« Prev Sermon CXXXII. The Unchangeableness of God. Next »



With whom is no variableness, nor shadow of turning.
James i. 17.

The whole period runs thus:

Do not err, my beloved brethren: every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comet h down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, nor shadow of turning.

THE connexion and dependance of these words upon the former is briefly this: the apostle had asserted before, that God is not the author of sin and evil; (ver. 13, 14.) “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God, for God is not tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man: but every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed/ And here in the text he asserts, that God is the fountain and author of all good; “Do not err, my beloved brethren;” as if he had said, Do not mistake me, though sin and evil be not from God, but from ourselves, and our own corrupt hearts; yet all good is from God, and not from ourselves; though we be the authors of the sins we commit, yet we are not so of the good that we do, that is from God; “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights.” Sin, which is nothing but evil and imperfection, is not from God, but wholly from ourselves; whatever is good and perfect, is not from ourselves, 345but from God; we are neither inclined to that which is good, nor are able of ourselves to perform it; both the inclination and the power are from God, who is the fountain of goodness and perfection, and can never be otherwise, and can never change nor cease to be so, for “with him is no variableness, nor shadow of turning.”

“Every good gift, and every perfect gift;” all that goodness, and all those degrees of perfection which are in the creatures, in the highest angels or saints, in the best of the sons of men, whatever there is of excellency and perfection, of goodness or happiness, in any of them, “is from above;” that is, from heaven; it is the gift of God, and cometh down from that perfect, good, and glorious Being, whom the apostle here calls “the Father of lights;” in allusion to the sun, which is a kind of universal benefactor to the world, and liberally dispenseth his light and heat and influence upon all things here below; but then there is this difference—the sun changeth its habitudes and positions in reference to us, and varies its shadows; it rises and sets, comes nearer to us, and goes farther from us; but it is otherwise with this intellectual and immaterial sun, “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variableness, nor shadow of turning;” παραλλαγὴ ἤ τροπῆς ἀποσκίασμα, which are all astronomical words; the first, παραλλαγὴ, signifies the various habitudes and positions wherein the sun appears to us every day, at its rising, in the meridian, and when it sets; τροπὴ is a word which belongs not to the daily, but to the yearly course of the sun, which is nearer to us, or farther from us, as he approacheth nearer towards the northern or southern tropics; and hence it is that it casts several shadows to people in several 346countries; and agreeably to this, the word ἀποσκίασμα, “casting of shadows,” being joined with signifies, the variation of the shadows according to the course and motion of the sun.

But God is an eternal spring of light, which never riseth or sets, which hath no mixture of shadow nor darkness, hath no changes nor variations, but is al ways the same free and liberal dispenser of good things to his creatures; “the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, nor shadow of turning;” which words signify, the immutable perfection and goodness of the Divine nature; which shall (by God’s assistance) be the subject of my present discourse; in which I shall proceed in this method:

1st, I shall briefly explain what is meant by the immutability or unchangeableness of the Divine nature.

2dly, I shall shew that this is a perfection essential to God, to be immutably what he is; that is, good and perfect.

3dly, I shall answer an objection which lies against it, from the mention so often made in Scripture of God’s repenting himself, And,

4thly, Apply the consideration of it to ourselves.

I. For the explication of it. By the immutability of God, we mean, that he always is, and was, and to all eternity will be, the same; that he under goes no changes either of his essence and being, or of his properties and perfections. In reference to the unchangeableness of his being, he is said to be “eternal, incorruptible, and only to have immortality.” In reference to his perfections, he is always the same infinitely wise, and good, and powerful, and holy, and just being; from whence it follows, that he is constant and immutable in all his decrees 347and councils, his purposes and promises. We are uncertain and mutable in our very nature and beings, and in all those qualities and perfections which be long to us, in all our purposes, resolutions, and actions; we are continually growing or decreasing in this or that quality, and do frequently change from one extreme to another, from that which is more perfect, to the contrary; now knowing, and then ignorant; sometimes wise, and oftener foolish, stronger and weaker, better or worse, as it happens, and as we order ourselves, continually waxing or waning in our knowledge and wisdom, and goodness and power; we frequently change our minds, and alter our purposes, and break our promises, and contradict our firmest and most serious resolutions, and speak a thing and do it not, say it, and do not bring it to pass: but God is everlastingly the same in all his perfections, constant to his intentions, steady to his purposes, immutably fixed and persevering in all his decrees and resolutions. I proceed to the

II. Second thing I proposed; namely, To shew that this perfection is essential to God, to be unchangeably what he is. And this I shall endeavour to make manifest both from natural reason, and from the Divine revelation of the Holy Scriptures.

