Category Archives: Theology Proper (The Study of God)
SERIES: GENESIS – PART 3
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
When we say that Genesis is to be understood historically—as fact rather than fiction—we do not mean that we can understand it fully just because we are historical creatures. Genesis is history, but some of it is beyond us. This is nowhere more apparent than in its first four words.
I say “four words.” But in the Hebrew the words corresponding to our phrase “In the beginning God” are just two: Berasheth … Elohim. Yet, as the late distinguished physicist Arthur Compton once said, these words are “the most tremendous ever penned” (Quoted by Herschel H. Hobbs. The Origin of All Things: Studies in Genesis. Waco, Texas: Word, 1975, 9). Another scholar, John Gerstner, of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, has written that even if all other evidences for the doctrine were lacking, “the first four words of the Book of Genesis are sufficient proof of the Bible’s inspiration” (John Gerstner, “Man as God Made Him,” in Our Savior: Man, Christ, and the Atonement, ed. James Boice. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980, 20). Why? It is because of the statement’s profundity. The ancient Jewish people were not scientists. They were not even profound theologians or philosophers. So the fact that a relatively primitive people have bequeathed us a book embodying the most profound wisdom—the case with these opening words, as well as other passages—should convince us at the beginning that the book has been given to us by God.
In his study of this verse, Gerstner reflects on a statement made one day in his high school physics class. The professor said, “The greatest question which has ever been asked is why there is something rather than nothing.” At the time the young student was impressed. But he gradually came to see that this is not a profound question at all. In fact, it is not even a true question. Because if nothing really is nothing, then nothing defies conception and the choice vanishes. What is “nothing”? If you think you can answer that question, you are the person least qualified to answer it. As soon as you say, “Nothing is … ,” nothing ceases to be nothing and becomes something. “Nothing is what the sleeping rocks dream of,” said Jonathan Edwards. Therefore, as Gerstner observes, “Anyone who thinks he knows what nothing is must have those rocks in his head” (Ibid).
What was “in the beginning”? If the alternative is between God and nothing, there is really no choice. For nothing is nothing, and we are left with the statement “In the beginning God.”
We must deal with an objection. Some modern translations of Genesis begin differently from the New International Version and the King James Version, and the casual reader as well as the technical scholar might therefore ask whether everything we have said so far is wrongheaded. In some modern translations the opening words of Genesis are treated as a dependent or temporal clause rather than an independent clause, which changes the statement from an affirmation that God was in the beginning before all things to a statement that at some indefinite point in the past both God and matter existed and that God then began to form matter into the universe we know today. We see this translation in a footnote to the Revised Standard Version, which reads, “When God began to create. …” We see it in the New English Bible: “In the beginning of creation, when God made heaven and earth. …” Even the Living Bible says, “When God began creating the heavens and the earth, the earth was at first a shapeless, chaotic mass. …”
The implications of these translations are clear. Whether or not they are accurate—we will come to that question in a moment—they clearly deny (or at least overlook) an absolute creation. They make matter preexistent and therefore do not give us an absolute beginning at all.
What shall we say about this interpretation? It is a possible translation, otherwise we would not have it in even some of our Bibles. The word bereʾshith can be taken as a construct. But the fact that this is a possible translation does not mean that it is correct. In fact, when we begin to look into the matter deeply there are several reasons why the older translation should be preferred.
First, there is the normal simplicity of the Hebrew sentence. If the opening clause of Genesis 1 is dependent, then the sentence actually concludes in verse 3 where God speaks and light comes into existence. This means that the sentence is quite long, possessing not one but two subordinate parts (the second being a multiple subordinate clause), and the real flow of the sentence would be: “When God began to create the heavens and the earth—the earth being at that time formless and empty, darkness being over the surface of the deep, and the spirit of God hovering over the waters—God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” This is unlike a true Hebrew sentence, especially an introductory sentence. It is often the case in German that a series of dependent clauses will begin a sentence and the verb will come twenty or thirty words later at the end, a feature of the language that Mark Twain once described as “falling down stairs.” But this is not the case with Hebrew. Certainly there are dependent clauses. But these are not complex, and one is hard-pressed to believe that, in this case especially, a complicated initial sentence is intended to begin the simple and classically straightforward account of creation that occurs in this chapter. Julius Wellhausen was no conservative—he was, in fact, one of the key figures in the development of the documentary theory of the Pentateuch—but he called the translation we are objecting to “desperate” (E.J. Young, In The Beginning. Young discusses the translation on pages 20-25. He offers a more technical treatment in Studies in Genesis One, “An International Library of Philosophy and Theology,” Philadelphia: P&R, 1976, 1-14).
Second, as has often been shown, the word “create” (the second word of the sentence in Hebrew) is used of God alone and characteristically refers to his bringing into being something that is entirely new. Of course, God also forms things from existing material, but when that happens another word (usually “make” or “made”) is used. “Create” refers to the production of new things from nothing. It is an inappropriate word if the creation referred to in these verses is merely the formation of the earth from preexistent matter.
Third, Genesis is a book of beginnings. But in telling us of these beginnings it has clearly failed at the most crucial point if, in fact, the best it can say is that at the very start matter just happened to be around.
Why is it that so many modern scholars and even some translators prefer to subordinate the first clause? E. J. Young suggests that the real reason is that the Babylonian Epic of Creation, which I referred to in the last sermon, begins this way and that these scholars have a prejudicial desire to have the Genesis account conform to it. The Babylonian account begins: “When on high the heavens were not named, and below the earth had not a name. …” It goes on in that vein for seven lines, introduces another temporal clause, and then gets to the main clause. By subordinating the opening clauses of Genesis 1, the scholars succeed in making Genesis somewhat parallel to the Babylonian account. But, as I have argued, Genesis does not begin that way. It begins by speaking of that absolute beginning of all things, which is God, and then provides us with the most profound insight into the question of origins. It overwhelms us with the profoundly simple statement: “In the beginning God.”
A Set of Denials
The phrase also instructs us concerning the nature of God who alone is the origin of all things. It suggests some negative statements and some positive statements.
The clearest negative statement is the denial of atheism. If God was in the beginning, then there was and is a God. How can it be otherwise? To say less would be to say God is dependent on creation, being subject to the same laws, and therefore could not be at the beginning of creation as Genesis says he was.
A second denial is materialism. When the text says that God was in the beginning, before creation, it sets him apart from creation and therefore apart from the matter of which all else is made. Ours is not an entirely materialistic universe. Moreover, since God created matter, matter did not always exist, which is what a true philosophy of materialism teaches.
Finally, the opening statements of Genesis deny pantheism. Pantheism is the philosophy that God is in matter or is matter. It underlies most pagan or animalistic religions. But if God created matter, then he is separate from it and is superior to it. Any religion that worships matter is idolatrous.
