12. The Immutability of God
After deciding to replace their automobile, a family I know finally determined their best course of action was to buy a brand new mini-van. Although it would be expensive, they planned to take good care of the vehicle and make it last for many years. While it was still virtually new, they took a trip. The one serpentine belt, which drives everything from the power steering and alternator to the water pump, broke, and the car overheated. They wondered how much damage the overheating had done, and I was not able to give them much encouragement. The dealer assured them a new belt fixed the car entirely. On their way home from a church picnic, they were caught in a sudden storm and pelted with golf ball-sized hail just long enough to give the car a whole new, rather dimpled look. Shortly after, while driving downtown, someone ran into the back of the mini-van damaging it even further. My friend told me they had reached the point where they stopped even washing the car.
My friend’s “new” car aged rapidly in a short time. Things do change all too quickly. Most often, change is an unpleasant reality of life which we would avoid if we could. I recently came across one of our earliest church directories. Wow, have some of our folks ever changed! Some no longer have what they used to, and some of us have a lot more of some things than we had back then. One look at a 20-year old world map reveals the existence of nations which were not even conceived of 20 years ago. The recent changes in the former USSR came suddenly and unexpectedly.
Technology has seen perhaps the most dramatic changes in recent times. Computers I once dreamed of owning I now see in garage sales and choose to walk away from with hardly a twinge of temptation, even though the price may be under ten dollars. The computer on which I am writing this message is 50 times as fast as the first IBM desktop I used, which cost twice as much money. Things change so fast we cannot rely on a daily newspaper for up-to-the-minute news; we must have news programs all day long. A farmer we met recently has a computer terminal on his kitchen table running constantly so he can keep up to date.
Some changes are welcome; some are not. A great comfort for the Christian living in these turbulent, troubled times is the confidence we have that God does not change. Theologians refer to this attribute of God as the “immutability of God.” God does not change. This truth is referred to a number of times in the Scriptures and even in the hymns we sing in church. Let us reflect on this great attribute, the immutability of God, before considering applications of this truth to our lives.
29 “And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind” (1 Samuel 15:29).
Saul had become king of Israel. As such, he was to lead the Israelites into battle with the Amalekites. He was instructed by God to utterly destroy the king and every living creature, man, woman, child, and even all the cattle (1 Samuel 15:2-3). Saul only partially obeyed God’s instructions, allowing the king to live and keeping the best of the cattle (verses 7-9). Saul simply did not take God’s Word seriously. As a result, God took his kingdom away from him (verses 22-26). Saul then uttered a desperate plea to Samuel, hoping that God would restore his kingdom; instead, Samuel uttered the words of verse 29. Samuel informed Saul that God, the Glory of Israel, was not a man. But as the immutable God, He could not and would not alter His word or change His mind to reverse the consequences He had just pronounced upon Saul’s sin.
Saul, like all too many people today, willfully disobeyed God’s Word hoping God would somehow fail to do as He said. Saul had too little regard for God’s Word and did not see how serious God is concerning disobedience to His Word. He hoped God would also take His own Word lightly by reversing the sentence He had pronounced on the sinner. God always takes His Word most seriously. He not only expects and requires us to obey it, He most certainly will keep His Word regarding the punishment of those who disregard it. God, because He is God, is immutable, and we can be certain He will keep His Word. Everything else in creation is subject to change except the Creator, for He, as God, will not change:
12 But Thou, O LORD dost abide forever; And Thy name to all generations. . . 25 Of old Thou didst found the earth; And the heavens are the work of Thy hands. 26 Even they will perish, but Thou dost endure; And all of them will wear out like a garment; Like clothing Thou wilt change them, and they will be changed. 27 But Thou art the same, And Thy years will not come to an end. 28 The children of Thy servants will continue, And their descendants will be established before Thee” (Psalm 102:12, 25-28, emphasis mine).
6 “For I, the LORD, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed” (Malachi 3:6, emphasis mine).
In Malachi, the prophet is warning the nation Israel of the coming wrath of God. He speaks of the coming of both John the Baptist and of Jesus, the Messiah (3:1). The day of His coming will be a day of wrath, and yet it will also be a day of deliverance and salvation. No one can endure the day of His coming, apart from divine grace (verse 2), and yet somehow Israel will be purified, and her sacrifices and worship will thus be acceptable to God (verses 3-4). God will draw His people near for judgment (verse 6). In the midst of these words of warning and comfort, the Lord speaks of His immutability as the reason Israel is not totally consumed in divine judgment (verse 6).
