From the Baptist Magazine, 1810.
On the Immutability of God
“The Father of lights, with whom there is no variableness neither shadow of a turning” James i, 17.
The heathen used to denominate the sun the father of light, on account of the liberal and extensive manner in which its benefits are diffused. But this appellation more emphatically belongs to God, the emanations of whose perfections are without variableness or shadow of turning.
Immutability is essential to the Divine nature. So many awful obscurities conceal from our speculation the Essence of Deity. That we are scarcely able to hazard a positive idea respecting it; and being conversant with imperfection only, we make our way into an unknown region when we contemplate a Being who is in every respect different from ourselves. A creature is mutable because his nature is limited, and therefore he may be rendered either greater or less in the scale of being–A creature is mutable because he derives very little satisfaction from himself, but depends principally upon the objects around him, and therefore as those objects vary, the state of his mind is proportionally affected–A creature is mutable because he is subject to the control of circumstances, which he can neither foresee nor prevent; and therefore his wisest schemes may be frustrated and his most sanguine hope disappointed–A depraved creature is mutable because he is the sport of temptation and passion. But God is superior to all this. He is infinite in his nature–he takes supreme delight in himself–he exercises universal control. On these three propositions are founded our proofs of the Immutability of God.
1. The Nature of God is infinite. We are finite creatures, compounded of different substances, which are derived from a superior Being, and we are consequently dependent. We are continually subject to changes arising from an endless diversity of impressions which we receive from external objects. All our mental and corporeal faculties have their limits, and we soon undergo the mortification of beholding the line which circumscribes all our knowledge and operations. But God is infinite; that is, He is as great as He possibly can be, and is beyond every conceivable limit of excellence. Who can fix any bound to that duration which never knew a commencement? Who can limit that power which can never be awed by difficulties, and which out of nothing could raise a substantial universe? Who can fathom that knowledge which by one intuitive act is so fully acquainted with all the events of time and eternity? Such properties must be infinite, and therefore the nature from which they are inseparable must be infinite also, for it is impossible that a finite nature should possess attributes greater than itself. Besides if we allow that God is self-existent, and consequently the first cause of all, we must admit his infinity, for it would be inconsistent to suppose he would limit himself, or that any other being could exist capable of limiting him. Now on the infinity of his nature we establish the Immutability of God, for an infinite Being, possessing in himself every possible excellence, can have no inducement to change. So wise a Being can feel no inclination to choose a state less perfect; and to imagine he can make higher attainments, would suppose a period in which he was not that great and glorious Being that he is now; a notion that approximates to atheism itself.
2. God is perfectly happy, and takes supreme delight in himself. Our views of the Divine Being become proportionally exalted as we contemplate his independence, and as that independence relates not only to those attributes with whose emanations we are in some measure acquainted, but in that undisturbed happiness which he possesses in himself, by the necessity of his own nature. The Scriptures speak of him as the Blessed God, as Blessed for ever. This blessedness or happiness is not derived from creatures, for then he must have been unhappy before those creatures were produced, and as he has existed from eternity, his unhappiness must have been eternal, and of course he must have ever been the most unhappy being. The happiness of God, therefore, is inseparable from his essence, and arises from that entire perfection which he beholds in himself. He has no ignorance nor weakness to deplore, but possessed of all possible perfection, he can feel no wish to be more glorious. He can have no desire to protract his duration, for he is from everlasting to everlasting. He can have no wish to enlarge the sphere of his knowledge, for his understanding is infinite. He cannot desire to be in any place where he is not, for he filleth heaven and earth. He cannot wish for more extensive dominion, for he is God over all. He cannot desire a wider disparity between himself and his creature, for all nations before him are as nothing, and they are accounted to Him less than nothing and vanity. God is therefore perfectly satisfied with himself, and must derive supreme delight from the contemplation of his own excellencies. Upon this we found another argument for the Immutability of God. As God was always possessed of all possible perfection, he must always have been happy, and infinitely pleased with himself. From all eternity he possessed in himself all those matchless excellencies and transcendent glories which invariably afford him the most sublime delight. Having infinite wisdom and power, he is ever enabled to adopt such plans and to operate in such a manner as shall most conduce to his own felicity and pleasure. Being perfectly satisfied with the nature and end of his engagements, he feels no inducement to violate them; being supremely pleased with the fitness of his purposes, he feels no inclination to vary them. Whatever he delights to promise he delights to perform, because his will is ever the same, and because no unforeseen impediment can arise to check his operations or alter his mind.
3. God exercises supreme and universal control. The appearances of nature sufficiently demonstrate this. The world had a Creator, and he that was equal to an operation so glorious, can alone be supposed equal to its preservation. It is evident that the creation is not left to the caprices of chance, but that it is under the control of some wise and powerful agent. That agent, we contend, is immutable, because being above all, he is not only so glorious that he can feel no inclination to change, but so superior to all other beings that they can never produce any change in him.
