“God is unchanging in his being, perfections, purposes, and promises, yet God does act and feel emotions, and he acts and feels differently in response to different situations,”1and always in such a way that He remains perfect, uncontingent (unmoved or dependent upon events outside His control), and suffers no loss to His being.2
“Nothing that is from the creature adds to or alters God’s happiness, as though it were changeable either by increase or diminution.”3
Malachi 3:6: “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.”
Psalm 33:11: “The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations.”
Psalm 102:25-26a: “In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain.”
Hebrews 13:8: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
James. 1:17: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”
Cultures change, God does not. Nonetheless, the Christian message and method of sharing and defending the Gospel of Christ will be pressed to fit the prevailing culture if the message and method are not founded upon God’s unchanging nature. Thus, a proper proclamation and defense of the Gospel requires sound theology, including a proper understanding of the nature of God that is its foundation. God’s immutability provides limits to how we adopt and respond to different cultures in our preaching, teaching, evangelism, and missionary enterprises. Different cultures and languages require sensitivity and a willingness to remove unnecessary cultural hindrances to the Gospel while communicating its timeless truth in language that can be understood. Yet, the message must not be changed, while the method must always honor and display the character of Christ.4
No culture is innocent. Regardless of how small a Christian witness may be in a given setting, all people are confronted with the clear, comprehensive, and convincing evidence of God in creation, providence, and the law of God written on their heart. All people are responsible to seek, worship, and give thanks to God. All idolatry is without excuse. As Paul notes in his address on Mars Hill, no one should think that the God who made all things and is “Lord of heaven and earth” dwells in man-made temples or that He is “served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:24-25). The Athenian idolatry was blameworthy, and Paul called them to repent.
He is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘in him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘for we also are his offspring.’ Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The time of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising Him from the dead (Acts 27b-31).
Mars Hill, Manhattan, or Papua New Guinea, the essential nature of unbelief remains the same in any age and culture. Created by God to love, honor, and obey Him, we suppress the clear evidence of our obligation to do so. We worship the creature rather than the Creator.5 Modern idols may not be images of gold or silver. But if our minds or hands created them, they are idols, nonetheless. And however unbelief displays itself in any age or culture, it always involves a presumed independence from God or a presumed authority to create or choose a “god” that suits our desires. And while the depth and display of evil differs between cultures, the essence of unbelief in every heart remains the same, as does the remedy.
Created by God, we owe God everything. Anything less than perfect obedience is sin. Indeed, the curse upon the world was the result of a single sin. “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10). God’s infinite excellence deserves perfect honor and obedience, and His justice requires it without exception. Indeed, God grants eternal life on the condition of perfect obedience. Adam was created in a loving relationship with God, but He was created without eternal life (eternal life is eternal). God created Adam holy but judged him for his sin and cast him from the garden before he could eat from the Tree of Life and live forever as condemned. Standing for all mankind, the first Adam failed the test of his probation by failing to exercise loving fidelity to God in obedience to His command. The requirement of perfect obedience for eternal life remained unfulfilled until the Second Adam fulfilled it in our place. The perfect obedience required for eternal life and the penalty required for Adam’s sin were satisfied by Christ on our behalf. Christ alone satisfied the strict requirements of God’s justice for obtaining eternal life and alone constitutes the way of salvation. No man can come to God apart from Christ, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). As the positive requirement of obedience and the negative requirement of the penalty for sin are founded upon the unchanging nature of God and His justice, so God’s requirement for eternal life remains the same in any age or culture.
The need of salvation, the accomplishment of salvation by Christ, and the acquiring of salvation through faith in Christ alone remain the same for any age or culture. “And you were dead in trespasses and sins….But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:1, 4-5). “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). Regardless of cultural peculiarities and differences to be considered in sharing the Gospel, salvation remains through faith in Christ alone.
History abounds with frontal attacks against the authority and accuracy of Scripture and the truthfulness of its doctrines. The open opponents of Christianity have damaged the faith of many. Yet, many claiming to defend the faith against its detractors have caused greater damage to the credibility of Christianity than its enemies. Jonathan Edwards observed that some of the strongest supporters of the Great Awakening caused greater damage to the Awakening than those who openly opposed it.6 Modern proponents of “Christian” liberalism profess to defend Christianity by denying the essential doctrines that define it. Some attempt to make Christianity compatible with “reason” and the assumptions of atheistic naturalism, while others relegate Christianity to the subjective realm of experience, beyond the reach of “science” and reason. These approaches deny the true nature of Christianity. And while the cultural manifestations of unbelief may differ (though built on the same assumptions), God and His revelation do not change. No greater need to make Christian doctrine compatible with the assumptions of naturalism and unbelief exists today than when Christ walked on water or God spoke and made the universe. As God does not change, so the truth, validity, and applicability of Scripture do not change.
While many Christians worldwide suffer imprisonment, torture, or death for their faith in Christ, the label of “dumb,” “unscientific,” or “unreasonable” tempts many of us as free Christians to buckle under the weight of the indignity. And while Christians should be the best scientists and the most reasonable, gracious, and humble of people, we should not elevate acceptance by the cultured despisers of Christ above fidelity and honor to Christ. To do so dishonors God to whom we owe all love, honor, and obedience; misrepresents reality as God has created and explained it; and denies our dependence upon Him for all things. We need not be intimidated by a hostile world when God remains trustworthy. Charnock says it well.
Though the foundations of the world should be ripped up, and the heavens clatter together, and whole fabric of them be unpinned and fall to pieces, the firmest parts of it dissolved, yet the church should continue in its stability, because it stands not upon the changeableness of creatures, but is built upon the immutable rock of the truth of God, which is as little subject to change as his essence.7
“Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”
1 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 163.
2 For a brief discussion concerning the impassibility of God, including whether or not God has emotions or can suffer, see Frame, Doctrine of God, 608-616.
3 Edwards, “Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World,” 448. Edwards acknowledges that God rejoices in His creatures as He rejoices in His perfections displayed in and through them. God rejoices in them “in time.” “Yet his joy in them is without beginning or change. They were always equally present in the divine mind. He beheld them with equal clearness, certainty and fullness in every respect, as he doth now. They were always equally present, as with him there is no variableness or succession. He ever beheld and enjoyed them perfectly in his own independent and immutable power and will. And his view of, and joy in them is eternally, absolutely perfect, unchangeable and independent. It can’t be added to or diminished by the power or will of any creature; nor is in the least dependent on anything mutable or contingent.” 448. See 447- 449 for an excellent discussion of God’s immutability as it relates to God creating and rejoicing in His creatures.
4 “Contextualization” is the term used in the science of missions that refers to how missionaries consider and adapt their approach to different cultures. Proper contextualization involves presenting the Gospel clearly, accurately, and understandably within a given culture and language, without altering the content of the Gospel. It may involve the adoption of aspects of a given culture, such as dress and other customs, along with the elimination of unnecessary cultural baggage that might hinder acceptance of the missionary or prevent a hearing of the Gospel. Proper contextualization involves cultural sensitivity but is founded upon and constrained by the unchanging message and character of God and the Gospel.
5 See Romans 1:18-25.
6 See Edwards, Religious Affections; BT, 18-19; Yale, 87-88.
7 Charnock, Existence and Attributes, 99.