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     The Moral Attributes of God

 

All the passages below are taken from Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “God the Father, God the Son.” The series of sermons were preached at Westminister Chapel, London, from 1952 to 1955 and was first published in 1996.

     www.mlj.org.uk

 

We are dealing, let me remind you, with the attributes of God. We have considered those which belong to His absolute personality and we come now to consider what are commonly called the moral attributes of God, sometimes described as the communicable attributes of God. Those attributes which we have just dealt with belong only to God; they are incommunicable and, I say with reverence, even God cannot convey them to His people. The attributes that we shall now consider---the moral attributes---are, in a sense, communicable. Something corresponding to them is to be found in men and women.

 

1. What are these? Well, first we must place the holiness of God. What is holiness? I think we almost inevitably tend to deal with it in negative terms, and we define it as meaning that God is entirely separate from and apart from sin. Holiness primarily means separation---separation from evil.

But, of course, holiness is also something positive. It is essential, absolute purity. The Bible teaches us everywhere that God is holy, and a part of the manifestation of this holiness is His hatred of sin and His separation from sin, from the sinner and from all that is evil.

Let me give you certain outstanding examples and illustrations of the Bible's teaching on this. God has revealed His holiness by granting visions of Himself to certain people. There is the great case of Moses, in Exodus 34 and in other places, where God appeared, as it were, to Moses, and Moses was overwhelmed by the sense of His holiness. The same thing happened to Job, to Isaiah and to Ezekiel. Anyone who has ever come anywhere near to God has always been impressed by His absolute holiness. The Bible teaches this in certain terms that it uses; it refers to God as `the Holy One' (Isaiah 40:25), and we have God's injunction: `Be ye holy; for I am holy' (1 Peter 1:16), which is a specific, explicit statement of God's holiness.

Now we often forget, I fear, that in a sense, the great business of the Old Testament is to reveal the holiness of God. We have been far too influenced, many of us, by the false teaching of the past century, which would have us believe that Old Testament history is just the history of man's search for God. It is not. The Old Testament is primarily a revelation of the holiness of God, and of what God has done as a result of that, and, therefore, you find this teaching everywhere. What was the purpose of the giving of the law if not to reveal and to teach the children of Israel about the holiness of God? There He separated a people unto Himself, and He wanted them to know what sort of people they were. They could only know that as they realised and appreciated His holiness: so the giving of the law was primarily to that end.

Then take all the various instructions about the making of the tabernacle---the division into the outer court and the holy place, and the holiest of all, into which the high priest alone was allowed to enter once a year, and that not without blood. The tabernacle was simply designed to represent, as it were in actual practice, this great teaching about the holiness of God. Then, take all that you read about the ceremonial law and about the clean and unclean animals. Why all this? Well, the reason given is: you are a holy people and I am a holy God; you are not to eat what everybody else eats. There was to be this division, this separation, between clean and unclean. All that long list of rules and regulations is also a part of the teaching of the holiness of God.

Then, of course, the prophets constantly taught about God's holiness. This was their great burden and message. It is summed up perfectly in the book of Habakkuk, where we are told, 'Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity' (Habakkuk 1:13).

And, again, you get the same emphasis in the New Testament. Our Lord, for instance, addressed God as `Holy Father' (John 17:11). That is the supreme teaching about the holiness of God. Even He, who was equal with God, and had come out of the eternal bosom, even He addressed Him as `Holy Father'. And there is a definition of this in 1 John: ‘God is light, and in him is no darkness at all' (1 John 1:5). So the Bible is full of this teaching. It refers to God the Father as the `Holy One of Israel' (Psalms 71:22; etc.). The Lord Jesus Christ is referred to as 'thy holy child Jesus' (Acts 4:27), and the `Holy One' (Acts 3:14). Then we speak of the `Holy Spirit', thus the three Persons in the glorious Trinity are constantly referred to and described in terms of this quality of holiness.

But I suppose if you were to be asked to say where the Bible teaches the holiness of God most powerfully of all you have to go to Calvary. God is so holy, so utterly holy, that nothing but that awful death could make it possible for Him to forgive us. The cross is the supreme and the sublimest declaration and revelation of the holiness of God.

I should like to tarry with this great theme, but I cannot; we must move on. Let us just remind ourselves that surely the purpose of the biblical revelation of God's holiness is to teach us how to approach Him. It is not mere theoretical knowledge that we are asked to try to grasp with our understanding. Its purpose is very practical. In the words of the author of the epistle to the Hebrews, we are to approach God `with reverence and godly fear' (Hebrew 12:28). He is always to be approached in that way, wherever you are; when you are alone in a room, or when you are meeting as a family to pray, or when you are in a public service, God is always God and He is always to be approached `with reverence and godly fear'. No such expression as `Dear God', for example, is to be found in the Scriptures.

