Article 1 - There is Only One God
THERE IS ONLY ONE GOD
We all believe with the heart and confess with the mouth that there is only one God, who is a simple and spiritual Being; He is eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, immutable, infinite, almighty, perfectly wise, just, good, and the overflowing fountain of all good.
WHO IS GOD?
Who is the God in whom deBres trusted? What kind of God is the Lord, that deBres could be confident and content even under the pressures of persecution and with the threat of having to leave his wife a widow?
In the first article of his confession, deBres lists several characteristics of the God who has claimed sinners for Himself. DeBres’ list is not complete; other qualities of the Lord God could be mentioned too (eg, jealousy, hatred, holiness, love, etc). In what follows, I intend to discuss the characteristics deBres mentions in Article 1. As we seek to understand God’s revelation concerning Himself, we do well to remember that this God is our God. To study God’s characteristics is no mere academic pursuit, but is an effort to understand better Who the God is who has made Himself my Father – and me His child.
GOD IS GOD
DeBres, and we with him, confess that “there is only one God.” The term ‘God’ refers to the high and noble Inhabitant of heaven who is in turn so exalted that heaven itself cannot contain Him.
“For thus says the High and Lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place….’”
“Thus says the LORD: ‘Heaven is My throne, and earth is My footstool. Where is the house that you will build Me? And where is the place of My rest? For all those things My hand has made….”
This God is so different, so unique and exalted above and beyond anything the eye can see or the mind can imagine in this limited world. Isaiah saw something of this otherness of God when he “saw the LORD sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And the one cried to the other and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
The whole earth is full of His glory!’
And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke” (Isaiah 6:1-4). Isaiah saw the Lord, but he could not describe Him; God was too awesome for that. The best the prophet could do was describe those with whom God surrounded Himself – and they covered their faces and their feet (creatures as they were!) in the presence of such a wonderful God, and ceaselessly sang one to the other of the super-holiness of this exalted God. So other was He, so holy and unique, that Isaiah was sure he would perish on account of seeing such a God. “Woe is me, for I am undone!” he cried in despair. “Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5). It was when he was confronted with the Godness of God that Isaiah suddenly realized who – and what – he himself was: finite, a sinner, nothing. His own smallness in relation to God’s exalted greatness left room for but one reaction: praise and awe for such a God.
The psalmist understood it:
“The LORD reigns; Let the peoples tremble! He dwells between the cherubim; Let the earth be moved! The LORD is great in Zion, And He is high above all the peoples. Let them praise Your great and awesome name – He is holy” (Psalm 99:1-3).
Yet the Godness of God encourages more than praise and adoration. His identity as God gives His people reason to be secure in His care.
“To whom then will you liken Me, Or to whom shall I be equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high, And see who has created these things, Who brings out their host by number; He calls them all by name, By the greatness of His might And the strength of His power; Not one is missing. Why do you say, O Jacob, And speak, O Israel: “My way is hidden from the LORD, And my just claim is passed over by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The everlasting God, the LORD, The Creator of the ends of the earth, Neither faints nor is weary. His understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the weak, And to those who have no might He increases strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, And the young men shall utterly fall, But those who wait on the LORD Shall renew their strength; They shall mount up with wings like eagles, They shall run and not be weary, They shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:25-31).
How delightfully encouraging such revelation was for deBres and those with him! They knew: the God they learned to love and trust was no little god sitting in some irrelevant corner of heaven. Their God was the only one who lived, who was real. He was God, as none else is! That reality gave perspective and comfort in the face of their persecution and oppression.
This high and exalted One did the most unexpected – and so demonstrates what His Godness is really all about. For this God from heaven on high established a unique bond of love with the creature man, claimed that finite being for Himself as His child-by-covenant. That the living God would draw a finite creature into His holy presence as His child takes one’s breath away – how glorious is He! And when this finite creature in immeasurable arrogance rose up against holy God in an attempt to be equal with his Creator and Master, this awesome God did not snuff man out with a decree of de-creation, but He sent His one and only Son into the world of man in order to recreate and to restore. “In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for ours sins” (1 John 4:9,10). Truly, “behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!” (1 John 3:1). How thoroughly delightful this God is, in a league all by Himself!
No wonder the apostle Paul can be so confident in his God:
“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns?” (Romans 8:31-34).
Though tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, and so many other afflictions beset the child of God in this fallen world, God’s identity as God gives Paul so much confidence:
“Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39).
If Paul could be so confident in this God, deBres and the persecuted churches of Rijssel, Doornik and Valenciennes could be too. Boldly they let the world know, when persecutors sought to crush them, that “we all believe with the heart and confess with the mouth that there is only one God” – and this holy, awesome God loves His own enough to give His only Son for them. Such a God is worth believing in – and worth trusting!
GOD IS ONE
DeBres read in Scripture several characteristics of this glorious God. The Holy Spirit moved Moses in Deuteronomy 6:4 to say, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one!” There are two equally legitimate ways of understanding this text:
1) The LORD alone is God.
