Divine Simplicity and the Christian Life
The doctrine of God’s simplicity can often be talked about in the same manner in which rocket scientists discuss the intricacies of propulsion and engineering. Many scholars and theologians journey into the thickest parts of the theological forest in order to discuss what exactly the doctrine of God’s simplicity particularly means for attributes such as God’s wrath or His justice, and they could camp in that forest for years discussing those implications. One only needs to pick up a copy of Anselm of Canterbury’s Monologion or the theological Orations of Gregory of Nazianzus to immediately find themselves in the deep end of the simplicity swimming pool. But without diving into the deep end of that pool, how can we succinctly define God’s simplicity? We can define this attribute as our Triune God eternally being His attributes. He is eternally His wrath, His justice, His love, His mercy, etc.
Our Second London Baptist Confession of Faith states in Chapter 2:1 that, “God is invisible and has no body, parts, or changeable emotions.” His attributes are not parts that make up who He is, rather He simply is them eternally. Using this definition then, why should the Christian care about God’s simplicity, and what does God’s simplicity have to do with the Christian life? My aim over the rest of this brief article is not to blaze a trail deeper into the forest of the teaching about God’s simplicity, but rather to take what’s been gleaned over the centuries from faithful saints and apply it to the daily sojourning of the Christian.
Why should the Christian care to ponder upon God’s simplicity? Well, the simple answer could be that the Christian ought to always desire to dwell upon who our God is, but let’s mine a little deeper than that. God’s simplicity is a bed-rock attribute of who He is, as it’s logically tied to His various other incommunicable attributes. For instance, in order to uphold God’s aseity, or His self-sufficiency, we must uphold His simplicity. If God was not simple, meaning that if He was not all of His attributes eternally, then He’d be dependent upon forces within creation. He’d be dependent upon His creation to add to His love or to take away from His justice or wrath. Similarly, God’s simplicity is knit intricately to His immutability. If God is simple, then He must necessarily be unchangeable. A God who is able to change is a God who cannot be His attributes eternally and constantly. Our God must be a simple God. I say all of this to say that God’s simplicity is not merely an attribute for the Christian academic. It’s an attribute for the church member who is walking through the valley of death. As we journey through this sinful and groaning world, we need to be able to rest our heads at night upon the pillow of who God is. His simplicity, His being His attributes eternally, anchors us to firm ground in the midst of the storm. We’ll see this particularly through the applications that flow from God’s simple patience, justice, and love.
First, let’s take God’s patience, or His long-suffering. God’s simplicity means that His divine patience can never be exhausted in the slightest bit, nor can God grow in His patience. He is wholly patience all of the time. But to where do our hearts and our minds often go when we’re in the midst of a deep struggle with sin? Where do we run to when we’ve had a season of giving into anger, lust, a lack of love for our wives, or impatience with our children? We’re often tempted to believe that God’s patience can and will run out on us. We’re tempted to believe that God is tired of dealing with us, and that He’s just about to snip the cords that tether us to Him. God’s simplicity, in terms of His being His patience, reminds us that these thoughts and temptations are lies. In Christ, we’ve been reconciled to the God whose patience never runs out. His patience with you even in the midst of seasons of sin is constant. If you are united to Christ by faith, He will patiently hold on to you all the way until He brings to home to Himself. So in light of God’s simple patience, how do we respond? Well we don’t respond as those in Paul’s letter to the Romans who have used God’s patience as an excuse to sin. Rather, we’re to name our sin and repent. God’s patience is meant to fuel our efforts at repentance and growth, knowing that God will always be fully patient with us. Paul says as much in Romans 2:4 stating, “Or do you despise the riches of His kindness, restraint, and patience, not recognizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” If God is His patience, then we have a sure and steady anchor to trust in during seasons of particular struggles with sin as His patience fuels our repentance.
Second, let’s take God’s justice. God’s simplicity means that God is His justice eternally. God’s justice has never wavered in the past, nor will it ebb or flow in the future. But what happens when we experience the injustices of this world? Where do our minds run to when we endure the horrific injustice of abuse, in all of its demonic forms, or when we face off with racism, greed, or the breaking of a marriage-covenant? In those moments we might be tempted to believe the lie that God’s justice has waned over time. We look around us, at our lives and the lives of others who’ve walked through injustice, and we don’t see the civil demands of justice being met by governing authorities. Similarly, we look at the local churches around us and see a lack of church discipline, the means of justice God’s given to local churches, being done towards those steeped in their unjust deeds. In the midst of injustice running rampant in our world has God’s justice ever slacked off? The answer is an absolute no! God’s justice is constant eternally. While we affirm that reality in God however, we must also uphold the reality that the authorities of this world are often not just. Their attempts at justice often fail and fall short. Governments either ignore the demands for civil justice, or they redefine justice in a manner contrary to God’s revelation. Local churches likewise may fail to lovingly expel those who are living in sin in their midst. But even when that tragically happens, we can lean upon the God who is His justice. His demands for justice will be met either in the atonement of His Son, or through the eternal judgment of those who refuse to repent of their injustice against Him. This is why God continually tells His people throughout Scripture that vengeance is His. When the demands for justice are not met in this world, we can patiently endure, knowing that God is His justice and His justice will be satisfied.
Third, let’s look at God’s love. God’s simplicity means that God is His love completely and wholly. His love for you doesn’t go up and down based on your performance. Rather, it’s constant and full towards you. But we don’t often believe that, do we? In our darkest moments, we often believe the lie that God’s love is conditioned. We are tempted to think that if God truly did love us then situation X, Y, or Z would not be happening to us. And the unbelieving world fuels that lie. They tell us that if our God truly was love then nothing bad would ever happen to us. But it’s when we’re hearing these kinds of lies from the world, the flesh, and the devil that we must stop to remember that our definition of love must reside in our God who is His love. If God is His love, then all that He ordains for His elect people is loving. As we walk through seasons of strife with our spouse, of difficulties with our children, of hurt caused by the verbal sword-thrusts of a friend, the heart-sickness of the hope of marriage being deferred or delayed, or of loss that comes from death, we can have assurance due to who our simple, Triune God is. He is love in His essence, and thus all that comes from His hands is wise, right, and loving towards those who have been called according to His glorious purposes in Christ. In Christ, you are as loved by our simple God on your most wretched of days as you are on those days when it seems as if you’re soaring on the Spirit’s proverbial wings.
God’s simplicity is an attribute for the faint of heart. His simplicity speaks, as we’ve seen, to all of the Christian experience. It speaks to how we are to think when we’re in the middle of both victories and tragedies. Meditating upon who God is in His essence is one of the means by which our mind is spiritually renewed as the Apostle Paul says in Romans 12:2. It reminds us that we, as God’s people, can rest in Him, because He is all of His attributes all of the time. He is now who He always has been, and He will never change in the future. This beautiful reality gives us the strength to gird up our loins and press deeply into who our God is as we traverse the rocky terrain that’s ahead of us as we journey towards that great Celestial City.