What are the characteristics of God? Millard Erickson said this about the characteristics or attributes of God, “When we speak of the attributes of God, we are referring to those qualities of God that constitute what he is, the very characteristics of his nature.”1 Ryrie instead calls God’s characteristics, his “perfections” because all of the qualities or attributes of God are perfect.2 In this portion of our study, we will be considering God’s attributes—his characteristics—his perfections.
In considering God’s characteristics, I think a good analogy is looking at a married couple. One of the great things about being married is the ability to get to know one person in an intimate way, potentially, for the rest of life. This growing knowledge enables us to learn how to better serve and love him or her daily.
Similarly, Scripture teaches that we are the bride of Christ, and we will be married to God for all eternity (cf. Eph 5:23, Rev 19:7). Since God is the bridegroom of the church, we must devote ourselves to knowing him intimately; so that we might please him and effectively serve him in this loving union throughout this life and the next.
We can only do this properly if we give ourselves to the discipline of study. We must understand his characteristics—his person, his being, what brings him pleasure, what brings him displeasure, etc. Therefore, in this section we will focus on his characteristics with the hope of better serving our Heavenly Bridegroom for the rest of eternity.
What are some characteristics of God?
God Is Spirit
The first characteristic is that God is spirit. Look at what Christ taught the woman at the well: “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).
What did Christ mean by “God is spirit”? He meant that the essence of God, his makeup, is immaterial. Listen to what Jesus said when he was resurrected from the dead in Luke 24:39:
Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have. (emphasis mine)
Jesus said a “ghost”, or it can be translated “spirit,” does not have flesh and bones. In the same way our, God does not have a physical makeup. Yes, Jesus does. But Jesus did not eternally exist as a man. He humbled himself and took the form of man in order to save us from our sins (Phil 2:7). God is spirit.
Now one might ask, ‘if God is not material, how come there are so many Scriptures that use illustrations of God having human body parts?’ We see this particularly when God revealed his glory to Moses in the Old Testament. Listen to what God said in Exodus 33:22–23:
When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen. (emphasis mine)
Did you see that? God talks about himself having a back, hands, and a face. How can this be? This is what we call an anthropomorphism. This comes from the Greek words “anthropos,” which means “man,” and “morphe,” which means form. These are times when Scripture talks about God in the form of a man. Why does God speak about himself in these terms? He speaks like this to give us a frame of reference, so that we can better understand him.
When there is nothing like God on earth, how can one describe him in understandable words? You cannot, so God seeks to give us an understanding by using human points of reference like a hand or body. We see many Scriptures like this. The Psalmist said, “Save us and help us with your right hand” (Psalm 60:5). Similarly, Jesus said this:
My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. (emphasis mine)
Again, these are given to help us relate to and understand God, even though every illustration falls short of his true glory.
I think we get some type of understanding of anthropomorphisms when we consider the illustrations often given to represent the Trinity. I remember being confused about the doctrine of the Trinity while in Sunday school class, along with every other student. Because of this, the teacher described the Trinity by using the illustration of ice melting and becoming water, then evaporating as steam. Another time somebody used the illustration of an egg—the yoke, the white, and the shell representing the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. However, each of these illustrations fails miserably in representing the Trinity. Each member of the Trinity is fully God, operates independently, and, yet, are one. It’s a paradox. With that said, the illustrations of the Trinity, though they fell far short of the glory of God, all were mildly helpful at that young age. Similarly, even though God does not have material form, he uses illustrations we can relate to, in order to help us comprehend something of his glory.
The fact that anthropomorphisms are simply points of references is also seen when God uses animal forms to describe himself. Scripture talks about him covering us with his wings like a bird (cf. Psalm 91:4). Does God really have wings? No, he is a spirit, but he wants us to understand that he cares for us like a mother hen cares for her chicks. That’s an illustration we can understand, even though it still falls miserably short of God’s true glory. God’s care for us is infinitely greater than any hen could ever possibly care for her chicks.
What else can we learn about God since he is spirit?
Because God is spirit, this also means he is “invisible.” We cannot see God. This is what John taught in his Gospel. Look at what he said in John 1:18: “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” The only human that has ever seen God in his full glory is Jesus, and, therefore, it is through Jesus that we can have a better understanding of God.
However, even though God is invisible, it should be noted that there are times in the Scripture when God chose to take physical form to reveal himself to man in sensible ways. As mentioned previously, these temporary physical manifestations are called theophanies. We saw one of these in the book of Isaiah. Isaiah saw the Lord in physical form. He said this in Isaiah 6:1, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple” (emphasis mine).