There are not two Gods or three Gods but only one God. I read in Deuteronomy 4:39 that “... the LORD Himself is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other.” There is no competition between God and another god. There simply is no second God. The Holy Spirit repeats the point elsewhere: “... I, even I am He, and there is no God besides Me” (Deuteronomy 32:39). “Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: I am the First and I am the Last; besides Me there is no God” (Isaiah 44:6). “There is no other God but one” (1 Corinthians 8:4).
The Bible certainly knows that other gods exist in the minds of people (see 1 Corinthians 8:5,6). Yet these gods people serve are not living, actual gods. Instead, says Paul, these gods are demons. “What am I saying then? That an idol is anything, or what is offered to idols is anything? Rather, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God” (1 Corinthians 10:20).
Since there is but one God, He alone is to receive the praise and the trust belonging to a God. Since there is but one God any form of idolatry is illegitimate. DeBres and those with him realized that they could not embrace the gods of their pagan fathers – demons as these gods actually were. They realized too that they were not to serve the god of the Muslims encroaching on their civilization either. They could not place their trust in any person, be he the pope or a military commander, and could not depend on indulgences or gold as a source of happiness either. God’s identity as the only true God made service to Him both necessary and pleasant.
Similarly, if God alone is God, only His revelation is true and worthy of belief. Any other ‘revelation’ is by definition false and unreliable.
2) God is not divided in Himself.
This notion is captured in the confession of Article 1 that God is a simple Being.
GOD IS SIMPLE
Simple contrasts with compound, the latter meaning ‘made up of many parts’. For example, the compound word ‘himself’ is made up of the words ‘him’ and ‘self’. God is simple: just one part. Scripture makes various statements concerning what God is:
John 4:24 “God is Spirit”
1 John 1:5 “God is light”
1 John 4:8 “God is love”
These various descriptions of God do not make God compound. God is not made up of three parts (part Spirit, part light, part love), but He is simple, all the same: He is 100% Spirit, He is 100% light, and He is 100% love, simultaneously. In all He does He is always completely love, completely light, completely holy, etc.
God’s revelation concerning His simple-ness is rich:
1) There is no tension between the different characteristics of God.
God’s mercy does not cancel out or contradict His justice. People’s moods vary, and different characteristics of our true selves reveal themselves at different times. But this is not true of God. In God’s wrath is His love; in God’s justice is His mercy. The characteristics of God cannot be played off against each other (see further Article 20). Therefore one may never say that, though God’s revealed will for me is to follow course A, He understands my situation and so will not mind me transgressing His law and following course B instead. To reason and to act this way is to play off God’s love against His holiness. God is not holy one time and loving the next; He is always the same, always holy and always loving. So His commands for me are always good no matter my circumstances, though I may not see how obedience is actually good for me.
2) God comes to us as He is.
God is not like people, who show a certain side of themselves the one hour and another side the next (eg, grumpy in the morning, happy at noon and tired at night). God always shows Himself in totality: righteous, holy, gracious, loving, wise, jealous. So, He is never unpredictable, His ‘mood’ never surprising. There is no hidden side to Him. He always comes as He is. Tomorrow God will be as holy, merciful and just as He was yesterday, and as He was at Calvary. This characteristic of my God gives me great comfort and reassurance, for I always know what I have in my God and I always know where I stand with my God.
GOD IS SPIRITUAL
DeBres’ confession in Article 1 that God is a spiritual Being is based on John 4:24,“God is Spirit.” This characteristic has traditionally been understood to mean that God is non-physical, non-tangible, that God does not have a body like ours. Further, it means that God is different: there is nothing earthly about God, nothing creaturely. We are creatures and therefore tend to think in limited and creaturely terms. God, however, is Spirit, which means that He is not a creature. God is Creator, different from us, of another realm. We can, therefore, never ‘measure’ God with standards of this world – the only standards available to us.
The Bible speaks of God having hands, arms, eyes, ears, and a mouth. We mistakenly understand that to mean that God has a body. We read in Genesis 1:27 that man was created in God’s image, and so imagine that we now look like God. That, however, is not the point of being created in God’s image; see further Article 14. Theologians describe the Bible’s reference to God’s hands, arms, eyes, etc, with the Greek word ‘anthropomorphic.’ (Anthropo = man and morphic = form). The point is that God speaks as a man would. Calvin compares this to the way a mother speaks to her child; she gets down to the child’s level so that the child might be able to understand what it is she has to say. Likewise the Lord, because He wants us to understand what He has to say to us, gets down to our level and speaks to us in a language that we are able to understand. God does not have a body as we do. We don’t know what God looks like. He is a spiritual Being, and therefore too great for my finite mind to grasp. God is totally different to anything on this earth. And that is why He is worthy of service and praise!
GOD IS ETERNAL
To confess that God is eternal means the following:
1) God has no beginning and no end.
The Holy Spirit moved the psalmist to confess: “Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God” (Psalm 90:2), and: “But You are the same, and Your years will have no end” (Psalm 102:27).
God always was and always will be. He never became God, and never ceases to be God. This eternal God created the world, and with creating the world He also created time. Though the world and time may cease, the eternal God will not. He remains who He is.
2) God is above time.
All things around us change in time: days change over into night, hour passes into hour, summer changes into winter. Man is caught up in the web of time. But not so God; He is above the time He created. God doesn’t follow the same sequence of day and night as man does. Says Moses in Psalm 90:4, “For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it is past, and like a watch in the night.” Likewise, Peter in 2 Peter 3:8 says, “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” This is incomprehensible to us, for we can only think in categories of time, of before and after. God, however, is above time; time is one of His created works. God’s eternity is an eternal now. For God there is no yesterday or tomorrow.
3) God controls time.
Because God created time He is also in control of time. In Genesis 1:14 we read of God dividing the day from the night. However, God’s control over time is not just restricted to a control over the hours of the day and the seasons of the year, but also extends over all things that happen in time. God, then, is not bound to time, but as Creator of time He is able to do with it whatever He wills. In whatever God allows to happen in this world I meet God, and consequently any response of mine to what takes place in my life is ultimately a response to what God does. My decisions, my responses to what God does, have a bearing on eternity. This knowledge makes life all the more awesome.
GOD IS INCOMPREHENSIBLE
God is so far above us, so exalted, that no creature can fathom God or God’s thoughts. With our minds we try to understand the things around us, and to a large extent we can. The Lord, though, is emphatic that we cannot understand Him. “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth, neither faints nor is weary. His understanding is unsearchable ” (Isaiah 40:28). Ps 147:5: “Great is our Lord, and mighty in power; His understanding is infinite.” Elihu adds: “Behold, God is great, and we do not know Him” (Job 36:26). In graphic picture after graphic picture, God confirms Elihu’s confession in His revelation of Job 38-41: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you have understanding? …Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep? …What is the way to the abode of light? And where does darkness reside?” (Job 38:4, 16,19). The church has read words of God such as these, and so confesses that we are “not to think of God’s heavenly majesty in an earthly manner” (Lord’s Day 46.120). He is so far above us.
The fact that we cannot comprehend God does not mean that we do not know anything about God. Only God Himself knows the thoughts of God, and He has been pleased to tell us some of His thoughts through the Holy Spirit. This is Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 2:11,12: “…no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received … the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God.” Paul refers here not only to the fact that God has spoken to mankind (be it directly or through His prophets of the Old Testament), but specifically to the fact that God through the Spirit opens deaf ears so that we hear what God is saying. See further Article 3.
Meanwhile, the fact that God is above human understanding is itself a source of so much comfort and encouragement. In his context of persecution deBres confesses God’s incomprehensibility not because he feels compelled to express his bewilderment at what this God does, but rather because he wants to explain the peace that fills his heart. A child does not need to understand the actions of his parent in order to be content. On the contrary, the child is at peace in his parent’s arms exactly because he does not have to understand; he can rather entrust himself to Dad’s better knowledge. So it is with God. “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,’ says the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8,9).
GOD IS INVISIBLE
Moses once sought to see God’s face. “No one may see Me and live,” was God’s reply (Exodus 33:20). The sun is too bright for one to gaze upon without damaging one’s eyes. God is even more glorious, more splendid and awesome. That is why the angels Isaiah saw were covering their faces in the presence of God (Isaiah 6:2). It is also why Isaiah and Ezekiel when they attempted to describe what they saw of God ended up recording not a description of God Himself, but rather the things around this God (see Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1). This God is too glorious for mortals to observe.
It is not that the Lord God wishes to remain hidden. He has revealed much about Himself in His holy Word, and made Himself most clearly known through His only Son. Jesus Christ “is the image of the invisible God,” Paul writes (Colossians 1:15). Jesus told Thomas, “Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Christ is “the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person” (Hebrews 1:3). Yet no man who looked upon Jesus while He was on earth saw in Him the full glory that belongs to the Father, for God is too wonderful, too heavenly, too much God for a finite, sinful man to behold.
God’s insistence that He is too wonderful for man to behold highlights again the miracle of His relation with man. That such a God would make sinners His children, and would tell sinners about Himself, can only drive one to adore Him. How remarkable His mercy in Jesus Christ!
GOD IS IMMUTABLE, UNCHANGING, TRUE
God does not change. Holy Scripture states this frequently:
“God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent. Has He said, and will He not do? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?” This is God: One who does not change His mind at random, or under pressure or changing circumstances. What He says He’ll do, He does do.
1 Samuel 15:28
Samuel told Saul after Saul’s disobedience in the battle against the Amalekites, that “the Strength of Israel will not lie nor relent. For He is not a man, that He should relent.” God, the “Strength of Israel”, does not chop and change as people do, nor does His mood vary with the weather.
“Of old You laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands. They will perish, but You will endure; Yes, they will all grow old like a garment; like a cloak You will change them, and they will be changed. But You are the same, and Your years will have no end.” Here the Psalmist compares God to creation. Despite the fact that all things around him change and age, he confesses that God Himself does not change. God stays the same, always.
“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.” Scripture speaks of God as being constant and consistent.
When the Lord reveals Himself as unchanging, He does not wish us to conclude that God is therefore cold and unemotional. God indeed does interact with our actions, and even gets emotionally touched by what we do. Consider the following texts:
“Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. So the LORD said, ‘I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’”
After Israel had made and worshipped the golden calf, we read of a dialogue between God and Moses about the people with whom God had established His covenant of love: “‘Let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them. And I will make of you a great nation.’ Then Moses pleaded with the LORD his God ... ‘Turn from Your fierce wrath, and relent from this harm to Your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel, Your servants to whom You swore by Your own self, and said to them: I will multiply your descendants .…’ So the LORD relented from the harm which He said He would do to His people.”
God can be sorry, but His being sorry, and consequently His act of changing His plan, does not mean He is changeable, whimsical. To understand the point we need to realize that the Lord is the God of the Covenant. In the context of His covenant God said He would either bless or curse, depending upon His people’s behavior. This is not the equivalent of God changing His mind. The point is that when His people broke the covenant at Mt Sinai God did what He said He would do when they would break the covenant, namely, He cursed them. God always works within the confines of the covenant, and remains unchangingly faithful to what He has promised and planned in the covenant, be it promises of blessing or promises of curse. Yet when He curses He has no pleasure in cursing; that is what the Scripture catches with the term ‘sorry’.
So who is my God? My God is One who does not change. He is the same God as Abraham had, the same God who preserved Moses and David. Though my circumstances and culture today are so vastly different from the circumstances and culture of Abraham, Moses and David, I am in the hands of the same God who carried them – and this God has not changed.
That means in turn that the characteristics of God as revealed in His dealings with David are equally the characteristics true of my God today. So I can discover what kind of a God I have by studying how God dealt with David. When David fled from his son Absalom (who wanted to dethrone his father), David cried out his anguish to God. “LORD,” he cried, “how they have increased who trouble me! Many are they who rise up against me. Many are they who say of me, ‘There is no help for him in God’” (Psalm 3:1,2). But David three thousand years ago could confess that his God was “a shield for me, my glory and the One who lifts up my head” (vs 3). He knew: his God would protect him because His Son would lay down His life for him. God has not changed, and so we too can cry to God in our troubles, and be comforted with the knowledge that He is a shield for us. Even though my circumstances are vastly different than David’s, we share one God. David’s enemy was ultimately Satan, and over against Satan David could have but one defense. Our enemy, too, is ultimately Satan, and over against that enemy we have but one defense. So we can make David’s cry our own, “How they have increased who trouble me!” And we can equally make David’s comfort our own: “You, O LORD, are a shield for me, my glory and the One who lifts up my head.” To think this way is to make Psalm 3 come alive, and to appreciate the comfort the Lord gives in His word.
As we give attention to God’s unchangeableness, we ought also to note that the Bible repeatedly speaks of God’s truthfulness.
THE TRUTH OF GOD
To say of God that He is “true” means that there is no deceit in Him. God is fully reliable in all He does and in all He says. The following texts from Scripture give evidence of this:
“Into Your hand I commit my spirit; You have redeemed me, O LORD God of truth.” In the verses 9-13 of this psalm David expresses that he is in trouble, sought after by his enemies. Yet, in spite of these very real and difficult circumstances, David knows that he is secure with God because his God is true, reliable, and He is who He says He is. Jesus quoted these words of David on the cross after God had poured out on Him the full measure of His wrath and totally rejected Him. Jesus, like David, could count on His Father and therefore he could say, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit” (Luke 23:46)
“And the LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth.” While Moses was with God on Mount Sinai, Israel had sinned by making and serving the golden calf. God, though, did not annul the covenant He had made with Israel, but kept that covenant and spared Israel because He is a God of truth – and hence does not change His mind in the face of new circumstances.
“And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God .… Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.” Jesus confesses that God is characterized by truth. He is faithful, reliable, void of any deceit.
“... Indeed, let God be true, but every man a liar.”
The truth of God stands in stark contrast to man’s deceit. People lack truthfulness, but this can never be said of God. I may have my own perceptions of what is real and what is true, but I cannot rely on these perceptions, for I am a fallen creature – and hence my powers of reasoning are corrupted. God, though, is God, free of any consequence of the fall into sin. In His Word He has spoken truth. So, where my perceptions, experiences or conclusions differ from what God says in His Word, I must conclude that the error lies with myself.
For example, the science of geology has its method of dating, to establish the age of different rocks and soils of the world. Though the accuracy of such calculations need not be a point of dispute, the conclusions based on these calculations are indeed to be disputed, because they undermine God’s revelation in Genesis 1. God said that He created the world, and this God never lies or deceives; He is true and therefore His Word is truth. Though we might think our conclusions (based on the science of geology) are correct, those conclusions must take second place to God’s unerring Word: He said he made the world not that long ago, and so that’s the way it is. Perhaps geologists’ calculations are inaccurate, or perhaps God created a world with evidence of older age built into it (see further Article 12).
Likewise, we may adopt for ourselves solutions to problems or situations in our lives. However, if these solutions do not comply with the course of action God says we are to follow in our lives, then we go wrong. If God says No to opting out of a broken marriage, then we must heed His No – for He has connected His blessing to obedience and His curse to disobedience, and He is not about to change His mind on that connection or become untruthful to Himself. I cannot separate my confession concerning the truth of God from my obedience to His Word.
