The idea of immutability is very hard for us to understand, perhaps more so than the idea of eternity or infinity. How can ever-changing creatures such as us who live in an ever-changing reality grasp the idea of “changelessness”? The fact that everything changes has always been a truism. “Change is here to stay,” business analysts proclaim. “We live in times of change,” lazy journalists write, as if there ever were a time in history that was not a “time of change.” None of this is particularly new. After all, 2,600 years ago, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously proclaimed, “Everything flows!”
But God does not change. At least, this is the teaching of Scripture, according to the unanimous tradition of the Christian church. However, this attribute of immutability has been increasingly challenged in recent years. Many today would question whether the idea of God’s immutability is sustainable, biblical, or even helpful. As we saw in previous articles, seventeenth-century Reformed theologians are a great help to think about God’s attributes in the right way, and perhaps none is more helpful than the English Puritan Stephen Charnock (1628–80). Charnock left us one of the most comprehensive and helpful studies of God’s attributes in a series of sermons preached in London in 1677–80 and published as Discourses on God’s Attributes after his death. His discourse on immutability, which occupies forty-three pages in the complete edition of his works,1 is particularly insightful.
First, let us try to define this attribute. What does it mean that God is immutable? It means that He is unchangeable in His essence, His nature, and His perfections. This entails, among other things, that God cannot increase or decrease in His essence or attributes. It also entails that He lacks nothing and needs nothing outside Himself (a characteristic often distinguished as another divine attribute, aseity). As Charnock puts it, He is “without any new nature, new thought, new will, new purpose or new place.”2 In other words, “God is a necessary being; he is necessarily what he is, and therefore is unchangeably what he is.”3 This also means that He does not experience an emotional life in the same way that we do. Since He has always known everything there is to know, nothing takes Him by surprise and upsets His “emotional state.” He does not have changeable passions as we do.
I think that of all God’s attributes, immutability is one that is particularly challenging for us, and even Christians have misgivings about it. On the one hand, we can easily see how beneficial to us this attribute can be: who would want an ever-changing God? As Charnock says, “What comfort would it be to pray to a god that, like the chameleon, changed colors every day, every moment?”4 We clearly need a God who is in control of this world and remains faithful to His promises. On the other hand, there is something unsettling if we misunderstand this attribute. When we misunderstand this attribute, we can think of God as if He were an infallible computer completely devoid of any feeling and emotion as we understand them, a being that foresees all things and decrees all things but is not affected by anything in any way whatsoever. This attribute also seems to contradict the way Scripture talks about God. Doesn’t God “repent” according to Scripture? Doesn’t He threaten judgments that He does not carry out, as in the case of Nineveh?
I think Charnock is particularly helpful, not only because he answers those objections but also for the way he makes this attribute attractive to us. Charnock essentially does three things. First, he shows that, although this attribute is often proved using scholastic philosophical concepts (as Charnock himself does), it is rooted in Scripture. Charnock adduces many passages from Scripture throughout his discourse. As always, he starts from a text of Scripture that clearly sets out the relevant attribute. In this case, he starts with Psalm 102: “They [the heavens and the earth] will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end” (Ps. 102:26–27). This text is comforting for God’s people because it exalts God’s faithfulness to them in their time of need. God is compared to the most unchangeable parts of creation we can think of—the heavens and the earth. Yet, even they are not immutable, but He is. Not only is God eternal (“your years have no end”), but He is also changeless (“you are the same”). This text is also highly significant because, as Charnock points out, it is applied to Christ in the first chapter of the letter to the Hebrews. What better proof of the deity of Christ than attributing to Him immutability, an attribute of God that is clearly incommunicable to creatures?
