Enjoying the The Immutability of GodPosted: May 9, 2014
Recently I was given the opportunity to lecture for a Sunday School class at New Covenant Presbyterian Church, where I am a member. Teaching the past four years has now become the weekly norm for myself; teaching four days a week at the bachelor level at Faith Theological Seminary, and two days a week in the logic stage at Granite Classical nerves have left when instructing a class or course. Yet when it comes to teaching within the church, I cannot seem to get rid of them. It took one opening joke, and a five minute disclaimer before I got into the lesson, but during that time the nerves had gone and what you read below is what I addressed in regards to the topic I was assigned, the immutability of God.
Introduction: The Definition of Immutability
Chapter five is titled “God Does Not Change” covering the doctrine theologians call Immutability. What is Immutability you may ask? In summary, The Immutability of God is an attribute where God is unchanging in his character, his will, and his covenant promises. It is important to make mention that God’s immutability defines all his other attributes: he is immutably wise, he cannot but be merciful, good, and gracious. As A.W. Pink has said, “This is one of the Divine perfections which is not sufficiently pondered. It is one of the excellencies of the Creator which distinguishes Him from all His creatures.” You would think the doctrine of Immutability would be easy to understand, or at least grasp when we read Scripture like Malachi 3:6, “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. Here we read what God plainly states that he is unchangeable. He never undergoes mutation and never ceases to be what he is. In Ps. 102 we read, “Of old you laid the foundation of the earth” showing us that God does not age or decay. In Isa. 40:28 we read the immutability of his being, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.” All that he is, and all that he was, he will always be.
Point One: The Doctrine of Immutability
Scripture has no specific term for the doctrine of divine immutability. Yet the concept is taught in four different ways in the Bible;
1. A biblical writer/author will often say that there is no change in God or that he will endure. God is the same from one day to the next. We saw that from Mal. 3:6, and Ps. 102:26 and read about this in the New Testament as well; Heb. 1:11-12, “they will perish, but you remain… But you are the same, and your years will have no end.” Heb. 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” James 1:17, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” All these verses teach us that God does not change.
2. A number of passages single out an attribute of God and declare that this attribute does not change. For example; the Psalmist in Ps. 103:17 portrays God’s mercy and moral attributes as never ending, stating, “But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him.” Heb. 6:17-18, “So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.”
3. A number of texts teach that God’s purposes do not change. His counsels and his will are unchangeable, for example in Prov. 19:21, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.” In Ps. 33:11 we read that it is “the counsel of the Lord, that shall stand.” Isa. 14:24, “The Lord of hosts has sworn: As I have planned, so shall it be, and as I have purposed, so shall it stand.”
4. The Bible speaks of God as unchanging in his promises. There is a special emphasis placed on this truth in 2 Cor. 1:20 “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him” God keeps and will keep his promises; he is unchanging in his promises.
Point Two: Defining Gods Immutability
While immutable, God yet communicates himself to the changeable. The sun does not change whether it scorches or warms and a coin remains a coin whether it is called a price or pledge. A pillar remains the same whether on the right or on the left. The idea is that there is a difference between the absolute and the relational. Historical Theologian Dr. Muller states, “God’s immutability denotes such a state that is not subject to any change. This immutability since whatever it possesses is incapable of mutation. God’s being, God’s knowledge, and God’s will are immutable.” Theologically we may state that there are three basic aspects of God’s immutability.
1. The first is what theologians call God’s absolute immutability in being, knowledge and will. It marks every distinctive of God’s nature, every attribute of God.
2. Secondly, God’s relative immutability. God is also unchangeable with regard to his relational activity, his creation, acts of redemption. Nothing changes in him, even though the sun hardens mud and thaws ice, the sun is being true to its quality of being the sun. When God’s thoughts or will responds to his creature, it may have a different impact on different creatures, but it doesn’t mean there is a change in God himself.
3. Lastly, God’s mediatorial immutability. Scripture tells us that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus changed, in that, he took a human nature to himself and that human nature changed every day, yet the divinity of Christ does not change with the assumption of his humanity. Even now his human nature is exalted, a mediatorial permanency of Christ in his human nature.
Point Three: The Difficulties with Immutability
Other texts in the Scriptures seem to indicate that God does change. For example Ex. 32:14 reads, “And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.” In Ps. 106:45, “For their sake he remembered his covenant, and relented according to the abundance of his steadfast love.” Some texts speak of God repenting of what he thought to do as in Jonah 3:10, “When God saw what they did… God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.” At one place in 1 Sam. 15:11 the Scriptures read, “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.” It is important that we Christians interpret these texts through various hermeneutical aids. I would like to provide you with three ways to look at such texts within the Scriptures.
1. We must recognize that some of these passages that seem to indicate that God changes are to be considered as interpretations of what is not human or personal in human terms. These are called anthropomorphisms (an-thro-pomorph-isms). In Ex. 32:14 “the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.” Here the Lord repented/relented of the evil that he thought to do against his people. God threatens total destruction and Moses intervenes as intercessor. In essence, Moses repents for the people of Israel, and then becomes an advocate for them. Moses threw himself before God pleading, (paraphrasing here) If You are going to take out your anger, blot out my name, but don’t ruin Your reputation. As Moses prays in this way, God repents of the evil he thought to do to Israel. Does God change? It may seem so to our minds, yet it is important to see that God’s standards are such that he hates sin and must punish sin. There is no option for God, he demands punishment, however his unchanging nature has said that if a sinner repents he will forgive and bless. When Moses pleads and repents on behalf of the people this affects a relational change between God and the people. We could almost argue that God must forego completely destroying Israel because of his promises to Abraham. God changes, anthropomorphically, but really he was using that warning, as a threat. Moses is reporting this in an anthropomorphic way. God “repented” of the evil he had planned to do.
2. There are a number of texts based on the fact that the condition by which God was going to change was met.
This is the covenantal language throughout the Bible. If you do X I will do Y, but if you do A, I will do B. Sometimes the conditional language is implicit, other times it is very explicit. Take for example the passage we read in Jonah 3:10, “When God saw what they did… God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.” God had warned Nineveh to repent through the prophet Jonah. Forty days and Nineveh would be overthrown, but in Jonah 3:10 God does not send judgment. In the message there is an implicit condition – repent is the only way you can avoid being overthrown in forty days. Is not this what we do with our children too? If you do not clean your room you are going nowhere tonight. We should have no trouble dealing with Jonah 3:10 as we do our children. It is an implicit condition and Nineveh met the condition. God foreknows this because he foredained it to take place. He has chosen not only what will happen, but also the means to that end in which it happens.
3. The third type of change language indicates literal changes that invariably are changes in God’s relationships with people.
According to Acts 9 Jesus is angry about Saul persecuting the Church and he confronts Saul. Paul was once a child of wrath, but now has become a child of God, but none of that means that God did not choose Paul from eternity. None of it involves a change in God’s decrees or ethical norms, but the relational change was one that we see with our eyes in accord with God’s revealed method of salvation. It is not a change in the constitution of God.
Point Four: The Misunderstandings of Immutability
There are many misunderstandings and pitfalls when it comes to this attribute.
1. God is immutable, but not inactive. God’s immutability does not imply his immobility or his inactivity. God acts and works bringing things into existence, and brings people into being. God remains the same even though he acts and works. The fact that God still acts and works does not change his character. Charles Hodge taught this at Princeton Theological Seminary by stating, “God is not a stagnant ocean, but ever living, thinking, acting, ever suiting his actions to the demand to his character and to his immeasurably great wise designs.” This doctrine does not put God out of relationship to his characters and space and time.
2. God is immutable, but not anti-social or impersonal. God always insists that he is the personal God. God is not autistic, reclusive, incommunicative, or withdrawn from interaction. He interacts with angels, saves men, covenantally faithful, discloses himself in his Word, he is a living personal God. It is only a Calvinist that can see that God is personal and active and at the same time sovereign.
3. God is immutable, but not impassive in the sense that God has or knows no emotion. The impassivity of God has created a lot of debate. Everyone is agreed that immutability is not apathy, but God acts and reacts to historical events and to individual people, but not everyone agrees that God responds emotively, that God has emotions that exercises his will. Our God is not the unmoved mover of the pagan philosophers. He is not an insensitive computer, but God responds to obedience with delight and joy and responds to need with compassion and mercy and responds to sin with anger, responds with grief to the suffering of his people.
4. God is immutable, but not implacable. This is another way of saying that God’s immutability is that he is not incapable of relenting. He is not harden, he retains not his anger forever. He will not always chide. When men repent, God “repents” of the evil which he threatened. There is no need to stumble over this. Scripture teaches us differently, telling us in Jonah that God saw their works and God “repented” of the evil. This repentance of God is not the act of a losing his deity. He has promised he would show mercy to the penitent.
5. God is immutable, but not unapproachable. God repeatedly says that he is a prayer answering God and encourages us to come to him with intercessory prayer. He is a God who loves to hear the cry of the needy (Ps. 145). God delights to hear cries for mercy. He is approachable and in the New Testament we see that personified in the Lord Jesus Christ. God is very approachable, not because of prayer itself, but upon prayer this is what he has determined from all eternity. The God who ordains the ends ordains the means. He ordained from eternity that Moses’ prayer would prevail, using those prayers to carry out his immutable will in Ex. 32, likewise he does the same for your prayers you lay at the feet of Christ’s to make intercession for you. That is good news, that is very good news for you.
6. God’s immutability does not preclude development in his covenant relationship with his people. Because he is immutable, his moral law and gospel way of salvation are unchangeable and recorded as his revealed will for sinners, and God progressively discloses these norms in a series of historical covenants with his people.
7. God Incarnate has immutable deity, but not immutable humanity. Because God is the immutable God when the Word became flesh he did not cease to be what he always was. He hid his deity behind his humanity, but he still remained divine. His humanity was changing constantly just as ours is (Luke 2) Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and favor with God and man.
Conclusion: Practical Conclusions for Us
1. This gives stability and comfort for the godly. The fact that he is the Lord and he changes not and we are not consumed shows the unchanging protection God has for his church.
2. This doctrine of God’s immutability is also humbling. Puritan Hugh Binning writes, “when we think on God’s unchangeableness let us consider our own vanity which is like a summer flower, we are so changeable, and seem so unlike God. To be one thing and then another thing is a property of sinful and wretched man.”
3. This doctrine is also dreadful to the ungodly. God is unchangeable, and his plan for justice on those who are not in Christ will take place.
4. As man may rage at the destruction of God, the Word of God endures forever. It shows how useless it is in trying to ruin God’s Word.
5. It calls his people to submit to God’s decisions about our lives, for His unchangeable will, will be done, and not our own.
6. It calls us to set our hope on what he has promised to do. We look to the unchangeable God for certainty, because we know that he will work all things to our good better than we could do ourselves.
7. It teaches us to commit our cause to his doing. As Creator, we must place our trust in God rather than man. While you and I continue to have doubt after doubt in this life, you can rest assure that you never need to doubt in God.
8. We are comforted that he never forgets our problems or is oblivious to our need. He knows the needs of our life better than ourselves.
9. As Redeemer, his redemption is unchangeable, and he will never turn against us. The Immutability of God is the guarantee of our salvation.
10. We are promised that he will always do us good and preserve us, and that will never change no matter what the situation.
** all footnotes are not included because of it being a blog post.