Scripture, church history, and gracious experience make one thing plain: The closer a sinner is to God and the more vividly the church is in the throes of authentic revival, the more consciousness there will be of God’s attributes. So astounding is the number, that it’s hard to calculate how many thousands of times the Bible speaks of God’s attributes. Our forefathers were so conscious of the doctrine of Divine attributes that they developed three additional anonyms to explain it: perfections, virtues, properties. Divisions
were even made, somewhat artificially, within the attributes in an attempt to expound them – the most common of which we have inherited: “communicable” and “incommunicable”. And the saints of all ages have been deeply impressed with who God is in His attributes in a parallel degree to their yearnings to know Him and experiences of knowing Him.
Not much thought is necessary to realize that the scriptural accent on God’s attributes is much heavier than the contemporary church’s
– God’s people inclusive.
But why? Why is there such a downgrading of God’s attributes -not just by the world, but also in the church? Why is there so little realisation that coming to know God’s attributes experientially is an essential part of personal salvation from its inception to its culmination in glory?
The answers could be myriad: the spiritual darkness of our times;
our earthly-mindedness; the pervasive influence of humanism; the
lack of experiential grace compared to former generations.
But I desire to delve deeper than this. My goal is to focus on why there is so little realization among true believers of God’s attributes, for it is especially at God’s house that judgment begins.
In addition to reasons just cited, I believe that there are a number of major, albeit more subtle, reasons why the doctrine of God’s attributes is being relegated to a subordinate role. Four of the more prominent of these include:
First, lack of self-knowledge. The more we know ourselves and our poverty, the more we shall be experientially acquainted with the rich attributes of God. Job abhorred himself in dust and ashes as never before when he saw God (42.5-6); Isaiah cried out, “Woe is me, for I am undone”, in conjunction with viewing the holiness of God (ch. 6).
The fact that many can speak of “self-knowledge” in our day without having such knowledge embedded in a knowledge of God in His holiness, justice, sovereignty, mercy and grace, betrays in itself the questionable nature of the “self-knowledge” claim. Knowledge of God and self are parallels, as Calvin has so effectively pointed out in the renowned introduction of his Institutes where he wrestles with the question of which type of knowledge comes first, and concludes that knowledge of God and self inevitably progress together.
Diamond whiteness appears to sparkle more richly against the jeweller’s black backdrop. Similarly, God’s “diamond” attributes and inherent blackness serve to reinforce each other the more they are viewed in tandem. Sin becomes exceedingly sinful when the Holy Spirit teaches us to view our sinnership in the context of God’s holiness. In the pure light of God’s holiness, a sinner’s heart becomes inescapably black; moreover, this holiness of God pervades all His attributes.
Hence, the old adage contains much truth: “If thou wouldst know thyself, know God; if thou wouldst know God, know thyself.”
Second, ignorance plays a major role, and that on at least three fronts:
(1). Too few believers are searching to grow in their knowledge of God through a diligent use of the means of grace (cf. Eph. 4.15;
1 Pet. 2.2; 2 Pet. 3.18). How few realize that God’s attributes are more than a person’s attributes – for our attributes characterize us, but God’s attributes are God! God is Justice, Love, Righteousness, Truth, Sovereignty. Indeed, His love is His justice; His justice. His love. In Him, all His attributes are not only one, but are also all pervasive in Himself-infinite, and without limitation. He is all love, all justice. God’s attributes are not added to His Being, but each
virtue itself is the Being of God. In sum, each attribute is itself God, and God is fully expressed in each attribute.
This, of course, carries us beyond the realm of intellectual grasp (though not wholly beyond the realm of faith and experiential teaching). To us, God’s attributes are many, but that is only because God has broken them up, as it were, to reveal them in pieces in accordance with our frail human capacity of comprehension.
God’s attributes are like light shining through a prism. Prior to reaching the prism, they are one pure beam of white light, but through the prism of revelation, God makes His attributes known to us in an array of colours and perfections. Faith grasps this harmony in God with reverential adoration, and seeks to grow experientially in the contents of its saving knowledge.
(2). There is a proneness in all true believers to relinquish a continual awareness of the need for an ongoing experience of God’s attributes. An initial encounter with God’s holiness, justice, and sovereignty, which ultimately leads to the convicted sinner’s “signing of his own death sentence”, and culminates in an unspeakable taste of God’s grace and mercy in Jesus Christ, is indelibly impressed forever in the soul of each believer to a greater or lesser extent. But this is only the beginning of growth in the knowledge of God’s attributes.
