Attributes of God: Essence and Substance

by | Updated December 21st, 2019

It’s difficult for a finite mind to comprehend an infinite God. Trying to understand God with a finite mind is like trying to put an ocean in glass. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

Job 11:7 – “Can you search out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limits of the Almighty?”

Essence and substance are synonymous when referring to God. Thiessen defines them as “that which underlies all outward manifestation, the reality itself whether material or immaterial, the substratum of anything (substance lying beneath a thing). That in which the qualities or attributes inhere” (Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology, page 119).

Webster defines essence as “an entity or that which makes something what it is.” Both essence and attribute refer to the nature of God. Although there is a difference between the two, the difference is hard to distinguish. The essence and substance of God is that which underlies His attributes.


Jesus said, “God is a spirit” (John 4:24). There are four things involved in God’s spirituality:

  1. God is immaterial or incorporeal. After His resurrection Jesus said, “See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39). What about all the passages where God is described as having body parts? For example, His “stretched out arm” (Jeremiah 32:17); “The Ancient of Days took His seat; His vesture was like white snow and the hair of His head like pure wool” (Daniel 7:9).

    These are metaphors which serve to bring the infinite within the apprehension of the finite. The Bible also uses wings to describe God, “He will cover you with His pinions, And under His wings you may seek refuge” (Psalm 91:4). Therefore, to use the above scriptures to say God has a human body, you would also have to say He is a bird. Anyone would say that is absurd. So God is immaterial or without material substance.

  2. God is invisible. “He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15); “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1 Timothy 1:17). The scriptures state that no man can see God (Exodus 33:20; John 1:18; 1 Timothy 6:16). How do we reconcile this with the fact that Moses looked on God (Exodus 33)? As you read the passage, Moses merely caught a glimpse of God’s glory. No man can see God in His full essence and live.

    There are other scriptures which refer to men seeing God. “As for me, I shall behold Your face in righteousness; I will be satisfied with Your likeness when I awake” (Psalms 17:15). “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). “Pursue peace with all men, and sanctification (holiness) without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). “They will see His face” (Revelation 22:4). R.A. Torrey says, “A man may see a reflection of his face in a glass (mirror). It’d be true for him to say, I saw my face and also I never saw my face” (R.A. Torrey, What the Bible Teaches; page 15).

    These, however, seem to refer to our seeing God in eternity after we have been glorified (1 Corinthians 15:50-57). Mortal flesh cannot inherit the kingdom of God nor see God (1 Corinthians 15:50). The Bible says, “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2). At that point, when we are glorified, we will be able to look on Him in all of His glory. Praise the Lord!

  3. God is alive. The idea of spirit also implies God is alive. Joshua told the children of Israel, “By this you shall know that the living God is among you” (Joshua 3:10). David said, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should taunt the armies of the living God” (1 Samuel 17:26)? Peter answered Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).

    Paul said, “For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). The Psalmist cried out, “My soul longed and even yearned for the courts of the LORD; My heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Psalms 84:2). Our God is alive – Praise the Lord! A few things we can glean from this:

    1. Victory in battle. It is the living God whom we serve that gives us victory in battle. Joshua said, “By this you shall know that the living God is among you” (Joshua 3:10). When facing Goliath, David said, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy (taunt) the armies of the living God” (1 Samuel 17:26)? Peter’s revelation of Jesus being “The Christ, the Son of the living God” was the foundation upon which Jesus said, “The gates of Hades (Hell) shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:16 and 18).
    2. Worship of the true God. Paul described the Thessalonians as having “Turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9).
    3. The soul longs for such a God. Psalmist said, “My soul longs, yes, even faints For the courts of the LORD; My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God” (Psalms 84:2).
    4. Who Jesus is. Peter declared of Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). When Peter said Jesus was the Son of the living God, he was declaring Him to be very God. Study John 5:18; 10:30-33; Hebrews 1:8 and Revelation 1:8. These scriptures emphatically state that to declare Jesus as being the Son of God is a confession of His deity.
    5. Our foundation is built on the solid Rock (Matthew 16:16-19, Matthew 7:24-27). The confession of faith in the person of Christ in relation to the living God is a sure foundation which withstands the powers of darkness and all the storms of life.
    6. The Church is built upon a sure foundation (Matthew 16:16-19). It was upon Peter’s confession of Jesus being “The Christ, the Son of the living God” that Jesus said, “The gates of Hades (Hell) shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:16 and 18).
    7. This living God appoints authority to His trusted followers. It was upon Peter’s confession of who Jesus is that Jesus said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19).
  4. God is a person. This also is implied in God being a spirit. Take the analogy of ourself being made in His image (Genesis 1:27). If He were not a person, He’d be on a lower lever than us. Personality denotes we can have a relationship with Him which is the essence of true Christianity. God manifests all the characteristics of personality. To name just a few:
    1. Self-consciousness. “What man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:11).
    2. Intellect. “For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has become His counselor” (Romans 11:34).
    3. Feelings. “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God” (Ephesians 4:30).
    4. Speaking . “See that you do not refuse Him who speaks. For if they did not escape who refused Him who spoke on earth, much more shall we not escape if we turn away from Him who speaks from heaven” (Hebrews 12:25).
    5. Anger. “Therefore I was angry with that generation” and “With whom was He angry forty years” (Hebrews 3:10 and 17)? Again, “See that you do not refuse Him who speaks” (Hebrews 12:25-28).
    6. Jealousy. “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:5).

God is Self-Existent

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM; and He said, Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, “I AM has sent me to you”” (Exodus 3:14). This is hard for the finite mind to grasp. The ground of God’s existence is in and of Himself. Our existence is outside of ourself.