These and many other false philosophies err because they begin with man or matter and work up to God, if indeed they go so far. But Genesis stands against them all when it begins with God and sets him forth as the originator of all things.
The Bible’s God
It is not only through the suggestion of these negatives about God that Genesis 1:1 instructs us. It also suggests some very important positive characteristics.
First, when Genesis begins with the words “In the beginning God,” it is telling us that God is self-existent. This is not true of anything else. Everything else depends on some other thing or person and ultimately on God. Without these prior causes, the thing would not exist. We recognize this truth when we speak of the laws of “cause and effect.” Every effect must have an adequate cause. But God is the ultimate cause and is himself uncaused. God has no origins; this means: first, that as he is in himself he is unknowable, and second, that he is answerable to no one.
Why should God’s self-existence mean he is unknowable? It is because everything we see, smell, hear, taste, or touch has origins and consequently we can hardly think of anything except in these categories. We argue that anything we observe must have a cause adequate to explain it, and we look for such causes. But if God is the cause beyond everything, then he cannot be explained or known as other objects can. Like Robert Jastrow, whom we quoted in the sermon two weeks ago, A. W. Tozer has pointed out that this is one reason why philosophy and science have not always been friendly toward the idea of God. These disciplines are dedicated to the task of accounting for things and are impatient with anything that refuses to give an account of itself. The scientist will admit that there is much he or she does not know. But it is quite another thing to admit that there is something that we can never know and which, in fact, we do not even have a technique for discovering. To avoid this the scientist may attempt to bring God down to his level, defining him as “natural law,” “evolution,” or some such principle. But God eludes him.
Perhaps, too, this is why even Bible-believing people seem to spend so little time thinking about God’s person and character. Tozer writes, “Few of us have let our hearts gaze in wonder at the I AM, the self-existent Self, back of which no creature can think. Such thoughts are too painful for us. We prefer to think where it will do more good—about how to build a better mousetrap, for instance, or how to make two blades of grass grow where one grew before. And for this we are now paying a too heavy price in the secularization of our religion and the decay of our inner lives” (A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy. New York: Harper & Row, 1961, 34).
God’s self-existence also means that he is not answerable to us, and we do not like that. We want God to give an account of himself, to defend his actions. But while he sometimes explains things to us, he does not have to and often does not. God does not have to explain himself to anyone.
Second, that God existed “in the beginning” means that he is self-sufficient. Self-existence means that God has no origins. Self-sufficiency means that God has no needs and therefore depends on no one. This is not true of us. We depend on countless other things—oxygen, for example. If our supply of oxygen is cut off, even for a few moments, we die. We are also dependent on light and heat and gravity and the laws of nature. If even one of these laws should cease to operate, we would all die immediately. But this is not true of God. These things could go—in fact, everything could go—yet God would still exist.
Here we run counter to a widespread and popular idea of God that says God cooperates with man and man with God, each thereby supplying something lacking in the other. It is imagined, for example, that God lacked glory and created us to supply it. Or again, that God needed love and therefore created us to love him. Some talk about creation as if God were lonely and created us to keep him company. But God does not need us.
God does not need worshipers. Arthur W. Pink, who writes on this theme in The Attributes of God, says, “God was under no constraint, no obligation, no necessity to create. That he chose to do so was purely a sovereign act on his part, caused by nothing outside himself, determined by nothing but his own mere good pleasure; for he ‘worketh all things after the counsel of his own good will’ (Eph. 1:11). That he did create was simply for his manifestative glory. … God is no gainer even from our worship. He was in no need of that external glory of his grace which arises from his redeemed, for he is glorious enough in himself without that. What was it [that] moved him to predestinate his elect to the praise of the glory of his grace? It was, Ephesians 1:5 tells us, ‘according to the good pleasure of his will.’ … The force of this is [that] it is impossible to bring the Almighty under obligations to the creature; God gains nothing from us” (A.W. Pink, The Attributes of God. Grand Rapids: Baker, n.d., 2-3).
Some will conclude that the value of men and women is thereby lessened, but this is not the case. It is merely located where alone it is possible to sustain our value. According to our way of thinking, we have value because of what we imagine we can do for God. This is prideful, foolish, and vain. According to the biblical perspective, we have value because God grants it to us. Our worth is according to the grace of God in creation and to his election of us to salvation.
God does not need helpers. This truth is probably harder for us to accept than almost any other, for we imagine God as a friendly, but almost pathetic grandfather figure, bustling about to see whom he can find to help him in managing the world and saving the world’s race. This is a travesty. To be sure, God has entrusted a work of management to us. He said to the original pair in Eden, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen. 1:28). He has given those who believe on him a commission to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20). But none of these aspects of God’s ordering of his creation has a necessary grounding in himself. He has chosen to do things in this way, but he did not have to. Indeed, he could have done them in any one of a million other ways. That he did choose to do things thus is solely dependent on his own free will and does not give us any inherent value to him.
God does not need defenders. We have opportunities to speak for God before those who would dishonor his name and malign his character. We ought to do so. But even if we do not, we must not think that God is deprived by it. God does not need to be defended, for he is as he is and will remain so regardless of the sinful and arrogant attacks of evil men. A God who needs to be defended is a God who can defend us only when someone is defending him. He is of no use at all. The God of the Bible is the self-existent One who is the true defender of his people.
All this is of great importance, for when we notice that God is the only truly self-sufficient One, we may begin to understand why the Bible has so much to say about the need for faith in God alone and why unbelief in God is such sin. Tozer writes: “Among all created beings, not one dare trust in itself. God alone trusts in himself; all other beings must trust in him. Unbelief is actually perverted faith, for it puts its trust not in the living God but in dying men” (Tozer, KOTH, 42). If we refuse to trust God, what we are actually saying is that either we or some other person or thing is more trustworthy. This is a slander against the character of God, and it is folly, for nothing else is all-sufficient. On the other hand, if we begin by trusting God (by believing on him), then we have a solid foundation for all of life.
Because God is sufficient, we may begin by resting in that sufficiency and so work effectively for him. God does not need us. But the joy of coming to know him is in learning that he nevertheless stoops to work in and through his children.
Third, the truth that God was “in the beginning” means that he is eternal. It means that God is, has always been, and will always be, and that he is ever the same in his eternal being. We discover this attribute of God everywhere in the Bible. Abraham knew God as “the Eternal God” (Gen. 21:33). Moses wrote, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Ps. 90:1–2). The Book of Revelation describes him as “the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End” (Rev. 21:6; cf. 1:8; 22:13). The same book tells us that the four living creatures that surround the throne of God call out day and night, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come” (Rev. 4:8).
