Home > Systematic Theology > Attributes of God: Eternity and Immutability-Book 2- Chapter 2- Section 4

Attributes of God: Eternity and Immutability-Book 2- Chapter 2- Section 4

Book Second




In our knowledge of the objects which surround us, we include not only their present state, but their continued existence, and the changes which they undergo. Some things pass before our eyes, as visions of the moment; others, as the rocks, the sun, the stars, outlast many generations of men. Few living creatures remain in life as long as man; but the shortness of his life is a subject of daily remark, and of impressive scriptural representations.[27] The duration of the deity is exhibited in contrast thus: “Lord, make me know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am. Behold, thou hast made my days as a handbreadth, and mine age is as nothing BEFORE THEE.”[28] A thousand years, include many of the ordinary generations of mankind; yet, in comparison with God’s duration, they are said to be “as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.”[29] Tomorrow, while future, may appear to our view, as a duration of considerable length; but yesterday, when it is past, how short it is! An hour of the day, filled with a great variety of incidents, which it might require many hours to narrate, is lengthened out in our view; but how short, how contracted is a watch of the night, in which we sleep and awake, and know not that time has passed! Such to the view of God is the long period of a thousand years. To heighten our conception of God’s eternity, it is contrasted with the duration of those natural things which appear to possess the greatest stability: “Thou, Lord, in the beginning, has laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of thy hands; they shall perish, but thou remainest; and they all shall wax old as doth a garment: and as a vesture shalt thou fold them up, and they shall be changed; but thou are the same, and thy years shall not fail.”[30] But when we have enlarged our conceptions to the utmost, they still utterly fail to comprehend the vast subject. We stretch our thoughts backward and forward; but no beginning or end of God’s existence appears. To relieve our overstretched imagination, and to stop the unavailing effort to comprehend what is incomprehensible, we bring in the negative idea–no beginning, no end. Duration without beginning and without end, becomes the expression of God’s eternity.

That every thing, except God, had a beginning, is a doctrine of revelation: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”[31] This doctrine, philosophy cannot contradict, and perhaps cannot fully demonstrate. But there are manifestations of design, even in unorganized matter, in the kinds and quantities that exist, and the uses to which they are adapted. If matter is eternal, or a production of chance, why is it not all of one kind; and why are the kinds of it, and the proportionate quantities of each, so apparently the result of design? Revelation answers this by declaration, “In wisdom thou hast made them all.”[32]

In contemplating God as the First Cause, we consider his existence uncaused. As we look back through duration past, till we find one existence that is without beginning, so we look back through the long chain of effect and cause, till we have found one existence that is without cause. Sometimes, however, the conception is clothed in language, that has not merely negative import. Not satisfied with the merely negative idea, without cause, learned men labor to assign a cause for God’s existence, and represent it as the cause of itself, or as including its cause within itself. They express this, by saying, that God is self-existent. This mode of expression accommodates our tendency to philosophize; but it perhaps conveys no other intelligible idea, than that God’s existence is without cause.

Another philosophical expression, God necessarily exists, seems to possess some deep meaning; but when we labor to explore its depths, we shall, perhaps, find in it no other intelligible idea, than that God exists, and has always existed. His existence has always rendered his non-existence impossible, because it is impossible for anything to be, and not to be, at the same time. If philosophy goes behind the existence of God, in search of a cause necessitating his being, she wanders out of her proper province. We may permit her to trace the relation of cause and effect, as far as that relation is to be found; but when she has arrived at the uncaused existence of the eternal One, we should say to her, thus far shalt thou go, and no further.

The eternity of God has been defined, existence without beginning, without end, and without succession. Time with us, is past, present and future; but God’s existence is believed to be a perpetual now. The subject is beyond our comprehension; but it is most reasonable to conclude, that God’s mode of existence differs from ours, as it respects time, as well as space; and that, as he exists equally at every point of space, without division of his immensity, so he equally exists at every moment of time, without division of his eternity. Possibly this may be intimated in the Scripture phrase, “inhabiteth eternity.”[33] We dwell in time, a habitation with its various apartments; and we pass from one to another in order; but God’s habitation is undivided eternity. Our lifetime has its parts, childhood, boyhood, manhood, and old age; but God’s life is as indivisible as his essence.