1. From the dictates of natural reason; which tells us, that nothing argues greater weakness and imperfection than inconstancy and change. This is the great vanity of all creatures, that they are uncertain, and do not long continue in one state; this is the vanity of the world in general, that “the fashion of it passeth away;” and of man in particular, that he is liable to so many natural changes, by age, and diseases, and death; for which reason he 348is said by the Psalmist to be, “in his best estate, altogether vanity;” and that he is liable to so many moral changes, to be deluded and deceived in his understanding, and to alter his opinion so often, to be so fickle in his will, and to change so often his purposes and resolutions, according to the alteration or appearance of things. We attribute change and inconstancy to persons of the weakest age and understanding; as children, who are liable to be “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind,” as the apostle speaks, (Eph. iv. 14.)

Now if the Divine nature were subject to change, this would cast an universal cloud upon all the Divine perfections, and obscure all other excellences, and make them “like the flower of the field,” which, how gay and glorious soever, is fading and perishing; and the greater the Divine perfections are, the greater imperfection would mutability be; for, as the corruption of the best things is the worst, so the better any thing is, so much the worse it would be to have it liable to corruption and change.

And, as mutability in God would darken all his other perfections, so would it take away the foundation and comfort of all religion; the ground of our faith, and hope, and fear, of our love and esteem of God, would be quite taken away. We could have no great honour or esteem for a being that is fickle and inconstant; if his power and justice were uncertain, his threatenings would, in a great measure, lose their awe and force; if his truth and faithfulness could fail, no promises and declarations, how gracious soever, would be any security or firm ground of trust and confidence.

And this reasoning is not the result of Divine revelation, but clearly founded in the natural notions 349and suggestions of our minds; as will appear by citing one or two testimonies to this purpose, of those who had no other guide but natural light. Plato, in his Phaedo, inquires, “Whether the Most Perfect (that is, God) be always the same, or some times thus, and sometimes otherwise? that is (saith he), whether that which is equality, and goodness, and bounty itself, receives any the least change at any time, and be not constant and uniform, and of itself always the same, Καὶ οὐδαμῆ ιὐδαμῶς ἀλλοίωσιν οὐδεμίαν ἐνδέχεται, and is never, in any wise, upon any account, subject to any change or alteration what soever?” To which he answers, “That it is necessary that he should be the same always alike.” And (lib. 2. de Repub.) where he lays down the fundamental laws and constitutions of religion, he mentions these two (which, one would almost think, he borrowed from St. James, but that he lived so long before him); viz. First, “That God is the cause of all good, and in no wise of any evil;” answerably to what our apostle here asserts, that “God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man; but that every good and perfect gift is from him.” Secondly, “That God doth not deceive us, by making various representations of himself to us; some times in one form, and sometimes in another; for he is unchangeable, and always the same, and can not, τῆς ἐαυτοῦ ἰδέας ἐκβαίνειν, pass out of his own idea or be any other than what he is.” Which he further confirms by this excellent reasoning: “That which is the best and most perfect being, is not liable to any alteration; but such a being is God, and therefore he cannot be changed by any thing that is weaker and less perfect than himself, and he cannot will to change himself; for, if he should, it 350must either be for the better, or for the worse: it cannot be for the better; for, being already possessed of all perfection, there can be no accession of any to him by any change; and certainly there is no wise being, as God is, that will change for the worse;” and therefore he concludes, Κάλλιστος καὶ ἄριτος ὢν εἰς τὸ δυνατὸν μένει ἀεὶ ἁπλῶς, καὶ τῇ αὐτοῦ μορφῇ, “That being the goodliest and best being that is possible, he always continues simply the same.” Seneca likewise, speaking of the immutability of God’s counsels, (lib. 6. Benef.) Statuerunt (says he) quae non mutarint, neque unquam primi concilii deos poenitet; “The gods make unchangeable decrees, and never repent them of their first counsel.”

