God

Book Review: God Is, by Mark Jones

God IsMark Jones’ newest book, God Is, is a book about what is often called “theology proper.” That is, it is about the study of God as He has revealed Himself in Scripture. That in itself makes this volume a welcome addition. As Jones notes in his introduction, “books on the doctrine of God are few and far between” (p.16).

Don’t let the subtitle (“A Devotional Guide to the Attributes of God”) fool you. This “devotional” is by no means lacking in substance the way that books of that genre often tend to do. I don’t know of many so-called devotional books that quote liberally from the likes of Thomas Watson, John Owen, Thomas Goodwin, Stephen Charnock, and Herman Bavinck (just to name a handful).

While there is a great deal of substance in this book, its relative brevity (only 215 pages, plus end notes) makes it very readable. As with his previous volume, Knowing Christ, here Jones once again takes what can be some rather complex theological concepts (like the simplicity of God!) and makes them much more accessible to the layperson. (For my review of Knowing Christ, see here.)

Each chapter, as the title suggests, deals with a different attribute or perfection of God. He opens with a chapter on the Trinity (“God Is Triune”), and follows that up with a chapter on the simplicity of God (“God Is Simple”), which is probably a concept that many readers will be unfamiliar with prior to reading this book.

Chapters 3 through 6 seem to echo the order of the attributes of God found in question and answer #4 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which says,

“Q.4. What is God? A. God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.”

  • Chapter 3 – “God Is Spirit.”
  • Chapter 4 – “God Is Infinite.”
  • Chapter 5 – “God Is Eternal.”
  • Chapter 6 – “God Is Unchangeable.”

See? You’re learning the Shorter Catechism and didn’t even know it!

There are 26 chapters in all, and all of the chapters are relatively short. (None of them exceeds 9 pages in length.) This actually makes the book very useful for devotional reading. I read just one chapter per day, and found that very helpful.

Each chapter follows a distinct and easy to follow pattern: First Jones states the doctrine of God’s respective attributes. He then follows that with a brief section demonstrating how each particular attribute of God is known and understood rightly by us in Christ alone. And finally he offers a section dealing with how these things rightly apply to the Christian life (what some of the old Puritan writers often referred to as the “uses” of the doctrine). This is doctrine with hands and feet, doctrine for life.

If I were to offer any minor criticism, it would be only this – the final two chapters (on the anger of God and the anthropomorphic way that God reveals Himself in Scripture), while being very clear, helpful, and even necessary for the book to be in some sense complete, would probably be more fitting as appendixes of some kind, rather than formal chapters in the book.

What I mean is this – the book is entitled God Is, and so each chapter deals with an attribute of God. That being the case, each chapter title begins with “God Is ___.” Those last two chapters don’t really fit that same way. Strictly speaking God is not angry or anthropomorphic in and of Himself. In other words, those things are not His essential attributes. Jones, of course, makes this very clear in those chapters. He says, for example, that “God’s anger remains an expression of his outward will, not his essential being” (p.194).

So my criticism is not so much of the content itself, but rather one small part the arrangement of it. It is admittedly a minor nitpick on my part, and it in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the book.

All in all, I enjoyed this book very much and found it to be eminently clear and helpful. If you are looking for a good book on the attributes of God, I enthusiastically recommend it to you. And if you are not looking for such a book? You probably should be – pick up a copy and read it anyway! You’ll be glad that you did.

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“A Most Elegant Book” (The Belgic Confession on General Revelation)

The Belgic Confession (1561) is one of the confessional documents that comprise the “3 Forms of Unity” in the churches of the continental reformed tradition. This confession is the statement of faith, taking the reader through a brief but thorough (at least by today’s standards) treatment of the basic doctrines of the Christian faith.

Article 2 (of a total of 37 articles or heads of doctrine) deals with how God has made Himself known to us. It reads as follows:

“We know Him by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to see clearly the invisible things of God, even his everlasting power and divinity, as the apostle Paul says (Romans 1:20). All which things are sufficient to convince men and leave them without excuse. Second, He makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to His glory and our salvation.”

According to the Belgic Confession, there are two “books,” so to speak, by which we know God. The first is what is often referred to as “general revelation.” This consists of the universe itself, including (as the Confession puts it) its “creation, preservation, and government.” In a sense, then, the Confession holds that both Creation and Providence (which is often defined as God’s powerful preserving and governing of all things – see Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.11). These things testify to God’s “everlasting power and divinity,” as both Psalm 19:1-6 and Romans 1:20 attest.

