Index of Lessons in the Westminster Shorter Catechism
What Is God?
Video presentation of this lesson
(Westminster Shorter Catechism Q:4)
by Bob Burridge ©2014
Atheism is not the greatest enemy of God’s Kingdom or of the church. It never was. It has never been promoted by more than a few, and hasn’t confused many people.
The greatest threat has always come from those who believe in imitations of God. It was devotedly religious people who attacked the Patriarchs, held the Israelites as captives, and tried to eliminate the early church. Even the Pharaohs of Egypt and the Emperors of Rome were firm believers in their gods. Some of them even promoted themselves as god’s, and came to believe their own claims.
Satan is very smart in his attacks. God is so obviously there, that the only effective way to deceive people about him is to offer substitutes that fit what fallen hearts want to believe and do. Today Millions of people are taken in by religions that promote ideas directly against what the Bible says.
According to current CIA world statistics, only about 2.01% of the world considers itself to be Atheist. That’s down from 2.32% from the previous report. 33.39% say they are Christians. 22.74% are Muslims. 13.8% are Hindus. 6.77% are Buddhists. There are many religions which represent less than 1% of the world’s population. They include 0.35% who are Sikhs, 0.22% are Jews, 0.11% are Baha’is. Other even smaller religions make up 10.95%. There are 9.66% who say they have no religion.
Ancient Israel was surrounded by nations which believed in some kind of god. The deity to which those nations were devoted, was not the God of Scripture.
The apostles and early Christians faced this same confusion in the Roman world. When Paul started to proclaim Christ to the Gentiles, and when he stood in Athens on Mars Hill, he had to go back to the basics about what God is. The god most believed in was not the true God.
Today, we also live in a world where belief in some kind of god is rampant. Belief in the True God of Scripture is an offense to many. Those who believe the Bible to be infallibly true are dismissed as ignorant, or even as dangerous. Bible believing Christans are often openly ridiculed, hated, and in some cases brutally persecuted.
Of the 33.39% who call themselves “Christian”, there are about 16.85% Roman Catholics, 6.15% Protestants, 3.96% Orthodox, and 1.26% Anglican.
These all claim to base their beliefs on the Bible, and the teachings of Jesus Christ. Sadly, they don’t all accept some of the most basic statements and teachings of the Bible. There is a wide range of beliefs among them about the nature of God.
In both the Old and New Testaments the greatest threat to God’s people came from groups that claimed to believe the Inspired Scriptures, but who clearly did not. They had very unbiblical beliefs about God, his nature, and plan.
God sent Prophets from the time of Moses through to the time of John the Baptist to challenge and warn God’s people. They came to correct misunderstandings about what the Bible said. The ones who kept challenging Jesus the most were the Rabis and Jewish Elders. It was the popular but inaccurate beliefs about Jesus and the Bible that kept the Apostles busy writing and teaching. Those wrong beliefs about God led to immoral and irresponsible living.
It is not surprising that today there are many popular groups that claim to be Christian, while they imagine God to be very different than what he tells us about himself in his word. Some shrug it off as unimportant. As long as their beliefs make them happy and they get what they want, they don’t see why they should be concerned.
There are well-funded movements today which are actively trying to unify religions upon some imagined common ground. This Ecumenism has been a primary tool used to water down God’s truth for decades.
God isn’t just a general idea that fits many definitions. This is at the core of what we Christians need to deal with today: We’re not called to be champions of belief in just some kind of god. We are morally obligated to promote belief in the One True God who reveals himself in the Bible.
The God of the Bible is a certain kind of God.
He has very particular attributes that characterize him.
In 1647 the best Bible scholars of the English speaking world finished writing the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Their goal was to summarize in chatechal form what the Bible primarily taught. The Assembly was humbled when they started to work on the answer to question #4 which asks, “What is God?“.
The delegates were all brilliant Bible scholars, but they asked the youngest of them to lead in prayer. It was George Gillespie of Scotland. His prayer started with these words, “O God, Thou art a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in Thy being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth …”
His opening sentence amazed them all with it’s accuracy and completeness. It was written down and adopted as the answer to that important question. That answer, as it still stands in the Catechism today is this,
“God is a spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable,
in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.”
