The Essence of God

Yesterday, I talked about what defines us – what it is that makes each of us “us.” I meant for the post to not only suggest that our individuality is greater than the physical, material sum of us parts, that the soul not only exists, but defines us. But what about the essence of God?

The reason that this question is important is because there is a view that says that the defining characteristic of God is His omnipotence. After all, the first difference we notice between us and God is that He’s in charge. He runs everything, we (hopefully) follow Him. But viewing God primarily as Sovereign or Omnipotent is problematic. Springboarding off of the C.S. Lewis discussion from earlier, the problem is primarily this: if the devil were more powerful than God, worship premised upon power would suggest that we worship the devil, instead of worshiping God. The solution to this is to suggest that goodness is more important than power. So a powerless Christ who preserved His goodness is worthy of worship, while a mighty and evil Huitzilopochtli is not. This isn’t just some ivory tower hypothetical. Christ tells us that Satan is prince of this world (see John 14:30), and that the whole world is his fiefdom (1 John 5:19). Certainly, we know, as Christians, that the good guys win in the end. But if our reason for worshiping God is because He’s sovereign, we might as well say, “we’ll back whichever horse crosses the finish line,” and there’s no merit in that.

But there’s a second part to this, too. Not only is the notion of omnipotence-worship just an exaggerated form of dangerous power-worship, the notion of power as being central to the identity of God is contrary to Scripture. Take Philippians 2:5-11:

Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

So Christ Jesus is able to detach Himself from His power, leaving Him totally dependent upon God the Father for His miraculous powers (John 3:2). His life on Earth is full of rock-bottom moments. He’s born in a stable, He dies amongst criminals on a Cross, and in between, we see things like Mark 6:5, where He’s unable to perform miracles due to the people’s lack of faith… in His own hometown. Isaiah 53:2’s Christological prophesy reads:

He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity, One of those from whom men hide their faces, spurned, and we held him in no esteem.

If our worship of Him is based upon His power, He’d be an unlikely candidate. In fact, He would have “emptied Himself” of His Deity (which would, in turn, render the Incarnation false, since it’s premised upon Jesus being both fully God and fully Man).

In contrast, the above passage from Philippians suggests that God the Father exults Christ because of His humility. Or, more to the point, the Holy Trinity is worthy of our worship for two interrelated reasons: (1) the Trinity is the source of all love; and (2) the Trinity is the epitome of Love. 1 John 4:16 captures it best in the succinct statement, “God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him.” This may seem like some poetic flourish, but it’s not. It’s foundational for the entire Judeo-Christian system. Obeying power isn’t a particular merit: it’s doing what you’re forced to do. But pursuing the Good even when evil rules the world is meritorious. So the only reason to ever worship God is because of His love. Most concretely, He died for you on a Cross, but even prior to this, He was worthy of (and received) worship.

This is a different way of looking at God than perhaps we’re used to, but it’s absolutely fundamental to understanding anything else (like why an all-powerful God would choose the course of Redemption which He did).


  1. I’m confused by one element of your argument here. Are you saying that Christ actually gave up His sovereign power when He came to Earth? If this is true, do you believe that God’s sovereignty is merely incidental to His existence (otherwise, a Christ who was still fully God would not lose this attribute)?

    As I see it, Christ was certainly humbling Himself and choosing not to exercise His power (i.e. leaping down from the cross), but this does not alter the existence of His sovereignty.

    I look at it from a perspective of a common denominator which is not truly diminished in any case. Yes, to Christians, God manifests the full glory of His love and the redemption we enjoy in Christ, but this in no way reduces His sovereignty. (In fact, it may be more evident, as He works all things together for the good of those who love Him) At the same time, most Christians do not envision hell as the kingdom of the devil so much as the lake of fire, where God manifests His wrath (although perhaps you could call that God’s manifestation of His jealous love of His own law).

    In fact, if you go back to Christ on earth, He not only retains dominion over the “kingdom not of this earth” which He spoke of to Pilate, but Christ takes dominion over sin, death, and hell. If anything, the meekness of Christ belies one of the most incredible showings of God’s sovereignty. God’s holiness could not permit Him to overlook our sin and grant us eternal life, but through Christ even that became possible.

    We should not diminish the ultimacy of God’s Love, Goodness, or other attributes, but all of these entail the sovereignty involved in them. God is not only Love, but the Lord of Love, not only holy, but holy holy, etc.

    To get to one of the other arguments which you repeatedly bring up. I don’t see something inherently distressing about worshiping God because of His sovereignty (not that it’s the only reason, but that it is a very big one). Once you knock that leg away, the promises of God get limits, the security of his care is suddenly bounded, and in fact the trust that the devil will not win is only hopeful.

