"Notes" to the Belgic
Confession - Rev. C. Bouwman
THE CHARACTERISTICS OF GOD
ARTICLE 1 - Belgic Confession - There Is Only One God
We all believe with the heart and confess with the mouth1 that there is only one God,2 who is a simple and spiritual Being;3 He is eternal,4 incomprehensible,5 invisible,6 immutable,7 infinite,8 almighty,9 perfectly wise,10 just,11 good,12 and the overflowing fountain of all good.13
1 Rom 10:10. 2 Deut 6:4; 1 Cor 8:4, 6; 1 Tim 2:5. 3 Jn 4:24. 4 Ps 90:2. 5 Rom 11:33. 6 Col 1:15; 1 Tim 6:16. 7 Jas 1:17. 8 1 Kings 8:27; Jer 23:24. 9 Gen 17:1; Mt 19:26; Rev 1:8. 10 Rom 16:27. 11 Rom 3:25, 26; Rom 9:14; Rev 16:5, 7. 12 Mt 19:17. 13 Jas 1:17.
In the first article of his confession, deBres made mention of several characteristics of God, as he found them revealed in holy Scripture. In what follows, I intend to discuss various of these characteristics, and add a couple deBres did not mention in Article 1. As we seek to understand God's revelation concerning Himself, we do well to remember that this God is our God. To study God's characteristics is no mere academic pursuit, but a study which is of personal concern to each of us. It is a study which concerns itself with where I am at today in my particular circumstances. That is: it is God who has placed me where I am in life today. GOD: UNCHANGING, IMMUTABLE
God does not change. We find evidence of this in Scripture:
"God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent. Has He said, and will He not do? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?"
This is God: One who does not change His mind at random. What He says He'll do, He does do.
1 Samuel 15: 28
Said Samuel to Saul after Saul's disobedience in the battle against the Amalekites,
"the Strength of Israel will not lie nor relent. For He is not a man, that He should relent."
The Strength of Israel, God, does not change as people do. His mood does not 'alter with the weather.'
"Of old You laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands. They will perish, but You will endure; Yes, they will all grow old like a garment; like a cloak You will change them, and they will be changed. But You are the same, and Your years will have no end."
Here the Psalmist compares God to creation. Despite the fact that all things around him change and age, he confesses that God Himself does not change. God stays the same.
"Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning."
Scripture speaks of God as being constant and consistent.
In presenting our God as unchanging, Scripture does not wish to us to conclude that God is therefore cold and unemotional. God indeed does interact with our circumstances. Yet our changing circumstances do not come as surprises to Him so that He changes His mind regarding how to deal with us in our new situations. He is reliable, trustworthy. One can count on Him. What He was yesterday He is today and He will be tomorrow. What God said He would do yesterday He did, what He says He'll do today He does, and what He says He'll do tomorrow He will do. Scripture itself states that God is not unemotional for it reveals to us that God can be sorry.
Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. So the Lord said, "I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them."
After Israel had made and worshipped the golden calf, we read of a dialogue between God and Moses:
"Let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them. And I will make of you a great nation." Then Moses pleaded with the Lord his God ... "Turn from Your fierce wrath, and relent from this harm to Your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel, Your servants to whom You swore by Your own self, and said to them: I will multiply your descendants ..." So the Lord relented from the harm which He said He would do to His people."
God can be sorry, but His being sorry, and consequently His act of changing His plan, does not mean He is changing, whimsical. God is the God of the Covenant. In the context of His covenant God said He would either bless or curse. God's act of blessing or cursing is dependent upon His people's behaviour. This is not the equivalent of God changing His mind. The point is that He made His covenant, and when His people broke the covenant God did what He said He would do when they would break the covenant, namely, He cursed them. God always works within the confines of the covenant, and remains unchangingly faithful to what He has promised and planned in the covenant.
So who is my God? My God is One who does not change. ' So, what difference does that make to me?' one could ask. 'God was the God of Abraham and Jacob so many years ago. I live today, and wish to know therefore who my God is today' This is a gulf we create for ourselves and it is a gulf we can only bridge by reckoning with the reality of God's immutability. Says Packer,
"The link between them and us ... is God Himself. For the God with whom they had to do is the same God with whom we have to do. ... It appears that the truth on which we must dwell in order to dispel this feeling that there is an unbridgeable gulf between the position of men in Bible times and our own, is the truth of God's immutability."
Hence, if my God doesn't change, it means that my God was also Abraham's God and David's God. The characteristics of God as revealed in His dealings with David are equally the characteristics true of my God today. Therefore I can discover what kind of a God I have by studying how God dealt with David. For example, read Psalm 3: a prayer of David when he fled from his son Absalom whose plan it was to dethrone David. "Lord, how they have increased who trouble me! Many are they who rise up against me. Many are they who say of me, "There is no help for him in God." (vs 1,2). But what was it that David could say of God all of three thousand years ago? This, "But You, O Lord, are a shield for me, my glory and the One who lifts up my head. I cried to the Lord with my voice, and He heard me from His holy hill." (vs 3,4). How does what I read here in this Psalm touch me today? Is it even relevant to me today? Yes, very much so. I can read this Psalm in the context of my situation too, for the God addressed in this Psalm is my God. My circumstances might differ greatly from David's, but they are none the less real. It was Satan who was behind Absalom, and it is none other than Satan who tackles me too. With reference to my three sworn enemies, the devil, the world and my own flesh I too can say "how they have increased who trouble me." To think this way is to make Psalm 3 alive, to understand what the Lord my God says to me today in this psalm.
