The Attributes of God and Personal Discipleship
Theology is, at its most basic definition, the study of God. The Greek word logos means “word” or “reason,” and theos means “God.” Theology, however, encompasses the study of all that God has created, including people and how He relates to His creations in the world. Whatever one believes to be true about God and all He made is a reflection of one’s theology. In that sense, everyone is a theologian, because everyone has beliefs regarding the nature of God and the world.
Theology and Discipleship
Not everyone’s beliefs about God are necessarily accurate, however. J. B. Phillips suggests that erroneous beliefs about God may develop from one’s experiences, upbringing, education, and culture. He contends that until one can truly “see what He is like and what His purposes are” one “can hardly expect to escape a sense of futility and frustration.” In other words, one’s theology about God can be wrong, and those beliefs will impact one’s discipleship and worship.
While the word theology can seem imposing and academic to many, the reasons for this stigma are primarily historical in nature. The early church leaders developed theology in order to instruct believers and to combat false teachings. Early theologians believed theology was to be pursued in the context of discipleship. Over time, however, that idea shifted as the work of theology was primarily carried out within universities. Today, many in the church associate theology with academia rather than discipleship.
Scripturally, however, one’s beliefs about who God is and how He works in the world should be the basis of one’s faith and practice. To be a disciple is to follow Jesus and obey His commands (Matt. 28:19-20).
Jesus said, “’If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.'”John 8:31b, New International Version
Discipleship is the process of living out one’s faith in God through obedience to His Word.
“Theological learning is pursued rightly when it occurs within the context of a life of discipleship, because the practices of discipleship enable and enrich our pursuit of theological knowledge.”Keith Johnson, Theology as Discipleship (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 17.
Accordingly, belief about God is the framework in which that discipleship takes place and influences one’s self-identity, attitudes, motives, relationships, and responses to suffering or temptation. Theology bears fruit in one’s life through the application of what one believes.
The word doctrine applies to the teachings that the practice of theology produces. Sound doctrine, called orthodoxy, is based on the Word of God. Those teachings have been affirmed throughout church history by councils, creeds, and the diligent work of theologians. The doctrine of God, known as theology proper, is the “foundation of sound theological method.” This doctrine includes the Trinitarian nature of God and His attributes, which theologians sometimes categorize as incommunicable and communicable.
God’s Incommunicable Attributes
God’s incommunicable attributes are those unique qualities possessed by the Godhead (Father, Son, and Spirit) alone. They are permanent and intrinsic qualities of God’s triune being, characteristics that describe His very nature and essence.
“The property of each nature is so wholly preserved, that the Spirit on the one hand did all the things in Jesus suitable to itself, such as miracles, and mighty deeds, and wonders.”“Tertullian of Carthage,” in Exploring Christian Heritage: A Reader in History and Theology, 2nd ed., eds. C. Douglas Weaver and Rady Roldan-Figueroa (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2017), 21.
God is eternal. He has always existed and always will, outside of both time and space. Paul wrote that God “chose us in him before the creation of the world,” demonstrating God’s eternal existence in comparison to mankind, who is created (Eph. 1:4). Moses declared:
“Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.”Psalm 90:2
God is immutable or unchanging. God has declared, “’I the LORD do not change’” (Mal. 3:6). The creation and the created all change, but the Creator remains the same.
“In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded. But you remain the same, and your years will never end.”Psalm 102:25-27
God is incomprehensible.
“While we will never fully know God, we can personally know God.”Wayne Grudem, Christian Beliefs: Twenty Basics Every Christian Should Know, ed. Elliot Grudem (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), loc 204, Kindle.
Jesus said, “’Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent’” (John 17:3). Yet Psalm 145:3 declares that His “greatness no one can fathom.” While bound to this temporal existence, Christians can never fully grasp all that God is, but the inexhaustible pursuit of Him is fulfilling. Job experienced this divine mystery when he said, “…and these are but the outer fringe of his works” (26:14).
