PLACE FOR TRUTH; OCTOBER, 2020
Stephen UnthankOct 17, 2020
A favorite hymn we sing at church is Walter Smith’s “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” where the congregation beautifully confesses that “We blossom and flourish as leaves on a tree, and wither and perish, but naught changeth Thee.” My heart soars in adoration as we sing that last clause, “but not changeth Thee.” What is being expressed here is the glorious doctrine of God’s immutability, the belief that God cannot and does not change. To be sure, this doctrine, along with its close sister impassibility, has grown entirely out of favor with many modern thinkers and even some self-proclaimed evangelicals. But to deny either is neither safe nor right and will inevitably reduce God the Creator to that of a mere creature.
Indeed, all creatures – every person, every animal, all existence created by God – has within its essence the unavoidable characteristic of potentiality. Creatures change because there is always the potential for change. Being, as we are, finite creatures, we are all limited to time and space and are therefore always gripped with inescapable potential. We have the potential to grow, to change positions within a room, or to have the future become our present. Everything finite is limited by the potential of what can or could be, and every creature is finite. But not so with God.
God, being as he is, an Infinite being is free within himself of any and all potential. Classical theologians have referred to God as Pure Actuality; He is Pure Act. Though he has the power to effect change in others, helping his creation reach their potential and their own finite perfection, He himself has no potential because He already is Perfection. Consider that glorious truth! God never undergoes change since He is infinite in his perfections. If God is not a God who is becoming (how could he since he’s eternal; his infinite nature transcends time itself), and he is therefore always the same, well then, he is not a God who has potential. God does not change.
Saint Thomas Aquinas says that “Since God is infinite, comprehending in Himself all the plenitude of the perfection of all being, He cannot acquire anything new.” Now presumably, if God, who is perfect, were to change, the only change that could be would be from something perfect to something less perfect, and this cannot be, since God (who must be perfect) would cease to be.
The Puritan Stephen Charnock explains that “Immutability is the glory that belongs to all the attributes of God because it is the centre wherin they all unite.” What he means is that all of God’s attributes are unchanging attributes. He is unchangeably good, and loving; unchangeably wise and omniscient, just and holy, gracious and merciful. And since God is simple (all that is in God is God) then he is immutably so. What could ever be added to or taken away from God?
Saint Augustine states that “It is instinctual for every rational creature to think that there is an altogether unchangeable and incorruptible God” and the Scriptural witness certainly bears this out. Consider what James tell us in James 1 verse 17, that “with God there is no variation or shadow due to change.” Throughout the Psalms God is referred as a Rock, unchangeable and immovable, the only Being on whom we can rest our confidence. Or consider what God says through the prophet Malachi, that “I the Lord do not change” (Malachi 3:6). God is not the great “I am becoming what I am becoming” but “I Am what I Am” (Exodus 3:14). As Charnock puts it “he who hath no being from another cannot but be always what he is.”
This truth about God is worthy of all wonder and adoration. It focuses, indeed, it fixates our praise on One who is entirely unchanging in his praiseworthiness. At no point ought we to expect that God will “let us down” or do something not in keeping with his perfect goodness and wisdom. As the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck put it, “Those who predicate any change whatsoever to God, whether with respect to his essence, knowledge, or will, diminish all his attributes: independence, simplicity, eternity, omniscience, and omnipotence. This robs God of his divine nature, and religion of its firm foundation and assured comfort.” He’s right! There’s real comfort in knowing our God is not fickle, flakey, or faddish. No, our God has unchangeably determined the end from the beginning.
English Baptist minister Edward Mote expressed this beautifully in another well-known hymn where we sing with deep comfort that “When darkness veils His lovely face, I rest on his unchanging grace; in ev’ry high and stormy gale, my anchor holds within the veil. On Christ, the solid rock, I stand; all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand.” All other ground is indeed sinking sand, what with its potential for continual change. But not so our Immutable God who alone is our ever faithful, unchanging, solid Rock.
Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC. He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.
 The Latin immutabilis means unchangeable.
 Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis
 Stephen Charnock, The Works of Stephen Charnock, vol. 1 (Banner of Truth, 2010), p. 382
 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:158