That God is eternal has two major consequences for us. First, he can be trusted to remain as he has revealed himself to be. God is unchangeable in his attributes. So we need not fear, for example, that although he has shown his love towards us once in Christ he may nevertheless somehow change his mind and cease to love us in the future. God is always love. Similarly, we must not think that although he has shown himself to be holy he may nevertheless somehow cease to be holy and therefore change his attitude toward our transgressions. Sin will always be sin, because it is “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, A. 14), who is unchangeable. We may extend this by saying that God will always be holy, wise, gracious, just, and everything else that he reveals himself to be. Nothing that we do will ever change him. Again, God is unchangeable in his eternal counsel or will. He does what he has determined beforehand to do, and his will never varies. This is a source of great comfort to God’s people. If God were like us, he could not be relied on. He would change, and as a result of that his will and promises would change. We could not depend on him. But God is not like us. He does not change. Consequently, his purposes remain fixed from generation to generation.
The second major consequence for us of God being eternal is that he is inescapable. If he were a mere man and if we did not like either him or what he was doing, we might ignore him, knowing that he might change his mind, move away from us, or die. But God does not change his mind. He does not move away. He will not die. Consequently, we cannot escape him. If we ignore him now, we must reckon with him in the life to come. If we reject him now, we must eventually face the One we have rejected and come to know his own eternal rejection of us.
The God Who is There
In this lies the profundity of the first verse in the Bible. Indeed, we can go farther and say that in some sense this verse may even be the most important verse in the Bible, for at the outset it brings us face-to-face with the God with whom we have to do. This God is not an imaginary god. He is not a god of our own inventions. He is the God who is—the One who is “infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, A. 4).
Sometimes we wish we could change him. We are like the man who was climbing up a steep mountain on his way to the summit when he began to slip. Unable to stop himself, he slid back down the treacherous incline toward a cliff that plunged a thousand feet to the canyon floor. He was sure he would be killed. But just as he was about to go over the edge he threw his hands out and managed to catch a small branch. There he hung. He had saved himself. But he could not get back onto the incline, and he knew it was just a matter of time until his grip loosened and he fell. He was not a very religious man. But this was obviously the time to become one, if ever. So he looked up to heaven and called out, “Is there anyone up there who can help me?”
He did not expect an answer. So he was greatly surprised when a deep voice came back, saying, “Yes, I am here, and I can help you. But first you are going to have to let go of that branch.”
A long pause! Then the man looked up and called out again, “Is there anybody else up there who can help me?”
There is no one else. There is only God, the One who was in the beginning and who ever shall be. But he is able to help. More than that, he is willing to help and even urges his help on us. How wonderful it is that we meet him at the beginning. Genesis 1 gives us a chance to come to terms with him and receive the help he offers, knowing that we will certainly meet him at the end.
About the Preacher
James Montgomery Boice, Th.D., (July 7, 1938 – June 15, 2000) was a Reformed theologian, Bible teacher, and pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia from 1968 until his death. He is heard on The Bible Study Hour radio broadcast and was a well-known author and speaker in evangelical and Reformed circles. He also served as Chairman of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy for over ten years and was a founding member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. James Boice was one of my favorite Bible teachers. Thankfully – many of his books and expositions of Scripture are still in print and more are becoming available. The sermon above was adapted from Chapter 3 in Genesis 1-11: An Expositional Commentary. vol. 1: Creation and Fall. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006.
Under Dr. Boice’s leadership, Tenth Presbyterian Church became a model for ministry in America’s northeastern inner cities. When he assumed the pastorate of Tenth Church there were 350 people in regular attendance. At his death the church had grown to a regular Sunday attendance in three services of more than 1,200 persons, a total membership of 1,150 persons. Under his leadership, the church established a pre-school for children ages 3-5 (now defunct), a high school known as City Center Academy, a full range of adult fellowship groups and classes, and specialized outreach ministries to international students, women with crisis pregnancies, homosexual and HIV-positive clients, and the homeless. Many of these ministries are now free-standing from the church.
Dr. Boice gave leadership to groups beyond his own organization. For ten years he served as Chairman of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, from its founding in 1977 until the completion of its work in 1988. ICBI produced three classic, creedal documents: “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics” and “The Chicago Statement on the Application of the Bible to Contemporary Issues.” The organization published many books, held regional “Authority of Scripture” seminars across the country, and sponsored the large lay “Congress on the Bible I,” which met in Washington, D.C., in September 1987. He also served on the Board of Bible Study Fellowship.
He founded the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (Alliance) in 1994, initially a group of pastors and theologians who were focused on bringing the 20th and now 21st century church to a new reformation. In 1996 this group met and wrote the Cambridge Declaration. Following the Cambridge meetings, the Alliance assumed leadership of the programs and publications formerly under Evangelical Ministries, Inc. (Dr. Boice) and Christians United for Reformation (Horton) in late 1996.
Dr. Boice was a prodigious world traveler. He journeyed to more than thirty countries in most of the world’s continents, and he taught the Bible in such countries as England, France, Canada, Japan, Australia, Guatemala, Korea and Saudi Arabia. He lived in Switzerland for three years while pursuing his doctoral studies.
Dr. Boice held degrees from Harvard University (A.B.), Princeton Theological Seminary (B.D.), the University of Basel, Switzerland (D. Theol.) and the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Episcopal Church (D.D., honorary).
A prolific author, Dr. Boice had contributed nearly forty books on a wide variety of Bible related themes. Most are in the form of expositional commentaries, growing out of his preaching: Psalms (1 volume), Romans (4 volumes), Genesis (3 volumes), Daniel, The Minor Prophets (2 volumes), The Sermon on the Mount, John (5 volumes, reissued in one), Ephesians, Phillippians and The Epistles of John. Many more popular volumes: Hearing God When You Hurt, Mind Renewal in a Mindless Christian Life, Standing on the Rock, The Parables of Jesus, The Christ of Christmas, The Christ of the Open Tomb and Christ’s Call to Discipleship. He also authored Foundations of the Christian Faith a 740-page book of theology for laypersons. Many of these books have been translated into other languages, such as: French, Spanish, German, Japanese, Chinese and Korean.
He was married to Linda Ann Boice (born McNamara), who continues to teach at the high school they co-founded.
Sources: Taken directly from the Aliance of Confessing Evangelicals’ Website
from the Tenth Presbyterian Church website
1985 “The Future of Reformed Theology” in David F. Wells, editor,
RETURNING TO THE LOVE OF THE BIBLICAL GOD
Coming To Grips With God’s Amazing Love For You
Book Review By David P. Craig
One of the main things that has been lost in modern Christianity is the Main Thing – God Himself. The church invests millions of dollars in programming, high-tech equipment, buildings, and the like. However, what we need more than anything is to be drenched with the reality of the character, nature, and intimacy there is to be found in our relationship with God – especially as He has clearly revealed Himself in the Bible.
Robert Bernecker has written a God-drenched book. He has written a book that tackles subjects as vast as the sovereignty of God, His providence, and our responsibility and will with reference to salvation and sanctification. The author tackles the “tough” doctrines of predestination, election, perseverance, and foreknowledge with theological precision, solid exegesis, and insight from 2,000 years of historical theology.
Without getting bogged down in theological debate, Bernecker simply lets the chips fall where they may by giving a plethora of Scriptures on the deepest and profoundest issues of Theology Proper – the doctrine of God. However, not leaving the reader in the realm of the abstract but taking you into the intimate arms of our loving Father.
If you want to understand the mind and heart of God and His will and purposes for humanity I highly recommend this book. It will give you a wonderful biblical theology of how God thinks and works in time and history – past, present, and future. In reading this book you will develop a higher view of God, and of His amazing plan for humanity – and for you – the reader. I urge you to take up this book and read about our Awesome God as revealed in the Scriptures and take the plunge in the waters of being drenched and soaked in God’s glory. It’s what you and I need more than anything else!
“THE TRUE GOD AS REVEALED IN THE SCRIPTURES”
DR. JAMES MONTGOMERY BOICE
It is evident that we need more than a theoretical knowledge of God. Yet we can know God only as he reveals himself to us in the Scriptures, and we cannot know the Scriptures until we are willing to be changed by them. Knowledge of God occurs only when we also know our deep spiritual need and when we are receptive to God’s gracious provision for our need through the work of Christ and the application of that work to us by God’s Spirit.
Having established this base, we nevertheless come back to the question of God himself and we ask, “But who is God? Who is this one who reveals himself in Scripture, in the person of Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit?” We may admit that a true knowledge of God must change us. We may be willing to be changed. But where do we begin?
“I Am Who I Am”
Since the Bible is a unity we could answer these questions by starting at any point in the biblical revelation. We could begin with Revelation 22:21 as well as with Genesis 1:1. But there is no better starting point than God’s revelation of himself to Moses at the burning bush. Moses, the great leader of Israel, had long been aware of the true God, for he had been born into a godly family. Still, when God said that he would send him to Egypt and through him deliver the people of Israel, Moses responded, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” We are told that God then answered Moses by saying, “I AM WHO I AM. . . . Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Ex. 3:13-14).
“I AM WHO I AM.” The name is linked with the ancient name for God, Jehovah. But it is more than a name. It is a descriptive name, pointing to all that God is in himself. In particular, it shows him to be the One who is entirely self-existent, self-sufficient and eternal.
These are abstract concepts, of course. But they are important, for these attributes more than any others set God apart from his creation and reveal him as being what he is in himself. God is perfect in all his attributes. But there are some attributes that we, his creatures, share. For instance, God is perfect in his love. Yet by his grace we also love. He is all wise; but we also possess a measure of wisdom. He is all powerful; and we exercise a limited power. It is not like that in regard to God’s self-existence, self-sufficiency and eternity, however. He alone possesses those characteristics. He exists in and of himself; we do not. He is entirely self-sufficient; we are not. He is eternal; we are newcomers on the scene.
Self-existence means that God has no origins and consequently is answerable to no one. Matthew Henry says, “The greatest and best man in the world must say, By the grace of God I am what I am; but God says absolutely — and it is more than any creature, man or angel, can say — I am that I am.”1 So God has no origins; his existence does not depend on anybody.
Self-existence is a hard concept for us to grapple with for it means that God as he is in himself is unknowable. Everything that we see, smell, hear, taste or touch has origins. We can hardly think in any other category. Anything we observe must have a cause adequate to explain it. We seek for such causes. Cause and effect is even the basis for the belief in God possessed by those who, nevertheless, don’t truly know him. Such individuals believe in God, not because they have had a personal experience of him or because they have discovered God in Scripture, but only because they infer his existence. “Everything comes from something; consequently, there must be a great something that stands behind everything.” Cause and effect point to God, but — and this is the issue — they point to a God who is beyond understanding, indeed to one who is beyond us in every way. They indicate that God cannot be known and evaluated like other things can.
A. W. Tozer has noted that this is one reason why philosophy and science have not always been friendly toward the idea of God. These disciplines are dedicated to the task of accounting for things as we know them and are therefore impatient with anything that refuses to give an account of itself. Philosophers and scientists will admit that there is much they don’t know. But it is another thing to admit that there is something they can never know completely and which, in fact, they don’t even have techniques for discovering. To discover God, scientists may attempt to bring God down to their level, defining him as “natural law,” “evolution” or some such principle. But still God eludes them. There is more to God than any such concepts can delineate.
Perhaps, too, this is why even Bible-believing people seem to spend so little time thinking about God’s person and character. Tozer writes,
Few of us have let our hearts gaze in wonder at the I AM, the self-existent Self back of which no creature can think. Such thoughts are too painful for us. We prefer to think where it will do more good — about how to build a better mousetrap, for instance, or how to make two blades of grass grow where one grew before. And for this we are now paying a too heavy price in the secularization of our religion and the decay of our inner lives.2
God’s self-existence means that he is not answerable to us or to anybody, and we don’t like that. We want God to give an account of himself, to defend his actions. Although he sometimes explains things to us, he doesn’t have to and often he does not. God doesn’t have to explain himself to anybody.
The second quality of God communicated to us in the name “I AM WHO I AM” is self-sufficiency. Again it is possible to have at least a sense of the meaning of this abstract term. Self-sufficiency means God has no needs and therefore depends on no one.
Here we run counter to a widespread and popular idea: God cooperates with human beings, each thereby supplying something lacking in the other. It is imagined, for example, that God lacks glory and therefore creates men and women to supply it. He takes care of them as a reward. Or again, it is imagined that God needs love and therefore creates men and women to love him. Some talk about the creation as if God were lonely and therefore created us to keep him company. On a practical level we see the same thing in those who imagine that women and men are necessary to carry out God’s work of salvation as witnesses or as defenders of the faith, forgetting that Jesus himself declared that “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Lk. 3:8).
God does not need worshipers. Arthur W. Pink, who writes on this theme in The Attributes of God, says,
God was under no constraint, no obligation, no necessity to create. That he chose to do so was purely a sovereign act on his part, caused by nothing outside himself, determined by nothing but his own mere good pleasure; for he “worketh all things after the counsel of his own will” (Eph. 1:11). That he did create was simply for his manifestative glory. . . . God is no gainer even from our worship. He was in no need of that external glory of his grace which arises from his redeemed, for he is glorious enough in himself without that. What was it moved him to predestinate his elect to the praise of the glory of his grace? It was, as Ephesians 1:5 tells us, “according to the good pleasure of his will.” . . . The force of this is [that] it is impossible to bring the Almighty under obligations to the creature; God gains nothing from us.3
Tozer makes the same point. “Were all human beings suddenly to become blind, still the sun would shine by day and the stars by night, for these owe nothing to the millions who benefit from their light. So, were every man on earth to become an atheist, it could not affect God in any way. He is what he is in himself without regard to any other. To believe in him adds nothing to his perfections; to doubt him takes nothing away.”4
Nor does God need helpers. This truth is probably harder for us to accept than almost any other. For we imagine God as a friendly, but almost pathetic, grandfather figure bustling about to see whom he can find to help him in managing the world and saving the world’s race. What a travesty! To be sure, God has entrusted a work of management to us. He said to the original pair in Eden, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Gen. 1:28). God also has given those who believe in him a commission to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation” (Mk. 16:15). True, but no aspect of God’s ordering of his creation has a necessary grounding in himself. God has chosen to do things thus. He didn’t need to do them. Indeed, he could have done them in any one of a million other ways. That he did choose to do things thus is therefore solely dependent upon the free and sovereign exercise of his will and so does not give us any inherent value to him.