In addition, there are many different physical forms in which God revealed himself throughout biblical history. He revealed himself in a flame with Moses (Ex 3:2), through a man with Abraham (Gen 18:1-2), through a cloud with Israel (Ex 13:21), through an angel with Gideon (Judges 6:22), etc.
Ultimately, the fullest expression of God has been given in Jesus Christ. This appearance would not be considered a theophany because this appearance was not temporary. Christ will dwell throughout eternity as the God-man (cf. 1 Tim 2:5), and it is through Christ that we can see God. The writer of Hebrews said this:
The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. (emphasis mine)
Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). The ultimate expression of God is seen in Jesus Christ, his Son.
God is spirit, and therefore, he is invisible. However, at times he has chosen to reveal himself to men in theophanies and ultimately through his Son, Jesus Christ.
How can we apply the reality that God is spirit?
What does this mean for us?
When Jesus says, “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth”‘ (John 4:24), he essentially is saying this reality should affect how we worship him. Since God is spirit, “we must worship God in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).
What does it mean to worship in spirit? To worship in spirit means to worship with the right heart or the inner man.
In the context, Christ was trying to teach a Samaritan woman that worship is not a matter of being in Jerusalem at the temple or being in Samaria. It is not primarily a matter of where you are at or what you are doing, because worship is a matter of the heart. God is spirit, so we must worship him in spirit.
Some have primarily seen this as Christ referring to our need for the Holy Spirit in worship, but most translators do not capitalize the word “spirit” because it has no article behind it. It doesn’t say “the Spirit.” Worship is primarily a matter of the heart—the inner man. It is not so much about location or activity. You can sing a song and not worship, give an offering and not worship. It is a matter of the inner man; it is a matter of having the right heart.
Certainly, we see this in the New Testament with the Pharisees. Jesus said: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain” (Matthew 15:8). Christ warned his disciples to not worship in the same way the Pharisees did. He said: “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). When the Pharisees worshiped, their hearts were not in the right place. They gave to be seen by men, they prayed and fasted to be seen by others, and therefore, that was their reward. They did not approach God properly in the inner man. God is spirit, and he must be worshiped with our spirit.
Certainly, it’s the same for us. Consider what Paul said about giving in 2 Corinthians 9:7: “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Giving weekly or monthly is not the most important aspect; it is the manner of the heart. It must not be reluctant or under compulsion, but out of a joyful heart, otherwise, it means nothing.
Consider what Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 13:1–3:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. (emphasis mine)
Paul names all these things that would typically be worship to God. He names speaking in tongues, prophecy, faith, giving everything to the poor, and even being given to the flames as a martyr, but without love—without the right heart—it is nothing to God. It is like a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
There is a lot of worship on Sundays that is just a bunch of clanging cymbals. Clanging cymbals create a loud noise nobody wants to hear, and there is a lot of that in the church. I have no doubt that many times on Sunday, God is in pain by hearing the worship. He hears a constant clanging because it comes from hearts that are not serious, not contemplative, and not reverent. True worship is a matter of the inner man. It is a matter of the heart, will, and emotions. God is spirit and so we must worship him in spirit.
Understanding that God is spirit should drastically affect our worship. How can we practically worship in spirit in order to honor God?
1. To worship in spirit, with the right heart, means that our worship is universal.
That means everything we do can be worship. It is not localized. It is not only a Sunday thing or about being at church. First Corinthians 10:31 says: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” Paul says our eating, our drinking, and whatever else we do should glorify God.
2. To worship in spirit, with the right heart, means to give God our best.
We saw this throughout the Old Testament. God would never accept anything that was not the best. This is specifically seen in the instructions given for offering a burnt sacrifice. It had to be a lamb without blemish. It had to be the worshiper’s best (cf. Malachi 1:6–10) or it would be rejected.
3. To worship in spirit, with the right heart, means that worship must be our priority.
Christ said this in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8).
The pure in heart has the meaning of being single in mind or focus. It is the single in focus that see God and have his blessing. Their focus—their priority—is knowing God and bringing pleasure to him. Too often, our hearts are divided, and it quenches our worship. David said this: “Teach me your way, O LORD, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name (emphasis mine)” (Psalm 86:11).