Again, if God has said that He will give what He has promised, I may pray with great boldness and insistence. I count on it that God is true to His Word, and so lay His own promises before Him. That in turn underlines how important it is for God’s children to know their Bible, for from the Bible we learn what God promised to give to His children.
GOD IS INFINITE
The term ‘infinite’ catches the notion that our God has no limits. We already spoke of His limitlessness in relation to time, for God is eternal. We need now to speak of His limitlessness in relation to space – God’s omnipresence.
1 Kings 8:27
When Solomon dedicates the temple of Jerusalem to the Lord, he says: “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built.”
“‘Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him?’ declares the LORD. ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’ declares the LORD.”
“You have hedged me behind and before, And laid Your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is high, I cannot attain it. Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, Even there Your hand shall lead me, And Your right hand shall hold me.”
There is no place in all creation where God is not present. Wherever He is He is also in control, for He is almighty. Here is great comfort for the child of God. Though one may feel alone and forgotten, one never is – for the Lord God is present everywhere, and therefore is always with us. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me” (Psalm 23:4).
The fact that God is present everywhere does not mean that He is present everywhere in the same way. His presence in heaven with the angels is different than His presence on earth. Again, His presence with His people is different than His presence with unbelievers; His people experience His grace while the unbelievers do not. Once more, His presence in hell is different than His presence in heaven, for in hell God displays the fullness of His wrath against sin. Hence the terror of hell! On the day of Christ’s return God’s presence on earth will be the same as it is today in heaven, that is, in fullness of glory. This is the promise that makes God’s children look forward to that Day with great eagerness. Meanwhile, we are greatly comforted that “with respect to His divinity, majesty, grace and Spirit” our Savior “is never absent from us” (Lord’s Day 18.47).
GOD IS ALMIGHTY
The almighty power of God receives frequent mention in the Bible. The Old Testament, for example, repeats the phrase ‘LORD of hosts’ some 280 times. ‘Hosts’ is here a reference to angels, spirits of the air. The phrase, then, portrays God as the commander of countless thousands of angels. The New Testament also speaks of God’s greatness, but it does so in New Testament language. In Revelation 1:8 the word ‘Almighty’ is used, which is the equivalent for the Old Testament phrase ‘LORD of hosts.’ This is the word deBres includes in His list of godly characteristics in the first article of his confession.
As a consequence of being almighty, God can do whatever He intends to do. So He spoke, and a world that did not exist in any way, shape or form, instantly was there (Psalm 33:9). He could challenge Sarah, a woman barren for all the ninety years of her life: “Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son” (Genesis 18:14). And it was so. Through the almighty power of God a woman past retirement age gave birth to a healthy son! More, through the almighty power of sovereign God a virgin conceived without the involvement of a man (Luke 1:35). Nothing is too hard for this God.
Who is my God? The people of Israel in exile protested their circumstances: “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my just claim is passed over by my God” (Isaiah 40:27). As if God were powerless to help, or ignorant of Israel’s suffering…. But the Holy Spirit moved Isaiah to set forth in colorful terms who God really is. “Who,” says the Holy Spirit through the prophet, “who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand, measured heaven with a span and calculated the dust of the earth in a measure? Weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?” We have all seen the ocean and know its depths. But measure the oceans in the hollow of my hand?! Measure the distance to the moon with the width of my hand?! Calculate earth’s endless dust?! Weigh Mt Cheam, Mt Robson, Mt Everest?! We are so little in the face of such challenges! But the Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, can do it – and does it; He has the whole world in His hands! Truly, what a God! More: how wonderful is my God!
Isaiah continues. Our God is so great that to Him, “the nations are as a drop in a bucket ..., all nations before Him are as nothing, and they are counted by Him less than nothing and worthless.... He brings the princes to nothing; He makes the judges of the earth useless” (Isaiah 40:15, 17, 23). God is not cowed by large nations. They are as insignificant in God’s eyes as a drop remaining in a pail after we washed the car. God regards even the largest nation as less than nothing – including the superpower of Isaiah’s day, Assyria under King Sennacherib. So as far as we are concerned today, who needs to live in fear of a potentially rising superpower as China, or organizations of terror as al-Qaeda? They are as nothing in comparison with our God!
For that matter, how does God view Israel, or the inhabitants of the earth, or even we ourselves? Isaiah reminds Israel that the earth’s inhabitants “are like grasshoppers” (Isaiah 40:22). That’s all! The American Marines, Hesbollah’s fighters, Kim Il Jong’s physicists, the millions using the subways of New York: all are like so many grasshoppers before Him – insects we never worry about as we walk through a field. It’s humbling, and teaches us our place. At the same time it tells us so much about our God! He is the Almighty, exalted immeasurably above the little people teeming over earth’s surface. Shall Israel complain against such a God that He has forgotten them?? “Get real!” says Isaiah to Israel. More, shall we complain that this God fails us?! Who is your God?!