God is infinite, meaning that He cannot be measured, contained, or limited in any way. Solomon expressed God’s infinity at the dedication of the temple:
“’But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heavens cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!’”1 Kings 8:27
God is Spirit (John 4:24), and He cannot be limited in any way—not by time, space, or power.
God is omnipotent or all-powerful. He created all things, and He sustains all things by His unlimited power (Jer. 10:12). Jeremiah declared to God, “’Nothing is too hard for you.’” (32:17). Jesus said that “’with God all things are possible’” (Matt. 19:26). God’s power has no limits.
“What he chooses to do, he accomplishes, for he has the ability to do it.”Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 8.
God is omnipresent. (Psalm 139:7-10). He is Spirit, and thus He is able to be present in every time and every place at once, and yet He is very real and present in the lives of believers. Theologians describe these seemingly contradictory characteristics as His transcendence and immanence.
God is transcendent, meaning that He is high and holy, existing far above all earthly kingdoms or rulers, able to see all things and make judgments about all things (Ps. 57:5). And yet He is very near to His people and active in their lives (Psalm 139:7-10).
“For this is what the high and lofty One says—he who lives forever, whose name is holy; ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.’”Isaiah 57:15
God is omniscient or all-knowing. All wisdom belongs to God, and nothing escapes His knowledge or understanding.
“For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.”1 John 3:20
The writer of Hebrews declared that “nothing in all creation is hidden from his sight.” (Heb. 4:13). He is aware of all things at all times and “knows the future, as well as the past and present.”
God is self-existent. He is the uncreated Creator who spoke the universe into existence by His Word and His breath. Genesis 1:1 declares “In the beginning God,” demonstrating that God’s existence is eternal and completely independent of any other source. He “does not depend upon the world or anyone in it for his existence.”
God is also self-sufficient, meaning He does not need anything. Because of the Triune nature of God, He is independent and completely sufficient within Himself.
“’The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.’”Acts 17:24-25
As Erickson contends, “God relates to us, but by his choice, not because he is compelled by some need.”
God is sovereign. He is in complete control and reigns over all things.
“’Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours, O LORD, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all. Wealth and honor come from you; you are the ruler of all things.’”1 Chron. 29:11-12
Because He is sovereign, He directs the courses of all things, even those that may seem unpleasant to human understanding at the time. Nothing happens apart from His sovereign hand.
“[God] “by the pure light of his own righteousness and wisdom, regulates all those commotions in the most exact order, and directs them to their proper end.”John Calvin, “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” in Exploring Christian Heritage: A Reader in History and Theology, 2nd ed., eds. C. Douglas Weaver and Rady Roldan-Figueroa (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2017), 113.
God’s Communicable Attributes
Unlike the incommunicable attributes that are unique to God alone, the communicable attributes of God are those qualities that humans may possess “at least a partial counterpart.” These characteristics do not just describe what God is like, however; these are the essence of who He is.
God is faithful. Somewhat related to His unchanging nature, God is true to His Word. What He says, He will do.
“The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.”1 Thessalonians 5:24
From the Old Testament to the New Testament, one can see His faithfulness over and over. The Psalmists frequently proclaim God’s faithfulness (Psalms 36:5, 57:3, 71:22, 86:15, 100:5, 138:2, 143:1).
God is good. Psalm 100 declares that “the LORD is good” (5). God is the source of everything that is good (James 1:17).
“There is no higher standard of goodness than God’s own character and his approval of whatever is consistent with that character.”Wayne Grudem
God is gracious. God’s grace is a manifestation of His divine love. Erickson states that “God deals with his people not on the basis of their merit or worthiness, what they deserve, but simply according to their need; in other words, he deals with them on the basis of his goodness and generosity.”
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.”Ephesians 2:8
God is holy. God is holy in that He is set apart from all else in His uniqueness, and He is pure and righteous in all His ways. Erickson writes that there are two aspects of God’s holiness: his uniqueness and his “absolute purity or goodness.”
Isaiah described a vision of the Lord on His throne, with seraphs above Him calling out, “’Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory’” (Isaiah 6:3).
