Results tagged “Doctrine of God” from Reformation21 Blog

God's Forgetfulness and God's Face


True believers may, and do, experience times when they feel as if God has forgotten them. They feel as if the divine no longer takes interest in them. David felt this as well. He expresses this in Psalm 31 in language that may make one wonder about God, however. There we read, 

"How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?" (Psalm 13:1, NASB)

Does God really "forget" and does God really have a "face"? Is God omniscient or not? Is God invisible or not? How should we understand these statements?

David expresses himself in question form: "How long....Will You forget....will You hide Your face....?" Consider the following two aspects of David's complaint: "Will You forget me forever?" and "How long will You hide Your face from me?"

There are at least two ways to understand these and other statements like them. One way would be to take "forget" and "face" literally (i.e., properly). This would mean that as we "forget," so God forgets, and as we have a "face," so God has a face. If one looked up the words for "forget" and "face" in a lexicon one would find that "forget" means "to forget" and "face" means "face." So at first read, taking the words to mean what they normally mean, God forgets and God has a face. But does He?

Another way to understand these and other statements like them is to take "forget" and "face" as figures of speech (i.e., improperly). David utilizes and applies creaturely terms to God in order to describe his own experience. Applying creaturely terms to God is done many, many times by Scripture writers (e.g., Psalm 8:6, "...the works of Thy hands..."). The church has wrestled with this scriptural phenomenon over the centuries and derived from that study a method of interpretation that respects the fact the God is Creator and man is creature, that God is omniscient and we are not, that God does not have a literal face but we do.

Let's take the second term under consideration to illustrate how the church has understood it. Does God have a face (i.e., with contour, eyes, brows, cheeks, nose, lips, mouth, etc.)? In other words, is God like us, possessing physical or finite creaturely human features which take up space in time? The answer is no, obviously. We know this to be the case from many, many other places in Scripture (e.g., John 1:18). God is invisible (1 Tim. 1:17). But David says "Your face." Statements which predicate physical features of man to God have been labeled anthropomorphisms by the great minds of the church. An anthropomorphism is a physical feature of the created realm, in our discussion possessed by man, attributed to God. Things such as eyes, feet, hands, and a face attributed to God are anthropomorphisms. God, then, does not have a literal face; man does. But the figure of speech means something, doesn't it? Of course it does. What does it mean and how is it being used here? It must refer to divine favor extended to David on the earth. David felt as if God was not extending, or communicating, divine favor to him. It is like a human father who turns his face from his son. It is a figure of speech. Though God does not have a literal face, He does at times withhold the sense of His presence and favor from His children. So to "hide Your face" must refer to a perceived (by David) action of God.

But what about divine forgetfulness? David says, "Will You forget me forever?" One could understand "forget" as to cease, or fail, to remember or to fail to think of. This would mean that God at one time possesses the knowledge of things that at another time He does not possess. Taken this way, and reflecting on what David says (i.e., "Will You forget me forever?"), this would entail that what God forgets now He might forget forever. But it also leaves open the door that what God forgets now He might not forget forever. Who knows? Either way this would entail God can know things now that He might not always know. Assuming this view, and assuming the worst for David (i.e., that God forgot David forever), this would mean that God can know things now that He never knows again because He forgets them. In other words, at one moment, God possesses the knowledge of David and at another moment He does not. This would mean that, after all, God is like us, forgetting today what He knew yesterday. What a horrifying thought, if real!

Psalm 31 illustrates something important about interpreting the Bible. We must not take things at face value, if taking them as such contradicts other teachings of Scripture. If God forgets us, He is not omniscient. If God has a face, He is not invisible, nor infinite because faces have measurable limits. Who wants God to be like us, forgetting today what was known yesterday? Who wants Him to be a finite being, confined to space and time like us, a physical being, and thus a creature subject to change? I hope you don't!


Richard C. Barcellos, is pastor of Grace Reformed Baptist Church, Palmdale, CA and Associate Professor of Exegetical Theology at IRBS Theological Seminary. He is the author of Getting the Garden Right: Adam's Work and God's Rest in Light of Christ; The Covenant of Works: Its Confessional and Scriptural Basis; and Trinity and Creation: A Scriptural and Confessional Account (forthcoming from Christian Focus/Mentor).

How Can We Know God?


In my first article on the topic of theology proper, I discussed why we must know the God who created us. I will now explain how we can know that God whose ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts higher than our thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9) Christianity is a religion of revelation, and our God is a God who reveals himself. Perhaps you, like me, experience dark days when you feel that God is distant or even absent from your life, but it is a great comfort to know that God has not left us as ignorant orphans. He has condescended and spoken, authoritatively and finally, into our lives. Human history is the story of the revelation of God.

There are two ways that God has chosen to reveal himself to us. The first is typically called general revelation, or alternatively natural revelation. This is the basic knowledge of God we see expressed in his created works, which image God to us. We use the word "image" because no created thing is exactly like God. Rather, creation reflects something of who God is. (More on that in a moment.)

The second way God reveals himself is through special revelation. Here we should think primarily of the Word of God, but for the purposes of this article, I am going to break special revelation down into three sub-categories that highlight different aspects of God's condescension to man (in the sense of stooping to our level like a loving parent, not patronizing us like someone haughty). Throughout salvation history, God has revealed himself more directly and completely through his actions in history, his written Word, and the incarnation of the Son of God.

Keeping this in mind, here are the four ways that we can know God through his revelation.

  1. Creation

God's revelation of himself in his created works is his general or natural revelation. In one of the chief texts on the subject, the Apostle Paul wrote, "For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse." (Romans 1:20) This does not mean that everything necessary for salvation can be grasped through glancing at a poppy field. Rather, it means that the moral law of God is written on our hearts from birth, and creation itself provides a basic knowledge of God to us: namely, it points to his existence.

As the Psalmist wrote, "The heavens are telling of the glory of God; / And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands." (Psalm 19:1) The Belgic Confession also affirms that God is known, "First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God."[1]

How can creation do this? After all, plenty of people study the natural world and remain unconvinced of the existence of God. I think it is helpful to remember here that Paul speaks of a knowledge that is available to us in creation, placed there for the taking, but which many of us will ultimately reject because of the hardness of our hearts. It is through this basic knowledge of God and his moral law that every proposition we make, moral or otherwise, ultimately makes sense, for if there is no ultimate source of morality or truth, then the universe is simply a teeming chaos, and we cannot know anything for certain. Paul says we sense this instinctively, but many of us "suppress the truth in unrighteousness." (Romans 1:18)

The deeper reason that creation provides knowledge of God to us is because it is a reflection of God's character. Note: It does not contain God's character, duplicate it, or even provide exact and complete knowledge of it. It reflects God's character as an image is reflected in a mirror, or to use a better example, the way a photograph shows us its subject. If you think of an old, grainy photograph in particular, it is not a completely true likeness, but it tells you something about the subject. Human beings, more than any other created thing, are made specially in God's image, as scripture tells us.

"Then God said, 'Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.' God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." (Genesis 1:26-27)

This concept of imaging is helpful to understanding God's revelation of himself to us. The Greek word we translate as "image" is eikόn, which is perhaps best defined as "a likeness or manifestation".[2] Another term that has often been used to describe the link between creation and the Creator is "analogy". I will write more about these terms in a later article and why different Christians may prefer one or the other.

  • Actions in history

I now move on to the first of three sub-categories of God's special revelation: his actions in history. There is obviously some overlap here with God's written Word and the Incarnation of Christ, for both have been granted to us in history. What I am choosing to focus on in this category is the way God's actions informed His people prior to and after being recorded.

Consider that the records of historical events contained in the Bible were written after the fact. Before that, many of them existed as oral narratives that those loyal to God would repeat to one another to recall the deeds and character of their Lord. They spoke of times that God had appeared to them in one way or another and made his character known.

A good example of this would be the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. Though Moses recorded these events for us in scripture, he likely did not do so until well after they occurred, perhaps when the people were wandering in the wilderness. Before that, the narrative of the Exodus was repeated orally and celebrated during the Passover feast. This helped them remember the time when God acted on their behalf and revealed himself.

Immediately after the Israelites had been freed from their enslavement and the divine commands regarding the Passover were given, Moses told them, "Remember this day in which you went out from Egypt, from the house of slavery; for by a powerful hand the Lord brought you out from this place." (Exodus 13:3) When they arrived at Mount Sinai to enter into a covenant with the Lord, he identified himself by saying, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." (Exodus 20:2)

By smiting the Egyptians with plagues, God revealed himself as judge. By bringing Israel out of slavery, God revealed himself as deliverer. By sustaining them in the wilderness, God revealed himself as provider, a fact of which Moses reminded the people several years later. "He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord." (Deuteronomy 8:3)

These events were mentioned in the Psalms, prophets, Gospels, and epistles as proof of God's character. More than anything, they show him as a God who acts to save. They even pointed forward directly to Christ. As the Apostle Paul wrote of the ancient Israelites, "they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ." (1 Corinthians 10:4)

These acts of God in history were necessary for his people to know him as Savior. He came down and entered into covenant with them, that they would know him and his character in a saving manner, as the Westminster Confession states.

"The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God's part, which he has been pleased to express by way of covenant."[3]

  • Written Word of God

The form of God's special revelation we have before us today is his written Word, the Bible. We would have no knowledge of many of God's actions in history were they not recorded for us, and in addition to relating those events, the scriptures contain prophecies and instruction that teach us even more about our Creator. The Word of God, by which I mean here the Bible, carries the authority of God himself, for it is his direct revelation to us. Again, the Westminster Confession explains that general or natural revelation alone could not provide us with saving knowledge of God: we need his inspired Word.

"Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that his will unto his Church; and afterwards for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which makes the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God's revealing his will unto his people being now ceased."[4]

Scripture reveals the character of God to us in so many ways, but to focus on just one, it speaks of Christ, who as Son of God is the supreme revelation of God's character. Jesus once told his opponents, "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me..." (John 5:39) Shortly after his resurrection, when he appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus pointed out how the Old Testament (the part of the Bible in existence at that time) pointed forward to him. "Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures." (Luke 24:27)

Paul makes the extraordinary statement that when God told Abraham, "All the nations will be blessed in you," he was preaching the gospel to him beforehand and announcing that the Gentiles would be justified by faith. (Galatians 3:8) And in his epistle to the Romans, Paul brings together the gospel first revealed in the Scriptures, then finally accomplished in Christ.

 "Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith; to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever. Amen." (Romans 16:25-27)

It is to that final revelation of Christ that we now turn.

  • Incarnation

God has been revealing himself to creation since the beginning. His acts and his Word had already served as testaments to his character, but the supreme revelation occurred when the Son of God became incarnate as a man and, in the words of the Apostle John, dwelt among us. This was the crowning moment of God's special revelation.

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being...And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:1-2, 14)

Christ was able to reveal God to man because he himself was the Son of God, possessing the fullness of God's essence in his divine nature, while also being united to a human nature in his person. This is a great mystery the entirety of which we cannot grasp, but Paul provides us with a helpful metaphor when he calls Jesus "the image of the invisible God". (Colossians 1:15) Remember that an image (Greek eikόn) has the likeness of the original, and thus reveals to us something of the original's character, even if we are not able to comprehend everything about it. Christ functioned in such a way through his human nature that was visible to us.

