During college orientation, I received my student ID card and learned of its importance to access all parts of campus—my dorm room, classroom buildings, and the cafeteria! I would soon find out that it wasn’t simply the card that was important. About halfway through my sophomore year, I decided it was time for a hair color change. I went from being platinum blonde to a dark, dark brunette, and I looked like a completely different person from the picture on my ID. As much as I wanted to avoid the $25 fine to get a replacement card, when the lunch workers began to question me, I decided the updated picture was worth the dent in my bank account. Though my hair color doesn’t define who I am, it is one of my attributes as a human being, and whoever sees my ID uses it to determine my identity.
Unlike hair color, which I can change with a $7 box from Walmart, the attributes of God are constant, unchanging, and perfect. God is distinct from mankind in His ability to be consistent in who He is and to do what He does perfectly, but He also created mankind with the ability to imitate His character in some ways. God’s attributes that we can imitate are referred to as communicable attributes, and His attributes that are distinct to God alone are called incommunicable attributes. R.C. Sproul, in his book, Everyone’s A Theologian, helped me understand this distinction.
God’s Communicable Attributes
Sproul defines communicable attributes as, “those that can be transferred from one person to another.” Ephesians 5:1-2 says, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” We are called to imitate God, and this is only possible if there are attributes of God that we can reflect.
Here is one example of a communicable attribute of God that we should strive to imitate (I have provided the definition that Wayne Grudem provides in his book, Systematic Theology):
Holiness – “God is completely separated from sin and is devoted to His own honor” (pg. 201).
1 Peter 1:16 calls us to imitate this: “for it is written, Be holy, because I am holy.” Romans 12:1-2 gives us a clear way in which to become more holy, or set apart, from the world: “…I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God…Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.”
I often feel overwhelmed with my sinfulness and inability to imitate Christ well. Yet, God the Father already sees me as He sees His own Son. This is the Gospel: we are not condemned as unholy, but Christ was condemned in our place on the cross. We are considered holy because of Christ’s perfect holiness that was transferred to us through faith. And not only that (as if it could get much better), God WILL MAKE us holy! It is because of this truth that I rely on God’s Word, prayer, and the power of the Holy Spirit to continually conform me in likeness to Christ.
God’s Incommunicable Attributes
Imitating Christ is a worthy endeavor and a command that no true Christian can neglect, but to strive for some attributes of God would be in vain. The attributes of God that cannot be transferred from one person to another are God’s incommunicable attributes. No created being can ever possess an incommunicable attribute of God. God, however, possesses all His attributes, altogether, all the time – perfectly. None of His attributes can be divorced from the other because they are all integral elements of His character.
One example of an incommunicable attribute of God which we are not able to emulate is:
Eternality – “God has no beginning, end, or succession of moments in his own being, and he sees all time equally vividly, yet God sees events in time and acts in time” (pg. 168). Psalm 90:2 “Before the mountains were born, before you gave birth to the earth and the world, from eternity to eternity, you are God.” We are not able to emulate this attribute because we are created beings.
Like my student ID listed some of my human attributes to affirm my identity, God’s Word is the source by which we know God is who He says He is. God has given us all we need to know about Him in His Word, and He has much grace and patience for those who seek to know Him. As we seek to understand God’s incommunicable attributes, we will see Him as more glorious and worthy of our worship. And, as we seek to understand His communicable attributes, let’s pray that the Spirit will impart His communicable attributes to us, that we might reflect His glory to a watching world.
Editor's Note: This was originally published at Thinking & Theology.