There are many illustrations of this. Think again of Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3); then there is the terrible case of that man Uzzah who put out his hand to steady the Ark as it was being carried on a cart (2 Samuel 6). That is a terrible declaration about how we are to approach God and worship Him. Read the account of how the law was given; how the mount was burning with fire, and nothing was allowed to approach it (Exodus 19:16-25): the holiness of God.

This doctrine also teaches us, of course, the terrible nature of sin. You will never have a knowledge of sin unless you have a true conception of the holiness of God. And that is perhaps why the modern conception of sin is so inadequate. We do not spend sufficient time with the doctrine of God, and with the holiness of God. That is the way to see sin---not primarily by self-examination but by going into the presence of God. People sometimes say, `But you don't expect all of us to feel that we are miserable sinners, do you? You don't want all of us to say with Charles Wesley, "Vile and full of sin I am"? That may be all right for drunkards and people like that, but it's not true of us!'

Some people are troubled by this. They say, `I have never really felt I am a sinner. How can I, when I have been brought up in a Christian home, and have always gone to a place of worship? Surely I'm not expected to have that awful sense of sin?' But the answer to all that is this: If you really came into the presence of God and had some conception of His holiness, you would soon know yourself as a vile, terrible sinner. You would say with Paul that there is no good thing in you (Romans 7:18). The way to appreciate your own sinfulness is not to look at your actions, nor your life, but to come into the presence of God.

And finally, of course, God's holiness shows us the absolute necessity of the atonement. That is the reverse of what I was saying just now about the cross as the manifestation of the holiness of God. Yes, but as it manifests that, it also shows us that without shedding of blood there is no remission of sin, that God's holiness insists upon it, demands an atonement for sin.

 

2. The next moral attribute of God that the Bible emphasises is the righteousness or the justice of God. Now this follows, of course, inescapably, from the holiness of God. What is righteousness? Well, it is holiness manifested in God's dealings with us. I think that is as good a definition as you can get. Or, you can look at it like this: it is that quality in God which always reveals God as doing that which is right. It is that in God which makes Him incapable of doing anything which is wrong. Righteousness and justice are the carrying out of God's holiness and the expression of it in the government of the world.

There are many ways in which this conception can be analysed and a good one is this: righteousness is the demonstration of God's legislative holiness. God gives His laws in order to impose upon us His righteous demands. He legislates for us. Justice, on the other hand, is God's judicial holiness, by which, of course, He exacts penalties from those who have been guilty of breaking His law, those who have been guilty of sin.

A further definition still is that the righteousness of God is God's love of holiness, and the justice of God is God's abomination of sin. And I think that that is the definition that most commends itself.

Now the righteousness and the justice of God, of course, are revealed almost everywhere in the Scriptures. The wrath of God is taught in both the Old and New Testaments. Our Lord Himself taught it; one of the cardinal doctrines of the whole Bible is that God has a hatred of sin which He expresses in His wrath. If anyone does not believe, says John, then, `the wrath of God abideth on him' (John 3:36). We are all by nature, says Paul, `the children of wrath' (Ephesians 2:3).

But God's righteousness and justice are not only manifested in His wrath. He reveals these same qualities in forgiving us our sins: `If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness' (1 John 1:9). Having prepared the way of forgiveness, if we conform to it, the justice of God comes in, and by His justice God forgives us. And God prepared the way of forgiveness by providing propitiation for our sins---and this is the most remarkable thing of all. The classic statement of that is in the epistle to the Romans: `Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God' (Romans 3:25). It was God's justice, coupled with His love, His mercy and His compassion, that provided the offering and the sacrifice---the propitiation---that was necessary.

Another way in which God manifests His justice and His righteousness is that He always keeps His word. What He has promised He always fulfils. I shall come back to that again later on. But He always shows us that He is the vindicator of His people. Now that is the whole message of the prophet Habakkuk. You remember his problem: `How,' says Habakkuk to himself, `can God possibly allow His own people to suffer in this way, and those heathen, those sinful Chaldeans, to be the very people who are going to punish them and to destroy them? How can God do this kind of thing?' And his answer to the problem is this: `It is all right,' he says. `Don't only look at the immediate and the present; take the long view and you will find that God will manifest His righteousness and His justice. The children of Israel deserve punishment at the moment, and He is using these Chaldeans temporarily; later on, they will be routed, and destroyed. God is absolutely just, and if you take the long view you will see it.'

He also rewards the righteous. Listen to Paul putting it at the end of his life, in 2 Timothy 4:8: `Henceforth,' he says, `there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.' I am not worrying about that, says Paul. He is a righteous judge, and the crown He has promised, He will certainly give. Henceforth this wonderful grace is given in Christ. God in the cross, then, is doing that.

