The Essence and Substance of God

by | Updated July 28th, 2015 | Posted in Theology, Apologetics and Biblical Studies

What is the essence and substance of God? It’s very difficult for our finite mind to adequately comprehend an infinite God. Job said, “Can you search out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limits of the Almighty” (Job 11:7)? Trying to understand God with the finite mind is like trying to put the Atlantic ocean in glass. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

Essence and substance are synonymous when used of 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.


John 4:24 tells us that God is a spirit. There are four important aspects of 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). But, what about the passages where God is described as having body parts? For example, “stretched out arm” in Jeremiah 32:17 and “His vesture was like white snow and the hair of His head like pure wool” in Daniel 7:9. These are metaphors which serve to bring the infinite within the comprehension 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 (Psalm 91:4). Anyone would say that is absurd. God is immaterial or without material substance.

2. God is invisible.

Scriptures that say no man can see God:

How do we reconcile this with the fact that Moses looked upon God in Exodus 33? As you read the passage, Moses merely caught a glimpse of God’s glory. No one can see God in His full essence.

Scriptures that refer to men seeing God:

R.A. Torrey in “What the Bible Teaches” 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” (Thieson, Lectures in Systematic Theology; page 120). These scriptures seems 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 or see God (1 Corinthians 15:50). “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). It will be at that point, when we are glorified, that we look upon Him in all of His glory. Praise the Lord!

3. God is alive.

The idea of spirit also implies this. Scriptures that say God is alive:

Our God is alive! What we glean from this:

4. God is a person.

This is also implied in spirit. Take the analogy of ourself being 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. Scriptures about His personality:

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 substance of God’s existence is in Himself. Our’s is outside of ourself. God’s is in Himself alone. His existence is not dependent on anything outside of Himself (Exodus 3:14).

Wow, that is 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.

Let’s seek God 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 eternity 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 when God refers to a day it is really a thousand years. God is not stupid, nor does He try to 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!

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. The following scriptures make this fact abundantly clear:

God is an Absolute and Compound Unity

Man is an absolute unity whereas a man and his wife becoming one is a compound unity. Read Ezra 3:1 and Ezekiel 37:17 to understand a compound unity, and Genesis 22:2, Genesis 22:12, Jeremiah 6:26, and Zechariah 12:10 for an absolute unity. Also see “The Unity and Oneness of God”.

God is Transcendent

God is above and beyond His creation. In Pantheism, God is all and in all. The scriptures make it 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:

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. We can’t 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 fend for ourselves. He wants His presence and power to pervade every aspect of our lives.

The Bible says God not only created everything, but He actually holds everything 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 about what everything would be like if He ever withheld His hand.

God is a gentlemen and doesn’t usually get involved where He is not wanted. However, there are exceptions to this. He does get involved in response to His people’s prayers. Prayer moves the hand of God to work in the lives of people. He will also get involved in people’s lives who are 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!

We, as a nation and world in general, have moved God into gentlemen status. We no longer want God to be involved in our lives, nation or world. As a result, we see Him pulling back more and more. It’s a scary place to be. The more God removes His hand, the more we are left to fend for ourselves. The further God withdraws His hand, the more evil is unleashed in the world, leaving man to his own devices. God help us if He ever completely removes His hand from our lives!

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). As the people of God, we must seek His face like never before.

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