Wednesday @ Westminster: What is God?
March 16, 2016
There once was a popular song in my college years with a blasphemous chorus that went like this: “Tell me all your thoughts on God. Cause I’d really like to meet her; and ask her why we're who we are? Tell me all your thoughts on God. Cause I’m on my way to see her; so tell me am I very far.” The culture around us rambles on with its incoherent babble about the God who made them in his image; about the God whom they suppress (Rom. 1:18). It is incoherent because it is not based on reality and truth, but upon mere opinions and speculations. The God who is, though, has revealed himself and given us his own “thoughts on God” so that we are able to give an answer for our hope (1 Peter 3:15) to our neighbors when they ask us, “What is God?” An outline of that revelation is found in one of the classic answers of the Westminster Larger Catechism:
What is God?God is a Spirit, in and of himself infinite in being, glory, blessedness, and perfection; all-sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, every where present, almighty, knowing all things, most wise, most holy, most just, most merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth. (Q&A 7)
He is Self-Existing
What is God? We believe he is self-existing. That’s the meaning of confessing, “God is a Spirit, in and of himself infinite in being, glory, blessedness, and perfection.” We see a visual illustration of the self-existence of God signified by the burning bush in Exodus 3. Here is a revelation of the angel of the Lord—the Son of God before his incarnation—who appeared “in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush” and although “the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed” (Ex. 3:2). Meditate for a moment on why the Son of God would appear in such a way. What is the significance of “this great sight?” (Ex. 3:3) In other words, why did the Son not just appear as a flame of fire, why include the bush? Of course the covenantal purpose of this revelation is made clear towards the end of this event (Ex. 3:13–17), but we cannot miss the theological truth illustrated in the burning-yet-unconsumed bush. Our theologians have pointed out that the fire was a self-sufficient fire because it had no fuel, and this illustrates the self-sufficiency of God as the eternal “I am.” The word for this is aseity. From two Latin words meaning “from self,” aseity means that God exists from himself and that he derives what he is from himself. He is “in and of himself” all that he is, “infinite in being, glory, blessedness, and perfection,” as the Catechism says.
Another biblical illustration of this is in God’s attitude to Israel’s myriad sacrifices in Psalm 50. In a poetic way the Lord taught his people that, “every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills” (Ps. 50:10). What was his point in saying this in song? It was to remind his beloved children that he did not need their sacrifices like the gods of all the other nations did. Their gods literally were fed by their people’s sacrifices. The Lord, though, says, “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? (Ps. 50:12–13)” God needs nothing beyond himself. He is self-existing.
Let me suggest two areas in which this is so practical for us to know. First, God’s self-existence should cause us to be humble. As we seek to give an answer to what are our thoughts on God, we need to impress upon our neighbors the humility of knowing that God does not need us, or them. Second, this should also cause in us awe and wonder. The God who is infinite in being (his being is without finitude, it is unquantifiable), infinite in glory (his glory is without limit), infinite in blessedness (his blessedness is without end), and who is infinite in perfection (he is all that he needs) actually shares himself with us. He doesn’t need us; we need him. And that’s the wonder of the Gospel, as God comes to us in Christ and brings us back to him by the work of the Spirit. And this leads to my second point.
He is Self-Revealing
What is God? We also believe he is self-revealing. The Catechism gives a stirring list of what we call God’s attributes, both incommunicable and communicable. His incommunicable attributes—those that cannot be communicated to us—are that he is “all-sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, every where present, almighty, knowing all things.” His communicable attributes—those that he does communicate to us, at least in a creaturely way—are that he is “most wise, most holy, most just, most merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.” So how do we know this about God? He reveals himself to us in his Word. For example, God proclaimed his name and attributes to Moses in Exodus 34.
Moses wanted to see the glory of God as a tangible expression that the Lord would go with Israel to the Promised Land (Ex. 33:12–16). He insisted with his now famous words, “Show me your glory” (Ex. 33:18). What did the Lord say he would do in response? The Lord would “make all [his] goodness pass before” Moses. But there was a problem: “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Ex. 33:20). The Lord solved the problem by hiding Moses in a cleft of a rock and covering his eyes with the Lord’s “hand” (Ex. 33:22). This really is such an amazing scene. In order for the Lord to reveal himself to Moses he had to hide Moses and cover his eyes!
Why? So that Moses would know the Lord through the words of the Lord. The Lord would reveal his glory in words; he would preach a sermon to Moses: “I…will proclaim before you my name” (Ex. 33:19). He protected Moses so that he could proclaim to Moses; he hid Moses so that he could reveal himself to Moses; he covered Moses’ eyes so that he could open Moses’ ears. The Lord then proclaimed what Moses needed to hear. Notice that. He didn’t give Moses what he wanted to see—glory. Moses merely saw the Lord’s “back” (Ex. 33:23). Instead, the proclaimed to Moses what he needed to hear—the truth of who the Lord is:
The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation (Ex. 34:6–7).
So what does this mean for us as we live in a time of so many opinions, ideas, and speculations about God? We have to recognize that all the confusion about God is an opportunity to speak for God in our time, to the minds and hearts of our neighbors. So when they ask us, “What is God?” we can say that God is self-existing. As the Creator, then, we and our neighbors are merely contingent creatures, merely sinners. Yet this same God is self-revealing. As a Father he desires to show us what his love is so that we will love him in response. And he has revealed himself ultimately in these last days in his Son (John 1:14, 18; Heb. 1:1–3). This is our amazing God. This is our unique God. He is who he is in himself. Yet he makes himself known to us sinners. Now we as his people get to go out and make him known to others.