for dying.

Dr. Spencer: It is, yes. In 1 Corinthians 3 Paul had told the church that God would test every person’s life work by fire. This passage is most directly addressed to church leaders, but the general principle is consistent with what is said throughout the Bible for all believers. In Verses 13 to 15 we read that “fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.” Now there is comfort in that verse of course, it does say that “he himself will be saved”, but there is also great pain involved for him and others associated with him as is indicated by saying he will be saved “only as one escaping through the flames.”

Marc Roby: That certainly doesn’t sound like a pleasant way to go to heaven.

Dr. Spencer: No, it doesn’t. But, and this is extremely important, we want to be sure and make it clear that the pain we suffer for our sins does not in any way atone for our sins; only Jesus Christ can do that. But God does discipline his children. Now, if we are smart, we will take the warning and live holy lives. And now let me make clear how this ties back into our topic of God’s omniscience.

Marc Roby: Please do.

Dr. Spencer: We won’t suffer only for sins that are obvious and seen by others. As we read a minute ago in Hebrews 4:13, “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.” This includes our thoughts. Remember that Christ said, in Matthew 5:28, that “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” We can conclude that even our lustful glances and thoughts, which no human being can discern, make God angry and subject us to the possibility of discipline.

Marc Roby: That is a very sobering realization.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, this realization should bring serious sobriety to our lives. Not all sickness is directly attributable to our own sin, so you don’t want to assume that just because someone is sick it is a direct result of personal sin. But we should also not neglect that possibility. Most professing Christians today seem to completely ignore the possibility that they could be sick or experiencing some trial because of their sin. But, if the doctor tells you that you have cancer, or you lose your job, or whatever, a serious period of self-reflection and repentance is certainly appropriate.

Marc Roby: Yes, I agree. How else do Christians act in ways that practically deny God’s omniscience?

Dr. Spencer: We practically deny his omniscience along with his omnipotence and his goodness, whenever we allow ourselves to be anxious.

Marc Roby: Anxiety is obviously a very common thing, even among Christians.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. In fact, I suspect that every single one of us has allowed ourselves to be anxious at some point. But in Philippians 4:6 we are told, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” In the Greek Paul used the imperative mood for the verb, so this is a command to not be anxious, not a suggestion. And we are given great reason to not be anxious in 1 Peter 5:7 where we are told, “Cast all your anxiety on [God] because he cares for you.”

Marc Roby: That is a great comfort.

Dr. Spencer: And it is even greater comfort when you remember that God does in fact know everything! There are no problems of mine that go unnoticed by God. And there is no problem of mine that he cannot solve. God’s omniscience is not only frightening, it is also very comforting when you couple it with his fatherly love.

Marc Roby: But, of course, we must be Christians for that to be comforting.

Dr. Spencer: That’s very true. God’s omniscience should be terrifying to anyone who does not know Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. I think that is why there is so much animosity in the world directed at Jesus Christ and his followers. People know that God exists, even if they call themselves atheists, and in their heart of hearts they know they will be judged. As a result, a lot of anger wells up inside. I always find it very revealing when you encounter a very active or angry atheist.

Marc Roby: What do you mean?

Dr. Spencer: Think about it. Have you ever heard of a society of people who spend a lot of time trying to disprove the existence of Santa Clause?

Marc Roby: No, I haven’t, and I don’t expect to either.

Dr. Spencer: And that’s precisely my point. If someone is truly convinced in the core of their being that God cannot exist, there is no reason for that person to expend huge amounts of time and energy trying to disprove his existence and to discredit the Bible. And there is no cause for anger. He might feel sorry for people who believe that God exists, but unless one happens to be a close relative or friend I can’t imagine that would motivate him to spend a lot of time and energy on the topic. So, whenever I see a really active atheist, and there are many atheist clubs on college campuses and elsewhere, I think it reveals a person who knows that God does exist and is angry at the prospect of being judged.

