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I will be giving an overview of God’s immutability, that God does not change, as well as the related doctrine of God’s impassibility, that God does not have passions or emotions like humans and the implications that both of these doctrines have for apologetics.  I will focus specifically on James 1:17 as a classical text describing both God’s immutability and impassibility.  Both of these attributes are listed in chapter 2 of the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, of God and the Holy Trinity, and it also provides a warning that we do not limit who God is to what our minds can fully comprehend because our finite minds will never fully understand an infinite God,

Chapter 2 Paragraph 1: The Lord our God is but one only living and true God[1]; whose substance is in and of Himself[2], infinite in being and perfection; whose essence cannot be comprehended by any but Himself[3]; a most pure spirit[4], invisible, without body, parts, or passions, who only hath immortality, dwelling in light which no man can approach unto[5]; who is immutable[6], immense[7], eternal[8], incomprehensible, almighty[9], every way infinite, most holy[10], most wise, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will[11], for His own glory[12], most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him[13], and withal most just and terrible in His judgments[14], hating all sin[15], and who will by no means clear the guilty[16]”.

This text occurs in the larger context of James’ description of temptation and how man is easily drawn away by his own passions and lusts, falling into sin, which James then contrasts with God’s immutable nature,

James 1:13-17: “Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted 1by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren.  Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow[17]”.

Before exegeting verse 17, I want to briefly discuss the preceding context and how it strengthens the argument in defense of God’s Immutability and Divine Impassibility.  James hones in on a key contrast with verse 13-15 by using an attention grabbing device (metacomment) in verse 16, Do not be deceived my beloved brothers.  Verse 16 is sometimes viewed as starting a new paragraph in the book (pericope) since it has the common features of an imperative with the vocative brothers, however Runge demonstrates that this serves as an attention grabbing device (metacomment) which contrasts the preceding verses about the source of temptation from within, one’s own desires, with God, the immutable giver of good gifts and source of heavenly wisdom.   Also making this start a new section would unnecessarily separate verses 16-18 from the preceding and following verses in James 1[18].  Peter Davids refers to it as the hinge of the paragraph (pericope) unifying the contrasting sections of James 1:13-15 with James 1:17-18,

“The reason for this uncertainty is clearly that it is a hinge verse: the admonition not to err picks up the problem of 1:13 and carries it forward to its contrasts in 1:17, tying the two paragraphs together.[19]

These factors show that verse 17 is not starting a new paragraph separate from the preceding verses (James 1:13-15), but is intimately connected to it, and James uses various devices such as the attention grabbing device (metacomment), use of the same Greek words in verses 13-15 are used in verse 17-18, as well as other stylistic differences to strengthen the contrast in the text.  The contrast is not just on the theological level, but is enforced by contrast in the Greek grammar of James 1:13-17 as well.

James is describing the immutability of God in verse 17, and specifically what has been referred to in classical protestant theology as the impassibility of God.  James Dolzeal gives a useful explanation of this essential doctrine and how it relates to God’s immutability,

“Impassibility is simply a subset of divine immutability.  Numerous biblical passages witness to God’s unchangeableness: “I, the LORD, do not change” (Malachi 3:6); God is the “Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow” (James 1:17).  Though many have insisted that such passages only indicate God’s ethical immutability- nothing more than his constancy of character – and not necessarily ontological immutability, the classical understanding of immutability argues that God’s ethical immutability requires his ontological immutability as its foundation.  How could a God whose very act of being is liable to change possibly guarantee that his purpose and promises will not change?  God repeatedly ratifies his covenant promises by swearing according to his own life (e.g., Num. 14:21, 28’ Heb. 6:13).  If his life could undergo changes, even non-essential changes, then presumably so could those oaths that have been staked upon it.  The reliability of God’s unchanging promises is built on the reliability of his unchanging act of existence-his very being[20]”.

