It can be daunting to wrap your mind around the attributes of God. I’ll admit it’s been a deterrent for me in even trying to understand them. When I was in college, I read A.W. Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy and A.W. Pink’s The Attributes of God, and that alone was enough to let me know God is unfathomable and incomprehensible. When I heard John MacArthur talking about his theological formation in an interview with Stephen Nichols, I resonated with his sentiment. Having read Tozer, he thought, “what more is there to know? How much more can be said about God?” Then he encountered Stephen Charnock’s The Existence and Attributes of God.
Of all the books that influenced his early ministry, MacArthur remembers this one having the greatest effect. Being that Crossway just released a new immaculately bound and typeset version of Charnock’s great work, I wondered if it might be worth checking out.
For a sermon in Ephesians 1, grasping at understanding and explaining the blessings of God that we have received in Christ, I dipped into the chapter titled “On the Goodness of God.”
Almost an hour later, I finally came up for air. Charnock’s discussion of God’s goodness, his very essence, was so captivating – not just theologically, but devotionally—I couldn’t stop reading. Since then, I’ve wondered if this might not be one of the truest indicators of faithful theological scholarship.
God is the most satisfying being in the universe; our souls can find no greater joy and reward than beholding him. Maybe then, the attributes of God, especially in the hands of someone like Stephen Charnock, are one of the key gateways to enjoying God. They help us see him clearly. In fact, one of the great takeaway choruses of my master’s program at Oklahoma Christian was that “theology leads to doxology.” Studying God, his nature, and works should lead us to worship him. (I’ll quickly add that another takeaway from my master’s is a proviso to that maxim, good theology leads to doxology.)
One of the great dangers of theological study is that it too, like so many other facets of our lives, would bring us close to God without actually encountering him. It’s possible to learn all kinds of things about God without knowing him, more importantly, without worshipping him. Charnock’s work, then, provides a double benefit, it leads us both to see God more clearly and to worship him as we read.
On God’s Goodness
The chapter (which began as a series of lectures) on God’s goodness spans almost 200 pages. Here I was wondering what more could be said than Tozer and Pink had written, both of their books being about 200 pages total. He begins with Jesus’ question to the rich young man in Mark 10:18, “Why do you call me good? There is none good but one, that is, God,” and expanding on this core doctrinal assertion, “Pure and perfect goodness is the royal prerogative or God alone; goodness is a choice perfection of the divine nature” (1193).
God’s goodness is seen in his perfection, holiness, and bounty, related to his blessedness and mercy, but not identical. Goodness is indistinguishable from God; he is the self-sustaining source of all good things, and everything he does is good.
To bring this down from the level of abstraction, though, God’s goodness is seen most easily in his great act of redemption. “Divine goodness would not stand by a spectator without being reliever of that misery man had plunged himself into, but by astonishing methods it would recover him to happiness who had wrested himself out of his hands to fling himself into the most deplorable calamity” (1252).
“It must be only a miraculous goodness that induced him to expose the life of his Son to those difficulties in the world and death upon the cross for the freedom of sordid rebels. His great end was to give such a demonstration of the generosity of his nature as might be attractive to his creature, remove its shakings and tremblings, and encourage its approaches to him. It is in this that he would not only manifest his love but assume the name of love.
By this name the Holy Spirit calls him in relation to this goodwill manifested in his Son: ‘God is love. In this is manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him’ (1 John 4:8-9). He would take the name he never expressed himself in before. He was Jehovah in regard of the truth of his promise—so he would be known of old. He is goodness in regard of the grandeur of his affliction in the mission of his Son—and therefore he would be known by the name of love now in the days of the gospel” (1253).
What a spectacular way of talking about God’s inherent goodness. His goodness compelled him – not the goodness of man, even his love for his creatures – the goodness of his nature motivated him to save his rebellious people. Breathing this air of God’s total and independent goodness, it is impossible to indulge the pernicious belief that we in some way merited the mercy of God or the salvation won by Christ. The gospel is rooted in God’s own character; that’s what makes it so amazing.
“This goodness is greater than that manifested in creation in regard of its cost… For the effecting of this, God parts with his dearest treasure, and his Son eclipses his choicest glory; for this, God must be made man, eternity must suffer death, the Lord of angels must weep in a cradle, the Creator of the world must hang like a slave” (1256).
Here, we see the importance of saying that God is essentially good, meaning that his goodness is not dependent on him doing things we deem as good. For example, the popular Bethel song, “Goodness of God,” says:
All my life you have been faithful
All my life you have been so, so good
With every breath that I am able
Oh, I will sing of the goodness of God
and in the bridge:
Your goodness is running after
It’s running after me
I love this song, and we sing it at our church frequently, but notice the difference between what this is saying and what Charnock is saying. In this song, we praise God for his demonstration of goodness to us, but there’s another layer running underneath God’s goodness to us, his goodness in himself. Before and without any good toward us, God is still good.
I make this distinction not to disparage this song or others like it but to draw our attention to an even deeper truth. If our worship is based on what God has done for us, it limits our ability to praise him. How do we praise him when bad things happen? When we are suffering? When we cannot see any good thing in our life?
Charnock writes, “Here is comfort in afflictions. What can we fear from the conduct of infinite goodness? Can his hand be heavy upon those who are humble before him? They are the hands of infinite power indeed, but there is not any motion of it upon his people but is not ordered by a goodness as infinite as his power, which will not suffer any affliction to be too sharp or too long. By whatever ways he conveys grace to us here and prepares us for glory hereafter, they are good” (1362).
What greater confidence could we have? What greater foundation on which to set our hope? God’s inherent and infinite goodness is a rock for our worship. By dwelling on these points, we can encounter the very goodness of God, hidden for eternal ages, but now made known to us. It is good for us to know God and to draw near to him by studying and celebrating his attributes. This is what Charnock has helped me do over the last few months, and I hope he’ll do the same for you.
Dr. Cole Feix is the founder and president of So We Speak and the Senior Pastor of Carlton Landing Community Church in Oklahoma.