“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).- Matthew 5:48
When we study the attributes of God we are really trying to define who He is. Even though we will never fully grasp the depths of His being and character, it is important to be able to delineate the attributes of the Lord, for the God of Scripture is not the deity described in any non-Christian religion. If we cannot “describe” Him, we cannot distinguish Him from the plethora of man-made idols. However, doing this is no easy task, for the method we use to come up with definitions in general cannot easily be applied to studying the Lord.
In our pursuit of knowledge we engage in taxonomy, the discipline of classification. We saw this a few months ago when examining Genesis 2, where Adam is given the task of naming all the animals in the garden (v. 19). Presumably he separated them, grouping all winged creatures together before naming them “birds,” gathering all animals with fins before naming them “fish,” and so on.
We do something similar when we develop definitions. A specific kind of cancer can only be designated, for example, once we have created categories for the various cancers and for the different parts of the body. But defining our Father is hard because He does not fit into any grouping. He is sui generis — in a class by Himself. Every time we apply existing categories to Him we will face certain limitations.
Take the idea of “being,” for instance. We can say, quite appropriately, that God and man are both beings. Yet, while we can define man according to the category of being, we cannot do exactly the same with the “beingness” of God. He is not just one member of the class of beings, for without Him, no being would exist.
The Creator and man share in the attribute of “beingness” in that both are real; we both exist. The distinction is in how the Lord exists. Traditionally, theologians have defined God as the ens perfectissimum — the most perfect being. Our sovereign Creator is the most perfect being we can contemplate, but even this is difficult because we have only experienced imperfection. Yet this should not make us stop trying to understand God. We must instead study with humility, realizing that He is the final, perfect standard for all things.
To say God is the most perfect being is not simply to take an attribute like human goodness, for example, and assume that His goodness is exactly like ours, only developed to its highest degree. While human goodness and divine goodness overlap, the Lord’s goodness is the category by which we judge human goodness, not vice versa. Consider how you define what is good, true, and beautiful and how much your standard reflects Scripture.
Passages for Further Study
Pss. 18:30; 40:5; 89:5–8
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 500 physical copies. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred (where applicable). If no such link exists, simply link to www.ligonier.org.
Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: From Ligonier Ministries, the teaching fellowship of R.C. Sproul. All rights reserved. Website: www.ligonier.org | Phone: 1-800-435-4343