Do you not know? Have you not heard? Yahweh is the everlasting God, the Creator of the whole earth. He never grows faint or weary; there is no limit to His understanding. He gives strength to the weary and strengthens the powerless. - Isaiah 40:28-29
In the Baptist Faith and Message (Article II.A.), Southern Baptists confess that God is all of these things: "all powerful, all knowing, all loving, and all wise." We believe these attributes properly describe the character of God, because that is how the inspired Bible presents Him. Unfortunately, some people have downplayed or denied one or more of these attributes of God. They have difficulty reconciling the Bible's presentation of God with their own limited and uninspired observations.
For instance, some evangelicals, known as Open Theists, find it difficult to believe that God knows the future perfectly. They believe that the free will exercised by human beings is somehow inconsistent with the all-encompassing nature of divine knowledge.1 On the other hand, some philosophers express doubt about either God's power or God's love. These philosophers cannot conceive how God can be simultaneously all loving and all powerful, yet allow human beings to suffer.2 For others, perhaps related to these previous reasons, it is difficult to believe that God is wise. Such doubts are especially prominent when nations suffer the vicissitudes of human history.3
It is necessary to review the biblical evidence for these four affirmations about the character of God; the answers to the problems that taunt and haunt a humanity careening towards eternal disaster can only be found in the Bible. But before we look there, we should recognize that there are both benefits and difficulties in various ways of speaking of the divine "attributes." The necessary benefit of knowing the divine attributes is that we can better know who God is and how we relate to Him.
But the difficulties in outlining the divine attributes are numerous. First, when we use the terminology of attribution, we must be careful not to consider God as somehow dissectible. We cannot divide Him like a specimen into various isolated pieces called attributes. God is not a series of loosely connected categories. Neither are His attributes in conflict with one another. Rather, God is a living, unified, and holistic Being.
Second, when we consider the witness of Scripture as to God's character, we must remember that at the center of the Divine Being there is a great mystery. We can know God only because He has graciously manifested Himself to us. In other words, our knowledge of God is a gift and we must not assume crassly that our knowledge of Him is perfect. He is perfect, and His revelation is perfect, but human beings and their reflections are not perfect.
Third, as we consider the divine attributes, we must be careful to distinguish divine revelation from human speculation. The Baptist Faith and Message wisely limits itself as it confesses the nature of God, confining itself to how God has personally revealed Himself to us in Scripture. Likewise, we should avoid abstract philosophical definitions that have little to do with divine revelation. When people follow their own efforts to know God, they distort or obfuscate the divine reality.
With these warnings in mind, let us turn to a consideration of the divine attributes made clear in this passage. According to Isaiah, God is all powerful, all knowing, all loving, and all wise.
God is All Powerful
Isaiah proclaimed, Yahweh is the everlasting God, the Creator of the whole earth. He never grows faint or weary (Isaiah 40:28b). From the creation of all things to their consummation at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, Scripture consistently exalts the power of God. For example, in the Old Testament, God is 'abir, "the mighty one" (Genesis 49:24c; Psalm 132:2, 5). And, in the New Testament, He is Pantokrator, "the all-powerful One" (Revelation 1:8; 4:8).4
When we examine the origin, use, and end of power, we find that all power comes from God. God created out of nothing everything that exists. Unfortunately, the powers that He gave to angels and man were subsequently misused. But He promised He would hold all these beings accountable. Thus, after raising His Son from the dead, the Father granted all authority to the Son, who also commissioned His church to proclaim the Gospel with power (Matthew 28:18-20). The Bible tells us that the Son will one day reclaim all authorities and powers, judge them, and submit them back to the Father (1 Corinthians 15:24).
In other words, all power has come from the Father and will soon be returned to the Father. In preparation for that day, He has assigned all power and authority to the rule of His Son, Jesus Christ, who has been, is now, and will finally restore all authorities and powers to their proper place and use. With Moses, we must cry out, The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God (Deuteronomy 10:17)!
God is All Knowing
Isaiah said there is no limit to His understanding (Isaiah 40:28c). A few years ago, evangelical theologian Millard Erickson, pithily asked, "What does God know and when does He know it?" Erickson was responding to the controversy over Open Theism in the Evangelical Theological Society.5 Among the arguments brought forward by the Open Theists, who doubt God knows the future perfectly, was their objection that an all-knowing God diminishes human dignity. Timothy George rightly responded, "We need not bring [God] down to size in order to lift up the true humanity of men and women made in his image."6
The prophet Isaiah would agree, for chapter 40 is an extended effort to show not only that God has all power, but also that God lacks nothing in knowledge. The immediate context of the above verses began with a human proverb all too common amongst the Israelites: My way is hidden from the Lord, and my claim is ignored by my God (40:27b). Some may have been driven to doubt God's foreknowledge because they could not reconcile His knowing yet allowing their suffering. However, man must humble himself before God. God knows everything. And He knows what is best for His people.
It may not always appear to us that He knows what happens, but He certainly does. We must trust that God understands better than we do. "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My ways." [This is] the Lord's declaration. "For as heaven is higher than earth, so My ways are higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8-9). Therefore, in 2000, the Southern Baptist Convention added to its confession, declaring that God's knowledge is "perfect" and "extends to all things, past, present, and future, including the future decisions of his free creatures" (Article II).