Not only does God tell me who He is, but also who He is in my circumstances. My God is the God of long ago. He is the same God Daniel relied on when he was dropped into the den of lions. No, God may deal differently with me than He did with Daniel. It is possible that I may never be confronted with a den of lions in the course of my life. Although the way in which God deals with me is different from the way in which He dealt with Daniel, this is the same, that He has dealt with Daniel, and will deal with me, in the way He sees fit. To know God as unchanging brings comfort, says Packer:
"Where is the sense of distance and difference, then, between believers in Bible times and ourselves? It is excluded. On what grounds? On the grounds that God does not change. Fellowship with Him, trust in His word, living by faith, 'standing on the promises of God', are essentially the same realities for us today as they were for Old and New Testament believers. This thought brings comfort as we enter into the perplexities of each day: amid all the changes and uncertainties of life in a nuclear age, God and His Christ remain the same - almighty to save."
Therefore no matter what is happening, and what may yet happen in the world around us, all that is important is that God does not change. Just as Daniel trusted in God when he faced the lions, so we are called to respond to this knowledge of God with trust in Him. Nowhere does the Bible speak of any anguish on Daniel's part. Daniel knew himself at peace. Should we be any different? Should we be restless if things go different than we would wish? No, says Packer, we should trust in the same manner as Old and New Testament believers were allowed to trust, for the God in whom both they of long ago and we today trust has not changed and does not change.
"If our God is the same as the God of New Testament believers, how can we justify ourselves in resting content with an experience of communion with Him, and a level of Christian conduct, that falls so far below theirs?"
GOD is Almighty
Article 1 of the Belgic Confession uses the word 'almighty' to describe God's greatness. The Bible very much portrays God as almighty; the Old Testament repeats the phrase 'Lord of hosts' some 280 times. 'Hosts' is here a reference to angels, spirits of the air. God is therefore portrayed as the commander of thousands, commander of a myriad of angels. The New Testament also speaks of God's greatness, but it does so in New Testament language. In Revelation 1:8 the word 'Almighty' is used, which is the equivalent for the Old Testament phrase 'Lord of hosts.'
As a consequence of being almighty, God can do whatever He intends to do. With reference to the fact that God would enable Sarah, a woman of ninety years of age, to bear a child, one reads in Genesis 18:14,
"Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son."
This is indeed an incredible deed of the Lord. Yes, incredible to the mind of man, but not so for the Lord, for He is almighty. Nothing is too hard or impossible for Him. God can do whatever He pleases. Whatever He says He will do He can do. In his book, Packer describes God as He presents Himself to us in the book of Genesis. He was the God who spoke at creation and at His command a world was there, where previously there was none. After the fall into sin, God spoke, and a curse fell upon the earth. God spoke and the waters of the earth rose and rain fell so that the earth was flooded and destroyed by water. God spoke and Sarah, in her nineties, had a child.
Who is my God? He is no weakling. He is not restricted in any way. Why not? Because He is majestic, almighty. In Isaiah 40 we read of the Israelites in exile protesting their circumstances. "My way is hidden from the Lord, and my just claim is passed over by my God," was Israel's complaint. How was Isaiah, God's prophet, to respond to this complaint? He had to tell Israel who God is. Who is He? He is the only one who can answer the questions of Isaiah 40:12 in the affirmative. There one reads, "Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand, measured heaven with a span and calculated the dust of the earth in a measure? Weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?" Yes, we have all seen the ocean and know its depths. Measure the oceans in the hollow of my hand? There is no way I can do it, but God can. Measure heaven with a span, that vast heaven in which the stars are separated by so many light years? Calculate earth's endless dust? Weigh Bluff Knoll?! Mt Everest?! We have to admit it is beyond us to do any of these things, yet God can do them all. This is indeed humbling.
Our God is so great that to Him, "the nations are as a drop in a bucket ... all nations before Him are as nothing, and they are counted by Him less than nothing and worthless.... He brings the princes to nothing; He makes the judges of the earth useless" (Isaiah 40:15, 17, 23). God is not overawed by large nations. They are as insignificant in God's eyes as a drop remaining in a bucket after we've washed the car. God regards even the largest nation as less than nothing! And as far as Sennacherib was concerned, the cruel ruler at the time, to God he too is nothing, useless. So as far as we're concerned today, who needs to live in fear of that large nation of China, or rulers such as Saddam Hussein? In God's eyes today's rulers too are as insignificant as a tiny drop in a bucket.