God is just. Moses declared that “all his ways are just” (Deut. 32:4) God is perfectly righteous and just in how He administers His law. All sin deserves to be punished, and all good rewarded. The punishment for sin was taken by Jesus on the cross for those who put their faith in Him. All justice will be complete and all wrongs made right when Jesus returns to judge the world (2 Chron. 19:7).
God is love. The greatest demonstration of His love is the cross.
“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”Romans 5:8
God’s love is unconditional, unselfish, and unchanging. The apostle John wrote, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
God is merciful. Erickson states: “God’s mercy is his tenderhearted, loving compassion for his people.” His compassion is demonstrated through the Incarnation of His Son.
“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions.”Ephesians 2:4-5a
God is patient or longsuffering.
“But you, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Ps. 86:15).
Erickson describes this quality as the persistence of God in “withholding judgment and continuing to offer salvation and grace over long periods of time.” The Old Testament chronicles the story of the nation of Israel whom God called to follow Him in covenant relationship and His patient endurance of their rebellion and apostasy.
Peter reminded believers that “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).
God is truthful. Grudem states that “all his knowledge and all his words are both true and the final standard of truth.” Jesus said He is the truth (John 14:6), that God’s Word is truth (John 17:17), and the Holy Spirit guides believers into truth (John 16:13).
God is wise. Proverbs teaches that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 1:7). “To God belong wisdom and power; counsel and understanding are his” (Job 12:13).
G. R. Lewis states, “God not only chooses the right ends but also for the right reasons, the good of his creatures and thus his glory.”
God’s Attributes and Personal Discipleship
Knowing these attributes encourages the believer to grow spiritually by trusting God in the midst of daily life. While culture focuses on belief in self, God’s Word focuses on belief in Him. Understanding His nature is essential to trusting Him, loving Him, and loving others. He cannot act in ways contrary to His nature. The incommunicable attributes of God demonstrate a Being who, unlike mankind, is eternal, immutable, incomprehensible, infinite, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, self-existent, self-sufficient, and sovereign.
This is good news for the believer who cannot possibly be any of those things. While many people try to exhibit these qualities, they only exhaust themselves with a futile pursuit. One cannot control all of one’s circumstances or know all things or possess all power. But one can put her trust in the God who does control and know all things and who does not change.
Because mankind is made in the image of God, humans have the ability to reflect His communicable attributes. Spiritual growth is the process of growing in these qualities and being “conformed to the image of Christ” (Rom. 8:29). As followers of Jesus, believers are called to walk in His footsteps (1 Peter 2:21).
Grudem states, “We can bring him glory as we imitate him by exhibiting likeness to his attributes.”
By pursuing Christ, the believer can grow to be faithful (Matt. 25:14-32), good (Gal. 6:9), gracious (2 Pet. 3:17-18), holy (1 Thess. 4:7), just (Mic. 6:8), loving (1 John 4:7-8), merciful (Matt. 5:7), patient (Jam. 5:7-8), truthful (1 Cor. 13:6), and wise (Jam. 1:5).
Paul stated that God “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Eph. 3:20). God’s power is available to the believer to understand His nature, to seek to be more like Him, and yet to receive mercy and grace throughout the process of spiritual growth. The amazing wonder of God is that He invites people into this reality.
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 J. B. Phillips, Your God Is Too Small (New York: MacMillan, 1967), 9-63.
 Ibid., vii.
 Christopher W. Morgan, “How to Do Theology: Worldview and Process,” in The ESV Systematic Theology Study Bible, eds. Christopher W. Morgan, Stephen J. Wellum, and Graham A. Cole (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 1623.
 Erickson, Christian Theology, 246.
 G. R. Lewis, “Attributes of God,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 493.
 Erickson, Christian Theology, 242.
 Ibid., 237.
 Ibid., 265.
 Ibid., 256.
 Ibid., 265.
 Ibid., 266.
 Grudem, Christian Beliefs, loc. 308.
 Lewis, “Attributes of God,” 496.
 Grudem, Christian Beliefs, loc 211.