1 Samuel 15:29
April 13, 1997
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 or compact discs. Even though I was too young to understand it all, I remember feeling that this was the most exciting time in all the world 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. Somewhere I read that the sheer volume of knowledge is now doubling every two years.
Our children routinely play with electronic devices their great-grandparents never dreamed of. We take for granted technological advances that were simply unthinkable 25 years ago. And our grandchildren will enter a world advanced far beyond our current imagining.
His Father Fought in the Civil War!
We live in an ever-changing world. Recently my brother told me about a man who lives in Colbert County, Alabama, whose father was a Confederate soldier during the Civil War. That doesn’t seem possible because the Civil War took place over 130 years ago. It happened like this. During the early years of this century apparently quite a few aging Confederate veterans married young girls in their teens. Some of those marriages produced children. It happened that this man’s father had fought in the Civil War as a very young man, lived until about 1920, married a 15-year old girl with whom he had a child, and died when the boy was two years old. So, yes, it’s true. This man is now almost 80 and his father did indeed fight in the Civil War. And I thought about how the world has changed since his father fought at First Manassas or Chickamauga or Gettysburg or wherever. Think about that—a father and son whose lives cover five generations. I spoke a moment ago about the changes in the last 30 years—but what about the last 130 years! It’s hard to imagine what the world was like back then.
Oak Park is changing. And not always for the better. I hear constant voices of concern about the moral decline of this community. When I consider what has happened in the last eight years, I think we all have grounds to be greatly concerned about the future.
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.
Oak Park 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. We may use different words than the founders of this church, but what they said in 1915 we still say in 1997. That has not changed and, with God’s help, will never change.
Nothing That Matters Has Changed
I’ve never forgotten Michael Green’s final advice to me in 1989 before I left Texas to come 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 a 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 at all.”
In the eight years since then I have found his words to be entirely true. Beneath the surface, people are the same the world over. The Bible is just as true in Chicago as it was in Dallas because it is based on the character of God who cannot change.
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 use the word “always” to express this truth. God is always wise, always sovereign, always good, always just, always holy, always merciful, and always gracious. 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.
Several of our hymns stress this aspect of God’s character—perhaps none so beautifully as these lines from “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise”:
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 in one way or the other:
1 Samuel 15:29 — “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.”
Malachi 3:6 — “I the Lord do not change.”
James 1:17 — “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”
Psalm 102:25-27 — “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.”
Hebrews 13:8 — “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
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 is 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.
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, then the boss calls an unplanned meeting. So we skip number two, take a mild stab at number three, 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).
He is Not Fickle
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.
In reading J.I. Packer this week, I came across a new thought. 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 may 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, p. 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 Old Testament calls him “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” 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 sorrow 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.
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 “relented of punishment 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 often simply God displaying another aspect of his character to us. Since we are so changeable, it shouldn’t surprise us that God seems to change in the display of who he is.
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 be 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 is such a comfort. Jesus said, “Whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” 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 not a license to sin, but it is certainly good news for sinners.
One story and I am done. A few months 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. Jim could not stand at that time because the pain was so great. We shook hands and he asked me in a desperate voice if I would pray for him. He looked and sounded like a man in need of a Savior but who didn’t know where to look. 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.
Last week Bob called 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 had 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 had 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 spoke of the years of wandering like the “40 days and 40 nights” of the Bible. Something had clearly happened in his life recently but I didn’t know what. Then he told me that one day he heard the famous children’s song: “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, it was a powerful change in his life.
As he told me the story, at one point he grabbed me 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.” I could tell the matter troubled him greatly.
After I got back to the church, I decided that if Jim felt he needed a certificate, we could give him one. So I wrote down some things and gave it to Mia Gale. (I didn’t really know how to write a salvation certificate. They didn’t cover that in any of my seminary classes.) Mia designed a nice certificate that we printed on a paper with a nice border. After it was signed, we put it in a frame. It said something like this:
Upon the authority of the Word of God
and upon his profession of faith
is a born-again Christian who has trusted
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
He has been awarded this certificate by
Senior Pastor Chairman of Elders
Calvary Memorial Church of Oak Park, Illinois
Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so!
When I gave him the certificate this week, he wept for 45 minutes. Later his family placed the certificate on the wall where he could see it. (Postscript: Jim died on May 20. 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.