September 20, 2021

The Immutable God

One difficult doctrine for Christians to understand is the Immutability of God—that the eternal God who creates, sustains, and directs all things in Himself does not change, even while his creatures are in flux.

As soon as we say God changes not, many picture Him as a cold machine or insensitive stone who micromanages the world with regard for nothing but Himself. In harsh reaction against such an impersonal God, some rush to the opposite picture of God as fluidic, co-dependent, turbulent. On the one side is the deterministic, static god of fatalism; on the other side is a determined, ever-changing god in process. These represent radically different and equally deficient doctrines of God.

The problem with either picture is not that it cannot find a biblical reference but that it does not account for the immediate context of those references nor for the whole Canon. These opposing pictures typically mutilate the immediate historical context and/or reduce the Canon by exalting one set of texts and downgrading others. Instead of a partial picture of God, we must gain the fuller picture through careful readings of equally representative texts. 

On the one side consider Malachi 3:6 and James 1:17. “Because I, the Lord, have not changed, you descendants of Jacob have not been destroyed.” “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” These passages teach that God obviously does not change or shift (cf. Num 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29).

On the other side, Jeremiah 26:2-3 presents God as willing to change. “This is what the Lord says: Stand in the courtyard of the Lord’s temple and speak all the words I have commanded you to speak to all Judah’s cities that are coming to worship there. Do not hold back a word. Perhaps they will listen and turn—each from his evil way of life—so that I might relent concerning the disaster that I plan to do to them because of the evil of their deeds.” God obviously does “relent,” which indicates change (cf. Exo 32:14; 1 Chron 21:15; Amos 7:1-3; Jonah 4:2).

Does the Bible, therefore, contain “inconsistencies,” as one liberal Baptist recently opined? No, that approach does not honor Scripture as the written Word of God. The one God, who is Father, the incarnate Word, and the Holy Spirit, is perfect by nature. Therefore, the written Word he gives us is perfect by grace. Any inconsistency resides in the interpretation rather than in the inspiration. 

The answer to this dilemma is to pay attention to the text itself. That the Lord does not change in Malachi 3:6 refers to his character as a righteous God. He is a God of מִשְׁפָּט, “justice,” according to Malachi 2:17. The problem developed in Malachi 3 concerns not the just God but unjust humanity. God remains just while both bringing judgment and showing mercy. The character of God is always the same, even while the character of humanity varies. The Lord does not change in his being, his perfections, his character.

That the Lord does change in Jeremiah 26 refers not to God’s character but to man’s repentance. If a human being will hear God’s Word of grace and שׁוּב, “turn back,” “return,” or “repent,” then God will נחם, “be moved to pity,” “have compassion,” or “relent.” The first term, shub, speaks of human repentance from sin and is never used of God in the Hebrew Bible. The second term, nacham, indicates a different type of change. The change with God is not intrinsic or internal to God, but extrinsic or external, in relation to his creatures. God promises not to change his character but his response to particular human persons. If you repent, He will relent.

God does not change in who He is in Himself but in how He relates to his changeable creatures. To speak of the immutability of God is not to speak of a cold, manipulative, insensitive God but to say you can trust God to be always just, always merciful, always loving, always gracious. God is always faithful, even when we are unfaithful. The onus is not upon the perfect God to prove Himself faithful but upon imperfect human beings to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. 

The Book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus Christ, like his Father whose divine nature He fully shares, “is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8). Moreover, the human Christ presented his effective sacrifice to the Father through “the eternal Spirit” (Heb 9:14). This once-for-all event simultaneously demonstrated both the Holy Spirit’s participation in divine immutability and the permanence of the free offer of redemption to humanity. The immutable Trinity has permanently sealed our salvation. 

When God’s grace by the Spirit moves the convicted human person to repent of sin and to turn in faith to Jesus Christ, the perfectly faithful and just character of God is revealed through his act of sanctifying the human character to enter a relationship with the blessed Trinity. That such an eternal, immutable God both can, does, and will faithfully keep his gracious promise of salvation provides our frail and variable humanity with the ultimate reason to rejoice in Him.

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