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Immutability, the Promises of God, and the Christian Life

There is a fundamental link between God’s immutability, God’s promises, and the Christian life. Being immutable, God is unchanging. Promises coming from an unchanging God can be relied upon with a confidence, which would be otherwise less assured. To the extent that the Christian life is one of faith–dependence upon God’s covenant promises – God’s immutability breathes a joyful certainty to every believer. These links between immutability, promises, and the Christian life are basic, but far from superficial. Probing the relevant doctrinal connections yields valuable insights about the nature of God and how we live in Him. This essay is then an exercise in peering under the surface of doctrinal connections that we usually take for granted.

Doctrinal Location and Proportion

The first step towards better appreciating the doctrinal connections before us, is to correctly locate them. Charles Spurgeon linked God’s immutability and promises: “If I thought that the notes of the bank of England could not be cashed next week, I should decline to take them; and if I thought that God’s promises would never be fulfilled—if I thought that God would see it right to alter some word in his promises—farewell Scriptures! I want immutable things!” (Spurgeon, Sermon 1).

Systematic theology is concerned with discerning the fitting connections between, and proportions of, doctrines. Theology is the study of God and all things in relation to Him. God’s immutability is part of Theology Proper in that it describes something of God’s inner being. God exists in absolute freedom and “anything that is changeable must not be thought of God” (Augustine, The Trinity, 8:3). God does not need anything. He is before all things and over all things. God is perfect and was immutable prior to creation (to the extent that our language can gesture to such a state of eternity). Immutability occupies a prime place in our doctrinal investigation in that God occupies the most honored place in all theological reflection. Sadly, God is not always granted the seat of honor in our minds that he ought to hold – and rectifying that should be a key goal of our theological labors. We take a meaningful step in that direction when we turn the eye of faith to gaze on the immutable God, through the lens of his covenant promises. When we do so, we find that the loving plenitude of God’s immutable being is more delightfully revealed to us, and our Christian living is enlivened.

The covenant promises of God belong to the loci of theology known as soteriology–the doctrines of salvation. Soteriology concerns God’s works of grace in electing, redeeming, restoring, and renewing sinful creatures. The knowledge of God as he is in himself ought to greatly occupy our thoughts and worship–to our loss it often does not. The knowledge of God as our saviour more obviously brings itself to our conscious attention. The death and resurrection of the Son impresses itself upon us to the extent that we are conscious of our sin, suffering, spiritual attack, and mortality. We need salvation, so we allow the doctrines of salvation to fill our spiritual vision. The problem with this is that soteriology is a derivative doctrine. Salvation is required due to sin, and it proceeds from the immutable God.

Soteriology all too easily usurps the place in our theological framework that ought to be occupied by God himself. When a derivative doctrine such as soteriology occupies too large a place in our outlook, the resultant doctrine tends to be asked to carry freight it cannot bear. Instead of allowing more fundamental doctrines such as the doctrine of God to enliven, empower, and enrich soteriology, we try to sustain the overly expanded doctrine by repetition of mantras or ever more nuanced distinctions within it. That which expands beyond its fitting location becomes stretched, brittle, and dry.

Our efforts then to provide fitting location and proportion to God’s promises as part of the derivative doctrines of salvation, are aimed at sustaining and enriching them with the appropriate doctrinal resources. Isolating any of the doctrines before us–God’s immutability, promises, or the Christian life ossifies all the doctrines and robs us of the spiritual power we need in life and death. Click To Tweet

The Christian life is an application of soteriology that depends upon other important doctrines–in particular anthropology. This is the subsection of the doctrine of creation that concerns the nature of people. Given that, the doctrine of the Christian life involves consideration of both God’s works of salvation, and the human reception of them. When we see the Christian life is a subsection of soteriology that intersects with anthropology, we realize two things. First, that the Christian life must be viewed as a response to God’s saving works; Second, that it is in the Christian life that we see the fruit of the theological resources deployed in the loci on which it depends. Our doctrine of God resources our doctrines of salvation, and both empower the Christian life.

Doctrinal Isolation and Ossification

When our doctrines are incorrectly located or proportioned, problems arise. If God’s immutability is considered apart from his promises, then God’s unchangeableness is viewed as the property of a distant, impersonal God. God’s otherness is stressed in a way that does not benefit or reach out to us. When the promises of God are viewed apart from God’s immutability we find that the promises lack the spiritual energy and power they would otherwise have. Words intended to be living promises able to cut through sin and doubt, ossify into mantras that are little more than behavioral therapy techniques.