And as far as Israel, or we ourselves, or the inhabitants of the earth are concerned, how does God regard them? Isaiah 40:22 tells us that the earth's inhabitants "are like grasshoppers." That's all! Grasshoppers: those small, numerous insects we don't worry about as we walk through a paddock. Who are we in God's eyes? We are like so many grasshoppers, all chirping and hopping about. And who is God? He is the Almighty One who can measure the vastness of the earth and the heavens! And it is against this almighty God that Israel complains that He has forgotten them?? "Get real!" says Isaiah to Israel. And it is against this God that we complain?! Yet this God has not changed since the days of Isaiah. This is my God. Whatever He wants to do in my life He can do and does do.
This almighty God, however, does not use His power in a rash, abusive way. He is my God and my Father. Each Sunday we confess the faith from which we draw strength for our lives, as summarised in the Apostles' Creed. Then we also confess "I believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth." Lord's Day 9 elaborates on what it means to confess this. First of all, it means that I believe "that the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ ... is, for the sake of Christ His Son, my God and my Father." Secondly, it means that I confess that "in Him I trust so completely as to have no doubt that He will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul, and will also turn to my good whatever adversity He sends me in this life of sorrow. He is able to do so as almighty God, and willing also as a faithful Father."
Do I ascribe whatever
happens in my life to chance? Are my circumstances today the result of Satan
having got the better of me? No! My Father in Jesus Christ is almighty. Not
even a hair falls from my head unless God permits it (Lord's Day 1). Therefore
Satan cannot touch me or my children unless God permits him to. God is behind
whatever happens to me, and He promises to turn it to my benefit. God has
said that He will do that, and He does it too. So what does it mean to me,
what difference does it make, that I know my God to be the almighty? It means
this: I may know myself safe in His hands each and every day of my life, and
nothing happens to me unless my God permits it. Even the smallest, seemingly
insignificant incidents in my life are guided by Him.
"Our thoughts of God are not great enough; we fail to reckon with the reality of His limitless wisdom and power." To reckon with God's limitless wisdom and power, to confess that God is almighty, is to acknowledge that I am where I am in life because God put me there, be it happily married, unemployed, struggling with sickness, etc.
THE WISDOM OF GOD
Scripture teaches us that our God is perfectly wise.
"to God, alone wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen."
Not only is God wise, but also the way in which He works is wise. With reference to His work of creation, we read here, "O Lord, how manifold are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all."
These words refer specifically to God's act of creation. But not only does the Psalm praise the beauty and majesty of God's creation. It also acknowledges God's wisdom in the way His creation functions. For example, the cycles of the seasons, the divisions between day and night, the instincts and habits of the animals when it comes to having young and caring for them, obtaining food, finding shelter all in turn display the wisdom of God.
In the Bible, God's wisdom means that God knows the goal and how to attain it. "Wisdom is the power to see, and the inclination to choose, the best and highest goal, together with the surest means of attaining it." God knows where I am now and He knows what is the right goal for me. He knows the right way to get me to the goal He has in mind for me. Take Abraham as an example. God led his life in such a way that the outcome would be that Abraham grew in God. God had a particular goal in mind for Abraham, and so led Abraham's life down a particular route so that so many years later Abraham had grown. This route was not as straight forward as Abraham would have wished, but it was the way God in wisdom determined in order for Abraham to attain the goal God had in mind for him. Packer describes some of Abraham's experiences and lessons on this route, and does the same for Jacob and Joseph in order to illustrate how the way God directs the lives of His children is full of wisdom.
What about God's wisdom in relation to my life? In order to appreciate the wisdom of God's dealings in our lives we need to analyse these events in the context of Hebrews 12. There we read of the Hebrews struggling and suffering (though the details of their sufferings are not known to us). They had their own ideas (we may surmise) as to how they were to get to their goal, and (not surprisingly) will have preferred a straight path
from A to B (see Figure 1). But God said no, for this did not coincide with His plan for the Hebrews. In His wisdom, God determined that the Hebrews were to travel through some very difficult valleys, so that they might in turn grow in God. The Hebrews' reaction to this was one of complaint and the task of the author of the letter to the Hebrews was to encourage them. How then were they encouraged?
The Hebrews were urged (vs 5f) to remember the exhortation with which Solomon, as father, exhorted his children in Proverbs 3:11,12. What was this exhortation? "My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; For whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives." The author of the letter to the Hebrews then explains this exhortation in the verses 7 to 11. God deals with them as a Father, he writes. As a father is motivated by love for his children when he disciplines them, so God in love disciplines, moulds, directs His children on the paths of life He has marked out for them. Verse 10: God chastens us "for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness." It is true that "No chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful..." But just as God was busy in the lives of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Daniel and so many other of His children in Scripture, so He is busy in my life, in His own way. It is God's wisdom which has resulted in Him leading them down a different track than the one they preferred, and God remains equally wise today in leading us down different tracks than we prefer.
