Why what we call God matters

Throughout our look at who God is, we’ve kept coming back to the point that what we believe affects how we live. This means that when we talk about The Doctrine of the Trinity, belief that God is Sovereign or the question of Predestination, we’ve not just been engaging in an intellectual exercise. These beliefs matter.

It’s true when we come to the names of God too. These are not just nice to know, they matter. This is especially true given that God’s names are not arbitrary but chosen by him to reveal something of his nature.

I want to identify a couple of areas here where the question of God’s name matters. First of all, it matters in the struggle with sects and cults. Have you wondered why a particular sect or a cult becomes obsessed about the things it does. Take the Jehovah’s Witnesses for example.  Why is there such a fuss about the exact form of structure that the crucifixion took place on? How big a deal is it as to whether or not it was a single upright stake or included a cross beam? You might think that it doesn’t matter that much, the important thing is that Jesus died in our place and shed his blood. However, for them it really matters. I suspect that what is at stake here is not just a question of archaeological accuracy but rather that by challenging widely held assumptions and images that seem on the surface trivial, it’s then possible to undermine more significant beliefs.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses also make a big point of claiming that they (and they alone) know and use the one true name for God.  It’s a way of distinguishing themselves form all other groups and marking themselves out as the guardians of true faith.  It’s a way of saying that true salvation is found in their sect and practices alone. In other words, it is a away of distraction people from the real Gospel.

Now, we should have seen here that there are a few massive holes in their argument. First of all, they’ve locked onto a particular attempt to anglicise the name – why not Yahweh’s Witnesses?  Secondly, they are incorrect in insisting that there is one special name by which we are to address God. The name is special and has particular reference to God’s Covenant faithfulness, however God permits and encourages his people to use other names to address him. God cannot be contained and, restricted and defined by one name. Thirdly, it ignores the point that full revelation encourages us now to call God “Father.” Indeed, the Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot really know God as Father because they reject Jesus’ identity as God The Son.

So, on the one hand watch out for people who treat God’s name in a legalistic way. Secondly watch out for people who treat it in a magical or superstitious way.  Often, people want to find out what name to use because they attribute special powers to it. If we pray in the right name them it will guarantee that he will answer our prayers. People who do that do not recognise him as truly God. They think that by using a name they can manipulate and control him. We see this type of thinking in aspects of prosperity teaching.

Thirdly, we should not be licentious or careless in the use of his names. It may be true that we have been given more than one name by which to address God but this does not mean that we can call him by any name we choose. There are two aspects to this. First of all, it will not do to import names from other faiths. For example, I’ve heard of well-meaning people substituting God/LORD with “Allah” to help communicate to an Islamic cultural context. The problem is that the name “Allah” brings with it a whole theology of who God is and our relationship to him. This is a God who may be merciful by is not and cannot be eternally love because he is not Triune. The name takes us to a God who we submit to as slaves rather than know as Father and belong to as sons. 

The other aspect is that naming God as he teaches us to reflects a broader requirement to know, approach and worship God as he tells us. His names tell us how we are to approach him.  Our worship should reflect our understanding that he is El Shaddai and YHWH Saboath. This means there must be true reverence, adoration and praise.  We come to worship the one who is almighty, glorious and holy.  It should also reflect our knowledge that he is Yahweh, the faithful and eternal God who does not change, who keeps his covenant promises. This means our prayers will express trust and hope as we give thanks and as we pray about our daily needs. It means that we reverently draw near, our worship should express the intimacy of being his people. We worship God as father when we remember that we come through the Son on the basis of grace alone.