Friday, July 24, 2015

A Simple Being, Whom We Call God

We all believe in our hearts . . . that there is a single and simple spiritual being, whom we call God . . . .
(Belgic Confession, Article 1, The Only God)

A woman I know once told me God would never condemn anyone to eternal hell because God is love. If God had wrath, and she wasn’t sure he did, it was only temporary. God’s final attitude toward everyone would be love, because God is love. She kept repeating these three words, emphasizing the “is” each time as if it settled everything. If God is love, she thought, love must be his most important attribute—the one attribute to rule all the others.

Understanding God’s simplicity (or unity) should protect us from this error. When we say God is simple, we’re using the word simple in a technical way to say his being can’t be divided. He is not composed of parts—he is not complex—but exists forever as one unified being. God’s attributes, then, are not added to his being, but are what he is. They are a unified whole identical to his essence.

The woman who saw love as God’s overriding attribute was right about one thing: God is love (1 John 4:8). But she missed that the “is’s” of God’s being don’t stop there. God is also light (1 John 1:5) and spirit (John 4:24) and life (John 11:25) and truth (John 14:26). The biblical statements equating God with his various attributes imply the simplicity of God. God is each of his attributes.

That God is simple also follows from some of his other attributes. For instance, if he were composed of parts, God wouldn’t be independent. He would be dependent on his parts for his being, and on whatever it was that put those parts together. He wouldn’t be unchangeable, either, because what is made of parts can be taken apart. When theologians deny the simplicity of God, it often accompanies the denial of other attributes, like immutability (or unchangeability) and omniscience.

Because God is simple, no attribute is more important than the others. The “God is love” woman overemphasized God’s love, and couldn’t see past love to the reality of his justice, which requires that he condemn sin. Right now, love is probably the most frequently overemphasized attribute, but there are people who give false priority to his justice, too. When I was a child, my family knew an older woman whose childhood had been dominated by a father who spoke only of God’s justice, particularly his condemnation of sin. He imaged a justice-only God to his children, and as an adult, she was too terrified of committing sin to leave her own home. She couldn’t see past God’s judgment to the reality of his saving love.

But love and justice, like all of God’s attributes, belong together. Neither attribute can override the other. The death of Christ is the perfect example of this. The apostle Paul writes that in his love, God sent his Son to die so he could forgive sin without compromising his righteousness—which in this case refers to his justice, especially his just wrath against sin:

. . . God put [Christ Jesus] forward as a propitiation by his blood . . . to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:25-26 ESV)
God’s saving love did not cancel out his justice, but rather, from his love, he designed a plan to save sinners in a just way. Christ’s death was a propitiation—a way for God to express the wrath against sin that his justice required. The sinner’s own sin was counted as Christ’s, and Christ bore God’s wrath in our place, so God could be both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith.” This one act of God demonstrated both attributes—his love and his justice—and they worked in perfect harmony.

Divine simplicity has implications for our study of God. We’ve already mentioned one: Since God is simple, we can’t emphasize one attribute over others or consider one attribute more true to the nature of God than others. That God is simple also means he is the same being with the same attributes throughout history. Anyone who thinks of him as full of wrath during Old Testament times and full of love from New Testament times onward has misunderstood him1. In every time period, all of God’s actions are consistent with all of his attributes. Finally, if God is simple, he can’t limit or set aside any of his attributes, even temporarily. All of his attributes are identical with his being—they are what he is as God—and he can’t limit one without ceasing to be God. 2

1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 180.
2] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, p. 230].

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