What irony when we compare this text with 1 Samuel 15:29. Saul’s “hope” was in the possibility that God might change and not carry out the consequences for Saul’s sin. Malachi’s prophecy tells us the exact opposite. Like Saul, Israel has sinned, and divine judgment is certain. The immutability of God means that God will follow through with judgment. It also means God will follow through with His promise of salvation. How can one find comfort and be assured of salvation while also being assured of divine judgment? The answer is simple when viewed from the perspective of the cross of Christ. God’s certain judgment fell on His Son, Jesus Christ, and thus by faith in Him, men are saved from their sins and from God’s wrath. Our hope is not in wishful thinking that God will not follow through with punishing sin; our hope is in the certainty that, in Christ, God has judged sin in the flesh once for all so that we may be saved. The immutability of God is a significant part of our hope, for He who has promised to judge sin is the same God who has promised to save us from our sins by judging sin in the person and work of Jesus Christ, His Son.
7 Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, yes and forever. 9 Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings; for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, through which those who were thus occupied were not benefited (Hebrews 13:7-9).
The Book of Hebrews was written to Jewish saints who were beginning to face persecution, probably from their unbelieving Jewish brethren. They were tempted to fall away by renouncing their faith in Christ and embracing Judaism once again. The author of this epistle has repeatedly demonstrated that the old Mosaic covenant was never intended to save men but to prepare them for the new covenant which was fulfilled in Christ. This new covenant is “better,” a key word in Hebrews, and should not be forsaken to return to the old. These saints are exhorted to persist in their faith, even in the midst of persecution. The exhortation to follow in the footsteps of the faithful men through whom they came to salvation is immediately followed by this reminder of the immutability of Jesus Christ.
8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, yes and forever (Hebrews 13:8).
This statement is very important, for it is a claim of deity. Only God is immutable; only He cannot and does not change. For the writer to tell us that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever is to remind us that He is God. No wonder His sacrifice is superior to any and all Old Testament sacrifices! It also is an incentive for faith. Who better to entrust our salvation and eternal well-being to than He who is not only God, but He who cannot and does not change. Our eternal destiny could not be in better hands.
17 Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow (James 1:17).
Like the writer to the Hebrews, James writes to those who are suffering for their faith. He instructs them to rejoice when they enter into trials, knowing that this is divinely intended to strengthen our faith by producing endurance (James 1:2-4; compare Romans 5:3-5). If one lacks the wisdom to know how to respond to the trials of life, he need only to ask God for wisdom. He must not waver in doubt, for such a person is unstable in all his ways (verses 6-8). Those who persevere under trial will, once he has been approved, receive the crown of life (verse 12).
While God tests us through trials and tribulations, He never tempts us to sin. Such temptation comes from another source. The world and the devil certainly seek to lead us astray, but we must also look within ourselves for the explanation for our sin. A man who is tempted and then sins does so because he has given way to his own lusts. We most certainly must not blame God (verses 13-15). God is not the source of evil, but the source of good. Every good thing comes from God as a gift. Only good things come from God. Since He is immutable, we can say this is the rule, and there are no exceptions. The God who is good, and the source of all that is good, is consistently good to those who are His own (verse 17; see also Romans 8:28).
In these four texts, two of which come from the Old Testament and two from the New, we see that the immutability of God is clearly taught in the Bible and that it is an intensely practical truth. Before considering the practical implications of God’s immutability, let us first deal briefly with two circumstances in which one might wrongly conclude God is not immutable.
On several occasions, the Scriptures speak of God “repenting” or “changing His mind” (see Genesis 6:5-6; Exodus 32:14; Jonah 3:10; 2 Samuel 24:16). Do such texts undermine our confidence in the immutability of God? Most certainly not! First, we must clarify what immutability means. Immutability applies to the nature of God. He is always God, and He is always infinitely powerful. Never will God fail to accomplish His will due to a change in His power to accomplish His purposes. Second, God is immutable with regard to His character or attributes:
“. . . God is immutable in His attributes. Whatever the attributes of God were before the universe was called into existence, they are precisely the same now, and will remain so forever. Necessarily so; for they are the very perfections, the essential qualities of His being. Semper idem (always the same) is written across every one of them. His power is unabated, His wisdom undiminished, His holiness unsullied. The attributes of God can no more change than deity can cease to be. His veracity is immutable, for His Word is ‘forever settled in heaven’ (Ps 119:89).