Marc Roby: That’s an interesting thought. It reminds me of the line from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Do you want to say anything more about God’s omniscience?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, just one more quick point. In J.I. Packer’s little book Concise Theology, he makes the following statement: “God’s knowledge is linked with his sovereignty: he knows each thing, both in itself and in relation to all other things, because he created it, sustains it, and now makes it function every moment according to his plan for it.”[5] And he then cites Ephesians 1:11 in support, which says that in Christ, “we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will”. Packer then goes on to say that “The idea that God could know, and foreknow, everything without controlling everything seems not only unscriptural but nonsensical.”

Marc Roby: That states very clearly the point we made in Session 65 that God cannot know everything that will ever happen unless he has the ability to control everything that will happen.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, Packer makes that point quite forcefully I think. And Ephesians 1:11 is very clear; everything has been “predestined according to the plan” of God.

Marc Roby: And we again see the simplicity of God as well. His attributes of divine sovereignty and omniscience are linked.

Dr. Spencer: And his omnipotence comes into play as well. Planning is one thing, but he must also be able to execute his plan. And with that, I think we are done with God’s omniscience and it’s time to move on to the next attribute.

Marc Roby: Okay. Assuming that we are going to continue following the treatment in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, that means the next attribute would be God’s wisdom, correct?

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And Grudem defines this attribute in the following way: “God’s wisdom means that God always chooses the best goals and the best means to those goals.”[6] Wisdom and knowledge are closely related, but different. It is possible for a person to have vast knowledge but not be very wise in putting that knowledge to use, and it is also possible for someone who is relatively ignorant to, nonetheless, be wise. Grudem’s definition is similar to that given by others as well; they all contain the idea of some end purpose being achieved, and the purpose and the means both being the best possible.

Marc Roby: And God’s purpose in creation is the manifestation of his own glory as we discussed way back in Session 2.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And his wisdom guarantees, as I noted then, that the manifestation of his glory is the best possible purpose for creation. Nothing in creation can compare with the glory of God, but creation itself can display the glory of God. So, there is no other purpose that would be as great.

God’s power, holiness, justice and mercy, to name just a few of his attributes, are all displayed by creation. And when I say creation here I am not just talking about the physical universe, but also God’s plan for the history of the universe and, more particularly, his plan for the history of mankind.

Marc Roby: That makes me think of the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which asks, “What is the chief end of man?” And the answer is, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s a wonderful statement of our purpose, and it is completely biblical. In Isaiah 60:21 God tells us about the future glory of his people and says, “Then will all your people be righteous and they will possess the land forever. They are the shoot I have planted, the work of my hands, for the display of my splendor.” In the ESV and other translations, instead of saying “for the display of my splendor”, it says “that I might be glorified”. There are many other places in the Bible where we are told that God’s ultimate purpose is the manifestation of his own glory.

Marc Roby: Probably the most well-known verse is 1 Corinthians 10:31, which says, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

Dr. Spencer: That is probably the best-known verse, and we quoted it in Session 2. But there are many others as well. For example, in Ezekiel 36 God tells his people about what he is going to do and, in Verse 22 we read, “This is what the Sovereign LORD says: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name”.

Marc Roby: We have also pointed out before that it isn’t just human beings that are made for God’s glory, even the inanimate creation is created for that purpose. Psalm 19 famously begins by saying, “The heavens declare the glory of God”.

And I think this is a good place to stop 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] According to Wikipedia: see Jeffery L. Sheler and Joannie M. Schrof. 1991. “The Creation” U.S. News and World Report, Dec. 23, 1991, pp. 56-64. See inset quoting Schaefer and citing him as “quantum chemist and five-time nominee for the Nobel Prize,” p. 62.

[2] E.g., In May 2010, the University of California at Berkeley hosted a large international conference in Professor Schaefer’s honor, the title of the conference being “Molecular Quantum Mechanics: From Methylene to DNA and Beyond.”  Simultaneous with the Berkeley conference was published the book Selected Papers of Henry F. Schaefer III, Edited by R. J. Bartlett, T. D. Crawford, M. Head-Gordon, and C. D. Sherrill.  In May 2014 the Peking University Graduate School sponsored a large conference in honor of Professor Schaefer in Shenzhen, China.

