Over the last couple of episodes we’ve thought about the nature of God or what we’ve called the non-moral attributes of God. That is, we’ve focussed on his being. God is present everywhere, he knows everything, and so on.
But in this episode we’re beginning to think about the character of God. What God is like to relate to? What is he like in personal terms?
That’s what we’re thinking about in this episode of Thinking Theology.
Hi. My name is Karl Deenick. I’m a pastor, theologian, writer, and Bible college lecturer. Welcome to Thinking Theology, a podcast where we think about theology, the Bible and the Christian life, not just for the sake of it, but so we can love God more, with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.
The Character of God
So what is God like?
In one sense, describing the character of God is a bottomless pit. We can always say more. In fact, the key task of theology and the main goal of studying the Bible is to know and understand and love the character of God more and more.
One place to look in trying to understand the character of God is the names that he is given in the Bible.
For example, Hagar calls God, “El Roi”—the God who sees me”
Abraham calls God, “Yahweh Jireh”—the God who provides.
The psalms often call God, “Yahweh Tsevaoth”, which means “Lord of Armies”.
Jesus means “Yahweh is salvation”.
All those names give us insight into who God is.
But while there are lots of things to be said about the character of God, there are some aspects of his character that are given great prominence in the Bible. And in this episode, I want to think about four of those.
God is Holy
First of all, he’s holy.
There are a few times in the Old Testament where people catch a glimpse of God. And one of those occasions in Isaiah 6.
There in a vision, Isaiah sees the throne room of God. He writes,In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. (Isaiah 6:1 NIV)
But what Isaiah hears is just as important as what he sees. The angels who are attending God cry out,“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isaiah 6:3 NIV)
As has sometimes been noted, God is described in many ways in the Bible, but only here is he described using the same word three times. God is love. But he’s never described as “Love, love, love”. But he is described as “Holy, holy, holy.”
The result of being confronted with the holiness of God is that Isaiah trembles with fear because he recognises his own sin and impurity in the face of the perfectly holy God. He says,“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” (Isaiah 6:5 NIV)
As one Bible commentator has said, Isaiah is condemned by what we might consider one of the mildest of sins, unclean lips—having said inappropriate things. Yet, for Isaiah, it’s enough to condemn him in the presence of God. Until, that is, God has one of his angels take a coal from the altar and touch Isaiah’s lips to cleanse them.
The point is that God is completely and perfectly pure.
As Psalm 145 says,The Lord is righteous in all his ways and faithful in all he does. (Psalm 145:17 NIV)
But holiness also includes what you might call God’s “set-apartness”. In Isaiah 6, when Isaiah sees God, he sees him “high and lifted up”, exalted, but also far above us. Later in Isaiah 57, God says that he dwells in the “high and holy place”.
God’s holiness makes him distinct from us. Not least because he is set apart from sinners. But also because of the sheer majesty and glory of his holiness.
Exodus 15:11 says,Who among the gods is like you, Lord? Who is like you— majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders? (Exodus 15:11 NIV)
And yet, although God’s holiness makes him glorious and distinct and worthy of our praise and honour, remarkably, God also calls us to be holy as he is holy (Lev 19:2) and perfect as he is perfect (Matt 5).
In fact, part of the promise of the gospel is that God communicates and shares something of his holiness with us. The Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us and make us holy in the image of Jesus.
That is even more extraordinary given that we are by nature sinners. But that’s the miracle of the gospel.
In fact, although God is high and lifted up, he is also near to the lowly and contrite. We read in Isaiah 57,For this is what the high and exalted One says— he who lives forever, whose name is holy: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite. (Isaiah 57:15 NIV)
Part of the very definition of God’s holiness, what it means that his name is holy, is not only that he is high and lifted up but also, incredibly, that he dwells with the lowly and contrite who are sorry for their sin and who humble themselves and look to him for his mercy and grace.
Mercy, it seems, is part of the very fabric of God’s holiness.
God is Righteous
The next attribute of God’s character is his righteousness.
Righteousness refers to God’s absolute justice and fairness.
He rules the world in justice. He always does what is right.Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you. (Psalm 89:14 NIV)
God always judges rightly. Psalm 98 celebrate that, saying,Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity. (Psalm 98:8–9 NIV)
In a world where we aren’t always guaranteed that we’ll receive right and just decisions, it’s a great encouragement to know that God always judges rightly and equitably.
The positive side, then, of God righteousness is his provision for and defence of his people and those who suffer unjustly.
