Friday, December 6, 2013

Sovereignty, 2b: Immutable Attributes - Does God "Change" If He Is Merciful One Moment and Just the Next?

We saw in our last post that God’s very essence cannot and will not ever change. He cannot be greater than He already is and He will never depreciate in any way, even from within Himself in what could be thought of as a neutral or lateral change. It is as simple as the fact that we do change. Just as simple as that is, we ought to be able to understand that God simply doesn’t change, nor is he susceptible or vulnerable to change by any external force – neither death, life, angels, powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to change God. That is why none of these things will be able to separate us from his love – His adoring attribute, as detailed in Romans 8:31-39.

How can we know for sure that the attributes of God don’t change? Is that to mean He feels all emotions at the same time like someone who never knows what to feel at the right time? Not exactly. Is it that he does change in one regard if he shifts from a judgmental disposition to a merciful one? Or a condemning one to a commending one? Wouldn’t these attributes be manifested differently depending on the prayers of the saints, or the circumstances with which men find themselves in?

These questions are based on flawed assumptions. If God was not omniscient or omnipotent, then perhaps He would have to re-­act to circumstances, rather than having been pro-active in determining the circumstances in the first place. Further, if God had a will that could be imposed on by ours, then perhaps prayers would actually change His mind rather than Him causing men to pray within the eternal will of His immutable Self. That men have actually reversed the original intention of God through prayer has never happened, nor will it. For a helpful look at the point of prayer, in light of God’s eternality, omniscience and immutability, see my post: "If God's Will Doesn't Change, Is Prayer Pointless?"

The study of God’s sovereignty is no small chore and if we could sum up everything about God and His sovereignty in a series of blog posts, then He clearly wouldn’t be an infinite and eternal God. However, we know He is! And so, we take what has once for all been delivered down to us to see what the Holy Spirit has revealed in the pages of Scripture, which is sufficient to equip thoroughly and to build up the body of Christ, so that we may know God and have life in His Name.

A diligent study of God’s nature and character will only elevate our thoughts about God, which is what the Church desperately needs. The higher the mountain of our thoughts and belief of God, the more impossible it will be for the Devil-pricked philosophies and mentalities to scale it. Our thoughts of God could never be too high. As A. W. Tozer rightly said, “The first step down for any church is taken when it surrenders its high opinion of God.” This moves us to study Scripture, so that our opinions of God are accurate, being Biblically based. Tozer believed that there were answers in Scripture that were both full and satisfying saying, “While the name of God is secret and His essential nature incomprehensible, He in condescending love has by revelation declared certain things to be true of Himself. These we call His attributes.”

So the question of the day is: Can God’s attributes change?

In order to approach this properly, we need to remember God’s eternality. He was here before all creation and time as He was the Creator that made it happen. Speaking of the oneness of God the Father with the Son, the Apostle Paul said that “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” Paul’s conclusion? “That in everything He might be preeminent” (Col. 1:15-18). That is to say, first in, or before, all things, be it succession, rank, time, etc.

John Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, “From the power of God we are naturally led to consider his eternity, since that from which all other things derive their origin must necessarily be self-existent and eternal” (Book 1, Chap. 5, Sec. 6).

God has also made it known to us that He has a predetermined plan in the world (Eph. 1:4; Acts 17:26). This will continue to come up through our studies, as it should, for God would certainly not be able to have a predetermined plan if He were subject to change in any way. By the very nature of God – His omniscience, omnipotence and immutability – we are forced into the corner of recognition that God would have to have a predetermined plan for everything with that kind of sovereignty. Being all-knowing alone demands it. He either knows everything that is going to happen, or He doesn’t know everything. The only way for any being to have knowledge of all future events, is to orchestrate them itself. Such it is with God.

All at once, God is all. He is all of His attributes all at once, which is why we sing of Him being our All in All! The Latin word for “all” is “Omni”, hence the way in which we describe His attributes. This is about as good as a finite mind could express our God of infiniteness. And being that God is eternal, having always been in existence without having been created by anything, we can count on the fact that God will remain eternal and immutably so – without any variation or shadow due to change (James 1:17).

All of this must be established in order to have a chance at understanding and believing that the more specific attributes of God are also immutable, such as His mercy & justice, love & wrath, etc. How can God be unchangeable if He, Himself, being these things (i.e. God is love), is also someone who exercises justice and sends unrepentant sinners to Hell? Does He shift a few degrees to the left or right depending on the situation? Isn’t that considered a type of change?

