Definition, Explanation, and Biblical Texts:
The doctrine of divine immutability is the biblical and historic Christian teaching that God does not and cannot change. God says: “I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed” (Malachi 3:6). Here we see how important the doctrine of immutability is for our salvation. God sets His love upon His people, not for anything that they had done, but because He had loved them and made a promise with their fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Deuteronomy 7:7-8). Now we might ask: Can God change from loving them? Can God go back on His promises to them? Can God turn His face away from His people, even when they turn away from Him?
The clear answer must be no: “I the LORD do not change.” This should produce great hope and confidence in God. We are constantly changing in our emotions, loves, thoughts, and deeds. As the old hymn puts it: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.” But immutability helps us see that though we are constantly changing, God does not change. He is not like us. His affections are not feeble or fickle. They are infinite and perfect. His plans are not short-lived or ill-conceived. They are eternal and wise. Though we deserve wrath for our waywardness, yet God, in His immutable grace, says, “I the LORD do not change; therefore you . . . are not consumed.”
We also see this in the New Testament: “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). The great truth that every good and perfect gift comes down to us from our good and perfect God rests on God’s immutability: in Him there is no shadow due to change. If God could change, we might expect Him to give us something other than good and perfect gifts. But God cannot change.
Now what about passages of Scripture which suggest that God can change? For example, in 1 Samuel 15:10-11 we read: “The word of the LORD came to Samuel: ‘I regret that I have made Saul king.” Doesn’t this mean that God changes? The answer is no because of what we read later: “the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for He is not a man, that He should have regret” (v. 29). So on the one hand God regretted that He made Saul king, but on the other God does not have regret because He is not a man. Since the Bible has no errors, how do we hold these truths together?
In the Bible, descriptions of God’s being are fundamentally different than descriptions of God’s activity. So “God is spirit” (John 4:24), which means that God does not have a body. But also “the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth” (2 Chronicles 16:9). How do these fit together? The first teaching (that God is spirit) tells us who God is in Himself, while the second teaching (God’s eyes run to and fro) tells us what God’s activity appears to be like to us. The first teaching is literal, while the second is metaphorical. The metaphor communicates something of what God is like (e.g., He is all-knowing), but we should not take it literally (i.e., we shouldn’t take it to mean that God literally has eyes which run).
And this is how we should understand statements which seem to suggest that God changes. The literal language of Scripture about God’s being clearly communicate to us that He does not change, while the metaphorical language of Scripture about God’s activity describes what God’s actions appear like to us. It appears to us as though God regrets His decision and therefore changes, but this does not mean that God Himself really changes. We should take the metaphorical language seriously (i.e., that God is holy and displeased with Saul for his disobedience), but we should not push it so far that it contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture elsewhere (i.e., that God does not change).
Immutability has a long history in the teaching of the church, and it is usually placed alongside divine perfection. The thinking goes that God is perfect (cf. Matthew 5:48), and therefore He cannot change. If He could change for the better, then He must not have already been perfect and therefore He was not God. But if He could change for the worse, then He would no longer be the perfect God. So, since God cannot change for the better or the worse, we say that God is immutable: He cannot change at all.
Sometimes people think immutability makes God static or inert, like a rock. Though Scripture calls God our rock (cf. Psalm 18:2), this does not mean that God is lifeless or immobile. Rather, God is so absolute, so full of His own infinite life, that He cannot grow any more full, nor can His life be diminished in any way. He is maximally, fully, and perfectly alive. He is the great I AM (cf. Exodus 3:14) who has “life in Himself” (John 5:26).
In a world where everything changes, the absolute, perfect, immutable God of Christianity is the sure foundation of our souls. Here’s how the writer of Hebrews put it: “When God made a promise to Abraham, since He had no one greater by whom to swear, He swore by Himself, saying, ‘Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” We then read, “So when God desired to show . . . the unchangeable character of His purpose, He guaranteed it with an oath” (Hebrews 6:13-14, 17). Immutability helps us see that God’s promises and purposes are unchangeable precisely because God Himself is unchangeable, and therefore we can trust Him. Nothing can overtake God and force Him to change, for He is absolute; neither can He go back on His promises for us, for He is perfect. So, for example, we can fully rest in His promise to be “our dwelling place” (Psalm 90:1) because we know that He will never change: He has been God “from everlasting to everlasting (Psalm 90:2). He has always been a dwelling place for those who love Him, and He will never stop being our dwelling place!
Immutability upholds the gospel because it signals to us that God’s love and grace for us in Christ cannot be altered or changed. God’s immutability should produce in us a desire to worship Him for who He is and for what He has done, and it helps us see that God has always been infinitely worthy of our worship and affections. “Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised” (Psalm 145:3). God will never cease to be great, nor can He become greater than He already perfectly is, and therefore He is greatly to be praised. So let us praise Him!
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