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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine God’s incommunicable attributes. Dr. Spencer, we ran out of time in our last session while discussing God’s attribute of omnipresence. What else do you want to say about that attribute?

Dr. Spencer: We noted last time that God can be present to bless or to punish, but we should also mention that he is present to sustain. In fact, this particular function is specifically ascribed to Jesus Christ. Most famously in Hebrews 1:3, where we read that “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” [1] This passage in Hebrews 1 also provides tremendous evidence for the deity of Christ as we have noted before.

Marc Roby: It certainly does. It would be illogical in the extreme to think that Jesus Christ could be a part of creation and yet simultaneously be the one who sustains, or upholds, all of creation.

Dr. Spencer: It would indeed be a serious logical problem. But getting back to discussing God’s omnipresence, we also read about Christ being the one who is present to sustain in Colossians 1:17. It says there that Christ, “is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Marc Roby: Alright, we have established that God is present everywhere in creation to sustain it, and that he may be present either to bless or to punish. What else do you want to say?

Dr. Spencer: I want to point out that when the Bible speaks of God’s presence, it is almost always talking about his presence to bless. Therefore, when you read in the Bible that God will be present in some situation, you should assume it means to bless unless there is a compelling reason to conclude otherwise. For example, in the verses we cited last time that say God will never leave us nor forsake us, the clear intent is that he will be present to bless us. Also, in John 14:23 Jesus tells us, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” This is, again, clearly speaking about God being present to bless.

The opposite is also true, when the Bible speaks about God being absent, it really means that he is not present to bless, but rather to judge. That is why, as you noted last time, Hell is sometimes described as being a place where God is absent.

Marc Roby: But, as you pointed out, in the case of hell, God is not absent at all, rather he is present to pour out his wrath.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is the terrifying truth. But the Bible itself speaks about God being distant as a way of expressing the idea that he is not present to bless. For example, look at Isaiah 59:2, which is a well-known verse, it says that “your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.”

Marc Roby: It is, of course, not possible for God to not hear us. He not only knows what we say, he knows it before we say it as we are told in Psalm 139. He knows our every thought. But to say that he has hidden his face and will not hear sounds like someone getting angry and turning his back to you.

Dr. Spencer: I think that is exactly the picture that is being presented. The Bible often uses anthropomorphic language to explain God’s actions to us. When it tells us that he will not hear us, it means that he will not respond favorably to our requests. And we see the same kind of language in Proverbs 15:29 where we read that “The LORD is far from the wicked but he hears the prayer of the righteous.” This does not mean that God is literally far away from any part of his creation, but it is figurative language to refer to God not being present to hear and bless.

Marc Roby: And it immediately makes you think of the opposite promise that’s given to believers. Perhaps most famously in Romans 8:35-39, where the apostle Paul asks, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” And then he goes on to say that he is “convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a glorious promise that all true Christians should rejoice in and keep in mind to strengthen us to do God’s will.

And with that I think we are done discussing God’s omnipresence and, even more, we are done examining God’s incommunicable attributes. Although, before we move on, I’d like to read the answer to Question 4 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism because it is an excellent summary statement about the nature of God. In fact, I highly recommend memorizing this answer. Question 4 asks, “What is God?” And the answer is, “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” You can spend a long time meditating on that statement.

Marc Roby: I agree, it is a wonderful statement.

Dr. Spencer: And it begins by saying that God is a spirit, which is the first communicable attribute I want to discuss. But before we start that, we should also notice that the catechism answer next says that God is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable. These refer to the incommunicable attributes we have been discussing. The fact that God is infinite is tied to his omnipresence and his eternity; remember that God’s eternity can be called his infinity with respect to time and his omnipresence can be called his infinity with respect to space. Then also remember that the fact he is unchangeable, or immutable, implies his eternity. These attributes all work together and we must guard against thinking of them separately.

Marc Roby: We mentioned what theologians call God’s simplicity in Session 49, which means that God’s attributes are not separable in any way.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a good thing for us to constantly keep in mind as we go through God’s attributes. They all work together. We break them out and examine them individually to help ourselves try and grasp the totality of God’s being to whatever extent we are able, but God is not made up of different parts as we are.

Marc Roby: And, once again, we find ourselves not able to comprehend fully even that which God has chosen to reveal to us about himself! I assume that we are now ready to move on to look at God’s communicable attributes?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we are. And I want to begin by reminding our listeners that while these categories are not absolute or perfect, the basic idea is that God’s communicable attributes are ones which we share to some degree. Therefore, they will also naturally lead into a discussion of biblical anthropology; in other words, what the Bible teaches us about ourselves.

Marc Roby: I look forward to that. And you said you want to begin by examining God’s spirituality first?

Dr. Spencer: I do want to begin with that. We are continuing to follow the order used in Grudem’s Systematic Theology.[2]

Marc Roby: And we just noted a moment ago that God’s spirituality is the first thing said about him in the answer to Question 4 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. It begins by asserting that God is a spirit. And this attribute is considered communicable because we also have spirits, although our spirits are confined in space in some way, which is not true of God. And our spirits did not exist prior to God’s creating this universe, so there is a clear difference between God’s spirit and our spirits.

Marc Roby: That is certainly a huge difference.

Dr. Spencer: It is an extremely important difference. As always, we must remember that God is the Creator and we are creatures. Nevertheless, getting back to our having a spirit, it is clear that there is more to a human being than just this physical body. In fact, way back in Session 1, where I gave my top four reasons why I think it is intellectually untenable to be an atheist, the fourth reason I gave was that it is impossible to explain volitional creatures like you and me and all of our listeners if you consider the material universe to be all that exists. Atoms in motion according to the laws of physics cannot explain any creature that makes real decisions. Therefore, something beyond our physical body is needed to explain us, and the Bible calls that something else our spirit.

