God Is (2):
God Is Simple
If this is your first time with us, we are in the second week of a short series we’re doing on the attributes of God, entitled simply “God Is.”
Speaking about the attributes of God is a very daunting task, because necessarily God is infinitely above what we can understand or put into words. The 6th-century theologian Maximus the Confessor said, “Whoever has seen God and has understood what he saw, has seen nothing.”
He’s right—God is so far above our understanding that talking about him is in many ways impossible.
But that leaves us with a dilemma, because, as Mark Jones said, “Worship without knowledge is idolatry.” If we worship God with no firm knowledge of who he actually is, it’s not God we’re worshiping at all, but our own imaginations.
So—good news!—God has chosen to reveal himself to us in his Word. Although the Bible doesn’t say everything there is to say about God—far from it—we can have the assurance that everything the Bible says about God is true and trustworthy.
And our goal in this series isn’t just to explain what the Bible says about God—we’re not doing a series of lessons on the attributes of God. Our main goal in this series is to talk about why these things matter—why who God is should amaze us, and move us, and drive us to worship him and live for him.
Last week we saw that God is triune—that is, we worship one God, but our one God manifests himself in three distinct persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Every other attribute of God is necessarily true of all three persons of the Godhead—what the Father is, the Spirit is as well, and so on.
It was a tricky place to begin, firstly because it’s a mysterious thing—we don’t understand how God can be three in one. And secondly, because God’s being triune isn’t precisely an attribute of God—it’s the framework of all the attributes.
The same is true with what we will see today: we’re not going to see an attribute in the literal sense, but we need to see one characteristic of God that helps us understand how all his other attributes work. It’s an area of doctrine that isn’t often talked about, but it’s vitally important going forward, if we’re going to speak rightly about God’s attributes.
The subject in question, in theology, is called “divine simplicity”—or if we were to use an adjective, we would say that “God is simple.” So we’re going to talk about what that means, to begin with—and it’s not as simple as the subject would suggest—before getting into why it matters to us.
“God is simple.” If we were to say that of a person, that person would likely take it as an insult: people of limited intelligence have often been called “simple.” Obviously that’s not what we’re saying when we say that God is “simple.”
What we mean is closer to the what God said when he introduced himself to Moses from the burning bush. If there is one central text for this subject, this would be a good candidate.
13 Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’ ”
When Moses asks God what his name is, God doesn’t give him a name in the sense that we mean—like John or Susan—but he gives a definition of himself: “I AM.”
In the context of Exodus 3, God’s name, Yahweh, is meant to be a reassurance to the Hebrews that God will be faithful to fulfill all of his promises to them, because that’s who he is.
But taken in a larger and more absolute way, theologians have always seen God’s name, “I am,” as an expression of his being, an expression of the simplicity of his nature.
Divine simplicity, simply put, means that God is not the sum of his attributes. He is free of all composition. He is not a mixed bag of characteristics that, all together, make up “GOD.” Rather, God IS all of his attributes—or to put it inversely, as Jones put it, “Whatever is in God, God is.”
That's a tough concept to grasp, so let’s go a little more slowly.
If you look in any book on systematic theology, or in a good Study Bible, you’ll probably find a list of God’s attributes. For example, in the ESV Study Bible (the best Study Bible out there, in my opinion), you’ll find this list:
and so on. (That’s about half the list.)
Here’s a challenge: try for a second to make a similar list for yourself. Make a mental list of every adjective that describes you. It’s harder than it sounds, because a lot of our own attributes are vague, and contradict each other.
I could say, for example, that I am American, I am in my late thirties, I am a husband, I am a father. Those aren’t even really attributes, they’re just facts that anyone can know after five minutes with me. To get into attributes I’d have to make a list of adjectives that describe me.
But the list would be somewhat confusing, because it would be full of contradictions.
It would all be true, but it would be a confusing list, because I am not one thing all the time. Sometimes I’m impulsive, but at other times I can be surprisingly stable. I’m often impatient, but I’m quite patient with people. I’m very imaginative, but not very adventurous. Most of the time I’m quite relaxed, but at the same time I can get really nervous about simple social interactions. I called a real estate agent this week—we’re looking for a new apartment—and I actually had to write down what I was going to say because I was so freaked out about calling this person I don’t know on the phone. My list of attributes is totally contradictory.
What’s more, I have a lot of characteristics, but I am not those things (and here’s where we get to the heart of the matter).
I’m patient with people, but I’m not patience itself. I’m impulsive, but I am not impulsivity. I’m imaginative, but I am not imagination.
This is not the way it works with God. God isn’t just a mixed bag of characteristics—he’s not one thing more than another. And his attributes don’t just describe him; he is all of these things, entirely.
God isn’t simply good; he is goodness itself. He’s not simply powerful; he is omnipotence itself. Or, if you want a more well-known example, God isn’t simply loving; he is love.
1 John 4.8:
Anyone who does not love does not know God, because GOD IS LOVE.
Whenever we speak of God’s attributes, we have to know that despite his various characteristics, his essence remains completely undivided—he is not the sum of his parts, a collection of different attributes; he IS all of his attributes. Technically speaking, there is no such thing as “the attributes of God” in the plural—there is only God’s simple, undiluted and undivided essence. As Mark Jones put it, “God’s love is his power is his eternity is his immutability is his omniscience is his goodness, and so forth.”
Now, just to be clear, if you’re looking for a single text in Scripture that says exactly this about God, you won’t find it. This is one of those doctrines which is implicit from the whole of Scripture, but which you have to affirm if you’re going to take all the other doctrines seriously.
And you see it implicitly taught in Scripture by the way the Bible talks about God. Whenever the Bible talks about one of his attributes, it inevitably leads to another. For example, in Psalm 145, we see David proclaiming the glory of God’s power in his acts, but he can’t help but hopping from God’s acts to God’s being. He can’t help but go from one attribute to several others.
4 One generation shall commend your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.
5 On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
6 They shall speak of the might of your awesome deeds,
and I will declare your greatness.
7 They shall pour forth the fame of your abundant goodness
and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.
8 The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9 The Lord is good to all,
and his mercy is over all that he has made.
You can’t talk about God’s goodness without talking about his mercy. You can’t talk about his mercy without talking about his wrath. You can’t talk about his wrath without talking about his righteousness. You can’t talk about his righteousness without talking about his goodness. And so on.
And the reason all of God’s attributes are so inextricably linked is because all of these attributes which we can see in God’s works come from him. They ARE him. God is goodness; he is mercy; he is anger against sin; he is righteousness.
James E. Dolezal put it this way:
“…[Divine] simplicity means that God is not composed of existence and essence. As with His attributes, God does not have existence or essence as principles really distinct from His being as God. Rather, God just is the act of existence by which He exists and the essence of divinity by which He is God…
If this stuff makes your head spin, don’t worry, you’re not alone. It’s all merely an attempt to explain what Paul meant in Romans 11.33-36:
33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”
35 “Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?”
36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
In other words, everything good we could ever give God came from him in the first place. God is wisdom; he is good counsel; he is every good gift. From him and through him and to him are all things.
Our God is not a composite of many characteristics—he is the I AM, the One being in whom all things find their being.
Now, if this were all we were to say about God, it would be true, but incredibly difficult to imagine, and very easy to misuse. One would start to say things like, “The trees are God.” It could be one of those things which we get in theory, but which is so vague and cloudy to us that it does us very little good to affirm it.
However, God did not stop merely at giving us descriptions of his simplicity in his Word. He gave us something even better than that to illustrate his divine simplicity.
He gave us Jesus.
God’s Simplicity in Christ
Jesus shocked everyone who heard him speak. He shocked them for many reasons—because of the simple power of his teaching, because of the miracles which accompanied his words… But not least, he shocked people because he claimed to be equal with God.
In John 8, we see Jesus confronting a crowd of Jews who questioned his identity. And at the last, he drops the most shocking aspect of his identity.
56 Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” 57 So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” 58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.”
Jesus identified himself in the same way that God identified himself to Moses—every Jew there understood what that “I AM” was referring to. It was so shocking that they tried to stone him then and there.
What he meant was that this same unified nature we see in God, we see in him.
In the beginning of the letter to the Hebrews, the author writes (Hebrews 1.1-3):
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.
We can talk about God until we’re blue in the face—if we want to see what he looks like, we look at Jesus.
At every step in Jesus’s life and death, we see him embodying the unified essence of God. In the person of Jesus Christ, all of God’s unified attributes are at work and on display.
Jonathan Edwards said:
“The strict justice of God, and even his revenging justice, and that against the sins of men, never was so gloriously manifested, as in Christ. He manifested an infinite regard to the attribute of God's justice, in that, when he had a mind to save sinners, he was willing to undergo such extreme sufferings, rather than that their salvation should be to the injury of the honor of that attribute. And as he is the Judge of the world, he doth himself exercise strict justice, he will not clear the guilty, nor at all acquit the wicked in judgment.
