We have been turning our attention to the question of whether God is impassible—that is, that God is in no way affected by the creatures he has made, and cannot die or suffer. Last time around, we explored how impassibility was a key element in the early Christian understanding of creation—that God made everything from nothing, and did so as a free choice out of pure goodness. This time around, we turn our attention to God’s law.
What do we make of a God who seeks to regulate and micromanage our lives—who forbids us from even gaining the knowledge of good and evil? Worst of all, what does it say about God that he demands that everyone spend their lives serving him and glorifying him? Surely here we see evidence that God is fundamentally selfish—even proud. Would a good God want our lives to be all about him? Any parent who did that with their children would be immediately seen to be guilty of monomania. Why is God a special case?
Rich, perfect and in need of nothing
Once again, this issue was addressed in the first couple of centuries of the Church’s existence; this accusation is as old as Gnosticism. Also once again, Irenaeus expressed a profoundly biblical response, once again drawing heavily on God’s impassibility. He states in Against Heresies book 4 chapter 14,
Nor did He stand in need of our service when He ordered us to follow Him; but He thus bestowed salvation upon ourselves. For to follow the Saviour is to be a partaker of salvation, and to follow light is to receive light. But those who are in light do not themselves illumine the light, but are illumined and revealed by it: they do certainly contribute nothing to it, but, receiving the benefit, they are illumined by the light. Thus, also, service [rendered] to God does indeed profit God nothing, nor has God need of human obedience; but He grants to those who follow and serve Him life and incorruption and eternal glory, bestowing benefit upon those who serve [Him], because they do serve Him, and on His followers, because they do follow Him; but does not receive any benefit from them: for He is rich, perfect, and in need of nothing. But for this reason does God demand service from men, in order that, since He is good and merciful, He may benefit those who continue in His service. For, as much as God is in want of nothing, so much does man stand in need of fellowship with God. For this is the glory of man, to continue and remain permanently in God’s service. (Ante-Nicene Fathers translation)
Why does God command obedience? It’s not because he needs it. Why must we serve and follow God? It’s not for anything God gets out of it. God is, to use the term, impassible. As Irenaeus puts it, God is “in want of nothing”; he does not stand in need of our service for “service [rendered] to God does indeed profit God nothing”. He receives no benefit from his followers following of him for “He is rich, perfect, and in need of nothing”. In a multitude of ways, Irenaeus stresses that we can give nothing to God; we cannot affect him one way or another. In his relationship with us, God is entirely impassible. He gets nothing out of our service to him.
Behind such a notion lies passages such as Romans 11:34-36:
“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
No-one has ever given to God that God should repay him; God is no man’s debtor. From God are all things; from his infinite, inexhaustible abundance, we exist and have our being. Even if we wrapped creation with a ribbon and gave it to God as a gift, we add nothing to him, for God was in no way lessened by making everything in the first place. As Irenaeus puts it, “He is rich, perfect, and in need of nothing”. God is impassible.
That impassibility makes any notion of a selfish law nonsensical. A God who can be given nothing has no need for his creatures’ worship, obedience, or service.
Why then does God require us to glorify him, worship him, obey and serve him? Why not simply let us live our lives in peace and enjoy the gifts he gave us in creation without making such total demands upon us?
Here, again, Irenaeus points the way, bringing out the positive aspect of impassibility—that God is ever-giving and we are ever-receiving. For someone to be in the light, they must follow the light. By following the light, they remain in the light and get all the benefits that come from being in the light. But they add nothing to the light by following it and walking in it. The good that light offers cannot be detached from light and gotten independently of a relationship with light. One has to follow and walk in light to be illuminated. To be illuminated, one needs some kind of connection with light itself.