To say that God is self-sufficient also means that God does not need defenders. Clearly, we have opportunities to speak for God before those who would dishonor his name and malign his character. We ought to do so. But even if we should fail, we must not think that God is deprived thereby. God does not need to be defended, for he is as he is and will remain so regardless of the sinful and arrogant attacks of evil individuals. A God who needs to be defended is no God. Rather, the God of the Bible is the self-existent One who is the true defender of his people.
When we realize that God is the only truly self-sufficient One, we begin to understand why the Bible has so much to say about the need for faith in God alone and why unbelief in God is such sin. Tozer writes: “Among all created beings, not one dare trust in itself. God alone trusts in himself; all other beings must trust in him. Unbelief is actually perverted faith, for it puts its trust not in the living God but in dying men.”5 If we refuse to trust God, what we are actually saying is that either we or some other person or thing is more trustworthy. That is a slander against the character of God, and it is folly. Nothing else is all-sufficient. On the other hand, if we begin by trusting God (by believing in him), we have a solid foundation for all life. God is sufficient, and his Word to his creatures can be trusted.
Because God is sufficient, we may begin by resting in that sufficiency and so work effectively for him. God does not need us. But the joy of coming to know him is in learning that he nevertheless stoops to work in and through those who are his believing and obedient children.
Alpha and Omega
A third quality inherent in the name of God given to Moses (“I AM WHO I AM”) is everlastingness, perpetuity or eternity. The quality is difficult to put in one word, but it is simply that God is, has always been and will always be, and that he is ever the same in his eternal being. We find this attribute of God everywhere in the Bible. Abraham called Jehovah “the Everlasting God” (Gen. 21:33). Moses wrote, “LORD, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting thou art God” (Ps. 90:1-2). The book of Revelation describes God as the “Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 1:8; 21:6; 22:13). The creatures before the throne cry, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (Rev. 4:8).
The fact that God is eternal has two major consequences for us. The first is that he can be trusted to remain as he reveals himself to be. The word usually used to describe this quality is immutability, which means unchangeableness. “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (Jas. 1:17).
God is unchangeable in his attributes. So we need not fear, for example, that the God who once loved us in Christ will somehow change his mind and cease to love us in the future. God is always love toward his people. Similarly, we must not think that perhaps he will change his attitude toward sin, so that he will begin to classify as “permissible” something that was formerly prohibited. Sin will always be sin because it is defined as any transgression of or lack of conformity to the law of God, who is unchangeable. God will always be holy, wise, gracious, just and everything else that he reveals himself to be. Nothing that we do will ever change the eternal God.
God is also unchangeable in his counsels or will. He does what he has determined beforehand to do and his will never varies. Some will point out that certain verses in the Bible tell us that God repented of some act — as in Genesis 6:6, “The LORD was sorry that he had made man.” In this example, a human word is being used to indicate God’s severe displeasure with human activities. It is countered by such verses as Numbers 23:19 (“God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should repent. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfil it?”); 1 Samuel 15:29 (“The Glory of Israel will not lie or repent; for he is not a man, that he should repent”); Romans 11:29 (“The gifts and call of God are irrevocable”); and Psalm 33:11 (“The counsel of the LORD stands for ever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations”).
Such statements are a source of great comfort to God’s people. If God were like us, he could not be relied on. He would change, and as a result of that his will and his promises would change. We could not depend on him. But God is not like us. He does not change. Consequently, his purposes remain fixed from generation to generation. Pink says, “Here then is a rock on which we may fix our feet, while the mighty torrent is sweeping away everything around us. The permanence of God’s character guarantees the fulfillment of his promises.”6
The second major consequence for us of God’s unchangeableness is that he is inescapable. If he were a mere human and if we didn’t like either him or what he was doing, we might ignore him knowing that he might always change his mind, move away from us or die. But God does not change his mind. He does not move away. He will not die. Consequently, we cannot escape him. Even if we ignore him now, we must reckon with him in the life to come. If we reject him now, we must eventually face the One we have rejected and come to know his eternal rejection of us.
No Other Gods
We are led to a natural conclusion, namely, that we should. seek and worship the true God. This chapter has been based for the most part on Exodus 3:14, in which God reveals to Moses the name by which he desires to be known. That revelation came on the verge of the deliverance of the people of Israel from Egypt. After the exodus, God gave a revelation on Mount Sinai which applies the earlier disclosure of himself as the true God to the religious life and worship of the delivered nation.
God said, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex. 20:2-6). These verses make three points, all based on the premise that the God who reveals himself in the Bible is the true God:
- We are to worship God and obey him.
- We are to reject the worship of any other god.
- We are to reject the worship of the true God by any means that are unworthy of him, such as the use of pictures or images.
At first glance it seems quite strange that a prohibition against the use of images in worship should have a place at the very start of the ten basic principles of biblical religion, the Ten Commandments. But it is not strange when we remember that the characteristics of a religion flow from the nature of the religion’s god. If the god is unworthy, the religion will be unworthy too. If the concept of God is of the highest order, the religion will be of a high order also. So God tells us in these verses that any physical representation of him is dishonoring to him. Why? For two reasons. First, it obscures his glory, for nothing visible can ever adequately represent it. Second, it misleads those who would worship him.
Both of these errors are represented by Aaron’s manufacture of the golden calf, as J. I. Packer indicates in his discussion of idolatry. In Aaron’s mind, at least, though probably not in the minds of the people, the calf was intended to represent Jehovah. He thought, no doubt, that a figure of a bull (even a small one) communicated the thought of God’s strength. But, of course, it didn’t do so adequately. And it didn’t at all communicate his other great attributes: his sovereignty, righteousness, mercy, love and justice. Rather, it obscured them.
Moreover, the figure of the bull misled the worshipers. They readily associated it with the fertility gods and goddesses of Egypt, and the result of their worship was an orgy. Packer concludes,
It is certain that if you habitually focus your thoughts on an image or picture of the One to whom you are going to pray, you will come to think of him, and pray to him, as the image represents him. Thus you will in this sense “bow down” and “worship” your image; and to the extent to which the image fails to tell the truth about God, to that extent you will fail to worship God in truth. That is why God forbids you and me to make use of images and pictures in our worship.7
“My Lord and My God”
To avoid the worship of images or even the use of images in the worship of the true God is not in itself worship. We are to recognize that the true God is the eternal, self-existent and self-sufficient One, the One immeasurably beyond our highest thoughts. Therefore, we are to humble ourselves and learn from him, allowing him to teach us what he is like and what he has done for our salvation. Do we do what he commands? Are we sure that in our worship we are actually worshiping the true God who has revealed himself in the Bible?
