I want to think about two of what are called God’s “incommunicable attributes.” The incommunicable attributes of God are perhaps the most easily misunderstood, probably because they represent aspects of God’s character that are least familiar to our experience.
The Incommunicable Attributes of God: Aseity and Unity
1. Independence or Aseity. God’s aseity is defined as follows: God does not need us or the rest of creation for anything, yet we and the rest of creation can glorify him and bring him joy. This attribute of God is sometimes called his self-existence or his aseity (from the Latin words a se which mean “from himself “).
Scripture in several places teaches that God does not need any part of creation in order to exist or for any other reason. God is absolutely independent and self-sufficient. Paul proclaims to the men of Athens, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:24–25). The implication is that God does not need anything from mankind.
God asks Job, “Who has given to me, that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine” (Job 41:11). Similarly, we read God’s word in Psalm 50, that “every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you; for the world and all that is in it is mine” (Ps. 50:10–12).
People have sometimes thought that God created human beings because he was lonely and needed fellowship with other persons. If this were true, it would certainly mean that God is not completely independent of creation. It would mean that God would need to create persons in order to be completely happy or completely fulfilled in his personal existence. Yet there are some specific indications in Jesus’ words that show this idea to be inaccurate. In John 17:5, Jesus prays, “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory which I had with you before the world was made.” Here is an indication that there was a sharing of glory between the Father and the Son before creation. Then in John 17:24, Jesus speaks to the Father of “my glory which you have given me in your love for me before the foundation of the world.” There was love and communication between the Father and the Son before creation.
These passages indicate explicitly what we can learn elsewhere from the doctrine of the Trinity, namely, that among the persons of the Trinity there has been perfect love and fellowship and communication for all eternity. The fact that God is three persons yet one God means that there was no loneliness or lack of personal fellowship on God’s part before creation. In fact, the love and interpersonal fellowship, and the sharing of glory, have always been and will always be far more perfect than any communion we as finite human beings will ever have with God. Amongst the Godhead, there is a giving of glory by the members of the Trinity to one another that far surpasses any bestowal of glory that could ever be given to God by all creation.
With regard to God’s existence, this doctrine also reminds us that only God exists by virtue of his very nature, and that he was never created and never came into being. In other words, He always was. This is seen from the fact that all things that exist were made by him (“For you created all things and by your will they existed and were created” [Rev. 4:11].
Moses tells us that God existed before there was any creation: “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Ps. 90:2). God’s independence is also seen in his self-designation in Exodus 3:14: “God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” ’ It is also possible to translate this statement “I will be what I will be,” but in both cases the implication is that God’s existence and character are determined by himself alone and are not dependent on anyone or anything else. This means that God’s being has always been and will always be exactly what it is. God is not dependent upon any part of creation for his existence or his nature. Without creation, God would still be infinitely loving, infinitely just, eternal, omniscient, trinitarian, and so forth.
This doctrine also reminds us that God’s being is also something totally unique. It is not just that God does not need the creation for anything; God could not need the creation for anything. The difference between the creature and the Creator is an immensely vast difference, for God exists in a fundamentally different order of being. It is not just that we exist and God has always existed; it is also that God necessarily exists in an infinitely better, stronger, more excellent way.
The difference between God’s being and ours is more than the difference between the sun and a candle, more than the difference between the ocean and a raindrop, more than the difference between the arctic ice cap and a snowflake, more than the difference between the universe and the room we are sitting in: God’s being is qualitatively different. No limitation or imperfection in creation should be projected onto our thought of God. He is the Creator; all else is creaturely. All else can pass away in an instant; he necessarily exists forever.
Someone might wonder, well if God does not need us for anything, then are we important at all? Is there any significance to our existence or to the existence of the rest of creation? In response it must be said that we are in fact very meaningful because God has created us and he has determined that we would be meaningful to him.
God speaks of his sons and daughters from the ends of the earth as “every one who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory whom I formed and made” (Isa. 43:7). Although God did not have to create us, he chose to do so in a totally free choice. And it is true that we are able to bring real joy and delight to God. In fact, one of the most amazing facts in Scripture is that God actually delights in his people and rejoices over them. Listen to the prophet Isaiah’s words about the restoration of God’s people and listen to how God describes these people:
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
You shall no more be termed Forsaken
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;
but you shall be called My delight is in her,
and your land Married;
for the Lord delights in you
and your land shall be married …
as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride
so shall your God rejoice over you. (Isa. 62:3–5)
Similarly, Zephaniah prophesies that the Lord “will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival” (Zeph. 3:17–18).
The doctrine of God’s aseity or independence tells us that God does not need us for anything, yet it is the amazing fact of our existence that he chooses to delight in us and to allow us to bring joy to his heart. This is the basis for personal significance in the lives of all God’s people: to be significant to God is to be significant in the most ultimate sense. No greater personal significance can be imagined…
So now let’s talk about God’s Unity (or Simplicity)
2. Unity or Simplicity: The unity of God may be defined as follows: God is not divided into parts, yet we see different attributes of God emphasized at different times. This attribute of God has also been called God’s simplicity using simple in the less common sense of “not complex” or “not composed of parts.” But since the word simple today has the more common sense of “easy to understand” and “unintelligent or foolish,” it is more helpful now to speak of God’s “unity” rather than his “simplicity.”
This doctrine arises from the fact that when Scripture speaks about God’s attributes it never singles out one attribute of God as more important than all the rest. There is an assumption that every attribute is completely true of God and is true of all of God’s character.
For example, John can say that “God is light” (1 John 1:5) and then a little later say also that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). And there is no suggestion that part of God is light and part of God is love, or that God is partly light and partly love. Nor should we think that God is more light than love or more love than light. Rather it is God himself who is light, and it is God himself who is also love.
The same is true of other descriptions of God’s character, such as that in Exodus 34:6–7. We read there about God these things: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
We would not want to say that these attributes are only characteristic of some part of God, but rather that they are characteristic of God himself and therefore characteristic of all of God.
These considerations indicate that we should not think of God as some kind of collection of various attributes added together. Nor should we think of the attributes of God as something external from God’s real being or real self, something added on to who God really is. Rather, we must remember that God’s whole being includes all of his attributes: he is entirely loving, entirely merciful, entirely just, and so forth. Every attribute of God that we find in Scripture is true of all of God’s being, and we therefore can say that every attribute of God also qualifies every other attribute.
In terms of practical application, this means that we should never think, for example, that God is a loving God at one point in history and a just or wrathful God at another point in history. He is the same God always, and everything he says or does is fully consistent with all his attributes.
It is not accurate for example to say, as some have said, that God is a God of justice in the Old Testament and a God of love in the New Testament. God is and always has been infinitely just and infinitely loving as well, and everything he does in the Old Testament as well as the New Testament is completely consistent with both of those attributes.
Now it is true that some actions of God show certain of his attributes more prominently. Creation for example demonstrates his power and wisdom, the atonement demonstrates his love and justice, and the radiance of heaven demonstrates his glory and beauty.
But all of these in some way or other also demonstrate his knowledge and holiness and mercy and truthfulness and patience and sovereignty, and so forth. It would be difficult indeed to find some attribute of God that is not reflected at least to some degree in any one of his acts of redemption. This is because: God is a unity and everything he does is an act of the whole person of God.
It is God himself in his whole being who is supremely important, and it is God himself in his whole being whom we are to seek to know and to love.
These incommunicable attributes, his aseity and his unity (and his other attributes, both communicable and incommunicable) are but one of many reasons we worship the God Who Is.