God is light. The word of God is the light that illumines everyone. In this powerful biblical image is the point that Irenaeus draws upon for his illustration. God’s greatest blessings that he seeks to give humanity—eternal life, light, goodness, love and truth—are not trading cards that God can give out and pass around. God can only give us such things by giving us himself. These are all qualities that are proper to God alone; only God is light, is love, has life in himself, is good, is true. For us to enjoy these blessings, we must, in some way, share in God’s own life. The gift and the Giver are, at the end of the day, one and the same. As John 17:3 says, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent”.
So why does God command us to obey him, glorify him and serve him? Because this is what it means to be in relationship with him, and being in relationship with God is the only way to enjoy the blessings that properly belong to God alone. As Irenaeus says, “when He ordered us to follow Him … He thus bestowed salvation upon ourselves. For to follow the Saviour is to be a partaker of salvation.” and “But for this reason does God demand service from men, in order that, since He is good and merciful, He may benefit those who continue in His service”. We, not God, receive the benefit from our service of God. In his service, we find true blessing, and this is because he is impassible and we are passible, or as Irenaeus powerfully puts it, “For, as much as God is in want of nothing, so much does man stand in need of fellowship with God”. We need fellowship with God precisely because he needs nothing at all, being the source of everything worth having.
Here, again, Irenaeus is standing on Scripture. Consider Jesus’ words in John 15:5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” Here we are told that continuing in fellowship with the Lord Jesus benefits us, not him. We bear much fruit as a result of the relationship, and without it, we can do nothing. The relationship exists for our sakes, not our Lord’s.
And how is such a relationship maintained? John 15:10 spells it out: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love”. We maintain the relationship by the kind of love that obeys Christ’s commands—the kind of love that follows, serves and glorifies him. That is, Jesus obeys the Father’s commands and remains in the Father’s love, and the Father and the Son glorify another and so eternally relate to one another (as we observed last time). So also we enter into a similar relationship—obeying and glorifying the Father through the Son. Our glorifying God is nothing special; it is simply what the Father and the Son do throughout the ages. But it is very special for us, for it connects us to the one who is life,light and truth, and it enables us to have a share in God’s own eternal life.
Our creaturely passibility cries out for God’s impassibility to overflow to us and lift us to a kind of life that is beyond anything we could naturally achieve. God gives; we receive—a beautiful partnership that rebounds to our eternal benefit. And within such a framework, the law—God’s demands that we love him, serve him, glorify him and follow him—are neither selfish, nor miserly. They are the path of life, for if we could live perfectly like that, we would have never died. God’s glory is the highest good for his creatures because contained within it is everything that makes God great and good, and when God is glorified, we receive the benefit of such a close connection with him. When Paul looks ahead to end of all things in 1 Corinthians 15:28 and sees that the final outcome of salvation will be that “God may be all in all”, this is not the annihilation of everything other than God, or all being swallowed up in God, but our utter exaltation, where we have communion with God to the absolute limit possible for a creature. Eden will envy us on that day.
In our context, we often seem to struggle with the issue of God’s glory. Apologetically, it is not unheard of for people to challenge the goodness of a God who demands people worship him (and sends to hell those who do not comply). In our teaching and preaching, we often stress God’s love for us (and rightly so), but the idea that he seeks his own glory is less clearly sounded. In our discussions about the gathering of the people of God (i.e. church), there is often debate about the place that praising and glorifying God has in an understanding of the meeting that often sees it predominantly horizontal terms: God speaks to us, we speak to each other about God, but almost nothing in the service is directed to God. We seem to have lost the sense that the most edifying thing one can do for a congregation is to glorify God and set forth just how great and good he is. To praise God publicly, leading people in glorifying him, is a genuine act of love for them. What should be instinctive has become problematic.
I suggest that these are all issues that could be helped with more impassibility in our diet. When we begin to grasp that God is neither benefited or harmed by our actions, but is a never-ending source of everything good that we receive, then we are in a position to bring together his love for us and his concern for his own glory. Far from being in tension, God’s impassible, invincible love is most profoundly expressed when he seeks his own glory—because in God’s glory, we are the ones truly glorified.