Marc Roby: But the clear contrast is that God does not have a physical body as we do, he is pure spirit.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, he is. Jesus told his disciples, in John 4:24, that “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” That first statement, that “God is spirit” is very important. Louis Berkhof notes that it is the closest thing in the Bible to a definition of God.[3] And the Greek construction is interesting as well. The Greek language has no indefinite article, so the difference between saying “God is a spirit” and “God is spirit” is indicated in a different way than it is in English. I think it will be worthwhile to take a moment to discuss the grammar, and hopefully some of our listeners will find it interesting, but if not, at least the conclusion will be useful and the discussion will be short.

Marc Roby: We don’t want to trigger any terrible memories of high-school English class.

Dr. Spencer: I can’t imagine why anyone should have terrible memories of English class!

Marc Roby: Nor can I, but not everyone is as enamored with language as we are.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. But if those who aren’t interested will put up with this for just a minute, we will arrive at a useful, interesting and important result. First, let’s examine the English. Consider the sentence “God is spirit”. The subject of this sentence is God, the word “is” is the 3rd-person, singular, present tense form of the verb “be”, and the word “spirit” is the predicate, meaning it is the part of the sentence that tells us something about the subject. A sentence like this, where we equate the subject with the predicate, is called an equative sentence. For example, if I say that “Knowledge is power”, that is also an equative sentence.

Now, in English, the difference between saying “God is spirit” and “God is a spirit” is in the predicate. When we include the indefinite article in the predicate and say “God is a spirit”, the sentence means that there is a class of objects called spirits and God belongs to that class, he is one of them. When the article is not present and we say “God is spirit”, it means that God is spirit in a deeper sense, it isn’t just that he is one of a class of objects, it is his essential nature.

Marc Roby: And how is that distinction indicated in the Greek?

Dr. Spencer:  It is indicated by the structure of the sentence. In the case of the first clause in John 4:24 there isn’t any explicit verb, it is implied. If we were to stupidly render the Greek word-for-word into English, the clause says “spirit the God”, which clearly makes no sense in English. In the Greek however, the verb “be” is implied and the article in front of God tells us that God is the subject of the sentence. The question then becomes whether it should be rendered “God is a spirit” or “God is spirit”.

I should state right up front that there is no theological problem with saying that “God is a spirit”. In fact, that is how the King James Version translates that clause and the American Standard Version follows. That is not however, the best translation. There has been a great deal learned about New Testament Greek in the past 100 years and current scholarship would say that the right way to translate that clause is “God is spirit.” Daniel Wallace, in his book Greek Grammar, Beyond the Basics, says that the Greek noun for spirit in this clause “is qualitative – stressing the nature or essence of God”.[4] And he gives a detailed explanation of why the best translation is “God is spirit” in case some of our listeners are interested in looking at that.

Marc Roby: This is similar to the question of how to translate the last clause in John 1:1, which we talked about translating in Sessions 51 and 52. But that verse, which says “the Word was God”, does explicitly include the verb.

Dr. Spencer: You’re right, the two verses have a similar construction in the Greek. Leon Morris agrees with the meaning we are giving to John 4:24, he writes that “Jesus is not saying, ‘God is one spirit among many’. Rather His meaning is, ‘God’s essential nature is spirit’. The indefinite article is no more required than it is in the similar statements, ‘God is light’ (1 John 1:5), and ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8).”[5] Berkhof also agrees with this analysis of the Greek and says that “This is at least a statement purporting to tell us in a single word what God is. The Lord does not merely say that God is a spirit, but that He is spirit.”[6]

Marc Roby: That is a somewhat subtle, but significant difference. I also remember that in Session 55 you quoted from the 19th-century theologian William Shedd, who commented on the meaning of John 4:24.

Dr. Spencer: You have a good memory! I did quote from Shedd. He wrote that the “omission of the article, implies that God is spirit in the highest sense. He is not a spirit, but spirit itself, absolutely.”[7]

Marc Roby: But the Bible doesn’t define for us precisely what is meant by spirit, does it?

Dr. Spencer: No, it doesn’t. But it doesn’t define for us precisely what the nature of our physical universe is either, and we still haven’t figured it out ourselves, so I doubt we could understand God’s explanation.

Marc Roby: Which may be why he doesn’t give us one.

Dr. Spencer: That is a definite possibility. But returning to the idea of what is meant by the word spirit, it is helpful to note that both the Hebrew and Greek words that are rendered in our English Bibles as “spirit” also mean wind or breath. But we don’t want to conclude that spirit is referring to some power, we must remember that it is God’s essence. The whole issue is complicated by the fact that the third person of the Trinity is called the Holy Spirit, which you might think could imply that the other two persons are not spirit, although that would be wrong. God is spirit, not just one person in the Trinity, but God in his essence. Although it is also true that the eternal Son became incarnate and exists in union with the man Jesus Christ.

Marc Roby: And with regard to knowing exactly what spirit actually is, as you noted about our physical universe, we probably couldn’t understand God’s explanation if he gave us one.

Dr. Spencer: I think that is a very safe bet. Especially given the fact that spirit, whatever it is, is not something that is restricted to existing in the same spatial dimensions in which we exist. Which implies that there is no way we can make any measurements or do any kind of direct experiments to study the nature of spirit.

Marc Roby: Although that doesn’t mean that we can’t know anything about it.

Dr. Spencer: No, it doesn’t mean that at all. That would be a completely erroneous conclusion. God has revealed a number of things about the nature of spirit to us.

Marc Roby: And I look forward to getting into that next time, but we are out of time for today. I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We’d love to hear from you.

 

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994

[3]Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1938 (This can be purchased as a combination of his Systematic Theology and Introductory Volume to Systematic Theology in one text from Eerdmans, 1996), pg. 65

[4] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar, Beyond the Basics, Zondervan, 1996, pg. 270

[5] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, part of the The New International Commentary on the New Testament, F.F. Bruce Gen. Ed., Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971, pg. 271

[6] Berkhof, op. cit., pg. 65

[7] William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1888, pg. 151

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine the attributes of God. We have been discussing God’s immutability, which means that he does not change. Are we done with that topic Dr. Spencer?

Dr. Spencer: Not quite. It is such an important issue in the modern church that I want to really drive home the point that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are the very same God, he has not changed.

Marc Roby: Very well, what else do you want to say to support this view?