His love is eternal: ‘I have loved thee with an everlasting love’ (Jer 31:3) and, ‘Having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end’ (Jn 13:1).
His mercy ceases not, for it is ‘everlasting’ (Ps l00:5).”87
When Jonah protested against God’s dealings with the Ninevites, he made it clear God was not acting inconsistently with His character but rather He was acting predictably. Jonah sought to flee from the presence of God in a futile attempt to thwart God from acting consistently with His character:
1 But it greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry. 2 And he prayed to the LORD and said, “Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore, in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that Thou art a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity” (Jonah 4:1-2).
When God “relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon” the Ninevites, God was not only acting consistently with His character; He was acting consistently with His Word:
7 “At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; 8 if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it” (Jeremiah 18:7-8).
This very hope prompted the king of Ninevah to repent, along with the rest of the city (Jonah 3:5-9). God’s actions are predictable because He is immutable. This was the hope of the repentant king of Ninevah and the dread of the pagan-hearted prophet, Jonah.
Third, God’s purposes and promises are immutable (see Romans 11:29).88 God finishes what He starts. This was the basis for Moses’ appeal to God in Exodus 32 (verses 11-14). Here, God’s actions in response to Moses’ appeal were not a contradiction to His immutability but an outworking of that immutability.
The various dispensations evident in the Bible89 are not a contradiction to God’s immutability. God’s immutability does not preclude Him from incorporating different economies into His overall plan of redemption. In Romans 9-11, the apostle Paul shows how all of history is a part of God’s one eternal plan. The failure of the nation Israel and the salvation of the Gentiles were a part of this plan. The Old Testament Scriptures frequently spoke of such matters, although the Jews were not open to listen or to learn. Early in His earthly ministry, Jesus reminded His Jewish brethren of God’s purpose to bless Gentiles as well as Jews, consistent with the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 12:1-3) and with many other texts (see Luke 4:16-27; Romans 9-11).
As I have considered the subject of God’s immutability, I have become impressed with Peter’s emphasis of this reality. The immutability of God permeates his thinking and is the basis for much of what Peter teaches. We first find this doctrine referred to in Peter’s sermon at Pentecost recorded in Acts 2. Peter was proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, not only as a historical fact to which the apostles were witnesses, but also as fulfillment of the Scriptures (see Acts 2:22-35). He was also arguing that the resurrection of our Lord was a theological and practical necessity, stemming from the doctrine of the immutability of God:
22 “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know—23 this Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. 24 And God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power. 25 For David says of Him, ‘I WAS ALWAYS BEHOLDING THE LORD IN MY PRESENCE; FOR HE IS AT MY RIGHT HAND, THAT I MAY NOT BE SHAKEN. 26 THEREFORE MY HEART WAS GLAD AND MY TONGUE EXULTED; MOREOVER MY FLESH ALSO WILL ABIDE IN HOPE; 27 BECAUSE THOU WILT NOT ABANDON MY SOUL TO HADES, NOR ALLOW THY HOLY ONE TO UNDERGO DECAY” (Acts 2:22-27).
Peter maintains that “it was impossible” for our Lord not to rise from the dead (verse 24). Why is this so? Peter then quotes from Psalm 16, verses 8-11, where the prophecy states, “NOR ALLOW THY HOLY ONE TO UNDERGO DECAY.” Decay is a change in state, a downward change. Since Jesus Christ is God and God cannot change, God cannot decay. It was not impossible for Jesus to rise from the dead as some might contend. Rather, it was impossible for Him not to rise since He is immutable, and corruption is change. There may have been the stench of death in the tomb of Lazarus after three days (see John 11:39), but there was no stench in the grave where they laid Jesus. It was impossible for Him to undergo corruption. The resurrection of our Lord was a theological necessity.
In Peter’s first epistle, the immutability of God and His works are prominent. In 1 Peter 1:3-9, Peter speaks of our salvation as that which is imperishable rather than that which is perishable. He speaks of our inheritance as imperishable (verse 4) and also our faith (verse 7). In verses 18-19, Peter speaks of the shed blood of our Lord as precious because it is imperishable. The atonement by which our salvation was accomplished was by means of an imperishable sacrifice so that our salvation is likewise imperishable. In verses 22-25, Peter goes on to speak of God’s Word as imperishable. It is this Word which served as the imperishable seed by which we were begotten. Since our birth is through an imperishable seed, not only is the Word imperishable, but also our life and our love which is born of the Word. Finally, in 1 Peter 5:4, Peter speaks to elders of their imperishable reward, the “unfading crown of glory.” Our salvation is secure because it is imperishable. Thus our salvation, like God, is immutable.
The immutability of God is far from just a theological observation or a hypothetical truth. It is a life-transforming truth from which we can draw a number of implications for our lives.
(1) The immutability of God has tremendous implications regarding the Bible, the Word of God.
J. I. Packer, in his excellent book, Knowing God, includes a chapter on the immutability of God, where he emphasizes the relevance of this attribute to our lives as Christians:
“Where is the sense of distance and difference, then, between believers in Bible time and ourselves? It is excluded. On what grounds? On the grounds that God does not change. Fellowship with Him, trust in His word, living by faith, ‘standing on the promises of God’, are essentially the same realities for us today as they were for Old and New Testament believers. This thought brings comfort as we enter into the perplexities of each day: amid all the changes and uncertainties of life in a nuclear age, God and His Christ remain the same—almighty to save. But the thought brings a searching challenge too. If our God is the same as the God of New Testament believers, how can we justify ourselves in resting content with an experience of communion with Him, and a level of Christian conduct, that falls so far below theirs? If God is the same, this is not an issue that any one of us can evade.”90
The immutability of God is closely related to the immutability of the Word of God (Matthew 24:35; 1 Peter 1:22-25), which means His Word is never out of date, never irrelevant to our lives or our times.
(2) The immutability of God is an assurance for Christians
Assurance provides stability and confidence in times of uncertainty and circumstances that appear threatening. Because our God is unchanging, His promises and His purposes are certain; they cannot, and they will not fail. We have an incorruptible sacrifice, the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has accomplished eternal redemption for all who receive it (1 Peter 1:3-9, 17-21; Hebrews 9:12). We have a “kingdom which cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28). We have a God who deals with us consistently with His character and His Word (see James 1:12-18). We have a Great High Priest who “abides forever and holds His priesthood permanently” (Hebrews 7:24). Our hope and confidence is not in the “uncertainty of riches” but rather in “God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17). The prophet Isaiah contrasted the “changing creation with the unchanging Creator” as an encouragement to endurance and faithfulness, even in the dark days of history (Isaiah 50:7-51:16).
(3) The immutability of God is a standard for Christians.
As the “sons of God,” we are to emulate God, to reflect Him in our daily lives (see Matthew 5:43-48). While there is much need for change in our lives (of which we will speak in a moment), there is also the need for us not to change. We are not to allow the world to change us by conforming us to its ungodly mold (Romans 12:1-2). We are not to change by losing heart and abandoning our confession of faith (see Hebrews 6:11-20; 10:19-25, 32-39). We are not to change by forsaking our commitments when fulfilling them is costly to us (Psalm 15:4).
(4) The immutability of God is also an awesome warning that God will fulfill His Word regarding judgment for sin.
God’s immutability is not only a comforting assurance concerning the blessings which God has promised, but also an awesome warning that God will fulfill His Word regarding judgment for sin. When God spoke to Judah concerning the judgment about to come upon this nation for their sins, He spoke of a judgment that was certain, which would not change because He would not change His mind:
27 This is what the LORD says: “The whole land will be ruined, though I will not destroy it completely. 28 Therefore the earth will mourn and the heavens above grow dark, because I have spoken and will not relent, I have decided and will not turn back.” Jeremiah 4:27-28
In Jeremiah 18:7-8, God promised He would relent of the disaster He pronounced against a wicked nation if they would repent. Here in Jeremiah 4, God indicates the judgment of which He speaks is irreversible. There is a time for repentance, and during that time men may repent with the assurance that God will forgive their sins and turn from the judgment He threatened. But the time for repentance ends, and then men must face the consequences of their sins. In Jeremiah 4, God urges Judah to repent (see verse 14), but this plea will be ignored, and so judgment will come. Once the time for repentance has passed, God’s wrath is sure to follow. From this point, God will not turn from the judgment He has announced through His prophets. Such was the case in the days of Noah. The gospel was proclaimed for over 100 years, but once God shut the door of the ark, the time for repentance was past and the time for judgment had arrived. God will most certainly not “change” regarding judgment, once the time for repentance has passed. Do not err by looking upon God’s grace and mercy in giving a time for repentance as an evidence of divine apathy and assurance that God will not judge men for their sins. Judgment is certain and sure for sinners who rebel against God.
“Here is terror for the wicked. Those who defy Him, break His laws, have no concern for His glory, but live their lives as though He did not exist, must not suppose that, when at the last they shall cry to Him for mercy, He will alter His will, revoke His word, and rescind His awful threatenings. No, He has declared, ‘Therefore will I also deal in fury: mine eye shall not spare, neither will I have pity: and though they cry in mine ears with a loud voice, yet will I not hear them’ (Eze 8:18). God will not deny Himself to gratify their lusts. God is holy, unchangingly so. Therefore God hates sin, eternally hates it. Hence the eternality of the punishment of all who die in their sins.
The divine immutability, like the cloud which interposed between the Israelites and the Egyptian army, has a dark as well as a light side. It insures the execution of His threatenings, as well as the performance of His promises; and destroys the hope which the guilty fondly cherish, that He will be all lenity to His frail and erring creatures, and that they will be much more lightly dealt with than the declarations of His own Word would lead us to expect. We oppose to these deceitful and presumptuous speculations the solemn truth, that God is unchanging in veracity and purpose, in faithfulness and justice (J. Dick, 1850).”91
(5) The wicked frequently misapply the immutability of God, making it a pretext for living in sin without fear of retribution.
Sinful men and women often abuse the doctrine of the immutability of God. The immutable God is the One who is the sustainer of all things. Of course, all things continue as they have from the foundation of the world (Col 1:16-17; see also 2 Peter 3:3-4). The constancy of the world in which we live is a matter of common grace, and it is one which testifies of His goodness and grace. Unbelievers misinterpret the consistency of the order of creation, making of it a “proof” that God is not going to judge the world for sin (2 Peter 3:3-4). How then can we be certain of His judgment? (1) Because God’s Word warns us of judgment, and God’s Word, like God, does not change. (2) Because Bible history is filled with examples of God’s intervention into human history to judge sin. This judgment sometimes takes a spectacular form, such as seen in the flood (Genesis 6-7) or in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19). At other times, judgment is delayed so that men might repent and be saved. And sometimes God’s judgment comes in a form not readily recognized as divine judgment. This is the case in Romans 1:18-32. God’s wrath is evident in allowing men to suffer the downward degradation and corruption of sin so that they are defiled both in mind and body. He judges sinners by allowing them to persist in their sin without divine interruption, thus reaping the whirlwind of consequences for sin. Today in our culture many look at immorality, perversion, and twisted thinking as progress, as a blessing. But we should see it for what it is—divine judgment—a small sampling of what is to come.
(6) The unchanging God is the only means by which sinful men can be changed so as to enter into God’s eternal blessings.
While God does not change, sinful men must change in order to enter into the kingdom of God. This “change” is from one who is a vile sinner, deserving of God’s eternal wrath, to a forgiven sinner, who now stands clothed in the righteousness of God, through faith in Christ. It is God who provides the means whereby sinners can be changed, transformed to new creations, forgiven, justified, having an imperishable hope. What is required of men is to repent, to cease thinking and acting as they once did, acknowledge their sins, and trust in Jesus Christ.
This is not a good work which men do in order to gain God’s favor. Rather, it is a good work which God accomplishes in our lives, the result of His goodness and grace. The only change God will accept is the change which He produces in and through us, through the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit. There is no greater dread than knowing we are sinners, and that God not only hates sin but He will certainly judge sinners. There is no comfort to be found in the immutability of God for the sinner. But for those who have trusted in God’s provision for sinners, there is no greater comfort than to know that the God who chose us, called us, and promised us eternal salvation changes not.
87 Arthur W. Pink, Gleanings in the Godhead (Chicago: Moody Press, 1975), pp. 35-36.
88 Some of God’s purposes are temporal and temporary. The Mosaic covenant, for example, was a temporary provision which did not in any way alter or set aside His eternal covenant with Abraham (see Galatians 3:17).
89 It should be said that even non-dispensationalists believe in dispensations, that is in certain distinctions in God’s program over the course of biblical history. Disagreement arises not over the fact of such differences but over the interpretation of these differences. As a rule, dispensationalists tend to emphasize the differences while covenant theologians emphasize the unity of the whole plan which encompasses the various dispensations.
90J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), p. 72.
91Arthur W. Pink, Gleanings in the Godhead (Chicago: Moody Press, 1975), p. 37.
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)