4. To worship in spirit, with the right heart, means to be zealous in pursuing God.
Listen to what God said through Jeremiah: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13). There must be zeal in worship. It is those and those alone who will find God and receive his blessing. They are like a deer who is desperate for water. It is those he rewards. The casual worshiper receives nothing from God. The Psalmist modeled acceptable worship when he prayed this: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” (Psalm 42:1–2). True worship must be zealous (cf. Romans 12:11).
5. To worship in spirit, with the right heart, means to worship with holiness.
David said this: “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Psalm 66:18). Sin quenches not only our prayer life but also our worship. If I enjoy nurturing my anger towards someone who hurt me, or if I cherish an impure relationship the Lord will not hear me. If I cherish music so much that I will illegally download it, the Lord will not hear me. Worship must be in holiness.
6. To worship in spirit, with the right heart, means to live peaceably, without division.
Listen to what Christ said in Matthew 5:23–24:
Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. (emphasis mine)
Jesus said one should not offer a gift in worship if he is walking in discord with another brother. As much as it depends on us, we must live in peace with our brothers and sisters (Romans 12:18).
The fact that God is spirit should challenge us about our worship. He is looking at the spirit of man, the heart of man when we approach him for worship (1 Sam 16:7).
God Is a Person
As we think about God as spirit, we might be tempted to think that God is not a person. God is a person. Wayne Grudem said this about God’s personhood:
In the teaching of the Bible, God is both infinite and personal: he is infinite in that he is not subject to any of the limitations of humanity, or of creation in general. He is far greater than everything he has made, far greater than anything else that exists. But he is also personal: he interacts with us as a person, and we can relate to him as persons.3
In fact, his personhood may be most clearly seen in the fact that God made man in his image. Listen to Genesis 1:27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
Because God made man in his image, we can probably learn a lot about God’s person by studying humanity and vice versa. In what ways do we see God’s personhood? We see it in the fact that God demonstrates characteristics of personality such as anger, joy, and consciousness. Scripture teaches he is angry at sin all the time (Psalm 7:11). Also, when we are walking in holiness and living the life he has called us to, he rejoices over us and even sings. Zephaniah 3:17 says this:
The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing. (emphasis mine)
Scripture also teaches that he demonstrates the emotion of jealousy. God declares that he is a jealous God that will share his glory with no one. Deuteronomy 6:15 says this: “For the LORD your God, who is among you, is a jealous God and his anger will burn against you, and he will destroy you from the face of the land.”
We also see that God demonstrates consciousness. We see this in the fact that he makes decisions. He plans and foreordains things. This is clearly demonstrated in the doctrine of election. God chose people for salvation before time. Ephesians 1:4–5 says this:
For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will. (emphasis mine)
As we study the rest of his characteristics, they all in some way demonstrate his personhood. It is because God is a person that we can have an intimate relationship with him.
How can we apply the personhood of God?
1. His personhood reminds us that we can get to know God more and more as with any person.
Paul prays this in Ephesians 1:17: “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better” (emphasis mine).
2. His personhood reminds us that we must develop sensitivity to his person.
Scripture says that we can grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30) and quench the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19). Therefore, like with any person, we must develop a sensitivity to God in order to please him in every way.
When a person is in a relationship, often one can tell when their partner or friend is mad even without a word. This is true because that person and has become sensitive to him or her. We must, similarly, develop this sensitivity to God.
There is an objective side to developing a sensitivity to God. It is developed by studying his Word. By doing this, we learn what does and does not please him. But there is a subjective side as well. At times, we may even sense God’s feelings. Jeremiah said this: “But I am full of the wrath of the LORD, and I cannot hold it in” (Jeremiah 6:11).
Jeremiah could feel God’s anger at Israel. There are times when we may feel this as well. We may feel the Spirit of God’s grieving over a movie we are watching or disobedience in a friend’s life. We may feel his love, joy, or peace. Paul said he longed for the Philippians with the very affections of Christ (Phil 1:8). He felt the way Christ felt about them. He had developed sensitivity to his Savior’s emotions and so must we.
3. His personhood reminds us that God is not a tool or an object to be used.
What does it mean that God is not a tool? See, a tool is only used for a specific purpose. We use a toothbrush to clean our teeth, but we don’t have a relationship with a toothbrush. We only care about it to accomplish our purpose.
Sometimes, people treat one another like this. We network or talk to people only to open potential doors for a job or a promotion. Sometimes, people are willing to step over others or mistreat them to get what they want out of life. This is treating someone like a tool.