Dr. Spencer: I want to point out that there has never been a time when anyone was saved by keeping the law. Salvation has always been by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Immediately after the fall God promised a redeemer. And the only way of salvation in the Old Testament times was by faith in that promised redeemer just as it is today.

Marc Roby: When you say that God promised a redeemer immediately after the fall, you are of course referring to Genesis 3:15, sometimes called the protoevangelium, which tells us that when God pronounced his curse on Satan he said to him, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” [1]

Dr. Spencer: That is exactly what I was referring to. Jesus Christ is the offspring of the woman and he figuratively crushed Satan’s head when he died on the cross to pay the penalty owed by all of his chosen followers. And no one was saved in the time before Jesus Christ except by believing in this promised Messiah. And yet, God established both an elaborate system of sacrifices, which pointed forward to Christ and ended when he came, as well as the moral law, which is summarized by the Ten Commandments. So, in order to fully understand that God has not changed, we need to ask what role the law played in the Old Testament, and then we will see that it functions in exactly the same way today.

Marc Roby: What role then did the law play in Old Testament times?

Dr. Spencer: The law played three roles in the Old Testament, just as it does today. John Calvin wrote about the threefold use of the law in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.[2] The first use of the law is that it shows us where we fall short of meeting God’s standard of righteousness. That standard has not changed since Old Testament times and there is absolutely nothing in the New Testament that indicates that God has relaxed his standard in any way. In fact, we are told in Hebrews 12:14 that we must, “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.”

Marc Roby: I’m also reminded of Paul’s introduction to his first letter to the church in Corinth. In 1 Corinthians 1:2 he wrote, “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy” (emphasis added).

Dr. Spencer: Paul also wrote in Ephesians 1:4 that God “chose us in [Christ] before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” And Peter wrote, in 1 Peter 1:15-16, “just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’” And Peter was quoting from Leviticus 11:44 where God said to his people, “I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy.” This demonstrates the continuity of God’s requirement that his people must be holy.

Marc Roby: I think it is important to add that being holy requires obedience.

Dr. Spencer: It absolutely does. Our obedience doesn’t earn anything from God, salvation is by grace, but we can’t allow ourselves to think that the requirement to be holy is only referring to our being united with Christ and clothed with his perfect righteousness. If we have been born again, it will be evident in our lives. We must have obedient lives or our claim to be a Christian is false.

As it says in Hebrews 5:8-9, Christ “learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him”. So, Christ’s obedience in suffering made him the perfect sacrifice required and as a result he is the source of eternal salvation “for all who obey him”. It doesn’t say that he is the source of eternal salvation for those who call themselves Christians.

If some of our listeners don’t like this idea of obedience being necessary, I encourage them to look up the word obey in a concordance and look at the New Testament verses that use the word. There are quite a few that speak about the need for Christians to obey. For example, anyone who is interested should at a bare minimum look at John 14:15 and 15:10, Acts 5:32, Hebrews 13:17 and 1 John 2:3, but there are many, many more.

Marc Roby: Alright, I think that is enough to establish that God’s standard for us in both the Old and New Testament times is that we be holy, which means that we obey God’s commands. And, of course, it is obvious to any reasonable person that none of us are holy. So, you said that the first use of the law is to show us that very fact.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. Calvin wrote that our being convicted by the law of God “is necessary, in order that man, who is blind and intoxicated with self-love, may be brought at once to know and to confess his weakness and impurity.”[3] He also wrote that “the Law is a kind of mirror. As in a mirror we discover any stains upon our face, so in the Law we behold, first, our impotence; then, in consequence of it, our iniquity; and, finally, the curse, as the consequence of both.” In other words, we must conclude from the fact that we don’t measure up to God’s standard that we have a serious problem, which should drive us to cry out “What must I do to be saved?”

Marc Roby: That is the rational response. What is the second use of the law as elucidated by Calvin?

Dr. Spencer: The second use is to restrain moral evil in this world. Calvin wrote that “The second office of the Law is, by means of its fearful denunciations and the consequent dread of punishment, to curb those who, unless forced, have no regard for rectitude and justice.”[4] The fact that there are serious punishments threatened for disobeying God’s law is a strong incentive for people to not break that law. This is the function of the law that Paul wrote about in 1 Timothy 1:9-10, where he said that “We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers”.

This is why properly functioning civil governments should have laws that mirror God’s laws. Not all people will respond to God’s threats – although they are far more consequential and serious than anything man can do to us. And because not all people will respond to God’s threats, our civil governments have the responsibility of imposing sanctions on those who violate God’s laws. That is the basis of any proper legal system.

Marc Roby: That idea is not very popular today.

Dr. Spencer: No, it isn’t, because people have an unbiblical worldview. That worldview ignores what the Bible teaches us about human nature. This false worldview says that man is basically good. The idea is that people only steal because they need something. And people only do terrible things to other people because somewhere along the line someone did something terrible to them.

Marc Roby: I’ve certainly come across that view as well. But all of human history, and any honest evaluation of our own hearts, argues quite strongly against it.

Dr. Spencer: The facts argue very strongly against that view. The human heart harbors tremendous evil. Fortunately, most people keep it under wraps most of the time, and I don’t think that we are all capable of the same depths of evil and depravity, but to deny the existence of real evil in human beings is to put your head in the sand and ignore the obvious. And to think that people only do bad things because bad things have happened to them ignores the obvious problem of how did all these bad things get started? And why are they many people who do terrible things who have never had any terrible thing done to them?

Marc Roby: That is a good question.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly is. I remember just a few years ago there was a young man in our town, who hadn’t had anything terribly unusual happen to him, but he brutally murdered an elderly couple in their bed with a knife just because he wanted to know what it felt like to kill people. Now that depth of depravity and wickedness is, admittedly and thankfully, quite rare. But, any theory of human behavior has to take that sort of thing into account because it is not so exceptionally rare that it can be explained away as some extreme aberration. And when you include actions like rape, assault and robbery, which while certainly less wicked are, nonetheless, still wicked, you have a serious problem defending the idea that people are basically good at heart.

