Unchanged and Unchanging
In his book Knowing God, J.I. Packer explains why some Christians have such a hard time understanding the Bible. When you pick up your Bibles, he says, you enter a world so different from your own that you can hardly recognize it. It’s a world that uses other languages, unfamiliar and often strange customs, and in many ways a different way of thinking. That world doesn’t have modern science and technology. Travel, communication, business, government, family life and just about everything else bear little or no resemblance to our modern ways. The Middle East, as it was two thousand or more years ago, is gone now. Looking at these differences, many Christians have thrown their hands up in despair, wondering if they can ever understand their Bibles.
Dr. Packer offers a solution to this problem. Instead of worrying about the differences between the world of the Bible and the world of today, he says we should look to the one who has never changed. The writer of Hebrews says that Jesus Christ [is] the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever (Heb. 13:8). And James says that there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning with the Father of lights (Jas. 1:17). In this regard, God is in a class all by himself.
God’s unchangeableness guarantees that we can understand the Bible. The same God who walked with Adam, Abraham, Moses and David walks with us today. By his Spirit, he enlightens us with the same unchangeable Word that he first spoke to them (Isa. 40:8; John 10:35). The one who forever remains the same bridges the chasms of time and culture, giving meaning and understanding to the events, promises, threats and commands of Scripture.
What is Immutability?
But what exactly do we mean when we say that God is unchangeable or immutable? Think of it like this: God created the universe at least 6,000 years ago. To us, whose lives average about seventy-five years, this sounds like a very long time. We marvel when someone reaches one hundred years of age. Imagine all the changes that take place in everyone’s life. We’re born and we die, and between these two events we have graduations, marriages, the births of our children, a job or two, and a vacation every summer. We get sick and recover. We buy and sell homes and automobiles. Like Heraclitus the Greek philosopher said, our lives are in continuous flux. Yet throughout the measly seventy-five years of our earthly toil, as well as the 6,000 years of this world’s changing existence, the triune God of Scripture has not changed even one little bit. He is the changeless author of a world that he constantly changes.
But even this only scratches the surface of God’s unchangeableness, since his existence extends far beyond the short life of our universe. The simple is that God is eternally unchangeable. He was never anything other than he is this very day. Listen to what Moses wrote about God’s unchangeableness in Psalm 90: Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.… For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night (vv. 1–4). Thus, God’s eternity qualifies or describes his immutability.
There is a very good reason why God cannot change. Change is always from better to worse (as in Adam’s fall) or from worse to better (as in our sanctification). But better and worse are concepts that have no application whatsoever to God, who is perfect in every way. This means both that God cannot be improved and that there is no possibility of his corruption.
Central to this discussion is the fact that God is unchangeable in his mind or his thinking. The first part of today’s text says that God is in one mind. This is a curious phrase for a couple of reasons. Note, for example, that the word mind is in italics, which means that it does not occur in the original Hebrew. The translators added it to make the sense of the passage clear. In this case, I believe that the translators hit the nail squarely on the head. The question asked in our text is, “Who can make God turn from one way to another?” and the answer is that no one can because God’s mind is eternally fixed. He has only one mind, not two or a couple million. This is why theologians have insisted that there is no such thing as possibility with God, only actuality. Some have even described God as pure actuality.
While these things may seem obvious to us, there are some professing Christians who hold very different views. Dispensationalists, for example, teach that God is constantly revising his plan. When Adam messed up his first plan, he had to come up with a second plan. And when that plan didn’t work, he had to come up with yet another one, and so forth. The logical implication of this is that Christ could not possibly have been the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, as we read in I Peter 1:20 (cf. Rev. 13:8). His death for our sins was only an afterthought, and not even the first afterthought at that. I wonder if those who hold this view have ever considered the possibility that God might change his mind about the second coming and the countless promises connected with it.
Dispensationalism is wrong, even heretical, because it has a woefully deficient view of God. It fails to recognize that God has ever had only one thought throughout all eternity. We find this difficult to believe because we think our thoughts in succession, one after another. Right now, we’re meditating on the perfection of God known as his immutability. In an hour or so, we’ll turn our thoughts to lunch. By evening, we’ll give some attention to the duties of another work-week. But God doesn’t think in succession. Every item of knowledge is present to him in one eternal act of thinking. His one eternal thought includes knowledge of himself and of his plan for the entire course of world history. Because God’s thought is one, so is his truth, since his truth is the expression of his mind. This is what makes systematic theology possible.