Sadly, many Christians treat God like a tool. He is just a genie in a lamp. When they want something, they pray to God. When they go through a trial, they come to him, but when things are okay, they ignore him. They are treating God like a tool, to get what they want, instead of as a person.
God is a person, and he wants to have a relationship with us. He sent his Son to die for this purpose, so we can have eternal life, which is knowing God (John 17:3).
God Is Independent
What does the independence of God mean? It essentially means that God does not need anything. He doesn’t need anything to be who he is or contribute to who he is. Tony Evans said this about God’s independence:
This understanding can enhance our worship of God, because while God has a voluntary relationship to everything, He has a necessary relationship to nothing. In other words, God relates to His creation because He chooses to, not because He needs to. For example, if you show up for worship at your church, that’s good and God is glad to see you. But He will not be worse off if you stay home. He’s not going to panic.4
We, on the other hand, are dependent. We are dependent on our parents for life and clothing as children, and when we are older, we are dependent upon friends, family, job, education, etc. There is a sense in which we need these things to make it in life or society.
But we serve a God who needs nothing because he is independent. Look at what Paul said to the Athenians in Acts 17:24–25:
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. (emphasis mine)
Paul says, “He is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything” (v. 25). What does Paul mean by “he is not served by human hands”? Don’t people serve God all the time? They serve him at church; they serve him at work; they serve in their personal worship.
Paul means at least two things by saying that God is not served by human hands. First, he simply means that God does not need anything. God is independent. But secondly, he means that God is not served by human hands because he is the giver. He says, “because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else” (v.25). What exactly does that mean?
We may get a good picture of this when small children buy their father a gift. Did they buy the gift? Yes. But in another sense, the dad bought the gift because it was dad’s money. See, the dad is the one who makes the money in the household. Similarly, Paul says we can’t really serve him because he has given us all things. Can we really give God money on Sunday if he has already given it to us? There is a sense in which we can’t. We can’t because God is independent, and he is the true giver of all things. We can give only because he has given to us.
That is the wonderful thing about God. He doesn’t need us, but he allows us and calls us to worship him, though he doesn’t need anything.
Created for His Enjoyment
Well, one might ask, why did he create us then if he is independent? Was it because he was lonely or bored?
No, not at all. There are many things in life that I don’t need. I don’t need to look at ESPN to see who won the latest NBA game. That’s something I do because I enjoy it. God made us because he enjoys us. Look at what he says about Israel and, through extension, the people of God of all times: “The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing (emphasis mine)” (Zephaniah 3:17).
It says, he takes great delight in us and he will rejoice over us with singing. We often see people who are musically talented write or sing songs to people they care about. Our worship songs to God are commonly written this way. However, God also sings over us and delights in us. He delights in us, especially, when we are following him and walking in the unique giftings that he gave us. It brings him pleasure because we are fulfilling his purpose.
Scripture would say our high calling is to bring God both joy and pleasure. Colossians 1:16 says this:
For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. (emphasis mine)
All things were made for him—to bring glory to God and to bring him pleasure.
A great illustration of this is seen in the story of Olympic runner, Eric Liddell. In 1924, he was competing in the Olympics and had decided this would be his last competition before he went into full-time missions. One person asked him, why not just stop running now and go into missions? He told the person, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”5
For each of us, God has given us certain gifts. For some, he made us intelligent, others athletic, others are great with their hands, and others are gifted at serving or teaching. When we do the things that God created us for, he takes great pleasure in us as well.
The other side of God’s independence is our dependence on him. Listen again to what Paul said to the Athenians: “And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else (emphasis mine)” (Acts 17: 25). We need God for everything, even life and breath.
Look at what else Paul says in Colossians 1:17: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (emphasis mine). In talking about Christ, he says that he holds “all things together.” This means that not only does he give us life and breath, but he holds the trees, the plants, the oceans, the stars, and all the cosmos together. Everything is dependent upon him; we can do nothing apart from God.
I think we may get a clearer picture of the dependence of man in David’s illustration of God being a shepherd in Psalm 23. Listen to Psalm 23:
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever. (emphasis mine)
Sheep are very interesting animals because they are animals that can’t survive without a shepherd. They can’t feed themselves; they can’t protect themselves. Other animals can at least run away from predators but not sheep. They will idly standby until their death. From this we get the phrase, “Like a lamb to the slaughter” (Is 53:7). They are very fearful; one commentator said they are often fearful of running water or the dark. The shepherd must care for them like a baby. The shepherd would protect them with his rod and with his staff he would guide them. They are prone to go astray, and he must constantly bring them back.
Many have wondered if God made these dependent animals just as an illustration of how much humans need God. We are prone to fear: fear about the past, present, and future. We need a shepherd who calms our fear. We cannot direct our lives; we need a shepherd to guide us in the direction to go. We commonly go astray; we need a shepherd to save us from our wandering heart.
Our God is independent, and we are dependent upon him.
What are some applications we can take from this?
1, Understanding God’s independence reminds us of God’s love for us.
He didn’t need to create us since he doesn’t need anything, but God created us because he loves us. Paul believes this is a very important reality for Christians to understand. Look at what he prays in Ephesians 3:17–19:
And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (emphasis mine)
Paul prayed for the saints to know the depth and height of God’s love. This is important because knowing that someone loves us will often radically change us. On earth, those who experience the greatest human love get married and spend the rest of their lives serving and getting to know one another.
When we know God’s love, it should have a dramatic effect on us as well. Paul said this understanding would lead to our being filled with the “fullness of God.” This means we would be controlled and empowered by him (cf. Eph 5:18).
No doubt, this is the reason Satan often attacks the love of God. In the Garden of Eden, Satan essentially was trying to make it seem like God did not really care about Adam and Eve. He said, “Did God really say you couldn’t eat of every tree in the Garden?” He tried to make God’s commands feel restrictive and domineering instead of loving. Then, he essentially calls God a liar. “You surely won’t die if you eat from the tree. Instead, you will be like God.”
Satan works overtime to keep us from knowing God’s love. He plants doubt, anger, and fear in order to keep us from being transformed by it and saved by it. “For God so loved the world he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
Like Paul, we must pray for ourselves and others to have power to grasp God’s love so that we may be transformed by it. God’s independence reminds us about how much God loves us.
2. Understanding God’s independence reminds us of our need to be dependent.
Jesus said in Matthew 18:3 that in order for a person to enter the kingdom of God, they must become like a child. The word child in that context is used of a very young child, a toddler or an infant. He was saying that the person who enters the kingdom of God has learned dependence. An infant can’t feed himself, clothe himself, guide himself, or protect himself. He is totally dependent upon his parents. In the same way, a person who is saved learns he can do nothing to get into the kingdom of God on his own; he is totally dependent upon God.
However, this is not only true in regards to salvation, but also in sanctification. In the next verse, Christ says, he who becomes like this child is greatest in the kingdom of God (Matthew 18:4). The person who learns dependence upon this independent God shall be the greatest in the kingdom of God. This person knows his utter weakness and need for the Almighty.
How much do we need God? We can tell how much we need God by considering how much we pray, read the Bible, worship, or need to be around his people. This shows something of our dependence upon him. Some people can go weeks without reading his Word, which shows their lack of dependence, their lack of childlikeness.
There is a very real sense in which we must learn to develop this. We must learn as a discipline to be like children in order to enter the kingdom. We can do nothing to save ourselves, and therefore, we must put our weight and faith fully on Christ. However, we must also learn this dependence to become great in the kingdom, essentially to grow.
God’s independence reminds us of these things. It reminds us of his love for us and our dependence upon him. Let no one doubt how much he loves us, and let no one doubt how much we really need God.
God Is Immutable
Scripture would also teach that God is immutable. “Immutability means not having the ability to change.”6 This is a very important characteristic of God because it affects all his other characteristics. When we say that God is omniscient, that “he knows all things,” it means he will always know all things. When we say he is loving, that means he will always be loving and always act in accordance with his love, even if that includes discipline. Our God is always the same; he is unchangeable in his character. Listen to a few texts that describe this:
In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded. But you remain the same, and your years will never end. (emphasis mine)
As David looked at creation, he realized that this present earth and the way it operates will one day pass away. It will wear out like a garment or a piece of clothing and be discarded, but God, he remains the same. He does not corrupt or change; he will live and remain the same throughout eternity.
Listen to what God said through Malachi: “I the LORD do not change” (3:6).
As we look at God, who is unchangeable, this certainly reflects a characteristic which we as humans do not share, for we are always changing. We are always growing in knowledge and wisdom. Our bodies are always changing with age or with every meal, but God never changes.
Sometimes, the fact that we are always changing makes it difficult to understand one another, even in the closest unions such as marriage. How can you really know someone completely if he or she is always changing? “Hold up, I thought you didn’t like coffee.” “I do now.” “What? When did this happen?”
This may make it hard to know or understand one another, but it makes it easier to know God. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8).
God does not change, and therefore, we can trust that he will always act in accordance with his characteristics. Now with this said, there are some texts that would seem to indicate that God changes. Let’s look at a few:
The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.
In Genesis 6:6, it says that God was sorry that he made man. The KJV actually says he repented. Doesn’t this seem like God changed his mind? He made men, and now, he is going to destroy them.
Certainly, we see God changing his mind, but only in accord with his characteristics. God is a holy God, and because he wants holiness, he will bring discipline or judgment. We see this characteristic throughout Scripture. One time, we see him pronounce judgment on the city of Nineveh in the book of Jonah, and when they repent, he has mercy and removes the judgment (Jonah 3). This does not contradict God’s immutability, but it is a reflection of it. God is both holy and merciful. He always acts in accord with his characteristics. This is true because he is faithful and cannot deny himself (2 Tim 2:13). He does not change like the shifting shadows (cf. James 1:17).
Unchangeable in Sovereign Plans
Not only is God unchangeable in his person, but he is unchangeable in his sovereign plans. Listen to what he says in Psalm 33:11: “But the plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.” His sovereign plans stand firm because our Lord does not change in his person and his characteristics. These plans include things like prophecy.
For example, Christ said he is coming back to take his people to himself (John 14:3). God said that in the end times, there will be tremendous wars and natural disasters right before Christ’s coming (Matt 24:7, Rev 6:12-13). At his coming, people will be separated from one another and sent either into everlasting punishment or into everlasting life (Matt 25:46). We can trust these prophecies. His immutability means that we can trust the prophecies and plans he has shared with us in Scripture.
Unchangeable in Promises
Not only is God unchanging in his sovereign plans, but he is unchanging in his promises. Listen to what Numbers 23:19 says: “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill” (emphasis mine)?
How can we apply this?
This means we can trust every promise he has in Scripture because he is unchangeable. He is unchangeable in his person, in his plans, and his promises to us.
Does he promise to save you if you put your trust in the Son (Romans 10:13)? Then you can trust him. Does he promise to forgive your sins (1 John 1:9)? He will forgive. Does he promise to guide you throughout life as your shepherd (Psalm 23)? You can trust he will lead and guide you in the right paths because he is unchangeable; he is immutable.
This characteristic of God gives us great comfort. We can trust him because he doesn’t change like man does.
God Is Good
Another characteristic of God is the goodness of God. What does the goodness of God mean? Tony Evans said this: “God’s goodness can be defined as the collective perfections of His nature and the benevolence of His acts…God is good by nature and good in what He does.”7 Wayne Grudem defines it this way: “The goodness of God means that God is the final standard of good, and that all that God is and does is worthy of approval.”8
God Is the Standard of Goodness
Essentially, this means that God is good in his nature and everything that he does is good. We see this in how Christ responds to the rich man in Luke 18. The rich man approaches Jesus about how to inherit eternal life and calls Jesus good. Jesus responds with, “Why do you call me good?”…”No one is good—except God alone” (Luke 18:19).
Jesus declares that no one is good except for God alone. Christ says this to help the rich man recognize that Christ was actually God, and therefore, the only way to eternal life. In saying that only God is good, Christ essentially is saying that God is the definition of good. And therefore, it is by looking at God that we can determine if anything is truly good at all. This is very similar to how John declares that God is love (1 John 4:8). We cannot know what love is unless we know God. In the same way, we cannot know what is good unless we compare it to God. As Grudem said, “God is the standard of what is good and everything he does is worthy of approval.”
In fact, Scripture would declare that God’s goodness is the sum total of his characteristics. We see this in the story of Moses asking to see God’s glory. Look at what Exodus 33:18–19 says:
Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.” And the LORD said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. (emphasis mine)
God tells Moses that he will grant his request to see the LORD’s glory. He will do this by causing his “goodness” to pass in front of him. What does God’s goodness look like? It is described in Exodus 34:5–7.
Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” (emphasis mine)
The goodness of God is described in verses 6 and 7. It mentions his compassion, his grace, his patience (slow to anger), his love and faithfulness, and even his wrath. Everything that God does is good, and therefore, his goodness can summarize the rest of God’s characteristics. We worship a God that is loving, patient, and compassionate simply because he is good. Even his wrath is a reflection of his goodness. Every person God loves, he disciplines (Hebrews 12:6). Everything God does is good.
This truth is a challenge to those who question God’s goodness when they consider the many bad things that happen in life. They say, “Why does God allow bad things if he is good? Why do innocent people die if God is good?” It should be known that tsunamis, flooding, famine, government corruption, murder, family discord, etc., were never part of God’s original plan. God did not create the earth with problems. When he finished his creation, he declared that it was very good (Genesis 1:31). It was not until sin came into the world that the earth developed its current problems. Therefore, the evil in creation must be attributed to someone other than God. He is sovereign and in control of everything, but evil cannot be attributed to him (cf. James 1:13). However, although God is not the author of evil, he nonetheless uses all things, including evil, for his glory.
God Is the Source of Good
“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1:17)
James says every good and perfect gift comes from above. When we look at family, friends, job, rain, sunshine, etc., they must all be attributed to God. He is the source of everything good. In fact, God gives these perfect gifts even to those who do not love him. Look at what Christ said in Matthew 5:45: “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
God in his goodness gives rain and sunshine to the evil and good alike. Theologians have called this common grace. This is grace that God gives to all people, regardless of whether they accept him or not. Consider Acts 17:24–25:
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. (emphasis mine)
Paul said to the Athenians, God gives “all men life and breath and everything else.” He is constantly giving grace to people. He is constantly pouring out his goodness on the righteous and evil alike. Sometimes, people think of God as being stingy, as though we have to plead with him to give us good things. However, this is far from true. Look at how Christ described God’s desire to give good things to his children:
Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!
Christ, while instructing his disciples on how to pray (Lk 11:1), encourages them to pray by teaching them about God’s desire to give good gifts. He compares God’s desire to give good gifts to a parent trying to feed his son. Typically, when you see parents trying to feed, especially, little children, there is no reluctance from the parent trying to feed them. The parent is running around, trying to get the child to take one more bite. They are trying to corral the child to open his mouth to eat what is good for him. Psalm 81:10 says, “…Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.” It is the child who is reluctant in receiving the food, not the parent’s reluctance in giving it. Jesus says if parents, who are evil, feed their children and give them good gifts, how much more will the heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him? God is not only the source of good things, but he desires to give his children good things, just like a parent does.
James 1:5 says this: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” In describing God’s desire to give wisdom to his children, especially when going through trials, he says God gives generously to those who ask him. In fact, James later says that many people have not received his gifts simply because they haven’t asked (James 4:2). They are not willing to come to the source of all good things, and therefore, they receive nothing.
God is not only the standard of good things, but he is also the source of all good things, and therefore, we should seek his face for his blessing. Christ taught us in the Lord’s Prayer to ask for our “daily bread” (Matt 6:11). Now, Scripture never teaches us that God wants to make us wealthy and healthy, but God is all about blessing us in order to better build his kingdom and bring glory to his name (cf. Gen 12:2-3). Those are the types of good things he wants to give. Jesus declared “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be filled” (Matthew 5:6). God promises to fill our desire for truly good things—for things that are righteous.
God’s Goodness Should Provoke Christians to Hedonism
What should the believer’s response to God’s goodness be? Paul said in 1 Timothy 4:4-5, “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”
Everything God created is good and is to be received with thanksgiving. Paul writes this in the context of teaching about false teachers that would forbid marriage and also certain foods (v. 3). Many Christians believe that if you are a Christian, you should not have any fun. Much of Christianity is full of all kinds of legalism keeping Christians from things that God nowhere forbids in Scripture.
Let us remember that one of Satan’s first temptations was to hinder the enjoyments of God’s creation. He tried to implant the lie into the woman’s head that “all the trees” of the garden were forbidden. In the same way, many Christians get snared by man-made laws that forbid them of the enjoyment of God’s creation. Listen to what Paul told the rich people in Timothy’s congregation:
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. (emphasis mine)
1 Timothy 6:17
Paul told the rich people that God richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. There is a sense in which Christians should have the most fun and pleasure in life. This is true because we see all these things as gifts from God. God wants us to enjoy food, he wants us to enjoy leisure, he wants us to enjoy the season of our youth, he wants us to enjoy work, etc. These are his gifts to us, created for our pleasure and enjoyment. Listen to what Solomon said, who was the wisest man on the earth.
Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him—for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work—this is a gift of God. He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart. (emphasis mine)
Solomon said he realized (meaning this was something he did not previously understand) that it was good for man to eat, drink, and find satisfaction in his labor and that this was a gift from God (v. 18). He understood that wealth and possessions were given by God to be enjoyed (v. 19). These truths do not change the fact that Christians are called to be disciplined with their earthly treasures (Matt 6:19), and that in whatever we enjoy, we must not cause offense to other brothers (Romans 14:21). But in the confines of what is moral and loving, there is freedom and encouragement to enjoy. Christians are called to be hedonists as we enjoy God’s gifts and always focus on the Giver of all good gifts.
God’s Goodness Should Provoke Christians to Worship
How else should God’s goodness affect us?
God’s goodness should always provoke worship and thanksgiving. Because we realize where every good and perfect gift comes from, it should always prompt us to give glory to God. Look at what the Psalmist said:
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.
Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for men.
The believer should always respond with worship and thanksgiving to God since he is the giver of all good things. It should be noted, as we talk about God’s goodness, that Scripture declares that God uses everything—all events—for the believer’s good. Romans 8:28 says: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
Even though there is a common grace, a common goodness that God gives to all, there is a special grace that God gives only to believers. For the believer, every event is working out to his good in order to make him into the image of Christ (cf. Romans 8:29). And for this reason, a believer should give thanks in every situation (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
Like Job, the believer can give thanks even in difficulties because he knows God’s hand and goodness are on it. Job declared, “The Lord gives, he takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Believers should respond to God’s goodness by worshiping and saying, “Thank you”.
How often do you tell God thank you?
God’s Goodness Should Provoke Christians to Good Works
How else should God’s goodness make the believer respond?
Not only should God’s goodness provoke us to hedonism, thanksgiving, and worship, it should provoke us to the practice of good works. Listen to Christ’s reasoning behind loving and blessing our enemy:
But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (emphasis mine)
Christ essentially says, “Love your enemies and pray for them because your father also blesses both the good and evil. Do it because your father does it.” God’s goodness should draw his children to practice good works.
Galatians 6:10 says this, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” As the opportunities arise, let us do good to all people, but especially to those who are saved. Let us be zealous in our giving, let us be zealous in our praying, let us be zealous in acts of mercy because we have a Father who is always doing good. Let us, therefore, always do good as well.
What does God’s characteristic of goodness mean?
God’s goodness means that he is the standard of all that is good and that everything he does is ultimately good. Understanding this reality should make us seek to enjoy God’s gifts. It should constantly draw us to worship, thanksgiving, and ultimately to practice good works, as children representing their good Father.
What can we know about God? He is spirit. He is a person, and therefore, we can relate to him and get to know him more. He is independent, and therefore, does not need a thing. However, we are dependent upon him for life, breath, and everything else. Also, he is immutable, unchangeable. This is a characteristic of God we do not share, for we are always changing. But this means we can trust him. He will keep his promises and complete his plans because he does not change. Finally, we have learned that God is good. He is the standard of good and everything good comes from him.
- What does God being a “person” mean? How do we see this reflected in Scripture?
- What does God being spirit mean and how should that affect our worship of him (cf. John 4:23)?
- What does God’s independence mean? In what ways are we and all creation dependent upon God, and how should this affect our daily lives?
- What does God’s immutability mean? In what ways does God’s immutability comfort you?
- What does the goodness of God mean? What should be our response to the goodness of God?
- Pray that we would worship God in spirit with a right heart. Pray that God would reveal any areas in which our hearts are not pleasing to him (Psalm 139:23–24).
- Pray that we would have the spirit of wisdom and revelation to know God better (Ephesians 1:17). Pray that we would know his personhood and all his characteristics.
- Pray that we would be like little children (Matt 18:3–4) and that we would grow more and more in dependence upon God. Pray that he would deliver us from our pride and independence and that we would seek him through his Word and prayer.
Copyright 2014 Gregory Brown
The primary Scriptures used are New International Version (1984) unless otherwise noted. Other versions include English Standard Version, New Living Translation, and King James Version.
Holy Bible, New International Version ®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version ® (ESV ®) Copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
1 Millard J. Erickson. Christian Theology (2nd ed.). (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1998), 291.
2 Charles C. Ryrie. Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1999), 39.
3 Wayne A. Grudem. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004), 167.
4 Tony Evans. Theology You Can Count On. (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2008), Kindle edition.
5 Chariots of Fire (1981 feature film)
6 Tony Evans. Theology You Can Count On (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2008), Kindle edition.
7 Tony Evans. Theology You Can Count On. (Chicago, IL, Moody Publishers, 2008), Kindle edition.
8 Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine . (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004), 197.
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