[3] 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.™.

[4] J. Beeke, Revelation, Reformation Heritage Books, 2016, pp 117-118

[5] J.I. Packer, Concise Theology, Tyndale House Pub., 1993, pp 31-32

[6] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 193

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine God’s attribute of omniscience, or perfect knowledge of all things. We were examining Wayne Grudem’s statement of this attribute, which is that “God fully knows himself and all things actual and possible in one simple and eternal act.”[1]  Dr. Spencer, how would you like to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: We discussed what it means for God to know “in one simple and eternal act” last time. We also considered the fact that God fully knows himself last time.

Marc Roby: Which led to an interesting discussion of the meaning of infinity.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, as hard as it may be to believe, we did stray off topic a bit.

Marc Roby: But it was an interesting and useful diversion. It is completely amazing to try and grasp the nature of God. But, getting back to Grudem’s statement about God’s knowledge, he also says that God knows “all things actual and possible”. We’ve talked about God’s knowledge of possibilities before as well. I remember in Session 59 talking about when King David asked God if the people in the town of Keilah would hand him over to Saul. When God told him that they would, David left the town to avoid that fate.

Dr. Spencer: We also gave other evidence there for God knowing all things that might happen. That was a part of our discussion of God’s eternity, which again illustrates that God’s attributes are all tied together. Grudem notes that God’s knowledge of all possible events can be deduced from the fact that he knows himself fully. He writes that “If God fully knows himself, he knows everything he is able to do, which includes all things that are possible.”[2]

Marc Roby: Do you want to say anything more about God’s omniscience?

Dr. Spencer: Yes. I first want to note two objections to this doctrine that are mentioned by Grudem. First, some people object to saying that God knows all things when they read verses in the Bible like Isaiah 43:25, where God says, “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” [3] But that is a silly objection because this verse does not mean that God literally forgets my sins. To say that he doesn’t remember them is a figure of speech. It is impossible for God to truly forget anything. The real meaning there is captured by David’s statement in Psalm 32:2 where he says that “Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him”, that’s what it means when it says God remembers my sins no more.

Marc Roby: You said you had two objections to discuss, what is the other?

Dr. Spencer: Some people object to the idea that God is omniscient because they think his omniscience is incompatible with human free will. They reason that if I have real free will, then God can’t possibly know my decisions before I make them. But there are two fatal flaws with that reasoning. First, to say that my decisions cannot be free if God knows them in advance is illogical. God knows me perfectly and he knows exactly what I will do in any situation, so he certainly can know what I will decide prior to my making the decision, unless, of course, someone wants to try and defend the idea that their decisions are completely random.

Marc Roby: I don’t want to defend that position, it doesn’t sound very logical or flattering.

Dr. Spencer: That’s because it isn’t very flattering. And I would also contend that even supposedly random events are not random to God anyway, but let’s leave that discussion for another day. This argument against God’s omniscience essentially assumes I have a completely free will and can decide to do anything. But as we noted in Session 15, no one acts in a way that opposes their own nature unless they are forced to. So, our nature is one constraint placed on our decisions and there are other constraints as well, for example, our knowledge, experience, physical limitations and so on. In fact, even God is not totally free, he is constrained by his nature too. For example, we are told in Hebrews 6:18 that it is impossible for God to lie. So, these people want more freedom for man than God himself has!

We will talk more about the proper understanding of human free will in a later session, but for now what I’ve said is sufficient to demonstrate that God’s omniscience does not violate our free will.

Marc Roby: I look forward to discussing human free will, that is going to be very interesting. But you said there are two fatal flaws with the idea that God’s omniscience is incompatible with human free will. What is the second fatal flaw?

Dr. Spencer: The second flaw is that their argument doesn’t account for the fact that God does not experience time the same way we do. He experiences everything that has ever happened or ever will happen immediately as we discussed in Sessions 58 and 59. And, if that is true, then there really is no “future” to God in the sense of its being unknown as it is for us. And the fact that God experiences the past, present and future all with equal clarity is a necessary consequence of his immutability as we discussed in Session 58. If God learns new things as time goes on, then his knowledge is changing and he is not immutable in the same sense that we have used that term.

