August 17, 2006
When I was a teenager in Alabama, I spent a week at a Methodist church camp. This was during the revolutionary days of the 60s when the talk was of LSD, the Beatles, hippies, the Vietnam War and protest in the streets. No one had heard of fax machines, virtual reality, personal computers, DVDs or the Internet. Even though I was too young to understand it all, I remember feeling that this was the most exciting time in history to be alive. Of that long-forgotten week, I remember only the theme: “God and Change.” It was a fitting slogan for the psychedelic age, the message being that only two things are constant: God (who never changes) and change (which is always with us).
We live in an ever-changing world. Not only is the volume of knowledge increasing, the very rate of increase itself is increasing. Take the sum total of knowledge in the world at the time of Jesus. It took until the time of Leonardo Da Vinci (1500) for knowledge to double. Knowledge doubled again by the time of the American Revolution (1776). It doubled again by 1900, and again by 1950, and again by 1960. Experts believe that knowledge is doubling every 18 months. No one we all feel confused! There’s so much to learn that we’ll never catch up.
Our children routinely play with electronic devices their great-grandparents never dreamed of. Last night I was sitting my computer when Nick signed on with his Instant Messaging account. We had a nice IM conversation about this and that, including how the White Sox are doing. This morning Mark came upon the computer screen via IM from Beijing, China. It was 9:30 AM in Tupelo, 10:30 PM in Beijing. We talked about the stock market for a bit and he gave me some advice about holding one stock and selling another. Then Josh came online and we IM’d briefly about what he and Leah are doing this week. Think about the miracle of modern technology. I can now chat with my sons online in real time even though …
I am in Tupelo,
Nick is Birmingham,
Josh is in Chicago,
Mark is in Beijing, China.
When I turn on the TV, I can watch the crisis in the Middle East unfold in real time. I don’t have an iPod yet but the Keep Believing Ministries board is talking about how to set up podcasting on the KBM website. Yesterday I did a phone interview with Kevin McCullough on WMCA in New York. Coming out of a break, an announcer called the program, “possibly the most technologically advanced talk show in America,” and then listed a bewildering variety of ways people could join in live via radio or the Internet, download, live stream, join a chat room, read a column, buy a book, make a comment, send an email, call the show, and so on. All of this foreshadows the convergence of media that experts have been predicting for the last few years.
We do live in amazing times.
We take for granted technological advances that were simply unthinkable 25 years ago. And our grandchildren will enter a world far advanced beyond our current imagining.
Nothing That Matters Has Changed
But the essential things have not changed. Putting the entire Bible on a computer chip doesn’t change the fact that it is still the Word of God. We can translate the Jesus film into hundreds of languages—and do it by computer—but the message is still the same.
The world has changed, is changing, and will change yet again. But we have nothing to fear because the human heart hasn’t changed at all. The packaging is different, the methods may vary, but the gospel of Christ is still the only hope for men and women trapped in sin. As a follow-up to my sermon last week, let me add that the Israelis need Jesus. And so do the Lebanese and the Syrians and the Iranians and the Palestinians and the Jordanians. And so do the members of Hezbollah. Christians may legitimately disagree on various aspects of the Middle East crisis, but let us unite in saying that the deepest need of every human heart is to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. That will always be true because we are all sinners deeply in need of God’s grace.
I’ve never forgotten Michael Green’s final advice to me before I left Texas in 1989 to move to Chicago. Back then I was more than a little concerned. How would I fit in? Would the congregation accept me? At the end of lunch together, Michael and I walked out to the car and I shared my misgivings with him. “Ray, you have nothing to worry about. You’re just changing locations, that’s all. You have the same God, the same Bible, the same Jesus, and the same gospel. Nothing that matters has changed.”
That was over seventeen years ago, and now I live in Tupelo, Mississippi. I have found his words to be entirely true. What was true in Texas was true in Illinois and is also true in Mississippi. Beneath the surface, people are the same the world over. The Bible is just as true in Tupelo as it was in Chicago or Dallas because it is based on the character of God who cannot change.
