Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Is God Worthy of Trust: Divine Immutability

At the basement level of any theological discussion lays the issue of epistemology. Epistemology deals with how we can obtain knowledge. In building a theology of trust, specifically, we must wrestle with the question “how do we know God is trustworthy?” No question could have more significance for this doctrine than that one, for the implications are numerous. For example, if God is not trustworthy then He is not reliable, we cannot have hope in Him, we will not pray, we will not trust the Bible, and finally we will become hard skeptics. If God is not trustworthy then nothing He has said about Himself, about us, about the world or the future, can be taken at face value and believed. God may be, then, both a liar and a deceiver, and such a God is not worth our trust at all. God does, however, affirm His complete trustworthiness, and He does so in four ways: (1) His Immutability; (2) His Internal Consistency; (3) His Foreknowledge; and (4) His Omnipotence. By examining each of these four attributes we will build up a Biblical, epistemological, ground for trusting God. We begin the discussion by looking at God’s immutability.

I can remember as a kid playing with playdough. The malleable clay-like substance would be smushed through cookie-cutters to form any sort of shapes and sizes that I preferred. It could be rolled into little balls to throw at my siblings, or it could be flattened like a pancake. Though some may contend for a deity like this, it is not the way we should think of God. While playdough can be molded and re-shaped, and is mutable (changing), God is immutable. God does not change. In Psalm 102 we read an earnest prayer of an afflicted soul, and a heartfelt confession of God’s unchangeableness. The Psalmist writes:

Psalm 102:1-11 Hear my prayer, O LORD; let my cry come to you! 2 Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress! Incline your ear to me; answer me speedily in the day when I call! 3 For my days pass away like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace. 4 My heart is struck down like grass and has withered; I forget to eat my bread. 5 Because of my loud groaning my bones cling to my flesh. 6 I am like a desert owl of the wilderness, like an owl of the waste places; 7 I lie awake; I am like a lonely sparrow on the housetop. 8 All the day my enemies taunt me; those who deride me use my name for a curse. 9 For I eat ashes like bread and mingle tears with my drink, 10 because of your indignation and anger; for you have taken me up and thrown me down. 11 My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass.

This prayer is made by one in deep distress. It appears as though he has no hope, no one to even turn to for comfort. But note that this is a prayer, and in praying to God the Psalmist must have believed that he had someone to turn to, and indeed he confesses as much:

Psalm 102:12-22 But you, O LORD, are enthroned forever; you are remembered throughout all generations. 13 You will arise and have pity on Zion; it is the time to favor her; the appointed time has come. 14 For your servants hold her stones dear and have pity on her dust. 15 Nations will fear the name of the LORD, and all the kings of the earth will fear your glory. 16 For the LORD builds up Zion; he appears in his glory; 17 he regards the prayer of the destitute and does not despise their prayer. 18 Let this be recorded for a generation to come, so that a people yet to be created may praise the LORD: 19 that he looked down from his holy height; from heaven the LORD looked at the earth, 20 to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die, 21 that they may declare in Zion the name of the LORD, and in Jerusalem his praise, 22 when peoples gather together, and kingdoms, to worship the LORD.

Hope resounds in that first sentence alone, “But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever.” This is not the temporary reign of a king, nor the time-constrained term of a president, it is an eternal kingship. God rules over His creation forever, and forever has no conclusion.
While this eternal kingship must have been a great comfort to the soul of this distressed prayer, we have not yet reached his ultimate confession of surety in God. He continues with a hard realization that brings us to our knees.

Psalm 102:23-24 23 He has broken my strength in midcourse; he has shortened my days. 24 "O my God," I say, "take me not away in the midst of my days- you whose years endure throughout all generations!"

In one fell swoop God has crushed the ultimate hindrance to trust in Him: self-trust. The man in this prayer recognizes that he is at a loss, the end of his rope. God has broken his strength, and right in the midst of his succeeding. How often we feel on top of the world when things are going our way. We feel ourselves invincible, and capable of anything. Our dreams are coming true and we find suddenly, though it has actually been occurring for some time, that we trust in ourselves. And just like Judah’s trusting in Egypt was idolatry, so trusting in ourselves is idolatry, and God will not stand for it! He breaks our strength in midcourse and we fall on our faces confused and at a loss. But then, at the moment of realizing his weakness and frailty, his inability and failure, the Psalmist records the climax of his confession:

Psalm 102:25-28 Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. 26 They 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, 27 but you are the same, and your years have no end. 28 The children of your servants shall dwell secure; their offspring shall be established before you.

What gives rise to the Psalmist’s steadfastness and hope in the midst of affliction and sorrow? God’s unchangeableness. We will fall, men will wither away like grass, and in fact the grass withers away too, and the whole world will be changed but God remains the same. The Bible reveals again and again that we serve an immutable God.

Malachi 3:6 "For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.

James 1:17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

Hebrews 1:10-12 And, "You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands; 11 they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment, 12 like a robe you will roll them up, like a garment they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will have no end."

This is the God of scripture, the unchanging, immutable God of all.

It’s important to dig deeper, at this point, into the theological specifics of God’s immutability. In what way is God unchanging? Wayne Grudem summarizes this doctrine as follows: We can define the unchangeableness of God as…God is unchanging in His being, perfections, purposes, and promises, yet God does act and feel emotions, and He acts and feels differently in response to different situations.[1]In his definition Grudem has made several important statements. Let’s note first that he states God is unchanging in His being. That is what we find in all the quotes listed above, God’s being does not change. There is great significance in this stability for the creator/creature distinction.

A modern heresy known as “Process Theology” contends that God is not stable, but rather He is becoming. That is to say, “As we act, and as the universe changes, God is truly affected by these actions and the being of God changes- God becomes something other than what He was.”[2] The fault of this theology is that it ignores the Bible and it wrongly assumes that God’s immutability means that nothing we do has meaning to God. This is where Grudem’s qualification becomes important.

Grudem’s definition asserts that God “does act and feel emotions, and He acts and feels differently in response to different situations.” This is an important qualification because it takes into consideration the Biblical texts that speak of God being affected by what we do. We may rest assured that as unchanging as God is, He is not unmoved by His creation. The Bible tells us that God rejoices (Isa. 62:5), is grieved (Ps. 78:40; Eph. 4:30), He is angry and wrathful (Ex. 32:10), He pities Children (Psl. 103:13) and he loves with an everlasting love (Isa. 54:8; Ps. 103:17).[3] We can take comfort that even though God is unchanging He truly responds to us and feels for us.

God is unchanging and, as the Psalmist notes, it is this unchangeableness that gives us hope when we worry and distress. But the most glorious depiction of God’s immutability is found in the person of Christ.

Hebrews 13:8 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

In Christ is our greatest hope, because He has redeemed us from the curse and bondage of sin, and has paid the penalty for our sins. He not only stands as our savior eternally, but He stands as our advocate with the Father eternally. Do you struggle with trusting God? Then take heart that He will never change! And when He feels great compassion for you it will stir this unchanging God to act on behalf of His people. Ultimately this is exactly what has happened in the cross. God, who loved us and chose us before the foundation of the world, saw us in our desperate state, as hell-bound sinners, and He sent His son to rescue us from wrath. Take heart in that just as this unchanging God will never renege His promise of salvation, so He will never change in any of His ways, perfections, promises, or even His being. Let that truth dissolve your worries into calm trust.

[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994). 163.
[2] Ibid. 166.
[3] Ibid.


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