Impassibility

Introduction

We been studying the attributes of God recently to answer the question: ‘What is God like?’ However, we began, not so much with an attribute, but with who God is. Who is God? He’s the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In other words, we began with the Trinity: There is only one God, but the one God we worship has revealed to us that he is a triune God. He is one God who exists in three persons.

We then considered God’s aseity, which means God is independent and self-sufficient. He does not rely on anyone or anything outside of himself for anything. We can’t exist without air to breathe and without food and drink to sustain us and we rely on a vast array of other things and other people. But God is completely independent and he does not need us for anything. And yet, though he does not need us, he has graciously bound himself to us with a promise to be our God and to give us everlasting life in his presence.

Next we thought about God’s simplicity, which is a complicated topic to grasp, but it means that there’s no difference between God’s nature and his attributes. It’s not that he happens to possess wisdom and power and holiness and justice and goodness and truth. No, he is by nature wise and he is by nature powerful and he is by nature holy and he is by nature just and he is by nature good and he is by nature true. This is what he is by nature and he therefore cannot cease to be wise or powerful or holy or just or good or true. Some of us might be wise, but perhaps we weren’t always wise and perhaps we’ll become foolish later in life. And we can think of other humans who have never been wise and who are always foolish. Human beings are not necessarily wise. But what God is by nature and the way that he is are one and the same.

After that, we thought about God’s goodness which refers to his benevolence towards all that he has made and it also refers to his steadfast love to his people in particular. It also includes things like his mercy and his grace and his patience. And because of our God’s goodness and love, he sent his Son to save us from our sin and misery.

We also studied God’s holiness which means he is set apart from all that he has made and he is set apart from all that is evil. He is set apart from all that he has made because he alone is the Creator. And he is set apart from all that is evil because he is perfectly pure, morally excellent, completely good. So God is holy in the sense that he is above and beyond everything else and in the sense that he is set apart from all that is evil. He is majestic in his transcendence and he is majestic in his moral purity. And he sets apart his people for himself and he works in our lives by his Spirit to make us holy and pure.

And then we thought about God’s omnipresence which means God is present everywhere all at once. There are no restrictions or limitations on where he can be. You and I have to be somewhere. And when we’re somewhere, we can’t be somewhere else at the same time. But God is not somewhere; he’s everywhere. And he’s not present everywhere by stretching himself out or by dividing himself up so that part of him is with me and part of him is with you and another part is with someone else. No, he fills and surrounds all things all of the time with all of his being.

And then last week we were thinking about God’s immutability, which means God does not change. Everything else changes and you and I change throughout our life so that we’re always in a state of becoming, because we’re never finished, but we’re always becoming something else. But God does not change. In fact, he cannot change, because he cannot cease to be who he eternally is. But this doesn’t mean he’s like a lifeless lump of rock which can do nothing. He is eternally active.

So those are the things we’ve been studying recently. And, as I said at the beginning of this series, the reason we should study God’s attributes and what he’s like is so that we may know him more. And knowing him more means we will love him more. And loving him more means we will praise him more. As people sometimes say: theology leads to doxology. Studying who God is leads to praise and worship.

Impassibility

Today we’re thinking about what the theologians call God’s impassibility. By that they mean that God is without passions and that he cannot undergo changes of emotion and he cannot experience mood swings the way that we do. One moment we’re happy, the next we’re sad. Something happens during the day which fills us with joy. Then something else happens, and we plunge down into the depths of sorrow and sadness. We become afraid or agitated or depressed or angry or tormented. And, as we say, we get out of bed on the wrong side so that for no particular reason we’re feeling cranky that day. And then, there are many things which cause us to suffer.

So, all kinds of things happen to us which can affect how we feel. But God is not like that. He cannot undergo changes of emotion and he cannot suffer. As one theologian, Matthew Barrett, puts it: he is in complete control of who he is and what he does. He doesn’t experience different emotional states. He is never overcome by sudden, unexpected moods. And he is not affected in any way by the things we do. As Thomas Weinandy, another theologian, puts it: God does not experience emotional changes of state due to his relationship to and interaction with human beings and the created order. We cannot affect him emotionally and we cannot cause him to suffer. From time to time, you’ll hear people telling children that their sins make God sad. But that is not true. We cannot make God sad, because God is impassible.

