IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 1, Number 22, July 26 to August 1, 1999


by John M. Frame

Is it possible, I ask, to preach systematic theology, as to preach biblical theology? I don't see why not. Scripture says nothing against it, so far as I can see. And the more I study systematic theology, the more I find great edification in it.

Some of you have heard me make these doctrinal points in my lectures on the Doctrine of God. But now I'm going to present them as I would preach them to a congregation. Well, maybe not to any congregation — more likely a congregation of seminary students and professors. But at any rate, maybe this will encourage you to use systematic theological material similarly in your own preaching.

This systematic theological sermon begins in a real life situation. Some time ago, Scott Clark presented a message on God's unchangeability which was printed in the seminary bulletin, the Update. Scott's piece provoked a couple of letters by people influenced by what is sometimes called "new model" evangelicalism. The letters said that God is in time and therefore changeable. Does not Scripture often say that God changes his mind? In Genesis 6:5, God says that he is grieved that he has made man. God was not grieved in Genesis 1, when he first made man. So Genesis 6:5 seems, at least, to represent a change. In Jonah 3:4, Jonah brings a prophecy from God to Ninevah, "Forty more days and Ninevah will be overturned." It certainly sounds as though God intends to destroy Ninevah. But forty days pass, and Ninevah still stands. Ninevah has repented. Has God changed his mind? Has he gone back on his Word?

Yet, Scripture does tell us that God does not change. Malachi 3:6: "I, the Lord, do not change." In Psalm 102:25-27, the Psalmist says to God, "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. In the New Testament, James (1:17) tells us, "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows."

To be more specific, God's character does not change. His love endures forever (Ps. 136). His eternal decrees do not change: he knows the end from the beginning. And his Word doesn't change: "The grass withers, and the flowers fail, but the word of our God stands forever" (Isa. 40:8). Even the wicked prophet Balaam knew that "God is not a man that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind" (Num. 23:19).

So God is unchanging. He does not change his mind. But as we've seen, some Scriptures suggest that God does in fact change his mind. We are tempted to say that when Scripture talks about God changing, it is merely speaking "anthropomorphically." That is, when Scripture talks about God changing, it is not talking about the way God really is, only about what he looks like to us. There is truth in that, but also problems. For one thing, some theologians today are taking the opposite approach to these texts. They say that change is the real truth about God; "unchanging" is only the way he looks to us as he maintains a relative constancy over time.

Certainly it would be better if we could confess enthusiastically both sides of this paradox, finding profound biblical truth in both kinds of affirmations. It would be better if we could find one sense in which God changes and another sense in which he does not. And I believe we can.

Look at Jonah for a moment. Jonah really expected God to change! Remember that Jonah didn't want to prophecy to Ninevah. Ninevah was Israel's enemy. Jonah didn't want Ninevah to repent; he didn't want God to save them. When God did save them, he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, "O Lord, is that not what I said when I was still at home? This is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take away my life." Poor old Jonah. It's intolerable, isn't it, Jonah, to live in a world with such a compassionate God!

I won't say any more about Jonah's problem, which is great. But look at what he's doing: He's saying that when God changes his mind, it's because of a greater constancy, a deeper unchangeability. When Jonah says that God is gracious and compassionate, he is quoting Exodus 34:6, where God himself uses these terms to expound his name Yahweh, that mysterious name that is God's memorial name to all generations. He is Yahweh, the I Am. He always has been the I am, and always will be. So he will always be gracious and compassionate. Indeed, as Jonah expounds it, he will always be eternally "the God who relents." Eternal relenting; how's that for paradox?

Jeremiah can make this a bit easier to understand. In his prophecy (18:7) God says that "If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict upon it the disaster I had planned." Here the Lord tells us that he has a general policy: he will relent if the nation repents. This is what God did with Ninevah. And this changeability is God's eternal nature. He is Yahweh the compassionate, the God who relents.

We can see that God's unchangeability is not a perfectly simple idea. God's very unchangeable nature is displayed in certain kinds of change.

Is this mere neo-orthodox illogic? A Barthian kind of paradox? If so, don't tell John Robbins I said it. But I don't think this is an offense to reason, or even human reason. There is a mystery here, but not a logical contradiction. We can go further in Scripture to gain a better understanding of how God's unchangeability and his changeability fit together.