2. This will yet more clearly appear from the Divine revelation of the Holy Scriptures, which tell us, that God is unchangeable in his nature, and in his perfections, in all his decrees, and purposes, and promises; in his essence and being: (Exod. iii. 14.) “I am that I am;” this is his name, whereby he made known himself to the comfort of his people, and to the terror of the Egyptians, their oppressors: (Psal. xc. 2.) “From everlasting to everlasting thou art God.” (Psal. cii. 27.) “Thou art the same, and thy years fail not.” (Mai. iii. 6.) “I am the Lord, and change not.” Hence it is, that the title of “the living God” is so frequently attributed to him; and he swears by this, as denoting not only his eternity, but his unchangeableness: “As I live, saith the Lord.” Hither, likewise, we may refer those texts where he is called the “incorruptible God.” (Rom. i. 23.) “The immortal king,” (1 Tim. i. 17.) and is said “only to have immortality,” (1 Tim. vi. 16.) And he is immutable likewise in his perfections; hence it is so often said in the Psalms, that “his 351goodness and his mercy endure for ever:” his righteousness is likewise said to “endure for ever;” (Psal. cxi. 3.)and (Ps. xxxvi. 6.) to be “like the great mountains;” not only visible and conspicuous, but firm and immoveable: and the same, likewise, is said of his truth and faithfulness; (Psal. cxvii. 2.) “His truth endureth for ever:” and of his power; (Isa. xxvi. 4.) “In the Lord Jehovah is everlasting strength.”

And so likewise in his decrees, and purposes, and promises; (Psal. xxxiii. 11.) “The counsel of the Lord standeth for ever, and the thoughts of his heart to all generations.” (Isa. xiv. 24.) “Surely as I have thought, so shall it come to pass; and as I have purposed, so shall it stand.” (Numb. xxiii. 19.) “God is not a man that he should lie, or as the son of man, that he should repent: hath he spoken, and shall not he do it? hath he said it, and shall not he bring it to pass?” If he hath made any promise, or entered into any covenant with us, it is firm and immutable. (Psal. lxxxix. 33.) “He will not suffer his faithfulness to fail, his covenant will he not break, nor alter the thing that is gone out of his lips.” His covenant and his promise are in themselves immutable; but for our further assurance, God hath given us his oath, the highest sign of immutability; so the apostle to the Hebrews tells us, (chap. vi. 18.) “That by two immutable things (viz. his promise and his oath), in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who are fled for refuge to the hope which is set before us.” I proceed to the

III. Third thing I promised; which is, To answer an objection, which may seem to lie against what hath been said, from the mention so often made in Scripture, of God’s repenting himself; as, Gen. vi. 6. 352where it is said, that it repented God that he had made man:” (1 Sam. xv. 11.) that “he repented that he had made Saul king.” And (2 Sam. xxiv. 16.) “when the angel had stretched out his hand over Jerusalem to destroy it,” it is said, that “the Lord repented him of the evil.” And Psal. cxxxv. 14. the Lord saith there, that “he will repent himself concerning his servants.”

To all which I answer, That this expression of God’s repentance, we are to understand (as many others in Scripture) after the manner of men, and as spoken by way of condescension and accommodation to our weakness and capacity, and not as casting any imputation of mutability and inconstancy upon God; as if, out of levity, or for want of foresight, he did alter his mind: but when God is said to repent “that he made man,” or “that he made Saul king,” the change was not in him, but them; and it signifies, not that God was absolutely deceived in his expectation, but that things had fallen out contrary to all reasonable expectation; and therefore, the Scripture clothes God with the human passion of repenting and grieving for what he had done, as men use to do when they are greatly disappointed, and fall short of their expectation.

And as for the other instances, wherein God is said to repent him of evils threatened; the expression only signifies thus much, that God doth not execute that which seemed to us to have been his peremptory purpose and resolution; that is, he is pleased to do otherwise than his threatenings seemed openly to express, because of some tacit condition implied in it, which he did not think fit to acquaint us with. And this doth not at all derogate from 353(he constancy and immutability of God: for when God did threaten, he spake what he did really purpose and intend, if something did not intervene to prevent the judgment threatened, upon which he was resolved, at that time when he threatened, to be taken off, and to stay his hand: and in thus doing, God doth not mutare consilium, sed sententiam; he doth not change his inward counsel and purpose, but takes off the sentence, which was passed with reserved conditions, and unknown to us, on purpose to urge us the more effectually to repentance