The author of Hebrews wrote, "God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world." (Hebrews 1:1-2) Now, when he speaks of "these last days", he means that in Christ and the Scriptures, everything we need to know in regard to salvation has been revealed. What is written in God's Word is fully sufficient for the believer, because the work of redemption is completed and everything of necessity has been revealed.

We must still work through what the Bible says by the power of the Spirit and in concert with the Church, even as we must apply the words of scriptures to our lives in the present day. However, the special revelation of God is closed for the present age. We live in a privileged period when it comes to special revelation, looking back as we do upon the work of Christ.

Again, God has granted us 1) general revelation, and 2) special revelation. The special revelation can be thought of in terms of God's actions in history, his written Word, and the Incarnation of the Son of God. Next time, I will consider exactly what kind of knowledge about God is available to us through this revelation, and how our knowledge of God compares to his knowledge of himself.

All scripture references are from The New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

[1] The Belgic Confession, Article 2.

[2] Bromiley, Geoffrey W. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament - Abridged in One Volume, ed. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985) 205.

[3] Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 7, Article 1

[4] Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1, Article 1

Why We Must Know God


The very root and beginning of all theological study is known as theology proper or the doctrine of God. Within this field, the existence, being, and attributes of God are considered and his character is defined within the limitations common to human beings. All Christian theology (from Greek theología, meaning "words about God" or "the study of God") has the character of God at its center. Our knowledge of God aids our understanding of our own being, purpose, and salvation. From God flows all life and goodness, as a light shining in the darkness.

Despite this, many Christians spend far more time considering things that are secondary to God's character than the character of God itself. There are many reasons for this: 1) Theology proper or the doctrine of God is a complicated subject that often requires intense intellectual study. 2) Theology proper may seem far removed from the daily life of the average Christian. 3) Our continual battle with the sinful nature, which presents itself in our inherent selfishness, causes us to focus on ourselves rather than our Creator. 4) There are some things about God that we are truly unable to comprehend due to our limitations as creatures.

By no means do I intend to dismiss these difficulties, but I do hope to encourage all Christians--young and old, ordained and unordained, male and female--to dip their toes into the deep waters of theology proper, for within those waters lie treasures untold. The entirety of scripture speaks to the nature and character of God, from the first chapter to the last.

"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." (Genesis 1:1)

"I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end." (Revelation 22:13)

The scriptures are the Word of God, and in them he testifies about himself. Those same scriptures speak to us of the importance of knowing God. Not only is knowledge of God the beginning of all theology, but it is also the beginning of all true understanding and wisdom. "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, / And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding." (Proverbs 9:10) Our knowledge of our Creator informs and motivates our worship, and without true knowledge of God our worship cannot please our Creator. "For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, / And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings." (Hosea 6:6)

The knowledge of God has been revealed gradually throughout the ages, both through revelatory actions in history and in the recorded revelation that is the Word of God, and awaits an even greater revelation in the future. At all times, knowing the true God, trusting him, and worshiping him have been essential aspects of the believer's life. In the revelation of God's character, the ancient Patriarchs found hope that sustained them as they awaited the fulfillment of his promises, and in some of the darkest days of Israel's history, the prophets spoke of a coming age when the knowledge of the Lord would bring salvation. Isaiah predicted a day when, "The earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD, / As the waters cover the sea," (11:9), and Habakkuk wrote something very similar. (2:14) In addition to prophesying the forgiveness of sins, Jeremiah said the New Covenant that the Lord would make with Israel would be characterized by greater knowledge of God.

"'They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, "Know the LORD," for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,' declares the LORD, 'for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.'" (Jeremiah 31:34)

True knowledge of God and his character is essential for salvation. If we do not know that God is holy, we will not grieve over our sin. If we do not know that God is merciful, we will have no hope of forgiveness. If we do not know that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, we will not understand the redemptive value of his atonement. If we do not know that the Spirit is likewise God, we will not understand the power that allows us to conquer sin in the Christian life.

Though none of us have a perfect knowledge of God--nor can we, "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, / So are My ways higher than your ways / And My thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:9)--scripture clearly teaches that there is a firm link between knowing God and having eternal life. As Christ himself prayed to his Father, "This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent." (John 17:3)

The Apostles of our Church often wrote in the biblical epistles of their desire for believers in their care to know God more fully. Paul prayed that the Colossians would "walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God..." (Colossians 1:10) Peter longed for believers to "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." (2 Peter 3:18)

Therefore, the consideration of God's character and attributes is not merely an interesting topic of study for the Christian. It is an absolutely essential one! God has revealed himself to us, and this revelation leads us into salvation and makes possible our perseverance in the Christian life. We will never know it all, but we must strive to know and understand that which has been revealed. As the Apostle Peter assures us, "His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence." (2 Peter 1:3)

Theology proper is not merely for the academics and seminary-trained among us. If we are followers of God, then we ought to long to know God, even as we long to know about anything we love. But while earthly knowledge will pass away, the knowledge of God will carry us into eternity. It is the highest and greatest knowledge we can attain, as the esteemed preacher and theologian Charles Spurgeon so eloquently proclaimed.

