In part 1, we looked at those doctrines that are essential to salvation: those that cannot be denied by a person whom Christ has saved. We found that these all centered on Christ: His perfect nature as God Almighty, His atoning death for our sins, His grace by which He grants us faith in Him, His resurrection that foreshadows our own, and the repentance He grants us which results in obedience and good works. We cannot attain salvation by our own works, but only by God’s grace received through faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9). This is the Gospel and it is all about Jesus.
Any alternative is a false gospel. The saving faith that Jesus imparts to us allows us to confess that Christ is the Lord God (Romans 10:9-13; John 8:24). It is a genuine faith that God raised Christ from the dead (Romans 10:9-11), and will resurrect everyone else at His second coming (1 Corinthians 15:20-24; John 5:28-29). The saving faith God imparts to us always involves repentance from sin and will result in good works (Luke 13:3,5; Revelation 2:5; 1 John 2:4; James 2:4). These verses also clearly teach that the one who denies any of the above principles does not have salvation, but will die in his sins.
And yet, there are many who would verbally profess the above doctrines but lack saving faith in Christ. Consider what Christ Himself said in Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.” We saw in Romans 10:9-13 that declaring Jesus is Lord is a requirement for salvation. Yet, Jesus Himself indicates that this, by itself, is insufficient. He said, “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:22-23).
Notice that Jesus said “many.” That is, many people think they have salvation in Christ and will be surprised to learn on Judgment Day that they do not. That is a terrifying thought! These verses should challenge every professing believer to ask himself, “Am I truly saved?” Saying the right words does not impart salvation. Rather, God imparts salvation, granting to the sinner a new heart, repentance from sins, and faith in God.
But how do we know that our faith in God is genuine? After all, Jesus refers to people who were confident in their salvation, who professed Christ as Lord, and even performed miracles in His name; yet, they will not enter heaven. Just imagine living your life, thinking you are a Christian, being confident in your faith in Christ, and then having Him say to you on Judgment Day, “I never knew you. Depart from Me.”
God knows the people He saves (John 10:27-28). And they know Him (John 10:14). This knowledge is more than simply an awareness of God’s existence. Even the demons know that God exists, but they are not saved (James 2:19). Rather, God enters into a loving relationship with those whom He saves (Romans 8:29). Therefore, those who are genuinely saved have come to know God and to recognize His voice.
For this reason, a severe misunderstanding of the nature of God is an indication that a person may not be saved. Suppose that someone professes Jesus as Lord and believes that God raised Him from the dead. But then when I ask him to describe God, he responds, “Oh, he is a three-headed dragon that lives on a moon of Neptune.” Such a heretical and absurd response would indicate that this person does not know the real God. The person may be saying the right words in professing Christ’s Lordship and resurrection, but he has placed his faith in a fictional god of his own imagination. And a fictional god cannot save you from the wrath of the Living God.
This is the characteristic of cults. Cults profess to be Christian, but have placed their faith in a false god rather than the biblical God. It can be difficult to identify cults because they often use the same words as Christians, but they mean something different. Thus, it is necessary to ask questions about the nature of their god. Is their god an all-powerful, all-knowing, omni-present, unchanging, eternal, triune spirit? A person who does not know God in a saving way often has one or more fundamental misconceptions about God that are revealed when sufficient questions are asked.
No doubt, even a saved person can have some misconceptions about God. After all, God is infinite and we are finite. Therefore, we cannot know everything about Him. But there are certain characteristics that are basic to the nature of God. A denial of one or more of these may indicate that a person does not know God in a saving way.
So, what are the fundamental characteristics of the biblical God? What are His essential attributes that are clearly elucidated in Scripture? All those who truly know God should agree on the following aspects of His nature.
(1) The Trinity
The biblical God is triune. He is one in nature/essence, and three in eternally distinct persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Thus, these three Persons share one name (Yahweh) as Christ affirms in Matthew 28:19. Yet each divine Person is one eye-witness under biblical law (John 8:17). The doctrine of the Trinity necessarily entails monotheism, which James 2:19 implies is necessary (but not sufficient) for salvation. We have seen that Romans 10:9-10 teaches the belief that God raised Christ from the dead is essential to salvation. The Trinity is implicit in this passage because all three Persons were involved in the Resurrection. The Spirit raised Christ from the dead, (Romans 8:11), as did the Father (Galatians 1:1), as did the Son Himself (John 10:17-18).
Fortunately, the Bible does not say that a detailed and nuanced understanding of the triune nature of God is required for saving faith. It is sufficient to know that God is one in essence, and yet three in eternally distinct Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. No doubt God will forgive some of our misunderstandings of how this all works in practice. But to reject what God has said about His own nature is to reject God. God expects us to accept whatever revelation He has given us.
Some may ask, “But what about Old Testament believers? Did they know about the Trinity?” New Testament believers have far more information on the Trinity than believers under the Old Testament administration. Yet, even Old Testament believers knew something of the fact that God is one in nature and more than one in Persons; we see communication between the Persons in the first chapter of Genesis (e.g. Genesis 1:26-27). Even the Hebrew term for “God” (Elohim) is plural (literally “Gods”) and yet used with singular verbs (e.g., Genesis 1:1). So, the Israelites knew that God was one in one sense, and more than one in a different sense. They probably did not have the rich understanding of the three Persons that New Testament saints enjoy. The point is that God expects us to accept whatever revelation He has given about Himself. A saved person will therefore come to accept what the Bible teaches about the triune nature of God, even if he doesn’t fully understand it. Thus, a rejection of the Trinity is a strong indication that a person has not (yet) been saved.
(2) God Is the Creator and Judge of All
God is the Creator of all things (Genesis 1:1; Exodus 20:11). As such, we owe Him our very lives. Since all things were made by Him (John 1:3), all things are contingent upon Him. They exist and continue to exist only because God the Son upholds all things by the Word of His power (Hebrews 1:3). God alone is not contingent upon anything. He is completely self-sufficient and does not require a universe or anything beyond Himself to exist (Exodus 3:14).
God is transcendent: beyond the physical universe (1 Kings 8:27). God is eternal and without a beginning or an end (Deuteronomy 33:27; Isaiah 43:13; Psalm 90:2). He has no creator since He has always existed. He is completely sovereign, answering to no one else (1 Timothy 6:15; Isaiah 40:13-14). He needs nothing, and does whatsoever He pleases (Psalm 135:6).
As Creator, God has the right to set the rules for all that He owns (which is everything). Therefore, it is by God’s standard and His standard alone that we all will be judged. This implicitly requires that God is righteous by virtue of the fact that His nature determines what is right (Ezekiel 18:25). His judgments are necessarily right because they stem from His holy nature (Genesis 18:25). Thus, our moral obligation is to obey God. And when we fail to do so, we must expect punishment since this is the just penalty for our treason (Isaiah 13:11). All God’s ways are just (Deuteronomy 32:4).
This distinguishes the living God from many false gods of other religions and cults. Their gods change, are not righteous, and are not sovereign over creation. As the Apostle Paul explained in Acts 17:24-25,28-29, the biblical God does not need to be served by human hands because He needs nothing; rather, we need Him since He is the one who gives us life and breath. The biblical God is the sovereign, uncreated Creator of all things. Therefore, a rejection that God is Creator of all things suggests that a person is trusting in a false god rather than the God of Scripture.
(3) God Is All-Knowing, Unchanging, and Eternal
God is eternal (Deuteronomy 33:27; Psalm 90:2; Isaiah 9:6; Romans 16:26). He has no beginning in time, and no ending (Hebrews 7:3). This would have to be the case since God is the Creator of time itself (John 1:3). Since God is beyond time, He does not change with time (Malachi 3:6). He can “step into time” as He did with the incarnation of Christ, and He can act in time. But God is not bound by time like we are.
Furthermore, God’s mind is not like ours. Our minds discover truth; God’s mind determines truth. We could define truth as “that which corresponds to the mind of God.” Thus, Jesus can say, “I am the truth,” (John 14:6) and, “Your word is truth,” (John 17:17) since Jesus and the written Word both perfectly correspond to the mind of God. God’s knowledge is completely extensive of all things physical and non-physical. He knows everything (1 John 3:20; John 16:30). And since God is beyond time, He does not change (Malachi 3:6). He has perfect knowledge not only of the present, but of the past and future as well. After all, God created time (John 1:3).
This is why “open theism” is heretical. The open theist believes that God does not know the future. In that system, God may know everything about the present and is therefore really good at predicting what will most likely happen in the future. But the open theist believes that God could potentially be wrong about some future prophecies.
However, God Himself claims that one of the distinguishing features of the true God is that He can perfectly foretell the future, and indeed causes the future to be as He wills. This is listed in the trial of the false Gods in Isaiah 40-46. In these chapters, God challenges the false gods to announce what is going to happen in the future, to see if they are gods indeed. In Isaiah 41:43 the Lord says to them, “Declare the things that are going to come afterward, That we may know that you are gods; Indeed, do good or evil, that we may anxiously look about us and fear together.” God alone can declare the end from the beginning, and causes all things to happen according to His purpose (Isaiah 46:9-10). If God were as the open theists believe, then He would not be God by His own standard!
It is because God is beyond time and knows the future exhaustively that we can have assurance of our salvation (Malachi 3:6). If God were merely within time as we are, and did not know the future, then the way of salvation might change. Indeed, God might change His mind and decide not to save anyone. The fact that He says He won’t do that means nothing to an open theist, because even God cannot know that He won’t change over time on that heretical system.
