Louis Berkhof on the Goodness, Love, Grace, Mercy and Long-Suffering of God

“The moral attributes of God are generally regarded as the most glorious of the divine perfections. Not that one attribute of God is in itself more perfect and glorious than another, but relatively to man the moral perfections of God shine with a splendor all their own. They are generally discussed under three heads: (1) the goodness of God; (2) the holiness of God; and (3) the righteousness of God.

1. THE GOODNESS OF GOD. 

This is generally treated as a generic conception, including several varieties, which are distinguished according to their objects. The goodness of God should not be confused with His kindness, which is a more restricted concept. We speak of something as good, when it answers in all parts to the ideal. Hence in our ascription of goodness to God the fundamental idea is that He is in every way all that He as God should be, and therefore answers perfectly to the ideal expressed in the word “God.”

He is good in the metaphysical sense of the word, absolute perfection and perfect bliss in Himself. It is in this sense that Jesus said to the young ruler: “None is good save one, even God,” Mark 10:18. But since God is good in Himself, He is also good for His creatures, and may therefore be called the fons omnium bonorum. He is the fountain of all good, and is so represented in a variety of ways throughout the Bible. The poet sings: “For with thee is the fountain of life; in thy light shall we see light,” Ps. 36:9. All the good things which the creatures enjoy in the present and expect in the future, flow to them out of this inexhaustible fountain.

And not only that, but God is also the summum bonum, the highest good, for all His creatures, though in different degrees and according to the measure in which they answer to the purpose of their existence. In the present connection we naturally stress the ethical goodness of God and the different aspects of it, as these are determined by the nature of its objects.

a. The Goodness of God Towards His Creatures in General.

This may be defined as that perfection of God which prompts Him to deal bountifully and kindly with all His creatures. It is the affection which the Creator feels towards His sentient creatures as such. The Psalmist sings of it in the well known words: “Jehovah is good to all; and His tender mercies are over all His works. . . . The eyes of all wait for thee; and thou givest them their food in due season. Thou openest thy hand, and satisfiest the desire of every living thing,” Ps. 145:9,15,16.

This benevolent interest of God is revealed in His care for the creature’s welfare, and is suited to the nature and the circumstances of the creature. It naturally varies in degree according to the capacity of the objects to receive it. And while it is not restricted to believers, they only manifest a proper appreciation of its blessings, desire to use them in the service of their God, and thus enjoy them in a richer and fuller measure. The Bible refers to this goodness of God in many passages, such as Ps. 36:6; 104:21; Matt. 5:45; 6:26; Luke 6:35; Acts 14:17.

b. The Love of God.

When the goodness of God is exercised towards His rational creatures, it assumes the higher character of love, and this love may again be distinguished according to the objects on which it terminates. In distinction from the goodness of God in general, it may be defined as that perfection of God by which He is eternally moved to selfcommunication. Since God is absolutely good in Himself, His love cannot find complete satisfaction in any object that falls short of absolute perfection. He loves His rational creatures for His own sake, or, to express it otherwise, He loves in them Himself, His virtues, His work, and His gifts.

He does not even withdraw His love completely from the sinner in his present sinful state, though the latter’s sin is an abomination to Him, since He recognizes even in the sinner His image-bearer. John 3:16; Matt. 5:44,45. At the same time He loves believers with a special love, since He contemplates them as His spiritual children in Christ. It is to them that He communicates Himself in the fullest and richest sense, with all the fulness of His grace and mercy. John 16:27; Rom. 5:8; I John 3:1.

c. The Grace of God.

The significant word “grace” is a translation of the Hebrew chanan and of the Greek charis. According to Scripture it is manifested not only by God, but also by men, and then denotes the favor which one man shows another, Gen. 33:8,10,18; 39:4; 47:25; Ruth 2:2; I Sam. 1:18; 16:22. In such cases it is not necessarily implied that the favor is undeserved. In general it can be said, however, that grace is the free bestowal of kindness on one who has no claim to it. This is particularly the case where the grace referred to is the grace of God. His love to man is always unmerited, and when shown to sinners, is even forfeited.