Deuteronomy 10 says,He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. (Deuteronomy 10:18 NIV)
And Psalm 37:28 begins,For the Lord loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones. (Psalm 37:28 NIV)
But the second part of that verse goes on to spell out the other side of God’s righteousness, which is judgement. It says,Wrongdoers will be completely destroyed; the offspring of the wicked will perish. (Psalm 37:28 NIV)
It’s tempting to call that side of God’s righteousness “negative”, but in a sense God’s judgement is also good. Judgement on the wicked is good for those who have suffered at their hands. Judgement on those who oppress the poor means deliverance for the poor.
In other words, judgement is one of the ways that God upholds and defends his people and the poor and the oppressed.
Nevertheless, the Bible also describes God’s judgement and punishment as his “strange work”. That is to say that in some sense it is not his natural mode of operation. We see that in Isaiah 28:21 where God coming in judgement against his own people is described in exactly those terms:The Lord will rise up as he did at Mount Perazim, he will rouse himself as in the Valley of Gibeon— to do his work, his strange work, and perform his task, his alien task. (Isaiah 28:21 NIV)
God’s strange work in Isaiah 28 is his judgement.
Likewise, in Lamentations 3, God says that he will come to afflict his people for their sin, nevertheless, he says,For no one is cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone. (Lamentations 3:31–33 NIV)
Although God is coming to afflict his own people, he doesn’t do so willingly but with great reluctance.
It’s not until the New Testament, however, that we begin to understand how God’s justice and God’s mercy can possibly fit together. In fact, without the cross, it’s impossible to reconcile the justice and mercy of God.
After all, how can God just overlook sin? How can he let some people get away with sin and not others?
The answer is, of course, the cross. In the cross, God has punished the sins of his people so that justice and judgement is done in Jesus’ suffering while also showing mercy. Without the cross, and God’s punishment of sin in Jesus, God cannot be just and merciful.
Paul says in Romans 3,God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— (Romans 3:25 NIV)
The former sins God had left unpunished. But leaving them unpunished forever would be unjust. And so he sent Jesus as a sacrifice for the sins of those who belong to him. In that way, God upholds both his justice and his mercy.
God is Kind to All He Has Made
So, God is holy and he’s righteous.
Next, God is kind to all he has made.
We’ve just seen how God has a special concern for the poor, the widow and the orphan. Those who are the most vulnerable in society. God particularly cares for them. And God particularly cares for his own people.
But not only that, God even cares for the unjust and the evil.
As Jesus says in Matthew 5, his Father,causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:45 NIV)
Or according to Psalm 145,The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made. (Psalm 145:9 NIV)
And it’s not just human beings for which God cares; he cares for all his creatures.
One of the most beautiful statements of that comes in Psalm 84 which says,Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young— a place near your altar, Lord Almighty, my King and my God. (Psalm 84:3 NIV)
Even the sparrow finds a place in God’s presence and under God’s care. Even a tiny little animal like that receives God’s loving care and attention.
And, as Jesus says, if that’s true of sparrows, then it’s certainly true of us.Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Luke 12:6–7 NIV)
God is Merciful and Loving
Finally, God is merciful and loving.
One of the most significant moments in the Old Testament is where God appears to Moses and shows him his glory. God says to Moses,I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. (Exodus 33:19 NIV)
God tells Moses that he will proclaim his name in front of him and show him his goodness.
To us, someone telling us their name doesn’t sound that exciting. It’s how we introduce ourselves. But that’s not what God is talking about. In ancient cultures a name wasn’t just a label you used to address someone, it told you about the person. When God says to Moses, I’m going to proclaim my name, he means that he’s going to tell Moses and show Moses exactly who he is and what is at the core of his being.
And so in Exodus 34, God passes before Moses, who’s hidden in the cleft of the rock, and as God passes by he says,“The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” (Exodus 34:6–7 NIV)
In what does God’s goodness consist and what is at the very core of who he is?
God’s goodness consists in his mercy and patience and forgiveness and love. It consists in him being slow to anger.
That’s how God chooses to describe himself. That’s the most important thing about him; that he’s slow to anger, abounding in love and full of forgiveness to those who humble themselves before him.
That description of God is so important that it comes up again and again in the Old Testament. For example, Psalm 103 records,The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103:8–14 NIV)
Of course, that mercy and grace comes to its fullest expression in Jesus—in his incarnation and in his death for sins.
Yes, God is holy. Yes, God is just. But even more important, he’s merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. That is his name. That is at the very core of who he is.
What is God like? He’s holy, righteous, kind to all he has made, and merciful—slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He is absolutely pure and set apart from us, but he’s also near to the humble and the contrite. He defends the cause of the weak and punishes the those who perpetrate injustice. He provides for the good and the evil. And he is forgiving and gracious, punishing sin, but also standing willing to receive all who come to him through Jesus.
That’s it for this episode of Thinking Theology.
In the next few episodes, we’ll be thinking about the actions of God, and we’ll begin by thinking about his work of creation.
Please join me then.
 Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), 135.