Immutability and Impassibility: Essential Truths in an Uncertain World
by David Schrock
In a world of uncertain and constant change, believers in Jesus Christ need to learn or relearn two vital words—immutability and impassibility. While to many in the church, these twin doctrines about God may seem like esoteric and unnecessary truths, especially when they are weighed down by depression, broken relationships, or nagging addictions, I think the opposite is true. For those battling such emotional and relational trials, these doctrines may hold the key to life, hope, and change.
Indeed, in the Scriptures the God who has come to save us is also presented as the God who upholds all things and who dwells outside of space and time. He is not just a relational counselor, he is also a sovereign ruler, who calls us to submit to him. Indeed, as the God with us, he is also the God who cannot be contained by creation (1 Ki 8:27)—and thus, creation cannot change or confine him!
What does this all mean? For God to have the power to save sinners from death and hell, he must also have the divine power to be unchanged by the world. Though, he is personally involved in creation, as the sovereign creator he does not grow with or change because of his creation. This is the doctrine of immutability.
Likewise, as a being of perfect character and temperament, his emotions are not swayed by the events of history. As a covenantal God, he blesses and curses, loves justice and hates sin, forgives and judges, but his holy attributes are not moody or manipulated. Though Christ, in his human nature learned obedience and suffered in the flesh (Heb 2:9-10), the divine nature of God never did. This is the doctrine of impassibility.
Instead of making God some distant deity, these truths are aspects of his divine essence, and in this way the God of the Bible is unlike the false gods of all other religions—past and present. Michael Brown illustrates this in his book Israel’s Divine Healer. Quoting H.W. Haggard, he contrasts YHWH, the Great God of Israel with the false deities of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Canaan, Syria, and Greece. He writes,
The gods of Egypt, like men, might suffer from disease. Ra occasionally had a disease of the eye, so that there was darkness for a time—an eclipse we should call it. He nearly died when stung in the heel by a scorpion. Horus, the son of Isis, had headaches, and like Ra, nearly lost his life from a scorpion’s sting. When a god was stricken with disease he turned for aid to his friends among the gods (78).
Unlike these false gods, the God of the Bible is “but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory” (WCF II.1).
The reassuring thing in this is that God will not treat us with fickle concern. Unlike an Egyptian god, when we, as his children, draw near to him, we can rest assured that we will receive the consistent attention of a loving Father. As an impassible God, he does not have good days and bad days. As an immutable God, he does not change his mind. While we grow tired and faint, he does not. He never slumbers nor sleeps; therefore, we can rest in him, knowing that our God is not falling down on the job.
Consequently, the doctrines of immutability and impassibility, though they take a minute to learn, are precious beyond degree. They undergird the quality of his control and the certainty of his sovereignty. Without a firm grasp on these doctrines, our own mental state vacillates because a lack of knowledge that God has given to us, namely, that he is in heaven and he does as he pleases (Ps 115:3). Therefore, his immutability and impassibility secure every one of his promises!
Sadly, many who would prefer not to learn these terms are the ones who need them the most. Therefore, teachers of God’s word must labor to explain and exalt these biblical realities. They are not of tertiary importance; they are essential for growth in godliness. Helping our churches grasp these theological truths will supply believers with a solid place to stand in world of change.
Brother, learn these words—immutability and impassibility—and teach them to your people, so that they might know more fully the One who alone can be described by them.
David Schrock is a Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church (Seymour, IN). David also blogs at Via Emmaus. He is married to Wendy and is the father of Titus and Silas.