Another more insidious challenge to the unchangeableness of God’s thoughts is open theism. The whole idea behind this error is that the future has not yet been determined. He is able to anticipate a lot of the future, but for the most part he has left it open so that he can respond to our freewill choices. Thus, open theism explicitly contradicts numerous attributes of God that the church has embraced through the ages: sovereignty, omniscience, eternity, immutability, impassibility (the idea that God is completely without emotion) and aseity (God’s absolute independence). Norman Geisler, who resigned his membership in the Evangelical Theological Society in 2003 because of its acceptance of open theism, identified the underlying problem with open theism in the title of his 1997 book, Creating God in the Image of Man? Open theism is really an attempt to redefine God in human terms instead of recognizing him as the absolute ruler of the entire universe.
Now let me give you a few verses that clearly assert God’s unchangeableness:
The counsel of the LORD standeth for ever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations (Ps. 33:11).
For ever, O LORD, thy word is settled in heaven (Ps. 119:89).
There are many devices in a man’s heart; nevertheless the counsel of the LORD, that shall stand (Prov. 19:21).
The LORD of hosts hath sworn, saying, Surely as I have thought, so shall it come to pass; and as I have purposed, so shall it stand (Isa. 14:24).
Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure (Isa. 46:9–10).
Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath: that by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us (Heb. 6:17–18).
And Job is no less explicit in today’s text when he said: But he is in one mind, and who can turn him? and what his soul desireth, even that he doeth. In this verse, Job asserted not only God’s right to do with him as he pleased, but also the fact that he always exercises that right. Job acknowledged that God is and always will be God, and that man is a mere creature.
Implications for Believers
The doctrine of God’s unchangeableness has many benefits for believers. First and foremost among these is the assurance that God is 100 percent trustworthy. He never says one thing and then does another. He doesn’t have second thoughts. He doesn’t revise his plan. No emergency will ever catch him by surprise. No one will change him, for he has but one mind forever; and whatever his soul desires, that he does in heaven and on earth.
This means that we should never doubt that God will give us everything he has promised us in his Word. He promised Eve that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the seed of the serpent (Gen. 3:15). Jesus Christ fulfilled that promise at the cross. He also promised Noah that he would never again destroy the earth by a worldwide flood (Gen. 9:11); and never has he done so. He promised Abraham to be a God to him and to his descendants forever (Gen. 17:7). Not only was this promise — the covenant — repeated often in the Old Testament, it also forms the foundation of God’s relationship with his people in the New Testament (Jer. 31:33; Zech. 13:9; II Cor. 6:18; Heb. 8:10). When we take into account the thousands upon thousands of promises God has given in Scripture, we become overwhelmed with the Lord’s goodness to us. But when we realize that every one of those promises will be fulfilled in every believer, we cannot help falling to our knees in humility and adoration. To think that God can keep his word perfectly this many times is beyond imagination.
And yet that is exactly what Job needed to remember. When we’re in the throes of trial and tribulation, as Job was, our tendency is to begin exactly where he began, viz., by asking where God is. Job thought that if he could only have direct access to God, then he could reason with God and God would make the trial go away. Yet in spite of the fact that Job had been exceptionally faithful, God had hidden himself. Job sought on his left and right, in front and in back, and he wasn’t there. Then in our text Job remembered that God is unchangeable. He had promised never to leave Job. He had promised to preserve him even in the worst calamity. He had promised to use all of his sufferings to make Job more like his Redeemer, whose resurrection he longed to see. But God had not promised to remove every trial or tribulation from Job’s life. This fact both humbled Job and made him stand in awe of God’s majesty.
When you’re under fire, do you remember that God is unchangeable? Do you marvel at the fact that the same God who choreographed your suffering also orchestrated your everlasting salvation? Does it captivate your heart to know that your Savior is the one who is the same yesterday, today and forever?
Another application of God’s unchangeableness relates to his role as lawgiver. His immutability implies that he does not whimsically change his moral standards as given in the Ten Commandments. He gave his law to Adam, probably before the fall. Although Genesis does not actually say this in so many words, there are some good reasons for believing it to be so. For example, the concept of a day of rest, which is the foundation for the fourth commandment, appears in the creation story. As we follow the historical record, it becomes clear that the fourth commandment was observed before Moses received the tablets of the law. Noah, for example, divided time into periods of seven days (cf. Gen. 7:4, 10; 8:10, 12). Why would he have done this apart from the Sabbath commandment? Years, months and days are determined by the movements of the sun, moon and earth, but a seven-day week has no astrological basis. Likewise, the Israelites also kept the fourth commandment before Moses ascended Mount Sinai. The Lord gave them manna for six days each week; for five days they received only enough for that day, but on the sixth day they received enough for two days because the Lord did not provide new manna on the Sabbath (Exod. 16:25–26).
Apparently, God also gave the sixth commandment to Adam. After Cain killed Abel, he lied to God and said that he did not know where his brother was (Gen. 4:9). Why would he have lied unless he knew that he had done wrong? Not only did he know that he had sinned, he also knew that his crime deserved the death penalty. He said, Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me (v. 14).
Yet, perhaps the clearest indication that God had given all of the Ten Commandments before Moses ascended Mount Sinai comes from the eighteenth chapter of Exodus. Moses had been wearing himself out judging the Israelites from early in the morning to late at night. When his father-in-law, Jethro, asked him why he was doing this, he said, When [the Israelites] have a matter, they come unto me; and I judge between one and another, and I do make them know the statutes of God, and his laws (vv. 13–16). Clearly, Moses had the statutes of God and his laws before the finger of God wrote them on stone. Otherwise, the elders would have had no basis upon which to judge the cases that came before them. Apparently, they had been passed down orally from generation to generation since the creation of man.
Today, God’s law is still the standard for our behavior. Because God does not change his mind, we know exactly what he requires of us. Unlike earthly lawgivers, he never forgets what he has commanded us to do. There is no ambiguity in his precepts. Every one of the Ten Commandments is either repeated or clearly implied in the New Testament. Liberals like the misnamed Association for the Advancement of Christian Scholarship might want to believe that the ever-changing circumstances of our lives require a constant re-evaluation of God’s law, but the Word of God says otherwise. God’s standard of morality is unchanged because God himself is unchanged and unchanging.
In fact, all of God’s characteristics are also immutable, including his power, wisdom, justice, goodness and truth, to name a few. Because he is the eternal one, the great I am that I am (Exod. 3:14), we join with David and all believers down through the ages in saying, Blessed be the LORD God of Israel for ever and ever. And all the people said, Amen, and praised the LORD (I Chron. 16:36).
Many years have come and gone since the last apostle wrote the last book of the Bible. God has raised up many world leaders, and he has removed as many. Wars and famines, earthquakes and floods, have filled the pages of history. Modern ways have replaced the culture and society of the first century. Because of this, understanding certain passages of Scripture can be a real challenge.
But is it impossible? No, our God is the same today, yesterday and forever. The great truths of sin, redemption and gratitude that guided the lives of the saints whose inspired biographies are recorded in the pages of Scripture are still needed today, and God stands ready to glorify himself by fulfilling every promise that he has ever made. Even with the rapid and accelerating changes of the twenty-first century, the Lord remains both unchanged and unchanging. He will save all those who call upon his Son in faith.
The fact that God is forever the same encourages us to pursue a more faithful walk with him. If Abraham walked with God and if Moses was his friend, what should our lives be like? Should we be satisfied with any less? Do the changing conditions of the world mean that God wants something different today? Let’s not justify our lesser communion with God by saying we cannot understand his Word. Rather, let us turn to the unchangeable one in prayer, pleading with him to open our hearts and minds to the beauty of his immutability by the power of his Holy Spirit. And may God himself be forever glorified! Amen.
 Norman L. Geisler, “Why I Resigned from the Evangelical Theological Society” (Nov. 20, 2003), found at http://www.normangeisler.net/etsresign.htm.