Next, we read in Romans 3:25 that God declares His own righteousness and absolute justice. He is justifying His own forgiveness of the sins of those who repent. This is a very great and exalted conception. We see it finally, in this respect: God not only forgives the sins of the sinner in salvation, He goes beyond that. He declares sinners to be righteous; He makes them righteous. That is a very vital truth. If we are not clear about this question of the righteousness of God and the justice of God we might think that all that God does to us is to forgive us our sins. Not at all! Because God is righteous, we must be made righteous also; and He declares us to be righteous in a legal or forensic sense. That is justification by faith. But He also makes us righteous. That is our sanctification. This will continue until ultimately we shall be without spot and blameless, without rebuke, righteous and holy, even as He is Himself.

 

3. But let me come now to the third great attribute of God under this section of moral attributes, and here we come to the goodness or the love of God. You notice the order in which we are taking them---holiness, righteousness and justice, goodness and love. It is a dangerous and terrible thing not to put these attributes in the right order. People have often been guilty of that, and the result is that they have made shipwreck of their faith.

So we come now to the goodness and the love of God. In the Scriptures these two words are more or less interchangeable; sometimes the truth is put in terms of the goodness of God, sometimes in terms of the love of God; and the same points are covered by both these terms.

Yet there is a kind of distinction between them, and I suggest it is something like this: the goodness of God is that perfection of God which prompts Him to deal bounteously and in a kindly way with all His creatures. `Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God,' says Paul (Romans 11:22). `The Lord is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works' (Psalm 145:9). Watch the terms `good' and `goodness' as you read your Scriptures, and you will find they generally cover that conception of God's bounty.

God's love is that attribute in God by which He is eternally moved to communicate Himself to others. The Scriptures make it quite clear that the love of God is something that communicates itself; God is eternal, and God is eternal love. That, incidentally, will be our introduction to the doctrine of the Trinity. The very fact that God is love is proof, in a sense, of the Trinity. Because God is eternal and eternal love, there must have been someone whom He always loved. That makes the doctrine of the Trinity an absolute necessity. However, for now, we are trying to define the difference between goodness and love.

3.1 How, then, do these glorious qualities in God reveal and manifest themselves? For convenience, I have tried to put them under certain headings. First, God manifests His goodness and His love towards His creatures in general. You find this, for instance, in Matthew 5:45: `For he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.' That is the goodness of God to all His creatures, indiscriminately. Then we are told in Matthew 6:26 that He feeds `the fowls of the air'. In Acts 14:17 you will find Paul arguing at Lystra that God `left not himself without witness' in this respect, `that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness'. All this is a manifestation of the goodness of God. Even when men and women have forgotten Him, and have lost their knowledge of Him, God continues to be good to them in that way.

3.2 But having said that, let us come to something more particular and still more glorious. The second way in which the goodness and the love of God manifest themselves is by means of what the Bible calls the grace of God. I am not surprised that the great Philip Doddridge, when he thought of this word, burst out saying, 'Grace---it is a charming sound, harmonious to mine ear!' There is no more glorious word than the word `grace'. Grace, this great word that you find so constantly in the Scriptures, is the goodness or the love of God towards those who do not in any way deserve it. It is the unmerited goodness or love of God towards those who have forfeited every claim upon Him and His love, and who deserve judgment and condemnation.

The Bible teaches that the grace of God is the source of every blessing that is ever bestowed upon us. Everything comes out of the fountain of eternal and everlasting grace. I do commend to you a close and careful study of this word in the first two chapters of the epistle to the Ephesians. Oh, it is all goodness, all of His grace, this amazing grace of God! `The grace of God,' says Paul to Titus, `that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men' (Titus 2:11). And then read Titus 3 as well; it is again a most magnificent statement about the grace of God. So read these chapters and rejoice and abandon yourself in worship as you begin to understand the wonderful love and goodness of God which He has revealed in the Lord Jesus Christ.

3.3 And the next thing in the manifestation of the goodness and the love of God is the mercy of God. If you like alternative terms, it is the loving-kindness of God, the tender compassion of God. All these words have their special meaning. Have you noticed how, in the salutations in many of the epistles, you have, `Grace, mercy and peace'? So mercy and grace are not the same thing. What, then, is mercy? It can be defined as the goodness or the love of God towards those who are in misery or distress as the result of their sin, and irrespective of their deserts. Be alert to that word `mercy', and you will find that it means that. Psalm 103 has some glorious statements about the mercy of God. And in the introduction to Luke's Gospel, you find these words: `He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy' (Luke 1:54). Then verses 77 and 78 read like this: He is sent, `To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God.' And you find God's mercy constantly stated in the New Testament epistles. Paul says, `Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth' (Romans 9:18). But you will find it most of all in the salutations in the introductions to the epistles.

