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Lectures in Biblical Theology
of The New Testament
by C. D. Cole
Lecture 21 of 23
John’s Doctrine of God by Dr. C. D. Cole
John speaks of the nature of God in three statements: God is Spirit, God is light, and God is love. He also speaks of God as Father, but the word “Father” expresses relation rather than nature.
I. GOD IS SPIRIT
This refers to His metaphysical nature, and distinguishes Him from all that is material. This does not mean that God is a Spirit among other spirits. God’s essential nature is Spirit, and as such He cannot be divided or compounded as matter can. This explains how God can be one in essence, and three in personal relationships: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If God were a physical being, He could not exist as three persons without being made up of three parts, each person being only a part of God. There is no human analogy of the Divine Trinity. Father, mother, and child are three persons in one family, but each is only a part of the family; while in the Trinity there are no parts because Spirit is indivisible and uncompounded. It is said of Christ. “For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily,” (Col. 2:9). When Scripture ascribes to God bodily parts, as eyes and hand, such language is to be regarded as anthropomorphic and symbolic, and as an aid to our finite minds. God can see and work without physical eyes and hands.
As Spirit, God can do all and more than can be done by a mere physical being. As Spirit, God cannot be limited to space, for spirit cannot be confined to a place. God does not dwell in man made temples. The Samaritan woman was concerned about a place of worship, but God is not confined to any certain place. Solomon saw this truth and in his prayer of dedicating the temple he had built said, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have builded?” (1 Kings 8:27). As Spirit, God is not limited as to time. All matter had a beginning, but God exists in one eternal now. We must, of necessity, postulate the eternity of something: impersonal matter or personal Spirit. The Bible postulates the eternity of God, Who is Spirit in His essential nature.
God, as Spirit, cannot be discovered. If He is known He must reveal Himself. God is not revealed in anything He has made, for He is distinct from all that He has made. Man by searching cannot find God; therefore, he can make nothing that truly represents God. Every effort to make an image of God is a caricature and is sinful. If God is to be seen, He must reveal Himself in a person and only in a person. And that Person is Jesus Christ, Who reflects the glory of God and bears the stamp of His nature. Jesus Christ is called the image of the invisible God. God became the object of worship in the person of Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ is not God incarnate, He is a sinner because He accepted worship. And if He is not God, we sin when we adore and worship Him. The wise men from the East fell down and worshipped Him when He was but a baby. “And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh,” (Matt. 2:11). A leper worshipped Him. “And, behold, there came a leper and worshipped him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean,” (Matt. 8:2). A certain ruler came and worshipped Him. “While he spake these things unto them, behold, there came a certain ruler, and worshipped him, saying, My daughter is even now dead: but come and lay thy hand upon her, and she shall live,” (Matt. 9:18). After His resurrection His disciples held Him by the feet and worshipped Him. “And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him,” (Matt. 28:9).
The worship of God is not essentially a matter of time nor place nor ceremony. We can and should practice the presence of God. We can be conscious of His presence anytime and anywhere. Worship is not putting something into the heart; it is something coming out of the heart. It is the heart, blessed of God through Christ, giving itself in adoration and praise to the all lovely One.
II. GOD IS LIGHT
“This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all,” (1 John 1:5). This is a description of God’s moral nature and stands for His holiness. Light in the Old Testament and in all literature is a symbol of truth and moral goodness. John the evangelist says that John the Baptist came to bear witness of that Light which is Jesus Christ.
To say that God is light with no mixture of darkness is to say that He is absolutely holy. Holiness explains the wrath of God, for wrath is the holiness of God in opposition to sin. “Because there is wrath, beware lest he take thee away with his stroke: then a great ransom cannot deliver thee,” (Job 36:18). The Bible says much about the wrath of God. We read of a day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God. “But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God,” (Rom. 2:5). We read of children of wrath. “Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others,” (Eph. 2:3); and of vessels of wrath fitted to destruction. “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,” (Rom. 9:22). Believers in Christ shall be saved from wrath in the day of future wrath. “Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him,” (Rom. 5:9).
The God of the Bible is the only true God, and the only holy God. Heathen nations have their gods, but according to their own confessions, their gods are wicked. Their gods are inventions of their own darkened minds and are like themselves.
The human heart, even the heart of fallen man, thirsts for God. But in his darkened understanding man misinterprets this thirst and tries to satisfy it with false gods. There is, in the very nature of man, something which makes it necessary for him to have a god. If the true and living God does not reveal Himself to him, man will invent a god with his hands, or spin a god out of his imagination. Man is a religious being, he will worship something. Another thing: man will become like the object he worships.
