One of the attributes of God that seems to be diminished in a lot of Bible teaching is God’s immutability. Louis Berkhof defined immutability as “that perfection of God by which He does not change in His being, perfections, purposes, or promises.”1 Few Bible teachers state outright that God changes his mind (although some do), but I often see this truth chipped away at in subtle but devastating ways.
I’ve heard teachers say that God had something else planned for us that we missed because we didn’t heed his voice. I’ve even heard it suggested that we can thwart God’s plans. God may have intended to save someone through a particular means, they say, and not supporting it is “getting in the way of God.”
Perhaps they were merely trying to communicate the blessings of obedience, but one teacher had me very worried that God had a different plan for my life that I had messed up. The most troubling is the suggestion that God tries to warn us of impending disaster by “lack of peace” about a particular morally neutral choice (like when to take a trip, for instance). If we just learn to heed these subtle, subjective warnings, we can prevent bad things from happening to those we love.
I can see why teachers paint themselves into these sorts of corners. It’s hard to communicate God’s immutability adequately, something I’m now more aware of. (This was supposed to be a post of Out of the Ordinary, until I realized that I would need at least 2,000 words to write about it. Arthur Pink2 may have managed to do it in a few pages, but I can’t.) No teacher wants people to come away from their book or sermon thinking they can just go ahead and sin because God already knew about it anyway. Although those of us who are in Christ will never stand condemned for our sin (Romans 8:1), we will give an account to God for our lives (Romans 14:12). Obedience matters.
I believe, however, that weak teaching on this subject is more paralyzing than motivating. People aren’t walking way more determined to live for Christ, but frozen with worry that they’re going to inadvertently mess up some great plan God had for them.
There are four reasons why it’s important to understand (to the best of our human ability) God’s immutability:
- It’s biblical
- It affects how we think about God
- It enhances our prayer life
- It gives us a firm foundation on which to stand (and rest)
The first one I’ll talk about today, the other three will come in later posts. There are many angles from which you can approach this truth. Since the most common error I see is the suggestion that we can change something God had planned, either through our petition or disobedience, that’s where I’m going to focus my discussion. Theologians would refer to this as the teaching that God is immutable in his purposes.
The Bible is pretty clear about God’s immutability.
God is not man, that he should lie,
or a son of man, that he should change his mind.
Has he said, and will he not do it?
Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? (Numbers 23:19)
And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret. (1 Samuel 15:29)
For I the Lord do not change. (Malachi 3:6)
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1:17)
But what about God’s dealings with Moses? What about God’s regret about making Saul king? What about Hezekiah? I’ll go back to Pink:
The explanation is very simple. When speaking of Himself. God frequently accommodates His language to our limited capacities. He describes Himself as clothed with bodily members, as eyes, ears, hands, etc. He speaks of Himself as “waking” (Ps. 78:65), as “rising early” (Jer. 7:13); yet He neither slumbers nor sleeps. When He institutes a change in His dealings with men, He describes His course of conduct as “repenting.3
And from Wayne Grudem:
[This implies] that God’s previous action led to events that, in the short term, caused him sorrow, but that nonetheless in the long term would ultimately achieve his good purposes. This is somewhat analogous to a human father who allows his child to embark on a course he knows will bring much sorrow, both to the parent and to the child, but who allows it nonetheless, because he knows that greater long-term good will come from it.4
His plans can never be thwarted. We can rest in that.
In the spirit of “great minds think alike,” Diane is talking about God’s immutability today over on her blog.
1 I found this definition in this post by Rebecca.
2The Attributes of God by Arthur Pink is available free online. It is also available in book form.
3The Attributes of God, Arthur W. Pink, Baker Books, 2006, pages 47-48.
4Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem, Zondervan, 1995, page 165.