We can build our lives on this great attribute of God—his stability and constancy. But wait. Does God change who he is when we pray?
Unchangeableness is often called immutable in theology. (Yes, these big words exist, and there is nothing wrong with using them.)
Let’s start with definitions.
What do theologians say?
The great theologian of the nineteenth century Charles Hodge says:
So God is absolutely immutable in his essence and attributes. He can neither increase or decrease. He is subject to no process of development or of self-evolution. His knowledge and power can never be greater or less. He can never be wise or holier or more righteous or more merciful than He has ever been or ever must be. (vol. 1, p. 390)
Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof writes:
God’s immutability “is that perfection [attribute] of God by which He is devoid of all change, not only in His Being, but also in His perfections, and in His purposes and promises. In virtue of this attribute He is exalted above all becoming and is free from all accession or diminution and from all growth and decay in His Being or perfections. His knowledge and plans, His moral principles and volitions remain forever the same. Even reason teaches us that no change is possible in God, since a change is either for better or for worse. (p. 58)
Wayne Grudem writes:
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. (p. 163, quoting Berkhof).
God’s acting and feeling differently will be explained shortly, but for right now it means that when God deals with humans, there are always implicit or explicit conditions in how he guides the outcome (see below at the section objection and reply).
Renewal theologian J. Rodman Williams writes:
God is One who does not change. The universe is constantly undergoing transition from one state to another, and human existence is marked by continuing alteration. With God there is no such mutability. “For I the LORD do not change” (Mal. 3:6).
Millard Erickson calls it divine constancy and replies to deficient views of God:
Some interpretations of the doctrine of divine constancy, expressed as immutability, have actually drawn heavily on the Greek idea of immobility and sterility. This makes God inactive. But the biblical view is not that God is static but that he is stable. He is active and dynamic, but in a way that is stable and consistent. (p. 250).
This attribute or perfection of God means that he is unchanging, unchangeable, consistent, forever the same, undevelopable, without self-evolution, and constant, yet active with his creation, particularly with humankind.
Those theologians built their definitions on these and other Scriptures, next.
What do the Scriptures say?
I use the NIV here. If you would like to see the following verses in many translations or in their contexts, please go to biblegateway.com.
God does not change or lie or go back on his Word:
18 God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. (Heb. 6:18)
In the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time (Titus 1:2)
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:17)
In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. 26 They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded. 27 But you remain the same, and your years will never end. (Ps. 102:25-27; cf. Heb. 1:11-12, which is applied to Jesus)
God the Son shares this attribute with God the Father:
“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Heb. 13:8)
God’s purpose and counsel remains the same:
But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations. (Ps. 33:11)
I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose” … I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it. (Is. 46:9-11)
God is unchanging in his promises:
“God is not a man that he should lie, or a son of man that he should repent. He has said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? Num. 23:19; cf. 1 Sam. 15:29)
Objection and reply
Objection: But the Scriptures say God does change his mind. How does that agree with his immutability?
Reply: First, let’s go over some of the Scripture passages that say God relented, and then let’s answer the question.
God promised to judge his people in the desert, but Moses prayed, and God changed his mind (Ex. 32:9-14).
God said King Hezekiah would die soon, but Hezekiah prayed, and God added fifteen years to his life (Is. 38:1-6).
God promised judgment on Nineveh and called Jonah to preach to help them. The prophet eventually got there and preached, and the Ninevites repented. And so God withheld his hand of judgment (Jonah 3:4-10).
Now let’s answer all these cases.
When God condescends to interact with changing, varying humans, he imposes conditions, either implicit or explicit.
- If people repent, God will relent and forgive for the good of humanity generally and themselves.
- If people do not repent, God will judge them for the good of humanity generally and for themselves.
The condition is in the if. It is in God’s unchanging nature to show mercy or judgment on changing people, depending on their evolving circumstances and various responses. Their circumstances and characters change, but his character does not.
Notice how God relented in his judgment on Nineveh, based on the people’s reaction: “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened” (Jonah 3:10).
Hezekiah and Moses experienced the same thing. They prayed and interceded when God threatened death and judgment, so the situation or conditions changed. Therefore God answered their prayers and relented.
Next, when God showed regret after he acted in the case of making humans in the first place and making Saul king, he was expressing his present feelings in response to how people behaved. Their devolving behavior moved him to act. He sent the flood but protected Noah’s family, and he chose David to be the new king. His short-term regret was not strong enough, however, to lead him to give up on humanity forever and wipe it out entirely or to abandon his people Israel in the long term.
In all human change and frailty, God’s essential character does not change.
So we can now add this condition:
- If people pray, God will be consistent with his character and answer them and go in a new direction.
How can I know God more deeply?
When we were raised, our parents were inconsistent and often misbehaved. So many people even testify that they were abused. Some parents drank alcohol or did drugs. Some were addicted to opioids. Sometimes fathers (and mothers) abandoned their families. They were shifting shadows, with a little or no light in them, and a lot of darkness too. They were dysfunctional.
Even parents who were consistent and honorable and decent in raising their children made mistakes. Maybe they pushed fundamentalism too hard and drove their children away from church. As the old saying goes, “Rules without relationship breeds rebellion.” Or maybe they were excellent parents and did nothing wrong in an extreme sense, but their child went astray anyway.
And so it is clear that humanity fails. It shifts and changes and is inconstant and inconsistent.
In contrast, God remains ever the same. He does not have a shadowy side to him. He is full of light. He will never abuse his children. Yes, sometimes he has to discipline and correct them, but not abuse. God will always love his children and people generally—even when he has to judge them for their misdeeds. So, it is unfair to project our upbringing on to God. He is willing to relent if people repent. God loves to show mercy on the wayward, whether Christian or not. He calls them all to draw closer to him. Are they listening?
When we pray, we can change the condition in a seemingly unbending process. For example, if someone in your family is unsaved, he is headed on a trajectory of destruction, whether in this life or the next. The trajectory seems so fixed and unbending because your family member appears to be so stubborn and enjoys going astray. But you can step in and change things when you pray. It moves God to act. You are the change God and your family member has been waiting for. You are one who inserted the new condition, and God’s unchanging character to save is activated and moved (from a human vantage point), while his unchanging character to judge has been deactivated (so to speak), and your family member will be saved; God has bent your family member’s “firm” trajectory towards him.
So, whether in salvation or in judgment, God’s essential character or who he is does not change when we pray. Rather, down here on earth he applies different aspects of his unchanging essence when dealing with changing humans. In his eternal and unchanging attributes, he is and will always be Judge and Savior, regardless of what happens in the fluctuating world of humans.
Once we understand this aspect of his character, we can depend and build our entire lives on his constancy, consistency, unchangeableness, stability and immutability.
We now know God more deeply.
ARTICLES IN SERIES “DO I REALLY KNOW GOD?”
Do I Really Know God? He Is Unchanging and Consistent