Doctrine of God (part 9)
Transcript of William Lane Craig's Defenders 2 class.
1. Attributes of God
We have been looking at divine omnipresence. Last time we said that we can all agree that omnipresence means minimally that there is no place to which God’s knowledge and power do not extend. God is present everywhere in the sense that he is cognizant of and active at every point in space. What application does this have to our lives as Christians?
First of all, it means that we can contact God at any location, no matter where we are. No matter where we are, God is there. Remember when you were a kid in grade school, the teacher would call the roll, and she would call your name, and you would respond, “Present!” In a similar way, no matter where we are, we can call upon God, and his response is, “Present!” He is there, wherever we can call upon him. I remember when Jan and I first moved to Europe, although it may sound silly, it was very reassuring to find that God was just as real there as he was back in the United States. It didn’t make any difference moving from the United States to Europe. God was there, just as real and active as he was when we lived in America. So wherever you go in the world, you find the Lord’s presence is there, and his people are there, and God is active with them. So we can contact God at any location anywhere.
Secondly, we should practice the presence of God. Since God is present everywhere, then wherever we are, we should practice the presence of God. I am not talking about cranking up some sort of emotion, but I mean just recognizing that God is with us wherever we are. He is alongside of us, so to speak. So if we are in a situation where we are tempted to sin, we need to remember that God is there with us. We are not hiding from him. We should recognize that he is watching us when temptation to sin comes. We should also thank God for his presence. Sometimes I am amused when people pray, “Lord, be with so-and-so as she goes through surgery” or “Be with so-and-so, who is going on a missions trip.” You don’t need to pray such a thing. God has already promised to be with them – he has already said he is there. What we ought to do is to thank God for his presence, not pray that he would be with us. Say, “Thank you that you are with us, that you are here, as we gather in your name!” That is a way of cultivating this heightened sense of the presence of God in which we live.
Finally, this involves realizing that we are never alone no matter what we go through. In Matthew 28:20, Jesus says, “lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” No matter what we go through – a witnessing situation, sharing Christ with another person, going through deep suffering, trouble, hardship, if we are involved in study or in work – God is there, too. We are never alone. Therefore, we can depend upon him as we go through our daily lives. Psalm 23:4: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for thou art with me.” That is the promise that we have of God’s presence.
The omnipresence of God can be a source of strength and comfort and conviction for us as we lead our daily lives.1
Question: If we can call on God from any location, does that also include non-Christians? Does God hear the prayers of non-Christians?
Answer: Do you remember some time ago, one Christian leader got into real trouble for saying something like, “God doesn’t hear the prayers of the Jew.” We know what he meant, but I think that that was inappropriate to say that. God is omnipresent, he is omniscient, so he knows what is being prayed. It is up to his sovereign discretion whether or not he wants to answer that prayer. That person doesn’t have the advantage of praying in Jesus’ name that we, as Christians, enjoy, as his adopted children. But if there would be a Cornelius in the book of Acts, a God-fearer who is seeking God, and he were to ask God to reveal himself to him more clearly, God might well answer that prayer by bringing a Peter to proclaim the Gospel more fully. If there were some other sort of prayer that that person was offering that God knew would be helpful in bringing that person to a knowledge of himself, I think certainly God in his sovereignty has the prerogative to answer anybody’s prayer. It is just that the non-believer doesn’t have that added advantage of being able to pray in Christ’s name and so to claim those promises which adopted children of God have.
Question: In the Scripture it says, “When there are two or more gathered in my name, then I will be present with you” – what does that mean?