Mormonism is found to be a cult on this basis. Mormons believe that God changes over time. They believe that God the Father was once a man of flesh and blood who became God over the course of time. They further believe that Jesus is a different God from the Father – a denial of monotheism specifically and the Trinity in particular.
(4) God Is an All-Powerful, Omnipresent Spirit
Jesus said, “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24) As a spirit, God is not a physical being made of tangible material (Luke 24:39). Something is physical if it occupies a particular location in space. But God does not. Indeed, the entire universe cannot contain Him (1 Kings 8:27). Of course, God the Son added a physical human nature to His divine nature at the time of the incarnation. But a physical form is not something that is inherent to God’s nature. His nature is spirit. Yet, He knows about everything that happens in this physical universe; He sees all (Psalm 139:12).
Furthermore, God’s power is instantly available everywhere. This is what we mean when we say that God is omnipresent. No one can escape His sight or His reach. King David rhetorically asks of God, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there” (Psalm 139:7-8). God constantly upholds everything in His universe by the expression of His power (Hebrews 1:3). In this sense, He fills heaven and earth (Jeremiah 23:24).
God is all-powerful in the sense that He can do absolutely anything that He wants to do. Psalm 115:3 states, “But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.” Jeremiah 32:17 states, “Ah Lord GOD! Behold, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and by Your outstretched arm! Nothing is too difficult for You.” In Isaiah 46:10, the Lord says, “I will accomplish all My good pleasure.”
Sometimes people ask if God can contradict Himself. Or they ask if He can do something inherently contradictory like make a rock so big that He cannot move it. But these things would be contrary to God’s self-consistent nature. God cannot contradict Himself (2 Timothy 2:13), nor can He lie (Titus 1:2; Hebrews 6:18). So, there are things that God cannot do. Does this mean God isn’t really all-powerful? No. These are not things that God desires to do. Rather, God can do anything that He pleases – anything that is consistent with His nature.
Furthermore, God accomplishes all His good pleasure (Isaiah 46:10). He upholds all things by the expression of His power (Hebrews 1:3), and by Him all things hold together (Colossians 1:17). The universe is not an autonomous machine that continues to run on its own. It is constantly controlled and upheld by God’s power.
(5) God Is Good, Perfectly Holy, and Righteous
God is good by definition. Namely, good is that of which God approves: that which is consistent with His character and which incurs His blessings. Since God is necessarily consistent with His own character, it follows that He is good. In contrast, we are not (Romans 3:10, 23). No human being (except Christ Himself who is also God) lives up to God’s standard (Psalm 14:1-3), for God alone is good (Mark 10:18). Thus, Christ, as God, is the only good man who has ever lived (John 10:11).
Synonymously, God is holy and righteous (Revelation 4:8; Exodus 9:27; Acts 3:14). He has no moral flaws and everything God does is ethically commendable (Deuteronomy 32:4). Furthermore, God alone is Holy (Revelation 15:4). All three persons of God are holy: the Father (John 17:11), Son (Luke 4:34), and Spirit (Acts 4:25). Aside from Jesus, no human beings are truly righteous in practice (Romans 3:10). However, when a sinner repents and places his or her faith in God, God will count that person as if he or she were righteous (Romans 4:3-5). And God will eventually transform that person to be righteous in practice (Romans 8:29; 1 John 3:2).
(6) God Is Love
Love is such an essential attribute of God’s character that the Apostle John says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). In the Bible, the word love does not refer merely to an emotional experience, but to a conscious decision to esteem others – to benefit them perhaps at the cost of personal sacrifice. It is a selfless action.
The context of 1 John 4:8 is loving others in light of the fact that God loves us. A genuine, selfless love is not natural to our sin nature. It is something God imparts to us when we are saved. As a result of God’s loving us, we have a moral obligation to love one another. As 1 John 4:11 states, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” Out of gratitude for our salvation, we strive to emulate God’s character (Ephesians 5:1). This naturally includes a selfless decision to esteem others even when it may be detrimental to ourselves. After all, God loved us at tremendous cost: God the Son endured a crucifixion in order to save us from sin. “In this 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 4:9).
Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). This is the greatest love because it is a conscious decision to help others at the expense of one’s own life! And this is the very act of love that Christ Himself demonstrated on the cross. He gave His life for us. And He did this while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8). The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is the greatest act of love ever exhibited. God the Son was willing to endure death on the cross so that we may enjoy eternal life with Him.
Only the Triune God of Scripture can have both love and self-sufficiency as essential attributes. Love, in the biblical sense, is not self-centered, but is other-centered. Therefore, there must be more than one person in order for this kind of love to exist. Yet, God is completely self-sufficient. If God needed to create people in order to love, then He would not be completely self-sufficient; He would need something outside of Himself. And if God were only one Person, and completely self-sufficient, then He could not be love, since this requires at least one other person. The biblical God is one God, yet three Persons. And each Person loves the other two (e.g. John 5:20; Matthew 22:37). God has always been and will always be this way because it is foundational to His nature.
God’s love entails both grace and mercy. Grace is extending unmerited favor – giving something good to someone who has not earned it. Our salvation is by God’s grace since we do not deserve it (Ephesians 2:8-9). Mercy is withholding punishment for the guilty. When we are saved, God withholds our rightful punishment in hell (Romans 11:30-32). God’s mercy is due to His love (Ephesians 2:4).
God’s love is in perfect harmony with His other attributes – including His justice. A great many heresies stem from a rejection of this biblical principle. There are those who claim that since “God is Love” He will save everyone. But God Himself says that this is not so (Matthew 7:22-23). He does not extend His loving mercy to everyone (Romans 9:15-18). God offers salvation to all who will repent. And when people fail to repent, God is perfectly righteous to give them justice; the unrepentant will reap the eternal consequences of their high treason against God (Revelation 20:15). However, God in His grace and mercy grants repentance to some, giving them faith in Christ by which He saves them (Acts 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25, Ephesians 2:8; Hebrews 12:2).
The critics claim, “That’s unfair. If God saves some people, then He needs to save all people.” But this does not follow logically. God isn’t required to save anyone. It is an act of both grace and mercy that God saves some. And those whom God does not save, are they treated fairly? Of course! They receive perfect justice – which by definition is exactly what they deserve. So there is no doubt that the unsaved have been treated fairly. They have rejected God’s offers of mercy and salvation, and will receive the right penalty for their high treason of the King of kings.
But what of those people that God does save? They receive something much better than they deserve. After all, the redeemed rightly deserve death and hell for their treason, but they receive eternal life with God instead. Yes, God has forgiven their sins, but this would be unjust if the penalty for their crimes is not paid. Justice occurs at the cross. The penalty for all the sins of believers has been paid by Jesus Himself. Jesus voluntarily took our punishment on Himself (John 10:18; Hebrews 2:17, 10:12-14; 2 Corinthians 5:21). Although we deserve an infinite death for our high treason against the Lord, the life of Christ is of infinite value since He is God.
(7) God Is the Only Savior
For this reason, only God can be our Savior. Who else is perfectly righteous, that he can give us the merits of his perfect obedience? Who else has a life of infinite value, that his death can pay for all the sins of all his people? The Lord says, “A righteous God and a Savior; There is none except Me” (Isaiah 45:21). This is yet a further reason why Jesus must be God. Since there is no Savior except for God, if Jesus is not your God then He is not your Savior.
Salvation is available only by God’s grace, received through faith in Christ. “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Jesus Himself said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6). Salvation cannot be earned by a sinner. Nor is there anything we can do to add to our salvation. It is entirely from God. Galatians 2:16 states, “nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.”
Any position that attempts to add or subtract from this Gospel is a false gospel that cannot save. Many heresies are such because they claim that something additional is required. For example, there are some that say that, in addition to faith in Christ, one must be baptized in water in order to be saved. But water baptism cannot save you; only Jesus can. Water baptism is merely an outward act of obedience reflecting our unseen faith. There are those that claim that after salvation, one must do good works in order to maintain that salvation. This too is heretical because it makes continued salvation contingent upon works, not on Christ. Jesus is both the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). Good works will naturally follow from salvation because a saved person wants to please God. But these works cannot save. They are merely an outward reflection of inward faith.
Any person who trusts in anything other than the finished work of Christ on the cross for salvation is in danger of hellfire. Faith in Christ alone is the only way to salvation (John 14:6; Ephesians 2:8-9; Philippians 1:6; Romans 3:24; 2 Timothy 1:9; John 3:15-18,36; 6:40; Titus 3:5). Any other gospel is a false gospel (Galatians 1:8-9).
These are some of the most basic and essential attributes of the biblical God. They should be held by all Christians regardless of denomination. Therefore, a denial of one or more of these attributes strongly suggests that the person has not yet come to know God in a saving way.
People tend to prefer a god they can understand. They might reject the Trinity on the basis that it is counterintuitive and doesn’t make sense to them. A god who is bound by time as we are is easier to understand than the biblical God. Perhaps they like a god who saves every person regardless of their faith – a god who sends no one to hell. But such gods are fictional, and are not the living God who has revealed Himself in Scripture. These false gods cannot save.
The Scriptures do not specify how many misunderstandings of His nature God will tolerate and forgive. And people seem to want to push the boundary further, almost as if to see how bad their theology can be and yet still be saved. This approach certainly isn’t pleasing to God. Out of gratitude for salvation, we should desire to accept all that the Bible affirms, and to understand it rightly as much as possible.