“Yet how wonderfully is infinite mercy towards sinners displayed in him! And what glorious and ineffable grace and love have been and are exercised by him, towards sinful men! Though he be the just Judge of a sinful world, yet he is also the Savior of the world.”
At the cross, when Jesus took on himself the sins of his people and was punished for them; at the open tomb, when Jesus was raised from the dead and gave us his perfect and sinless life, Jesus displayed all of God’s unified attributes perfectly.
Because God is omniscient, he knows every sin of which we are guilty, and what would be required to save us. Because God is omnipotent, he had the power to do what had to be done to save us when he sent his Son to the cross.
Because God is righteousness, he is angry against our sin—Jesus perfectly displayed God’s righteousness and wrath by taking our sin on himself and being punished for them.
Because God is good, he is merciful—Jesus gave us God’s mercy by living our life and by suffering our death, to reconcile us to God.
Every one of God’s divine attributes is on beautiful display in Christ’s work of redemption for us.
Why Is This Important?
Now here’s the thing. All of this might be true, and if you’re a theology nerd it’s surely very interesting to think about. But what difference does it make? What’s the point of knowing this? Why should knowing that God is simple in his essence drive us to our knees in worship to him?
There are many reasons, but this morning we can content ourselves with three.
Firstly, because God is simple, his attributes never change.
One of the most striking things about knowing someone for a long period of time is seeing how they change over time. It’s the plot of a million sad movies: people change, and they don’t necessarily change in the same direction, or in a positive way. Sadly, when you’re dealing with people, you don’t always know if the people you trust and admire today will still be trustworthy and admirable tomorrow. So no matter how optimistic you feel about this person being dependable, a part of you always feels like you have to keep your guard up, because people can hurt you.
This is not the case with God.
The Puritan Stephen Charnock said:
“God being infinitely simple, hath nothing in himself which is not himself, and therefore cannot will any change in himself, he being his own essence and existence.”
Because God is simple in his essence, he never changes. Every one of his attributes will always, and by definition, stay the same, because he is every one of those things. God will always be holy, because he is holiness. God will always be good, because he is goodness. God will always love his children unfailingly, because God is love.
Which means that when we read our Bibles, and we see the ways in which God interacts with his people in the Bible, we can be 100% sure that he still interacts with his people in just that same way. When the apostle Paul arrives at the end of Romans 8 and says that
neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord—
that “us” is not referring simply to Paul and the church in Rome. The electing, protecting, justifying love of God, manifested in Christ, is just as sure for us today as it was for the apostles themselves. Context is important, and we always need to take that into account—but we can be sure that the principles that have always guided God’s will and acts still guide his will and acts today. What motivated God to act yesterday still motivates him to act today, because what motivates and guides him is himself—his own perfect character and being.
God is simple. The love and righteousness and justice and faithfulness that motivated him to be for his children in Rome still motivates him to be for his children today, because he is love and righteousness and justice and faithfulness.
Secondly, because God is simple, all his attributes are at work in his work.
This one’s tricky, because we can think we understand something, but functionally we operate like we don’t know it at all. We can know everything the Bible says about God’s continued faithfulness, but functionally, emotionally, we live as if we think God’s work basically stopped after the resurrection of Jesus: that after Christ came out of the tomb, God brushed off his hands and said, “Wow, that was something! All right, let’s see what they do with it.”
It can be easy to despair when we look at the state of the world we live in. We may read and affirm that God is good, but it can be easy to imagine that God isn’t good when we see what happens in the world, or in our own lives.
But the divine simplicity of God means that every one of his attributes are at work in everything he does, or allows, or disallows.
Think of the conviction and sadness you’ve felt after you’ve realized that you’ve sinned. Especially if it’s a sin you’ve dealt with before, or if it hurt someone else. A couple months ago we were having a meeting with the members. I was exhausted and on edge. Someone made a perfectly innocent suggestion I disagreed with, and I responded quite harshly. I didn’t even realize how I’d said what I said until I saw her face, and realized I had hurt her.
That was a bad moment for me—I felt like the most unworthy pastor in the world at that point. Like, why would God ever give the responsibility of a church over to a jerk like me?
I felt bad about it all week long—long after I had apologized to this person, and she had forgiven me. I carried the weight of that moment around with me for a good while.
That kind of experience can make you ask yourself some pretty disturbing questions. If God wants me to be conformed to the image of his Son, why would he let me act like that? And if he really has forgiven me in Christ, why would he let the burden of this failure sit on me so heavily all week long?
Because all of his attributes are at work in everything he does.