There is only one way to answer that question truthfully. It is to ask: Do I really know the Bible, and do I worship God on the basis of the truth I find there? That truth is centered in the Lord Jesus Christ, as seen in the Bible. There the invisible God is made visible, the inscrutable knowable, the eternal God disclosed in space and time. Do I look to Jesus in order to know God? Do I think of God’s attributes by what Jesus shows me of them? If not, I am worshiping an image of God, albeit an image of my own devising. If I look to Jesus, then I can know that I am worshiping the true God, as he has revealed himself. Paul says that although some knew God they nevertheless “did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” (Rom. 1:21). Let us determine that this shall not be true of us. We see God in Jesus. So let us know him as God, love him as God, serve him as God and worship him as God.
- Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. 1 (New York: Fleming H. Revell, n.d.), p. 284
- A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), p. 34.
- Arthur W. Pink, The Attributes of God (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, n.d.), pp. 2-3.
- Tozer, p. 40.
- Ibid., p. 42.
- Pink, p. 41.
- J. I. Packer, Knowing God, p. 41
James Montgomery Boice held a B.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Theology from the University of Basel in Switzerland. He was the pastor of the Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia and the author of many books, including the three volumes in the series, “Foundations of the Christian Faith”. This article is taken from volume one of that same series, entitled The Sovereign God.
I Change Not
Change is one of the most threatening things many of us face in life, and yet we encounter it every day. The universe itself is changing. Scientists tell us that all observed systems are continually changing from order to disorder, and that every transformation of energy is accompanied by a loss in the availability of energy for future use. In other words, our universe is running down.
Besides that, the world we live in is changing. Highly sophisticated technical developments have radically altered our lifestyle, and now they threaten our very existence. Ideological developments have changed the balance of world power and threaten our freedom as a nation. Governments are toppled and new ones established overnight, and sometimes it seems as though revolutions are as common as eating and sleeping. Every day the news reports focus on some new changes occurring in our world.
People change. One day we may be in a good mood, the next day in an ugly mood. And it is disconcerting if we never know what to expect from our wives, our husbands, our parents, or our bosses. Nice people sometimes get irritable and touchy. Fortunately, grouchy people sometimes get nicer. But we all change. That is the nature of creaturehood, and that is the nature of life. We find it unpleasant and intimidating at times. We would rather keep things the way they always were because the old and the familiar are more secure and comfortable, like an old shoe. But shoes wear out and need to be replaced, as does most everything else in life. So we struggle to adjust to change.
We grow and we strive to better ourselves, and that is change. Sometimes our sense of well-being collapses around us; we lose our health, our loved ones, our money, or our material possessions, and that is change. Our bodies begin to wear out; we can no longer do the things we used to do, and that is change. It is all unsettling and unnerving, but it is inevitable. What can we do about it? Is there anything unchanging that we can hold on to in a world where everything is so tenuous and transitory?
The Revelation of God’s Immutability
An unnamed psalmist asked that question in a moment of great trial. The inspired title of Psalm 102 says, “A Prayer of the Afflicted, when he is faint, and pours out his complaint before the LORD.” This man is in trouble. He is facing some devastating changes in his life. Listen to his lament.
Do not hide Thy face from me in the day of my distress; Incline Thine ear to me; In the day when I call answer me quickly. For my days have been consumed in smoke, And my bones have been scorched like a hearth. My heart has been smitten like grass and withered away, Indeed, I forget to eat my bread. Because of the loudness of my groaning My bones cling to my flesh (verses 2-5).
My enemies have reproached me all day long; Those who deride me have used my name as a curse (verse 8).
My days are like a lengthened shadow; And I wither away like grass (verse 11).
Is there some kind of life preserver a person can hang on to when, like this psalmist, he feels as though he is about to go under? Is there something solid, stable, and unchanging? There is, and he is going to tell us about it.
But Thou, O LORD, dost abide forever; And Thy name to all generations (verse 12).
There is a God who will never cease to exist. But He is more than eternal. He is absolutely unchanging.
Of old Thou didst found the earth; And the heavens are the work of Thy hands. Even they will perish, but Thou dost endure; And all of them will wear out like a garment; Like clothing Thou wilt change them, and they will be changed. But Thou art the same, And Thy years will not come to an end (verses 25-27).
This is one of the first great Biblical statements of God’s immutability. Simply stated, that means God is unchangeable. He is neither capable of nor susceptible to change. And that makes sense. Any change would probably be for the better or for the worse. God cannot change for the better because He is already perfect. And He cannot change for the worse, for then He would be imperfect and would therefore no longer be God. Created things change; they run down or wear out. It is part of their constitutional nature. But God has no beginning or end. Therefore He cannot change.
People sometimes think He changes, especially when they experience trying circumstances. The people of Israel felt that way. Their prophets warned them that God would chasten them for their rebelliousness and sin, and they assumed that such discipline would indicate that He was changing, that He was getting more harsh and less fair. For example, Malachi predicted that Messiah would come suddenly like a refiner’s fire and a purifier of silver and judge the sinners among them (Malachi 3:15). The people were probably wondering when God began to develop such a concern about their sin. Malachi reminded them that He always has been concerned. That is His nature. He is unchangeably holy and righteous and just. God Himself declared, “For I, the LORD, do not change” (verse 6).
God’s immutability not only brought Israel discipline. It also guaranteed her continued national existence. After establishing His immutability God goes on to say, “Therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed” (verse 6). He is unchangeably holy and righteous but He is also unchangeably merciful and faithful. He promised Abraham that his seed would endure forever (Genesis 13:15), and He cannot go back on His Word because He is immutable. The existence of the nation Israel to this day is a testimony to God’s immutability.
We may begin to think God has changed when trials invade our lives. We say to ourselves, “God used to be good to me, but this surely doesn’t seem very good.” The Apostle James had some penetrating observations for a group of persecuted people who were beginning to think like that. Listen to James encourage them: “Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow” (James 1:16-17).
The “Father of lights” is the God who created the heavenly bodies. They move and turn and cast shadows on the earth and on each other. They are created things, so they change. But the God who made them does not change. There is absolutely no variation with Him, no eclipse of His loving kindness and care. His gifts always turn out to be good, even when, for the present, we cannot figure out how. He will give nothing but what is best. We can count on that. It is the promise of an unchanging God.
