Q: What is God?
A: God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.
In our last newsletter, we asked the question “What is God?” We saw that 1.) He is a real entity and 2.) He communicates to us, particularly in the Holy Scriptures by which He reveals Himself and what He is like to us. This week, we begin looking into some of the attributes of God as they are outlined in response to the fourth question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism (see above). We begin with the scriptural truth that God is a spirit.
In the context of a discussion with a Samaritan woman about worship, Jesus tells her that “God is spirit” (John 4:24). What does it mean that “God is [a] spirit?” Simply put, it means that God’s nature has no material substance. He does not have a body. He does not have a material existence. His essence cannot be detected by any of our five senses.
We get hints of this fact that the Divine nature is incorporeal (without a body) throughout the Scriptures. Moses, commanding Israel not to make representations of God, said that they “saw no form on the day that the LORD spoke to [them] at Horeb out of the midst of the fire” (Deuteronomy 4:15). The Apostle John writes in John 1:18, “No one has ever seen God…” The divine nature is imperceptible to our senses. Israel did not perceive a physical form of God, and no one has ever seen God, because He is a spirit. He doesn’t have a body lake we do.
Some may object and say that Scripture in many places says that God has body parts. He has a “right hand” and a “holy arm” (Psalm 98:1), eyes (2 Chronicles 16:9), nostrils (Psalm 18:8), a mouth (Matthew 4:4), etc. However, we should understand these as symbolic of God’s attributes and actions, not as literal physical body parts. They are “anthropomorphisms,” non-literal descriptions of Himself in a symbolic way used to better communicate to us, with our weak imaginations, what He is like. Plus, if we are going to take such physical descriptions of God as literal attributes, then we should be prepared to say that He is literally a rock (Psalm 18:2), a fortified city with walls (Psalm 46:1), or a bird with wings (Psalm 36:7).
Why does it matter that God is a spirit? The puritan theologian Stephen Charnock shows that many other aspects of God’s being (His creating, simplicity, invisibility, infinitude, omnipresence, independency, unchangeableness, and perfection) have at their root the truth of God’s pure, unmixed spirituality. I commend his work The Existence and Attributes of God to you for further exploration.
However, the fact that God is a spirit is perhaps most relevant as it touches what Jesus tried to drive home to the Samaritan woman. “God is spirit,” Jesus said to her. “And those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Because God is a spirit, it is necessary for us to worship Him in spirit. What does that mean? It means that we must not think that only the outward, bodily performances of religious duty are pleasing to God in themselves. Because God is spirit, He doesn’t care only about how we worship Him externally (though He does care about that!), but He also cares that we worship Him from our inward being, from our spirits. It is a “broken spirit” and a “broken and contrite heart” that God accepts as a true sacrifice (Psalm 51:16, 17). Worship not conducted from our inward being is unacceptable to the God who is a spirit (cf. Isaiah 1:11-17). Only those with “pure hearts” can stand in God presence and receive His blessings (Psalm 24:3-5). As worshipers of the God who is spirit, our worship must be characterized as that which comes from a spirit grieved by its sinfulness, a spirit that is repentant, and a spirit that has sought Jesus Christ to make it clean by His blood. Mere outward acts will not do.