9 March 2019

The Attributes of God


The divine attributes are the qualities and characteristics of God, as described in the Holy Scriptures. Here are a brief description of some of God's attributes.

God is personal; he is not simply an impersonal force or energy, as imagined in Eastern pantheistic religions. God thinks, chooses according to his will, loves and hates. He speaks to us, and we to him; he enters into and maintains a personal relationship with people. He designates himself ‘I am’ (Ex 3:14), and we address him with familiar titles such as ‘Father’.

God is spirit (John 4:24); consequently he is invisible (Heb 11:27), and does not have a physical body like us (Luke 24:39). Scripture speaks about ‘the eyes’ and ‘the hands’ of the Lord, but evidently such language is figurative.

God is independent; he is self-existent and does not need anything or anyone. We are dependent on God for every moment of our existence, but God has life in himself (John 5:26). ‘Nor is He worshipped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things’ (Acts 17:25).

God is immutable, that is, he does not change. He is ever the same in all his perfections. He cannot become more, or less, wise, holy and good. He is infinite in power; he does not grow weary, and he cannot become more powerful than he is. ‘For I am the LORD, I do not change’ (Malachi 3:6).

God is eternal and is in no way limited by time which is itself part of his creation. God knows no beginning and will have no end. ‘Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God’ (Ps 90:2).

God is omnipresent. Being present everywhere, he is not limited by space. ‘Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there’ (Ps 139:7, 8).

God is omniscient; he knows everything. He does not need to learn anything; he is never forgetful. He knows himself and all his creation perfectly. ‘Known to God from eternity are all His works’ (Acts 15:18). God knows us perfectly: ‘O LORD, You have searched me and known me. You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off. You comprehend my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways’ (Ps 139:1-3).

God is good. ‘For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive, and abundant in mercy to all those who call upon You’ (Ps 86:5). ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8). He is merciful, delivering sinners from their just condemnation; he is gracious, granting them blessings they do not deserve.

God is holy; he is distinct from all creatures and exalted above them in infinite majesty and purity. ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!’ (Isa 6:3). God is morally perfect. ‘God is light and in Him is no darkness at all’ (1 John 1:5).
God is righteous. He is always perfectly just and never guilty of the slightest injustice. ‘The LORD is righteous in all His ways’ (Ps 145:17). His law is the expression of his righteousness, rewarding obedience and punishing disobedience.

God is faithful. ‘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? (Num 23:19). His children can rest assured that he will perform all his promises and lead them to final glory. God ‘will also confirm you to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord’ (1 Cor 1:8, 9).

God is sovereign; he possesses absolute power and authority, and exercises total control over all his creation. He acts exactly as he desires; nobody can annul his will or frustrate his intentions. He ‘works all things according to the counsel of His will’ (Eph 1:11). ‘His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom is from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; He does according to His will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth. No one can restrain His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’’ (Dan 4:34, 35).

God is omnipotent, that is, almighty, all-powerful. He is able to do whatever he wills. ‘I know that You can do everything, and that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You’ (Job 42:2). In him we enjoy absolute security. ‘He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty’ (Ps 91:1).

Adoration

This is the true and living God - infinite and perfect in all his attributes! Being proud and sinful, the natural man cannot and will not bow before his Maker in adoration. Though the first commandment warns against having other gods other than the true God, man has come up with other ‘gods’, less than the true God, fashioned according to his imagination. Such 'gods' are idols.

May God give us grace to know him in his majesty that we may know him in truth, trusting and loving him with all our hearts. God alone can open our eyes and reveal his glory to us.

‘Give unto the LORD, O you mighty ones; give unto the LORD glory and strength. Give unto the LORD the glory due to His name; worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness’ (Ps 29:1, 2).

28 February 2019

The Names of God


We cannot understand God fully because he is infinite and we are mere specks of dust. ‘Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised, and His greatness is unsearchable’ (Ps 145:3). No man will ever plumb his wisdom. ‘Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it’ (Ps 139:6). A ‘god’ who is thoroughly understood is nothing but an idol of human imagination. The true and living God is exalted above the heavens, well beyond the reach of our mind.

All the same, we must assert that God can be known. Though we can never delve completely into the depths of the Infinite, still we may truly know our Creator. Our knowledge of God must always be limited, yet it can be genuine and sufficient to satisfy the thirst of the human soul. Indeed we are invited to ‘Seek the LORD while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near’ (Isa 55:6).

Who, then, is the true and living God? We can begin to answer this question by considering the divine names. (In another article, we will also consider the divine attributes, his personal characteristics, by which God is revealed.)