Advance in knowing God’s attributes in Christ is the lion’s share of ongoing sanctification. It is the ongoing experience of His longsuffering that gives us courage to return once more to the throne of grace despite our status as floundering pupils who never seem to learn our lessons. It is the ongoing experience of His grace which teaches us that grace is everything for us and does everything outside of us and within us essential to our salvation. It is the ongoing experience of His sovereignty that increasingly teaches us where to end with all our boasting and praise. It is the ongoing experience of His love that augments our love for Him in return. It is the ongoing experience of His veracity that works within us that naturally foreign desire to be honest with ourselves and others in His holy presence. It is the ongoing experience of His holiness and mercy that assists us in approaching Him in somewhat balanced fashion with reverential boldness and childlike familiarity. In short, the ongoing experience of His attributes is invaluable for the maintenance of John the Baptist’s succinct summary of progressive sanctification: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3.30).
(3). Ignorance impedes us by allowing us to fall prey to Satan’s suggestion that the attributes of God are not comforting, but threatening. In Christ, God’s predestinating sovereignty, gracious holiness, and majestic justice – far from being threatening – ought to
be (it is our infirmities that prevent us from being able to say, always are) grounds for strength, solace, and refuge in the life of the believer who can find no such grounds within himself. And such it becomes when the believer is made acutely aware of the staggering poverty of ongoing sanctification in self-strength, for where can he then flee but to God’s sovereignty in Christ? Would to God we were more acquainted with Paul’s confession in this regard: “But of Him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor. 1.30)!
Thirdly, the doctrine of God’s attributes suffers in our day because true believers are prone to settle for too little too easily. We are liable to fall prey to the spirit of our time where mediocrity is substituted for excellence, speed for quality, shell for kernel, surface for depth. We are tempted to return to a two-dimensional life of juggling conscience and circumstances according to our desires, rather than a three-dimensional life which involves God and His will, as well as ourselves and our circumstances.
Sadly, God is the dimension most easily left out – even after received grace. Did He not have to complain of Israel, “You have forgotten me days without number?” The power and beauty of an ongoing consciousness of God’s attributes is simply this: It serves to keep God on the foreground in our lives. It keeps us living on the growing edge in spiritual communion with Him, and prevents the staleness of living off old experiences that have long since become “spoiled manna”.
The flatness of two-dimensional living (godlessness) contrasts starkly with the richness and depth of three-dimensional living (godliness). Real, in-depth living is always lived in the presence of God. Repentance without God is mere common conviction of conscience. Deliverence without God is mere imagination. Gratitude without God is mere change of mood, external attitudes, or circumstances. Indeed, it is this element of “God-consciousness” that lies at the very heart of conversion itself. That’s why, in Lord’s Day 33, the Heidelberg Catechism defines mortification of the old man as a “sincere sorrow of heart that we have provoked God” and the quickening of the new man as “a sincere joy of heart in God.” From start to finish, true conversion always has to do with God and His attributes. It is He “with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4.12).
Fourthly, we do injury to an experiential knowledge of God’s attributes when we end in our experience of His perfections rather than in the virtues themselves. If we are more interested in experience for its own sake than in God for His own sake, we can be sure that we will receive little experience and even less of God.
This can take one of two twists. All of God’s people are prone to
worship received experience and grace. Happily, God will cure them of this ill by demanding that their “brasen serpents” be broken to pieces, or else, like Israel, “they will burn incense to it” rather than to God (cf. 2 Kings 18.4). But this impediment can also be exercised in reverse fashion, when authentic experience is rejected on the grounds that it is not abnormal enough. As Dr. Herman Bavinck wrote in Our Reasonable Faith, “For always and again here are persons and parties who attach more importance to unusual manifestations, to revelations and miracles, than to the operation of the Spirit in regeneration, conversion, and the renewing of life. The abnormal and unusual always attracts attention, and the normal and usual goes unnoticed.” How many of God’s people have brought darkness upon themselves, sometimes for years, by these subtle errors!
True experience is never an end in itself, but calls the living church to end in God Triune and His incomparable attributes. When experience is rightly used, it is more forward-looking than backward-looking. With Paul, the true believer does not count himself to have apprehended via experience; rather, he is keenly aware of the fact that there is much more for him to experience of both God and self. Hence, his confession continues with the apostle’s, “I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3.13-14).
Let us call ourselves, and each other, to seek grace to return to a .scriptural, doctrinal, and experiential underlining of God’s attributes. He is most worthy to be known and loved with heart, mind, and strength.
Reprinted from the American Banner of Truth