The Immutability of God

The Immutability of God

Introduction

The doctrine of immutability belongs to the incommunicable attributes of God, as do also, absolute perfection, eternity, immensity, infinity, simplicity, and unity.  They are called incommunicable because there is absolutely not anything in the rational creature that resembles them.  They belong entirely to God. Supposing His immutability had not been unequivocally identified in the Scriptures, it could still be proved from His independence, perfections, and sovereignty.  However, this is a doctrine that is clearly stated in the Scriptures as the following passages reveal.  There are other passages, but these examples will suffice. Psalm 102: 26, 27, “They shall perish, but thou shalt endure: yea all of them shall wax old like a garment; as a vesture shalt thou change them, and they shall be changed: but thou art the same, and thy years shall have no end.”  Ps 33: 11, “The counsel of the Lord standeth forever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations.” Malachi 3: 6, “For I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.” James 1: 17, “Every good and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning”.

We have also this doctrine in the subordinate standards of our church.  The Westminster Shorter Catechism question and answer 4 provides the definition of God.  What is God? “God is a spirit infinite eternal unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.”  The Larger Catechism question/answer 7 enlarges on this definition: “God is a spirit in and of himself infinite in being, glory, blessedness, and perfection: all-sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, everywhere present, almighty, knowing all things, most wise, most holy, most just, most merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.”  Herman Bavinck says: "In the fulness of time He becomes flesh in Christ and through the Holy Spirit he comes to dwell in the church; he rejects Israel and accepts the Gentiles.  Similarly, the people of God experience at one time God's wrath, then again his love; at one time his absence, then again his closeness; at one time they are burdened with the consciousness of their guilt, at other times they rejoice because of forgiveness of sin.  Notwithstanding all this, Scripture testifies that in all these various relations and experiences God remains ever the same.”  This doctrine has been opposed in the past, by many and among them by Vorstius. 'He distinguished between God's essence simple and unchangeable, and his will which being free, does not will everything eternally and unchangeably.’  Men like Dorner claimed that creation, incarnation and redemption brought about a change in God.  The assault on this doctrine does not remain in the past but is still with us.

Decree

It is customary for us in our usage of the word, decree, to employ the plural rendering.  This is because it makes matters more intelligible to us, but strictly, there is but one decree, and one plan and that one decree comprehends everything, and nothing exists out with it.  It is possessed of unity, eternity, immutability, wisdom and efficacy.  The other point that we have to note in the passing is the eternity of the decree. God is eternal, but so is the decree.  However, we have to place God before the decree, because in the order of production He existed before it.  Nevertheless, the comprehension of His purpose appears as eternal as Himself.  It is obvious from God’s revelation that central to the work of creation and providence was Christ and His Church.

In the work of creation God brought into being that which He decreed from eternity, it did not involve any change in God.  That which came into being was precisely in accord with His eternal decree.  Everything that came into being was perfect.”  And God saw everything that he made, and behold it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day." Genesis 1: 31.  The fall of the angels had not occurred at this point in the history of the universe, because nothing existed at this point that marred His handiwork.

Covenant of Works and the Fall

Having then created man in His own image He entered into Covenant with him - a Covenant of Works, or as some call it a Covenant of Life, because of the life promised.  Whilst the word covenant does not appear in the early chapters of Genesis, nevertheless all that constitutes a covenant are present: the parties, God, and Adam as a representative of his posterity; the condition, perfect obedience; the promise, life; and the consequence of disobedience, death, spiritual, natural and eternal.  Although man sinned it did not bring about a change in God because the curse of God fell on him and his posterity.  What God requires, even if the opposite is not mentioned, it is nevertheless implied.  The curse marked a change in relationship, but no change in the Being of God - He remained immutable.

