What is God Like? Divine Attributes

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One day, I asked my four year old daughter Karissa, “What is God like?”  She thought I meant, “What does God like?” and she said, “He likes heaven. He likes when people are good listeners. Does he like it when you spank me?”

At first I didn’t think that her answer had anything to do with the attributes of God, then I realized that when we find out what God likes or loves, we discover something about the nature of God. For example, the Bible says that God loves a cheerful giver. This must be because God is big-hearted Himself. Of course, we also can discover what God likes by finding out something about His nature.

No matter how we discover truth about God, it is necessary that we do so. In this article, we’ll identify several attributes that are important to think about and apply to our lives. In the previous article, we mentioned the fact that God exists, that He must have power and intelligence, and that He must be a holy and personal being. These are qualities of God that we can see faintly through nature, but then we see more clearly through the Bible. Many other attributes can only be discovered through God’s written revelation, the Bible.

Because we are finite, we will never know everything about God, but we can know some things about God because He has revealed Himself to us. As we come to know the Bible better, we come to know more about God’s character. God wants us to continue to pursue knowledge of His attributes, so that we can deepen our relationship with Him.

Categories of Attributes

We could categorize God’s attributes as primary, relative, personal, and moral.

Primary attributes are God’s intrinsic non-transferable attributes which are not personal or moral. God’s glory, infinity, eternity, self-existence, simplicity, and independence are all God’s primary attributes.

Relative attributes are those non-transferable attributes which are true of God in relation to the created order. God is omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, transcendent, immanent, and sovereign in relation to the universe.

Personal attributes are those that are essential for personhood. God has shared with us to an extent His aliveness, His personality, His freedom, and His spirituality, all of which are personal attributes.

Moral attributes are those attributes which have to do with the rightness of God’s character and actions. We know we can share in these attributes to a degree since God commands us to be holy and loving like He is (Lev. 11:44,45; I Thess. 4:7). Besides love and holiness, moral attributes include mercy, grace, faithfulness, patience, righteousness, and justice.

How God’s Attributes Relate to One Another 

The attributes of God can actually describe one another.  All God’s attributes will be infinite. All his attributes will be immutable. We could talk about God’s loving holiness and His holy love. We can talk about God’s sovereign power or His transcendent freedom, etc. The attributes of God, being inter-descriptive, are also harmonious. They will never contradict each other. We never have to worry about God overreacting, or doing something contradictory to one of his attributes. He will always be God, and He will always conduct Himself as God. God’s mercy is consistent with His justice. God’s love is consistent with His holiness. All the attributes cohere in one God. His attributes are not separate entities pieced together in the hopes that they won’t contradict. God is who He is, and acts as One. The attributes of God are those things that are true about the one almighty, holy, righteous, just, loving, merciful, infinite God of the universe.

The Roles of God

Before I define some of the attributes we have already mentioned, I want to briefly say something about the roles of God. The roles of God are designations in the Bible that help us to understand how God relates to humanity.

How does God relate to us? He is King, Judge, Master, Shepherd, Priest, Light, and Father.  Look at some implications of God manifesting Himself to us in these roles:

If God is King, we are his subjects.
If God is Judge, we will be rewarded according to our works.
If God is Master, we are His servants.
If God is Shepherd, we are His sheep.
If God is Priest, we are the ones for whom He offered up the ultimate sacrifice.
If God is Light, we must walk in His light, living according to the truth He reveals to us.
If God is Father, we are His children. He is a loving Father, and we are to be His trusting, obedient children.

God is all these things to us, and we must respond accordingly.

One of the things that seem to distinguish John Calvin (with his spiritual descendants) and John Wesley (with his spiritual descendants) is how they view the roles of God. With his strict view of sovereignty, Calvin tended to emphasize God as King and Judge at the expense of God as Father. Little is said of God’s fatherly love. Wesley emphasized the role of God as Father. Though God is certainly seen as King and Judge, His justice is situated in a better balance with His love. As loving Father to all His creation (in one sense), God is not going to pass over most of his condemned human creatures and only provide a way of salvation for a select few, as the Calvinists say.

