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Watson and the Attributes of God

Sep 27, 2015

There is no greater subject that can be studied than God himself. Theology is, as the word means, simply the study of God, and nothing about this majestic topic can ever be exhausted. The infinite God will never be fully explained and understood by mere mortals.

But we as believers are called to do just this: to seek to know God, to understand God, and to worship God, as much as we possibly can. Thus any decent work of theology will always be of great benefit. It is meant to lead us closer to God: the more we know about him, the more we love him.

Thus I for one will always love theology, as I seek to always love God. And we have such a wealth of riches when it comes to great theology in general, and studies on the attributes of God in particular. Certainly the Puritans were one group that laid such very heavy emphasis on both.

Many of the great Puritan divines can be appealed to here. Let me cite just one: Thomas Watson (c. 1620 – 1686) the English Puritan preacher and writer. Many of his important works could be drawn upon, but his classic A Body of Divinity will be highlighted here.

This volume contains sermons on the Westminster’s Assembly’s catechism, and was first released in 1692. It was the first book to be published by the Banner of Truth Trust, in 1958. Various editions of it can be found, and I encourage you to grab it and study it and treasure it.

Here I just want to quote from some sections of it which deal with the attributes of God. Hopefully what is offered here will inspire you to get and read the entire volume yourself. Let me begin with parts of his section on the holiness of God:

The next attribute is God’s holiness. Exod 15:2. ‘Glorious in holiness.’ Holiness is the most sparkling jewel of his crown; it is the name by which God is known. Psa 111:9. ‘Holy and reverend is his name.’ He is ‘the holy One.’ Job 6:10. Seraphims cry, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory.’ Isa 6:3. His power makes him mighty, his holiness makes him glorious. God’s holiness consists in his perfect love of righteousness, and abhorrence of evil, and cannot look on iniquity.’ Hab 1:13.
[1] God is holy intrinsically. He is holy in his nature; his very being is made up of holiness, as light is of the essence of the sun. He is holy in his Word. The Word bears a stamp of his holiness upon it, as the wax bears an impression of the seal. ‘Thy Word is very pure.’ Psa 119:140. It is compared to silver refined seven times. Psa 12:6. Every line in the Word breathes sanctity, it encourages nothing but holiness. God is holy in his operations. All he does is holy; he cannot act but like himself; he can no more do an unrighteous action than the sun can darken. ‘The Lord is holy in all his works,’ Psa 145:17.
[2]. God is holy primarily. He is the original and pattern of holiness. Holiness began with him who is the Ancient of Days.
[3] God is holy efficiently. He is the cause of all that is holiness in others. ‘Every good and perfect gift comes from above.’ James 1:17. He made the angels holy. He infused all holiness into Christ’s human nature. All the holiness we have is but a crystal stream from this fountain. We borrow all our holiness from God. As the lights of the sanctuary were lighted from the middle lamp, so all the holiness of others is a lamp lighted from heaven. ‘I am the Lord which sanctify you.’ Lev 20:8. God is not only a pattern of holiness, but he is a principle of holiness: his spring feeds all our cisterns, he drops his holy oil of grace upon us.

As to the justice of God he says, in part:

The next attribute is God’s justice. All God’s attributes are identical, and are the same with his essence. Though he has several attributes whereby he is made known to us, yet he has but one essence. A cedar tree may have several branches, yet it is but one cedar. So there are several attributes of God whereby we conceive of him, but only one entire essence. Well, then, concerning God’s justice. Deut 32:4. Just and right is he.’ Job 37:23. Touching the Almighty, we cannot find him out: he is excellent in plenty of justice.’ God is said to dwell in justice. Psa 89:14. Justice and judgement are the habitation of thy throne.’ In God, power and justice meet. Power holds the sceptre, and justice holds the balance.
I. What is God’s justice?
‘Justice is to give every one his due.’ God’s justice is the rectitude of his nature, whereby he is carried to the doing of that which is righteous and equal. Prov 24:12. Shall not he render to every man according to his works?’ God is an impartial judge. He judges the cause. Men often judge the person, but not the cause; which is not justice, but malice. Gen 18:81. I will go down and see whether they have done according to the cry which is come up unto me.’ When the Lord is upon a punitive act, he weighs things in the balance, he does not punish rashly; he does not go in the way of a riot, but a circuit, against offenders. Concerning God’s justice, I shall lay down these six positions: –
[1] God cannot but be just. His holiness is the cause of his justice. Holiness will not suffer him to do anything but what is righteous. He can no more be unjust than he can be unholy.
[2] God’s will is the supreme rule of justice; it is the standard of equity. His will is wise and good. God wills nothing but what is just; and therefore it is just because he wills it.
[3] God does justice voluntarily. Justice flows from his nature. Men may act unjustly, because they are bribed or forced: God will not be bribed, because of his justice; he cannot be forced, because of his power. He does justice out of love to justice. Psa 45:7. Thou lovest righteousness.’
[4] Justice is the perfection of the divine nature. Aristotle says, Justice comprehends in it all virtues.’ To say God is just, is to say, he is all that is excellent: perfections meet in him, as lines in a centre. He is not only just, but justice itself.

Finally, his opening remarks on the mercy of God:

The next attribute is God’s goodness or mercy. Mercy is the result and effect of God’s goodness. Psa 33: 5. So then this is the next attribute, God’s goodness or mercy. The most learned of the heathens thought they gave their god Jupiter two golden characters when they styled him good and great. Both these meet in God, goodness and greatness, majesty and mercy. God is essentially good in himself and relatively good to us. They are both put together in Psa 119: 68. ‘Thou art good, and doest good.” This relative goodness is nothing else but his mercy, which is an innate propenseness in God to pity and succour such as are in misery.
1. Concerning God’s mercy I shall lay down these twelve positions.
[1] It is the great design of the Scripture to represent God as merciful. This is a loadstone to draw sinners to him. ‘The Lord, merciful, gracious, long-suffering, abundant in goodness,’ &c. Exod 34: 6. Here are six expressions to set forth God’s mercy, and but one to set forth his justice: ‘who will by no means clear the guilty.’ Psa 57: 10. ‘God’s mercy is far above the heavens.’ Psa 108: 4. God is represented as a king, with a rainbow about his throne. Rev 4: 3. The rainbow was an emblem of mercy. The Scripture represents God in white robes of mercy more often than with garments rolled in blood; with his golden sceptre more often than his iron rod.
[2] God is more inclinable to mercy than wrath. Mercy is his darling attribute, which he most delights in. Mic 7: I8. Mercy pleases him. It is delightful to the mother, says Chrysostom, to have her breasts drawn; so it is to God to have the breasts of his mercy drawn. ‘Fury is not in me,’ Isa 27: 4; that is, I do not delight in it. Acts of severity are rather forced from God; he does not afflict willingly. Lam 3: 33. The bee naturally gives honey, it stings only when it is provoked; so God does not punish till he can bear no longer. ‘So that the Lord could bear no longer, because of the evil of your doings.’ Jer 44: 22. Mercy is God’s right hand that he is most used to; inflicting punishment is called his strange work. Isa 28: 2I. He is not used to it. When the Lord would shave off the pride of a nation, he is said to hire a razor, as if he had none of his own. ‘He shall shave with a razor that is hired.’ Isa 7: 20. ‘He is slow to anger,’ Psa 103: 8, but ‘ready to forgive.’ Psa 86: 5.
[3] There is no condition, but we may spy mercy in it. When the church was in captivity, she cried out, ‘It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed.’ Lam 3: 22. Geographers write of Syracuse in Sicily, that it is so situated that the sun is never out of sight. In all afflictions we may see some sunshine of mercy. That outward and inward troubles do not come together is mercy.
[4] Mercy sweetens all God’s other attributes. God’s holiness without mercy, and his justice without mercy were terrible. When the water was bitter, and Israel could not drink, Moses cast a tree into the waters, and then they were made sweet. How bitter and dreadful were the other attributes of God, did not mercy sweeten them! Mercy sets God’s power on work to help us; it makes his justice become our friend; it shall avenge our quarrels.
[5] God’s mercy is one of the most orient pearls of his crown; it makes his Godhead appear amiable and lovely. When Moses said to God, ‘I beseech thee shew me thy glory;’ the Lord answered him, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will shew thee mercy.’ Exod 33: I9. God’s mercy is his glory. His holiness makes him illustrious; his mercy makes him propitious.

A thorough knowledge of God, leading to an ever-increasing love of God, is to be at the top of the Christian’s daily duties. The Puritans knew this full well and we owe so much to them. Let me finish by offering a few words from his opening remarks, “A preliminary discourse on catechising”:

“It is the duty of Christians to be settled in the doctrine of faith. It is the apostle’s prayer, 1 Pet 5:10, ‘The God of all grace stablish, strengthen, settle you.’ That is, that they might not be meteors in the air, but fixed stars.”

[1896 words]

2 Responses to Watson and the Attributes of God

  • The revelation of the attributes of God are critical for everyone! Indeed, knowing God is every Christian’s profession. Sadly, this is lacking from so many pulpits.

    To have a knowledge of Who God is will inevitably affect how we live.

    John Calvin said, “For how comes it that we are carried about with so many strange doctrines (Hebrews 13:9) but because the excellence of Christ is not perceived by us?” I don’t believe this can be overstated.

    If we know that God is faithful, then we cannot just accept divorce. If we know that God is holy and just, this will be the biggest deterrent for immorality and corruption. If we know that God is merciful, then this should be visible in our lives.

    David Clay

    Darwin NT

  • Interesting that “The Holiness of God and The Sinfulness of Man” was also the topic of today’s sermon, including an emphasis on holiness being the primary attribute of God, covering the other characteristics of love, judgment, mercy, wrath, anger and grace.

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