So what am I to do? Packer speaks of Christian wisdom, which is accepting that God is wise. Wisdom on the part of the Christian, he says, is "not a sharing in all His knowledge, but a disposition to confess that He is wise, and to cleave to Him and live for Him in the light of His word through thick and thin." God would have me respond to the confession that He is wise by saying words as these: 'God, if You in Your wisdom determine that this is the path I'm to follow in life in order for me to become what You want me to become, then I confess my circumstances (though so painful and unsettling to me) are OK.' This is what it means to confess the wisdom of God Almighty who never makes a mistake. No, to confess it in the difficulties of life is not easy. It is a daily struggle to be at peace with this confession, but God's identity as God of wisdom means that I may know myself safe, loved, and cared for, despite my circumstances.
With respect to obeying the first commandment, in Lord's Day 34, Q & A 94, it is pointed out that I am required to "rightly come to know the only true God, trust in Him alone, submit to Him with all humility and patience, expect all good from Him only, and love, fear and honour Him with all my heart." Who is this only true God I must come to know well? He is the unchanging, almighty, and wise God. The first commandment requires of me that I come to know God well in His 'immutability', 'majesty', 'wisdom'. As a consequence of knowing Him well, I trust in Him alone and submit to Him wherever He leads me. To submit to Him means to accept the way He wants to go with me. To confess that He is wise is to say that His way is good. It means to accept with humility and patience the way this God goes with me even when He takes me down a difficult road. To be dissatisfied with God's way in my life amounts to sin against the first commandment.
This is where the Christian can struggle so much, and is consequently the source of so many pastoral problems. The struggle is the inability to accept the way God leads one's life. For example, God's track for some of His children may confront them with abuse in their childhood years. It is for God's child to say 'it is God who led me down this particular path, including my abuse, in order to get me from where I was to where I must be.' In no circumstances of life is it fitting for God's child to be angry or bitter on account of what has happened. To be angry or bitter is to object to the way God has led me. Yet if God is unchanging, almighty, wise (as He says He is), then it is for me to accept His revelation about Himself, and therefore also accept with humility and patience what He has given in years gone by. This accepting is a daily struggle, especially where hurt and disappointment run deep. And in this life we have only a "small beginning" of the ability to accept what God gives (LD 44). Nevertheless, with all God's children there is that small beginning, and therein lies evidence that the unchanging, almighty and wise God of the Bible works in my heart and life, for my growth and benefit
THE TRUTH OF GOD
To say of God that He is "true" means that there is no deceit in Him. God is fully reliable in all He does and in all He says. The following texts from Scripture give evidence of this:
"Into Your hand I commit my spirit; You have redeemed me, O LORD God of truth."
In the verses 9-13 of this psalm David expresses that he is in trouble, sought after by his enemies. Yet, in spite of these very real and difficult circumstances, David knows that he is secure with God because His God is true, reliable, and He is who He says He is. David is able to commit his spirit into the hand of his God because his God is a God of truth, and hence trustworthy. These words of David were quoted by Jesus on the cross after God had poured out on Him the full measure of His wrath and totally rejected Him. Jesus, like David, could count on His Father and therefore he could say, "Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit" (Luke 23:46)
"And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth."
While Moses was with God on Mount Sinai, Israel had sinned by making and serving the golden calf. Though deserving of God's rejection, God did not annul the covenant He had made with Israel, but kept that covenant. Despite Israel's sin which made them deserving of death, Israel again received life in God. As a God of truth, God is true to His Word of covenant with Israel.
"And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God ... Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth."
God is characterised by truth. He is faithful, reliable, void of any deceit.
"... Indeed, let God be true, but every man a liar."
The truth of God stands
in stark contrast to man's deceit. People lack truthfulness but this can never
be said of God. God is true and His Word is true. I may have my own perceptions
of what is real and what is true, but I cannot rely on these perceptions.
Only God's Word, free of any mistakes and deception, is the reliable measure
This means in turn that, where my perceptions, experiences or conclusions differ from God's Word, I must conclude that the error lies with myself. That is not surprising, since I am sinful, and hence my powers of reasoning are also affected by sin.
For example, the science of geology may have its method of dating rocks, and on the basis of such data it tries to determine the age of different places in the world. Though the accuracy of such calculations need not be the point of dispute, it are geologists' conclusions based on these calculations that are to be disputed because by them the fact of God's creating the world is denied. Despite what any evidence to the contrary might say, God said that He created the world. Though we might think our conclusions (based on the science of geology) are correct, those conclusions must take second place to God's unerring Word: He said he made the world not that long ago, and so that's the way it is.
Likewise, we may adopt for ourselves solutions to problems or situations in our lives. However, if these solutions do not comply with the course of action God says we are to follow in our lives, then we go wrong. Our solution to a broken marriage might well be to opt out. But if God says No to such a course of action, then we must heed His No. If I confess that God is true, the consequence is that I am to do and accept whatever He says. I cannot separate my confession concerning the truth of God from obedience to His Word.