God

About 2500 times in the Old Testament, God is called by the titles El and Elohim (translated ‘God’). The basic meaning of this title is the ‘Mighty One’ or ‘Powerful One’. Elohim is the plural of El (emphasizing his majesty); however, Elohim is still used with verbs in the singular since God is one. God’s power is shown in his work of creation (Gen 1:1); his government over all the world (Isa 54:5); his mighty deeds among his people Israel (Deut 8:14; Ps 68:7), and in his judgment (Ps 50:6). El is also combined with other titles. El-Shaddai is mentioned mostly in the times of the patriarchs (Gen 17:1); it means ‘God Almighty’. El-Elyon signifies ‘God most high’ (Gen 14:19).

Lord

Another title, Adonai means master, lord, ruler (Gen 19:2; 40:1; 1 Sam 1:15); it is translated ‘Lord’ and it expresses the ownership and authority that God exercises over mankind.

YHWH

The name Yahweh (derived from the four consonants YHWH, sometimes known as the Tetragram) is found about 6000 times in the Hebrew scriptures. The significance of the name Yahweh, by which God revealed himself to his people Israel, was particularly spelled out to Moses (Ex 3:14; 6:3). The name means ‘I am’; it testifies to God’s eternal self-existence and perfection. God is what he ever was and what he ever will be; there was no time when he was not. He is the eternal ‘I am’!

YHWH is rightly translated LORD in our English Bible, according to the pattern set by New Testament writers. For instance, the prophet Joel wrote, ‘Whoever calls on the name of Yahweh shall be saved’ (Joel 2:32). In Romans 10:13, the apostle Paul quoted this verse, applying it to Jesus. He translated Yahweh by the Greek word Kurios, meaning Lord.

Yahweh is linked with other titles: the Lord God (Gen 2:7); the Lord Provides (Gen 22:14); the Lord Heals (Ex 15:26); the Lord Sanctifies (Lev 20:8); the Lord of Peace (Judges 6:24), and the Lord of Hosts (Isa 1:24).

In the New Testament, the most common titles are God (in Greek, Theos, the equivalent of the Hebrew Elohim), used especially of God the Father; and Lord (in Greek, Kurios, the equivalent of Adonai and Yahweh), used especially of the Son.

To know the name of God means to know God as he revealed himself (and not simply the pronunciation of the word). Praising his name is virtually the same as praising him; when his name is dishonoured, he is dishonoured. God is provoked when his name is profaned: ‘You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain’ (Ex 20:7). But God’s beloved children earnestly seek to praise and glorify him, as Jesus taught us to pray, ‘Our Father in heaven, may your name be hallowed.’

20 January 2019

The Rule of Faith


While God revealed the plan of salvation to Israel and the early church, the Holy Spirit moved holy men to write the message he wanted to give to future generations. Today we do not have apostles and prophets living among us, and Christ has ascended back to heaven. Yet we still have their teaching recorded in the God-breathed Scriptures. Therefore, the Holy Bible is the only infallible rule of faith for the Christian church.

This principle, known by the Latin phrase Sola Scriptura (‘Scripture Alone’), is a landmark of fundamental importance because it determines the faith and character of the church of God.

Scripture Alone
Scripture is the rule, or the guide, that teaches us what we should believe and how we are meant to live to please God. The Bible teaches us who God is, and who we are. It exposes sin as our basic problem and shows us the way of salvation by faith in Christ. God’s laws and commandments guide us on our earthly pilgrimage and his wonderful promises encourage us to persevere along the way until we meet our Lord. ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path’ (Ps 119:105).

The Bible is the infallible rule because it cannot err or teach anything false since it was given by inspiration from God; it is the Word which came forth from his mouth. The Bible is wholly reliable because its Author, the faithful and all-wise God, can neither make mistakes nor lie.

The Bible is the only rule because it is sufficient to show us the way of salvation and to teach us how to lead a godly and righteous life pleasing to God. The Bible itself teaches that in our time there is nothing but Scripture that is to be regarded as the inspired Word of God. Tradition is not inspired, and the church is not infallible. Christ considered Scripture as the inerrant and authoritative Word of God, but he refused to recognize tradition as a supplementary source of revelation; he also showed that religious teachers can err.

There is no other data necessary for salvation that is missing from Scripture or which we need to unearth from another source. The Holy Scriptures ‘are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work’ (2 Tim 3:15-17). The Scriptures give us the knowledge necessary to experience salvation – they are ‘able to make you wise for salvation’. The Bible is also useful for doctrine and guidance in the Christian life. Whoever is led by the Scriptures is described as ‘complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work’. The Bible is therefore enough to show God's children how to be saved and to live for his glory.