Marc Roby: OK. We’ve established two uses of the law: first, to show us that we ourselves do not meet God’s standard and need a Savior, and second, to moderate evil in society. What is the law’s third use?

Dr. Spencer: The third use that Calvin listed, which he called “the principal use, and more closely connected with its proper end”[5], only applies to believers and was to show God’s people how we can please him. Every child who loves his parents wants to know what he can do to please them. And every true child of God will want to live a life that is pleasing to God. But, no one can do that if we aren’t told what pleases God. The law serves that purpose, and every single person who has been born again will lead a changed life; a life that is characterized by obedience to God’s law.

Marc Roby: But, we must be clear that we are not saying that our obedience earns salvation.

Dr. Spencer: Of course not. Our obedience is never perfect in this life, and God’s standard is perfection. Therefore, it is fundamentally impossible for us to earn our salvation. Nevertheless, a born-again person has a new heart and desires to please God and will strive for holiness. We must be different than the rest of the world or we are not truly God’s people.

Marc Roby: And that has not changed since Old Testament times.

Dr. Spencer: No, it hasn’t changed at all. And we can now see that these three uses of the law are the same today as they were at the time of Moses, or King David, or any other Old Testament saint. As we noted in Session 57 there are three things that have changed since the Old Testament: First, we have much greater revelation than even Moses had; Second, the promised Messiah has come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, so the ceremonial law has been done away with because its only purpose was to point to the coming Redeemer; And, third, we no longer live under the same civil government.

So there have been changes, and they are significant. But God has not changed. His standard of holiness has not changed, and the way of salvation has not changed. The Old Testament is still relevant today, but we have to be intelligent in applying it. We no longer stone adulterers for example because that was part of the civil law in effect at that time. But adultery is still a terrible sin and a properly functioning government will have some kind of penalty in place for people who commit that sin.

Marc Roby: But we as individuals do not have authority to punish anyone for their sins, even if the civil government fails to.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. God has only given that power to the state, not to individuals or to the church. As we’ve said, unless we are commanded to sin, we should obey the civil authorities. The church, of course, still has the power of the keys and must exercise authority in disciplining people who sin and refuse to repent.

Marc Roby: Are we done with discussing God’s immutability now?

Dr. Spencer: We are.

Marc Roby: What’s next then?

Dr. Spencer: I want to look at God’s eternity. I want to discuss it next because it is related to God’s immutability. Wayne Grudem defines God’s eternity as meaning that “God has no beginning, end, or succession of moments in his own being, and he sees all time equally vividly, yet God sees events in time and acts in time.”[6]

Marc Roby: Now that’s a difficult definition to wrap your mind around completely.

Dr. Spencer: It is, especially for our listeners who aren’t following allowing in the written transcript. But, I think it will become clearer as I explain how it is related to God’s immutability.

Marc Roby: Alright, please proceed.

Dr. Spencer: If God is immutable as we have claimed, then it follows that his knowledge does not increase or decrease from one moment to the next. In other words, as Grudem said, he has no “succession of moments in his own being, and he sees all time equally vividly”. This is a very difficult thing for us to grasp because we experience only the present vividly. We experience the past less vividly and the further we go back in time the worse our memory becomes in general.

Marc Roby: Although we all have particularly memorable events or experiences that we remember better than others.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we do. But the point is that God sees all times equally well. It is as if everything were the present to him. There isn’t some particular moment in time that God sees or experiences more clearly or vividly than others. If that were not the case, he would not be immutable. Grudem notes that when Jesus said, in John 8:58, that “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I am!” He used the present tense verb in referring to his existence prior to the time of Abraham, which in Greek indicates something that continues to be true.[7] Therefore, Jesus’ statement suggests that every moment in our history is, essentially, the present to God.

Marc Roby: That is extremely hard for us to understand.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. In fact, it is impossible for us to grasp fully. But it is a necessary conclusion based on God’s revelation to us in the Bible. Many of the Scriptures that we cited when we discussed God’s self-existence, or aseity, are also applicable here. For example, the fact that God existed prior to this universe, which is clearly taught in Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1, is evidence that he is not subject to the succession of events that occur in this universe, which is what we think of as defining the passage of time.

Marc Roby: The fact that God can predict the future also requires that he does not experience time as we do.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And God uses that fact to mock idols. For example, in Isaiah 41:22-23 God says to his people, “Bring in your idols to tell us what is going to happen. Tell us what the former things were, so that we may consider them and know their final outcome. Or declare to us the things to come, tell us what the future holds, so we may know that you are gods. Do something, whether good or bad, so that we will be dismayed and filled with fear.”

Marc Roby: And this contrasts with God himself. He tells us, in Isaiah 46:9-10, to, “Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.”

Dr. Spencer: I think this is the hardest thing for us to grasp, that what we think of as future is equally vivid in God’s sight as our present. And yet, as Grudem’s definition says, “God sees events in time and acts in time.” Which means that he understands how we perceive time as a succession of events. He knows that we can’t see the future and he is able to interact with us in time.

Marc Roby: I think a good part of the reason why we can’t understand God’s knowing the future is that the future seems to us to not yet be determined. It depends on exactly what we and billions of other people and animals do, which seems to us to be fundamentally unknowable until it happens.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a good point. God’s eternity and immutability are difficult to reconcile with man’s free will or the free actions of animals. But, I want to leave that topic for later. For now, let me cite one other verse that is very interesting to examine. In 2 Peter 3:8 the apostle wrote that “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” The second part of this statement, that “a thousand years are like a day” is the same point made in Verse 4 of Psalm 90, which says that “a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by”. In other words, God doesn’t have trouble remembering things from a thousand years ago, they are just like yesterday. And this is, of course, a figurative way of saying that he knows all of the past perfectly.

But, the first part of Peter’s statement, that “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years” is new and very interesting. Let me quote from Grudem here. He notes that “since ‘a thousand years’ is a figurative expression for ‘as long a time as we can imagine,’ or ‘all history,’ we can say from this verse that any one day seems to God to be present to his consciousness forever.”[8] In other words, every moment of human history is like the immediate present to God.

Marc Roby: It is clear from these verses that God does not experience time as we do.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly is clear but it is also impossible for us to grasp completely.

Marc Roby: It certainly is, and I think we need to end here for today. But I look forward to continuing this discussion next time. I would like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We appreciate hearing from you.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Translated by Henry Beveridge, Hendrickson Publishers, 2008, 2.7.6

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid, 2.7.10

[5] Ibid, 2.7.12

[6] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 168

[7] Ibid, pg. 169

[8] Grudem, pg. 170

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine God’s attribute of immutability, which means that he cannot change. Dr. Spencer, last time we laid out a biblical case for this incommunicable attribute, but you said that you wanted to discuss some implications of it and objections to it. So, how would you like to begin today?

Dr. Spencer: I first want to deal with a common misunderstanding of what it means for God to be unchangeable. I think Louis Berkhof says it very well, so let me quote from his Systematic Theology. But before I do that, let me define a word that he uses. He mentions an anthropopathic way of speaking and we need to know that an anthropopathism ascribes human emotions to a non-human subject, in this case to God. With that definition in hand let me read what Berkhof wrote about God; “There is change round about Him, change in the relations of men to Him, but there is no change in His Being, His attributes, His purpose, His motives of action, or His promises. … [when] Scripture speaks of His repenting, changing His intention, and altering His relation to sinners when they repent, we should remember that this is only an anthropopathic way of speaking. In reality the change is not in God, but in man and in man’s relations to God.”[1]

Marc Roby: I think it would be good to point out that when Berkhof says that Scripture speaks of God repenting, he is referring to the King James translation, where the word is used in the sense of changing your mind. There is never any suggestion that God has done something morally wrong.

Dr. Spencer: Of course not, that is unthinkable. Let me give a couple of examples of the passages he is referring to. In Exodus 32:9-10 God tells Moses, “I have seen these people, and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”[2] But in Verses 11-13 we read that Moses sought the Lord’s favor on behalf of the Israelites and then, in Verse 14, we read that “the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.”

Marc Roby: And where the translation you just read said “the LORD relented”, that’s one of the places where the King James Version says he “repented”.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it is. But we need to think about this exchange for a minute. Did God really change his mind? To say that would be an unwarranted conclusion and would violate the first rule of hermeneutics, which we covered in Session 39. Remember that that rule, which is also called the analogy of faith or the analogy of Scripture, says that we must use Scripture to interpret Scripture. Meaning that we should never pit one part of the Word of God against another. Since the whole Word of God is the infallible truth, we must understand every passage in a way that is consistent with the rest of Scripture. The Word of God cannot contradict itself.

Marc Roby: And therefore, to understand this passage as teaching that God truly changed his mind would contradict what we are told, for example, in Numbers 23:19 as we saw last time.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it would contradict that passage and others as well. But it isn’t that hard to see how to interpret this exchange between God and Moses. God was angry with his people and had determined beforehand, in fact from all eternity, how he was going to deal with it. He told Moses that he was angry enough to destroy them, but that he would still make Moses into a great nation. He did this knowing that Moses would plead for the people in prayer and also knowing that he would respond to Moses’ prayer by showing mercy to his people. The whole passage redounds to the glory of God’s great mercy. It is not at all necessary to say that God actually changed in any way and so the first rule of hermeneutics prohibits us from doing so.

Marc Roby: And of course, as you pointed out when we were discussing the first rule, we should even read things by human authors with the assumption that they have not contradicted themselves.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. That is the only fair way to read anything. Of course, with human authors it is all too often the case that they have contradicted themselves, but that cannot happen with God, who is perfect in every way.

Marc Roby: And with regard to this specific example, the interpretation you gave is perfectly reasonable and even agrees with how human beings deal with each other on some occasions.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. Think about a father dealing with a child. When he does something wrong, the father gets angry and disciplines him. But, if he then sincerely acknowledges that he did wrong and seeks his father’s forgiveness, the father forgives and he is restored to a place of favor. The father doesn’t change in any meaningful way during this whole process, he is being perfectly consistent in how he deals with the child. What changes is the child’s status with the father. He goes from being in his father’s favor, to being out of favor, and then back into favor again. But these changes are predicated on the actions of the child, not on some change taking place in the father. In fact, quite the opposite is true, the father’s behavior is entirely consistent and unchanging, but his attitude toward the child changes with the child’s behavior. That is exactly what Berkhof was referring to when he said that “In reality the change is not in God, but in man and in man’s relations to God.”

Marc Roby: Of course there is an even larger issue here as well; namely, how God’s unchangeable sovereignty and the efficacy of Moses’ prayer for his people can both be true at the same time.

Dr. Spencer: That is the same issue. And we must admit that there is mystery involved in trying to comprehend how God’s sovereignty and man’s free agency can both be true. I hope to get into that at a later date, but for now I think it is sufficient to point out that God ordains the means as well as the end.

Marc Roby: OK, can you explain what you mean by that?

Dr. Spencer: I mean that God not only ordains what happens, he ordains the means by which it happens. So, for example, let’s say that God has ordained to heal someone of a particular disease, let’s call this person Joe. It may well be that one of the means he has also ordained is that you and I should pray for Joe to be healed. God is not changing in any way when he then answers our prayers by healing Joe, but it is still reasonable to say that our prayers were efficacious in helping to bring about Joe’s healing.

Marc Roby: That makes me think of 2 Chronicles 7:14, where God makes a great promise to his people. He says, “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a great promise and it clearly states God’s unchanging intention to change his external behavior based on our behavior. The Bible has many wonderful promises in it, along with some terrifying threats. And all of them are true. God does not change. If we do what he has threatened to punish, we will be punished. But, if we sincerely repent and cry out for mercy, we will receive mercy. God does not change, but our status before God can change, just like the child’s status with his father changed.

But, by the way, saying that we will receive mercy when we repent doesn’t necessarily mean that we will not suffer the consequences for our sins in this life. God does not promise to remove all temporal consequences, in fact, he warns us that our sins will have consequences. In Leviticus 26:40-42 God says, “But if they will confess their sins and the sins of their fathers—their treachery against me and their hostility toward me, which made me hostile toward them so that I sent them into the land of their enemies—then when their uncircumcised hearts are humbled and they pay for their sin, I will remember my covenant with Jacob and my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.”

Marc Roby: That passage is frightening and should cause us to be very careful to not sin, but it is also comforting because it contains the same basic promise as 2 Chronicles 7:14; namely, that God will remember his covenant and will remember the land, which means he will deal with them favorably.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And we must be careful to state clearly that when it says we will pay for our sin, it is not talking about atonement. Jesus Christ is the only one who can atone for our sin. This is speaking strictly about our circumstances in this life. In the ultimate sense, we can’t pay for our sin, but our sins will be covered by the blood of Christ on the Day of Judgment.

Marc Roby: We should certainly praise God for that unchangeable promise. Before we leave the topic of God’s immutability, let me ask you about the modern view that is usually called Process Theology. This view states that God is constantly changing. According to this view he is, for example, learning all the time because he doesn’t know what I’m going to do until I actually do it.

Dr. Spencer: That view is completely unbiblical. Wayne Grudem deals with it briefly in his Systematic Theology and points out that it is based on two false assumptions.[3] First, they assume that for our lives to be meaningful in any way it must be true that what we do can somehow change God. But that assumption has no biblical basis and any real Christian, for whom the Scriptures must be the ultimate authority, will reject it.

Marc Roby: I would also add that the assumption doesn’t really make sense anyway. If you take away the God of the Bible, who says that human life actually does have any significance?

Dr. Spencer: I agree with you completely. The second error that process theologians make is that they assume God must be changeable because change is somehow seen as an essential part of real existence. But, as Grudem points out, the Bible emphatically denies this view. We read Psalm 102 Verses 25-27 last time and they bear repeating. They say, “In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded. But you remain the same, and your years will never end.”

Marc Roby: That does put the kibosh on the idea that God changes.

Dr. Spencer: It does. We have to remember the point we made way back in Session 4 and have referred to a number of times since. Namely, that everyone has an ultimate standard for truth, either human reason, which is fallen, or God’s propositional revelation, which is infallible and found in the Bible. The assumptions of process theology come from human reason, not the Bible, and they must be rejected because they contradict God’s truth given to us in the Bible.

Marc Roby: I think that is enough said about process theology. There is another question raised about God’s immutability, at least implicitly, by the modern idea that the God of the New Testament is somehow kinder and gentler than the God of the Old Testament.

Dr. Spencer: That is a common view now. In fact, many self-professed Christians seem to think that the Old Testament has almost no applicability to us at all, other than being a source of ancient history. The reality is however, that a careful reading of the Bible shows that God has not changed at all.

There are, I think, three main things that have changed and which affect the life of a believer significantly. The first is that we have much greater revelation now, we’ve talked about the progressive nature of revelation before. The second is that Jesus Christ has come. Old Testament believers looked forward to the promised Messiah, and we look back on his historical appearance. The biggest significance of that change for believers, besides the increased revelation involved with it, is that the Old Testament ceremonial system was completely done away with. For example, we no longer perform animal sacrifices because Christ was the final, efficacious, once-for-all sacrifice that obtained eternal redemption as we are told in Hebrews Chapter 9. In addition, we no longer have just one temple, there is no longer a separate priesthood, we are all a royal priesthood as we are told in 1 Peter 2:9.

Marc Roby: Alright, you said that there were three main changes, what is the third?

Dr. Spencer: The third thing that has changed is that we no longer live under the same civil government. God had given the Israelites a number of civil laws when they lived in a theocracy and, while those laws certainly reflect God’s nature and how he wants us to live, we are no longer bound by them and the punishments prescribed by them. In fact, as Paul clearly tells us in Romans 13:1-2, we are bound to keep the laws of the civil government in the place where we live so long as those laws do not tell us to sin[4]. And we would have to violate our civil laws to do some of the things commanded under the civil laws of the Jews in the Old Testament.

Marc Roby: That is certainly true. Can you explain what these three significant changes in the lives of believers have to do with the question of whether or not the God of the New Testament is the same as the God of the Old Testament?

Dr. Spencer: At one level they have nothing to do with it, since God is who he is. But, the point I was preparing to make is that because of these three changes, some people have jettisoned the Old Testament, thinking that it is no longer relevant. The truth is that God has not changed at all and so the Old Testament is absolutely relevant today.

We do consciously reject the ceremonial laws, which served the purpose of pointing forward to Christ and were abrogated when he came, but the principles they elucidated are still important. In a similar manner, we are not bound by the civil laws that were in place at that time, although they also inform us about what is important in God’s sight. But the moral law, which the Old Testament summarizes by the Ten Commandments, is still every bit as applicable to Christians today as it was to believers in the Old Testament. And God is every bit as angry with sin and wrathful toward it today as he was during Old Testament times, and he was every bit as gracious in the Old Testament times as he is today. Those things have not changed.

Marc Roby: In fact, you pointed out at the end of Session 54 that in Revelation 6:16 the wrath of God is actually called the “wrath of the Lamb”. It is Jesus Christ himself who has prepared hell for the devil, his demons, and all who follow him.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. If you think that Jesus was always smiling and nice to everyone, you should read the New Testament all the way through and it will disabuse you of that false idea. Just look at Matthew Chapter 23 where Jesus calls the teachers of the law and Pharisees hypocrites, blind guides, blind fools, snakes and vipers. He pronounces woes on them and asks, in Verse 33, “How will you escape being condemned to hell?” In Matthew 7:23 he says how he will deal with false Christians, he says “I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” The Greek word translated here as “evildoers” is ἀνομία, which literally means lawlessness, in other words, a person who does not keep the law. And the Old Testament moral law is referred to over and over again in the New Testament as being the law, there isn’t some entirely new law presented in the New Testament. Although Jesus Christ did expansively interpret the moral law in his Sermon on the Mount. But, never once did Jesus even hint, nor did any other New Testament author, that the moral law has been abrogated.

