Comprehending the Incomprehensible

The Attributes of God by Arthur. W. Pink

attributes of God“The spiritual and saving knowledge of God is the greatest need of every human creature.”
“The ‘god’ of this twentieth century no more resembles the Supreme Sovereign of Holy Writ than does the dim flickering of a candle the glory of the midday sun” – Pink


With so many religions and “winds of doctrine” that surround us,  it’s crucial that we understand well who God is in order to prevent falling into doctrinal error. God can best be understood, not by his actions or his (apparent) emotions, but by His attributes as revealed to us in Scripture. One of the best books on this topic is The Attributes of God by A. W. Pink.

We recently began a study of Pink’s book in our adult Sunday School class as a result of a theological issue that came to the surface and became a point of serious discussion and debate within our church association. Apparently the subject is one which has actually been compromised within evangelicalism in decades past. The subject is the doctrine of Divine Impassibility. One definition of divine impassibility states: “God does not experience emotional change from within nor is affected by his relationship to creation. He is not changed from within or without; he remains unchanged and unchanging both prior and subsequent to creation.” Put simply, this doctrine essentially teaches that God is not able to suffer, nor does He have passions or feelings like man has. Compare this statement with the fact that God is a spirit, without a corporeal body like man has. Although the Bible refers to the eyes, arms, and even wings of God, we recognize this as figurative speech used to convey a particular truth about God. The technical term for this type of language is anthropomorphic, in which God is attributed physical traits like that of His creatures. Likewise, when God is described in the Bible as being regretful, angry, or saddened, this is what is called anthropopathic language, attributing to God emotional traits like that of His creatures. A good rule of thumb that I find helpful is to keep in mind that passages that tell about God’s being or nature must take precedence or priority over passages that describe His actions.

The doctrine of divine impassibility is closely linked to other doctrines, particularly God’s immutability and infinity. Chapter Two of The London Baptist Confession of Faith gives this definition of God:

The Lord our God is the one and only living and true God. His substance is in and of himself; he is infinite in being and perfection…He is an absolutely pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts or passions. He alone has immortality…He is immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, in every way infinite, perfectly holy, perfectly wise, absolutely free, completely absolute. (Paragraph 1)

The matter really boils down to one basic question: Can or does God change? Consider the following verses:

  • “For I am the Lord, I do not change; therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob” (Mal. 3:6).
  • Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning (James 1:17).
  • “And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret” (1 Sam. 15:29).
  • “God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent (Num. 23:19-20).

If it’s possible for God to respond, react, or change in any way, then it means He changes in some aspect either for the better or for the worse. If God is complete, perfect, immutable, and infinite in His being, glory, and attributes, then how could this be possible? If this truth is compromised, the end result brings one to a theology like Open Theism, which teaches that God willingly limits his knowledge and is ever growing, learning, and improving.

In his book Pink states, “The foundation of all true knowledge of God must be a clear mental apprehension of His perfections as revealed in Holy Scripture. An unknown God can neither be trusted, served, nor worshipped.” Jesus said that those who worship God must worship Him in spirit and in truth. It’s not enough to have a heart and desire to worship God; if we construct a God of our own ideas, opinion, and imagination, then we are merely worshipping a false god and are idolators.

In The Attributes of God, Pink systematically explains the essential characteristics of God, beginning with His incommunicable attributes (those that belong solely to God), and then moving on to His communicable attributes (those that He has extended to man). Each chapter defines one attribute of God, with a selection verses and examples from Scripture where the attribute is stated and illustrated, then explains why the attribute is important to understand and accept. The first seven chapters address the topics of:

  • The Solitariness of God
  • The Decrees of God
  • The Knowledge of God
  • The Foreknowledge of God
  • The Supremacy of God
  • The Sovereignty of God
  • The Immutability of God

The next nine chapters address:

  • The Holiness of God
  • The Power of God
  • The Faithfulness of God
  • The Goodness of God
  • The Patience of God
  • The Grace of God
  • The Mercy of God
  • The Love of God
  • The Wrath of God

Here are just a few poignant excerpts from the book that stood out for me:

Regarding God’s solitariness, independence, and self-sufficiency: “God was under no constraint, no obligation, no necessity to create. That He chose to do so was purely a sovereign act on His part, caused by nothing outside Himself, determined by nothing but His own mere good pleasure…God is no gainer even from our worship.”

Regarding prayer: “There is no danger of the individual saint being overlooked amidst the multitude of supplicants who daily and hourly present their various petitions, for an infinite Mind is as capable of paying the same attention to millions as if only one individual were seeking its attention.”

Regarding God’s Knowledge: “Nothing has ever come to pass, or ever will, merely because God knew it. The cause of all things is the will of God…God’s knowledge does not arise from things because they are or will be, but because He has ordained them to be.”

Regarding the Supremacy of God: “A ‘god’ whose will is resisted, whose designs are frustrated, whose purpose is checkmated, possesses no title to Deity, and so far from being a fit object of worship , merits nothing but contempt.”

Regarding God’s Holiness: “Power is God’s hand or arm, omniscience His eye, mercy His bowels, eternity His duration, but holiness is His beauty” (Puritan Stephen Charnock).

“God has often forgiven sinners, but He never forgives sin; and the sinner is only forgiven on the ground of Another having borne his punishment, for without shedding of blood is no remission” (Heb. 9:22).

Regarding the Goodness of God: “Gratitude is often withheld from our great Benefactor simply because His goodness is so constant and so abundant. It is lightly esteemed because it is exercised toward us in the common course of events. It is not felt because we daily experience it.”

The book ends with a chapter on the Contemplation of God, in which Pink reviews the incomprehensibility, all-sufficiency, and supreme sovereignty of God. He reminds the reader of the importance and benefits of studying and thinking on God’s perfections and character. In many ways God is incomprehensible, beyond our understanding. Pink comments, “When we turn our thoughts to God’s eternity, His immateriality, His omnipresence, His almightiness, our minds are overwhelmed.” And yet, in His goodness, God has chosen to reveal a glimpse of Himself to us in His Word, and it’s every Christian’s duty, and should be their desire and joy, to prayerfully and seriously study and learn all they can about this great God we claim to love and worship. Charles Spurgeon remarked,

Nothing will so enlarge the intellect, nothing so magnify the whole soul of man, as a devout, earnest, continued investigation of the great subject of the Deity…It is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in it immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity.

This is not an excuse to neglect our pursuit of the knowledge of God, but rather a truth that should keep us humble and cause us to depend on His Spirit to enlighten and instruct our minds, and to help us apply our knowledge of Him to our daily lives. As we take a closer, more in depth look at God, we should by contrast examine ourselves. In this way we make practical application of who God is to our own character and life. Another book I highly recommend on this topic is Packer’s Knowing God. The study of God takes time and effort, but is there any other subject more worthy of our attention?

I leave you with this final thought to ponder: Even when we get to heaven, we will still be finite creatures, and He will still be the incomprehensible God. Isn’t it amazing to think that we will spend the rest of eternity in the presence of our infinite God learning more about Him?

(Note: The Attributes of God is on my list of books I believe every Christian should read.)

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