By Ava Pennington
Benjamin Franklin suggested the only things certain in life are death and taxes. But even beyond these, there is one indisputable certainty we can always count on: the unchanging nature of God.
Change is a natural part of our lives. People are supposed to change—to adapt, grow, become better. Those who refuse to change are labeled rigid or stubborn. Inflexibility is rarely admired, especially in a culture governed by relativity. Of course, people can also change for the worse. Either way, people change. God does not.
The Immutability of God
God describes himself as immutable. He tells us in Malachi 3:6, “I the Lord do not change,” and again in James 1:17, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”
God cannot become any better than he is and he cannot lose any facet of his perfection. A change for the better or for the worse would mean he has not always been perfect.
Knowing they belong to a perfect God who is immutable has always been critical for God’s people. During biblical times, the Israelites were surrounded by nations that worshipped capricious, pagan deities. Worshippers were never quite sure how to please these gods. Were animal sacrifices enough? What about child sacrifices? Perhaps self-mutilation would earn their favor.
An example of this uncertainty is seen during the prophet Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal. These prophets began by calling on their god. Then they began dancing around the altar, shouting louder and louder in the hope of attracting the attention of their deity. Finally they slashed themselves “until their blood flowed . . . But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention” (1 Kings 18:28, 29).
Unlike the Baal worshippers, Elijah knew precisely what the Lord God required because God does not change. Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people always had a clear understanding of where they stood with him—whether they liked it or not. His yes meant yes, and his no meant no . . . except for the times he changed his mind.
A Change of Mind?
If God doesn’t change, why does he seem to be a God of wrath in the Old Testament and a God of love in the New Testament? Or why does the Bible say God regretted some of his decisions?
Several passages in the Bible describe God as changing his mind. For example, in Genesis 6:6, prior to the Flood, God is described as regretting he made humanity. In Exodus 32:14, the Lord threatened to destroy the Israelites because of their sin, and “relented” after Moses’ appeal. In Jonah 3, God changed his mind about destroying the Ninevites after Jonah successfully called them to repentance.
When you and I change our minds on a subject, it’s usually because we’ve learned a new fact that leads us to view the topic differently. But God is omniscient—he already knows everything that can be known. So how can God be immutable and yet change his mind?
When we interpret these verses to mean God changed his mind, we are using an anthropomorphism—attributing human characteristics to God in an attempt to explain his behavior. But Numbers 23:19 tells us, “God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind.”
When God “regretted” that he had made humanity, or when he “relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened,” despite what it seems, he did not change at all.
God knows the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10). He knew humanity’s sin would necessitate a flood (Genesis 6). He knew Moses would appeal on behalf of the people (Exodus 32). When he sent Jonah to Ninevah, he knew the Ninevites would repent, delaying their destruction. The Lord did not change his mind in any of these situations. Rather, his responses were consistent with the circumstances he knew in advance would occur.
Changeable People, Unchangeable God
The ancient Israelites were much like us—changeable people with a natural bent toward sin and rebellion. A mere three days after the miraculous parting of the Red Sea, the people grumbled at the lack of provision (Exodus 15:22). At Mt. Sinai, it took little effort for them to promise to obey all that the Lord commanded (Exodus 24:3). But a short time later they had “become corrupt” (Exodus 32:7).
Even so, God’s unchanging nature gave them the assurance of always knowing where they stood with him. Sin must be covered by a blood sacrifice. The sacrifice of animals in the Old Testament pointed to the perfect sacrifice that would come in the New Testament. This perfect sacrifice, in the person of Jesus Christ, also does not change. Hebrews 13:8 tells us, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
Still, many Christians see God differently in the Old and New Testaments. The God of the Old Testament seems harsh and legalistic. His holiness demands our holiness (Leviticus 20:26). Yet in the New Testament he is described as a God of love (1 John 4:8).
But God also revealed himself in the Old Testament as a “compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). And in the New Testament, God affirmed his discipline of his children (Hebrews 12:6) even as he disciplined ancient Israel when they sinned.
God’s unchanging nature enabled the Israelites to approach him with confidence. Thousands of years later, we have the same privilege of coming boldly before his throne.
A Right Response
God’s immutability removes any question we might have about how to relate to him. So how should we respond to God’s unchanging nature?
Know him as he revealed himself. Study God’s names and attributes. Learn what he has said about himself. But we must be careful about selecting only those characteristics that appeal to us. God is holy and he is love. He is just and he is merciful. He requires obedience and he is gracious. We cannot isolate his attributes without creating a false god.
Take him at his Word. What God said 2,000 years ago in his Word is still true today. The Savior he sent to redeem his people then is the same Savior who redeems us now. Attempts to restore a relationship with the Lord based on any terms other than the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ will offer false confidence and will ultimately fail.
Develop a sense of urgency. There is only one way to be forgiven of sin and restored to God. Those who do not come to him on the basis of the finished work of Jesus Christ will perish. This knowledge should give us a sense of heightened urgency to share the gospel with those who are separated from the Lord. The certainty of coming judgment motivates us to share the good news of salvation with a lost world.
God does not change . . . and we don’t want him to. His unchanging nature is a blessing to his children. It is the basis for an unshakeable relationship that will keep us spiritually safe until we see him face to face.
The more things change, the more God remains the same—and that’s a good thing!
Ava Pennington is a freelance writer in Stuart, Florida.
Incommunicable and Communicable Attributes of God
• God is in the process of conforming us to the image of his Son (Romans 8:29) by the work of his Holy Spirit. This process includes the development of his attributes in us. These characteristics, known as his communicable attributes, include mercy, forgiveness, love, kindness, gentleness, and patience.
• God’s immutability is an incommunicable attribute—one that we cannot share. Other incommunicable characteristics are his omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence.