Divine Immutability and the Doctrines of Grace (pt. 1)

from May 04, 2009 Category: Articles

The Bible repeatedly and unapologetically underscores the fact that God does not change. In fact, He cannot change because He cannot improve on absolute perfection or decline in His eternally fixed nature. His person does not change: “‘For I the Lord do not change’” (Mal. 3:6). His plans do not change: “The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations” (Ps. 33:11). His purpose does not change: “So when God desired to show more convincingly … the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath” (Heb. 6:17). God does not change His mind: “‘The Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret’” (1 Sam. 15:29); or His words: “The Holy One of Israel … does not call back his words” (Isa. 31:1-2); or His calling: “The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29; cf. Heb. 13:8; James 1:17). There are absolutely no changes in God, no variations, and no surprises (cf. Ps. 102:27).

God does not increase or decrease. He does not improve or decline. He does not change due to some altered circumstances—there are no unforeseen emergencies to the One who is eternally all-knowing. His eternal purposes stand forever because He stands forever (Ps. 33:11). He does not react, He only acts—and He does so however He pleases (Ps. 115:3).

From a human perspective, of course, God sometimes appears to change His plans or His actions based on what people do. But this is not so from God’s viewpoint. Because He knows and always has known the future perfectly, having planned it according to His unalterable decree, He always acts in the way that He planned to act from eternity past. While men do not know how God will act, and are sometimes astonished as they see His sovereign plans unfold, God is never surprised. He continues to work as He always has, according to His eternal purpose and good pleasure (cf. Ps. 33:10-12; Isa. 48:14; Dan. 4:35; Col. 1:19-20).

With respect to mankind, God predetermined to redeem a people for His own glory. Nothing can thwart that plan (John 10:29; Rom. 8:38-39). Perfect knowledge, perfect uninfluenced freedom, and perfect limitless power to accomplish all He perfectly willed—absolute holiness and moral perfection binding Him to be truthful and faithful to His Word—mean that what God set out to do before time began, He is doing and will complete after time is gone.

This sweeping, glorious intention of God has been revealed in the Bible and understood clearly through the history of the redeemed. The Word of God has disclosed it unmistakably, and since the completion of the canon of Scripture, all accurate interpreters of the Bible have believed and proclaimed the God-glorifying doctrine of sovereign, unchanging divine purpose. This truth, often called the doctrines of grace, began in the sovereign determination of God in eternity past.

God cannot change, His Word cannot change, and His purpose cannot change. His truth is the same because He is the Truth (cf. Ps. 119:160; John 17:17; Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18). In contrast to the so-called Openness of God theology, which claims that God does not know the future and therefore must adapt to circumstances as they unfold, the Bible presents God as the all-knowing Sovereign of all events, past, present, and future. In the words of Isaiah 46:9b-10:

I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, “My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose.”

Divine Justice and the Doctrine of Election
In spite of the clarity with which Scripture addresses this topic, many professing Christians today struggle with acceptance of God’s sovereignty—especially when it comes to His electing work in salvation. Their most common protest, of course, is that the doctrine of election is unfair. But such an objection stems from a human idea of fairness rather than the objective, divine understanding of true justice. In order to appropriately address the issue of election, we must set aside all human considerations and focus on the nature of God and His righteous standard. Divine justice is where the discussion must begin.

What is divine justice? Simply stated, it is an essential attribute of God whereby He infinitely, perfectly, and independently does exactly what He wants to do when and how He wants to do it. Because He is the standard of justice, by very definition, whatever He does is inherently just. As William Perkins said, many years ago, “We must not think that God doeth a thing because it is good and right, but rather is the thing good and right because God willeth it and worketh it.”

Therefore, God defines for us what justice is, because He is by nature just and righteous, and what He does reflects that nature. His free will—and nothing else—is behind His justice. This means that whatever He wills is just; and it is just, not because of any external standard of justice, but simply because He wills it.

Because the justice of God is an outflow of His character, it is not subject to fallen human assumptions of what justice should be. The Creator owes nothing to the creature, not even what He is graciously pleased to give. God does not act out of obligation and compulsion, but out of His own independent prerogative. That is what it means to be God. And because He is God, His freely determined actions are intrinsically right and perfect.

To say that election is unfair is not only inaccurate, it fails to recognize the very essence of true fairness. That which is fair, right, and just is that which God wills to do. Thus, if God wills to choose those whom He will save, it is inherently fair for Him to do so. We cannot impose our own ideas of fairness onto our understanding of God’s working. Instead, we must go to the Scriptures to see how God Himself, in His perfect righteousness, decides to act.

To be continued…

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FOU04_book_3d_web.jpg“Divine Immutability and the Doctrines of Grace” is the title of Dr. John MacArthur’s Foreword to Dr. Steven J. Lawson’s Foundations of Grace. This essay, reflecting on the unchanging nature of God and the glory of his sovereignty, is more than an introduction to Dr. Lawson’s book—it is a theological tour de force in its own right. We are pleased to duplicate it here and are convinced that you will benefit from reading it.