God is eternally what we know as spirit.
He created the material universe, therefore he can’t be part of it. His essence is not physical. Before there was anything physical, God fully existed. Though he sometimes appeared in forms men could see, those forms were not his nature.
Even the birth of Jesus into human flesh did not change his nature as God. It added to the Second Person of the Trinity a second nature, a set of human attributes. He never stopped being eternally Spirit after being mysteriously united with a human nature.
The attributes of God summarized in the 4th Catechism answer fall into two categories.
First: some of his attributes are incommunicable.
God alone is “infinite, eternal and unchangeable.” These characteristics cannot be communicated to, or shared with, anything created. They are unique to the Creator.
- Infinite means that God has no limits.
- Eternal means that God had no beginning and has no end. He always exists.
- Unchangeable means that God neither changes nor modifies what he is.
The remaining attributes of God are communicable.
We say a disease is communicable if it can be passed on. It is the same with these characteristics of God. God has “being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.” These are observable things created into God’s universe to reveal his nature. They are communicated into God’s creation, and specially into us humans. This is why the Bible says humans are made in God’s image.
We share in these characteristics, but in us they are not infinite, eternal, and unchangeable. In humans our being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth are finite, temporal, and changeable. In God they are perfections. In us they are imperfect.
To each of the communicable attributes we attach the three incommunicable qualities. For example: God’s being is infinite, eternal and unchangeable.
- His infinite being has no limits. We call that immensity.
He fills all space all the time. God is always altogether everywhere.
- His eternal being has had no beginning and will have no end.
- His immutable being is never modified or changed in any way.
He can’t improve since he is always perfect.
Similarly the three incommunicable qualities extend to the other communicable attributes. God is also infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.
Our being has limits. We have a beginning, and we all change with time.
Also, unlike God, our wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth are limited, they had a beginning in time, and change with time. So while we represent God in our nature, we are not exactly like him in any way.
In us, the communicable attributes are like reflections in a mirror. They reveal the Creator and represent him here, but we are always just creatures, imperfect. Yet what we are represents what is true about God. Therefore, we are able to take in God’s truth when he makes it known. In our fallen condition we will not look at it honestly, and we will not, can not, understand it. It comes to us clearly from God. It is sufficiently plain and obvious so that we are held responsible for suppressing and distorting it. That is why Romans 1:20 can say, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse,”
The other teachings of the Bible about God all fit within that very helpful summary definition.
One of the most fundamental distinctives of God
is that he is the Creator of all things.
Revelation 4:11 says, “Worthy art Thou, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for Thou didst create all things, and because of Thy will they existed, and were created.”
God’s creatorship makes him special, distinct from everything else in the universe. If God made all things, and he had a purpose in creating them all, then everything belongs to him, and has true meaning only as it fits into his divine plan.
It is a biblical fact that God is the Creator of everything that exists. John 1:3 says, ” All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.” Colossians 1:16 says, “For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him.”
Since God made all things, everything has a divine purpose. Violating his ways is always wrong. Fallen creatures do not like to hear that. It means we are all accountable to the Creator, and guilty for every failure to honor him as we should. Every descendant of Adam stands indicted before God for his rebellion. That’s why fallen man would rather imagine God to be something he isn’t.
Some try to imagine that God is not actually our Creator. They imagine the universe to be its own creator, and that all we see has evolved from the energy and matter that first appeared in our universe. They can measure and describe the universe within the limits of their finite abilities, but they cannot explain all the complexity we see around us, and the reality of human self-awareness. They imagine that it all must have come into being by some spontaneous cosmic event directed by probabilities.
Others imagine that the universe itself is eternal, that it had no real beginning. The rules we see operating in nature make this hard to believe. Even with the help of the emerging principles of chaos theory and quantum physics with all its counter-intuitive predictions of how things behave, the origin of the universe remains an unsolvable problem without a Supernatural Creator.