So, the conclusion is that God has not changed at all. That should be a great comfort to us as believers, and a great warning to all who have not yet surrendered to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Marc Roby: I think this is a good place to stop for today. Let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we look forward to hearing from you.

[1] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1938, pg. 59 (I changed “if” to “when” to be consistent with a modern way of phrasing his statement). Note:This book can be purchased as a combination of his Systematic Theology and Introductory Volume to Systematic Theology in one text from Eerdmans, 1996

[2] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[3] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pp 166-167

[4] See Acts 5:29 for the principle that we must respectfully disobey if commanded so sin.

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine the Doctrine of the Trinity. We are following the outline in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology,[1] which states that to firmly establish this doctrine of the Trinity, we must establish three things: First, that God exists in three persons; second, that each person is fully God; and third, that there is one God. We have shown that God exists in three persons and that each person is fully God. So, Dr. Spencer, I assume you want to begin making the biblical case that there is only one God, is that right?

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. The fact that there is only one true and living God is an absolutely undeniable and consistent teaching of the Bible. It has not been a controversial point either, so I don’t think we need to spend much time on it. But, there are some things it will be useful to point out.

In Chapter 12 of Mark’s gospel we read about a teacher of the law asking Jesus, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” [2] We read Jesus’ famous answer in Verses 29-31, “The most important one is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” I want to focus on the first thing Jesus said, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

Marc Roby: It would be hard to be clearer than that, “the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

Dr. Spencer: I don’t think you can be any clearer than that. And Jesus was quoting the famous Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4. The word Shema is the first word of this verse in the Hebrew and means “hear”. It has been called the greatest confession of the Jewish faith and is recited daily by devout Jews even today. In fact, it is also recited at the climactic moment of the final prayer of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, and traditionally as the last words before death.[3] But, there is also something very interesting to say about the Shema given that we are discussing the Doctrine of the Trinity.

Marc Roby: What is that?

Dr. Spencer: When it says “the Lord our God, the Lord is one”, the Hebrew word translated here as “one” is echad, and James Boice says it “means not one in isolation but one in unity. In fact, the word is never used in the Hebrew Bible of a stark singular entity. It is the word used in speaking of one bunch of grapes, for example, or in saying that the people of Israel responded as one people.”[4] The same word is used in Genesis 2:24 where we are told “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” When it says “one flesh”, the Hebrew word translated as “one” is again echad.

Marc Roby: That is very interesting, God is one, but not, as Boice puts it, “a stark singular entity”. What other biblical evidence do we have for the fact that there is only one God.

Dr. Spencer: In Isaiah 45:5-6 God tells us, speaking through the prophet, “I am the LORD, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God. I will strengthen you, though you have not acknowledged me, so that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting men may know there is none besides me. I am the LORD, and there is no other.”

Marc Roby: That is again perfectly clear.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it is. There really is no doubt that the Bible reveals that there is one and only one God, the Creator of this universe. And as we labored to explain earlier, the fact that there is only one God does not in any way, shape or form contradict the fact that he exists in three persons. It also makes perfectly good sense that God exists in three persons when you consider his personal nature, God is love, but it doesn’t make sense to speak of love if there is only one person. Obviously, we can talk about loving ourselves, but that is not the deepest or truest sense of the word. God exists in three persons and those three persons have had perfect mutual love and fellowship for all eternity. God didn’t somehow become loving when he created this universe and the animate creatures that inhabit it.

Marc Roby: Well, it appears that we have now demonstrated all three of Grudem’s points: First, that God exists in three persons; second, that each person is fully God; and third, that there is one God. So, have we finished with the Doctrine of the Trinity?

Dr. Spencer: Not quite. We’ve finished with making the biblical case in support of it, but I would like to add a couple of comments for those who really struggle with this.

There is a principle in science known as Occam’s razor, which says that all else being equal, we should always prefer the simpler of two competing theories. Now I happen to think this principle is a good one, but we need to be careful to remember the “all else being equal” part. Whatever theory we choose must explain the observable facts. This is the Platonic idea that our theory must preserve the phenomena. The great English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once famously said that “The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be, ‘Seek simplicity and distrust it.’”[5]

Marc Roby: That sounds like a good approach, things are not always simple, so we must be sure that a simple answer does, in fact, explain all the observable facts, as you noted.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is extremely important. The truth of the matter is that the world we live in abounds with evidence of complicated phenomena. There is no doubt, for example, that Newton’s law of gravitation is simpler than the theory of general relativity; but, there is equally little doubt that Newton was wrong and the theory of relativity is either correct, or at least much closer to being correct. You can ignore some of the data and think that Newton had it completely right, but when you seek to explain all of the observable data, you find that Newton’s simple theory won’t work.

So it is with the Trinity. The Bible provides us with ample evidence that the doctrine is true, even though it is extremely difficult to understand. You can ignore some of the data, or twist and distort the data as the Jehovah’s Witnesses do, but you aren’t being honest in seeking to understand the data when you do that. The Word of God is too important to treat that way, we must seek to know the truth to the best of our abilities, even if it is beyond us to fully comprehend that truth.

Let me close with a statement that sums it up well. I want to be clear that this isn’t entirely original, I’m modifying a statement attributed to a Dr. South, which was quoted by the 19th-century theologian William Shedd. [6] Anyone who denies the doctrine of the Trinity will lose his soul, but anyone who tries to probe beyond what Scripture teaches may lose his mind.

Marc Roby: Now that is a good statement! And it reminds me of Psalm 131:1, where David declares that “I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.”

Dr. Spencer: That is good counsel. There are some things that we either don’t have sufficient information to fully understand or are simply not capable of fully understanding. We are not called to believe anything that is truly contradictory, but it doesn’t follow that we should reject the truth of things we can’t fully understand. And in Deuteronomy 29:29 we are told that “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”

Marc Roby: And I would say that a full understanding of the Trinity would certainly qualify as one of those secret things.

Dr. Spencer: And I would agree. So, I think we are now done with the Trinity.