I. Immutability: Defining an Unusual Word
That leads me directly into the subject of this message: the immutability of God. That’s an unusual word and one that we need to define carefully. Most of you have heard of “mutations.” Those are random genetic changes that produce new offspring. Something is mutable if it is subject to change in any degree. Therefore, to be immutable means to be unchanging and unchangeable.
Here’s a working definition of immutability. It means that God does not change in his basic character. There are several ways of expressing this truth:
*His purposes do not change.
*He never grows in knowledge or wisdom.
*He never differs from himself.
*He never improves upon his own perfection.
*He never “grows” or “develops” in any respect.
You can also used the word “always” to express this truth. God is …
Whatever God is, he always is. There are no “sometimes” attributes of God. All of his attributes are “always” attributes. He always is what he is.
Many of our hymns stress this aspect of God’s character. We are accustomed to singing these lines from a beloved hymn:
Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not;
As Thou hast been, Thou forever will be.
Or this portion of a stanza from the hymn Immortal, Invisible:
We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,
And wither and perish—but naught changeth Thee!
He Doesn’t Change His Mind
Many verses in the Bible teach this truth:
“He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind” (1 Samuel 15:29).
“I the Lord do not change“ (Malachi 3:6).
“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. 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. But you remain the same, and your years will never end” (Psalm 102:25-27).
“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).
And then there is Romans 11:29, which declares that “God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.” Eugene Peterson (The Message) offers this colorful rendition: “God’s gifts and God’s call are under full warranty—never canceled, never rescinded.” The Contemporary English Version reminds us that Paul is talking about God’s ancient promises to Israel: “God doesn’t take back the gifts he has given or forget about the people he has chosen.” The New Living Translation offers yet another slant on this verse: “For God’s gifts and his call can never be withdrawn.” When the translators of the Amplified Bible came to this verse, they added this explanatory sentence regarding God’s gifts and his call: “He never withdraws them when once they are given, and He does not change His mind about those to whom He gives His grace or to whom He sends His call.”
My Rabbi Needs Jesus
Let’s make sure we get Paul’s point because it is the climax of his entire argument in Romans 9-11. How can we reconcile the promises God made to Israel with the fact that most of the Jews in Paul’s day rejected Jesus as Savior, Lord and Messiah? As I pointed out in last week’s sermon, the Jews have reestablished a modern state of Israel, but for the most part it is a secular Jewish state. There is a minority of Orthodox Jews and a much smaller number of Messianic Jews. Today if an Israeli Jew becomes a public follower of Jesus, he will likely face opposition from his family and friends. It’s not easy to be a Jewish believer in Jesus in Israel–or in most other parts of the world, for that matter. We miss the point of Romans 9-11 if we view it merely as abstract theology. Paul was no armchair theologian stringing together Old Testament prophecies out of idle curiosity. He writes from a broken heart about his Jewish brothers and sister who had rejected their own Messiah. This week I received an email from a young man I met a few months ago. This is part of what he wrote:
Thanks for the encouraging words regarding the future of Israel. My daily prayer is for the salvation of Jews around the world. I pray for my Jewish community back home (please pray for them too, they need Jesus, especially my rabbi. His name is Moshe). My rabbi is a great man but needs Jesus!! I have a couple of friends in Israel that also need Jesus: David, Ethan and Joseph. We used to read the Torah at the Shaharith Services of the Sabbath together. May the Lord grant them to hear the gospel and be saved.
That young man has a heart like Paul’s. God grant that we might love the Jewish people and pray for them and ask God to hasten the day when “all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26). But how do we know that day will come? Paul offers two answers:
1) Because the prophets predicted it (vv. 26-27).
2) Because God chose them in love (v. 28).
Verse 28 says that the Jews are both “enemies” and yet “beloved on account of the patriarchs.” They are “enemies” in the sense that they are under God’s judgment because they rejected his Son and put him to death. But they are also “beloved” because of the promises God made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He later reaffirmed those same promises to Moses and David and the prophets. Ponder this paradox for a moment:
Enemies yet beloved.
Is that a contradiction? No, it is actually a perfect picture of the human condition. In every close relationship, if it lasts long enough, there will come a time when someone you care about deeply hurts you deeply. You can’t escape it.
