James said that with God “there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). He was drawing attention to another attribute of God: immutability. When we affirm that God is immutable, we are affirming (positively) that he is consistent; he acts and responds the same way that he always has. James made this affirmation about God to dissuade his readers from thinking that God was bringing trials upon them to do evil. Instead, he wanted them to realize that temptations come from within us, but remaining steadfast (imitating God’s immutability) will lead to “the crown of life” (James 1:12).
Although God acts and moves through history, making his mark upon the lives of all his creatures, he still remains transcendent. His essential nature and attributes do not change. By his grace he changes us, but we do not change him. If he were changeable, it would mean destruction for God’s people (Mal. 3:6). But he is consistent with himself. He can be trusted when no one else can.
It was this consistent nature that set God apart from all the other gods of the ancients. For the Canaanite, for example, a sure harvest this season might cost an extra goat from his flocks this season, or it might cost the life of his child. His gods were fickle; he could not depend on them. For the Israelite, what God wants is clear: it is codified in the law of Moses for everyone to know. It was not left to the whim of the latest shaman to reinterpret. This fact was mean to bring stability into the Israelite’s life.
This stability came with a price. Since God cannot be changed, neither can he be manipulated. He cannot be bought off by a bigger offering, or enticed by a louder chant. He does not respond to magic words, or magic charms. He is in control, and remains in control. He does nor relinquish that control to even those who have faith in him. He remains omnipotent. The ancient Canaanite could never accept such a God.
The modern world is filled with people who have the same disposition. They do not mind religion as long as they get to set the standards. They want a God that they can trust to be good when they want good done, but who looks the other way when they do evil to others. They are happy to sing about God the savior, but want nothing to do with God, the judge. They want a god who can tell them that they are the fairest of them all, and that everyone else is too.
The God of the Bible offers salvation and judgment. He can save believers precisely because it is his judgment from which we need salvation. His attributes are consistent, which is another difference between him and his creatures.
One distinction between man’s attributes and God’s attributes is that, whereas man has characteristics added or subtracted from Him, God does not. A man can be joyful as a child and sorrowful as an adult. A man can be faithful as an employee and unfaithful as a husband. God, on the other hand, never loses or gains any attribute of His person.1
This consistency serves as a rock of refuge for believers. As we face the difficulties associated with living life this side of eternity, we are assured that the rules of the game do not change. Life is determined not by blind chance, but by an immutable Person.
Although this attribute of God is encouraging, it also suggests some questions that the thinking Christian should consider. Even if they pose no serious problem to our faith, dealing with them may help us to answer objections from nonbelievers, who might question the reality of God. There are three such questions:
1) If God is unchanging, how can he affect history?
Some have suggested that God’s transcendence means that, although he exists, he chooses not to have an impact upon the world that he created. Since he does not change, he limits the affect his presence might have on the cosmos by remaining at a distance, and simply observing. This view reverses the import of transcendence, since it emphasizes the unchanging nature of creation, rather than the creator. It is popular among those who resist the concept of miracles, because their worldview can get along without them.
Immutability speaks to the power of God, and does not limit his ability to affect his creation. It suggests that God interacts with the universe, but that, in the final analysis, that interaction does not alter anything he does or anything that he is. He can affect the course of history, or the course of my life, or yours, because he is sovereign over all things. If he chooses to have mercy on a sinner, it is because he is compassionate and merciful by nature – the transaction has not changed his essential nature. If he chooses to raise up one nation and put down another, he is acting within the parameters of his omnipotence. He never encounters a situation that forces him to act outside his nature.
His nature, however, is one of consistent intervention. The world is what it is because he keeps stepping into the mix and muddying his hands, so to speak. What appears to some to be a well-oiled simple machine that requires little maintenance, is actually a complex group of inter-acting systems that require constant tweaking and intervention.
2) If God is unchanging, why offer salvation to all?
If some see a problem with an unchanging God who changes history, others see a problem with an unchanging God who changes personal destiny. They suggest that it is unfair for God to offer salvation to all when he knows who will respond to that offer, and who will not. He therefore knows that some (indeed many) will never take advantage of his grace, will never repent and display faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ. Yet he insists on proclaiming “whoever will” even though he knows only the elect will.
For those who see a disconnect here, one way to resolve the problem is for God to make a divine exception to his own nature: he must limit his sovereignty in the area of personal salvation. This will enable anyone who desires to be saved to accept Christ. W. E. Best sees this as an application of deism in the realm of soteriology.2 It seeks to solve the sovereignty/free will debate by assuming that God makes the concession to human sovereignty in just this one particular area.
Yet, when we look at what the Bible says about salvation, we see that God has not abdicated his role in this process. He does more than just set up an option, sit back and wish as people get close, then fall away. He sends his Holy Spirit and causes people to be born again into his kingdom (John 3:3,5). It is an intervention. It is another one of those maintenance miracles that God does so often, we are tempted to think of them as normal.
We live in a world in which God is active, and constantly seeking the lost, and transforming them by the power of his Holy Spirit. This is the kind of God we have. It is not a God who is at the mercy of his creatures. He is immutable. He does not surrender his attributes even to accomplish what he wants.
3) If God is unchanging, is there hope for those who have not heard the gospel?
A third challenge, related to the second, is the notion that God would be unfair to provide only one chance for people to respond to his grace. There are some who see history as a series of dispensations, in which God acts differently, and expects different things from those who belong to him. To some, believing that God is changing helps to soften the impact of a world who largely neglects him. There is always the possibility that God has a “plan b” that will include those who are not responding well to this plan.
The problem is that such thinking has (once again) reduced God to an observer, when the Bible implies that he is the prime mover. For the sake of a “wider hope” the view requires that we reject the present hope. Our present (and only) hope is in the grace of God, who sovereignly brings the lost to himself through his Son. The fact that he is immutable should lead us to use all our resources to bring the dying world to Christ, because only he is the answer. When the next age dawns, it will be Christ’s age. The changes we will see will not reflect a change in who God is. Instead, they will reflect a more clear revelation of the immutable God we worship today.
1 Jeremy Cagle, Just The Simple Truth: The Attributes of God. (www.justthesimpletruth.com/pdfs/03-theattributesofGod.pdf).
2 W. E. Best, The Impeccable Christ. (Lafayette, IN: Sovereign Grace Publishers, Inc., 1971), 69.