For many today, the Christian life itself is cut loose from the doctrines of God’s promises. When this happens fallen humanity is thrown upon its own resources and the promises of the world. The result is that the Christian life becomes a dry husk of human effort, or a chaotic worldly grasping after the latest idea that comes along. The only way to live the Christian life with confidence is to believe God’s promises and to do so assured that they come to us with the full immutable power of the perfect free God who speaks to us in grace. Isolating any of the doctrines before us–God’s immutability, promises, or the Christian life ossifies all the doctrines and robs us of the spiritual power we need in life and death. Isolating any of the doctrines before us–God’s immutability, promises, or the Christian life ossifies all the doctrines and robs us of the spiritual power we need in life and death.

Energizing the Doctrines

Recognizing the links between the doctrines before us energizes and refreshes each of them. The immutable God who grants us soteriological promises is qualitatively different from an immutable God who does not do so. The Christian life attempted in isolation from God’s promises is fundamentally different from one that depends upon the promises. Depending on promises God has made, but neglecting to trace them to the immutability of God in himself, drains those promises of the power God ordinarily grants them. When the links are established in our consciousness, God takes his proper place–we are empowered by him to believe his promises. In this lies the mystery that the Christian life is lived by us in a way that is empowered by God. Faith is the most personal intimate action a person can make – yet, it is a spiritual work of salvation wrought in us by God.

Trinitarian Immutability

The Trinity is revealed in the economy of salvation. In the incarnation, Father, Son and Spirit are each revealed to be divine in a way that upholds monotheism. Even while all works of God are inseparably the work of each person, so the distinctiveness of Father Son and Spirit gives rise to each being associated with particular actions.

It is possible to conceive of a doctrine of immutability that ignores the Trinity revealed in salvation’s economy. Such a “god” is distant, inert, impersonal and ugly. When people reject the doctrine of immutability they usually assume they are prizing the barnacles of Greek philosophy from the doctrine of God. In reality they are prizing the doctrine of God off from that to which it ought to be fixed–the Trinity revealed in the economy of salvation. The immutable God is Trinitarian.

The link between immutability and covenant promises ensures this is so at a deep level. The covenant promises are to be traced back to the inner reality of the Trinity. It is not just that the promises are reliable because they come from an unchanging God; much more delightfully the promises of God reveal something of the unchanging beauty of the God who is Trinity. All three persons are fully committed in their freedom of grace to bring the covenant promises to fulfillment. The promises arise not from monistic will or decision, but immutable Trinitarian love. The immutable Trinity is unchanging and so forever what he is–one God in three divine persons eternally pouring out infinite, costly love upon a creation that is itself a gift of grace. In an immutable timeless act, the unbegotten Father begets the Son, the Son is begotten of the Father, the Spirit is spirated from Father and Son. All this is perfect love (1 Jn. 4:8-13).

So fulsome and perfect is this Trinity of love that it must reach out to sinful rebels in covenant promises. The words are not empty promises as Father, Son, and Spirit commit in loving omnipotence to overcome all that would thwart their purposes. If we attempt to contemplate God’s immutability apart from his covenant promises, we gaze at a conception of divinity that is brittle, non-relational, and overly comprehensible to creatures. Only when we gaze at God’s immutability through his Trinitarian covenant promises can we discover that immutability, like other attributes of the divine being “have true meaning only insofar as their concrete manifestation is taken up into the sway of divine love” (Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, 1:445). The only way to live the Christian life with confidence is to believe God’s promises and to do so assured that they come to us with the full immutable power of the perfect free God who speaks to us in grace. Click To Tweet

When God’s immutability is divorced from covenant promises, the vision of immutability tends to lack the Trinitarian form which otherwise arises from the economy of salvation in which the promises feature. The confidence we have in God keeping his promises is greatly enriched when we view the promises as not only coming from an immutable God, but a Trinitarian God in which each person is fully alive and committed to fulfilling covenant promises. Our hearts are warmed by the sense that not only are we the beneficiaries of promises assuredly kept by the immutable God–we adore and wonder at the traces of God’s inner Trinitarian being as he is revealed in the treasured promises.

God is immutably for us

The exercise of reading through this essay is itself a disciplined work of theological reasoning. The careful consideration of how God’s immutability and covenant promises are situated and related one to another, has an impact on our Christian living. We begin to sense that our greatest needs are indeed fully and unreservedly met in God. We discover that God is revealing himself to us as we ponder his immutability. We are relieved to sense that God is for us as he makes promises to us. In his Trinitarian inner reality, God is immutably for us. He will go to hell itself to give himself for and to us. Consider our weak frames and sinful lives and all that seems impossible to believe. Ponder the immutable God who is loving Trinity and promises to do it–that shapes and empowers the Christian life.

Image credit: Tom Blackwell – Starry Night – Van Gogh Meets Leeds

Peter Sanlon

Peter Sanlon (PhD) is Director of Training for the Free Church of England. He holds theology degrees from Cambridge and Oxford University. His doctoral research has been published as Augustine’s Theology of Preaching. He is also author of Simply God: Recovering the Classical Trinity.

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