Concerning the inseparability between truth and God, Packer has this to say,
"Truth in the Bible is a quality of persons primarily ... the quality of a person who is entirely self-consistent, sincere, realistic, and undeceived. God is such a person: truth in this sense, is His nature, and He has not got it in Him to be anything else. That is why He cannot lie ... That is why His words to us are true and cannot be other than true. They are the index of reality: they show us things as they really are, and as they will be for us in the future according to whether we heed God's words to us or not."
My perception of the way things are may be totally different form how things really are. But my perception of the way things are does not matter. What does matter is whether I accept what God says. God has said that if I obey Him He will bless me. I don't need any proof of this. I obey, simply because God said I must, and I know this God to be truthful, reliable; that is sufficient. Therefore I can be content and at peace.
In this context, Packer draws attention to prayer.
"Christians deprive themselves of their most solid comforts by their unbelief and forgetfulness of God's promises. For there is no extremity so great, but here are promises suitable to it, and abundantly sufficient for our relief in it.
A thorough acquaintance with the promises would be of the greatest advantage in prayer. With what comfort may the Christian address himself to God in Christ when he considers the repeated assurances that his prayers shall be heard!"
God has said that He will give what He has promised. On that basis I will ask all that He has commanded me to ask for. I may pray for those promises, and also believe I will receive them. Why can I believe this? Because God has said so. So often we pray, but our prayer go unanswered. Why aren't they answered? Because we pray for what it is we would like to have. I am not to pray for a luxurious house, because God hasn't promised to give it. I am rather to pray for daily bread, because this is something God has promised to give. So it is important for God's children to know their Bible, for it speaks of what God promised to give to His children. Knowing from the Bible what God promises to give, His children may then also pray boldly for these things, confident that they will receive; for God's promises are always true
THE LOVE OF GOD
Our understanding of God's love must not be dictated by what we understand or experience love to be. God is not comparable to us, for God is God and we are sinners. We are incapable of ever loving in such a way that we are able to say, 'such is the love of God.' God's love simply cannot be compared to the love of a person. God loved even before He created people. Already before the beginning of the world, love was present in the Trinity: God loved the Son and the Spirit. God didn't need people in order to focus or express His love.
As it is, it pleased God to create people, finite beings, and it pleased God to love them freely. We didn't woo God to love us; no, He gave his love freely, apart from our asking. His love was undeserved. Mankind fell into sin. And yes, God even loves sinners; not all of them, but some of them. Those whom God does love are not more deserving of God's love because they are better than others. Yet God loves them, loves them specifically because He wants to. It is God's good pleasure that He loves them. This was total 'self-giving' on God's part: He loved us by giving Himself. God expressed this self-giving most specifically when He gave up His only Son.
Scripture has the following to say concerning God's love:
1 John 4:7,8
"Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love."
In these two verses God is presented as a God of love.
"I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely."
Israel has sinned and persisted in sin to such an extent that they deserved their exile. Yet God said that He would heal them, not because they deserved this, but because of God's love is freely given.
Deuteronomy 7:6 - 8
"For you are a holy people to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth. The LORD did not set his love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples; but because the Lord loves you ... "
It was not due to any merit on Israel's part that God loved them. He simply loved them because it was his good pleasure to do so.
"But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
When did God love us? While we were sinners: unattractive! Now read how much He gave us:
1 John 4:9, 10
"In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for ours sins. "
God loved us so much that He gave EVERYTHING He had to give: His only Son. It wasn't because we loved God, but because God loved us: His love was an act of giving, self-emptying. Read what the result of this was:
1 John 3:1
"Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!"
We, sinners, are allowed to be children of God! Can you imagine greater, more glorious evidence of His love?! His love and His grace are freely given to sinners, so that we are made His children!
If that is love, that God has sought me out and gave up His Son for my sake, this must motivate me to respond with gratitude. Gratitude for the fact that God reached out into my life and poured out His grace and love on me. Here lies the surprise of the Gospel, that God sought out such miserable wretches as we are; more, this is the surprise of the Gospel that God sought me out. This is a reality so exciting that the child of God cannot but be stirred to show and express thankfulness and praise to God.
This is the God who sought me out and also leads my life. What does He allow to happen in my life? In whatever God gives, He remains a God of love, and so all He gives is expression of His love. God has reached out to each one of us, made His covenant with each of us, extended His love to each of us. To each of us when we were baptised God said, "I am your God, your Father in Jesus Christ. I will bless you and keep you. I will avert all evil or turn it to your benefit. For Christ's sake I will forgive all your sins, and pour out My Holy Spirit into your heart." On the road of life travelled by each of us since our baptism we have come across both good and bad things. Of the good things it is very easy for us to say that they are expressions of God's love towards us. But the same must be said of the less pleasant things we face in life. These things too are expressions of God's love, for they testify of the fact that God is busy in our lives. Says Packer, all experiences in a Christian's life are given by God for the Christian's wellbeing.