Marc Roby: Well, I’m sure that some will object and say that he is immutable in his being, but not necessarily in his knowledge.

Dr. Spencer: I’m sure that some would object and say that. But the only important question is whether or not such a view is biblical. The Bible is, as always, our ultimate authority. We don’t want to go back over God’s immutability all over again, but how can God’s promises about the future be certain if he doesn’t know the future? And how can God be said to be perfect if there are things he doesn’t yet know? We noted in Session 56 that God’s immutability is a logical consequence of his perfection.

Marc Roby: When you think this through you really see how all of God’s attributes are linked.

Dr. Spencer: You absolutely do. The simplicity of God is such an important concept, which is why we keep mentioning it. You can’t think about any of God’s attributes in isolation from the others or you are bound to go astray in your understanding of God.

Marc Roby: And of course, the Bible is well aware that we struggle with understanding God. It has a number of examples of even very devout believers struggling with understanding God and his actions. With Job being one of the prominent examples.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right. Job struggled to understand why God would allow him to suffer as he did when he knew he was not guilty of some horrible sin. And God never answered Job’s questions. He simply showed up and gave Job a deeper understanding of who God is. And when Job was confronted with God’s perfections; his knowledge, power, wisdom and goodness, he shut his mouth. He didn’t have his questions answered, but he realized that he didn’t need to.

Marc Roby: Seeing God in some sense answers a lot of questions.

Dr. Spencer: It does. We read about God appearing to Job in Chapter 38 of the book of Job. We are told in the first two verses, “Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm. He said: ‘Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?’”

Marc Roby: That pretty well describes the situation anytime we speak to God. We have words without knowledge.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. Compared to God we are abysmally ignorant. God makes this point clearly. In Verses 3 and 4 we read that God went on to say, “Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.” God goes on at some length making clear that compared with God Job knows nothing and has no power whatever. And we read Job’s response in Job 40:4-5, he replied, “I am unworthy—how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer— twice, but I will say no more.”

Marc Roby: When God speaks it is wise for us to shut our mouths and simply listen.

Dr. Spencer: And God speaks in the Bible. So, when the Bible clearly teaches that God knows the future as well as the past, the wise response for us it to believe that and go on from there.

Marc Roby: I think that deals with the objections to God’s omniscience. What else would you like to say about this topic?

Dr. Spencer: I want to point out that God himself tells us that knowledge of the future is a test to determine whether or not someone is truly God. In Isaiah 41:21-23 we read, “‘Present your case,’ says the LORD. ‘Set forth your arguments,’ says Jacob’s King. ‘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.’” God is telling us here that if someone is truly a god, he should be able to tell us the future.

Marc Roby: There are people today, usually called open theists, who will say that God can predict the future in some ways, but they still deny that he can know the decisions of human beings in advance.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true, and John Frame does a very good job of destroying their arguments in his book The Doctrine of God. He lists four ways in which open theists believe God can predict the future:[4] 1) He can say what he intends to do, 2) he can speak in very general terms, 3) he can say what consequences will follow a given state of affairs, and 4) he can say what will happen if a given set of conditions are met.

Frame then goes on to give numerous examples from the Bible that do not fit into any of these four categories. Now we must admit some mystery here and be careful with our language so that we don’t misrepresent the Bible. We don’t know exactly how God is able to know in advance what human beings will do. He is certainly able to predict what we will do because of his perfect comprehensive knowledge of us and all of our circumstances as I noted earlier. But the Bible indicates that God does more than just passively predict human behavior.

Marc Roby: Can you provide some examples of that?

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. One of the classic stories has to do with the patriarch Joseph. Most of our listeners probably know the story. Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him because he was the favorite of his father Jacob, and because of some of the things had said and done. In any event, they sold him as a slave to some travelers, who then took him down into Egypt and sold him as a slave there. He ended up being unjustly imprisoned, but then he was able to interpret a dream for Pharaoh and was raised up to be the second most powerful person in Egypt. Years later there was a famine in the land and Joseph’s brothers had to come to Egypt for food and they discovered Joseph was ruling there.

Marc Roby: A most unpleasant surprise I might add.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it was unpleasant for them. And I’m leaving out tons of interesting details to get to the point I want to make right now. In Genesis 50:20 we read that Joseph said to his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” This statement makes it clear that God’s intent was for Joseph to be taken to Egypt and to become the ruler under Pharaoh. And it also makes it clear that Joseph’s brothers had their own intent, and it was not the same as God’s. We aren’t told exactly how all of this was done, but we see in this verse both divine sovereignty of many events that certainly include the free decisions of human beings, and the fact that humans are still responsible for their own decisions.

Marc Roby: That certainly shows that God didn’t just predict what would happen, he planned it.

Dr. Spencer: And he can’t carry out plans like that if he can’t in some way control the free decisions of people. But I want to be clear that when I say “control” I am not implying that God forces people to do something against their will.

Marc Roby: We know for certain that God planned all of this because he told Abraham hundreds of years before that his descendants would be enslaved in Egypt, which happened as a result of this whole episode with Joseph and his brothers.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a good point. In Genesis 15:13-14 we read that God told Abraham, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.” And all of that happened, including the episode we just related about Joseph.

Marc Roby: Are there any other examples you want to present?

Dr. Spencer: Let me just mention a couple. We’ve seen before that God predicted the actions of the Persian king Cyrus more than 100 years before he was born. In Isaiah 45:13 God says, “I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness: I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free, but not for a price or reward, says the LORD Almighty.” That prophecy clearly requires that God can cause this man to be born, to be named Cyrus, to grow up and become the king of Persia, to conquer Babylon, and then to set the Israelites free and send them back to Jerusalem to rebuild the city. Notice that this isn’t just God knowing what will happen and telling it to his people before hand, he says that he “will raise up Cyrus” and that he “will make all his ways straight”. And in Isaiah 44:28 God had said of Cyrus that “He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please”.

Marc Roby: That does make it clear that God wasn’t just saying what he knew would happen, it was accomplishing his purposes. What other example did you want to present?

Dr. Spencer: Judas Iscariot.

Marc Roby: You mean the disciple that betrayed Jesus Christ.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. When the apostle Peter gave his sermon to the Jews on the day of Pentecost, he told them, in Acts 2:23, that Jesus “was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge”. So, it was God’s purpose that was being accomplished when Judas betrayed Christ. And, in Acts 4 we read about the believers praying after Peter and John were released from prison. In Verses 27 and 28 we read that they said, “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”

Marc Roby: That’s pretty explicit. God “decided beforehand” what should happen. That certainly requires that he have the ability to control what happened.

Dr. Spencer: I think it does require that, yes. And so, we have presented some examples that show that God doesn’t just know what human beings will decide, he can somehow cause certain decisions when he chooses to.

Marc Roby: I assume we will discuss that idea more when we talk about human free will in a later session.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we will. But I want to wrap up this discussion of God’s omniscience with one more example. In Psalm 139:16 King David is speaking to God and says, “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” Which is a very clear statement that God didn’t just know what would happen to David before he was born, he ordained his days. This verse is the only place in the NIV where the Hebrew word used here is translated as “ordained”.[5] It is most commonly translated as “formed” and it can also mean “planned” or “made”. The idea clearly goes well beyond God’s simply having foreknowledge of David’s life, God planned, or made, or formed David’s life before he was born. And that is true of all of us. The Westminster Confession of Faith properly summarizes the biblical teaching when it says in Paragraph 1 of Chapter 3 that “God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”

Marc Roby: I’m sure we will have to spend more time with that wonderful statement later, 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] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 190

[2] Ibid, pg. 191

[3] 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.™.

[4] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pg. 488

[5]Edward W. Goodrick and John R. Kohlenberger III, The NIV Exhaustive Concordance, Zondervan, 1990, pg. 1476

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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. 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

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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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