And that God usually reserves such conditions, not only in his threatenings, but sometimes also in his promises, appears from that remarkable text—(Jer. xviii. 7-10.) “At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; if that nation against whom I have pronounced, turn from the evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them: at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; if it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good wherewith I said I would benefit them.” And from this very consideration, the same prophet encourageth the people to repentance; (Jer. xxvi. 13.) “Therefore, now amend your ways, and your doings, and obey the voice of the Lord your God, and the Lord will repent him of the evil he hath pronounced against you.” And we have a famous instance of this in the case of Nineveh, the destruction whereof within forty days after, God had openly proclaimed by his prophet; yet he stops the execution of the sentence, upon their repentance; (Jonah iii. 10.) “The men of Nineveh 354turned from their evil ways, and the Lord repented of the evil he said he would do unto them, and he did it not.”

All that now remains, is to apply this doctrine of the immutability of the Divine nature to ourselves; and the consideration of it may serve to several good purposes, both in reference to bad and good men.

First, In regard to sinners and wicked men.

And, first, The unchangeableness of God is matter of great terror to wicked men. Let but the sinner consider what God is, and the consideration of his unchangeable nature must needs terrify him: “He is a holy God, and of purer eyes than to be hold iniquity;” (Hab. i. 13.) “He is not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness, neither shall evil dwell with him: the foolish shall not stand in his sight, he hateth all the workers of iniquity;” (Psal. v. 4, 5.) He is likewise a just God, and “will by no means clear the guilty,” nor let sin go unpunished; (Exod. xxxiv. 7.) He is also omnipotent, and able to execute the vengeance threatened against sinners: “Who knoweth the power of thine anger?” (Psal. xc. 11.) “Thou, even thou, art to be feared; and who may stand in thy sight when once thou art angry?” (Psal. lxxvi. 7.) “Strong is the Lord God who judgeth;” (Rev. xviii. 8.) And, which gives a sad accent to all this, he that is thus holy, and just, and powerful, continues for ever the same, and will never alter or put off any of these properties, will never cease to hate iniquity, and to be an implacable enemy to all impenitent sinners: and is it not “a fearful thing to fall into the hands of” this holy, and just, and omnipotent God, who lives for ever, and can punish for ever? Let all obstinate sinners hear 355this, and tremble: you cannot be more obstinately bent to continue in your wicked ways, than God is peremptorily resolved to make you miserable. If you be determined upon a sinful course, God is also determined how he will deal with you; that he will not spare, but that “his anger and jealousy shall smoke against you,” and that all the curses that are written in his book shall light upon you, and that he “will blot out your name from under heaven;” he hath sworn in his wrath, that unbelieving and impenitent sinners “shall not enter into his rest:” and, for the greater assurance of the thing, and that we may not think that there is any condition implied in these threatenings, he hath confirmed them by art oath; that by this “immutable sign, in which it is impossible for God to lie,” sinners might have strong terrors, and not be able to fly to any, in hopes of refuge.

Secondly, The consideration of God’s unchangeableness, should likewise be a very powerful argument to urge sinners to repentance. If they will but leave their sins, and turn to him, they will find him ready to receive them, upon their repentance and submission; for “he is a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and ready to forgive;” he is unchangeably good, and “his mercy endureth for ever:” but if they will not come in, and submit to these terms, there is nothing before them but ruin and destruction; nothing then remains but a “fearful looking-for of judgment, and fiery indignation to consume them.” God hath declared to us the terms of our pardon and peace: and if we will not come up to them, he is at a point, he cannot change his nature, nor will he alter the terms of his covenant: there is a perfect and eternal opposition 356between the holy nature of God, and an impenitent sinner; and it is impossible such an one should be happy till this opposition be removed; and to do that, there are but two ways imaginable, by changing God, or by changing ourselves. The nature of God is fixed and unalterable; God cannot recede from his own pure nature; therefore, we must depart from our sinful and corrupt nature. God can not quit his holiness; therefore, we must leave our sins: we can have no hope to change God; therefore, we must change ourselves. Rectify, sinner, thine own corrupt nature, and renounce thy lusts; do not venture upon impossibilities; rather think of altering thy sinful nature, which may be changed, than of altering the Divine nature, which is essentially immutable, “with whom is no variableness, nor shadow of turning.” God hath once condescended so far as to take our nature upon him, to make us capable of happiness: but if this will not do, he can go no lower; he will not, he cannot, put off his own nature to make us happy.