It happens in marriage.
It happens with your children.
It happens with your friends.
It happens with your colleagues.
It happens in the church.
This week I received an email asking me to pray for a mother whose son has been in prison, was released, and now is in jail for a probation violation. Her heart is broken because her son could go back to prison for eight years.
Our closest friends disappoint us over and over again. And we disappoint them. Sometimes lifelong friendships end because of misunderstandings that could not be worked out. Parents and children may come to a parting of the ways even though they love each other dearly. Things are said that cause such pain that the relationship can never be the same again.
That’s how God regards Israel in this present age. They are his “beloved enemies.” He can not and will not cast them off entirely (“beloved”), but they remain under judgment (“enemies”). How can Paul be so sure that “all Israel will be saved” when they are today his “beloved enemies”? That’s the background of verse 29.
God doesn’t cancel his call.
God’s promises are still under warranty.
God doesn’t take back his gifts.
During a radio interview this week, I was asked if the Jews are still God’s chosen people. The answer is yes. That’s the same answer Paul gives in Romans 11. In this present age they are “blessed” and “blinded” at the same time. God’s ancient people are his “beloved enemies,” but it will not always be that way. Better days are coming for Israel. The prophets predicted it. The Bible promises it. God’s unchanging character guarantees it.
With that thought, we return for a moment to the church camp. Looking back, they were right about “God and Change.” The doctrine of immutability teaches us that at the heart of an ever-changing universe stands an unchanging God. He is the still point in a turning world.
Change and decay in all around I see,
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
II. What It Means
Let’s look at several implications of immutability. First, God’s promises do not change. We break our promises all the time. We say, “I’ll pick you up tomorrow at 2:30 P.M. Now you be ready because I’m coming by at exactly 2:30. I don’t mean 2:45 or 2:50. In fact, I want you to be outside when I come by because I don’t have time to wait for you.” So tomorrow comes, you stand outside and wait. At 2:30 P.M. I’m nowhere to be found. Twenty minutes later you’re still standing there. Finally, disgusted, you go back inside. The next day when you ask where I was, I smile and say, “Well, I got hung up at work, I was running late, I had a lot to do, something came up, I lost your address, I got a better offer, and I didn’t like the way you looked at me when I said be ready at 2:30 sharp.” We’ve got a thousand excuses, don’t we? But God never makes excuses. He never has to because he always keeps his promises. We may rely upon God to keep his word!
Second, God’s purposes do not change. We change our plans frequently. We make our list for the day and plan to do five or six key things. We do the first thing, then we get a phone call, then one of the kids gets sick, and then the boss calls an unplanned meeting. So we skip number two, take a mild stab at number 3, and never get around to numbers four, five and six. That’s the way life is. But God’s purposes never change. “The plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations” (Psalm 33:11). “The LORD Almighty has sworn, ’Surely, as I have planned, so it will be, and as I have purposed, so it will stand’” (Isaiah 14:24).
Third, God’s character does not change. He is not fickle in his feelings nor changeable in his moods. He never has bad days or good days. He doesn’t treat us according to the whims of the moment. He is always completely consistent with himself.
People change in their attitude toward us. They may be grumpy in the morning and friendly at noon. They may whisper gossip to us and then turn around and gossip about us. All of us have been disappointed by people we felt were friends who let us down because they didn’t live up to our expectations.
God feels about us the same way he did when he sent Christ to the earth. The same love that motivated him then motivates him now. What if God changed as we do? We would never pray. We would never trust him. We would never venture out in faith. We would never ask for his help. J. I. Packer has a wonderful paragraph about God’s unchanging character:
Strain, or shock, or lobotomy, can alter the character of a person, but nothing can alter the character of God. In the course of a human life, tastes and outlook and temper my change radically; a kind, equable person may turn bitter or crotchety; a person of good will may grow cynical and callous. But nothing of this sort happens to the Creator. He never becomes less truthful, or merciful, or just, or good than he used to be. The character of God is today, and always will be, exactly what it was in Bible times. (Knowing God, pp. 77-78).