The Bible generally uses the word to denote the unmerited goodness or love of God to those who have forfeited itand are by nature under a sentence of condemnation. The grace of God is the source of all spiritual blessings that are bestowed upon sinners. As such we read of it in Eph. 1:6,7; 2:7-9; Tit. 2:11; 3:4-7. While the Bible often speaks of the grace of God as saving grace, it also makes mention of it in a broader sense, as in Isa. 26:10; Jer. 16:13. The grace of God is of the greatest practical significance for sinful men. It was by grace that the way of redemption was opened for them, Rom. 3:24; II Cor. 8:9, and that the message of redemption went out into the world, Acts 14:3. By grace sinners receive the gift of God in Jesus Christ, Acts 18:27; Eph. 2:8. By grace they are justified, Rom. 3:24; 4:16; Tit. 3:7, they are enriched with spiritual blessings, John 1:16; II Cor. 8:9; II Thess. 2:16, and they finally inherit salvation, Eph. 2:8; Tit. 2:11.

Seeing they have absolutely no merits of their own, they are altogether dependent on the grace of God in Christ. In modern theology, with its belief in the inherent goodness of man and his ability to help himself, the doctrine of salvation by grace has practically become a “lost chord,” and even the word “grace” was emptied of all spiritual meaning and vanished from religious discourses. It was retained only in the sense of “graciousness,” something that is quite external. Happily, there are some evidences of a renewed emphasis on sin, and of a newly awakened consciousness of the need of divine grace.

d. The Mercy of God.

Another important aspect of the goodness and love of God is His mercy or tender compassion. The Hebrew word most generally used for this is chesed. There is another word, however, which expresses a deep and tender compassion, namely, the word racham, which is beautifully rendered by “tender mercy” in our English Bible. The Septuagint and the New Testament employ the Greek word eleos to designate the mercy of God. If the grace of God contemplates man as guilty before God, and therefore in need of forgiveness, the mercy of God contemplates him as one who is bearing the consequences of sin, who is in a pitiable condition, and who therefore needs divine help. It may be defined as the goodness or love of God shown to those who are in misery or distressirrespective of their deserts.

In His mercy God reveals Himself as a compassionate God, who pities those who are in misery and is ever ready to relieve their distress. This mercy is bountiful, Deut. 5:10; Ps. 57:10; 86:5, and the poets of Israel delighted to sing of it as enduring forever, I Chron. 16:34; II Chron. 7:6; Ps. 136; Ezra 3:11. In the New Testament it is often mentioned alongside of the grace of God, especially in salutations, I Tim. 1:2; II Tim. 1:1; Titus 1:4. We are told repeatedly that it is shown to them that fear God, Ex. 20:2; Deut. 7:9; Ps. 86:5; Luke 1:50. This does not mean, however, that it is limited to them, though they enjoy it in a special measure. God’s tender mercies are over all His works, Ps. 145:9, and even those who do not fear Him share in them, Ezek. 18:23,32; 33:11; Luke 6:35,36.

The mercy of God may not be represented as opposed to His justice. It is exercised only in harmony with the strictest justice of God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ. Other terms used for it in the Bible are “pity,” “compassion,” and “lovingkindness.”

e. The Longsuffering of God.

The longsuffering of God is still another aspect of His great goodness or love. The Hebrew uses the expression ’erek ’aph, which means literally “long of face,” and then also “slow to anger,” while the Greek expresses the same idea by the word makrothumia. It is that aspect of the goodness or love of God in virtue of which He bears with the froward and evil in spite of their long continued disobedience. In the exercise of this attribute the sinner is contemplated as continuing in sin, notwithstanding the admonitions and warnings that come to him. It reveals itself in the postponement of the merited judgment. Scripture speaks of it in Ex. 34:6; Ps. 86:15; Rom. 2:4; 9:22; I Pet. 3:20; II Pet. 3:15. A synonymous term of a slightly different connotation is the word “forbearance.””

 


From Berkhof’s Systematic Theology, Part I, on the Communicable Attributes of God

Excerpted with thankfulness from Monergism.com