Though almighty, this God does not use His power in a rash, abusive way. This God is my Father. Each Sunday we confess the faith from which we draw strength for our lives, as summarized in the Apostles’ Creed. Then we also confess, “I believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” Lord’s Day 9 elaborates on what it means to confess this. First of all, it means that I believe “that the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ ... is, for the sake of Christ His Son, my God and my Father.” Secondly, it means that I confess that “in Him I trust so completely as to have no doubt that He will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul, and will also turn to my good whatever adversity He sends me in this life of sorrow. He is able to do so as almighty God, and willing also as a faithful Father.”
How come certain things happen in my life? Is that due to chance? Or perhaps because Satan is getting the better of me? It cannot be! My Father in Jesus Christ is almighty. Not a hair falls from my head unless almighty God permits it (Lord’s Day 1). Therefore Satan cannot touch me unless God allows it. Almighty God is behind whatever happens to me – and that is so comforting because this God is my faithful Father – the One who gave His only Son for me (see Article 17 and 18). So, I’m confident: all He gives He turns to good.
What a God this is! Would that we would daily have big thoughts of this God, always reckon with His limitless power! What peace would fill our hearts, what contentment in our circumstances! “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth, Neither faints nor is weary. His understanding is unsearchable” (Isaiah 40:28).
GOD IS WISE
On the basis of what he read in the Bible, deBres believed and taught that his God was also perfectly wise. Romans 16:27: “to God, alone wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever.” With reference to His work of creation, the psalmist says, “O LORD, how manifold are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all” (Psalm 104:24).
In the Bible, God’s wisdom means that God knows the goal and how to attain it. God knows where I am now and He knows what is the right goal for me to His glory. He also knows the right way to get me to the goal He has in mind for me. If I were today to know the goal God has in mind for me (for example, a godly widow who means much in the community) and the way God intends to bring me to that goal (for example, having to nurse a cancer-ridden husband for some years), I might today protest loudly that such a program for my life is bad. But confessing today that God is wise implies that I leave the goal and the way to the goal in God’s capable hands, and trust that His way with me is good.
God’s word in Hebrews 12 helps us get a handle on His wisdom in relation to our lives. The chapter tells us of our Hebrew brothers and sisters struggling and suffering in the grind of this life (though the details of their sufferings are not known to us). They had their own ideas (we may surmise) as to how they were to get to their goal, and (not surprisingly) will have preferred a straight path from A to B. But God’s plan was different. In His wisdom, He determined that the Hebrews were to travel through some very difficult valleys, so that they might in turn grow in God. The Hebrew Christians complained about the way God was leading them, and the task of the author of the letter to the Hebrews was now to encourage them. How then were they encouraged?
The inspired author urged the Hebrews (vss 5,6) to remember the exhortation with which Solomon, as father, exhorted his children in Proverbs 3:11,12: “My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; For whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives.” The author of the letter to the Hebrews then explains this exhortation in the verses 7 to 11. God deals with them as a Father, he writes. As a father is motivated by love for his children when he disciplines them, so God in love disciplines, moulds, and directs His children on the paths of life He has marked out for them. Verse 10: God chastens us “for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness.” It is true that “No chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful.” Just as God was busy in the lives of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Daniel and so many others of His children in Scripture, so He is busy in my life, in His own way. In His wisdom God led them down a different track than the one they preferred, and God remains equally wise today in leading us down different tracks than we prefer.
So what am I to do? Christian wisdom is to accept that God’s way with us is wise. Wisdom on the part of the Christian is not that we understand the mind of God but, rather, that we acquiesce to His leading, irrespective of circumstance, and entrust ourselves to His wisdom. The wise Christian confesses that God Almighty never makes a mistake.
Precisely such a confession is so difficult to make in the pains of real life. In His wisdom our God may lead us along paths of abuse and molestation, or along paths of accident or sickness – with as result that we grow up physically or emotionally broken. Then it can indeed be a daily struggle to be at peace with the confession of God’s wisdom, and to be content in the midst of brokenness and pain. The temptation is so great to give in to feelings of bitterness or anger against God on account of the way He led my life. But God’s identity as a wise God points us to the better way. Acquiescing to the greater wisdom of our Father in Christ gives peace in the midst of adversity, and grace to be content in life’s brokenness. So deBres, on the eve of his martyrdom, could write as he did to his wife.
GOD IS JUST
DeBres acknowledged too that the Lord God is just (or righteous). God has revealed this characteristic in passages of Scripture as:
“For the LORD is righteous, He loves righteousness; His countenance beholds the upright.”
“He loves righteousness and justice.”
Traditionally, the justice (or righteousness) of God has been understood in the line of Greek philosophy (and hence Roman – and even Western – law): giving to each what each deserves. Yet that cannot catch the Biblical doctrine of God-as-just, for the Lord does not give to each what (we think) each deserves. How could the criminal on the cross, after years of unbelief and violence, be assured that he would “today” be with Christ in His kingdom?! (Luke 23:43). How could a murderer and adulterer as David be rehabilitated? How can Paul say that in the gospel “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith’?” (Romans 1:17).