The doctrine of God’s eternity, and that of his unchangeableness, are nearly allied to each other; and if his eternity excludes succession, it must also exclude the possibility of change. Unchangeableness applies not only to his essence, but also to his attributes. His spirituality is ever the same, his omnipresence the same, and so of the rest. His purpose, also, is unchangeable; it is called “his eternal purpose.”[35] He says: “My counsel shall stand.”[36] He is said, in Scripture, to repent; but, in the same chapter[37] in which it is twice said that God repented, it is also stated: “He is not a man, that he should repent.” We cannot suppose that the sacred writer intended to contradict himself palpably in the compass of a few verses. In accommodation to our modes of speaking, God is said to repent when he effects such a change in his work as would, in human actions, proceed from repentance. Repentance, in men, implies grief of mind, and change of work. The former is inconsistent with the perfection of God, but the latter is not. To destroy the world by the deluge, no more implied a change in God than to create it at first. Each set effected a great change, but in both God remained unchanged. No other language could so impressively represent God’s abhorrence of man’s wickedness to be the cause of the deluge, as that used by the sacred historian: “It repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.”[38]

When we contemplate the shortness of human life, and the incessant change of everything with which we have to do on earth, and of ourselves, as we pass from the cradle to the grave, we may well exclaim, as we look up to the eternal and unchangeable God, “Lord, what is man, that thou art mindful of him.” A sense of our comparative nothingness is eminently conducive to humility. A view of God’s eternity and unchangeableness is necessary to the due exercise of confidence in him. It is folly to trust in uncertain riches, and in the things which perish in the using of them; but we wisely put our trust in the living God. The men with whom we converse are passing away; the condition of life is perpetually changing; we are, in all our relations to earthly things, as if we were on the surface of a restless ocean; but God is as a rock amidst the fluctuating waters; and, while we repose unshaken confidence in him, our feet stand firmly, and we can look without dismay on the troubled scene around us. Men of age receive our reverence, and the counsels of their long experience are highly prized. Who will not reverence the Ancient of Days, the eternal God; and who will reject the counsel of Him “whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting”?[39]

The immutability of God has been made a pretext for restraining prayer before him; but this is wrong. Even if the giving or withholding of the blessings desired were unaffected by the prayer, there still remains sufficient reason for perseverance in offering the petition. The devotional feeling is acceptable to God, and profitable to the soul. If prayer will not bring God to the soul, it will at least, bring the soul to God. A man in a boat, on a dangerous water, may be saved by means of a rope thrown to him from the shore. When he pulls, though the rock to which the other end of the rope may be fastened does not come to the boat, the boat comes to the rock. So prayer brings the soul to God.

But it is not true, that the giving or withholding of the blessing desired is unaffected by the petition presented. Though God is unchangeable, his operation changes in its effect on his creatures, according to their changing character and circumstances. The same sun hardens clay and softens wax. Adam was in God’s favor before he sinned; but afterwards was under his displeasure. When a man becomes converted, he is removed from under the wrath of God into a state of favor with him, and all things now work together for his good. In all this, God changes not. God has, in time past, bestowed blessings in answer to prayer, and his unchangeableness encourages the hope that he will do so in time to come. His whole plan has been so arranged, in his infinite wisdom, that many of his blessings are bestowed only in answer to prayer. The connection between the prayer and the bestowment of the blessing, is as fixed by the divine appointment as that between cause and effect in natural things. The unchangeableness of God, therefore, instead of being a reason for restraining prayer, renders prayer indispensable; for our weak petitions have their effect with God, according to his immutable purpose; and, to deny the possibility of this, would be to deny the efficacy of Christ’s intercession.

[26] Deut. xxxii. 40; xxxiii. 27; Ps. ix. 7; xc. 2; cii. 27; cxlvi. 10; Isaiah lvii. 15; lxiii. 16; Jer. x. 10; Lam. v. 19; 1Tim. i. 17.

[27] 1 Chron. xxix. 15; Job vii. 6: Job ix. 25, 26.

[28] Ps. xxxix. 4, 5.

[29] Ps. xc. 4.

[30] Heb. i. 10, 11, 12.

[31] Gen. i. 1.

[32] Ps. civ. 24.

[33] Is. lvii. 15.

[34] Num. xxiii. 19. Ps. cii. 27; Mal. iii.6; Heb. i. 12; xiii. 8; Jas. i. 17.

[35] Eph. iii. 11.

[36] Is. xlvi. 10.

[37] 1 Sam. xv.

[38] Gen. vi. 6.

[39] Micah v. 2.

John L. Dagg- Manual of Theology

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