This attribute is clearly related to God’s immutability. God’s immutability means he cannot change, but he’s always the same. And God’s impassibility means he cannot experience emotional changes.

Biblical Witness

Since God’s impassibility is related to his immutability, it’s no surprise that the theologians quote the same Bible texts when explaining this doctrine. And so, in Numbers 23, Balaam said of the Lord:

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

In 1 Samuel 15, Samuel said of him:

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

In Psalm 102 the psalmist compares God, who does not change, to his creation, which will perish:

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.

In Malachi 3, the Lord declared:

For I the LORD do not change….

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. All of these verses teach us that God does not change. Nothing about him — including his emotional state — is subject to change.

But the passage we read earlier is important, because when God appeared to Moses in the burning bush and Moses asked him for his name, the Lord revealed that his name is: ‘I AM WHO I AM’. That special name conveys to us the idea of God’s aseity or independence, because you and I can’t say, ‘I am who I am’, because we are what we are because of someone else. We are what we are because of our parents from whom we inherited certain characteristics. And we are what we are because of our teachers who imparted knowledge to us. And we are what we are because of the experiences we’ve had in life. And ultimately we are what we are because of God who made us. Only God can say, ‘I am who I am’, because he does not rely on anyone or anything for who he is.

But God’s special name is also relevant for his impassibility, because it teaches us that our God does not change. You and I are always in a state of becoming. Rather than say, ‘I am’, we should say, ‘I am becoming’, because we’re always changing. I might be happy now, but later I will change and become sad. I might be calm now, but later I will change and become anxious. We are always changing. But God is the great ‘I am’. He is what he is. His mood does not change from being happy to being sad or from being calm to being anxious. His mood does not change in any way. He is always the same. He is what he is.

Passible?

However, you and I know that the Bible often ascribes emotions to God. He loves. He takes delight in things. Sometimes he is full of wrath. At other times, he is full of compassion. At other times, he grieves over the sins of his people and he’s distressed by their unfaithfulness. And as we saw last week, sometimes it says God regretted something and he was sorry about it. So, before the flood, it says that he was sorry he made us. And the whole of the book of Hosea is about God’s love for his people and their unfaithfulness towards him. And in Hosea 11 the Lord says:

How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my burning anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and not a man,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.

His heart recoils. His compassion grows warm and tender. The Old Testament speaks us of God’s emotional life.

And while from the earliest times the church has believed that God is impassible and incapable of suffering, in the last hundred years or so that belief has been challenged. After the two world wars and the horrors of the concentration camps, a number of theologians have taught that God does suffer, because saying that God is impassible suggests that he is cold and detached and indifferent to human suffering. And surely we don’t want a God who is unconcerned about our suffering? Surely we want a God who is moved by our suffering and who shares in it in some way? Surely what we want is a God who suffers with us and who can sympathise with us in our suffering? Doesn’t loving us mean he will suffer with us? And when such theologians looked to the Bible, they noticed those places where God showed himself to be compassionate towards the suffering of his people. He wasn’t indifferent to their plight or hard-hearted towards them. And then they looked at the cross and to the suffering of the Son of God. Surely God is not impassible? Surely he cares for us and suffers with us? And so, the doctrine of God’s impassibility has been challenged in the past one hundred years.

However, let me respond to the challenge in three ways. And the first way is to make clear that when theologians say that God is impassible and that he does not experience emotional changes of state, they are not saying God is cold and indifferent. It’s just the opposite. God is full of love and joy and delight. And he is always full of love and joy and delight. Paul, in 1 Timothy 1, refers to God as the ‘blessed God’ which means he is eternally in a state of blessedness or delight. Rather than being cold and indifferent, he is eternally happy and joyful. And from all eternity the three persons of the Trinity have loved one another with a perfect love; and God has loved his people with an everlasting love, a love which does not end. So, when we say that God is impassible, we’re not saying he is cold and detached and indifferent. Instead we’re saying that his own blessedness and delight can never be diminished in any way; and the love he has for his people can never change. There is no one so powerful that they can affect God’s blessedness and there’s nothing we can do which will reduce God’s love for us. He loves us with an everlasting love and his love is everlasting, because neither he nor his love can change. So, we’re not saying God is cold and indifferent. We’re saying that his love and joy and delight do not and cannot change and he’s not susceptible to fear or anxiety or greed or lust or dread or unjust anger or any other emotion.