We need to be careful that we do not read the Bible’s description of God as a God of justice in human terms or expectations. In the Bible one is just if one treats another according to the requirements of a given relationship. In terms of God’s justice to man, His justice is determined by the requirements of the covenant. In that covenant the Lord emphatically said that disobedience would result in death (Genesis 2:17). Adam’s sin resulted in precisely that; he was estranged from God (spiritually dead) and after he lived 930 years he died physically also. God kept His word, and acted in justice, according to the requirements of His relation with Adam. Similarly, when God established His covenant with Israel at Mt Sinai, the Lord included in His covenant the promise of blessing on obedience and curses on disobedience (Leviticus 26). In the years that followed, the Lord dealt with Israel according to the stipulations of that covenant; He gave His blessing on Israel’s obedience, and His curses on their disobedience.
Yet we also need to be aware that when the Lord gave His blessing on Israel’s obedience God in fact was not dealing with His people according to what they deserved – for their obedience was so mediocre, so far short of His holy standard; much sin remained. Day by day and year by year Israel deserved God’s wrath and hence destruction, but God spared them their just sentence because He intended to pour that wrath and destruction on Another instead. That too was according to the stipulations of God’s covenant with Israel. That is God’s justice and His mercy: Jesus Christ received the penalty sinners deserve, and the sinners go free. Calvary displays the justice of God better than any other event in world history, for on the cross The Sinner was cursed with hellish torment. So Calvary points up for us, too, something of God’s hatred for sin and His wrath against evildoers. At the same time Calvary points up the grace and mercy of God for us, for we do not receive the judgment we deserve. Again, what a God this is!
That in turn is why Christian justice is not tit-for-tat. The state has to punish evildoers, as the apostle said in Romans 13. But God’s people, in their relation to each other and to unbelievers, are not to insist on “an eye for an eye” or “a tooth for a tooth” (Matthew 5:39). The God of justice did not deal with us that way (else we would long ago have perished in hell) but showed us mercy instead for Jesus’ sake. God’s children, too, may show mercy to the undeserving, and leave the justice of things to God. God will ‘set things straight’, perhaps in this life (for example, through the courts of the land) or in the life to come (in the fires of hell) – or perhaps He has already through the blood of the Son who died not only for me.
GOD IS GOOD
The final characteristic deBres mentions concerning God is His goodness. Of no one but God can it be said that he is good. Said Jesus to the Pharisee who addressed Him as “Good Teacher”, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is God” (Mark 10:18).
All His works are good also. David says in Psalm 119, “You are good, and do good” (verse 68). This confession of David was not just a general statement about God, but a firm conviction on David’s part, confessed in his particular circumstances. In the verses 65-67 David writes, “You have dealt well with Your servant, O LORD, according to Your word. Teach me good judgment and knowledge, for I believe Your commandments. Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word.” Then follows David’s confession: “You are good, and do good.” David doesn’t dwell on the nature of the affliction, doesn’t make an issue either of how difficult he experienced this affliction to be, but instead focuses on the nature of His God and so confesses God’s goodness. God’s way with David, he acknowledges, is above criticism, and is in fact good.
Nahum describes some far-reaching works of God. He says, “He rebukes the sea and makes it dry, and dries up all the rivers. Bashan and Carmel wither, and the flower of Lebanon wilts. The mountains quake before Him, the hills melt, and the earth heaves at His presence, yes, the world and all who dwell in it. Who can stand before His indignation? And who can endure the fierceness of His anger? His fury is poured out like fire, and the rocks are thrown down by Him” (1:4-6). Such divine deeds make men tremble! But listen to the prophet’s next words: “The LORD is good”! (Nahum 1:7). People are not asked to give their opinion about God as He revealed Himself through His works in nature, but they are told God’s revelation about Himself: He is good even when He sends earthquakes and tsunamis and volcanoes. My sinfulness may make me balk at such a revelation of who God is, but the humility of faith embraces and confesses it. All He does is good, and beyond criticism.
To whom does God do good? In Psalm 145:9 David writes, “The LORD is good to all.” All God’s works are good for all people. God does not reserve His goodness for only a few good people or for a few righteous people. Jesus says the same in Matthew 5:44,45 where we read, “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” The Spirit relates God’s work of giving sunshine and rain to the godly and the ungodly, and tells us to act like God, be sons of the Father, and that means: “do good” to all as He does good to all. “For He is kind to the unthankful and evil” (Luke 6:35).
What are the consequences of believing that God is good? In the first place, I am to confess that whatever God does in my life, be it in things big or things small, is good.
NOTE: this is not a comment on what I see, for I see so many negative things in my life. Rather, this is a confession of faith: I believe that God’s deeds in my life are good.
Similarly, I also confess the goodness of God in relation to what God does in the world around me – including the horrors known as 9/11 or the hurricane that devastated New Orleans (August 2005). By all human standards these things are evil and terrible, and in so far as there is human guilt involved, wrongdoers are to be brought to justice. But God would have us say more than that. He would have us say too that His almighty hand was behind it, and He is good in all He does.