God controls all because there is no self-existent Being besides himself. If there were, that other being must in all respects be equal to him, for the idea of derivation would be inconsistent with self-existence; and to imagine another being equal to him, you must limit his perfections, for what God might will, that other being might not will, and consequently his will and power would be restrained. The Unity of God is invariably maintained in the sacred writings. I am the Lord, and there is none else, there is no God beside me. There is no other God but one. The Divine Being can therefore exercise an independent government over the universe, without any control to vary from his fixed purpose. It is on this account he could say, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure. Viewing the iniquitous systems of the world, he felt without restraint in declaring, I will overturn, overturn, overturn, till he shall reign whose right it is to reign. Conscious of his uncontrollable power, when manifest in the flesh, he said, I know my sheep, and they shall never perish, neither shall any pluck them out of my hand.
God controls all because he has an intimate knowledge of all. Nothing can occur which he did not foresee with the utmost precision. Those circumstances which his foreknowledge perceives, do not happen in consequence of any fate or necessity, independent of his pleasure, but in consequence of his own wise purposes. A Being who has wisdom to choose the best plans for the promotion of his own designs, whose knowledge perceives every circumstance that can possibly arise from such an arrangement, and whose power is able to remove every impediment, must maintain the widest control, and that control is an argument for his immutability. God is never frustrated in his undertakings, but overrules all opposition to the advancement of his own purposes and glory.
Does he purpose to exalt human nature to the felicity of heaven? Let satan inject the poison of sin into our great parents, that infernal act shall precede the most astonishing profusion of celestial blessings; for he still purposes to save, and he is of one mind, and who can turn him?
To accomplish his design, does he send his Son into this guilty world? Let the great destroyer join his malice with the impiety of the Jews, let the crown of thorns wound the head of the Messiah, let him be lacerated with scourges, torn with nails, and crucified as a malefactor; that horrid process shall allay the storms of conscience, shall inspire consolation in the bosom of the guilty, and reconcile the hostile feelings of man to be blessed God, for he is of one mind, and who can turn him?
To extend the benefits of so great a sacrifice, is He resolved to diffuse the light of truth through the whole world? Let persecutors rage, let edicts be issued against the followers of the Lamb, let the rack torture them, let the fire reduce them to ashes, let the rest wander about in caves and dens of the earth, destitute, afflicted, tormented; all this suffering and blood, instead of destroying, shall cement the Church of God, for he hath declared, The gates of hell shall not prevail against it, and he is of one mind, and who can turn him?
Does he intend to make his people triumphant over all their foes, and with his own hand wipe away all tears from their eyes? Let Satan go about as a roaring lion; let them endure tribulation, famine, sword, and nakedness; let angels, principalities and powers, things present and things to come unite all their efforts to oppose that intention, yet they shall never separate them from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus, for he has loved them with an everlasting love, and he is of one mind and who can turn him?
Immutability is that perfection in which all others seem to unite. Without this we might conjecture that God is not now what he was or what he will be. Without this, almighty power might dwindle into weakness, his knowledge might cease to be perfect, and his wisdom might fail; even moral defection might prevail, and he might cease to be God! Without this, his purposes might be defeated, his affections might fluctuate, his promises might be violated and his very Being endangered.
Fluctuation belongs to all below God. Time as it passes is composed of a succession of moments, days, and years; and such is the speed of their succession, that it is with difficulty we can determine on the existence of the present. But God is unchangeable, there is no measure of moments or ages in his duration, all eternity stands open to his view and makes but one vast present.
Every year opens to us fresh scenes of felicity and wretchedness, of triumph and depression, of prosperity and adversity; and frequently these changes affect the same individual. But God is the same, the books of providence and destiny have no influence on him, for he remains invariably happy while he overrules all the vicissitudes of the world.
Every year presents to the grasp of death about twenty millions of the human race, and witnesses almost as many new existences, all engaged to contend with the frowns of life. But God is immutable, he passes not from one state of being to another, but is ever the same immortal God.
Every age is pregnant with catastrophes, with pestilence and earthquakes, battles and revolutions. Here a state is depopulated, there a desert is raised to a kingdom; here a scourge is lifted from obscurity, there a monarch is trodden in the dust. But Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever. The heavens shall wax old as doth a garment, and as a vesture shalt thou change them: but thou art the same, and thy years shalt not fail.
It may be asserted that some passages of Scripture seem to oppose these views. In order to reconcile them, it may be observed, 1. We form a wrong conception of the Divine Being when we imagine any alteration of his mind on account of successive dispensations. Therefore, when we are told that the first covenant was not faultless; when God is represented as removing it, and making a new covenant with the house of Israel; we are not to suppose that God was mistaken in his views, or that the first covenant was incompetent for the purpose which he intended; we are not to suppose that this change was occasioned by any alteration in his will, but that it was in pursuance of his immutable purpose, which according to the fitness of things in relation to an apostate world, fixed the duration of one economy which was designed to reveal the odiousness of sin, and determined the commencement of another, which should discover the immensity of divine compassion.