To restore a true understanding of God
we need information from him.
Our own ideas and theories are deeply infected by our fallen nature. Romans 3:11 quotes the Old Testament when it says, “There is none who understands …” 1 Corinthians 2:14 says, “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”
We need the Bible. God gave it to us as an objective source of truth about himself. As our Creator, God has a purpose for all that’s made, a purpose for us too. The good purpose of all of creation is that everything, every person, is made to promote the truth and glory of the One True God. 1 Peter 4:11 says, “…that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever, Amen”
Therefore it is vital to know the truth about the One True God. Only then can a person know that he is really glorifying the one true Creator instead of some idol of his own imagination.
There can be only one Creator and absolute standard of all that is right and true. The creed given in Deuteronomy 6:4 says, “Hear O Israel, Yahveh our God, is one Yahveh” (שׁמע ישׂראל יהוה אלהינו יהוה אחד׃)
There is no room in the Bible for multiple Gods or for different definitions of Him. There can only be one God, of one divine substance, who is the source of everything else. The Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is one true God. The three persons are the same in substance, and eternally equal in power and glory.
Since God is eternal and unchangeable he cannot depend upon anything outside of himself. Your behavior, beliefs, and choices change neither him nor his plan. However, he holds you responsible to trust him and to do what he says is right.
God is absolutely Sovereign over all he made, over us humans too. As Creator and Upholder of all that is, he is Lord over all. Psalm 135:6 says, “Whatever the Lord pleases He does, In heaven and in earth, In the seas and in all deep places.”
God’s Sovereignty is fundamental to all truly Christian systems of belief. If it is rejected, the entire nature of the God of Scripture is rejected as well.
Sadly, many today try to re-define God
into something less threatening to lost sinners.
When God is redefined, he becomes a weakened deity that fits better with the life-style of the lost, and of immature Christians. The tendency is to bring in humanistic ideas which are blended into strained interpretations of selected Scripture passages. The god emerging from this approach allows for rejecting some of the Bible’s moral principles and gospel realities. That’s exactly what ancient Israel did, and what those who argued with Jesus did.
We live in a world where truth itself is losing it’s meaning. God is becoming a blurry idea too.
Sadly typical Hollywood movies often use words referring to God more than many sermons. Of course they use those holy words in blasphemous ways. They flood the minds of America with these accepted abuses of our Creator’s name. They make cursing and using the name Jesus and God into a linguistic habit. God is trivialized into a very fallible but lovable and powerful being who needs us to advise him about what he ought to be doing.
Cults snatch gullible people away from reality into a fantasy land designed to make them feel more important and wiser than others. Many political operatives insincerely cashe in on people’s beliefs or unbeliefs about God so they can win elections, get contributions, or pass legislation. Some educators want to either eliminate God from the class room, or bring in some undefined god that offends no one except those who believe the Bible. This imagined god is designed with the hope of fitting together all the world’s religions, and therefore it cannot fit with God as presented to us in his word.
Like King David, Jeremiah, and the Apostle Paul, we need to be aware of what God really is. This understanding needs to be constantly in our thoughts. Our awareness of him will clarify and influence everything we think, do, and perceive around us.
Knowing that God is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable
is a great comfort.
God’s nature is what makes his promises certain. They aren’t just possibilities. It helps us deal with cults, recognize errors, and teach us how we should evangelize and live in ways that truly honor God.
Most importantly a true knowledge of God leads us to true worship. It makes the child of God respond with humble awe at everything he sees and experiences. It draws the believer above all the busy schedules and distractions of the world to come together with God’s covenant people on the Sabbath to join in Congregational Worship.
It makes the child of God live confidently and peacefully knowing that he is always in the presence of an infinite, eternal and unchangeable Savior and loving Father.
Revelation 4:11 reminds us, “Worthy art Thou, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for Thou didst create all things, and because of Thy will they existed, and were created.”
(Note: The Bible quotations in this article are from the New King James Bible unless otherwise noted.)