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.” Repentance for God is only a change of “outward conduct according to his infallible foresight and immutable will.” Scripture expresses these things in a human way by “marking out something in God that hath a resemblance with something in us.” 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.
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.
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,” 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.”
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),” Charnock comments, “God doth not know creatures because they are, but they are because he knows them.” 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.” 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.”
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.