God is angry at my sin, and doesn’t just want to forgive it in Christ—he wants to kill it. But because he is good, and wise, and holy, and faithful, he wants me to be involved in killing it—so he allowed me to see my sin, and to feel its ugliness throughout the week, and, hopefully, to get a little closer to putting that sin to death. All of his attributes—his anger, yes, but also his goodness, and wisdom, and holiness, and faithfulness—were at work in allowing me to fail, and in convicting me of my sin.
Or imagine a painful situation that has nothing to do with your sin or someone else’s.
Several years ago, I had a cousin, Heather—an absolutely gorgeous woman, and wonderfully kind and compassionate—who was about thirty years old at the time. One day I got a phone call from my dad, telling me that Heather had died in her sleep of kidney failure. She wasn’t sick before; it was completely unexpected. The family was devastated. It’s still difficult for my aunt to talk about her.
This sort of thing shakes our confidence in God’s goodness, doesn’t it? You can be theologically precise all you want, but if it was your daughter, what would you be feeling?
The biblical solution—indeed, the only real help we have for that despair—is the simplicity of God’s divine essence. It is to know that God operates in all of his divine attributes at all times. It is to know that God is not only good, but wise; not only good, but all-knowing; not only good, but omnipresent; not only good, but sovereign.
Tim Keller once said that always perfectly God answers whatever prayer we would pray if we knew everything God knows. The week of my cousin’s death, and the weeks which followed, were incredibly painful for my family. But who knows what God was doing in that? Who knows what he was doing in our hearts through our loss? HE knows.
Every one of his attributes is always at work in everything that he does, which is why we can always have confidence that God can and will do everything that is best for his children.
Lastly, because God is simple, he makes us simple in his image.
When God saves his people through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, he gives us himself—he saves us by his Spirit, and his Spirit lives in us and changes us, makes us into his image.
Which means that as we grow to be more like Christ, we find all the disparate and contradictory aspects of our nature slowly change into something more unified—as God himself is simple, we slowly become simple in his image.
Look at how Paul talks about the Spirit’s work in us, in Galatians 5.22-23:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control...
In the original language (as in English), that word for the “fruit” of the Spirit is not plural, but singular. There is one fruit of the Spirit, and it’s all that follows.
In other words, in regards to the Spirit, it’s all or nothing. He does not give self-control to some and kindness to others, love to some and joy and peace to others. If the Spirit lives in us, he produces the same results in us all.
Now, we won’t necessarily see it all at once. We are not blank slates when we begin—we all have distinct personalities and characteristics—and we are still sinners, struggling with various things at various times. I may find myself more patient before I find myself more loving, because I’m naturally a patient person.
But the Spirit will not give me patience and hold back love; if he works one in me, he will work the other. To have one grace is to have them all.
If you think I’m reaching here, just look at Hebrews 11, when the author talks about Moses. Hebrews 11.24:
24 By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25 choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin [that’s self-control]. 26 He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward [that’s faithfulness]. 27 By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible [that’s patience]. 28 By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood [that’s peace], so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them [that’s goodness].
By faith in God, the simplicity of God’s essence began manifesting itself in Moses’s life: as he grew to be more like God, God’s unified character showed itself more and more in him.
When the Spirit is at work in us, his unified fruit comes to bear on our lives. The love a Christian has through him is a joyful love, a peaceful love, a patient love, and so on. The Christian’s kindness is a loving kindness, a joyful kindness, a gentle kindness. The Christian’s self-control is a loving self-control, a patient self-control, a faithful self-control.
This is wonderful news to people like me who feel scattered all the time, for those who feel they’re constantly being pulled in a million different directions. As time goes on, and our desires are brought into conformity with Christ’s desires for us, and our character grows to be more like his character, our hearts become less scattered, and more unified—as David prayed in Psalm 86.11,
Teach me your way, O Lord,
that I may walk in your truth;
UNITE MY HEART to fear your name.
Brothers and sisters, if we are to worship God rightly, we need to keep our eyes focused on who he is and what he is like—worship without knowledge is idolatry. But if we are to do that rightly, we must remember that God is not the sum of his attributes. God is not just good; he is goodness itself. He is not just faithful; he is faithfulness itself.
Which means that he will never change; that everything he is, is always at work in everything he does; and that he is taking the scattered and contradictory beings we are, and uniting our hearts to fear him, simplifying our hearts to be like his.
How wonderful it is to worship a God who is this dependable and trustworthy! How wonderful it is to know that we worship the one from whom proceeds everything good! How restful it will be to see ourselves unified in our character, and unified in our desires.
We can trust him to do it in us; and in the meantime, we can worship him for the divinely simple being he is.