Definitions

Following are definitions of attributes from each of the categories we mentioned earlier.  As you read through these, you should reflect on ways that these attributes apply to you personally. I’ll suggest an application for each attribute to get you started.

INFINITY

God’s infinity means that God is not limited by anything, whether space, time, or anything else. We as humans are limited by space and matter but God is immense (II Chr. 2:6). We are limited by time, but God is eternal (Ps. 41:13, Rev. 1:8). We are limited in power, but God is omnipotent (Rev 19:6). Actually, if God were not eternal, immense, and omnipotent, there would be no God, and we wouldn’t be here either.

Since God’s infinite attributes stand in stark contrast to our finite characteristics, His infinity is great cause for humility and gratitude. God is so much more than we are, yet He desires to have a personal relationship with us. He desires to make Himself known to us.

God’s infinity also means that none of His other attributes are limited. Next time you are going through a difficult time, think about God’s infinite love extended toward you, think about His infinite wisdom available to guide you, and think about His infinite power ready to strengthen you.

SELF-EXISTENCE

God’s self-existence means that He is underived, independent, the uncaused cause.  We cannot explain our existence without speaking of someone or something else; but God can (Gen 1:1; Ex. 3:14). It is only because of God’s self-existence that we can have any existence at all.

The members of the Trinity are self-existent. Jesus said that He had life in Himself, and that the Father had life in Himself (John 5:26). Jesus also said, “I am . . . Life” (John 14:6).  He didn’t say that He possessed life, but that He is life. We only possess life (any life at all) because God has given it to us. We can have eternal life by abiding in Christ, who is eternal life (I John 1:2).

OMNIPOTENCE

God’s omnipotence means that He is all-powerful; He can do anything He desires to do, everything consistent with His rational, moral nature. What does that mean for us? It means that there is no problem He can’t solve, no difficulty He can’t overcome. He can do “exceedingly abundantly above all that we could ask or think”! We can’t even imagine the power that God can exercise in any given human situation.

12 “I, even I, am He who comforts you. Who are you that you should be afraid Of a man who will die, And of the son of a man who will be made like grass?
13 And you forget the LORD your Maker, Who stretched out the heavens And laid the foundations of the earth;” (Isaiah 51:12-13, NKJV).

We should not be afraid of people or anything else. Why?  Because our God is the Creator, who stretched out the heavens and made the earth. God has all power and is willing to use that power on our behalf if it is in our best interest to do so.

Some have asked, “If God is omnipotent, then could He make a rock so big He couldn’t lift it? Could He wish Himself out of existence?” Could He make a square circle?” These questions are actually nonsensical questions because they theorize a situation that contradicts the laws of logic that flow out of God’s rational nature.1 God can do anything that is logically possible, as long as the action is consistent with His holy nature as well.2

OMNIPRESENCE

God’s omnipresence means that He is present in all his creation. He is present in all His works. Remaining distinct from His creation, He is actively involved in sustaining it (Col. 1).

God can be present in several ways. Not only is God present in the natural order, but He is also present in special ways in communion (the Lord’s Supper), through our conscience, in convicting, saving, and sanctifying grace, in special manifestations during public worship, in heaven (His Royal Presence), and in bodily form (the Incarnation).

It doesn’t take long to see how this attribute affects us. With God’s presence comes His protection. With God’s presence comes His power. When we know that God is near, we expect Him to work in our life. Realizing that there are various ways in which God is present motivates us to seek to experience God in greater ways than we have experienced him before. Just remember that the One who is present is a Person, not simply a force or energy. We are to experience the presence of God with the recognition that He is calling us to a deeper relationship with Him.