"It has been said by some one that 'the proper study of mankind is man.' I will not oppose the idea, but I believe it is equally true that the proper study of God's elect is God; the proper study of a Christian is the Godhead. The highest science, the loftiest speculation, the mightiest philosophy, which can ever engage the attention of a child of God, is the name, the nature, the person, the work, the doings, and the existence of the great God whom he calls his Father. There is something exceedingly improving to the mind in a contemplation of the Divinity. It is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity. Other subjects we can compass and grapple with; in them we feel a kind of self-content, and go our way with the thought, 'Behold I am wise.' But when we come to this master-science, finding that our plumb-line cannot sound its depth, and that our eagle eye cannot see its height, we turn away with the thought, that vain man would be wise, but he is like a wild ass's colt; and with the solemn exclamation, 'I am but of yesterday, and know nothing.' No subject of contemplation will tend more to humble the mind, than thoughts of God."1

In writing about theology proper, I hope to demonstrate the eternal importance of this subject and encourage all Christians, regardless of station, sex, ethnicity, education, or age, to pursue the knowledge of our Creator, who is forever and always God Almighty, Alpha and Omega, I AM, one in substance, three in personhood, unchanging, unerring, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. May the grace of God guide me in this endeavor, and may it benefit the reader.


1. Spurgeon, Charles Haddon. "The Immutability of God", sermon delivered at New Park Street, 7 January 1855.

"All scripture quotations are from The New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation."

It Pleased Create


The words "it pleased create," in Westminster Confession of Faith 4.1, refer to divine willing, to the decree of God. Creation is due to the will of God. It is not necessary to the divine essence, however. The Triune God is God without creatures and in no absolute sense (or necessary to the divine nature as such) must make creatures. Richard Muller states that both the Lutheran and Reformed of the post-Reformation era agreed on the gratuitous nature of creation. He says:

"The Lutheran and Reformed agree in calling the entire work of creation a free act of God resting solely on the goodness of the divine will. That God created is therefore neither an absolute necessity...resting on an antecedent cause nor a necessity of nature...since God was not bound by his nature to create the world but could have existed without the creation. The Reformed add that creation is a necessity of the consequence...since the divine act of creation does result from the eternal and immutable decree of God..."1

This entails that creation is entirely gratuitous, and this fact ought to enhance our worship as we contemplate it. To be is of the essence of God, or necessary to God, but not to creatures. Creatures do not necessarily exist; their existence is contingent, or by "necessity of the consequence." God willed to create, to bring into contingent existence that which did not exist necessarily, which is everything other than God. Creation did not appear due to absolute divine necessity. In other words, there is nothing in God that makes creation absolutely necessary. Louis Berkhof's words are helpful at this juncture. He wrote:

"The only works of God that are...necessary with a necessity resulting from the very nature of God are the opera ad intra, the works of the separate persons within the Divine Being: generation, filiation, and procession. To say that creation is a necessary act of God, is also to declare that it is just as eternal as those immanent works of God. Whatever necessity may be ascribed to God's opera ad extra, is a necessity conditioned by the divine decree and the resulting constitution of things. It is necessity dependent on the sovereign will of God, and therefore no necessity in the absolute sense of the word. The Bible teaches us that God created all things, according to the counsel of His will, Eph. 1:11; Rev. 4:11; and that He is self-sufficient and is not dependent on His creatures in any way, Job 22:2,3; Acts 17:25."2

The creation is predicated upon the divine pleasure, or will, to create, as mysterious as that is to us. Though some have argued (I think rightly) that creation is fitting to the divine essence, this does not entail that creation is absolutely necessary to the divine essence. Creation, we must affirm, is utterly gratuitous and mysterious. Before considering an eloquent statement by John Webster, let us remember that theology is an intellectual act, a creaturely reflection, the goal of which is worship. We are attempting to grasp what God has revealed to us, a great privilege, and creaturely theology's goal is communion with God through our Lord Jesus Christ and all its entailments. Webster put it in the following way:

"God requires nothing other than himself. Yet his unoriginate love also originates. Why this should be so, we are incapable of telling, for, though with much consternation we can begin to grasp that it is fitting that God should so act, created intelligence remains stunned by the fact that God has indeed done so. What stuns us - what our intelligence can't get behind or reduce any further - is the outward movement of God's love, God's love under its special aspect of absolute creativity. God's creative love is not the recognition, alteration or ennoblement of an antecedent object beside itself, but the bringing of an object into being, ex nihilo generosity by which life is given. By divine love, the 'infinite distance' which 'cannot be crossed' [quoting Aquinas] - the distance between being and nothing - has been crossed. The love of God, therefore, has its term primarily in itself but secondarily in the existence of what is other than God, determined by that love for fellowship with him.

Creation is, again, not necessary for God. God's creative love is not 'a love which is needy and in want' and so 'loves in such a way that it is subjected to the things it loves'; God loves not 'out of compulsion of his needs' but 'out of the abundance of his generosity' [quoting Augustine]."3

If creation were necessary to the divine essence, it would be the divine essence, for that which is necessary to the divine essence is necessary for the divine to be.

It makes sense to us (kind of) that God created, since we know it is His will to do so, due to divine love and goodness. But the divine will is not arbitrary, as in capricious or unreasonable. It is not, as Webster says, to be thought of "as a mere spasmodic exercise of divine power..."4 Divine willing "signifies determination to act according to nature."5 God does not have to create in order to be God or in order to be enhanced by that which He created, but create He did, and when He does it reflects who He is. This should astound us and promote worship in us. Hear the words of the Psalmist: 

"By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, And all the host of them by the breath of His mouth. He gathers the waters of the sea together as a heap; He lays up the deep in storehouses. Let all the earth fear the LORD; Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him. For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast" (Psalm 33:6-9).

God is happily God without creatures. Creation is an utterly gratuitous divine effect, indicating to us the "supreme generosity in accord with and on the basis of God's eternal love of himself in the processions of Son and Spirit from the Father."6 God acts for the love of God. Creation makes sense to us (kind of), but only as we contemplate the divine processions behind creation and meditate upon the divine self-sufficiency and love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Though God is happily God without creatures, creatures exist, and they exit "out of the abundance of his generosity."

1. Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1985, 2017), 83-84.

2. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (1939, 1941; reprint, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986), 130.

3. John Webster, God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, Volume I, God and the Works of God (London, Oxford, New York, New Delhi, Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2016), 1:92-93.

4. Webster, God without Measure, 1:93.

5. Webster, God without Measure, 1:93.

6. Webster, God without Measure, 1:93


Richard C. Barcellos, is pastor of Grace Reformed Baptist Church, Palmdale, CA and Associate Professor of Exegetical Theology at IRBS Theological Seminary. He is the author of Getting the Garden Right: Adam's Work and God's Rest in Light of Christ and The Covenant of Works: Its Confessional and Scriptural Basis.


Understanding Theology Proper


With the first verse in the Bible, we are confronted with the necessity of the interpretive priority of theology proper (i.e., answering that and what God is) to account for the economy (i.e., answering that and what God does): "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Gen. 1:1). How are we to understand the meaning of "God" in this verse? Does the plural form of God in the Hebrew text (i.e., Elohim) and the singular verb (i.e., "created") hint at a plurality of persons in the Godhead or not? How are we to understand the meaning of the word "created"? Similar questions arise when we consider the second verse of the Bible: "And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters" (Gen. 1:2; emphasis added). Who or what is this "Spirit of God" and how are we to understand the meaning of "hovering"? The same goes for the third verse in which we read, "Then God said..." (Gen. 1:3). God speaks? Does He speak Hebrew or some sort of divine language? In order to answer these and related questions properly, we have to understand that divine ontology precedes divine economy and conditions our interpretation of it.

When divine ontology does not properly inform the divine economy in our interpretive process, we have a theological train-wreck in the making--a wreck heading to the junk-yard of heresy. How would one explain "Then God said" without more information about the One who spoke and said, "Let there be light" (Gen. 1:3)? Without more information about the speaker, one might conclude that God (whatever 'He' or 'it' may be) must have vocal chords, a larynx, or voice box, and that He takes in air and it flows over throat organs which end up producing audible sounds that come forth from a mouth producing detectible and understandable words. Consider verse 26 as well: "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness" (Gen. 1:26; emphasis added). One might conclude from these words a plurality of creators without more information, or some sort of pre-cosmological, heavenly sanhedrin inclusive of God and others.1 What's the point? We cannot properly interpret the divine economy, God's external works, the opera Dei ad extra, unless we have theology proper (God, Trinity, and decree) firmly in place. Without this, we run the risk of falling into the error of neo-Socinians. John Webster is correct when he says, "We do not understand the economy unless we take time to consider God who is, though creatures might not have been."2

Maybe asking and answering an important question at this juncture will help illustrate what is being argued. Where do we learn of God as Trinity, for example? In the economy. This means, as Giles Emery asserts, "[t]he doctrine of the Trinity and the history of salvation are intimately connected; they mutually illuminate each other."3 It is through the economy that the Trinity is revealed to us and it is the Trinity throughout the economy which illuminates it for us. The acts of God (i.e., oikonomia) reveal the divine to us, but the theologia (i.e., the mystery of God as Trinity), as revealed in Scripture, illuminates all the acts of God.4 The Trinity constitutes the economy, not the other way around. Though the economy reveals the Trinity, it does not make or re-make the Trinity. Emery's comments may be helpful:

"God reveals Trinity, because he is in himself Trinity and he acts as he is; however, the reception of the revelation of the economy does not exhaust the mystery of the Trinity in itself."5

In order to account properly for God's acts in the economy, we must learn who God is from the economy. Our interpretation of the economy must be conditioned by who God is apart from it, though revealed to us in it. And, as Emery says, God "is in himself Trinity and he acts as he is." Knowledge of who God is, then, must condition and shape our explanation of what God does. While this is so, we must always remember that "the economy does not exhaust the mystery of the Trinity in itself," as Emery asserts. Though God reveals Himself through various revelatory modalities, the various revelatory divine acts do not exhaust who and what God is. As Webster says:

"The divine agent of revelatory acts is not fully understood if the phenomenality of those acts is treated as something primordial, a wholly sufficient presentation of the agent. God's outer works bear a surplus within themselves; they refer back to the divine agent who exceeds them."6

Though it is God who reveals Himself in the economy, the revelation of God--while true--is not comprehensive of who and what He is. As well, the acts of God are not "a wholly sufficient presentation of the agent," as Webster asserts. The acts reveal God but do not exhaust His identity, nor do they constitute Him as God. God is not God by virtue of what He does. Without the interpretive priority of theologia to oikonomia, we run the risk of reading the economy back into the divine ontology. This is the error of all forms of process theism and that of the older Socinians.

1. The idea of a "heavenly sanhedrin" comes from John Owen, The Works of John Owen, 23 vols., ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991 edition), 17:222. He argues that God is clearly the exclusive creator (ref. to Gen. 1:26), not a heavenly court inclusive of angels, "as if God had a sanhedrim in heaven . . ." The spelling of sanhedrim is original in Owen.

2. John Webster, God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, Volume I, God and the Works of God (London, Oxford, New York, New Delhi, Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2016), 86.

3. Gilles Emery, The Trinity: An Introduction to Catholic Doctrine on the Triune God (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2011), 173.

4. For a helpful discussion on the history and meaning of the terms theologia and oikonomia see Lewis Ayres, "[Common Places] Pro-Nicene Theology: Theologia and Oikonomia," Accessed 6 September 2017. For a good discussion on the more recent and common terminology (i.e., economic Trinity and immanent Trinity) see Fred Sanders, The Triune God, New Studies in Dogmatics, Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, gen. eds. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 144-53. Sanders provides resistance to the newer terminology.