Answer:That is a promise that Jesus gave. I take it to mean that when the church of Jesus Christ assembles as a group, that Christ is present in their midst through his Holy Spirit. Christ is not physically present because he is ascended to heaven. He left this spacetime universe until his personal return at the end of human history. But, while Christ is absent physically, his Holy Spirit continues his ministry and stands in the place of Christ. As you read, for example, the book of Romans, it is very interesting to see how sometimes the Holy Spirit will be referred to as Christ. In Romans 8:9-10, Paul says that if you have the Spirit of God within you, then your spirits are alive, even though your bodies are dead because of sin. But if Christ is in you, then he says, you are alive. He equates Christ and the Spirit of Christ because they are so closely united. I take it that the body of Christ, which is the church, is where the Holy Spirit of Christ dwells in a special way. That is what that promise refers to, about those who gather in his name. That was why I prayed this morning in our opening prayer, “Thank you, Lord, as we gather in your name, that you are here in the midst of us!” We can claim that promise.
Question: There is an evangelism program called “Share Jesus without Fear,” and one of the steps is to pray that the Holy Spirit will go ahead of you and prepare the heart of the person you are going to meet.
Answer:We often would do that when we go out on sharing campaigns with Campus Crusade. They always encourage people that before you talk to men about God, you should talk to God about men. That is, to pray that the Holy Spirit would direct you to persons whose hearts are receptive and would respond to the Gospel in an appropriate way if they heard it.
Let’s go on to our next attribute, which is the divine attribute of immutability. Let’s look at some scriptural data concerning this attribute.
First, the Scripture indicates that God is unchangeable in his existence. Psalm 102:27: “but thou art the same, and thy years have no end.” God will never cease to exist; he will exist forever; he is unchangeable in his existence.
Secondly, God is unchanging in his character.2 Malachi 3:6: “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.” God is unchanging in his character, and that is why the sons of Israel are not destroyed. James 1:17 also speaks to this property of God: “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” With God, there is no change in his character, no shadow due to his changing person.
Thirdly, God is unchangeable in his faithfulness. Psalm 119:89-90: “For ever, O LORD, thy word is firmly fixed in the heavens. Thy faithfulness endures to all generations; thou hast established the earth, and it stands fast.” There the Lord’s faithfulness is spoken of as enduring to all generations, as being unchanging. Then in the New Testament, Hebrews 6:17-18:
So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he interposed with an oath, so that through two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible that God should prove false, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to seize the hope set before us.
There it refers to the unchangeable character of God’s promise and then also his unchangeable oath, which serve as a basis for our encouragement and confidence in God. So God is unchangeable in his faithfulness.
Finally, God is unchangeable in his wisdom. Psalm 33:11: “The counsel of the LORD stands for ever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations.”
The Scripture indicates that God is unchangeable in his existence, his character, his faithfulness, and in his wisdom.
Question: How do you explain the parts in Scripture where God appears to change his mind? For example, with Moses when he said he was going to destroy the Israelites but then chose not to.
Answer:We will talk some more about that when we get to God’s omniscience because if God is omniscient and knows everything, how can he change his mind? Yet you have these stories in the Scripture where God changes his mind. This gets right to the heart of what kind of literature the Bible is. It cannot be overemphasized that the Bible is not a book of systematic theology, or philosophical theology. Rather, it is a storybook. It is a book of stories of how people relate to God. It is told from the human perspective. These stories are filled with what are called “anthropomorphisms” – portrayals of God in human terms.3 For example, it is not just that God changes his mind about the future; you have the story, for example, of God’s going to Abraham and saying, “I am on my way down to Sodom and Gomorrah because I heard these reports about the bad things going on there, and I’m going there to see if they are true.” Well, in a case like that, God wouldn’t even know what is happening in the world, if you take that literally. It is clear that these are just reflections of the storyteller’s art. If you imagine these ancient Hebrews passing on these oral traditions, telling these stories about Israel’s relations with Yahweh, these are going to be told with all of the color and the verve that goes with that kind of a story. So you always need to interpret the Scripture in light of the more didactic parts of Scripture – that is to say, where doctrine is actually taught. There you do see the kinds of teachings that God knows all things, that he does foreknow the future. The New Testament even has a word for foreknowledge (“pro-gnosis” meaning “fore-knowledge”). It attributes prognosis to God. That is how I would understand these stories – that they are told from a human perspective and must not be pressed for theological detail.