TRANSCENDENCE

For God to be transcendent means that He is exalted far above the created universe.  This has to do with quality of life, not necessarily physical distance. God is wholly Other. He is infinite; we are finite. As A.W. Tozer said, God is as high above an angel as He is above a caterpillar. Why? Because caterpillars and angels are both finite, and you can’t measure finite against infinite.  God is Creator. We (along with angels and caterpillars) are simply creatures. This means that we cannot think of ourselves as little gods, as if we were of the same nature as God. Though we as humans are uniquely made in the image of God, we are still creatures who are completely dependent on the transcendent God, since only in Him do we have any being.

IMMANENCE

For God to be immanent means that He is very near to us. “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Though He is transcendent, He has chosen to manifest Himself to us, to become incarnate in the Son, and to dwell with us in the Person of the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 7:14; Matt. 1:27). This means that we can have a close personal relationship with God.

SOVEREIGNTY

God is in control of His universe. Nothing happens without His knowledge and permission.  God will accomplish His ultimate purposes for His creation.

For God to be sovereign does not mean that every action in the universe has been predetermined. God has given His creatures limited freedom so that they can determine their own character and destiny, and freely influence the world around them. God is so sovereign that He is not afraid to give His creatures freedom. He is still able to control His universe and accomplish His ultimate purpose for creation (Genesis 18:22-33). For God to be sovereign means that we can trust God with our life. He has things in control even when things seem out-of-control. Sovereignty does not mean that we live fatalistically, as if God has predetermined every outcome. We live with the understanding that we have limited freedom within the boundaries that God in His sovereignty has set up.

PERSONALITY

God having personality means He has the capacity to relate freely to other persons, since He possesses rationality, volition, and feeling. In other words, God thinks, wills, and feels, which means he has the ability to have relationships with other persons.

We have personality because God has personality.  We can relate freely to other persons because God does. We, as creatures made in the image of God, were created to have personal relationships with others, especially with the members of the Trinity, who have always lived in relationship with each other.

FREEDOM

God freely chooses to do whatever He does. “He does whatever He pleases” (Psalm 135:6). He freely bestows grace on His creatures. Part of the image of God in us is our ability to make choices. Because God is free, we are also free to have a relationship with God, or to reject that relationship.

SPIRITUALITY

God is Spirit (non-material). This Spirit is eternal. You and I also each have a spirit which will never die, though it is not eternal in every way that God is.  God didn’t have a beginning, but your spirit did. Your spirit is eternal in the following way: it will never cease to exist. It will continue on and will spend eternity in either Heaven or Hell.

HOLINESS AND LOVE

One could summarize God’s moral nature by speaking of God’s unfailing holy love.

God’s holiness is the perfection of all God’s attributes. God’s holiness speaks of the purity of all of God’s intentions and actions. There is no sin in God.

For God to be loving means that He gives Himself to others in self-sacrifice, looking out for the best interest of others. Even before creation, God was loving; each member of the Trinity participated in self-giving love for one another.

What does this mean for us? Because God is holy, He made us to be holy. Because God is love, He provided a way for us to be reunited with Him after we sinned (against His holiness) and broke our relationship with God. He loves us enough to restore us to holiness. For us to be holy means that we love God with all our hearts, and that we love our neighbor as ourselves.

OMNISCIENCE

For God to be omniscient means that God knows everything.

God knows all things, including future events and all contingencies (possibilities). He knows what will happen and what would have happened had people made different choices. He knows the consequences of all possible choices or events. God knows how your life would be different if you had gone to a different school or attended a different church.

The foreknowledge of God is a subject of great controversy in the evangelical church today, so I want to spend considerable time discussing it. We’ll do that in the next article.


[1] These proposed actions are self-contradictory.  In response to “Could God wish Himself out of existence?”, I would say, “A necessary being cannot not exist.” In response to “Could God make a square circle?”, I would say, “A circle by definition cannot be square.”  As I said, these actions are impossible because they contradict the laws of logic that flow from God’s rational nature.
[2] Scripture tells us, for instance, that God cannot lie (Titus 1:2). He cannot do anything that violates His holy nature.

Mark Bird
Mark Bird
Mark Bird is Professor of Theology and Apologetics at God's Bible School and College.
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