Secondly, In reference to good men, the consideration of God’s unchangeableness, is matter of great consolation to them; in all the changes and vicissitudes of the world, their main comfort and hope is built upon a rock, “the rock of ages,” as the expression is in the prophet Isaiah; (chap. xxvi. 4.) it relies upon the unchangeable goodness and faithfulness of God, “all whose promises are yea, and amen,” truth and certainty. All other supports and hopes may fail us: but “God will not suffer his faithfulness to fail; his covenant will he not break, nor alter the thing which is gone out of his lips,” as the Psalmist assures us, (Psal. lxxxix. 33.) Men may break their word, and be less than their promises; 357but “God is faithful, who hath promised to give grace and glory, and to withhold no good thing from them that walk uprightly.” “He is not as man, that he should lie, or as the son of man, that he should repent. Hath he spoken, and shall he not do it? Hath he said it, and shall not he bring it to pass?”

If there be any thing that hath the appearance of a change in God, it is usually on the merciful side; as when he stops the execution of his threatenings, upon the repentance of a sinful nation, as in that remarkable text which I mentioned before: (Jer. xviii. 7, 8.) “At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; if that nation against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them:” and so, likewise, when his faithful people and servants are in great distress, and there is no visible help and means of relief; in this case, likewise, God is said to repent, and to appear for their rescue; (Deut. xxxii. 36.) “The Lord shall judge his people, and repent himself for his servants, when he seeth that their power is gone/

Thus we should comfort ourselves in the greatest extremities, with the consideration of the immutable goodness and faithfulness of God. The things of the world are mutable, and the men of the world; even those things which seem most constant, as the heavens; and to be settled upon the surest foundations, as the earth; yet these shall be changed: (Psal. cii. 25-27.) “Of old hast thou laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of thy hands: they shall perish, but thou 358shalt endure; all of them shall wax old like a garment; as a vesture shalt thou change them, and they shall be changed: but thou art the same, and thy years shall have no end.” From whence the Psalm ist infers this comfort to the church and people of God; (ver. 28.) “The children of thy servants shall continue, and their seed shall be established before thee.”

Nothing that is mutable can be a solid foundation of comfort and confidence. Men are inconstant, and riches are uncertain, and all other things which men commonly trust to; and therefore, the apostle chargeth them that are rich in this world, not to trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God. He only, that lives for ever, is a firm foundation of hope and confidence.

When God would comfort the Israelites in Egypt under their great oppression, he bids Moses only to declare to them his immutability; (Exod. iii. 14.) “Say unto them, I am that I am hath sent me unto you/ And this is the great comfort of Christians, that he who is their Saviour and their hope, is “the same yesterday, to-day and for ever:” “he that was, and that is, and that is to come,” in all durations the same.

We are continually changing, and are not the same we were; some of us were young, and now are old; once, perhaps, flourished in great prosperity, but now are poor and needy; were once strong and healthful, but no\v sickly and weak: it should comfort us in all these changes, that God is still the same, and he alone is instead of all other comforts and supports: when all other things fail, we may “rejoice in the Lord, and joy in the God of our salvation.” Youth, and health, and riches, and 359friends may forsake us; but God hath promised, that he “will never leave us, nor forsake us;” that he will not leave us when we are old, nor forsake us when our strength faileth; when our strength fails, and our heart fails, then is he the strength of our hearts, and our portion for ever; and when our great change shall come, and the terrors of death shall take hold of us, we have still the same comfort, “the Lord liveth, and blessed be the God of our salvation.”

In a word, the consideration of God’s immutability, should keep us fixed and unmoved in all the changes and accidents of this world, and not apt to be startled and surprised at them; according to that of the Psalmist, “He shall not be afraid of evil tidings, because his heart is fixed, trusting in God.” This should make us constant to him and his truth, “steadfast and unmoveable, and always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as we know that our labour shall not be in vain in the Lord;” it should make us “hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering,” in full assurance that God will be as good to us as his word, and in a firm hope and persuasion of” that eternal life which God, that cannot lie, hath promised.”

« Prev Sermon CXXXII. The Unchangeableness of God. Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection