Immutability

Introduction

Everything changes. I was talking about that to the children on Sunday. And we all know it’s true.

Everything changes. From the moment we’re conceived in our mother’s womb, we change, because we develop from an unborn baby to a newborn baby to a toddler to a child to a teenager to a young adult and on and on, growing taller and stronger and faster, and hopefully wiser. We grow in our knowledge and we develop new interests and we learn new skills. And the circumstances of our life change, because we move from nursery to primary school to secondary school and then to university or into a job and eventually into retirement. And perhaps we change from being single to being married and to having a family of our own. And we might move house. We might move from one town to another or from one country to another. And then, of course, at a certain point in our lives, we start to decline. We become weaker, not stronger. Our ability to see and hear diminishes. Our health declines. We slow down. We grow old. And eventually we die. And even after we die, our bodies continue to change. And so, we change throughout our life. We are always in a state of becoming, because we are never finished, but are always becoming something else.

And everything around us changes. The seasons change through the year. The weather changes during the day. The community around us changes and the town or city in which we live changes. Buildings come and go. And people come and go. As we were thinking about on Sunday, churches change. Once there was Agnes Street and Bethany. Then they amalgamated to form Immanuel. Then Oldpark joined us. Then Nelson Memorial joined us.

Everything changes. With one exception, because the Lord does not change. He is, as the theologians say, immutable. And as the Shorter Catechism says, he is infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being. But he is not only infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being, but also in his wisdom and power and holiness and justice and goodness and truth. He is unchangeable in his being and in all his perfections. And he is unchangeable in his plans and purposes and in what he wills and decrees. And he is unchangeable in his promises and in what he has said. And it’s not merely that God does not change, but it’s that he cannot change. He cannot change, because he cannot cease to be who he eternally is.

Biblical Witness

There are many verses in the Bible which testify to this truth about God. Balaam prophesied about the Lord in Numbers 23 and said:

God is not man, that he should lie,
or a son of man, that he should change his mind.

We change our minds all the time, because we learn new things and we realise that what we used to think was wrong. But God does not change his mind. Samuel the prophet said something similar in 1 Samuel 15:

[The] Glory of Israel will not lie or change his mind, for he is not a man, that he should change his mind.

Again the Lord is contrasted with us: we change our minds, but God does not. Then there’s Psalm 102 where the Lord is compared to creation.

They [the heavens and the earth] will perish, but you will remain;
they will all wear out like a garment.
You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,
but you are the same, and your years have no end.

The heavens and the earth will perish, but the Lord remains the same. In Malachi 3, the Lord declared:

For I the LORD do not change….

And then, in the New Testament, Paul writes in 2 Timothy 2:

if we are faithless, he remains faithful —
for he cannot deny himself.

He remains faithful because he cannot change. The writer to the Hebrews refers in chapter 6 to the unchangeable character of God’s purpose. And he goes on to refer to two unchangeable things: namely, God’s promise and his oath. And in James 1, James refers to God as the Father of lights, ‘with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change’. And since God does not change, he is frequently referred to in the Bible as a Rock. So Moses said of him in Deuteronomy 32:

The Rock, his work is perfect,
for all his ways are justice.
A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,
just and upright is he.

David said of him in 2 Samuel 22:

The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,
my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation,
my stronghold and my refuge….
For who is God, but the LORD?
And who is a rock, except our God?

And again in Psalm 62:

He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken….
On God rests my salvation and my glory;
my mighty rock, my refuge is God.

Explanation

And so the consistent testimony of the Scriptures is that our God does not change. But say, for a moment, that he were to change. What would that mean? It would mean he would either become greater than he already is or else he would become less than he already is. If he were to become greater, then that would mean that he is not already perfect. And so, why are we worshipping an imperfect being? And if he were to become less than he is, then that would mean he would become imperfect. And so, why would we worship an imperfect being? Furthermore, if something forced God to change, then God would no longer be all-powerful, because there would be this other being which was more powerful than he was which made him change. And so, why would we worship him if there were another being more powerful than him? And so, it’s important that we hold on to this truth about God that he does not change, because to suggest that he changes or could change is to diminish his glory. It’s to say that he’s not yet perfect or it’s to say that he might become less than perfect.

However, the theologians are careful to point out that when the Bible says God is a Rock, we mustn’t think of him as being immobile or rigidly frozen. Think of a rock, for a moment. It doesn’t change, but remains the same for generations, because it’s strong and solid and firm and unmovable. Those are all good characteristics of a rock. However, a rock cannot do anything. It just sits there. It’s immobile. It’s just a lump. But God is not like that and the Bible makes clear that God is always active. He’s always doing things. He made and sustains all things. He sends the rain. He causes the sun to shine. He makes the crops grow. He is continually bringing forth new life and sustaining life in all its variety. He rescued the Israelites from Egypt and he led them through the wilderness and into the Promised Land. He sent them into exile and he brought them back again. When the time was right, he sent his Son into the world to save us and he sends his Spirit into our lives to enable us to believe. He’s building Christ’s church on the earth through the reading and preaching of his word. When we gather for worship, he works in us through the means of grace. He’s working out his plans and purposes for the world. And in due course, God the Son will return to make all things new. God is like a rock in that he does not change. However, God is not immobile like a rock. He’s continually active in the world and in our lives.

But does all that activity mean that God changes? Some say this activity means he does change, because didn’t he become the Creator of the world and didn’t God the Son become incarnate as a man? He therefore became something he was not before. Once he was not the Creator and now he is. Once he was not incarnate, and now he is. Does that not mean he changed in some way? But the theologians reply that creating the world did not bring about a change in God’s being, just as painting a picture does not bring about a change in the artist. And when God the Son became incarnate as one of us, he did not cease to be God nor was his divine nature changed in any way.

And whereas we might change in terms of our location, so that we’re in one place at one time and we’re in another place at another time, there is no change in God’s location, because he is present everywhere all at once. And whereas we change in terms of what we know, and each new day we add to our knowledge, God does not change in what he knows, because he knows all things all at once, because he has determined all things.

Does God relent?

However, there are places in the Bible where it says that God relented and changed his mind. In Genesis 6, before the flood, we read that God saw our wickedness and he saw that every inclination of our hearts was only evil continually. And therefore the Lord regretted that he had made us. In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, God was prepared to change his mind about destroying the city. In Exodus 32, God saw the wickedness of the Israelites when they worshipped the golden calf and he was going to wipe them out and make a new nation from Moses. But Moses pleaded with the Lord and it says the Lord relented. In Joel 2 the people are summoned to return to God because he is gracious and merciful and he relents from sending disaster. And we read about God relenting from sending disaster in Amos 7. And, of course, Jonah complained because the Lord changed his mind about destroying Nineveh.

So there are places where God is said to change his mind and to relent. What are we to make of this? Some theologians take it that God must change in at least some ways. So, while he doesn’t change in his essential being, there are other ways he is able to change. Or perhaps he is willing to change because of his promises to save his people. However, a better approach is to hold firm to the conviction that God cannot change in any way and he cannot cease to be who he eternally is. And so, when the Bible says he relents or changes his mind or regrets something, it’s using human language to convey to us some truth about God. We were thinking about this last week when we noted how the Bible refers to God’s mouth and ear and arm, not because he has a mouth and ear and arm, but to convey to us that God speaks and hears and is powerful. And so, when Genesis 6 says God regretted making us, it’s conveying to us that our God is holy and he takes no delight in wickedness. And when the Bible says that he changes his mind about bringing disaster, it’s making clear that our God is always willing to pardon the humble and contrite. God does not change: he’s always ready to punish the wicked and he’s always ready to pardon the humble. It’s always the case that those who remain unrepentant will suffer his wrath. And it’s always the case that those who trust in his Son will experience his grace and mercy and steadfast love. God has always been like that: full of wrath towards the wicked and full of mercy towards the humble and contrite. He has always been like that.

And so, theologians will say that God does not change in his being. And he does not change in his purpose to save his people. And he does not change in his promises and warnings. He does not change in who he is. But a change may take place in our relationship to him, because by nature we were objects of wrath, but once we believed in his Son we became his children. He does not change, but we change in terms of our relationship to him.

Conclusion

And the final thing to say is that God’s immutability is a great comfort to us. We’ve all met those people who are friendly and kind and generous one day and the next day they’re grumpy and mean. So, what will they be like today? Well, who knows when they change continually? But since our God does not change, then we know that he’s always ready to punish the wicked and unrepentant, but he’s always willing to show mercy and to pardon those who confess their sins and trust in his Son.

And we can always count on his promises, because his word does not change, but it’s firm. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. So, we can always rely on what he has said.

And we know that our salvation is secure. If God changed, then perhaps one day he would be willing to save us, but not the next day. But since our God does not change, then we know he will not change his mind about saving his people and giving them eternal life in his presence.

And since our God does not change, we know that we can come to him with our prayers and requests, because he’s the one who invites us to cast our anxieties upon him, because he cares for us. And his care for his people does not change, because he does not change.