2. We form unworthy notions of God, when we imagine the grief and repentance which are sometimes ascribed to him, indicative of ignorance or compunction. Therefore, when we saith he repented that he had made man, that he repented of the evil which he thought to bring upon some atrocious characters; all the meaning of the sacred penmen is, that God varies his proceedings with his creatures according to their conduct, and that he has such an aversion to sin, that he will punish it whenever it is found. Therefore, when he is said to repent of his former beneficence, he intends to commence a course of correction; and when he repents of his threatenings, he intends to suspend his judgments; and while he varies his providences, he maintains unimpaired, the Immutability of his purposes.
3. We form unworthy notions of God when we imagine that the manifestations of his displeasure argues a mutability of affection. Therefore, when God saith, In wrath I hid my face from thee; when the Psalmist prays, Put not away thy servant in anger; when Moses declared that the Lord was angry with him; when the Church acknowledges, Though thou wast angry with me, thine anger is turned away and thou comfortest me; these Scriptures do not imply fluctuation in the Divine Being, but a certain disposition of events which are varied according to the moral behavior of intelligent creatures, who by the variation of their character are rendered capable either of enjoying the approbation, or bearing the displeasure of God. The love and hatred of God to a creature are entirely influenced by his own holy nature, therefore he cannot possibly approve of evil, or be displeased with that which is good. Thus while man continued perfect, he was an object of Divine affection, but when he transgressed he became an object of wrath, not as a creature, but as a moral agent. The reason of this change in the dispensation was the alteration that sin produced in man, and the immutable holiness of God, which ever retains the utmost aversion to sin. But if he were to manifest his affection equally towards a criminal and an innocent being, that act would suppose an alteration in holiness, and a capability of loving what is contrary to himself.
4. We form unworthy notions of God when we suppose that his expressions of joy and gladness imply any unusual elation of mind. Therefore, when the prophet says, He will rejoice over thee with joy, he will joy over thee with singing. The Lord shall rejoice in his work. We are to understand by these passages, that God most perfectly approves of all the measures he has adopted in relation to the felicity of his creatures, and that all their attempts to enjoy his presence shall be succeeded by the bestowment of the richest favours.
Let us indulge a few thoughts on the excellency of this Perfection as connected with the Christian Scheme. The beauty and glory of the christian economy are enhanced in our view in proportion as we are led to contemplate the divine Perfections.
1. The Immutability of God is the Basis of the Covenant of Grace. The covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses, were in their very nature conditional. The Covenant of Grace was so in one respect, but not in another. It required the fulfilling of the law and atoning sin. Such conditions are wholly beyond our ability, therefore the Covenant was made with Christ, He said, Sacrifice thou wouldst not, then said I, Lo I come to do thy will, O God. The tenor of this Covenant is, I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Christ kept his engagements in view. And the immutable promise that was made to him animated him in the prospect of his sufferings and in the accomplishment of his work. I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how am I straitened till it be accomplished. He did not fail, he was not discouraged, till he had brought forth judgment unto victory. It was ordained that he should lose none of his covenanted people; therefore, said the almighty Redeemer, I will never leave them. I will not leave them under the power of sin, nor under the guilt of sin; being sanctified by my Spirit, they shall have joy and peace in the holy Ghost. I will not leave them to their own wisdom and strength, nor to the will of their enemies; being made unto them wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, no weapon formed against them shall prosper. Nor will I bring them into difficulties, and then forsake them. When thou passest through the waters I will be with thee.
2. The Immutability of God leads us to conclude that no series of affliction can separate a real believer from his love. There is nothing in the nature of afflictions to produce a separation. They come not of themselves; they do not act independently of divine control; when God sends them they are overruled to promote his purposes. Instead of separating, they have a tendency to unite our hearts to God. They are given with this intention, to subdue our sins and to make the world less lovely. Under them we see more of our weakness, and we resort to God for strength. They are given to shew the stability of Divine Love. For a small moment I have forsaken thee; but with everlasting loving kindness will I have mercy upon thee. Thus he brings his people through much tribulation to shew that he will not depart from them.
God is Immutable. We ought therefore to aim at stability in our principles and conduct. However constant, we fall infinitely short of him; but we shall find this Attribute of great service to us when allured by the world or tempted to despair. God our Saviour is never turned aside from his purposes of Grace; in seasons of the greatest darkness, when we have no light; he is immutably the same, faithful to his promises and faithful to his Son. Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the Church by Jesus Christ, throughout all ages, world without end, Amen.