5. Emery, Trinity, 177.

6. Webster, God without Measure, 1:8.


Richard C. Barcellos, is pastor of Grace Reformed Baptist Church, Palmdale, CA and Associate Professor of Exegetical Theology at IRBS Theological Seminary. He is the author of Getting the Garden Right: Adam's Work and God's Rest in Light of Christ and The Covenant of Works: Its Confessional and Scriptural Basis

Creation, Incarnation and the Immutability of God


The late professor John Murray captured the essence of the incarnation when he said, "The Son of God became in time what He eternally was not. He did not cease to be what He eternally was, but He began to be what He was not."1 On a prima facie reading of this statement, one might be tempted to draw the faulty conclusion that a change occurred in God when the second Person of the Godhead took to Himself a true body and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary. Yet, the Scriptures are clear that God does not and cannot change (Malachi 3:6). If God added to Himself a human nature (something that did not exist prior to the incarnation) how was there not a change in God? Herman Bavinck gave the only suitable answer when he wrote: "Neither creation, nor revelation, nor incarnation (affects, etc.) brought about any change in God. No new plan ever arose in God. In God there was always one single immutable will"2 The immutability of God is in no way whatsoever affected by the incarnation on account of the fact that the incarnation was based on God's eternal will and decree.  

God's word teaches, in no uncertain terms, that "the eternal Son of God, of one substance and equal with the Father, in the fulness of time became man, and so was and continues to be God and man, in two entire distinct natures, and one person, forever" (Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 36). 40 days after the resurrection, the disciples watched as Jesus bodily ascended into heaven (Luke 24:50-52; Acts 1:9-11). The Scriptures teach that a man sits on the throne of God in glory, both now and forever (Ezekiel 1:26; Dan. 7:13-14; Rev. 4:3). An indissoluble union of the Divine nature and human nature occurred in the fulness of time when Christ was conceived. The body of Jesus is forever united to the Divine nature. The God-Man, Jesus Christ, is even now seated on the throne of God in heaven. Derek Thomas employs a colloquial metaphor to capture the essence of this truth when he says, "The body of Jesus has a zip code." And yet, the incarnation in no way whatsoever brought about a change in God by adding anything to God's divine nature. 

Of course, as we set out to consider the relationship between the incarnation and the immutability of God, we must necessarily also investigate the relationship between creation as a whole--as well as the response of God to the actions of His creatures--and the immutability of God. 

Perhaps the greatest of all questions to trouble the minds of men is that which regards the creation of the world and the immutability of God. How can God have complete fulness in and of Himself, and yet bring into existence something that did not exist without adding something to Himself? How does the creation of the Universe not demand the conclusion that a change has occurred in God? John Gerstner once suggested that Jonathan Edwards fell dangerously close to pantheistic notions while grappling with this question. However, in the Dissertation on the End for Which God Created the World, Edwards made the following statement:

"No notion of God's last end in the creation of the world is agreeable to reason, which would truly imply any indigence, insufficiency, and mutability in God; or any dependence of the Creator on the creature, for any part of his perfection or happiness. Because it is evident, by both scripture and reason, that God is infinitely, eternally, unchangeably, and independently glorious and happy: that he cannot be profited by, or receive any thing from the creature; or be the subject of any sufferings, or diminution of his glory and felicity from any other being. The notion of God creating the world, in order to receive any thing properly from the creature, is not only contrary to the nature of God, but inconsistent with the notion of creation; which implies a being receiving its existence, and all that belongs to it out of nothing. And this implies the most perfect, absolute, and universal derivation and dependence. Now, if the creature receives its all, from God, entirely and perfectly, how is it possible that it should have any thing to add to God, to make him in any respect more than he was before, and so the Creator become dependent on the creature?"3

The immutable will and eternal decree of God is what makes this derivation possible without in any way adding to the nature of God or effecting any change in God. It is all the more important that we are clear about this when come to the question about the personal interaction of the immutable God with His ever-changing creatures. After all, the Scriptures seem to intimate that change has occurred in God with regard to His actions toward men. Scripture says that God "rented from the harm that He said He would do to His people" (Ex. 32:14). How does this not imply change? How do we reconcile this seeming change with what we have already concluded? When he tackled this question in particular, Bavinck concluded:

"Scripture itself leads us in describing God in the most manifold relations to all his creatures. While immutable in himself, he nevertheless, as it were, lives the life of his creatures and participates in all their changing states. Scripture necessarily speaks of God in anthropomorphic language. Yet, however anthropomorphic its language, it at the same time prohibits us from positing any change in God himself. There is change around, about, and outside of [God], and there is change in people's relations to him, but there is no change in God himself...We should not picture God as putting himself in any relation to any creature of his as though it could even in any way exist without him. Rather, he himself puts all things in those relations to himself, which he eternally and immutably wills--precisely in the way in which and at the time at which these relations occur. There is absolutely no "before" or "after" in God; these words apply only to things that did not exist before, but do exist afterward. It is God's immutable being itself that calls into being and onto the stage before him the mutable beings who possess an order and law that is uniquely their own...Without losing himself, God can give himself, and, while absolutely maintaining his immutability, he can enter into an infinite number of relations to his creatures."4

God entered into an infinite number of relations to his creature in accord with the immutability of His eternal will and decree. When considered in this way, we can safely conclude that there is no change in the God who stands outside of time when He carries out His decree in accord with His divine attributes and the actions of His creatures in time. The immutability of God's eternal will and decree safegaurds against any notion of change in the immutable God in light of the creation, the action of His creatures and the incarnation.  