If Jesus Christ is God in flesh, then we would expect Him likewise to be unchanging. That truth was revealed to another group of people who were suffering for their faith. The writer to the Hebrews said, “Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, yes and forever” (Hebrews 12:7-8). He wanted them to know that the unchanging Saviour who was at work in the lives of the men who taught them the Word of God could do a supernatural work in their lives as well. He is the same Saviour that He always was, and what He has done for others He can do for you.
Some will protest, “But He seems to do more for my Christian friends than He does for me. They seem to be so spiritually stable, and I’m so up and down, so hot and cold. You say God is consistent. I say He’s different in the way He deals with me.” Things may never be any better for us until we believe that He truly is unchangeable, and acknowledge that the problem lies with us rather than with Him. That is why the writer to the Hebrews exhorted us to imitate the faith of our spiritual leaders. As we learn to believe that God is what He claims to be, we shall begin to enjoy the stability and steadiness which His immutability can minister to our lives. Most of us find it easier to be calm and steady in turbulent circumstances when we believe that those around us, particularly those in charge, are calm and steady. Well, God is in charge; He has complete control of every situation, and His hand never gets shaky. Trust Him, and enjoy a consistency and a constancy you may not have known before.
The Ramifications of God’s Immutability
We have seen the doctrine clearly revealed, but what does it involve? Obviously, it includes everything about God of which we can possibly conceive. All that God ever was, He always will be. But look at a few Biblical examples:
The Word of God Is Unchanging. “Forever, O LORD, Thy word is settled in heaven” (Psalm 119:89). That is not true of our word. We often change our minds about things and find that we can no longer honor what we said in the past. Sometimes we say things we do not mean or we say things which later prove to be wrong and which must be retracted. But when God speaks it is always true. He never speaks in error. He never changes His mind. He never said anything He was sorry for or had to take back. His Word is settled and unchanging.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God stands forever (Isaiah 40:8).
The Plans of God are Unchanging. “But the plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of His heart through all generations” (Psalm 33:11 NIV). God’s plans are firm. His purposes will always be carried out. Our plans and purposes change. Sometimes they are not very realistic and we must alter them. On other occasions somebody frustrates them. But God’s plans are perfect and nobody can thwart them. So there is no reason to change them.
The writer to the Hebrews had something to say about this aspect of God’s immutability: “In the same way God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath, in order that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we may have strong encouragement, we who have fled for refuge in laying hold of the hope set before us” (Hebrews 6:17-18). God’s purpose and His oath are both unchangeable. It is comforting to know that God’s plan for this world will never change, and that He will carry it out right on schedule according to His own good pleasure. As He said through Isaiah,
Remember the former things long past, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, Declaring the end from the beginning And from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, “My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure” (Isaiah 46:9-10).
What God established before the foundation of the earth as the goal of human history will inevitably come to pass. What a comforting thing it is to know that no amount of satanic opposition can change that!
The Knowledge of God Is Unchanging. There are other applications of God’s immutability in Scripture, but look at one more: “Known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world” (Acts 15:18 KJV). We could have figured that out even if the Apostle James had not said it at the Jerusalem council. If God is unchanging and nothing about Him varies, then obviously His knowledge never increases or decreases. He knows everything and always has known everything. Anything less would make Him less than God. For example, if there ever was a time when God did not know what I would write on this page of this book, then He was not complete at that time and, therefore, He was not God. But you can be sure He did know. His knowledge is unchanging.
That is surely different from my knowledge. It has grown (hopefully). Yet I still know only a minute fraction of what there is to know. Quite frankly, I have forgotten more than I have remembered. So my knowledge also decreases. But it is a consolation to know a God who possesses complete and unchanging knowledge of everything. He can never lose anything. He will never forget to do anything He wants to do. And He has our lives in His unchanging care.
The Resistance To God’s Immutability
Not everybody believes what you are reading right now. They point to Scriptures that tell us God repents and they say, “You see, God is mutable. He does change His mind. Therefore, He may not keep His Word. He may not carry out His purposes. He may not know everything.” We need not read more than a few pages in our Bibles before coming to a passage that raises that question. “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart” (Genesis 6:5-6).
But there are other passages, however, assuring us that God will not change His mind:
God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good? (Numbers 23:19)
“And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind” (1 Samuel 15:29). Is that a contradiction in the Bible? I do not think so.
We need to understand that, while God’s character never changes, His methods of dealing with men and administering His program on earth may vary. Whatever He does will be consistent with His eternal nature and will have been known to Him from eternity past. But He does do things differently at different times. The same writer who reminded us of God’s immutable counsel and oath (Hebrews 6:17-18) also told us that God changed the priesthood and the law (Hebrews 7:12), and that He took the old covenant away that He might establish the new (Hebrews 10:9).
God sometimes acts on the basis of what man does, and Scripture may picture that as God changing His mind in order to help us understand what is happening. But man’s actions did not take God by surprise. He knew what man would do from eternity past, and He knew how He would respond. His actions, which appear to be a change of mind and are so described for our help, are fully consistent with His unchanging nature (Genesis 6:6; 1 Samuel 15:11). Sometimes Scripture portrays God as changing His mind when He threatens some punishment in order to demonstrate how strongly He feels about sin, then withholds that punishment as an act of mercy (Exodus 32:14; Jonah 3:10). Sometimes He reduces His sentence because His good purposes have been accomplished (2 Samuel 24:16). That hardly destroys the doctrine of immutability. God’s immutability simply requires that He always act in accord with His eternal nature.
The Rewards of God’s Immutability
The obvious question is, “So God is immutable. What does that mean to me?” If we really want to know Him, then it means everything, for a God who changes would not be worth knowing. We would not be able to trust Him. Do you trust a friend who changes his attitudes or actions toward you from one day to the next? Of course not. You are not going to open your heart to him, share your feelings with him, or tell him your weaknesses and your needs. If he is sympathetic and helpful on some occasions but disinterested or judgmental on others, you probably will not take the chance. If he keeps your intimate secrets to himself sometimes but spreads them around on other occasions, you are not going to confide in him anymore. Human friends sometimes act that way but God never changes. We can trust Him.
And He is never in a bad mood. That is different from us. We get disagreeable periodically. We growl at our spouses, snap at our children, criticize our fellow workers. Not God! His mood never changes. What a pleasure to know that whenever we approach Him through the merits of His Son He receives us warmly and lovingly.
That is one thing that makes prayer such a pleasure. We know that He is always open to our requests. He never gets tired of our coming to Him. In fact, He keeps inviting us to come. “Call to Me, and I will answer you, and I will tell you great and mighty things, which you do not know” (Jeremiah 33:3). “Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). “Until now you have asked for nothing in My name; ask, and you will receive that your joy may be made full” (John 16:24). “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6).
We would have little interest in praying to a God who might be listening, but who, on the other hand, might be out for a walk or taking a nap. Elijah taunted the prophets of Baal with the possibility that their god might be doing one of those very things (1 Kings 18:27). But we have the assurance that the Lord’s ear is always open to our prayers.
