Is God Immutable? Part II
Yesterday, we looked at the common understanding of divine immutability and the problems inherent to it. Click here to read that post. Today, let’s look at what the immutability of God actually means.
Instead of accepting Plato’s misconceived ideas about perfection, followers of Jesus should keep our eyes focused on Jesus and thus view all of God’s attributes — including his immutability—as aspects of the eternal, perfect love that was expressed on Calvary. This gives us a very different, and much more biblical, understanding of God’s immutability.
God’s immutability expresses the eternal consistency of his loving character. For example, when the Lord proclaims through the prophet Malachi, “I, the Lord, do not change” (Mal. 3:6), the context makes it perfectly clear that God is not making a metaphysical statement; he’s talking about his covenantal faithfulness.
The Lord is simply stating that, while the Israelites have strayed from the covenantal stipulations he made with their ancestors (vs. 7), he has not, for he does not change. The Israelites should thus expect the coming of a “messenger of the covenant” who will reinforce the covenantal decrees and punish those who violate the covenant (vs. 1-5). Yet, as with all of the Lord’s punishments, this passage makes it clear that this chastisement is motivated by love. The Lord will come as “a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap” (vs. 2) in order to “purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver” so they can once again “bring offerings in righteousness… as in the former years” (vs. 3-5).
God’s immutability, we see, is simply his steadfast character and faithfulness to his covenantal promises. And even when this steadfastness requires that he chastise his people, this is done as an expression of his unchanging love.
When we understand God’s immutability as an aspect of his perfect love, there’s no difficulty understanding how God can be perfectly unchanging with respect to his character while changing a great deal with respect to his experiences and actions—even to the point of becoming something he wasn’t before, namely, a human being. Plato was simply mistaken in assuming that things and people can change only for the better or the worse. And the reason he got it wrong was because he failed to think about the kind of change a loving person experiences.
Imagine a loving person joyfully taking a walk while singing a happy song. Suppose this person happens to come upon a friend who is grieving because she just learned that her brother passed away. Do you think for a second that this encounter with a grieving friend wouldn’t significantly alter the loving person’s disposition?
If that person is a truly loving person, he will allow his friend’s grief to affect him deeply. He will empathize with her and try to console her. If this person instead remained “immutable” in his happy disposition, utterly unaffected by the grief of his friend, we would hardly regard him as a truly loving person.
So it is with God. Precisely because God is unchanging in his perfect love—he is, in this sense “immutable”—he is ever-changing in his experience of the world. Because he’s an unchanging God of love, he is deeply affected by all that takes place in the world. He is the most unchanging being in every sense in which it’s virtuous to be unchanging, but for just this reason, the most changing being in every sense in which it’s virtuous to be changing.
And this is exactly what we find throughout the Bible, and especially in the person of Jesus Christ. Moved by his unwavering love and compassion for us, God involved himself in the most beautiful change imaginable: he became a human and took upon himself our sin and punishment (2 Cor. 5:21; Isa 53).