Believers will spend eternity meditating the inexhaustible depths of the infinite and immutable God who created all things out of nothing without adding anything to Himself. We will forever be "lost in wonder, love and praise," as we contemplate the mystery of the incarnate Christ, who now sits on the throne of God as the head of the new creation--a redeemed people which the immutable God "purchased," as it were, "with His own blood" (Acts 20:28). 

1. John Murray O Death, Where is Thy Sting? The Collected Sermons of John Murray (Philadelphia: Westminster Seminary Press, 2017).

2. Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2004). Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation (Vol. 2, p. 159). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 

3. Jonathan Edwards Dissertation on the End for Which God Created the World (New York: S. Converse, 1829) p.13

4. Reformed Dogmatics, p. 159.

Hebrews 12.28 prescribes that Christian worship be grateful, awe-filled, and reverent. Hebrews 12.29 describes why Christian worship should be so: "our God is a consuming fire." In the preceding post, we paused to consider the significance of this imagery and concluded that it presents God to us as a holy wonder, unprecedented and incomparable in his transcendent brilliance. We also concluded that, if this unprecedented and incomparable God is to be known, enjoyed, and worshiped rightly, he must interpret the meaning of his identity to us in his Word. 

God answers our need for divine self-interpretation in the revelation of his name YHWH to Moses and in the actions whereby he brings his promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to pass through the events of the exodus. We may more fully grasp the meaning of the image of God as a consuming fire by contemplating the meaning of this name and the meaning of these events. We will pursue the first path of contemplation in the present post and the latter path in the post that follows.

The meaning of God's name

Along with the holy wonder of the burning bush, Exodus 3 also presents to us the holy wonder of God's name YHWH, the so-called Tetragrammaton. The name YHWH offers further insight regarding the image of God as a consuming fire.

Following a broad tradition of catholic and Protestant exegesis, the Leiden Synopsis identifies YHWH as "the proper name of God." By this name, the Synopsis explains, "God has set himself apart from everything." Like the sign of the burning bush, the name YHWH is unique and unprecedented. According to Francis Turretin, "this name is so peculiar to God as to be altogether incommunicable to creatures." Though God appropriates an almost endless variety of creaturely names in making himself known to his people--he is a warrior, a rock, and a fountain of living water, the name YHWH is not one that he shares with creatures (Isa 42.8). YHWH is God's "holy name" (Ps 145.21).
Given the incommunicable nature of God's proper name, God alone can provide the exegesis of its meaning. And this he does in Exodus 3.14 in response to Moses' request. "I am who I am" is not, strictly speaking, an etymology of YHWH, but a wordplay that expresses something of its enigmatic meaning (thus Andrea Saner). As God's proper name YHWH is absolutely unique, so its exegesis in Exodus 3.14 reveals that its meaning is wholly self-referential, self-interpreting, self-determined. YHWH and YHWH alone is the measure of YHWH's meaning. The Father in relation to whom every family in heaven and on earth is named (Eph 3.14-15) is not himself named in relation to heaven or earth but only in relation to himself. 

Exodus 3.14's wordplay on God's proper name associates the name YHWH with "being," as the entire tradition of Christian biblical interpretation (higher critical biblical interpretation excepted) has acknowledged, following both Septuagintal and New Testament glosses of the name. YHWH is "the one who is" (Exod 3.14 LXX), the one "who was and is and is to come" (Rev 4.8). YHWH, moreover, is not identified as being-this or being-that but as absolute being-itself. To be YHWH is to be the absolute fullness of every good thing that may be found to exist in a finite and divided manner in God's creatures. YHWH is "the bread of life" (John 6.35), "the light of the world" (John 8.12), "the door" (John 10.7), "the good shepherd" (John 10.11), "the resurrection and the life" (John 11.25), "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14.6), and "the true vine" (John 15.1). YHWH, furthermore, is absolute being existing in and of himself. As the meaning of this name is self-referential and self-interpreting, so the being of YHWH is self-existent. YHWH has "life in himself" (John 5.26). Finally, the fact that this name is God's memorial name forever (Exod 3.15) indicates that YHWH is eternal and unchanging, a connotation picked up in New Testament evocations of this name as well (John 8.58; Rev 4.8).


YHWH is the proper name of God as holy wonder. By this name, God identifies himself as self-existent, unchanging, fullness of being, "I am who I am." The fire of YHWH burns but the bush is not consumed because YHWH is a fire that burns without need of fuel. 

The good news of Exodus 3 is that this God is our God, "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob," who exhibits his identity as YHWH in trouncing Pharaoh and his armies and in rescuing his people that he might dwell in their midst, that he might speak out of the midst of the fire, that his people might serve and worship him. As we will see more fully in the next post, this is the greatest wonder of all and the defining feature of Christian worship: that YHWH, the eternal and unchanging one, the holy one of Israel, would dwell in the midst of a sinful people and that they would not be consumed.

According to Nicholas Wolterstorff, worship is the "Godward acknowledgement of God's unsurpassable greatness . . . whose attitudinal stance toward God is awed, reverential, and grateful adoration." As we saw in our last post, this definition aptly summarizes the vision of worship set forth in Hebrews 12.28-29. As we also saw, the foundation for this vision of worship lies in God's identity as "a consuming fire." 

If we are to understand what it means to call our God "a consuming fire," we have to appreciate (1) the meaning of an image, (2) the meaning of a name, and (3) the meaning of a series of actions that unfold in God's redemption of Israel from Egypt and in his coming to dwell in Israel's midst. In the present post, I want to consider the meaning of an image by considering two texts which generate that image and which indicate its significance, namely, Exodus 3.1-6 and Deuteronomy 4.24.

