Immutability of God

Immutability of God

God, in all his wonder and glory, shows us his character through Scripture.  Many of the attributes of his character are communicable, meaning we as humans can share in those attributes. God is love, and we are capable of love. God is wise, and we (on our better days) are capable of wisdom as well. There are other attributes of God’s character that we can’t share. Those are the incommunicable attributes of God. 

Among those attributes is God’s immutability. If I’m being honest, the first time I heard this term I thought it meant that God couldn’t be muted. While it’s true that no one can push the mute button on God, the term immutability actually means that God is unchanging. We see this in Scripture.

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

— James 1:17 (NIV)

 

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;

    they will all wear out like a garment.

Like clothing you will change them

    and they will be discarded.

But you remain the same,

    and your years will never end.

 — Psalm 102:25-27 (NIV)

We also see in Scripture that God draws a clear line between Himself as creator and the rest of creation, which includes human beings.  

God is not human, that he should lie,

    not a human being, that he should change his mind.

Does he speak and then not act?

    Does he promise and not fulfill?

I have received a command to bless;

    he has blessed, and I cannot change it.

 — Numbers 23:19-20 (NIV)

Things seem to get complicated for God’s immutability when we read passages such as Exodus 32:9-14. Moses comes down from Mount Sinai after receiving the law when the people of Israel have fallen into the worship of idols. Rightfully, God is angered by this and says to Moses, “They are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you [Moses] into a great nation.” Moses then pleads with God to spare the people, and God relents, seemingly changing His mind. 

How then, can we, as followers of Christ, be assured God really is unchanging? It’s helpful for us to dig deeper into God’s immutability and Wayne Grudem offers help in understanding through his definition of the immutability of God found in his book Systematic Theology.

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.

Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology

For better understanding, let’s break this definition into four sections. 

God is Unchanging…

The first section of the definition, God is unchanging, is addressed above.  We see in many places in Scripture that God declares himself to be unchanging. 

…In His, Being, Perfections, Purposes, and Promises…

When we add the second phrase, God is unchanging in his being, perfections, purposes, and promise, we see God’s immutability more clearly. Amazingly, God can never change in his being, meaning God’s character never changes. He will always be completely loving, perfectly good, infinitely relational.  He will never stop desiring to know us and call us His children. 

God also keeps his promises. What he has sworn to do will, without fail, come to pass. His plans also always succeed. Every single thing He sets out to accomplish will not only be completed, it will be perfectly fulfilled.

The Lord foils the plans of the nations;

    he thwarts the purposes of the peoples.

But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever,

    the purposes of his heart through all generations.

 — Psalm 33:10-11 (NIV)

 

Let’s take a closer look at a passage mentioned earlier. 

God is not human, that he should lie,

    not a human being, that he should change his mind.

Does he speak and then not act?

    Does he promise and not fulfill?

I have received a command to bless;

    he has blessed, and I cannot change it.

— Numbers 23:19-20 (NIV)

This passage is set in the Old Testament when Balak, the King of Moab, sought to curse the Jewish people, because as they wandered the wilderness, they were growing in strength. Balak perceived them as a threat, so he enlisted the help of a prophet for hire (not the good kind of prophet) named Balaam to proclaim a curse on the Jewish nation. Through a very interesting turn of events, which included a talking donkey, God put His own words in the mouth of Balaam, and rather than a curse, Balaam spoke the words above. God promised to deliver his people to the appropriately named promised land, and regardless of what Balak wanted, that promise would be fulfilled. 

…Yet God Does Act and Feel Emotions…

Let’s add the third portion of Grudem’s definition. God is unchanging in his being, perfections, purposes, and promises, yet God does act and feel emotions. At first glance, this might not seem relevant to the topic of immutability.  We will get to that, but for now, let’s take a look at where we see that in Scripture. 

The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.

— Genesis 6:6 (NIV)

In the time of Noah, the world had grown to unprecedented sin and chaos.  God looked on His creation and experienced regret, due to their sin. Though throughout Scripture we see God experiencing a host of emotions, it’s important to focus on the idea of regret, because from our human experience, it most commonly means that we’d like to hop in a time machine and go back to change our minds and actions. 

Let’s add the fourth portion of Grudem’s definition to bring it all together. 

…And He Acts and Feels Differently in Response to Different Situations

In full, Grudem’s definition of God’s immutability reads, 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.

God is paying attention to us!

From heaven the Lord looks down

    and sees all mankind;

from his dwelling place he watches

    all who live on earth—

he who forms the hearts of all,

    who considers everything they do.

— Psalm 33:13-15 (NIV)

 

God, while not changing his character, promises or purposes, does change how he responds to us based on what we do. For example, He humbles those who have no fear of God.

God, who is enthroned from of old,

    who does not change—

he will hear them and humble them,

    because they have no fear of God.

— Psalm 55:19 (NIV)

God also promises to recognize those who seek Him.

When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people,  if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

— 2 Chronicles 7:13-14

Let’s circle back to the passage mentioned above from Exodus in which God seems to change his mind. If we take a closer look at the context of that passage it becomes clearer.  What was God’s purpose and promise to the Isrealite people? Answer, to be a nation set apart for God and receive his promise of entering the promised land. And while this may sound extreme or hard to understand, God’s purposes, even if the entire nation of Israel (sans Moses) were destroyed, because God would have been able to raise up a people through Moses. God’s plans and purposes would have been accomplished.  

Thankfully, we see a God who, despite the unfaithfulness of His people, remains faithful to Israel.  

When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, 14 if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

— Malachi 3:6-7 (NIV)

 

Why does it matter that God is immutable?

First, it’s terrifying to think of an all powerful God that could change his character.  Imagine a God who could decide the fate of the world with a snap of His fingers suddenly becoming unloving or cruel? Yikes! 

Second, and most personal to us, because God’s plan must always come to fulfillment, he never gave up on sinners like you and me. Instead, He sent His son Jesus as a sacrifice for our sins. Therefore we can have life through Him.

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—

— Ephesians 1:4-5 (NIV)

 

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

— 1 Corinthians 15:51-54 (NIV)

 

Why is it good news that we are not immutable?

We can change! Look above and read the First Corinthians passage once again. We aren’t stuck in our sin. We aren’t stuck in death. God has and will transform the perishable into the imperishable. God made the dead alive in Christ. God made the mortal immortal. That is the most incredible news we can hear. 

 

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