Question: In Islam, a law is believed to be able to change – where God can change anything he wanted. Can you comment on that?
Answer:In Islam, the central attribute of God is his omnipotence. So God’s omnipotence trumps everything in Islam. If, on the judgment day, God would surprise everyone by saying, “All of you faithful Muslims, I have decided you are all going to hell!,” the Muslim would have no recourse but to say, “It is the will of Allah!” and submit to the will of this omnipotent being. So there is a kind of capriciousness and arbitrariness with Allah that you do not find with the Judeo-Christian God, who has an unchangeable character that can be relied upon and that is not sheer, unbridled power. He has all the power that the Qur’an attributes to Allah, but it is power that is channeled through the essence of a being who is perfectly holy, loving, faithful, loyal, kind, and all of those other attributes. That is a very central difference between the concept of God in Islam and Christianity.
Question: Could you comment on the supposed difference between the Old Testament (emphasis on justice and judgment) and the New Testament (emphasis on loving and forgiveness).
Answer:This idea that the God of the Old Testament is this judge that is harsh and unbending and unkind, whereas the New Testament God is loving and merciful and forgiving, is just a false dichotomy. I do not understand how people who know the whole Old Testament and New Testament can say such a thing. Certainly you can pick out passages in the Old Testament about God’s judgment that shows severity and his wrath. But then, for goodness sake, read the book of Revelation if you don’t think that that is in the New Testament! And if you find in the Sermon on the Mount a God who is compassionate and good and generous, then read chapters 18 through 31 in Ezekiel, where God says to Ezekiel, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked and not rather that the wicked turn from his way and live? Turn back, why will you die?” He literally pleads with the people to repent, so he won’t have to judge them because he loves them and he doesn’t want them to die. He takes no pleasure in punishing the wicked. This is just a false dichotomy between the God of the Old Testament and the New Testament.
But the clearest and most decisive proof of this is the following: who was the God revealed by and worshiped by Jesus? It was the God of the Hebrew Bible! Jesus was a Jew. And it was the God of the Old Testament that Jesus revealed to people as his heavenly Father. He saw no inconsistency between what he taught and the Father that he revealed and the God of the Hebrew Bible that he worshiped and followed as his heavenly Father. That is the decisive indication that this is a false dichotomy that is based on selectively picking certain passages and contrasting them.4
Question: At the same time, though, on the point where God doesn’t take pleasure in the death of the wicked, you read in the Psalms a lot about things like he is laughing at the wicked or when the wicked is being punished he laughs at them.
Answer:Well, we would need to look up some specific verses; but there are verses that I can think of that come to mind where it says that God sees the wicked scheming against him and he laughs at them in derision. I take that to mean that he finds these petty efforts to trump him and his plan to be ridiculous and futile. So, yes, the Lord holds them in derision – that these puny, wicked people could think that they are going to resist his purposes and his plans for them! But I don’t see that as at all inconsistent with what the Old Testament also teaches, namely, that God loves every person and wants the wicked to repent and believe. One illustration of this would be what God did through Jonah to Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, a pagan nation. This wasn’t part of Israel! This was a pagan nation, and God sends a Jewish prophet to Nineveh so that they will repent of their sins and he won’t have to judge them and they will be saved. And remember, Jonah is resentful that this happens! He wanted them to be judged. But God says, in effect, “There are 200,000 people in this city who don’t know their left hand from their right. Shouldn’t I have compassion on them?” This is the God of the Old Testament, the God revealed by Jesus, the God who loves every person, even those who are spurning him and deserve his judgment! He will stay his judgment upon them if they will simply respond to his offer to repent and turn to him.
What we will want to do next time then is look at a systematic treatment of the doctrine of immutability or the unchangeableness of God. We will see that this is traditionally understood in terms that are quite different from the biblical terms. Then we will try to sort out how exactly we should understand God’s immutability.5
5 Total Running Time: 23:22