This is not a peripheral doctrine but is a necessary doctrine (sina qua non) of God’s very being because if God is not immutable then God’s revelation isn’t either, so we would have no confidence in God’s Word since it would be equally subject to change if God himself is mutable rather than immutable.  Some who object to the classical doctrine of God’s impassibility cite passages such as Genesis 6:6, where it states that God repented, and erroneously conclude that God repented, and therefore has emotions like his creatures.  To properly interpret these passages about God repenting i.e. Genesis 6:6, we must interpret them in light of all that Scripture says about God’s attributes i.e. Numbers 23:19, “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?” and 1 Samuel 15:29, “Also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind.”  God’s repentance is an anthropopathism, attributing to God what is proper to man in order to describe God’s attributes analogically, just as the description of God stretching out his arm in the Old Testament is an anthropomorphism describing God’s omnipotence, not stating that God has a physical arm[21].  We rightly acknowledge that Mormons are abusing Scripture when they cite passages about God stretching out his hand or describing other actions of God via anthropomorphisms as meaning that God therefore must have a literal physical body, and if we are consistent in using the same hermeneutic, then we should examine passages describing God repenting in the same way.  Likewise descriptions of God repenting do not show a change in God because God is immutable, His love does not fluctuate as man, nor his anger.  God’s love and attributes are the execution of God’s decrees in time, not unpredicted reactions to men[22].  Here is Henry Ainsworth’s exposition of Genesis 6:6 and how he explains the statement God repented,

“[On Genesis 6:60 It repented Jehovah: This is spoken not properly, for God repenteth not, 1 Sam.15:29 but after the manner of men, for God changing his deed and dealing otherwise than before, doeth as men doe when they repent…it grieved him: The Scripture giveth to God, joy, grief, anger, &c. not as any passions, or contrary affections, for he is most simple and unchangeable, Lam. 1:17 but by a kinde of proportion, because he doeth of his immutable nature and will, such things, as men doe with those passions and changes of affections.  So hart, hands, eyes, & other parts are attributed to him, for effecting such things, as men cannot doe but by such members.  God is sayd to be greeved, for the corruption of his creatures: contrarywise when he restoreth them by his grace, he rejoiceth in them, Isa. 65:19, Psal. 104:31. Of these phrases spoken concerning God, the Hebrew doctors write thus: For as much as it is clear that (God) is not corporall or bodily thing; it is also cleare, that not any corporall accident (or occurrence) dooth befall unto him: neyther composition, nor division, nor place nor measure, nor going up, nor coming down; nor right hand nor left hand; nor face…neyther is he changeable, for nothing can cause him to change[23]”.

This is not merely a doctrine derived from Greek philosophy, but is clearly derived from James’ discourse.  James uses the same Greek words in verse 17 with the preceding verses in 13-16 connecting them together as a unit and making the contrast stronger between man being easily drawn away by his lusts, where as God is immutable and impassible. Those who seek to deny divine impassibility or redefine it must be willingly to examine their traditions in light of Scripture.  The fact that James is presenting God’s immutability via negation “with whom there is no shadow or variation of change” (James 1:17[24]) does not undermine his affirmation of divine impassibility because it is consistent with James’ discourse and the contrast between Man’s mutability affirmed in James 1:14-15, contrasted with a denial of God’s mutability (James 1:17).  James also used the same type of negation in James 1:13 to deny that anyone is tempted by God because God is not tempted from evil things, James uses an alpha privative to negate the root concept of temptation (ἀπείραστός); an easy example of this is the word atheist in English which means non-theist i.e. someone who does not believe in God. This is the same contrast in verses13-15 to show the fact that God is not mutable (not tempted, ἀπείραστός) and subject to temptation in contrast to humans created in God’s image who are susceptible to temptations [we are dragged away and enticed by our own lusts (James 1:14)].  Also the comparison with Greek translation of Psalm 135 (abbreviated as the LXX) shows that the phrase, whom there is no variation or shadow of change (James 1:17) corresponds to his mercy endures forever (LXX Psalm 135:7).  The LXX uses the Greek word heleos for mercy which is used to translate the Hebrew word ḥesed, God’s covenantal loyalty[25].  Here is a chart comparing the similarities between James 1 and Psalm 135 in the Greek Septuagint (click on the chart to enlarge image):

James 1 chart


God’s mercy (heleos) presupposes the immutability of God and divine impassibility, God’s mercy cannot be everlasting if God is mutable.  The Old Testament and New Testament clearly distinguish God’s attributes from his creation, God is not like man and is separated by an infinite gulf in terms of God’s attributes compared to the attributes of his creatures[27].

This has deep implications for pastoral theology in the context of James discourse because God’s immutability is directly contrasted with the preceding depravity and mutability of man who is easily swayed by his own lusts, so God remains faithful and immutable during our trials and the source of heavenly wisdom sustaining believers in the midst of trials.  Thomas Manton gives the following illustrations to stress the importance of God’s immutability based on James 1:17 which is a necessity for God to faithfully comfort believers struggling with temptations,

“God, and all that is in God, is unchangeable; for this is an attribute that, like a silken string through a chain of pearl, runneth through all the rest: his mercy is unchangeable, ‘his mercy endureth for ever,’ Ps. 100:5[28]”.

“But God doth not change; there is no wrinkle upon the brow of eternity; the arm of mercy is not dried up, nor do his bowels of love waste and spend themselves.  And truly this is the church’s comfort in the saddest condition, that however the face of the creatures be changed to them, God will still be the same.  It is said somewhere that ‘the name of God’s immutability is an ointment poured out.’  Certainly this name of God’s immutability is an ointment poured out, the best cordial to refresh a fainting soul[29]”.

A neglected verse in understanding the exegetical implication of James 1:17 for the doctrine of divine impassibility is the verse following it, James 1:18,

“In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures[30]”.

God’s immutability in all of its subcategories such as divine impassibility is rooted in the divine eternality of God, so that God has eternally been the same whereas as everything that is finite, everything that has been created by God, has a point of origin and as a result is by nature mutable.  This is not a novel interpretation, 6th century early church Greek Father Oecumenius made this observation in his commentary on the book of James defending God’s immutability based on God’s Divine Eternality,

“Here James reminds us that God is immutable, which is not true of us. For if we have been born it is clear that we have also been changed. How can something be immutable if it has gone from nonbeing to being? Furthermore he adds that God has given us birth by the Word of Life, lest we might be tempted to think that his Son was also born in the same way as we are. But according to John, all things were made by the Son, which means that he was not born along with us who have been made by him2[31]3. Commentary on James[32]”.

A.A. Hodge makes a similar argument in his exposition of the Westminster Confession of faith demonstrating that God’s divine eternality presupposes his immutability and impassibility because God is not bound by time and does not undergo change as creatures do,

“By affirming that God is eternal, we mean that his duration has no limit, and that his existence in infinite duration is absolutely perfect.  He could have no beginning, he can have no end, and in his existence there can be no succession of thoughts, feelings, or purposes.  There can be no increase to his knowledge, no change as to his purpose.  Hence the past and the future must be immediately and as immutably present with him as the present.  Hence his existence is an ever-abiding, all-embracing present, which is always contemporaneous with the ever-flowing times of his creatures.  His knowledge, which never can change, eternally recognizes his creatures and their actions in their several places in time; and his actions upon his creatures pass from him at the precise moments predetermined in his unchanging purpose.  Hence God is absolutely unchangeable in his being and in all the modes and states thereof.  In his knowledge, his feelings, his purposes, and hence in his engagements to his creatures, he is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever. “The counsel of the LORD standeth for ever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations.” Psalm 33:11[33]”.

James directs believers to the only sure and consistent foundation that is immutable in the midst of trials which is God who perfectly provides for believers and gives heavenly wisdom reflecting his nature which is omniscient and immutable.  In contrast to man’s feeble weakness to become easily ensnared James directs his audience to the fountain of true wisdom which comes from God rather than earthly wisdom which is only external in its appeal, but disguises itself with outward allurements when its true internal nature is death.  Just as James alludes to LXX Psalm 135:7 that God’s mercy endures forever, this provides encouragement for believers since it is founded and guaranteed due to God’s immutable nature (James 1:17) that He will not fail to follow through with his covenantal faithfulness to the elect founded in God’s eternal decrees.  James affirmation of God’s impassibility is not a dry orthodox doctrine that is impractical for believers or that makes God some cold distant observer, but rather provides hope during the dim trials of life since we still sin as believers and can be drawn away by our sinful passions, but God is not subject to change by passions or emotions as man since he perfectly executes his divine decrees and is not caught off guard by the actions of men.  When we seek heavenly wisdom we stand on a firm foundation unshakable by the tempests of life, but when we trust in our own strength and earthly wisdom, then we are easily tossed around by our own passions and quickly fall into temptation.  This is due to our underestimation of the power of sin and our failure to trust in God’s Immutability and Sovereignty as the source of heavenly wisdom.

[1] 1 Corinthians 8:4,6; Deuteronomy 6:4

[2] Jeremiah 10:10; Isaiah 48:12

[3] Exodus 3:14

[4] John 4:24

[5] 1 timothy 1:17; Deuteronomy 4:15,16

[6] Malachi 3:6

[7] 1 Kings 8:27; Jeremiah 23:23

[8] Psalm 90:2

[9] Genesis 17:1

[10] Isaiah 6:3

[11] Psalm 115:3; Isaiah 46:10

[12] Proverbs 16:4; Romans 11:36

[13] Exodus 34:6-7; Hebrews 11:6

[14] Nehemiah 9:32-33

[15] Psalm 5:5-6

[16] Exodus 34:7; Nahum 1:2-3; The Baptist Confession of Faith & Baptist Catechism (Birmingham, AL; Solid Ground Christian Books & Reformed Baptist Publications of the Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America), 6

[17] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Jas 1:13–17

[18] Runge, Steven E. Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament: A Practical Introduction for Teaching and Exegesis (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2010), 112

[19] Peter H. Davids, The Epistle of James: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), 86; “This also rhetorically supported by the contrast in syntax since James uses syndeton in James 1:14-15 contrasted with his style of asyndeton in James 1:16-18.  It is also consistent with other occurrences of the specific imperative Μὴ πλανᾶσθε in 1 Corinthians 6:9, 15:33, and Galatians 6:7, which are used at metacomments to get the reader’s attention and stress the importance of what follows after it. “Ropes comments that μὴ πλανᾶσθε is “used to introduce a pointed utterance … as in 1 Cor. 6:9, 15:33, Gal. 6:7” (James Hardy Ropes, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle of St. James [ICC; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1916], 158); Moo remarks that James “does not want his readers to make any mistake about what he is about to say about God as the source of all good gifts” (Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James [PNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000], 76),” cited by ibid, 112

Lastly, it is also supported by lexical cohesion in a chiastic form that contrasts James 1:13-15 with James 1:16-19 such as the contrast of giving birth to death, ἀποκύει θάνατον (James 1:15), with God giving birth to believers, ἀπεκύησεν ἡμᾶς (James 1:17), and both ἀποτελεσθεῖσα (James 1:15) and τέλειον (James 1:17) based on the root τέλειος.  Mark Taylor, A Text –Linguistic Investigation into the Discourse Structure of James (NY: T&T Clark International, 2006), 105

[20] James E. Dolzeal, “Still Impassible: Confessing God without Passions JIRBS 2014, 129-130

[21] Samuel Renihan, God without Passions: A Reader, 34

[22] Ibid, 27

[23] Henry Ainsworth, Annotations Upon the first book of Moses, called Genesis (M.P., 1616), 46-47, cited in ibid, 66-67

[24] This is called apophatic theology

[25] “The divine exercise of  חֶסֶד is based on God’s covenantal relationship with his people (1967, 102); חֶסֶד is the “essence” of the covenantal relationship (1967, 55)”. Willem VanGemeren, ed., New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997), 211

[26] Ibid, 46-47; I have slightly modified the chart adding in some more Greek, quoting from James 1 and LXX Psalm 135 to make the parallels clearer.

[27] “God is not quantitatively more than we are in being, knowledge, and will.  Nor is he simply qualitatively other than we are.  The best way to express the divide between God and creation is to say that he is quidditatively other than creation.  Quantity gets at the idea of “how much,” and quantity gets at the idea of “what kind.”  God is not just one kind of being within existence as creatures know it.  Quddity gets at the “whatness” or “essence” of things.  From this perspective, God is something altogether other than creation.  He does not exist, know, or will as we do, but as God, according to a divine mode of existence or being (i.e., as Creator)  For that reason, nothing that is truly in God can be predicated properly of the creature, and conversely nothing that is truly in the creature can be predicated properly of God”. Sam Renihan, God without Passions: A Reader (Palmdale, CA: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2015), 23

[28] Thomas Manton,  A Geneva Series Commentary: James (Litho, Great Britain: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1962), 113

[29] Ibid, 114

[30] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Jas 1:18.

[31] 23 PG 119:464–65 (PG = J.-P. Migne, ed. Patrologia Graeca. 166 vols. Paris: Migne, 1857–1886)

[32] Gerald Bray, ed., James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 16–17

[33] A.A. Hodge, The Confession of Faith (Carlisle, PA; The Banner of Truth, 1992), 50-51