This only seems impossible to answer if our assumption is that mercy and justice are always at odds with each other and cannot coexist fully at the same time. God is always a God of mercy and of justice and, as A. W. Pink once said, His sovereignty determines how it is exercised, for He will have mercy on whom He will have mercy (Ex. 33:19 & Rom. 9:15-18). Where we must stop in our attempt at explaining God is in demanding an answer to “why?” from God. As Paul says about this very temptation, “Who are you, oh man, to answer back to God” (Rom. 9:20)?

This difficult reconciliation of justice and mercy can be better explained in this way: If God were only a God of justice and not a God of mercy, we would all be sent to Hell. Our sin has easily earned us a spot there. If God were only a God of mercy and not of justice, then sin would never be punished and all of human-kind would suffer immensely since the only way to know what justice looks like is to have it existent in the ultimate Judge. The problem of sin would never be rectified since it could never be dealt with…only winked at by God – an absurd possibility! God must be just and merciful all at the same time according to His will. Having mercy on a few does not mean He is not all-merciful based on the fact that all of human kind did not receive mercy; rather He is all-merciful to the few He chose.
Let’s not stop there. Even in God’s selection of whom He has mercy unto eternal life, it would not be right to say that not one person has every experienced the mercy of God, for when the punishment for sin is death, it is obvious in our wicked world that many reprobate minds are experiencing a temporal mercy of God in the time they have to repent of sin. Paul warns us, though, in Romans, not to presume on this gracious gift:

“Do you suppose, O man […] that you will escape the judgment of God?  Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?  But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom. 2:3-5).

You see? Even the wicked experience the grace and mercy of God – every day they aren’t rightly killed by Him. God is indeed all-merciful and just, all at the same time.

Calvin also commented on this temporal mercy of God: “When any one crime calls forth visible manifestations of His anger, it must be because He hates all crimes; and, on the other hand, his leaving many crimes unpunished, only proves that there is a judgment in reserve, when the punishment now delayed shall be inflicted. In like manner, how richly does He supply with the means of contemplating his mercy, when, as frequently happens, he continues to visit miserable sinners with unwearied kindness, until He subdues their depravity, and woos them back with more than a parent’s fondness?”

Jonathan Edwards once said: “This world is all the Hell that a true Christian is to ever endure, and it is all the Heaven that unbelievers shall ever enjoy.” How true it is when we are extended life when it is not deserved. It should be the conviction of every true Christian to tell people about the temporary mercy of God they are already getting, but the coming Judgment that will once and for all come down on anyone who doesn’t yield to God’s kindness leading us to repentance. Christ was the substitutionary death for us!

Tozer talked about the archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm, and his findings when studying the justice and mercy of God. According to Tozer, “Anselm’s findings may be paraphrased this way: God’s being is unitary; it is not composed of a number of parts working harmoniously, but simply one. There is nothing in His justice which forbids the exercise of His mercy. To think of God as we sometimes think of a court where a kindly judge, compelled by law, sentences a man to death with tears and apologies, is to think in a manner wholly unworthy of the true God. God is never at cross-purposes with Himself. No attribute of God is in conflict with another.”

I will end this segment with another human example. There is a story of then Governor George W. Bush who had a difficult decision on his hands as a professing Christian in public office. A middle aged female criminal was tried and found guilty of serious crimes warranting the death penalty. While on death row, in prison, she allegedly placed in her faith in Christ, repenting of her sin and obvious immorality. Some of the public desired to see her released as she seemed to have been genuinely saved by God. Even Bush’s own family urged him to let her go. In Bush’s conviction of justice and mercy, He did not lift the penalty. He stated it was his responsibility to exercise justice as the Governor in power, but that if she was a Christian she would only experience the eternal mercy of God sooner than she ever thought.

Everyone experiences some level of mercy and grace of God, but it is to allow us time to repent of sin and start living obedient lives to God in anticipation of the glory of Heaven where God’s mercy is shown in the presence of His people and His justice is satisfied and shown in the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ, who graciously paid the penalty of sin for us. This drives the saints to their knees in thankfulness and worship. It is surely in the marvelous truth of God's immutability that we can find peace that surpasses understanding!

To be continued…