The Attributes of God
While the absolute attributes of God refer to things true only about God, the comparative attributes of God describe things which are also true to a much lesser extent in people. These attributes include holiness, love, and goodness.
God’s Attribute: Holiness
Holiness is the first description that comes to our mind when we think of God. Holiness is the standard, the “what” as love is the “how.” God is holy and apart from everything that is sinful. The root meaning of “holiness” is a verb meaning “to separate or to cut off.” The primary meaning of holiness implies separation. As holiness applies to our lives, it includes both separation from sin and separation unto God. The holiness of God makes it impossible for God to commit or even look upon sin.
The holiness of God is both passive and active. The Bible talks about “God, who cannot lie” (Titus 1:2). Another way of saying the same thing about the active holiness of God is to recognize that he speaks the truth always (John 17:17; Rom. 3:4). The holiness of God is the primary motive in all God’s action. It is that which God desires us to remember most, and is the means by which he glorifies himself. Holiness denotes the perfection of God in all his moral attributes.
The word “holiness” is synonymous with God. David said, “He sent redemption unto his people: he hath commanded his covenant forever: holy and reverend is his name” (Ps. 111:9). Isaiah wrote about “the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy” (Isa. 57:15). Jesus called the Father “Holy Father” (John 17:11), and instructed his disciples to pray, “Hallowed be thy name” (Matt. 6:9). The angels around the throne of God will eternally shout the chorus, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come” (Rev. 4:8; cf. Isa. 6:3).
It is important that we recognize the holiness of God because so much of our relationship with God is dependent upon it. When we realize God is so holy that he must judge all sin, we begin to understand the necessity of coming to God through Jesus Christ. When Jesus hung on the cross and cried out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46), God was actually unable to look upon his own Son as he died, bearing our sins. An understanding of the holiness of God reminds us of the degree to which God loves us. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16).
God’s attitude toward sin that demanded our salvation, also demands of us a holy life. The central theme of Leviticus is, “Ye shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2). Isaiah observed that, although God can hear and- answer prayer, “Your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you, that he will not hear” (Isa. 59:2). David said, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me” (Ps. 66:18). The holiness of God demands that he judge the continual practice of sin in the lives of Christians.
God’s Attribute: Love
Another attribute of God that readily comes to mind is love. When children are asked to describe God, they most often respond by saying, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). Love is basically an outgoing attribute, as expressed in an act whereby God gives to those outside himself.
Lewis S. Chafer described love as “a rational and volitional affection having its ground in truth and holiness, and is exercised in free choice.” Henry Thiessen called love “that perfection of divine nature by which he is eternally moved to communicate himself.” Love is the attitude that seeks the highest good in the person who is loved.
It may be possible to give without loving, but it is impossible to love without giving. Therefore, love involves giving oneself to another. Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). John later wrote that the greatest love expressed by God was to give his life as a propitiation (atoning sacrifice) for our sins (1 John 4:10).
The love chapter of the Bible, 1 Corinthians 13, describes love in terms of giving. The word “love” in this chapter, translated “charity,” is an old, out-of-date word. “Charity” today means giving time and money to a worthy cause. Charity originally meant giving of oneself to those people whom we think are worthy. Today that idea is conveyed by the word “love.”
Perfect love is the opposite of selfishness. It gives itself in devoted sharing to the object of its love. Only those who are strong can love because they must reach out of themselves to others. God, who is the source of all strength, is also the source of all love. He can give himself and never empty himself or divide himself. He can love perfectly and continually. The Bible speaks of both “the God of love” (2 Cor. 13:11) and “the love of God’ (2 Cor. 13:14).
God’s Attribute: Goodness
When Parents teach their children to pray, they often teach them to say before eating, “God is great, God is good . . . .” The goodness of God is another of the absolute attributes of God. In a broad sense, the goodness of God includes all the positive moral attributes of God.
When Jesus told the rich young ruler “There is none good but one, that is, God” (Mark 10:18), he was relating a truth the young man already knew. When God told Moses his name, he said, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exod. 34:6, 7). Moses later told the nation, “He [God] will do thee good” (Deut. 30:5).
The goodness of God is an attribute reflected in his various actions. The mercy of God is an expression of his goodness. Henry Thiessen described mercy as “the goodness of God manifest towards those who are in distress.” His mercy is eternal in quality, but expressed only at his choice.
God’s mercy is available to a wide range of individuals. The Bible speaks of mercy to the church (2 Cor. 1:3), mercy to believers (Heb. 4:16), mercy to Israel (Isa. 54:7) and mercy to those who are called (Rom. 9:15, 18). The mercy of God is demonstrated according to the will of God. “I will make all my goodness pass before thee … and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Exod. 33:19).
The grace of God is another expression of God’s goodness. The grace of God, according to Thiessen, “is the goodness of God manifested towards the ill-deserving.” The grace of God is the opposite of the justice of God. Grace is God giving to man the exact opposite of what he deserves. Man deserves condemnation, but he receives eternal life. Man deserves hell, but he may receive heaven.
God’s grace is the motive behind our salvation. The Bible teaches, “The grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men” (Titus 2:11). Paul wrote, “For by grace are ye saved through faith” (Eph. 2:8). Early, in the same epistle, he wrote, “In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph. 1:7).
A third aspect of the goodness of God is his benevolence. Thiessen says, ‘The benevolence of God is the goodness of God manifested in his care of the welfare and needs of his creatures and creation.” Jesus taught the benevolence of God. “He maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). Paul and Barnabas pointed to God’s benevolence as a witness of the gospel. “He left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with good and gladness” (Acts 14:17).
Finally, the long-suffering of God reflects God’s goodness. The word “long-suffering” means slow to become angry. God is described as long-suffering (Rom. 2:4) because he waits for men to repent and believe on him. Long-suffering is the patience of God whereby his love overshadows his holiness. God exercises long-suffering, hoping that men will trust him and turn to him in salvation.