III. GOD IS LOVE
“He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love,” (1 John 4:8). Light and love balance each other, and the two should be properly balanced in our thinking. If God were nothing but love, sin would be sanctioned and the sinner would be in no danger of being punished. If God were all light, nothing but holiness, no sinner would be tolerated, and there would be no redemption. Holiness calls for wrath to fall on the sinner; love provides salvation for sinners. It was not holiness and righteousness, but love and wisdom that found a way to save rebellious man. “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins,” (1 John 4:10). I cannot go along with Dr. Conner’s idea that God saves because of His righteousness. In support of his view he quotes 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” John is not here telling how sinners are saved but how believers, out of fellowship, might be restored to fellowship. The apostle is not dealing with salvation of sinners, but with forgiveness of children. Confession of sin is not the way to be saved. Jews who hate and reject Jesus as the Christ confess their sins, but this does not save them. The way to be saved is to trust the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour. Of course this will not be done by any who do not confess and realize that they are sinners.
Dr. Conner mentions the two opposing tendencies in theology and attempts to steer clear of both. One is the thought that there is something in God that must be satisfied; that God’s holiness and righteousness must be propitiated. The other view is that since God is love, He is, favorable to man and no propitiation is necessary. There is in fact no middle ground between these two positions, and Dr. Conner has to come back to the position that propitiation is necessary in human salvation. This propitiation is required by God’s holiness and is provided by His love manifested in the gift of His Son. I heartily agree that Christ did not die to win for man the love of God. Christ died because God loved men. But His death was necessary for the satisfaction of divine justice: “To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus,” (Rom. 3:26). When John says, “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous,” (1 John 2:1), he is plainly referring to children of God, and not to unbelievers. Advocacy with the Father is a family blessing, and is not for unbelievers. And in His advocacy, Christ pleads His propitiating blood, which must be trusted before He can be our advocate. In His advocacy He can say nothing good of us; however, He can say much good for us: He can plead His redeeming blood on our behalf.
One can only wonder what the esteemed author of our text book means when, in speaking of the death of Christ, he says, “He did not die to satisfy an infinite Shylock who must have his pound of flesh before he would forgive.” Does he mean to say that the death of Christ was not necessary to forgiveness? He can hardly mean this in the light of what follows when he says, “He died as a revelation of the love of God toward sinful men, but also as a propitiation to a holy God for sinful men.” This can only mean that God’s moral nature, His holiness and righteousness, must be satisfied in order to forgive the sinner. John is in agreement with Paul when he bases forgiveness upon redemption in Ephesians 1:7: “In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace.” The justice of God demands something from the sinner’s Surety the Lord Jesus Christ, “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,” (Rom. 3:25). And it seems to be poor taste (to say the least) to compare God in His just demands to a greedy moneylender in Shakespeare’s comedy “The Merchant of Venice”.
IV. GOD AS FATHER
Father is John’s favorite term for God, a term that does not describe an attribute but expresses a relation. In the Godhead there are three persons in their relations, but only one nature or essence of being. Father implies a Son. God is the eternal Father because Christ the Word is the eternal Son. In human relations the father is older than the son. But this is not so in divine and eternal relations. Theologians have given us a puzzling expression: The eternal generation of the Son. We cannot conceive of an eternal birth, for birth implies a beginning. Calvin rejected eternal generation as absurd fiction. Strong says that the Scripture terms “generation” and “procession” as applied to the Son and the Holy Spirit, are only approximate expressions of the truth and any imperfect impressions derived from them are corrected by other declarations of Scripture. John does speak of Jesus Christ as the only begotten Son of God. “No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him,” (John 1:18); “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life...He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God,” (John 3:16,18); “We love him, because he first loved us,” (1 John 4:19). I have thought that this might be applied to His physical birth of the virgin Mary, who was told by the angel that the holy thing which should be born of her should be called the Son of God. “And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God,” (Luke 1:35). However, in 1 John 4:9 we are told that “In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him,” thus implying that He was the only begotten Son before He was sent into the world. There is difficulty here, but we can be sure from Scripture that the Word which became flesh was the eternal Son of God. The Nicene Fathers were in error in explaining Sonship as derivation of essence. The Son was not derived from the Father; He eternally existed as Son with the Father. With adoring wonder we can say with Paul, “And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory,” (1 Tim. 3:16).