Things change. Businesses come and go. Fashions and fads are always changing. Technology develops at a pace faster than most of us can keep up with. People change as well. Their appearance changes, their attitudes change, habits, moods, even worldviews can change. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously claimed that it is impossible to step into the same stream twice. By the time you step into the stream again, the water is different. Most of us would agree that life is a constant stream of endless flux.
But what about God? Does he change? The Scripture clearly teaches that God does not change. There are many passages that affirm this fact. Perhaps the most well known and oft used is Malachi 3:6- “I, the Lord, do not change.” Even though change is all around him, God does not change. Theologians refer to this as the immutability of God. This word comes from the Latin mutare meaning “to change.” We get our English words mutate and mutation from this word. Thus, God is not susceptible to any kind of mutation, alteration, variation, or fluctuation. He is as the Puritan Stephen Charnock described “always is what he was, and always will be what he is.”
If you think about, it is logical that God cannot change. For starters, God is perfect. Something that is perfect never needs changing. If God were able to change, he would by definition not be God. A.W. Pink speaks to this point: “He cannot change for the better, for He is already perfect; and being perfect, He cannot change for the worse. Altogether unaffected by anything outside Himself, improvement or deterioration is impossible. He is perpetually the same.”
The Bible includes a number of illustrations regarding the immutability of God. The psalmist compares the unchanging God to a universe that wears out like old clothes in Psalm 102:25-27, “Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. 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, but you are the same, and your years have no end.” James compared God’s immutability to the changing appearance of the heavenly lights in 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.”
Being immutable, God is unlike us. He never has an “off” or “bad” day. He is never in a bad mood. Circumstances do not affect God. He never makes a bad choice or has an emergency. He never says “Oops!” and nothing takes him by surprise. He never has a change of heart and his will never changes. Psalm 33:11- “The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations.” Scottish minister Thomas Boston wrote, “He is the same in all His perfections, constant in His intentions, steady to his purpose, unchangeably fixed and persevering in all His decrees and resolutions.”
The immutability of God is something that has long been questioned (despite the biblical evidence) and recently has come under strong attack through proponents of Open Theism. This belief says that God is growing, maturing, and learning like the rest of us. Again, if this were true, God would not be God. But the greatest challenge to the biblical assertion of God’s immutability comes from the Bible itself. There are a number of references where God “repents” of something or “regrets” that he did something. These include God creating man in the first place (Gen. 6:6), the decision to bring his people out of bondage in Egypt (Exod. 32:14), staying his hand of judgment on the Ninevites (Jonah 3:10), and making Saul king of Israel (1 Sam. 15:11). These texts seem to imply that God can repent of something or, at the very least, change his mind. What are we to make of these texts?
To begin, a number of scholars believe that when the Bible speaks of God “repenting” it is doing so in an anthropomorphic kind of way. In other words, “repent” is a term we can relate to and understand. For example, the Bible speaks of God’s mighty arm (Deut. 7:19) when in reality God is spirit and having no physical form does not have an arm. Psalm 78:65 says that the Lord “awoke from his sleep,” which is interesting because another Psalm (121:3-4) says that God neither sleeps not slumbers. To say that God has an “arm” or “awakes” is describing some action or characteristic of God in terms we can understand. The same seems to be true when the Bible speaks of God’s “repentance.” He is not repenting like we repent. God, being perfect, makes no mistakes and never has to correct or apologize for anything he has done.
So, what is the “repentance” of God describing? It is describing a change in the way God deals with us, but the change is not in God, it is in us. For example, look at all of the citations of God’s repentance in the above paragraph. In each one, the change is in the people. God “repents” of creating mankind and freeing his children from Egypt because they have chosen to sin. God “repents” from making Saul king because he chose to disobey God regarding the Amalekites and then tried to lie about it. Conversely, God “repents” from destroying Nineveh because they turn from their sin and follow God. In each instance, God deals in a different way with the people because of the change in their behavior. There is no change in God. His attributes, nature, essence, character, and will never change.
An additional thing to consider is when it seems that God has changed his mind, he is operating in accordance with his covenant which had certain conditions. This is seen in what God said to Jeremiah in Jer. 18:7-10, “If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it.” It may seem that God is changing his mind, but he is merely responding to the change in the people. This can result in negative or positive outcomes: Negative in terms of God’s judgment for sin. Positive in terms of people’s obedience and faithfulness (i.e. a person sensing that the prayers of fellow believers moved God to action). Thus, the apparent “changes” God makes are in actuality him working within “the unchanging nature of his purpose” (Heb. 6:17).
Let me end this post with an additional question we often have concerning God’s immutability. I have often been asked, “Why should I pray if God has already made up his mind?” The fact that God does not change seems to make prayer unnecessary. This is a misunderstanding of God and prayer. I try to help people who have asked me this question think through another question- “Do you really want to change God’s mind?” God is perfect. He knows absolutely perfectly what is best for you. His plan for you is perfect. Is it not presumptuous of us to think that our plan is better than God’s plan? We tend to gravitate toward a philosophy that the goal of prayer is to get God to change his mind about something. However, the goal of prayer is not to get God to come around to our way of thinking or desires. The goal of prayer is to get us to come around to his way of thinking. Prayer is about our wills being shaped around his will, not vice versa.
Also, consider that of God were changeable, then we wouldn’t have any assurance that he could answer our prayers. He wouldn’t know what the future holds anymore than we do. If I could persuade God to change his mind/purpose, what says I could keep him from changing it back again? Power in prayer depends on the immutability of God. In addition, salvation is dependent on it as well. Look again at that well known verse in Mal. 3:6- “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” In other words, if we served a changeable God, he would have destroyed us all a long time ago. Our sin and unfaithfulness would have evoked a mood swing and he would have wiped us off the face of the earth. However, God will never go back on his promise to save us in Jesus Christ.
On his death bed, Oliver Cromwell asked his minister, “Tell me, is it possible to fall from grace?” The minister replied, “No, it is not possible.” “Then I am safe,” said Cromwell, “for I know that I was once in grace.” He thought about this a while and then said, “I think I am the poorest wretch that lives, but I love God, or rather, am beloved of God.” Our love and faithfulness to God ebbs and flows, but his love for us is always the same because he is the God who never changes.
**Note: Much of this post is derived from a study I am doing in Philip Ryken’s book, “Discovering God in Stories from the Bible”