"As a believer, (the Christian) finds in the cross of Christ assurance that he, as an individual, is beloved of God; the Son of God ... loved me, and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20). Knowing this, he is able to apply to himself the promise that all things word together for good to them that love God and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). Not just some things, not but all things!"
If God is indeed the God of truth Scripture presents Him to be, then every word He has spoken is true - including a word as Romans 8:28. Granted, experience tells me that certain things are not good for me. But it is not for me to judge a situation by what I think, for I am a sinner. If God says that all things are for my good, that all events come complete with God's love, then it is for me to accept this statement from God. Not to do so is to challenge God's truthfulness. Concerning the good and the bad that the Christian may experience in life, Packer goes on to say,
thing that happens to him expresses God's love to him, and comes to him for
the furthering of God's purpose for him. Thus, so far as he is concerned,
God is love to him -holy, omnipotent love- at every moment and in every event
of every day's life. Even when he cannot see the why and the wherefore of
God's dealings, he knows that there is love in and behind them, and so he
can rejoice always, even when, humanly speaking, things are going wrong..."
Hebrews 12:4-11 speaks of God disciplining His children, and describes this discipline as an act of love of the Father towards the child. It is true: no child likes his father's discipline at the time he receives it, but later in life will acknowledge it to have been an expression of his father's love. It is because God loves us that He disciplines us. He does so for our benefit, so that "afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it."
This love of which the Bible speaks is holy love, it hates sin. God's love is such that He wishes to mould us to die more and more to sin, and live more and more to God. God is busy in His wisdom, but in His wisdom it is always His love that makes us grow in Him.
In Psalm 32 we read that David needed to confess sin, but did not want to (verse 3, "When I kept silent"). So what did God do? God reached into David's life with trouble - and David did not enjoy it! "My bones grew old through my groaning all day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; My vitality was turned into the drought of summer." Yet, David could say "blessed, happy, is the man who is forgiven" (vs 1). How was it possible for David to come to that point? It was because God reached out into David's life. What could this be, other than God's love?! This was love, that God was busy in David's life, moulding him, until David confessed his sin.
If God is God, all He does in the life of His child is love, even though His child does not see or experience it that way. If it were not so, how else is one to read Hebrews 12 or 1 John 4:17,18? Perfect love casts our fear. God loves and therefore there is no need for me to fear. Things may happen in my life which I don't like, but God says to each of His children, "I love you, relax, and be content, I take you by the hand and lead you." We cannot understand that adversity in our lives are expressions of God's love. This is where faith is required, not human reasoning.
On the basis of what God has done for us, namely, sent His Son to die for our sins (1 John 4:10), He also gives us a command "to love one another" (1 John 4:11). See also verses 20, 21. Love involves self-denial. Within the communion of saints it is my duty to deny myself for the sake of the other. This is equally true in marriage and any other inter-personal relation. It is not a case of what I can get out of the relationship, but rather what I am able to be for and to give to the other: self-denial. 1 John 4:10 reads, "In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His son to be the propitiation for our sins."
God loved us and sent His son: He gave. GIVING is essential to loving, and so, in marriage and in communion of saints (or in any other relation involving love), it is not for me to want to receive first of all but rather to give. It is for me to be the first to give, it's not for me to wait for the other to give - even as God did not wait for us, but instead reached out to the unworthy with His love. If we are serious in believing that God is love, then we must work at this element of love too, for it is for us to reflect what God is like.
GOD IS GOOD
Of no one else but God can it be said that he is good. This characteristic is unique to God. Said Jesus to the Pharisee who addressed Him as "Good Teacher" "Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is God" (Mark 10:18). God is good, and all His works are good. Both God's goodness and the goodness of God's works are confessed by David in Psalm 119. "You are good, and do good" (verse 68). This confession of David was not just a general statement about God, but a firm conviction on David's part, confessed in his particular circumstances. In the verses 65-67 David writes, "You have dealt well with Your servant, O LORD, according to Your word. Teach me good judgment and knowledge, for I believe Your commandments. Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word." Then follows David's confession: "You are good, and do good." Here we read that David had strayed and consequently God afflicted him. What does David say about what God does, including the affliction God imposed on him? David says that God does good! No comment is made as to whether David liked the affliction he experienced. But by the grace of God, David was able to confess that what God does is good. Likewise what we experience in life might not always be experienced as good, yet it all is good.
What is it that Nahum
says concerning God after he has described God's deeds in chapter 1:4-6? There
we read, "He rebukes the sea and makes it dry, and dries up all the
rivers. Bashan and Carmel wither, and the flower of Lebanon wilts. The mountains
quake before Him, the hills melt, and the earth heaves at His presence, yes,
the world and all who dwell in it. Who can stand before His indignation? And
who can endure the fierceness of His anger? His fury is poured out like fire,
and the rocks are thrown down by Him." With which words does Nahum
then continue his prophecy? "The LORD is good"! (Nahum
1:7). The words of the verses 4-6 incline one to say that this is a God one
would rather not deal with. Yet Nahum goes on to say "The LORD is
good." This is what Nahum has to prophecy concerning who God is and
what He has done. Moved by the Holy Spirit Nahum says that in all those deeds
as described in the verses 4-6, the Lord is good. God's goodness is not determined
by whether or not I think He is good. God is good and what He does is good.
Whether I perceive it as good is a totally different matter. In fact, given
my sinfulness, my evaluation of what God does is bound to be incorrect.
To whom does God do good? In Psalm 145:9 David writes, "The LORD is good to all." All God's works, which are good, are for all people. God does not reserve His goodness for only a few good people or for a few righteous people. Jesus says the same in Matthew 5:44,45 where we read, "But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." Granted, it does not say here that God is good to all but that we are to do good to all. Yet, as sons of God, we are to imitate our Father, that is, to be good as He is good. "For He is kind to the unthankful and evil," Luke 6:35. God is kind, good to both the unthankful and the evil.
What are the consequences of believing God to be good?
Firstly, I am to confess that in everything God does, He does good. I am to confess this concerning what God does in my life, in both the big and the small events. I am to confess that my God is good and that therefore whatever He gives to me or does with me in my life is good. This is not a comment on what I see, for what I see is predominantly evil. Rather, it is a confession of faith: I believe that God's deeds in my life are good. I am also to confess this concerning what God does in the world around me, including the recent tragedy in Port Arthur. According to the standards of God's law and to the human mind, shooting thirty six people dead is so hideously evil. But God would have us say more than that. He would have us say too that the Lord is good in all He does. His hand was behind that event also. I am to confess that God is also busy in the events of Port Arthur. Therefore, horrible though this event may be, I am not to despair for God is in control. God does not work evil for the nation, but good. Despite the numerous questions I may still have I can confess this because it is a confession of faith.
Secondly, if God does good and if I am allowed to be a child of God, I am to do good. I am to imitate my God, not just in doing good, but in doing good to all, even to the unthankful and the evil. See the above quote from Matthew 5:44f. I should remember too that I was a sinner, evil to God, when God sought me out (Rom 5:8).
Thirdly, because God does good, I am to praise God without ceasing. In the words of Scripture: "For the LORD is good" (Ps 100:5) and"Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good!" (Ps 136:1) This refrain is found repeatedly throughout Scripture; see also Psalms 107.
God's goodness demands a response of faith, service and praise on my part. However, if I fail to appreciate God's goodness I can only expect a response of judgment from Him. In Romans 11 Israel is compared to a tree, the Israelites being branches of the tree of Abraham. Disbelieving Israelites, dead twigs and branches, are cut off by God, and in their place He grafts Gentiles. God's goodness and severity go hand in hand. Cutting off dead Israelite branches is a display of God's severity in response to unbelief and His grafting the Gentiles into this tree is a display of His goodness. "Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness" (Romans 11:17). If that goodness of God is not appreciated by the Romans, they will experience the severity of God, and be cut off from the tree into which God had earlier grafted them. Rejection of goodness leads to experiencing God's severity. This is a principle that applies to any situation in life. God causes His rain to fall on both the just and the unjust. The fact that God gives good to all does not mean that all will acknowledge God as good, and not to do so is to bring judgment upon oneself. It is a matter of faith: do I believe that what God does is good? If I don't believe this, the consequences are serious.
GOD IS ETERNAL
To confess that God is eternal means the following:
1) God has no beginning and no end.
"Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God" (Psalm 90:2).
"But You are the same, and Your years will have no end" (Psalm 102:27).
God has no end. The comfort in knowing this is that, no matter what happens, God will always be there; He does not perish.
2) God is above time.
All things around us change in time: days change over into night, hour passes into hour, the seasons change. Man is caught up in the web of time. But not so God. God doesn't follow the same sequence of day and night as man does. Says Moses in Psalm 90:4, "For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it is past, and like a watch in the night." Likewise, Peter in 2 Peter 3:8 says, "... with the LORD one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day." This is incomprehensible to man for he can only think in categories of time. However, God is above time; time is but a creature created by God. God's eternity is an eternal now. For God there is no yesterday or tomorrow.
3) God controls time.
Because God created time He is also in control of time. In Genesis 1:14 we read of God dividing the day from the night. However, God's control over time is not just restricted to a control over the hours of the day and the seasons of the year, but also extends over all things that happen in time. All events are in God's control. Although man is subject to time, God is not. Time is a creature at God's disposal. In whatever God permits to happen in this world I meet God, and consequently any response of mine to what takes place in my life is ultimately a response to what God does. My decisions, my responses, whatever I say about God now has a bearing for eternity. This knowledge makes life all the more awesome.
GOD IS ONE
In Deuteronomy 6:4 we read, "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one!" There are two equally legitimate ways of understanding this text:
1) The Lord alone is God.
There are not two Gods or three Gods but only ONE God. In Deuteronomy 4:39 it says "... the LORD Himself is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other." There is no competition between God and another god. There simply is no second God. This is confirmed by what we read in the following texts:
Deuteronomy 32:39 "... I, even I am He, and there is no God besides Me." God only is God.