God is All Loving
Isaiah proclaimed, He gives strength to the weary and strengthens the powerless (Isaiah 40:29). Our God gives to those who lack. Indeed, we lack everything; anything we have is strictly because God gave it to us. Why does God give life, liberty, and happiness to us? God gives because love is fundamental to His character. Whether it is in the realm of our creation or in the realm of our redemption, everything that we have is due to divine grace, and divine grace is motivated by divine love. The apostle Paul queried, What do you have that you didn't receive? (1 Corinthians 4:7b). The answer, of course, is, "Nothing."7 In other words, everything that we have is God's gift to us, which is grace motivated by His love.
The apostle John went so far as to use the language of identity in His ascription of love to God: God is love (1 John 4:8b). He is the source of all love, and He is the end of all love. Thus, if anyone is able to exercise love, it is because they have received that love first from God. John demonstrated the origin and end of love in this way: We love Him because He first loved us (4:19). In other words, God loves us, first. Only then, as a result of His prior love, can we love Him. The same is true with regard to our love for other human beings. John again said, Dear friends, let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God (4:7). If you know God, you know God's love, and God's love will come through you to other people. To put it in a negative way, John said, The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love (4:8). God is all loving, and God's people, as a result, are able to love and ought to love.
God is All Wise
Let us return to that statement by Isaiah: there is no limit to His understanding (Isaiah 40:28c). There are two steps to biblical knowing: knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge presumes the cognizance of facts; wisdom entails the proper utilization of those facts. For instance, one can know that God created the world. However, if one does not seek to worship the Creator, this is unwise. Knowledge is recognizing that there is a Creator; wisdom is worshiping that Creator. The world is currently filled with people that know there is somebody out there whom we call God. They have knowledge, but because they refuse to act properly on that knowledge, they lack wisdom. And there are some who are so foolish that they refuse to recognize there is a God. Those who think they are wise have become fools, because they have been separated from God.
From where, then, does wisdom derive? Again, true wisdom comes only from God. When the apostle Paul proclaimed God's Word to the skeptical and the superstitious in the Roman Empire, he noted their ignorance. However, among the mature we do speak a wisdom, but not a wisdom of this age, or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing (1 Corinthians 2:6). Paul evaluated the Jews, who relied on experience, and noticed they lacked wisdom. Paul evaluated the Greeks, who relied on speculation, and noticed they also lacked wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:21-22).
Where, then, is wisdom to be found? Perhaps it should not surprise us that wisdom has the same source as power, knowledge, and love. Wisdom is entirely rooted in God's character. Moreover, God has demonstrated His character supremely in the death and resurrection of His only begotten Son. But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. Yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is God's power and God's wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). Jesus Christ is the wisdom of God!
How Can They Know God?
The prophet Isaiah asked the Israelites, who should have known better, Do you not know? Have you not heard? In the Old Testament, God made priests and prophets responsible for speaking God's Word to Israel. If the people lacked knowledge, it was laid at the feet of those given responsibility for proclaiming God's Word (Ezekiel 33:6-8). In the New Testament, God gave the church the responsibility for proclaiming His Word. If the lost are to be redeemed, they must first know who God is.
And God has made His character known supremely in the revelation of His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ on the cross is the wisdom of God's salvation on display to the world. Jesus Christ on the cross is the love of God for sinful man on display to the world. Jesus Christ arisen from the death of the cross is the power of God on display to the world. God made His character known in His Son, as recorded in Scripture, and He has given this Word to His church.
Like the apostle Paul, we must only declare Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2), for therein people will know of God. As Christians, it is our responsibility to take this knowledge to the world by externally preaching it. But it is the Spirit who illumines that Word so that lost men, women, and children might respond internally. God has chosen to display His character of power, knowledge, love, and wisdom in the cross of His Son, Jesus Christ. What a great privilege we have to proclaim who God is and what He has done for us in Christ.
1 The Open Theist position is promoted in The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God, ed. Clark Pinnock et al (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994). A summary evaluation by orthodox evangelicals may be found in Whatever Happened to the Reformation?, ed. Gary L.W. Johnson and R. Fowler White (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001).
2 Frederick Sontag perceives a darkness in God, while Harold Kushner perceives a weakness in God. Frederick Sontag, What Can God Do? (Nashville: Abingdon, 1979); Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Avon Books, 1981), pp. 42-44. Cf. Fisher Humphreys, The Nature of God, Layman's Library of Christian Doctrine 4 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1985), pp. 119-27.
3 Sir Herbert Butterfield, speaking to a nation just emerging from the horrors of World War II, demonstrates persuasively how God exercises providence even through historical trials and tribulations. Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History (New York: Scribner, 1950).
4 James Leo Garrett, Jr., Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (North Richland Hills, TX: BIBAL Press, 2000-2001), 1: 257-58.
5 Millard Erickson, What Does God Know and When Does He Know It? The Current Controversy over Divine Foreknowledge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006).
6 Timothy George, "The Nature of God: Being, Attributes, and Acts," in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), p. 233.
7 "Oh! Tell it the wide world over. Tell it in time and eternity, free grace hath done it. Free grace hath done it from the first to the last. ... Praise ye his name. Grace has done it. Grace has done it all" [his italics]. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, "Distinguishing Grace," in Spurgeon's Sermons, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 6: 87.
Malcolm B. Yarnell III is a member of Birchman Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, and is the Director of the Center for Theological Research at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.