The Goodness of God
There is in the answer to Shorter Catechism question four, as Alexander Murray in a previous article has helpfully shown, a grammar to consider. That is, it shows us God’s communicable attributes relate to his incommunicable attributes. And so in this we note that God’s goodness is defined by the fact that he is a spirit who is infinite, eternal and unchangeable. God is different. “No one is good except God alone”, said the Lord Jesus (Mark 10:18). Even though we may say that goodness is a communicable attribute – something that we can know in our own experience – His goodness is different from ours because, among other things, the proportion and scale and magnitude of it goes beyond all that we can imagine; it is infinite, eternal and unchangeable. It is absolute because he is absolute. And yet, as we shall see, in God’s mercy he has blessed us in a way in which we may show forth a glimpse of His goodness to the glory and honour of His name.
When we consider such a ‘big picture’ of God, as well as the biblical material, inevitably there will be philosophical constructs to grapple with. Please don’t give up reading. Even in this short article it may be very easy to stop and say, “Well, I know God is incomprehensible and I think this article may be too!” It is worth while getting a bigger perspective of who God is, so please take time to wrestle if need be with what is here.
We think first of all of God’s goodness as infinite
We may ask of someone, ‘Out of 1-10, how good was he?’ But the goodness of God is a scale that we cannot number. Thomas Boston said that, “The treasures of the divine goodness cannot be inventoried” (Commentary on the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Vol.1). They are vast.
We only need to think of the world around us. We are absolutely dependant on our God for all things. From the way that our bodies work and function to the abundance of provision that we receive from the world around us. There is the design and order that brings about weather cycles and seasons. Seedtime and harvest come and go and we are blessed with much more than we need. And we are given to enjoy what is around us; the landscape and plants, the birds and animals. To appreciate its splendour, at the beauty and be amazed at the God who is behind it all.
In the countryside away from the lights of town and city we might look up into the night sky and be in wonder like the Psalmist, “What is man that you are mindful of him?” (Ps. 8:4) And perhaps that thought is magnified in our technological world. We can look in a telescope and see the Milky Way galaxy around us with its billions of stars. And further, we could visit one of those great observatories and be at wonder at the thought of billions and billions of galaxies all around. Or perhaps to see the pictures that are taken by the Hubble space telescope as it reveals black holes, supernovas and all kinds of complexities beyond our imagination. The universe goes on and on and on and so we may question like the Psalmist, ‘Why does God have any thought for us?’ (Psalm 8:4)
When such things are in view it is time to bow the knee and worship this God who made the heavens and the earth out of nothing. Be in awe and wonder, “the heavens declare the glory of God.” (Ps. 19:1) He holds it all together and there is not one molecule of it that is out with his knowledge and control. That includes our lives. We are his crowning glory and he cares for us. He is good to us, infinitely so.
God’s goodness is infinite but it is also eternal
How then do we think about God’s goodness as eternal? We may ask of someone, ‘When was she good to you?’
But when we come to think about God’s goodness, His people can say that He is always good. The Psalmist says with conviction, “Truly God is good to Israel” (Ps. 73:1). We know and experience God’s goodness throughout our lives, even in the hard and difficult times, and may take from that some understanding that it is without beginning or end. But does this really demonstrate the extent of his goodness? One way might be to think about it in relation to its purpose.
In Louis Berkof’s Doctrine of God he points out that because
God is absolutely good in Himself, His love cannot find complete satisfaction in any object that falls short of absolute perfection. He loves His rational creatures for his own sake, or, to express it otherwise, He loves them in Himself, His virtues, His work, and His gifts. He does not even withdraw his love completely from the sinner in his present sinful state, though the latter’s sin is an abomination to Him, since he recognises even in the sinner His image-bearer. Jn. 3:16; Matt. 5:44, 45.
In this way we may say that God’s goodness is eternal because it originates in Him and always finds its satisfaction in His own being. In Psalm 73, Asaph speaks first of God’s goodness being known and concludes with knowledge of God’s purpose, “I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works” (Ps. 73:28). What he describes is reminiscent of the first Shorter Catechism question and answer, which concerns finding purpose in glorifying God and enjoying Him forever. And this is how it is with God’s goodness. As it is experienced and known, it is also demonstrated in His people to the glory of his name. His goodness, in some sense, returns to him as we glorify him and it is here that it evidences an eternal quality as it finds satisfaction in him.
What a privilege it is to know this and to exercise it. That God grants that we, despite our inherent sinfulness, should show something of who he is in his goodness through our own actions one to another is a blessing that we should never take for granted. What goodness!
God’s goodness is eternal but it is also unchangeable
We may ask of someone, ‘Was he good to you all the time?’ But God’s goodness is constant and does not change because it comes out of the fullness of his being. And so the sun shines and the rain falls on both the righteous and the unrighteous (Matt. 5:45). We all live in a world and benefit from what we call, God’s Common Grace. The goodness of God is something that each and every man experiences each and every day. But one’s experience of God’s goodness may be different from another’s. Is God’s goodness then not changeable?
In a recent blog post the philosopher Paul Helm gives a helpful illustration from sunlight for our understanding (paulhelmsdeep.blogspot.co.uk). We have all seen light shining through a stain glass window and refracting through the coloured glass. As the sunlight comes through the various panes is it different or one and the same? It is one and the same but it is the colours that make the difference. We can think of those coloured panes as God’s eternal decree being outworked as we experience in our own lives the goodness of God in different ways. We encounter God’s goodness in every moment of life. It is in that Common Grace to all but also in the Special Grace known by the Lord’s own. To the Lord’s people, God’s goodness is revealed and experienced most fully and wonderfully in knowing him as a covenant God. The God who is calling a people to himself in and through salvation.
He loves His own with a special love since He knows them as His children in Jesus. To them he communicates himself in the fullest and richest sense. The light so shines with all the fullness of his grace and mercy on his own in his Son whom he gave for them.
And we may say that it is in knowing our God in Christ that we come to a greater appreciation of God’s goodness to us. It is here our eyes are really opened to see the wonder of his creation in awe of its Creator. In Christ we realise and appreciate God’s goodness to us and find our purpose as we seek to bring glory to God in our lives. As God’s children we are brought to worship and adore him, to know him as our Heavenly Father. Oh, our fathers may give us good gifts when we ask but if so how much more our loving Heavenly Father (Matt. 7:11), who is not evil, but is supremely good in Himself.
What a great God he is! What a good God He is! For He is spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his goodness!