3.4 One other subdivision of this goodness and love of God---and what a glorious one this is again!---is the patience and longsuffering of God. Not one of us would be here tonight were it not for this! If God were not longsuffering we should all have been blotted out. But God is longsuffering. What does it mean? It means that He bears with the froward and the evil; He shows forbearance towards sinners who, in spite of all His benefits and mercies, still sin against Him. Paul puts it like this: `Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?' (Romans 2:4). He says again, `What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction' (Romans 9:22). Peter puts it clearly when he tells us that God has been patient with those spirits and beings, `Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah' (1 Peter 3:20). And there is that famous statement in his second epistle where he says that we must `account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation' (2 Peter 3:15).

 

4. Now that brings me to the fourth moral attribute of God, and that is God's faithfulness. This, in a sense, is included in His righteousness and justice, and also in the idea of the immutability of God. Yet I feel, with many others, constrained to put it as a separate heading because of the emphasis which is so frequently placed upon it in the Scriptures. What does it mean? Well, I have never met with a better definition of the faithfulness of God than this: when you say that God is faithful you mean that He is one upon whom you can safely lean. It means one on whom you can absolutely rely; one upon whom you can depend; one upon whom you can stay yourself, without ever being in any doubt that He will suddenly let go and let you go.

The Bible has some glorious statements about this. It tells us that the faithfulness of God reaches unto the clouds (Psalm 36:5). It tells us endlessly that God always keeps His promises, and never breaks His covenants. It tells us that God will always fulfil every word that has ever gone out of His mouth (Isaiah 55:11). It tells us that God will always faithfully and certainly defend and deliver His servants at all times of trial, testing and conflict. It tells us that God can be relied upon to confirm and to establish all whom He has called, guarding them from the evil one, and keeping them and guiding them until His purposes are fulfilled in them.

Listen to one great statement of all that: `God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord' (1 Corinthians 1:9). Whatever else may happen, whatever may be going wrong, Paul tells those people to be sure of this---God is faithful. Or, again, he says, `And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ' (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Then notice, `Faithful is he that calleth you, who also will do it' (1 Thessalonians 5:24). It is absolutely certain: nothing can frustrate Him; nothing can make Him forego what He has promised; nothing can cause Him to change what He has purposed with respect to you. If you are a child of God, your ultimate destiny is absolutely sure.

Then there is another statement of this and what a comfort it is! We have sinned against Him; we cannot forgive ourselves and we do not know what to do. But this is our hope: `If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins . . .' (1 John 1:9). He has said He will do it, and because He has said it, He will do it. He is faithful. You need not worry, therefore; cast yourself on the faithfulness of God, and tell the devil that you have been forgiven, that you have confessed your sins, and that the faithfulness of God guarantees your forgiveness.

So I would sum up this section on the faithfulness of God in this way: our Lord once turned to His followers and said, `Have faith in God' (Mark 11: 22)---that is the Authorised (King James) Version. But the great and saintly Hudson Taylor1 always said that that should be translated not so much, `Have faith in God,' as, `Hold on to the faithfulness of God.' It became the motto of his life and work. Of course, that is to have faith in God, but, you see, if you put it in that way `Have faith in God'---the emphasis seems to be on your faith. `It is not that,' said Hudson Taylor, `it is the faithfulness of God that matters. When you have no faith in yourself, hold on to His faithfulness.' God is immutable. God is faithful. He will never change. That is what faith in God really means. Whatever may be happening to you, wherever you are, hold on to the faithfulness of God.

So then, far too hurriedly, I am afraid, we have dealt with the attributes of God. Before I leave them, let me again stress this: though for the sake of clarity, and for intellectual comprehension, we have to take them one by one, we must be very careful never to isolate any one of them in our thinking about God. God is altogether in every one of His attributes at the same time; so that we must never put up one of the attributes against another. We must never contrast the holiness of God and the mercy of God. God is holy, God is mercy---altogether, always, at the same time.

I must emphasise this because, owing to our limited minds and our limited comprehension, we have to make these distinctions. But God forbid that we should divide anything in God Himself! We cannot actually do it, of course, but we can do it falsely to our own destruction. So remember at all times that the whole of God is in every attribute, and that God is all of these things at the same time. His love is a holy love. The tragedy of forgetting that, and of pitting His love against His justice! No, no! Everything in God is loving. Everything in God is just and righteous altogether, always. We must always preserve in our thinking the perfection of balance that is in God Himself.(69-78)

 

Note

1. The nineteenth century founder of the China Inland Mission, now the Overseas Missionary Fellowship.

 

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