In his book, With Heart and Mouth (which is an exposition of the Belgic Confession), Daniel Hyde notes the limits of general revelation:

“The Confession follows the apostle in saying that this knowledge of God in creation, providence, and governance is of God as our creator. The content, then, of general revelation is not of God as redeemer but simply as the wise, eternal, powerful, and creative God that he is.” (p.57)

So the knowledge of God that we have in that “most elegant book” of nature is sufficient to render all of mankind without excuse for our sin and rebellion against our Creator. But the gospel is not to be found there. That is where the second book comes in, which is an actual book – the Bible. This is often referred to as “special revelation” (as opposed to or distinct from general revelation).

God reveals Himself “more clearly and fully” in Scripture (“His holy and divine Word”), so the Scriptures are primary. Our reading or understanding of the “book” of nature must be informed or guided by the Scriptures. And, most importantly, it is only in the Scriptures that God makes Himself known to us, not just as Creator, but also as Redeemer in Jesus Christ.

John Owen on the Incomprehensibility of God

mortificationofsinJohn Owen (1616-1683) is often referred to as “the Prince of the Puritans.” The more I read of his considerable works, the more I wish he had put together a volume(s) of systematic theology. In reading through his various writings, though, one could nearly cobble one together. (Perhaps a new book idea for one of the accomplished Puritan scholars of our day?)

For instance, in one of his most well-known works, The Mortification of Sin, he touches on the subject of the incomprehensibility of God. I dare say that if one wanted to know Owen’s view on that great and humbling subject, The Mortification of Sin would probably not be the first volume of his writings that would spring to mind.

There he writes,

“First, we know so little of God because it is God we are seeking to know. God Himself has revealed Himself as one who cannot be known. He calls Himself invisible, incomprehensible, and the like. We cannot fully know Him as He is. Our progress often consists more in knowing what He is not, than what He is. He is immortal and infinite and we are only mortal, finite, and limited.” (p.92)

Now when he says that God “cannot be known,” he is not saying that we cannot know God truly, or that God is completely unknowable. After all, note that he says that “God Himself has revealed Himself” as such. So we can most certainly know God as He has revealed Himself, but we can never fully or comprehensively know God, primarily because He is infinite, and we (as mere creatures) are finite.

It is surely no accident that this quote is found in a chapter on “Humility.” And, considering the subject matter of the book as a whole (i.e. mortifying sin, per Romans 8:13), we can see how eminently practical even the biblical view of the incomprehensibility of God can be! Who says that theology isn’t practical!

Note: While there may not be a volume available (yet?) on the systematic theology of John Owen in particular, there is a truly outstanding book available that pieces together something of a systematic theology of the Puritans in general. That book is A Puritan Theology, by Joel Beeke and Mark Jones.

God the Judge

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“From thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.” (The Apostles’ Creed)

The just judgment of God on sinful humanity is one of the essential doctrines of the Christian faith.  It is found again and again in Scripture, and is featured prominently in three of the four great ecumenical Christian creeds.

The Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed all explicitly state that the Lord Jesus Christ Himself will come again “to judge the living and the dead.” (Chalcedon being the only exception, which was not a broad summation of the faith like the other three, but was primarily written to state and defend the orthodox understanding of the hypostatic union of the two natures of Christ.)

And yet the popular misconception has seemingly always persisted that God will not surely judge sinners.  Rob Bell (in his book, Love Wins) is certainly no innovator in that regard.  In fact, the idea that God will not judge sinners is practically the original lie of Satan himself.  In Genesis 3:1 the serpent questioned the Word of God (specifically the commandment against eating the forbidden fruit, which certainly also implied the punishment threatened for transgressing that commandment – death), and then in v.4 flatly denied the just judgment of God, saying, “You will not surely die.”

That lie has been repeated in one form or another again and again throughout history, with deadly results.

J.I. Packer writes,

“People who do not actually read the Bible confidently assure us that when we move from the Old Testament to the New, the theme of divine judgment fades into the background. But if we examine the New Testament, even in the most cursory way, we find at once that the Old Testament emphasis on God’s action as Judge, far from being reduced, is actually intensified.” (Knowing God, p.140)

God does not change (Numbers 23:19; Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 13:8).  The idea that God is somehow different now than He was during the Old Testament is simply untrue.  The idea that the God of the Old Testament was the harsh God of wrath and judgment, while the God of the New Testament is the nice God of love is simply untrue.  God was gracious in the Old Testament, and God is still the righteous Judge of all the earth in the New Testament.

The gospel comes to us and says not “You will not surely die” (Genesis 3:4), but rather that Jesus has died in the place of sinners.  The good news is not that the judgment of God has somehow been done away with or abrogated, but that it has been propitiated – God’s wrath has been poured out upon Jesus Christ on the Cross!  A sinless substitute has been fully punished for our sins in our place!

We are not only saved from judgment, but saved through (or by) judgment – through the Son of God Himself (the Judge!) taking the punishment for our sins!  So if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you no longer need to fear the final judgment, for the Judge of the living and the dead is the One who died for your salvation!  As Paul writes in Romans 8:31-34,

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.

Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect when the Judge Himself is the One who died for our sins and was raised from the dead, and is also the One who ever lives to intercede for His people at the right hand of God the Father!

Putting Us In Our Place

Galaxy 2

There is a line from an old Eagles song that, sadly, is a good description of the majority of mankind:

You can see the stars and still not see the light.

A look up at the stars at night really should enlighten us.  It can serve as a cure for spiritual myopia.   How so?  By putting us in our place.

First & foremost, it puts us in our place by reminding us of the greatness & glory of God!  Psalm 19:1-4 says,

The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

So the heavens declare the glory of God; they proclaim His greatness & majesty!  And that declaration is loud and clear in every place, in every tongue, at all times.  So the heavens above us should serve as a constant (and often needed!) reminder of the greatness & majesty of God.

Second, by reminding us of the greatness and majesty of God, the heavens also put us in our place by reminding us of our smallness and insignificance in comparison.   Psalm 8:3-4 says,

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?

What is man indeed! The world doesn’t revolve around us; we are not the center of the universe – God is!  The heavens are the Lord’s heavens (“your heavens” – v.3) – they were created by Him and for Him alone!

Think about just how big the known universe is.  Some estimate that there are around 10 sextillion stars in the universe.  (If you are anything like me, you never even knew that such a number existed.)  A sextillion is 10 to the 21st power, or a million trillion.  It is difficult to even fathom such a number.  It might as well be infinity.

So there are around 10 million trillion stars in the universe, many of which are far larger than our own sun!  Our sun is approximately 333,000 times larger than  the mass of the earth.  Is your head spinning yet?

How much matter exists in the universe?  To us any number that we could hope to assign to such a question would stagger the mind – again, it might as well be infinite!  And yet God simply spoke it all into existence!  Psalm 8:3 calls all of that the work of his “fingers” (!).

To say that God is big and we are small is a good start, even if a massive understatement.  The universe dwarfs us, and God dwarfs the universe, so we are really just a speck on a speck in the grand scheme of things.

Third, by reminding us of the greatness and majesty of God, as well as our smallness and insignificance in comparison, they also remind us of the amazing goodness of God toward us.  Why should the God who spoke the entire universe into being take any notice of us?  But He does!

Psalm 8:5-8 tells us that God has bestowed great honor upon mankind:

Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
        and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
        you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
        and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
        whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

God made mankind in His own image (Genesis 1:26-27).  That is a staggering honor that is ours despite our relative smallness and insignificance in relation to the rest of the universe, (much less in comparison to God)!

But wait, there’s more!  We are not just specks on a speck, but rebellious & sinful specks on a speck!  The Fall of mankind into sin (Genesis 3) has marred the image of God in mankind (even if it has not completely obliterated it).  And yet God still cares for us!

And last (but by no means least), it should serve to make us magnify the grace of God toward sinners that is found only in the gospel of Jesus Christ!  For Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of Psalm 8.

The writer of the book of Hebrews quotes Psalm 8 and tells us that it was actually prophetic of the incarnation, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Christ!  In other words, it is about the gospel! (And it was written about 1,000 years before the time of Christ!)

Hebrews 2:5-9 says:

For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. It has been testified somewhere,

“What is man, that you are mindful of him,
or the son of man, that you care for him?
You made him for a little while lower than the angels;
you have crowned him with glory and honor,
putting everything in subjection under his feet.”

Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

For us, being made a little lower than the heavenly beings is an honor, but for the Son of God, Jesus Christ, it was an act of infinite humility and grace!  He was made man that He might suffer death for our sakes, so that we might have life in Him.

He allowed Himself to be put in our place, so that He could die the death that we deserved for our sin & rebellion, and so that we could have His righteousness accounted to us by faith!  Because He was put in our place, we can, in Him, be adopted as the children of God!

So look up at the night sky tonight.  And when you do, don’t miss the light!  Be reminded of the greatness of God, as well as His amazing grace toward you in Jesus Christ!

Bavinck on the Creator – Creature Distinction

Herman Bavinck on the significance of the Genesis account of Creation:

From the very first moment, true religion distinguishes itself from all other religions by the fact that it construes the relation between God and the world, including man, as that between the Creator and his creature. The idea of an existence apart and independently from God occurs nowhere in Scripture. God is the sole, unique, and absolute cause of all that exists. (In The Beginning, p.24)

There is a God and we are not him.  We are His creatures, created by Him and for Him.  We belong to Him and are answerable and accountable to Him.

Matter (the physical universe) is not eternal, but had a starting point (a “beginning” – Genesis 1:1).  Only God Himself is without a beginning.  Everything in the universe owes its existence to God.

We must not confuse the Creator with His creation.  We are not to worship or serve creation, but rather the Creator alone.

It Could Happen To You!

Recently the Mega Millions jackpot was up to over half a billion dollars.  That’s billion with a “b.”  $640 million as of the last count.

I know, you’d settle for half of that in cash.  Oh, the things that you could do with half a billion dollars (or whatever you would actually wind up with after taxes, if you won).  Many of us have daydreamed about what we would do if we ever had that much money.  We’d pay off all of our bills, all of our extended family’s bills, set up our kids and grandchildren for life, maybe make some rather sizable charitable donations.

They say that money can’t buy happiness, but most of us would like to put that theory to the test, wouldn’t we?  In the words of George Bailey from the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “It [money] comes in pretty handy down here, bub!”

But what would really change if you won?  Would it really change anything?

If you are an unhappy person right now, do you really believe that money would change that?  Why?

People often talk about having a lot of money enabling them to ‘take care of their families for life.’  But is that true?  Can money really do that?

Can big money ensure a happy marriage?  Divorce statistics would indicate otherwise. (Sometimes having a lot of money actually seems to be one of the primary causes of, or motivations for divorce.)

Can big money ensure that our family will be stable, happy, and healthy?  Of course not.

Can big money protect us from unforeseen disaster, disease, or death?  No.  Those things are no respecters of persons.

Why do we often wish that we had seemingly unlimited financial resources?  The obvious answer that comes to mind is, well, stuff.  We like stuff.  We like to be able to buy whatever we want.  And most of us seem to have an endless list of wants. We always want more.

But is there another reason(s) that we so often daydream about hitting the jackpot?  I think that there is – we want control.  We want to be in charge, and we think that money (a lot of money) would provide that ability to control our circumstances.

But does money really do that?  It sure seems to give us a lot more options, but the control that it promises is often nothing but an illusion.

And worse than that, it can actually end up controlling us.  In Matthew 6:24, Jesus says,

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”

Many of us are very familiar with that verse, but have never really thought through the implications of what the Lord Jesus is saying here.  Who is the master here – you or your money?   Who serves whom?

It is the exact opposite of what we might expect, isn’t it?  We think that having money or possessions makes us the master, but it doesn’t.  Money or possessions can end up becoming our master and we end up serving them, not vice-versa.   So be careful what you wish for!

And to make it even worse, Jesus is saying that when money is our master, we actually cannot serve God!   How often do we wrongly imagine that if we j-u-s-t had more money, then we would be freed up to really serve the Lord, contribute to His work in the church at home & abroad, etc.?   But that just isn’t so.

If we are not serving the Lord now, why do we fool ourselves into thinking that it would be any different if we were wealthy?  If we are not presently giving a portion of our financial resources to advance the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ here & abroad, why do we imagine that would change if we had more money?

Not only that, but if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you have something that the wealthiest unbeliever could only dream of!  They should truly be envious of you.  The gospel is the one thing in the universe that is quite  literally priceless.   Jesus said,

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Matthew 13:44 ESV)

If you have the Lord, you have everything.  And if knowing the Lord (which is the essence of eternal life – John 17:3) isn’t enough to make you happy, then nothing else will either – certainly not money.

If you know Jesus Christ, you are rich beyond your wildest dreams.

“Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
(Psalm 73:25-26 ESV)