God’s existence is in Himself alone. His existence is not dependent on anything outside of Himself. This is implied in Exodus 3:14. This can be mind boggling. He is the self existent one. Thomas Aquinas said, “He is the first cause, Himself uncaused” (Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology; page 122, paragraph 1).

The Immensity of God

This has to do with His infinity in relation to time and space. He is not confined or limited by space. He is here and at the same time He is somewhere else. Solomon said, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You, how much less this house which I have built” (1 Kings 8:27)!

God asked Jeremiah, “Can any hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him? saith the LORD. Do not I fill heaven and earth? saith the LORD” (Jeremiah 23:24).

The Psalmist asked, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there” (Psalms 139:7-8). Paul said, “That they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27).

Here Paul declares that, because of the immensity of God, we should seek Him and when we do we’ll be able to find Him. Jeremiah echoes this as well, “You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13). Let’s seek Him with all that is within us. When we do He will be made known (manifest or revealed) to us.

God is Eternal

God is free from all succession of time. Time for God is one big eternal now. He sees the eternal past, present and future all at once. Peter said, “With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day” (2 Peter 3:8). This does not mean that when God refers to a day it is really a thousand years.

God is not stupid nor does He try and make things hard for us to understand. It simply means, He is timeless and sees all time as one big eternal now. He is the cause of time (Hebrews 1:2 and 13; Colossians 1:16). One day time itself will merge into eternity. God is the eternal one! Here are a few scriptures which depict God’s infinity as it relates to time.

“Before the mountains were born or You gave birth to the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God” (Psalms 90:2).

“Your throne is established from of old; You are from everlasting” (Psalms 93:2).

“For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones” (Isaiah 57:15).

“The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms: and he shall thrust out the enemy from before thee; and shall say, Destroy them” (Deuteronomy 33:27).

This applies to Jesus as being God as well. “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting” (Micah 5:2). This verse clearly portrays Jesus’ eternal existence. His existence was from eternity past. He had no beginning. His goings forth was from everlasting.

God is One

The scriptures make it clear there is but one God. There are not many gods, but only one true and living God. There is a difference between an absolute and compound unity.

For example man is an absolute unity whereas a man and his wife becoming one is a compound unity. Compare Ezra 3:1 and Ezekiel 37:17 for compound unity and Genesis 22:2, 12; Jeremiah 6:26 and Zechariah 12:10 for absolute unity. The following scriptures make it abundantly clear there is but one God:

“To you it was shown that you might know that the LORD, He is God; there is no other besides Him” (Deuteronomy 4:35).

“The Lord Himself is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other” (Deuteronomy 4:39).

“Hear oh Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:4).

“There is no one holy like the LORD, Indeed, there is no one besides You, Nor is there any rock like our God” (1 Samuel 2:2). “So that all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God; there is no one else” (1 Kings 8:60).

“So that you may know and believe Me And understand that I am He. Before Me there was no God formed, And there will be none after Me” (Isaiah 43:10).

“Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel, And his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: I am the First and I am the Last; Besides Me there is no God” (Isaiah 44:6).

“Look to Me, and be saved, All you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other” (Isaiah 45:22).

“Is there a God besides Me? Indeed there is no other Rock; I know not one (Isaiah 44:8).

“Therefore You are great, O Lord God. For there is none like You, nor is there any God besides You, according to all that we have heard with our ears” (2 Samuel 7:22).

“You alone are the Lord” (Nehemiah 9:6).

“We know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one” (1 Corinthians 8:4).

“Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1 Timothy 1:17).

“There is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).

God is Transcendent

God is above and beyond His creation. In pantheism God is all and in all. The scriptures are clear that God can be seen in nature but nature is not God. “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).

God is above and beyond His creation. “For thus says the high and exalted One Who lives forever, whose name is Holy, I dwell on a high and holy place, And also with the contrite and lowly of spirit In order to revive the spirit of the lowly And to revive the heart of the contrite” (Isaiah 57:15).

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

God is Immanent

God’s presence and power pervade His entire creation. Though He is above and beyond creation, He is not separated from it. God is clearly involved in and with His creation. One cannot read God’s Word without seeing His involvement with His creation. He is not so totally transcendent that He set the universe in motion and left it to take care of itself, as deists would have us think. He didn’t create us just to leave us to fin for ourselves. He wants His presence and power to pervade every aspect of our lives.

The Bible says He not only created everything but He actually holds all things together, “Upholding all things by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3); “And He is before all things, and by Him all things consist” (Colossians 1:17). If we think things are bad now, think of what everything would be like if He ever withheld His hand. He is, however, a gentlemen and doesn’t typically get involved where he is not wanted. There are exceptions to this. He does get involved in response to His people’s prayers. Prayer moves the hand of God to involve Himself in situations and the lives of people.

He will, at that point, get involved in people’s lives who are actually running from Him. If you are running from God, He will let you go if you so choose. On the other hand, if you have a godly person praying for you – lookout. Mankind has come to the place in our day of moving God to gentlemen status. We, overall, no longer want God involved in our lives. As a result, we see God pulling His hand back more and more. This is a scary place to be.

The more God removes His hand, the more we are left to fin for ourselves. The further He withdraws, the more evil is unleashed and man is left to his own devices. God help us if He ever completely removes His hand. This is exactly what we will see take place in the end times. Mankind (this world) will push God further and further away. As we do, God will begin to withdraw His hand and we will see evil unleashed in an unprecedented way. We are even now beginning to see this take place more and more. One day it will unfold entirely.

Our only hope is, “If My people, which are called by My name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14). We, the people of God, need to seek His face like never before.

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