Exodus 3.1-6

Exodus 3.1-6 describes God's appearance to Moses in the burning bush. Several features of this appearance are worth noting. First, the burning bush is a wonder. Moses has seen bushes before. Moses has seen fires before. And he, in all likelihood, has seen bushes on fire before. But Moses has never seen this: "the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed" (Exod 3.2). The wonder of the burning bush--its novel and unexpected nature--draws Moses like a magnet, causing him to "turn aside to see this great sight" (Exod 3.3). Second, the burning bush, as a sign of God's presence, is a sign of God's holiness: "When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, 'Moses, Moses!' And he said, 'Here I am.' Then he said, 'Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground" (Exod 3.4-5). Third, the burning bush is a sign of God's covenant faithfulness. From the midst of the bush, God declares, "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" (Exod 3.6), and he announces that he has come to make good on his covenant promises to the patriarchs through the hand of Moses, whom he commissions to serve as the covenant mediator (Exod 3.7-22). 

The image of the burning bush thus provides a threefold revelation of what it means for God to be a consuming fire. To describe God as a consuming fire is to describe God as a wonder. God is sui generis, unique and unprecedented, and, for that reason, he is an attractive force. To describe God as a consuming fire is to describe God as holy. God is transcendent, set apart in his pure and radiant brilliance and therefore elicitive of reverence and fear. To describe God as a consuming fire is to describe God as faithful. God is one who hears his people in their plight and who keeps his promises in the face of all adversity and opposition. Moses' response to the threefold revelation of God as wonderful, holy, and faithful is appropriate, if not yet fully informed regarding the full significance of God's identity as a consuming fire: "Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God" (Exod 3.6).

Deuteronomy 4.24

The image of God as a consuming fire, though initially revealed in Exodus 3.1-6, receives further elaboration in Deuteronomy 4.24: "For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God." 

Within its immediate context, the image evokes God's presence at Sinai. There God entered into covenant with Israel through Moses (Exod 19-24; note also the comparison of Sinai and Zion in Heb 12.18-29), in fulfillment of the prophecy spoken by God in Exodus 3.12 and by means of an unprecedented act of deliverance (Deut 4.32-35). There, in another unprecedented act, God spoke to Israel "out of the midst of the fire" (Deut 4.12, 15, 33, 36). This fiery mode of divine self-communication, whereby God causes Israel to hear "the sound of words" rather than to see a "form" (Deut 4.12), provides the basis for the prohibition of images in Deuteronomy 4.15-19. The identity and presence of the God who speaks from the midst of the fire cannot be depicted in or mediated by graven images because this God radically transcends all classes of creatures and thus all classes of creaturely forms, whether in heaven, or on earth, or in the midst of the sea. If the identity of this unique and incomparable God is to be known, and if his presence is to be enjoyed, then Israel must not look but listen: "Hear, O Israel" (Deut 6.4)! 

The description of our God as a consuming fire in Deuteronomy 4.24 indicates something about God's identity and something about the worship which he finds "acceptable" (Heb 12.28) and which he blesses. As the unique and incomparable one, God gloriously transcends all categories of creaturely being. Moreover, he is not to be numbered among the panoply of Ancient Near Eastern gods. He is "the God" (Deut 4.35). Because he is this one, he prohibits the use of images in worship. Furthermore, because he is this one, the unique and comparable one, God's identity can only be known through a unique and incomparable medium: that of his self-revealing Word. If he is to be known, enjoyed, and worshiped aright, the Lord must proclaim his name to us, a point which we will unpack in the next post.


The good news of the God who speaks "out of the midst of the fire" is that the God who prohibits images also promises to make himself known through his Word and, in doing so, to come to us and bless us (Exod 20.23-24). Worship, first and foremost, therefore is a matter of hearing this promise and of preparing ourselves for the presence and blessing of our God, who is a consuming fire.
In his book, The God We Worship, Nicholas Wolterstorff defines worship as the "Godward acknowledgement of God's unsurpassable greatness . . . whose attitudinal stance toward God is awed, reverential, and grateful adoration." 

According to Wolterstorff, worship is "Godward" in its orientation. In our everyday lives "we are oriented toward tasks, toward our neighbors, [and] toward the created world." Though we seek to honor the name of the Lord in these various everyday orientations, in public worship, "we turn away from attending to the heavenly bodies and away from attending to the neighbor so as to attend directly to God." "In assembling to worship God," he says, "we turn around and orient ourselves toward God; we face God."  

The Godward orientation of worship, furthermore, brings with it a distinctive "attitudinal stance." An attitudinal stance, in Wolterstorff's understanding, is "a way of regarding" another person. Though it includes emotions, an attitudinal stance is more than a feeling. An attitudinal stance refers to the intellectual, volitional, emotional, and physical posture in which a person or, better, an assembly of persons attends to God in worship.

Wolterstorff argues that "awed, reverential, and grateful adoration" is the attitudinal stance appropriate to the Godward orientation of worship. God's awesome presence awakens awe. God's holy name inspires reverence. God's grace and kindness elicit grateful adoration. 

Whether intentional or not, Wolterstorff's definition aptly summarizes the vision of worship set forth in Hebrews 12.28-29: "Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire." In verse 28, the author of Hebrews summons us to gratitude, for by God's grace we have become heirs of an unshakable kingdom. Moreover, he calls us to worship God with reverence and awe

In verse 29, the author provides the reason or warrant for worshiping God in this manner: "our God," the God of the covenant, "is a consuming fire." God's identity as "a consuming fire" is the basis for worshiping God with reverence, awe, and gratitude. His nature dictates our response. Theology is the foundation of doxology.

In the several posts that follow, I plan to discuss what it means to describe our God as "a consuming fire" and to consider a few implications of this description for Christian worship.