Marc Roby: Great. What do we want to look at next?

Dr. Spencer: Before we move on, let me very briefly review what we have already covered. We are covering the topic of theology proper; in other words, the nature of God as he has revealed himself to us in the Bible. We noted that God’s attributes can be loosely divided into his incommunicable attributes, that is those which we do not share, and his communicable attributes, which are those we share to some degree.

We also noted what is called the simplicity of God; that is, that he cannot be thought of as an assemblage of parts. We should never think of any attribute of God in isolation, he is all of them, all of the time, in every relationship. God’s simplicity is also sometimes called his unity.[7] We also noted that we can only know what God chooses to reveal about himself and that we cannot relate to God as anything other than our Lord.

Marc Roby: Which is, I hasten to add, an extremely important point. We are not equals!

Dr. Spencer: No, we’re not even close. The creator/creature distinction is, as we’ve noted multiple times, critically important. I keep harping on this because the modern church has lost sight of this fact; if not in theory, then at least in practice. You see that by the casual and careless way most professing Christians approach worship and the Word of God.

In any event, continuing with our brief review, we started with God’s incommunicable attributes and discussed his aseity, which means his self-existence. Then, most recently, we discussed his triune nature, which we noted is sometimes not considered an attribute, but is part of the nature of God’s being.

Marc Roby: Alright, I assume we are going to go on to look at other incommunicable attributes. Which one do you want to discuss now?

Dr. Spencer: Let’s look at the unchangeableness of God, which is also called his immutability. This is an extremely important attribute and it should provide great comfort to the Christian. We can be absolutely certain that God’s promises are true and unchangeable and that he himself is unchangeably capable of fulfilling them.

Marc Roby: That is a great comfort. And it is certainly taught in the Bible, which passage would you like to look at first?

Dr. Spencer: Let’s start with Numbers 23:19, where we read, “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?” These are obviously rhetorical questions, so the point is that when God speaks, he will also act. And when he makes a promise, he will fulfill it, because he is unchangeable.

Marc Roby: It is fascinating to note that it was the false prophet Balaam whom God used to speak those words.

Dr. Spencer: That is an interesting point, and it is a demonstration of the fact that God is sovereign over all, even his enemies.

But, getting back to God’s immutability, we learn about it in many other places as well. In Psalm 33 for example we are given a clear contrast between the plans of men and the plans of God. In Verses 10-11 we read, “The LORD foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples. But the plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.” In other words, God is unchangeable. His plans and his purposes stand firm.

We see a similar contrast in Psalm 102, this time the contrast is between the changeable nature of the inanimate creation and the immutability of God. In Verses 25-27 we read, “In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded. But you remain the same, and your years will never end.”

Marc Roby: That is hugely comforting. Our sun and earth will one day perish, but our God and his promises to us will not, which means that we will not!

Dr. Spencer: That is great comfort. We will spend eternity with God in a new heaven and a new earth. The Lord’s brother, James, speaks about the unchangeable nature of God too. In James 1:17 he wrote that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” And God spoke through the Old Testament prophet Malachi saying, in Malachi 3:6, “I the LORD do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.”

Marc Roby: Hallelujah! We are not destroyed because God’s eternal purpose of saving a people for himself will not change.

Dr. Spencer: You’re right, it will not change. In Isaiah 14:14 the prophet tells us that “The LORD Almighty has sworn, ‘Surely, as I have planned, so it will be, and as I have purposed, so it will stand.’” Which should be a great comfort to all who know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

But, God’s unchangeable nature is a double-edged sword; it is also true that God will not fail to punish the wicked who refuse to repent and trust in Christ. In fact, the verse I just read is really directed to that end. The next verses, Isaiah 14:15-17, say, “‘I will crush the Assyrian in my land; on my mountains I will trample him down. His yoke will be taken from my people, and his burden removed from their shoulders.’ This is the plan determined for the whole world; this is the hand stretched out over all nations. For the LORD Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him? His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back?” When it says that his hand is stretched out, you should picture a hand raised up getting ready to strike.

Marc Roby: And no one can stand when God strikes, so that should be every bit as frightening to the unbeliever as it is comforting to the Christian.

Dr. Spencer: It should be. In Isaiah 40:6-8, the prophet wrote that “A voice says, ‘Cry out.’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ ‘All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.’”

Marc Roby: And that, of course, is why we are doing this podcast. Because what the Word of God says does not change and is of eternal importance. Are we finished with looking at God’s immutability?

Dr. Spencer: Not quite, I have one more point to make. God’s immutability is a necessary consequence of his perfection. All change is either change for the better, or for the worse. For example, if your knowledge changes you either learned something new or you forget something. And if your moral purity changes you either become more pure or less pure. Therefore, if God is perfect, and the Bible clearly says that he is, for example in Psalm 18:30 and Matthew 5:48, then we you conclude that he cannot change. Because if he changes, it either means that he wasn’t perfect before and then somehow attained perfection, or he was perfect and now, having changed, he is no longer perfect. James Boice makes a similar argument in his Foundations of the Christian Faith[8] and so does Berkhof in his Systematic Theology.[9]

Marc Roby: That is an example of how all of God’s attributes work together in a consistent and complementary way to describe his being. Are we finished with God’s immutability now?

Dr. Spencer: We are finished with making the biblical case for it, but I want to consider some of the practical ways in which this attribute affects us and also answer some of the objections people raise to it.

Marc Roby: I think that will have to wait for our next session. In closing, let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions or comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We would appreciate hearing from you.

[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 231

[2] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[3] E.g., see https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-shema/

[4] James Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, Revised in One Volume, InterVarsity Press, 1986, pg. 111

[5] From the Tarner Lectures, e.g., see https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/213548-the-aim-of-science-is-to-seek-the-simplest-explanations

[6] William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1888, pg. 250

[7] Grudem, op. cit., pp 177-180

[8] Boice, op. cit., pg. 242

[9] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1938, pg. 58 (This can be purchased as a combination of his Systematic Theology and Introductory Volume to Systematic Theology in one text from Eerdmans, 1996)

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