Secondly, if God does good and if I am allowed to be a child of God, I am to do good. I am to imitate my God, not just in doing good to some, but in doing good to all, even to the unthankful and the evil. See the above quote from Matthew 5:44,45. I should remember too that I was a sinner, evil to God, when God sought me out (Romans 5:8).
Thirdly, because God does good, I am to praise God without ceasing. In the words of Scripture: “Make a joyful shout to the LORD, all you lands…, For the LORD is good” (Ps 100:1,5) and “Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good!” (Ps 136:1) This refrain is found repeatedly throughout Scripture; see also Psalm 107.
God’s goodness demands a response of faith, service and praise on my part. However, if I fail to appreciate God’s goodness I can only expect a response of judgment from Him. In Romans 11 Israel is compared to a tree. Because of their unbelief, the Lord God cut many Israelites (dead branches as they were) off the tree of Abraham. The Holy Spirit explains God’s action as His severity. On the other hand, the same God grafted Gentiles into the tree, and the Holy Spirit describes this as God’s goodness (vs 22). God’s goodness and His severity go hand in hand. Let no one, then, take His goodness for granted. “Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness” (Romans 11:22). If the Romans do not appreciate the goodness of God, they will experience the severity of God, and be cut off from the tree into which God had earlier grafted them. Rejection of goodness leads to experiencing God’s severity. This is a principle that applies to any situation in life. God causes His rain to fall on both the just and the unjust. The fact that God does good to all does not mean that all will acknowledge God as good, and not to do so is to bring judgment upon oneself. It is a matter of faith: do I believe that what God does is good? If I don’t believe this, the consequences are serious.
In His Word the Lord has revealed much more about Himself. The characteristics listed in Article 1 are not (meant to be) exhaustive. One can speak about His wrath, His vengeance, His mercy, and so many more characteristics. One can also spend a lifetime trying to understand more about who our God is. In this life, however, we shall never arrive at a full understanding of who He is. He remains God, so far above what our creaturely and sinful minds can comprehend.
Exactly because He remains God, awesome and wonderful in all His characteristics, it is right and proper that we “have no other gods before” Him (Exodus 20:3). That is to say: the urgency is upon me “that I rightly come to know the only true God, trust in Him alone, submit to Him with all humility and patience, expect all good from Him only, and love, fear and honor Him with all my heart” (Lord’s Day 34.94). The better we know Him, and the more we realize how much God He is, the more we – through the sovereign working of the Holy Spirit – entrust ourselves to His care. With such a God we’re safe, absolutely safe both now and forever.
Points for Discussion:
- From what source(s) can our knowledge of God come? Why?
- When we seek to learn about God, what attitude is necessary? Why?
- According to society around us, what kind of God (if indeed there is a god) is God? Why? What consequence follows from the thought that God is weak?
- What does ‘knowing God’ mean for the way we live?
The following questions consider the characteristics of God. As you discuss these characteristics, strive to make discussion personal. You are not speaking of a God who is ‘out there’, but of your God. Awareness of that fact should add emotion and passion to the discussion.
- What does it mean that God is one?
- What consequence flows from the fact that God is one?
- What does it mean that God is simple?
- What comfort is there for you in the fact that God is simple?
- What does it mean that God is spiritual?
- What comfort is there for you in the fact that God is spirit?
- What does it mean that God is eternal?
- What comfort is there for you in the fact that God is eternal?
- What does it mean that God is incomprehensible?
- Does this mean that we ultimately cannot know God? Why or why not?
- What comfort is there for you in the fact that God is incomprehensible?
- Why can no one see God and live?
- How has the Lord God made Himself visible?
- What comfort is there for you in the fact that God is invisible?
- What does it mean that God is unchanging?
- What does Scripture mean when we read that God was sorry for what He had done?
- What comfort is there for you in the fact that He is unchanging?
- What can I learn from the attitude of a Daniel in the lions’ den, or a David when Absalom chased him?
- What does it mean that God is truth?
- In the face of life’s questions, what instruction is there for you in the fact that He is truth? Are we actually able to know truth?
- How does the doctrine of God’s truth affect our praying?
- What does it mean that God is infinite?
- What comfort is there for you in the fact that God is infinite?
- What does it mean that God is almighty?
- What comfort is there for you in the fact that He is almighty?
- What can you learn from Isaiah 40?
- What does it mean that God is wise?
- What comfort is there for you in the fact that He is wise?
- On the topic of God’s wisdom, what can one learn from an Abraham or a Jacob, or Hebrews 12?
- What is Christian wisdom?
- What does it mean that God is just?
- Show how Calvary demonstrates both God’s justice and mercy.
- What comfort is there for you in the fact that God is just?
- Discuss the correct Christian attitude to justice for wrong doers in our society.
- What does it mean that God is good?
- What comfort is there for you in the fact that He is good?
- How is a Christian to reflect God’s goodness today? Who should be recipients of the Christian’s acts of kindness?
DeBres mentioned several characteristics of God in Article 1. List and describe characteristics mentioned in Scripture which deBres omits. Be ready for some surprises!