“If people are required to be baptized today, in order to receive the forgiveness of their sins, and they were not so required in the Old Testament era, does this not suggest that God has ‘changed’? And would this not conflict with the doctrine of the ‘immutability’ of God?”
This is a thoughtful question and we are happy to respond. We will approach the matter from several vantage points.
First, there should be a clarification of what scholars mean when they speak of the “immutability” of God. “Immutability” does not mean that the Lord never has any “change” associated with his design for the universe or the human family.
The Lord designed the seasons to express change — seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night (Genesis 8:22). He allows for living creatures to change — from young to old, from alive to dead. Without change, consistent with the will of God, life would be a tragic monotony.
Second, when theologians speak of the “immutability” of God they refer to his unchanging nature. His essence, his moral qualities do not change. He cannot become wiser or better than he intrinsically is. With God there is no “variableness” (James 1:17). As Lord, he changes not (Malachi 3:6). In the ultimate scheme of things, his plan for the human family does not change. He always has desired that sinful people come to him for salvation.
But here is a crucial concept. The fact that God himself does not change, does not nullify the fact that he has worked his plan for human redemption incrementally, and the development of that plan has involved change. Not changing himself, yet implementing change — these are not mutually exclusively propositions. Note the following declaration of the inspired psalmist.
“Of old you did lay the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the work of your hands. They shall perish, but you shall endure. Yes, all of them shall wax old like a garment; as a vesture you shall change them, and they shall be changed: but you are the same, and your years shall have no end” (Psalm 102:25-27; emp. add).
Note that this sacred text affirms that while Jehovah himself does not change, he can effect change, and such involves no compromise of his nature.
Appealing to the immutability of God, in an effort to negate the clear New Testament teaching relative to the necessity of immersion in water for the forgiveness of sin (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21, etc.), demonstrates a very careless approach to the sacred scriptures.
The fallacy of this type of argument may be laid bare by calling attention to the consequences that result from pursuing it. Reflect upon the following:
- If, because of his immutability, God can never alter his method of operation, there ought not to be any written revelation from him today. In the Patriarchal era of human history (i.e., from Adam to Moses), there was no written law. Such a circumstance should have been perpetual, therefore, if the “immutability” argument carries any weight.
- In the days of Moses, Jehovah gave a written law, but it was applicable only to the Hebrews (cf. Deuteronomy 5:1ff). If the Lord has never changed his procedures, no Gentile should have access to a concrete revelation from Heaven. This means we would have nothing more than the testimony of the conscience (Romans 1:14-16).
- The Jews worshipped in a temple at Jerusalem and offered bloody sacrifices; if that system has never been replaced, men ought to be offering such animal offerings today. But the fact is, there has been a “change” in the law (cf. Hebrews 7:12).
The fact of the matter is this: God progressively revealed himself to humanity across the ages — from the abstract via nature (Psalm 14:1), to the full complement of New Testament revelation. Along the way the Lord adjusted his methods to provide the most advantageous solicitation to sinful man.
But this great plan was in his mind from the very beginning, hence it was not a matter of attempting different venues until he found the right one. His immutability was never breached in any of the movements initiated.