That’s an absolutely crucial thought. God’s character is the same today as it was in Bible times. That’s why the Bible calls him the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Acts 3:13). Even though men come and go, God remains the same. He’s the same God today that he was then, which means he is absolutely reliable and completely consistent in his dealings with his children.
The second verse of What a Friend We Have in Jesus speaks to this truth in warm and touching words:
Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful
who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
It is precisely because God is immutable that he is our faithful friend. We never need to worry about being turned away because if he listened to us once, he will listen to us again, he will listen to us a thousand times even though we come with the same request each time.
III. What It Doesn’t Mean
This sermon wouldn’t be complete without saying a word about the major problem with the doctrine of God’s immutability. What about those verses that say God changed his mind or that God “repented?” There are several such verses in the Old Testament, such as Genesis 6:6, which says that God was “sorry” he had created the pre-flood world. The word in question speaks of God’s grief over man’s sin. It doesn’t mean that God changed his mind or that God thought he had somehow made a mistake.
Jonah 3:10 is often cited as another example of God changing his mind. In fact, some translations use the word “repented” to describe God’s reaction to the repentance of Nineveh. The NIV translates it more accurately as saying that God “did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.” God didn’t change his mind. He threatened Nineveh with punishment unless they repented. When the people repented, God withheld his threatened judgment.
We might say that God is immutable but not immobile. He is stable but not static. He responds to the changing conditions on the earth by presenting different aspects of his personality. He responds to us as we respond to him. Consider a father dealing with his children. When they obey, they experience his pleasure. When they disobey, they face his justice. When they are hurt, they feel his compassion. He’s always the same father, but with many sides to his character. The same is true with God. What may seem to be an inconsistency with God is simply God displaying another aspect of his character to us. Since we are so changeable, it shouldn’t surprise that God seems to change in the display of who he is. We can rest on the words of Numbers 23:19, “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind.”
IV. What Difference It Makes
One final word and I am done. What difference does this doctrine make in practical terms? In answering that, I would like to consider immutability first as it applies to the lost. This doctrine is very bad news for rebellious sinners. God’s nature does not change. That’s bad news for those who hope that God will “change his mind” and let them slip into heaven. I’m sure that many people fervently hope that the God of the Bible is not the God they will someday meet. Consider the following:
–If God became less holy, sin would no longer sin
–If God became less just, sin would no longer be punished.
–If God became less sovereign, man could take his place.
–If God could forget, he might overlook our sin.
But none of those things are true. God cannot become less holy, less just, less sovereign, and he cannot forget anything. That means there is no escape from the hands of an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful God!
On the other hand, this is very good news to those who want to be saved! God’s nature does not change. God’s attitude toward seekers does not change. That’s why John 6:37 (ESV) is such a comfort. Jesus said, “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” We live in a world where you get one chance or two and then you’re out. You fail once or twice and then you’re history. But because God’s nature does not change, we may come to him at any time and be saved. This is good news for sinners who need a Savior.
Almost a decade ago Bob Johnsen introduced me to his brother Jim. When I met him, Jim was desperately sick with cancer that had returned after some years of remission. He could not stand the first time I met him because the pain was so great. We shook hands and he asked me in a desperate voice if I would pray for him. He sounded like a man who needed a Savior but who didn’t know where to find him. For a month or two I shook his hand each time I saw him in church and tried to encourage him as best I could.
Bob called one day and said that Jim had been taken to the hospital and wanted to see me. I sensed the urgency of the moment and said I would be glad to visit him. When I entered the room, he said, “Pastor, I’ve got a lot of things I want to tell you.” And he slowly unfolded his life story. He told me that as a child he had been raised as a Christian, but for many years had been away from the Lord. He spent many years in the military and was very proud of his service, but told me that during those years he hadn’t served God. Some years ago he contracted cancer, had been treated, gone into remission, but now the cancer had returned in force. “I’m a dead man,” he said. “The doctors won’t say it, but I know the truth. The cancer is in my spine. I doubt I’ll ever get out of the hospital.”