Second, Charnock shows that the scriptural language describing God as “changing” or “repenting” can easily be explained as an accommodation to our limited human languages, an idea already affirmed by the Reformers. For example, God’s “repentance” cannot have anything in common with our own repentance, which stems from “want of foresight, ignorance of what would succeed or a defect in the examination of the occurrences which might fall within consideration.”5 Repentance for God is only a change of “outward conduct according to his infallible foresight and immutable will.”6 Scripture expresses these things in a human way by “marking out something in God that hath a resemblance with something in us.”7 We use this kind of language all the time when we talk about our relationship with God. For example, we often talk about God’s “drawing near to us,” as does Scripture. But this is just a human way of speaking because
God is an immoveable rock, we are floating and uncertain creatures; while he seems to approach to us, he doth really make us approach to him. He comes not to us by any change of place himself but draws us to him by a change of mind, will and affection in us.8
This inevitably raises a question in our minds about the mystery of prayer: What is the point of praying if God knows all things and has immutably decreed all things? I believe all Christians have asked that question at some point in their lives. For example, did not God change His mind when Hezekiah prayed, and He granted him another fifteen years of life? To that common question, Charnock gives the finest answer that I know:
Prayer doth not desire any change in God but is offered to God that he would confer those things which he hath immutably willed to communicate; but he willed them not without prayer as the means of bestowing them.9
In other words, God has determined that He will do some things only as a result of our praying for them. He decrees the ends—the results of prayers—and the means that bring about those results—our prayers.
The third thing Charnock shows is that the misgivings we have about God’s immutability are rooted in our own finitude. The mere idea of God’s immutability exposes our hopeless mutability, both as creatures and, even more so, as sinful creatures. Our mutability as creatures is not a sin, yet it should cause us to “lie down under a sense of our nothingness,”10 even more so when we consider how easily we change our minds or break our promises. We need to meditate on God’s immutability to consider our insignificance as creatures because this is the necessary starting point of a healthy relationship with God. As Charnock observes, “The arguments God uses to humble Job, though a fallen creature, are not from his corruption, for I do not remember that he taxed him with that, but from the greatness of his majesty and excellency of his nature declared in his works. And therefore, men that have no sense of God, and humility before him, forget that they are creatures, as well as corrupt ones.”11
The immutability of God also challenges us because it implies that God’s sovereignty over us is complete. Charnock points out that God’s immutable knowledge and will are the cause of all things. God cannot “grow” in knowledge; He is “only wise” (1 Tim. 1:17) and “all is naked before him” (Heb. 4:13). This means that, unlike us, God does not know things because they are or they happen, but quite the opposite. Quoting Acts 15:18 from the Authorized Version (“known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world),”12 Charnock comments, “God doth not know creatures because they are, but they are because he knows them.”13 Nothing that we do or even that we are can lie outside God’s immutable knowledge or will.
However, far from unsettling us, God’s immutability should be a source of comfort once we have accepted our insignificance as creatures and received God’s grace manifested in Christ. If, like me, you are often undecided in life, you can only nod with approval when Charnock says “The nearer we come to God, the more stability we shall have in ourselves.”14 How much do we need that divine stability in our life! But, most of all, God’s immutability is the rock on which His covenantal promises are founded: “The covenant of grace doth not run ‘I will be your God if you will be my people’; but ‘I will be their God and they shall be my people.’ He puts a condition to his covenant of grace, the condition of faith, and he resolves to work that condition in the hearts of the elect; and therefore, believers have two immutable pillars for their support.”15
God’s immutability is a wonderful attribute. There is no hope without it.
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series and was originally published on September 16, 2020. Previous post.
- The Works of Stephen Charnock, vol. 1 (1864; repr., Edinburgh, Scotland: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2010). ↩︎
- The Works of Stephen Charnock, 1:380. ↩︎
- The Works of Stephen Charnock, 1:381. ↩︎
- The Works of Stephen Charnock, 1:407. ↩︎
- The Works of Stephen Charnock, 1:400. ↩︎
- The Works of Stephen Charnock, 1:401. ↩︎
- The Works of Stephen Charnock, 1:401. ↩︎
- The Works of Stephen Charnock, 1:391. ↩︎
- The Works of Stephen Charnock, 1:408. ↩︎
- The Works of Stephen Charnock, 1:409. ↩︎
- The Works of Stephen Charnock, 1:409. ↩︎
- These words are missing in many early manuscripts and are generally omitted in modern translations. ↩︎
- The Works of Stephen Charnock, 1:386. ↩︎
- The Works of Stephen Charnock, 1:417. ↩︎
- The Works of Stephen Charnock, 1:413. ↩︎