This is part 3 in my series on basic Christian doctrine. I’m using Millard J. Erickson’s book Introducing Christian Doctrine to outline God’s attributes, not because I think it’s the best book on earth but because its chapters on God’s nature are very clearly laid out and easy to follow (and because I own the book so it’s accessible). This post discusses the moral traits of God, or God’s goodness.
The Goodness of God
1. Moral Purity – A lot of people use words like holiness, righteousness, and perfection interchangeably. This is fine as far as it goes, but there are actually differences between these words. Perfection, for our purposes, can actually fall into the category of life, from the last post – biblically, the word “perfect” means complete. God is not a work in progress, like we are; He is not in the process of improving. He is completely whole already. Holiness is another oft-misunderstood word. The word “holy” literally means “to cut off” – set apart, separate, different from. God is not like us; God is not like anything or anyone. This is part of what we mean when we talk about the transcendence of God (see my last post), the concept that God is other. Read the book of Isaiah starting around chapter 30. Righteousness is the one that refers to pure moral rightness. God does not sin, nor does he tempt anyone to sin (James 1:13). There is some debate among Christians whether God gets to arbitrarily define good and evil, or whether there is an external standard of good and evil that God merely adheres to. Erickson suggests something of a compromise – that there is an objective, inherent reality of rightness and wrongness in existence, but that it is part of God’s own essence rather than something external to him. In my belief, this means God cannot do evil and call it good (like in Frost Nixon, when Nixon says an illegal act isn’t illegal if it’s the president who does it? America disagreed). Therefore, I think any doctrine of God which involves him doing something evil is probably a false or misinterpreted doctrine. Just a suggestion. Justice means two things; first that God always adheres to his righteous standards, and secondly, that he is the arbiter of justice, that is, he holds others accountable to his standards.
2. Integrity – This aspect relates to God’s truthfulness. That means that God is first of all genuine – he is a real, actual being, not a construct or make-believe concept. The Bible calls our God the “true God” (cf. Joh 17:3, 1 Thessalonians 1:9, 1 John 5:20, Revelation 3:7, etc.). No matter how great Christianity sounds, it’s useless if it isn’t true. Beyond that, genuineness means that God doesn’t merely seem to be the attributes that describe him; he actually is these things. He’s not putting up a front, embellishing his résumé, or showing only the best side of himself. He is in every way exactly what he claims to be. Another aspect of God’s integrity is his veracity. Veracity means that God doesn’t lie (Titus 1:2). Hebrews 6:18 says it is “impossible” for God to lie. It’s not just that God doesn’t lie; he actually cannot because to do so would defy his nature. “But I thought you said before that God can do anything?” you say. Can God do something that is contrary to his character? Lewis says this kind of question is nonsense, existing in the same category as “can God create a square triangle?” He says that with God’s omnipotence it is more correct to assert that God can do everything that is intrinsically possible – that is, everything that is consistent with his character. Finally, integrity means that God is faithful. In Erickson’s words, “God is true [genuineness], he tells the truth [veracity], and he proves true [faithfulness].” God keeps all his promises (1 Thessalonians 5:24); he never goes back on his word (Numbers 23:19). Again and again Scripture calls us to trust in God’s faithfulness, to believe that he will always keep his word, and to take comfort in this knowledge (Lamentations 3 is my favorite passage of Scripture for this reason).
3. Love – Many theologians believe that love is the most central attribute of God – that if you had to pick one word to describe him, this would have to be it. In the classic novel The Hawk and the Dove by Penelope Wilcock, Father Peregrine points out that the Bible asserts “God is love” but never “God is justice” – there is a subtle but important difference between saying “God is loving” and “God is love,” and between saying “God is just” and “God is justice.” The attribute of love is, I believe, central to the doctrine of the Trinity – and I know there are denominations of Christianity that don’t affirm the Trinity, but if God is love, that means he has always been love, even before creation. Love always has an object, and divine love is inherently selfless (or so God tells us – cf. Romans 5:1-12 and 1 John 4). So before Creation, whom did God love? Only the Trinity can attempt to answer this question with any satisfaction: the object of God the Father’s love is the Son, and the object of the Son’s love is the Father (John 14:31). God has always existed in relationship, within the Trinity. And I’m not saying you have to believe in the Trinity to be a true Christian (in my experience, many people who claim to believe in the Trinity, when asked to define the term, give the definition of what we now call “Oneness” doctrine). The Trinity, like Oneness, is man’s attempt to understand an incomprehensible God. I just think the Trinity is probably the closest approximation to the real thing that we can currently think of.
One aspect of God’s love is benevolence. This means that God is concerned about the well-being of those he loves. As I mentioned earlier, this divine love is inherently selfless – it is for our sake that God loves us (Deueteronomy 7:7-8), not because he needs us to fill some void in himself. God’s benevolent love is for all creation, not just for Christians; and his love is not just a feeling but moves him to action, so that he acts for the good of his creation (Matthew 5:45). Another aspect of God’s love is grace. Grace means treating people not the way they deserve to be treated, but the way they need to be treated (cf. Psalm 103). Parents don’t love their children on the basis of what they deserve or don’t deserve; they love them simply because they are. Mercy is the third aspect of God’s love. It is closely tied to grace; another word for it is compassion. God feels for us (Mark 1:41, Matthew 9:36, Matthew 14:14), and this feeling moves him to act on our behalf. Finally, God is persistent. Another word for this is long-suffering, or patient. Another of my favorite passages in Scripture is 1 Peter 3, which talks about God waiting for us to repent, withholding judgment as long as possible. God’s heart is always for reconciliation. He will always forgive (1 John 1:9), just as he instructed us always to forgive.
On another personal note, I think God’s attributes have to be the starting point of our theology, and any conclusions we come to in our doctrine have to be consistent with our findings here. If other doctrines call into question God’s goodness or his greatness, I think we have to reexamine those doctrines. As we move forward in this series, let’s keep these traits in mind. Next time we’ll start going through Stott’s book, Basic Christianity.