Pillar Journal

Knowing God According to His Self-Revelation

Swinnock focuses the gaze of his readers on the incomparable greatness of God, who “is boundless in His duration, perfections, attributes, and being.”

The Puritans rightly believed that though “the magnitude of God’s perfections is well beyond the reach of our finite understanding,” yet “we can know what He has chosen to reveal.”1Swinnock, The Blessed and Boundless God, 2.

On the one hand, God is incomparable and incomprehensible. “For who in the heaven can be compared unto the LORD? who among the sons of the mighty can be likened unto the LORD?” (Ps. 89:6). But on the other hand, God has made Himself known by revealing Himself through His works (Ps. 8:1; 19:1–6; Rom. 1:18–20); His Word (Ps. 19:7–11; Heb. 1:1); and supremely in His incarnate Son, the Lord Jesus Christ (John 17:3; Heb. 1:2; 1 John 5:20).

As we saw in the previous chapter, this conviction grounded the Puritans’ sermons, discourses, and theological treatises in the clear teaching of Scripture, making them reliable, helpful guides for believers today. What Spurgeon once said of John Bunyan could be said of all the best Puritan divines: “Read anything of his, and you will see that it is almost like reading the Bible itself. He had read it till his very soul was saturated with Scripture…. Prick him anywhere—his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his very soul is full of the Word of God.”2C. H. Spurgeon’s Autobiography Compiled from His Diary, Letters, and Records, Vol. IV: 1878– 1892 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1900; repr. Pasadena, Tex.: Pilgrim Publications, 1992), 268. The writings of the Puritans are saturated with Scripture. They were profoundly biblical thinkers, gripped with a passion for knowing, loving, and obeying God.

One of the finest examples is Swinnock’s The Incomparableness of God, recently reprinted in a modernized edition as The Blessed and Boundless God.3George Swinnock, The Incomparableness of God, in The Works of George Swinnock (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1868; repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1996), vol. 4. Swinnock’s book-length meditation on Psalm 89:6 (quoted above) is a careful and practical study of God’s being, attributes, works, and words.

Swinnock wrote about the incomparable excellence of God’s being, showing that God’s being is independent, perfect, universal, unchangeable, eternal, simple, infinite, and incomprehensible.4Swinnock, The Blessed and Boundless God, part 1. He began by asserting that “God is His own first cause” and “His own last end.”5Swinnock, The Blessed and Boundless God, 11. Angelic and human beings derive their existence from God, but God is entirely self-existent, dependent on no one. Furthermore, “God is altogether for Himself as His highest end. He is His own end as well as His own beginning. He never had a ‘beginning’ nor will He ever have an ‘ending’ (Rev. 1:8). He does what He does for Himself.”6Swinnock, The Blessed and Boundless God, 12. Swinnock established, from Scripture, the truth that “the chief end of God is to glorify God and enjoy Himself forever.”7John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah Publishers, 2003), 31. Piper is, of course, adapting from the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s first question: “What is the chief end of man?”

In the course of his book, Swinnock considered at least sixteen specific attributes of God. He defined God’s attributes as “those perfections in the divine nature which are ascribed to Him so that we can better understand Him. They are called attributes because they are attributed to Him for our sake, even though they are not in Him as they are in humans or angels.”8Swinnock, The Blessed and Boundless God, 35.

Swinnock’s definitions of these attributes are rooted in Scripture, clearly explained, and simply expressed. For example:

  • God’s power is that attribute by which He effects whatever He pleases.9Swinnock, The Blessed and Boundless God, 44.
  • God’s justice is that attribute whereby He disposes all things according to the rule of equity and renders to all people according to their works.10Swinnock, The Blessed and Boundless God, 47.
  • Knowledge is that attribute of God whereby He understands all things in and of Himself.11Swinnock, The Blessed and Boundless God, 50.
  • Mercy is an attribute of God whereby He pities us in our misery.12Swinnock, The Blessed and Boundless God, 57.
  • Patience is that attribute of God whereby He bears with sinners, deferring their punishment or awaiting their conversion.13Swinnock, The Blessed and Boundless God, 60.

Throughout the book, Swinnock focuses the gaze of his readers on the incomparable greatness of God, who “is boundless in His duration, perfections, attributes, and being.”14Swinnock, The Blessed and Boundless God, 27. In addition to God’s being and attributes, Swinnock also covered God’s incomparable works (including His works of creation, providence, and redemption) and words.15Swinnock, The Blessed and Boundless God, parts 3 and 4, respectively.

Swinnock is just one example among the many Puritan writers who taught believers to meditate on God’s greatness and glory. In his sermons on the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Thomas Watson explained and applied the fourth question and answer by considering the being, knowledge, eternity, unchangeableness, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, mercy, truth, and unity of God, along with the doctrines of the Trinity, creation, and providence.16Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity: Contained in Sermons Upon the Westminster Assembly’s Catechism (1692; repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2003), 39–127. The catechism reads, “Q. What is God? A. God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” Stephen Charnock (1628–1680) wrote a magisterial treatment of God’s existence and attributes,17Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1853; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996). This work is also found in volumes 1 and 2 of The Complete Works of Stephen Charnock, B. D. (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1865; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2010). which is “perhaps the most extensive and incisive Puritan treatise on the doctrine of God.”18Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 59. This theological and devotional feast could provide months (if not years!) of nourishment to believers hungry to know God. For a taste, consider this reflection on the beauty of God’s holiness:

As his power is the strength of [his perfections], so his holiness is the beauty of them. As all would be weak, without almightiness to back them, so all would be uncomely without holiness to adorn them…. Holiness is the rule of all his acts, the source of all his punishments. If every attribute of the Deity were a distinct member, purity would be the form, the soul, the spirit to animate them. Without it, his patience would be an indulgence to sin, his mercy a fondness, his wrath a madness, his power a tyranny, his wisdom an unworthy subtlety. It is this [that] gives a decorum to all.19Charnock, Existence and Attributes of God, 2:113–14.

Excerpt from
Thriving in Grace: Twelve Ways the Puritans Fuel Spiritual Growth
By Joel R. Beeke and Brian G. Hedges