But then, secondly, we should also remember that God uses human language in the Bible in order to communicate with us. Just as an adult adapts his speech when speaking to a child, and uses simple language and simple ideas which the child can understand, so God adapts or accommodates his speech when speaking to us. When the Bible says God regretted making us, it’s teaching us about our sinfulness. When the Bible says God takes delight in something, it’s telling us it is in accordance with his holy will. When the Bible says God is grieved by something, it’s telling us that our actions are sinful. When it tells us that God relented from sending disaster, it’s teaching us that he is always ready to pardon sinners who repent. Rather than teaching us that God’s emotions change depending on what we do, the Bible is showing us that God never changes, but he’s always holy and just and good.

And when we think of God’s wrath, we shouldn’t think of it as a sudden urge of passion, so that it overtakes him the way that anger often overtakes us. You know, we’re feeling quite calm and happy. But then someone does something or says something. Or something happens to us. And we’re overwhelmed by a sense of anger. We lose control of ourselves. But God’s wrath is not like human wrath and anger. It’s not a sudden urge of passion. Instead, as Geerhardus Vos says, it’s an evenly strong yet lasting and rational impulse of God’s holy will. His wrath is the decree of God to punish those who remain unrepentant.

And, thirdly, those who say that God is passible and that he suffers with us don’t understand that a God who suffers with us is of no real use to us. Imagine you’re sick and dying and the doctor comes to see you. What good is it to you if all he can do is wring his hands in sorrow? Or what good is it to you if he lies down beside you and tells you about his own sickness? No, you want a doctor who is able to help you. And God is above and beyond our suffering and our pain and our sorrow and sadness. He’s not affected by it in any way and he himself does not suffer pain or loss the way we do so that he himself needs to be rescued from it. No, he is above all pain and suffering and loss. And because he’s above it, he’s able to rescue us from it. And that leads me to the next point this evening.

The Cross

Because of his goodness and love, which are infinite and eternal and unchangeable, God sent his only begotten Son into the world to deliver us from our sin and misery and to give us perfect peace and rest in the new and better world to come. But since the wages of sin is death, then the only way for him to rescue us from our sin and misery was by dying in our place, taking the blame for what we have done wrong and bearing the punishment we deserve, which is death.

But how can God the Son suffer and die when God is impassible and cannot suffer or die? Only by taking to himself our human nature and a body and soul like ours. And so, when the time was right, the Son of God became one of us and he went to the cross. And while he did not suffer as God, nevertheless he suffered as man. As God, he is impassible and cannot suffer and die. But as man, he is passible and was able to suffer and die for us and for our salvation.

And so, he bore in our place the punishment we deserve and he gave up his life to pay for our sins. And afterwards he was raised from the dead and exalted to heaven to sit at God’s right hand as our Great High Priest. And as our Great High Priest who suffered as one of us, he’s able to sympathise with us in our weakness. If he had suffered as God, then he could not sympathise with our human weakness. He could not relate to us in our human pain and sorrow if he suffered as God. But since he suffered as man, since he suffered as one of us, then he’s able to relate to our human suffering and to send us the help we need when we’re suffering.

And more than that, much much more than that, he gives forgiveness and eternal life to all who trust in him as the only Saviour of the world who suffered and died in the place of sinners to deliver us from our sin and misery and to give us eternal life in the presence of the eternally blessed God where we too will enjoy perfect peace and rest.

Conclusion

And so, we believe that God is impassible. He does not have emotions like us which change and he cannot suffer and die. However, he is not cold or detached or indifferent, because he is infinitely and eternally and unchangeably good and he loves his people with an everlasting love. And because of his love, he sent his Son into the world as one of us in order to suffer and to die for you. And by dying as one of us, he paid for your sins in full. And by being raised from the dead as one of us, he gives you eternal life. And since he suffered as one of us, he’s able to relate to you in your suffering and to send you the help you need.

And in order to help you, he has given you the bread and cup of communion to reassure you of God’s everlasting love; and to reassure you of God’s willingness to pardon your sins for the sake of Christ; and to reassure you that after the suffering of this life you will have perfect peace and rest in the presence of our blessed God.

And even when we go astray, so that God must discipline us for our waywardness, nevertheless even his discipline is a sign of his love, which never changes or diminishes and which never turns into wrath. His love for you never changes or diminishes and never turns into wrath, because our God cannot change; and his love for his people cannot change.