“Mom, where is God?”
“Well, He’s everywhere sweetheart!”
That answer frequently given by mothers to their children is true, but what does that mean?
We do not give much thought to God’s omnipresence, do we? We take it for granted that God is “everywhere,” though we do not really understand what that means. Does omnipresence mean occupying all the space that exists, or is there more to it? Is God everywhere present in the same way? For example, how is He present when the church gathers? This can be a very practical question when we think about Sunday worship. It has become increasingly common for professing Christians in our Western world to neglect church meetings. Perhaps you have heard people reason along these lines: “I believe in God, but church isn’t really my thing. I’m not interested in singing, and I find sermons boring. Besides, I can connect with God just as well when I walk in the woods, in the mountains, or on the beach as I can in a church service. After all, God is everywhere.” How do we respond to that?
The issue of omnipresence also arises when we engage oriental spiritualities and their pantheistic vision of God. They claim that God is “everywhere,” but they mean something very different from what Christians mean. How is the biblical and Christian notion of divine omnipresence different from theirs?
When we try to answer these questions, we find that seventeenth-century Reformed theologians are very helpful because they drew careful distinctions that we often fail to draw, and they used helpful philosophical categories, while always subordinating them to Scripture. No one among them is more helpful than the English Puritan Stephen Charnock (1632–80) in his famous treatise on the existence and attributes of God.
Several biblical texts are traditionally used by orthodox theologians to argue for God’s omnipresence, in particular 1 Kings 8:27; Psalm 139; and Jeremiah 23:23–24. Charnock chose Jeremiah 23:23–24 as a starting point: “Am I a God at hand, declares the Lord, and not a God far away? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the Lord.” Charnock helpfully set the text in its context (see vv. 16ff), namely, the denunciation of false prophets who prophesied to Israel when the Lord had not sent them. That allowed him to make an important distinction between God’s omniscience and His omnipresence. God knows and sees everything (“Can a man hide himself?”) because He is immediately present everywhere (“Do I not fill heaven and earth?”), so His omniscience can be inferred from His omnipresence. The verb “to fill” is key because it cannot properly refer to understanding, knowledge, or will. It must refer to what Charnock called the “essential presence” of God: “By filling heaven and earth is meant therefore a filling it with his essence. No place can be imagined that is deprived of the presence of God and therefore when the Scripture anywhere speaks of the presence of God, it joins heaven and earth together.”1
Charnock’s exegesis of these verses is significant for a number of reasons: it shows that God is essentially present everywhere, not only in heaven, as unorthodox teachers argued at that time.2 As Charnock said, “Heaven is the court of his majestical presence, but not the prison of his essence.”3 It is also very helpful to refute the pantheistic notion that God is identified with nature that Baruch Spinoza, the influential Dutch philosopher, famously expounded at that time4 and that is so prevalent today. God does “fill heaven and earth,” but, as a consequence, He is “at hand” and He “sees” us so that no one can hide from Him. He is therefore personal and distinct from nature. Indeed, as Charnock said, “Nor will it follow that because God is essentially everywhere, that everything is God. God is not everywhere by any conjunction, composition, or mixture with anything on earth. God is not in us as a part of us but as an efficient and preserving cause.”5
But the most interesting part of Charnock’s discourse is his reflection on how God is everywhere. He made a fundamental distinction between God’s essential and operational presence. God’s essence fills all the space in the universe and beyond so that not only is God “everywhere.” Yet, in a very real sense, we exist in Him: He contains everything that there is, including us. The idea that God “contains” us is startling, but this is what Paul says to the Athenians, quoting their own poets: “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Charnock commented: “We move in him, as Augustine saith, as a sponge in the sea, not containing him but being contained by him. He compasseth all, is encompassed by none . . . and as long as the devils and damned have life, and motion, and being, so long is he with them, for whatsoever lives and moves, lives and moves in him.”6
God’s “operational” presence is multifaceted. There is an “influential” presence by which God rules and preserves all creatures as a king; there is also a special “providential” presence with some creatures whom God uses as instruments for special tasks (King Cyrus, for instance; see Isa. 45:1–7). But, more importantly, there is a “gracious” and “covenantal” presence of God with His church flowing from His promises. Charnock wrote:
He is present with all by the presence of his divinity, but only with his saints by the presence of a gracious efficacy. He walks in the middle of the golden candlesticks and has dignified the congregation of his people with the title “Jehovah Shamma,” the Lord is there. (Ezek. 48:35) . . . as he filled the tabernacle, so he doth the church, with the signs of his presence; this is not the presence wherewith he fills heaven and earth.7
This is of course very significant, and it explains why those who think they can “connect” with God walking in the woods on Sunday are wrong. While God is essentially present in the woods, He is not graciously present as He is among His people when they gather around His Word. Notice the words Charnock used: “gracious efficacy.” This is not only a passive presence flowing from God’s grace and His promises but an efficacious presence that transforms people. “It is not by his essential presence but by his efficacious presence that he brings any person into a likeness to his own nature.”8 Instead of asking, “What can I get out of church this morning?” what if we asked, “What does God want to do in me this morning”? Surely that would change the way we view Sunday worship.
God is present in His church through Christ. He is the One who walks “in the midst of his candlesticks.” The incommunicable attribute of omnipresence is clearly attributed to Christ, as Charnock argues from John 3:13: “And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.”9 Charnock also appealed to the fact that He created all things (Col. 1:16): “If all things were made by him, then he was present with all things which were made, for where there is a presence of power, there is also a presence of essence, and therefore he is still present; for the right and power of conservation follows the power of creation.”10
Christ’s divinity ensures His omnipresence at all times, both before and after the incarnation. Clearly, it is according to His divine nature that He promises to be present with His church after His ascension, but this presence in the midst of the church does not invalidate His essential omnipresence. Commenting on John 10:30 (“My Father and I are one”), Charnock says: “They are not one of consent, though that be included, but one in power; for he speaks not of their consent, but of their joint power in keeping his people. Where there is a unity of essence, there is a unity of presence.”11
The really striking point about Charnock’s comments on Colossians 1:16 and John 10:30 is the fact that Christ’s promised presence after the ascension is not merely a matter of “sending the Holy Spirit” but is the special preserving power and presence that the Father and the Son exercise for the elect, just as They do for the created world. “Where there is a unity of essence, there is a unity of presence” is probably the most perfect, succinct summary of the triune nature of God and the inseparable operation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the English language.
These thoughts should humble us and fill us with wonder. How insignificant we are when we think that God is everywhere present and yet we cannot begin to fathom who He is: “Nothing is more present than God, yet nothing more hid. . . . He is known by faith, enjoyed by love, but comprehended by no mind. Himself only understands himself and can unveil himself.”12
But, as always, it is God’s people in Christ who benefit most from God’s attributes. They should not just be humbled by God’s omnipresence but rejoice in it.
Let the essential presence of God be the ground of our awe, and His gracious influential presence the object of our desire.13
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series. Previous post. Next post.
- The Works of Stephen Charnock, vol. 1 (1864; repr., Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth Trust, 2010), 423. ↩︎
- The Socinians ↩︎
- The Works of Stephen Charnock, 1:439. ↩︎
- Interestingly, Spinoza’s magnum opus The Ethics was published posthumously in 1677, while Charnock was preaching on God’s attributes in his congregation at Bishopsgate, London. ↩︎
- The Works of Stephen Charnock, 1:442. ↩︎
- The Works of Stephen Charnock, 1:429. ↩︎
- The Works of Stephen Charnock, 1:426. ↩︎
- The Works of Stephen Charnock, 1:442. ↩︎
- The authenticity of the phrase “who is in heaven” is disputed by modern textual critics and omitted in most modern versions. ↩︎
- The Works of Stephen Charnock, 1:445. ↩︎
- The Works of Stephen Charnock, 1:446. ↩︎
- P.447 ↩︎
- P.456 ↩︎