The Bible does not include all that Jesus did and taught. However the issue is not whether we have all possible information about Christ; after all, tradition does not give us exhaustive knowledge either – if it gives us any reliable information at all! The question at hand is whether what we have written in Scripture is sufficient to know God’s revealed truth. To quench my thirst I do not need all the water in the world; it is enough for me to drink a glass or two. God did not give us exhaustive knowledge in Scripture; he gave us enough to satisfy our souls. The apostle John illustrates this principle in the conclusion of his gospel. He freely acknowledges that he left many things unrecorded, yet he assures us that enough was written to reach his intended purpose (John 20:30, 31).

Also, Sola Scriptura does not imply that the Bible will always be understood rightly, or that we should expect automatic and full doctrinal unity among Christians. Christ spoke clearly and yet he was still misunderstood even by his own disciples. Scripture, likewise, is intelligible enough, but because of our spiritual laziness, ignorance and prejudice (arising from our finite abilities and sinful disposition), we have to recognize the fact that even among genuine Christians many false ideas are held and propagated. The fault is ours, not the Bible’s.

The Teaching Church
What is the relation between the Bible and church leaders? Is there a need for teachers since we have the Bible? Yes, definitely. The Lord commissions pastors and teachers, his special gifts to the church, to preach, teach and explain the Word (Eph 4:11ff). The Lord has invested them with authority. ‘These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority’ (Titus 2:15).

In the New Testament, we do not find a ‘church’ made up of autonomous, self-sufficient and individualistic Christians who do not see the need of teachers because they have the Bible and the Holy Spirit. Whoever isolates himself from the rest of the church, past and present, or does not submit to the teaching elders of the local church, is acting in a foolish and unbiblical manner.

The teachers’ authority is derived from and is inferior to the absolute authority of the Word of God. The Bible is infallible; they are not. Genuine Christian teachers are first to admit that they are liable to err. ‘My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many things’ (James 3:1, 2). Their task is to faithfully teach the Word, without taking away anything from its teaching or adding any ideas of human origin. They step outside the limits of their authority as soon as they go beyond the teaching of the Word of God.

Christians are never called to blindly submit to any leader or group of leaders who claim to have absolute authority. The Bible tells ordinary Christians to test all things and to keep fast to that which is good (1 Thess 5:21). We do well to emulate the disciples at Berea. They received the word preached to them; they also searched the Scriptures daily to confirm what they heard (Acts 17:11). That is the proper balance: a genuine respect for Christian teachers while holding the Scriptures as the highest authority by all, teachers and students alike.

Tradition
Evangelical Christians look at tradition with suspicion, undoubtedly because they are aware of the disastrous effect of human tradition on the gospel message. Yet the concept of ‘tradition’ as such is perfectly acceptable. Tradition simply means teachings and practices transmitted by example, verbal and written means. The Bible uses the word ‘tradition’ to describe both false teachings (Mark 7:9; Col 2:8; 1 Pt 1:18) and divine truth (2 Thess 2:15; 3:6).

Tradition is indispensable for the church. It is the way we share our faith (through sermons, books, personal witness and other means) with one another and the rest of the world. The church cannot grow and pass its precious heritage without tradition. The Christian faith is defended and is kept alive from one generation to another by the teaching of faithful men, who adhere strictly to the apostolic message (2 Tim 2:2).

Now, of course, traditions may be true or false; they may have their origin in God or in the human mind. Therefore we do not believe in all traditions, because not all teaching originates from the Word of God. Some traditions are merely human teaching, unessential at best, destructive at worst – as church history testifies!

God spoke to his people Israel by Moses and the prophets. The succeeding generations had the Law and the prophets in Scripture; no additional divine teachings were meant to be delivered to the people by tradition. We know this for a fact because Christ sharply rebuked the Jewish leaders who added the teachings of tradition to the Written Word (Mark 7:1-13). When tradition is added to the Scriptures, God’s Word is made of ‘no effect’ and the religion that springs from such admixture is vain!

This radical error of the Jews has been and is being repeated in the church. Tradition is a powerful force; let us use it legitimately. We should beware of changing the message of the Bible by the addition of human doctrines, irrespective of their antiquity or the sanction of respected teachers. Rather we should check and correct our traditions by the ultimate standard, the written and inspired Word of God, and be willing to reform ourselves accordingly.

For the Christian church, the way forward is back to the Bible.

Gospel e-Letter - February 2019

1 January 2019

God is Speaking

By ourselves, we can never come to a true knowledge of God. Throughout history and in different cultures, people have fashioned a host of gods and diverse religions. Left to our own resources we are helpless and hopelessly lost; we cannot find the true and living God. ‘The world through wisdom did not know God’ (1 Cor 1:21). We can only know God because he was pleased to show himself to us.

God manifested himself in a general way by the works of his hand, that is, the created universe. Thus nobody has a valid excuse; nobody may rightly claim that he didn’t know about God (Rom 1:19). Furthermore, it pleased God to reveal himself to us in a special and personal way. God has spoken and he still speaks to us today through his Word, the Holy Bible.

We will look at the three steps involved in the communication process: revelation, inspiration and illumination.

Revelation

The activity of God by which he has made himself and his message known is called ‘revelation’.

God intervened in the course of history to reveal himself and his will. He spoke directly to Adam, destroyed the ancient world by the flood in Noah’s time, called Abraham and promised to bless the world through his descendant, redeemed the people of Israel from Egypt, gave them the Law by Moses, established them as a nation, deported the Jews to Babylon for their idolatry, restored them to their land, and repeatedly promised to send the Messiah.

During this long period, God spoke to Israel through his prophets. Moses, Isaiah and the others prophets addressed the people in God’s name: ‘Thus says the Lord!’ The apostle Peter comments, ‘Prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit’ (2 Pet 1:21). The miracles they performed testified to the fact that the prophets really were God’s mouthpieces in this world.

God’s revelation reached its pinnacle in the incarnation of his Son, Jesus Christ. God ‘has in these last days spoken to us by His Son’ (Heb 1:2). Christ is the Word of God, God’s perfect image, and the Truth! The apostles were appointed to explain and set down the significance of the person and work of Jesus Christ, especially his death and resurrection, and to lay down the doctrinal foundation of the Christian faith. God confirmed their authority by various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit.

God’s revelation has reached its full extent; it is complete and perfect. Christians are exhorted to contend, that is, to strive and struggle for the Faith which has been given once for all (Jude 1:3). We are called to cherish and defend the original Faith and guard against the additions of so-called new ‘revelations’ and human traditions.

Inspiration

We are living long centuries after the prophets, Jesus and his apostles. How then may we come to know what they taught so long ago? It pleased God to record his Word for us in the Scripture (scripture means something written). Moses and Paul are gone, yet their doctrine is still accessible in their writings. Similarly, though Jesus ascended back into heaven, we can still learn what he said and did in the four gospel accounts.

The Bible is not merely a collection of human writings. The Bible has a dual authorship, human and divine. Holy people like Moses, Isaiah, Luke and Matthew wrote the books that make up the Bible. At the same time, the Bible was written by God, because the Holy Spirit guided the human authors, without violating their personalities or literary styles, to write exactly what he wanted. This activity of God’s Spirit upon the human authors that enabled them to write God’s Word is called ‘inspiration’.

‘All Scripture is given by inspiration of God’ (2 Tim 3:16). The phrase ‘inspiration of God’ is a translation of a single word which literally means ‘God-breathed’. The written words of the Bible are ‘God-breathed’ – the words that came out of his mouth. The Bible is truly the Word of God!

Since the Bible is the Word of the all-knowing and faithful God, we can have full confidence in the Bible’s inerrancy (it is free from any mistakes) and infallibility (it cannot lead us astray or deceive us). Moreover, since it is the Word of our Lord, it has absolute authority over the church, and we are obliged to believe and obey it from the heart. What Scripture says and what God says amount to the same thing. Consequently, there cannot be a higher authority than Scripture, as there cannot be a higher authority than God.

Jesus considered the Scriptures as God’s living word to every generation. He said to his contemporaries, ‘But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God?’ (Matt 22:31), and proceeded to quote a portion of Scripture, specifically from the book of Exodus. Though written many centuries before, that scripture was relevant to their situation and useful in their own time. Jesus didn’t tell them, ‘God said to Moses’ (though the words were originally addressed to the prophet), but, ‘God said to you’! Even so, what we read in Scripture is God speaking to us today.

Which are the inspired books that make up the Bible? The Bible is divided into two sections, the Old Testament (39 books, written mostly in Hebrew); and the New Testament (27 books, written in Greek).

The history of the formation of the canon (that is, the collection of writings acknowledged by the church as the authoritative Word of God) is intertwined with the history of the people of God. The church received the books of the Old Testament from the Jews to whom they were originally committed (Rom 3:2). Our 39 Old Testament books correspond exactly to the 24 books of the Jewish Scriptures, or Tanakh, as it is known. (There are fewer books in the Tanakh because some books in our canon, such as 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel, form one book in the Jewish Scripture.)

Already in the apostolic church, Christians were aware that God was adding new books to the Holy Scriptures (2 Pet 3:16). The gospels and epistles were copied and circulated among the churches. By the middle of the second century, the gospels and most of the epistles were recognized, and by the fourth century, all 27 New Testament books were universally accepted.

We do not possess the original writings, yet we can be confident that God’s Word has been preserved. The scriptures were carefully copied by hand (the handwritten documents are called ‘manuscripts’). Even so, there are variations between different manuscripts (caused mainly by copying errors), but in most part the variations are trivial. Moreover, the original text can be accurately determined by comparing the great number of manuscripts available.
God, who originally inspired the Scriptures, providentially guided his people to acknowledge the canonical books and to transmit them essentially intact to succeeding generations, even to our own time.

Illumination

The Holy Spirit, the Author of the Bible, illuminates the mind of God’s people to understand his Word. ‘We have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God’ (1 Cor 2:12).

The Bible can be understood. It is not addressed to philosophers and theologians, but to the whole people of God. The letters of Paul, Peter, James and John were addressed to ordinary Christians. ‘I charge you by the Lord that this epistle be read to all the holy brethren,’ ordered the apostle Paul in concluding one of his epistles (1 Thess 5:27). What purpose would it serve to have the epistle read out in the audience of all Christians if it was too difficult to be understood?

On the other hand, the Bible can also be misunderstood. The apostle Peter warns us that there are ‘some things hard to understand’. He also points out that the ‘untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction’ (2 Pet 3:16). Peter is not discouraging us from studying Scripture; he only warns us against presumption and carelessness.

Like any other written document, the Bible must be interpreted (or explained) according to grammatical rules, the meaning of words, and consideration of context. Yet biblical interpretation is not merely an academic exercise; it is first and foremost a moral and spiritual endeavour. An attitude of reverence and honesty are essential to rightly understand God’s Word. We cannot expect to hear God’s voice if we approach the Bible with the intent of twisting its meaning to suit our lifestyle or to justify our belief system. The Bible becomes our spiritual guide if we are determined to believe it no matter how disagreeable it is to our tastes, and to obey its message even if it costs us our lives.

Gospel e-Letter - January 2019

29 November 2018

The Pillar and Ground of Truth


The Bible teaches that the church is the pillar and ground of truth. The apostle Paul wrote to Timothy so that he 'may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth’ (1 Timothy 3:15).

The church is pictured like a pillar and ground, upholding and supporting God’s revealed truth. The apostle identifies the church as God's household; he is referring to every true Christian, not only to their leaders. The whole church - all Christians - are collectively the pillar and buttress of truth. Throughout history, God’s people upheld the truth by believing, proclaiming and defending the gospel, by their godly conduct, and sometimes with their blood. That is also our duty today.

Paul calls the church, not the Bible, ‘the pillar and ground’ of truth. Being the Word of God, the Bible is not merely ‘the pillar and ground,’ but the ‘truth’ itself. Jesus prayed to the Father, ‘Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth’ (John 17:17). In other words, the mission of the church is to faithfully defend and proclaim the teaching of the Bible. It follows that an indispensable mark of the true church is its faithfulness to the gospel. A ‘church’ that has departed from the truth and is teaching another ‘gospel’ is a fallen pillar and sinking ground.

Catholic apologists frequently quote 1 Timothy 3:15 to attack the supreme authority of Scripture and to defend the supposed infallibility of the Roman Catholic magisterium.

Consider well the implications of this verse. You must consciously make a presupposition and draw an important conclusion. If you assume that ‘the church’ refers to the Roman Catholic bishops and not to all Christians, then ‘the truth’ is whatever the Roman magisterium teaches. But if you believe that ‘the truth’ is the gospel message recorded infallibly in the Holy Scriptures, then the lofty claims of the Catholic magisterium must be tested by the Scriptures.

This is my sincere appeal to all Roman Catholics. Test all things, including the teaching of the magisterium. Ask yourself whether the Bible teaches salvation by grace and merit, by faith and works, by Jesus and Mary, as Rome insists; or whether salvation is by grace apart from the merits of our works, through faith in Christ Jesus alone. Ephesians 2:8-10 and Acts 4:12 are a good place to start.

(Gospel e-letter - December 2018)