Meaningful Words

Although Adam and his posterity became alienated from God, they were not abandoned by God.  Before considering the Covenant of Redemption/Grace it is necessary, and hopefully helpful, to consider a few important words.  We could begin with the Hebrew word yada which has a double meaning, to know, or to be the object of loving care, hence election.  The Greek words proginoskein and prognosis strictly mean a selective knowledge regarding a person so as to be the object of loving care.  From this, we have the idea of foreordination – Rom 8: 29, “For whom he did foreknow he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.”  There are two other words deserving recognition within this context, namely, the Hebrew bachar, and the Greek  eklegesthai.  They both emphasize the element of selection in the decree regarding the eternal destiny of the rational creatures, with regards to God’s good pleasure, and their eternal happiness.  Finally, the Greek words prooizerin and proorismos mean predestination– foreordination to either a good or evil end in time, which determines their eternal abode.  We are to appreciate the meaning of these words as they appear in the Scriptures, and are relevant to our subject.

Supralapsarianism and Infralapsarianism

It is also important that at this juncture we take cognisance of Supralapsarianism and Infralapsarianism before the Covenants are referred to.  A brief explanation is necessary for the benefit of the reader who is not familiar with these subjects.

Supralapsarianism - Since the time of the Reformation, the doctrine of predestination has had a twofold presentation. The crucial point involving these two positions is the entrance of sin into the experience of man. Was the sin which constituted Adam’s fall predestinated, or was it the object of foreknowledge?  To the former, the Supralapsarians adhered, and to the latter the Infralapsarians.  The Supralapsarian order is to place the decree of election, and preterition, before the fall of Adam instead of after it.  The order is basically, the decree to elect some and leave the rest to perdition.  To create man and permit the fall.  To justify the elect and condemn the non-elect.  The following passages appear in support of this position: Ps 115: 3; Proverbs 16: 4; Isaiah 10: 15; Matthew 11: 25, 26; Romans 9: 17 – 21.  However, the answer to the origin of sin continues as a mystery.

Infralapsarianism - According to it, in the thought of God, the fall of man preceded election of some to salvation. God permitted Adam to fall by self-determination, to save a fixed number, and leave the rest of mankind to self-determination.  It avoids the real danger of God being perceived as the author of sin.  It was viewed by Dabney as more logical than the former.  The Reformed church adopted this position, although Supralapsarianism was not condemned.  Turretin says "Man as created and fallible is not the object of predestination but man as created and fallen.  The final sentence will not be founded on God not acting positively to save the lost but on the sinner’s positive act of sinning."  Whilst Infralapsarianism avoids the danger of God being carelessly perceived as the author of sin, it creates another problem, that it can be perceived as undermining the sovereignty of God.

The Covenants and the Incarnation

It was necessary to bring up these two positions before considering the Covenants, namely, the Covenant of Redemption and the Covenant of Grace.  This does not mean that there are two Covenants, but two modes of the one Covenant of Grace.  The reason why some Reformed theologians refer to the two modes is to get around the difficulty of Christ being both a party and a surety.  It marked no change in God when Adam sinned, and became for a time the object of God's wrath and curse, before God revealed the Covenant of Grace - Genesis 3: 15 - which had been drawn up in eternity.  If Supralapsarianism is adhered to the Covenant of Grace precedes the Covenant of Works: but if Infralapsarianisism is adhered to the latter was followed by the former.  Whichever approach is adopted we are dealing with what is eternal. “In hope of eternal life, which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began.” Titus 1: 2.

The promise given to Adam was not to be fulfilled for thousands of years, although in this period God's elect people were to experience pardon, justification, sanctification, and glorification.  These blessings were enjoyed, although the debt was not paid until Christ came and suffered and died as the Surety of His people.  The sacrifices were pointing to the atonement.  It all rested on God's infallible promise.  Eventually, in the fulness of time, Christ was born.  The incarnation did not mark any change in God.  The second person of the Trinity became what He was never before, the God-man, but He did not cease for a moment being what He was from eternity, the immutable, eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent God.  He now had a nature, though sinless, had the infirmities sin brought into the experience of fallen man, such things as sorrow, weariness, hunger, thirst, subjected to dreadful pain and anguish, being tempted in all points, and finally death.  Because of the union with the divine person all that was done to, and by the human nature, were predicated of the person.  It was the divine nature on account of the union that gave to His sufferings and death infinite worth.  He will continue forever as the God-man.  The words of John 3:13 are a great mystery, as many other passages in the Scriptures are: "And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven."