Scripture also teaches God's omnipresence. To quote Jeremiah again (23:24), "‘Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him?' declares the Lord. ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?' declares the Lord." God is everywhere.

Now we know how this applies to space. Two things: God transcends space, and God fills it. The heaven of heavens cannot contain him. That is his immensity. God rules over space; nobody can measure him or confine him. But he is also immanent in space, so that he fills every cranny of the universe.

But we can say the same things about God's relation to time. God transcends time, and he is immanent within time. He is above time, for he knows every moment of time with equal vividness. Time never passes too quickly or too slowly for him. He is not limited by time, but rather he rules it as the Lord of time. But also, he is present in time. He is not only here, but also now. How could he be with us in space, if he were not also with us in time?

Some of you may remember from a lecture of mine that at the beginning of Exodus there is a problem with time. It has been about 400 years since God brought Israel into Egypt through Joseph. A pharaoh arises who never knew Joseph and makes Israel his slaves. They cry out to God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The mention of those three names underscores how long it has been. The underlying question: does God still exist, and is his promise still valid? Is he with us now as he was with our fathers 400 years ago? Then when God speaks to Moses and identifies himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he answers that question. I suspect that at least part of the meaning of the mysterious name I AM is intended to be an answer to this problem of time. God not only was, but is. He is not only here, but now, ready to save, ready to deliver.

Note again the paradox: God is the unchanging Lord, the one who remains the same over time. But he comes in the here and now to bring change.

When Jesus, God's Son, entered the world, again there was a problem of time. Again, God had been silent for 400 years. Again, Israel was under foreign domination. Again, some called for God to save, to send his Messiah. As Yahweh before Moses, so Jesus bridged the centuries: Abraham, he says in John 8:56, rejoiced to see his day. And when the Jews take up stones to cast at him, he says, "Before Abraham was, I AM," applying to himself the divine name of Exodus 3:14. Jesus is the unchanging I AM, the same, as Hebrews 13:8 says, yesterday, today, and forever. But as in the time of Moses, he comes into the world to bring change. His nature and his plan are unchanging; but his plan is a plan for change.

So our God is an unchanging God, but he enters history to be with us and to bring salvation in Jesus. He is present in every moment of time, as in every bit of space. He is with us now, not physically as Jesus was during his earthly ministry, but really, truly. To him, as to the incarnate Jesus, today is the same day in which we are now living; his yesterday was our yesterday; his tomorrow will be our tomorrow too. Like Jesus, he sees the past as past, the future as future. He knows that Tuesday will be different from Monday. Something may please him on Monday; something else may grieve him on Tuesday. During his earthly life, Jesus' mood often changed from joy to grief and back again. That was not a sham. He was responding truly to the events of his life. It would have been wrong for him to weep at Cana, or to rejoice that Jerusalem murdered the prophets. As God with us, he responded rightly to every event in time as it came to pass. So, I think, does God in his omnipresence even now. His moods change, for his moods rightly respond to the events of history.

The old theologians used to say that God's nature, plan, and word are changeless, but that God's relations to creatures change, since they, the creatures, constantly change. I don't think I'm saying anything very different from that. But we do need to take more seriously than the older theologians that God really comes into time. For when he does that, there are many, many "changing relations" between God and creatures, for then God interacts with all the creatures as the supreme character in the historical drama. So it certainly seems that God himself is changing. His moods change; his momentary plans change. One moment he blesses, another moment he curses. We can therefore pardon the biblical writers for saying sometimes that God changes his mind. When we think about God's presence in time, we are tempted to say that too. When Jesus grew and moved and spoke different things on different occasions, we say he changed, even though he was the same, yesterday, today, and forever. We can say the same about God omnipresent, God present now with us and in the world. God changes in accord with his unchanging character, decree, and Word.

To speak of God's changing is to speak of his redemption and judgment of creatures. We can be thankful that God is the God who relents. He is the God of compassion and grace, the one who placed our sins on Jesus and forgives them for his sake. Truly, as his people we have moved from his wrath to his grace in history; and his attitude toward us has really changed, from being our wrathful judge to being our loving Father.