The eyes of the LORD are toward the righteous,
And His ears are open to their cry (Psalm 84:15).
Some will object, “What sense is there in praying to an unchangeable God? Hasn’t He already made up His mind what He is going to do? How can our prayers change anything?” We know that prayer changes things because God told us that it does. He decided in eternity past that He would take certain actions, provide certain benefits, and bestow certain blessings when we come to Him in prayer. So we come because He asked us to come and we make our requests known because He promised us that it would make a difference. We have the assurance that if we ask anything according to His will He hears and answers us (1 John 5:14-15). We can count on Him to be faithful to His promise.
Maybe we can understand what difference prayer makes by visualizing a mother caring for her sick child. Before she tucks him in bed for the night she gives him his medicine and quietly reassures him of her presence. She knows he will cry out to her during the night, and when the cry comes it does not change her mind about anything. She responds exactly as she planned to respond and does precisely what she knew would be best for him. But her help comes in answer to his request. That is the way she planned it. God has some good things prepared for us, but His plan is to give them to us in answer to our prayers. So ask and you will receive.
Since God is immutable we can always count on Him. We cannot consistently count on our human friends. They let us down at times. Their actions are sometimes affected by how they feel or how we have treated them. Their love is conditioned on our performance. But not God’s. His love is everlasting and therefore unchanging (Jeremiah 31:3). He always acts on the basis of love. Likewise, His kindness is everlasting and therefore unchanging (Isaiah 54:10). He always acts on the basis of kindness. We can count on it. The better we know Him as the immutable God, the more we shall be able to trust Him and hold on to Him for stability and strength when everything around us is changing.
This is a great doctrine, and it would be beneficial for us to keep it in mind. But unfortunately one of our most glaring defects as mortal human beings is our inability to remember what we have learned about God when we need it most. Did you know that God has given us a visible sign to help us remember His immutability? It is the rainbow. When Noah and his family emerged from the ark God promised them that He would never again destroy the whole earth with a flood. He said, “I set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between Me and the earth” (Genesis 9:13). He has not destroyed the whole earth by water again. He is a God of His Word. He always does what He says He will do. He never changes.
Action To Take:
Every time you see a rainbow remind yourself that you know the immutable God. And remind yourself that a God who is unchanging in His love and kindness to you deserves your unchanging love, loyalty, devotion, and service.
About the Author:
Richard L. Strauss authored nine books, and served as pastor of churches in Fort Worth, TX, Huntsville, AL. He was pastor of Emmanuel Faith Community Church in Escondido, CA from 1972 to 1993 when the Lord called him home. Richard, was a 1954 graduate of Wheaton College, and received his Th.M. (1958) and Th.D. (1962) degrees from Dallas Theological Seminary.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP) — “There are man-eating sharks in every ocean. But we still swim. Every second somewhere in the world lightning strikes. But we still play in the rain. Poisonous snakes can be found in 49 of the 50 states. But we still go looking for adventure. A car can crash. A house can crumble. But we still drive. And love coming home.
“Because I think deep down we know all the bad things that can happen in life they can’t stop us from making our lives good.”
The preceding words are from an All State Insurance commercial. The line “People live for good” appears on the screen at the end.
Believers and unbelievers face the fatal force of a cruel and uncaring cosmos every day. Atheist author Alex Rosenberg makes this point: “Reality is rough. But it could have been worse. We could have been faced with reality in all its roughness plus a God who made it that way.”
He’s right. It could have been worse, especially if God really did make it this way. For Rosenberg, the universe was born from chance headed toward certain doom that doesn’t care about what happens on the frail surface of one of its planets.
Rosenberg admits that from a naturalistic perspective there is no objective category of evil. But a critique often leveled against the Christian faith is that the existence of evil is incompatible with belief in a loving and all-powerful God.
I believe God is sovereign. I totally get it when we say that God does all things for His glory. But how does this jive with our day to day encounters with evil?
I’m not sure that I will ever be able to exhaust all of what that means and how all it all works out. I believe God is all-loving and all-powerful. I believe He could stop evil. And everyday reality reminds me that He hasn’t. Yet. I believe there is a timeline, that the Father alone knows, when evil will be extinguished.
But there are some foundational truths that frame the way I think about evil in our world that keep me from despair and actually enable human suffering to point to the goodness of God.
I know that God created the universe as good (Genesis 1). I believe what the psalmist said that to be near to God is our good (Psalm 73:28). And I also know that from the very beginning of time humanity has chosen to go the opposite direction.
We have to see Adam’s fall (and ours) against the backdrop of God’s providence. An all-wise Creator made a creature who possessed the ability to make meaningful decisions. Adam chose unwisely, and so do we.
As John Lennox has pointed out, parents take the same risk when they choose to have children. Kids can choose to reject their parents or to love them. God reveals Himself as Father, and even when Jesus told a story of God’s great love He packed it in a parable about a rebellious son who received astounding grace from his father upon returning home.
So here we are in a fallen and cursed world facing natural and moral evil as we serve a Heavenly Father we can’t see. God never promised it would be easy. But we can experience His goodness even in the midst of the bitterness of this life.
God has promised to bring an end to evil and to reverse the curse. God promised Adam and Eve that one of their descendants would crush the head of the serpent. This was inaugurated by Jesus’ life and ministry but it will not be fully realized until His return.
So we live in the “already — not yet” of this reality.
We should be careful not to too quickly appropriate certain promises that belong to the “not yet” of the Christian faith. A passage we often quote at funerals is that Jesus has removed the sting from death (1 Corinthians 15). In context, this is part of the culmination of history when Jesus destroys all of His enemies, including His final enemy, which is death.
So for now death does sting. For now the grave feels victorious. Consequently, we grieve. But we don’t grieve as those without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). This is the power of the Gospel at work in the life of the Christian.
Dark times may tempt us to doubt the reality of God’s power and goodness. But God expressed His love for us by entering our suffering. In the incarnation Christ took on the form of a servant to be mocked, whipped and nailed to a tree.
And Christ’s resurrection was God’s validation stamp on the expiration date of the grave. Death is not final. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:57).
I’m not sure how the problem of evil could be considered incompatible with Christian faith if it is viewed through a biblical framework of creation, separation, incarnation and regeneration.
We rebelled against our Creator, He responded in love when He entered our despair, died in our place and defeated the grave so that we might have new life. This is the Gospel.
Like the commercial, I believe people live for good. I believe this is the image of God stamped on every individual, and I believe it is, in part, a result of the common grace bestowed upon all of humanity.
But I don’t think we can muster the kind of confidence we need to face a shark and snake infested world by placing ourselves in the good hands of an insurance company. I believe our good will be found in the hands of a loving God who will one day crush the snake and kill death itself.
Article adapted from Baptist Press: First Person, July 15, 2013. Dan DeWitt is dean of Boyce College, the undergraduate school of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).