God's repentance?

Are there not passages in the Scriptures that ascribe change to God.  There are such as Genesis 6: 6,“And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth and it grieved him at his heart.” 1 Samuel 10,11, “It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king: for he has turned back from following me, and has not performed my commandments…..” Joel 2: 13, “And rend your hearts, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil.”  Amos 7: 3,“The Lord repented for this; it shall not be saith the Lord.”  Jonah 3: 9,“Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, and we perish not.”

The ascribing of repentance to God in these passages must be understood as anthropomorphic language.  We are not to ascribe to the immutable God the fickleness that belongs to fallen man.  The language in these passages is in order to accommodate our feeble apprehensions.  Take for example the first passage quoted from Genesis 6: 6, there we have language which can be misinterpreted that God made a huge mistake in creating man, and He deeply regretted it.  That can never apply to God, and so language is employed to demonstrate how utterly detestable sin is to Him.  If we are filled with utter disgust about anything we will use the most appropriate words to express our emotions and feeling, that the object of our displeasure is abhorrent, repugnant and deplorable.  We leave people in no doubt about the way we feel.  God, of course, has no passions, nevertheless, the kind of language employed conveys more than adequately His utter abhorrence of sin.  In none of these passages was any change in God implied.  God invariably is merciful towards the penitent, just as he is invariably angry towards the sinner.  Hence, when the sinner repents the relationship changes, but no change has taken place in the being of God.  This is what we have when the Ninevites repented.  God decreed that the forewarning would turn them to repentance although it contained no promise, yet they held to "who can tell." They clung to repentance and were hopeful God would turn from His wrath, and that the destruction would be averted.  They repented and God forgave. This is precisely what He had foreordained and marked no change in God but in the relationship.

The other example is slightly different from those quoted.  It is regarding King Hezekiah as we have it in Isaiah 38: 1, “In those days was Hezekiah sick unto death.  And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amos came unto him, and said unto him, "Thus saith the Lord, set thine house in order: for thou shalt surely die.”  This caused Hezekiah to pray, and God sent Isaiah back to him to tell him that God had added fifteen years to his life.  This did not mark any change in God.  The sickness was such that insofar as human beings were concerned it was incurable, and would end in death, but by God’s intervention, the fifteen years were added.  This was what God had foreordained concerning him.

Conclusion

God's immutability and sovereignty are of enormous comfort to all those who are resting on the finished work of Christ.  They have a loving God who will never change as their heavenly Father, and who cares for them and will not permit anything in their lot but that which will be blessed to them.  They also have a Saviour who suffered and atoned for their sins; who has an experiential knowledge of all their afflictions here below, was tempted in all points as they are, and who makes continual intercession for them.  They have the Holy Spirit as the comforter within, who enlightens, instructs and guides them, who places restraints upon them and also actuates them in the performance of duties.  Whilst their unbelief and sins are responsible for the dark clouds that obscure the shining of God's countenance, nevertheless, they go on by faith even if at times they are the children of light walking in darkness.  "The Lord redeemeth the soul of his servants; and none of them that trust in him shall be desolate. "Psalm 34: 22.

Christ is being brought to lost men and women, boys and girls as the Saviour of sinners.  All who will come to Him, and believe in Him as their Saviour, will rest on the work which he has done on behalf of sinners - He gave His life a ransom for many.  "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.  For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved." John 3: 16,17.  We are not to probe into mysterious things that we cannot understand, let us keep to what we can understand and that applies to this promise.