A confessing community: God, self-existent

Gretta Vosper pastors West Hill United Church, a congregation in the United Church of Canada. Three years ago, she declared herself an atheist. Following that revelation, two-thirds of her congregation left the church, and denominational leaders sought to remove her from her position arguing that, since her theology no longer aligned with the denomination’s official statement of faith, she could no longer affirm her ordination vows.

A legal battle ensued and, toward the end of 2018, a joint statement between the church and the denomination declared that the “Toronto Conference, the Rev. Gretta Vosper, and West Hill United Church have settled all outstanding issues between them.” While the details of the settlement are confidential, Vosper remains pastor at West Hill United Church and the denomination assures all concerned parties that “this doesn’t alter in any way the belief of The United Church of Canada in God.”

Belief in God’s existence is the most basic tenet of biblical Christianity. The Confession we are studying states it this way:

God’s existence derives from himself (Isaiah 48:12; Acts 17:24–25), and he is set apart from all his creatures (Psalm 113:4–6; 1 Timothy 6:16). He is pure spirit (Deuteronomy 4:15; John 4:24), having no body or unstable emotions (Numbers 23:19; Psalm 33:11; Malachi 3:6; James 1:17). God is infinite in his being and perfections: changeless, eternal, almighty, most holy, all-knowing, most wise and free (Malachi 3:6; James 1:17; Psalm 90:2; Revelation 1:4; Isaiah 6:5; Revelation 1:8; Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:8; Psalm 139:1–6; Romans 11:33–34; Daniel 4:35; Romans 11:35–36; Ephesians 1:11b). He is most loving, gracious, merciful, compassionate and forgiving (Exodus 34:6–7; Psalm 103:8–10); he rewards those who seek him (Jeremiah 29:13; Hebrews 11:6), but hates sin and is perfectly just in the punishment thereof (Nehemiah 9:32–33; Psalm 5:4–6; Habakkuk 1:13; Revelation 16:5–6; 19:11). (Sola 5 Confession 1.2)

The writer to the Hebrews settled the importance of affirming belief in God’s existence when he wrote, “Without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (11:6). It is, of course, impossible to please God when you deny his existence. But the confessing community must admit more than that God merely exists. The Confession, therefore, states not only that God exists, but that his “existence derives from himself” and that “he is set apart from all his creatures.”

This affirmation is highly relevant in an African context, where traditional faiths can blur the line between the self-existent, set apart creator and that which he has created. But it is not only in that context that it is important; there seems to be an increasing tendency by Westernised peoples today to accept various pagan, polytheistic, and pantheistic philosophies. It is not uncommon to hear people ascribing providence to “the universe,” Gaia or similar notions. The Bible, on the other hand, clearly sets God apart, as an intelligent, almighty being, from everything else in creation. He is “the first” and “the last” (Isaiah 48:12). He is “the God who made the world and everything in it” and “Lord of heaven and earth,” who “does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:24–25). He alone sits above creation (Psalm 113:4–6), for he is the God “who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:16).

This God “is pure spirit, having no body.” He did not take on a physical form when he appeared to his people (Deuteronomy 4:15) because “God is spirit” (John 4:24). This sets him apart from the gods of the peoples, who appear in the forms that their acolytes create for them.

God is not only set apart from creation by virtue of the fact that he is spirit; he also has no “unstable emotions.” While the Bible certainly ascribes emotion to God, he is not, like humans, governed by his emotions. He does not react one way one day and another way the next because he woke up on the wrong side of the bed. He “is not a man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind” (Numbers 23:19). Instead, “the counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations” (Psalm 33:11). Israel was kept from being consumed only because God does not change (Malachi 3:6). If his behaviour was governed by his emotion, he would have wiped Israel out on a number of occasions. But he acted consistently with them based on covenant, not emotion, for in him “there is no variation of shadow due to change” (James 1:17).

Because “God is infinite in his being and perfections,” he never changes. He never matures, never learns anything, and is always perfectly consistent with who he has revealed himself to be. These “perfections” include the truth that he is “changeless, eternal, almighty, most holy, all-knowing, most wise and free.”

By “changeless” we mean thatGod always has been and always will be who he has revealed himself to be. He has never matured or learned anything and will never do so. By “eternal” we believe that he has always existed and will always exist. By “almighty” we affirm that he has ultimate power and authority over all creation. By “most holy” we assert that he is completely set apart from his creation and is utterly without sin. By “all-knowing” we acknowledge that there is nothing—past, present, or future—that is hidden from him. He knows our every word, thought, deed, and motive. By “most wise” we uphold that his ways are always best. While we may not understand, or even agree, with what he chooses to do, we must admit that he is wiser than we are. This, coupled with the fact that he is good and holy, gives us confidence to trust that what he does is always right, even when we don’t understand it. And by “free” we confess that he is not constrained by anything outside of himself to act in a certain way. He always acts in perfect accordance with who he is and is always free to do as he pleases.

Exodus 34:6–7 forms a sort of ancient creed, repeated several times in the Old Testament. There, the Lord revealed himself to Moses with these words:

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 on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.

The Confession affirms this revelation of God when it states that “he is most loving, gracious, merciful, compassionate and forgiving” so that “he rewards those who seek him” but at the same time “hates sin and is perfectly just in the punishment thereof.”

Since it is only those whom God first seeks who seek him, we can be confident that a stirring within us to “seek him” has arisen from divine initiative, and he will therefore bring that stirring to maturity. Ultimately, God rewards faithful seeking with deliverance from eternal punishment to the promise of eternal life. We can be sure that he will be found by those who genuinely seek him (Jeremiah 29:13), for he has sought them first.

While he is gracious to sinners, God “hates sin.” Sin is any word, thought, deed, or motive that is in contradiction to what God commands. We sin when, in word, thought, deed, or motive, we resist what God commands us to do or do what God commands us to resist. God hates sin because his commands flow from who he is, and therefore to sin is to reject who he is and to instead choose our own desires as our god.

God’s hatred for sin is not a rash, emotionally charged irritation. He “is perfectly just in the punishment” of sin. In matters of judgement, we can trust that he will always do what is right, even when we don’t understand how he has worked. For example, when we lose a loved one of whose salvation we were uncertain, it is important for us to understand that we can confidently leave matters of eternal judgement to God, who always does what is right.

Because God has “no unstable emotions,” we can be confident that his anger against, and therefore punishment of, sin flows from who he is. God does not decree what is right and wrong by random declaration in the heat of the moment. Every standard of right and wrong flows from who he is and is perfectly consistent with his character. Therefore, when he judges sin, it is not because he has grown irritated or grumpy, but because he must punish in accordance with who he is and has revealed himself to be.

The ultimate standard of right and wrong is not whether actions harm others (though that is one aspect in differentiating between right from wrong) but whether those actions do damage God’s self-revelation. Ultimately, when people reject God’s authority, it is loving to confront them, because rejection of God’s authority ultimately invites God’s eternal punishment.

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