Isaiah 44:6 "Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: I am the First and I am the Last; besides Me there is no God."
John 17:3 ""And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, ..."
Since there is but one God, the consequence of this is that He alone is to receive the praise and the trust which He as God is worthy of receiving. This reality of ONE God condemns any form of idolatry. I may not serve Buddha, because he is not God. Likewise I may not give any adoration to a creature, eg, a sports hero, for to do so is to ascribe to a person that which doesn't belong to him. See Lord's Day 34, Q&A 94, 95 which explains what the first commandment requires of us, namely, that I know the only true God and that I ascribe to Him alone the trust, love, fear and honour due to Him. Further, if God is God, the ONLY God, it is not for me to trust Buddha, my money, my intellect, my strength, my father, the Church, etc, but rather it is for me to trust God, and Him only. There are consequences to my confession that God is God alone. If I confess one God, I must be consistent with this confession by not trusting anything besides God.
2) God is not divided in Himself. This notion is captured in the confession of Article 1 that God is a simple Being.
GOD IS SIMPLE
Simple contrasts with compound, the latter meaning 'made up of many parts'. For example, the compound word 'himself' is made up of two words' him' and 'self'. God is simple: just ONE part. Granted, Scripture does make various statements concerning what God is:
John 4:24 "God is Spirit"
1 John 1:5 "God is light"
1 John 4:8 "God is love"
Yet, in spite of these three different qualifications of what God is, this does not make God compound. God is not made up of three parts, but He is SIMPLE, all the same: He is 100% Spirit, He is 100% light, and He is 100% love, simultaneously.
The consequences of confessing God to be a simple Being are:
1) There is no tension between the different characteristics of God. One cannot qualify it as a contradiction that God is both 'love' and 'just', nor can one say that these two cancel each other out. As human beings, our moods vary, and different characteristics of our selves reveal themselves at different times. But this is not true of God. In God's wrath is His love; in God's justice is His mercy. The characteristics of God cannot be played off against each other. Therefore one may never say that, though God's revealed will for me is to follow course A, He understands my situation and so will not mind me transgressing His law and following course B instead. To reason and to act this way is to play off God's love against His holiness. God is not holy one time and loving the next; He is ALWAYS THE SAME, always holy and always loving.
2) God comes to us as He is. God is not like people, who show a certain side of themselves the one day and another side the next. God always shows Himself in totality: righteous, holy, gracious, loving, wise. It is never a surprise to us who God is. There is no hidden side to God. He always comes as He is. God is never unpredictable. Tomorrow God will be as holy, merciful and just as He was yesterday, as He was at Calvary. It is of great comfort and reassurance to me to know this, for I always know what I have in my God and I always know where I stand with my God.
GOD IS SPIRITUAL
The confession of Article 1 that God is a spiritual Being is based on John 4:24,"God is Spirit." This characteristic has traditionally been understood to mean that God is non-physical, non-tangible, that God does not have a body like ours. Further, it means that God is different: there is nothing earthly about God, nothing creaturely. We are creatures and therefore tend to think in terms of creatures. However, God is Spirit which means that He is not a creature. God is Creator, not creature. God is different from us. How then am I to imagine God, to visualise Him?
The Bible speaks of God having hands, arms, eyes, ears, mouth. We understand that to mean that God has a body. We read in Genesis 1:27 that man was created in God's image, and on the basis of that we imagine that we were created to look like God. However, to be created in God's image is not the equivalent of looking like God. Theologians describe the Bible's reference to God's hands, arms, eyes, etc, with the Greek word 'anthropomorphic.' (Anthropo = man and morphic = form). In so speaking, the point is that God speaks in the form of man. Calvin compares this to the way a mother speaks to her child; she gets down to the child's level so that the child might be able to understand what it is she has to say. Likewise the Lord, wanting us to understand what He has to say to us, gets down to our level and speaks to us in a language which we are able to understand. God is not, and does not have, a body like us. We don't know what God looks like. This too surpasses my understanding. God as a spiritual Being is a notion too great for my finite mind to grasp. God is totally different to anything on this earth.
I can as yet learn a lot more about God in order to try to understand more about who my God is. However, that does not mean that I will ever arrive at a full understanding of who He is. Many of my questions will always remain. One thing I do know with certainty, namely, that God is so much greater than I can fathom. God is God. I simply cannot define or describe Him adequately. The great marvel of it all is that this is the God who made me His child. He is the God who reached down to adopt me to be His. Fathom it I cannot. All I can do is praise God.
One day Christ shall return
and then we shall see God face to face. No, we shall not at that time understand
all there is to know about God, for we remain creatures, and God remains the
Creator. We shall never understand Him fully, for to do so would mean to be
on the same level as God, and that will never be so. On the last day various
of our questions will be answered, but not all of them. God is God eternally.
So great is our God that we shall never rest from praising Him.