He compared his years away from the Lord to the forty years the children of Israel spent wandering in the wilderness. Something had clearly happened in his life recently, but I didn’t know what. Then he told me that one day he heard “Jesus Loves Me” and began to sing along. As he sang, “it happened.” He trusted Jesus Christ then and there and had a definite conversion experience. It was real, it was clear, and it made a powerful change in his life. As he told me the story, at one point he grabbed my hand and said, “Pastor Ray, you’ve got to tell them. Tell them that Christ is the only answer. The young people need to know this so they won’t waste as many years as I did.” He then asked me to share his story with everyone I could. “I want to help as many people as I can while I’m still alive.”
Then he said something unusual. “I know I’m going to heaven, but there’s only one problem. I don’t have a certificate.” I had no idea what he meant. Evidently some of his friends said that he needed a certificate to be sure he was going to heaven—perhaps some sort of church or baptismal certificate. Whatever the meaning, this troubled him greatly because he had nothing to show to others. Four times he said with great emotion, “But I don’t have a certificate.”
After I got back to the church, I decided that if Jim needed a certificate, we would give him one. So I wrote down some things and gave it to the office staff. (I didn’t really know how to write a salvation certificate. They didn’t cover that in any of my seminary classes.) The staff designed a certificate that we printed on paper with a nice border. After it was signed, we put it in a frame. It said something like this:
Upon the testimony of God’s Word
and upon His profession of faith in Jesus Christ
is a born again Christian
who has trusted in Jesus Christ as His Lord and Savior.
“He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.”
1 John 5:12
Ray Pritchard, Pastor
David Hoy, Chairman, Board of Elders
Calvary Memorial Church, Oak Park, IL
“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
When I gave him the certificate, he wept for 45 minutes. Later his family placed the certificate on the wall where he could see it. During his last days, he showed the certificate to everyone who visited him. After the funeral, we placed the certificate in the coffin where it will be with his body until the day of the resurrection–1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.
Jim Johnsen’s story illustrates many things, not least that we worship an unchanging God. That’s bad news for those who don’t know Jesus and don’t want to know him. It’s the best news in the world for a sinner who needs a Savior. Jim Johnsen found that out just in the nick of time. What about you? If you are tired of your sin and truly want a new life, the same Jesus who saved Jim Johnsen can save you too.
The gospel is God’s answer for those who aren’t ashamed to admit they need help. There comes a time when you must decide where you stand with Jesus. No one can sit on the fence forever. Not to decide is a decision in itself. If you don’t say yes to Christ, you are actually saying no. To borrow a phrase from Billy Graham, there is an “hour of decision” that comes to all of us sooner or later. I pray that this might be your hour to say yes to Jesus Christ.
Risking Eternity on Jesus
Ponder the words of this little verse:
Upon a life I did not live,
Upon a death I did not die,
I risk my whole eternity.
That is what it means to be a Christian. It means trusting in Christ so much that you risk your eternity on what He did for you when he died on the cross and rose from the dead. I have sometimes told people that trusting Jesus for salvation means to trust Him so completely that if He can’t take you to heaven, you aren’t going to go there. Are you willing and ready to do that?
Perhaps it will help you to form your words into a very simple prayer. Even while I encourage you to pray this prayer, I caution you that saying words alone will not save you. Prayer doesn’t save. Only Christ can save. But prayer can be a means of reaching out to the Lord in true saving faith. If you pray these words in faith, Christ will save you. You can be sure of that.
Lord Jesus, for too long I’ve kept you out of my life. I know that I am a sinner and that I cannot save myself. No longer will I close the door when I hear you knocking. By faith I gratefully receive your gift of salvation. I am ready to trust you as my Lord and Savior. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming to earth. I believe you are the Son of God who died on the cross for my sins and rose from the dead on the third day. Thank you for bearing my sins and giving me the gift of eternal life. I believe your words are true. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus, and be my Savior. Amen.
If you prayed that prayer in sincere faith, you may want to write it down or print it out so that you can remember it. I encourage you to put your initials by the prayer along with today’s date as a reminder that you have come to Christ in faith, trusting Him as your Lord and Savior.
In the end I can’t believe for you or you for me. Jesus said, “Come unto me.” Will you come? Come and see for yourself. Come and discover how Christ can change your life. Amen.