    If you look at the reasons which the psalmists enunciate for worshiping God, sovereignty is a big one. Even more, sovereignty is an assumption in nearly every appeal to God for help.

    Finally, as I see it, there is something comforting in God’s sovereignty in the very fact that this means that He is good. The devil cannot be sovereign because sin and evil is always a distortion of good (i.e. you can’t break a law that doesn’t exist). I know that philosophers have played out this concept in different ways, but I don’t see how (assuming sin/evil=disobedience) you can conclude that a truly all-powerful being is not also good.

  2. Don,

    I agree with you that evil, being a perversion of good, is necessarily secondary. I’m not suggesting that God ISN’T sovereign, only that if He possessed all the characteristics He possesses other that sovereignty, He would still be worthy of worship, while if He possessed everything but Love, He wouldn’t be.

    You and I, looking at the full revelation, know the eschatology – we know the Good Guys win. But there were times when it didn’t seem like that would be so, like the Crucifixion. Yet even when it seemed like maybe He wasn’t sovereign, wasn’t in total control, He still deserved our worship.

    The sovereignty of God is an important thing, but my point is that it can’t be *primary,* or the fundamental essence of God. Now, whether His sovereignty is something intrinsic to His nature or His office (so to speak) as God, I’m not sure I’m qualified to speak on it. To the question, “can God create a stone so big even He can’t lift it?”, I would say “yes, God the Father could make a stone so big that God the Son couldn’t lift it unaided during the course of His earthly, pre-glorified, life.”

    C.S. Lewis has argued that even omniscience isn’t something intrinsic to God, and that in His earthly form, there may be things Christ didn’t know (since He has a finite human brain).

    I agree with you that knocking out sovereignty damages the virtue of hope, and I think knowing that God is sovereign is important for that reason (amongst others); but love trumps hope, as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13:13.

    My points’ not that sovereignty is bad or unimportant, just that it shouldn’t be the primary lens through which we view God.

  3. Joe,

    My worry here is that in the way you are emphasizing the primacy of love here, you have obscured the other attributes. Essentially, since you (rightly) find the principle expression of God’s love in Christ… would a God who never sent Christ down to earth still be worthy of worship?

    I would, along with the psalmist, say that the God who created the universe (display of sovereign power) is worthy of worship on that ground alone. At the same time, a God who is jealous for the keeping of His Law (holy) is worthy of worship based on that alone. A God who loved His creation so much that He called it good is worthy of worship on that ground alone, and, yes, a God who loved His people so much that He had mercy on them, even to the point of dying for them, is worthy of abounding worship.

    Christ is the greatest message of the Bible, and since Christ’s work is the ultimate expression of God’s love (John 3:16), there is no BETTER reason to worship God, but it is hardly the only reason to do so.

    To turn the idea another way. Why should it be that the only reason we worship God is because He did something for us? Even more importantly, why should it be that the only reason we worship God is that He had mercy on us? That is, if God had not extended His mercy to people who had sinned before Him, would He be unworthy of worship?

    I would have to answer the rock hypothetical differently. I would not say that the Father could create something so big/heavy/whatever that the Son COULD not lift it. I don’t believe that the nature of the Godhead in Christ is anything less than it is in the Father. That is, I believe that while the Son restrained His sovereignty on earth, He did not relinquish it.

    Indeed, is not the majesty of the cross all the brighter if the Son of God suffering injustice there was fully capable of throwing it off? The ascended Christ is in fact the spearhead of God’s sovereignty to us, set as ruler over heaven and earth, His claim to that power shown just by His victory over death itself. Again, I will say that the mystery of Christ in the gospel involves the great truth that the meekness of the man on the cross is actually one of the greatest displays of God’s sovereignty (along, of course, with His love, mercy, etc)

    I would again disagree with Lewis’ conclusion. He may very well be right that there were limits to Christ’s knowledge (i.e. possibly not going to start a lecture on differential equations) on earth, but again, I would say it is a matter of restraint or dormancy, not inability. Christ at many times demonstrated a knowledge both of what was to come and what others were thinking which serve, along with His miracles, as some of many times where the curtain was raised just a bit, giving true glimpses of the divine nature which He claimed.

    I am not arguing that sovereignty “trumps” all the other attributes of God. At the same time, I hope that you are not fully meaning everything that the word connotes. If love truly “trumps” everything else, then any time we conclude that something fits within our framework of God’s love, we can disregard consideration of all of God’s other attributes. I am only asking here that when we wrestle with questions about God, we wrestle with questions about Him in His entirety.

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