Immutability: God’s Crowning Attribute

BY ARTHUR JOHN GOSSIP

If we disown Him, He also will disown us; and even if our faith fails, He remains true–He cannot prove false to Himself (2 Timothy 2:12-13, Weymouth).

WE OFTEN ACT more or less out of character, in a way that on the stage would strike playgoers as extremely improbable. But in real life anything may happen, and these natures of ours have no fixed geography as yet. They are like a world still only half-solidified, subject to unexpected cataclysms and upheavals.

A quiet countryside that has dozed drowsily for centuries may reel under an earthquake shock. Amid the snows and thick-ribbed ice of Arctic lands there may appear, incongruously, a wide lava torrent,
boiling and seething. And in the most unlikely people, ugly sins may suddenly show through. Hot passions that have never been suspected blaze up in hungry flames, leaving us gaping at an incredible thing.

To our bitter cost we all know how, when we are tired and rushed and put about, we are not ourselves. As people put it charitably, we are peevish and crabby. We do not know why we are so cross and touchy,
yet we cannot get back into the accustomed smooth ruts in which we normally travel. Instead, we go bumping and jolting through a horrid day till we come to ourselves again.

Surely we sympathize with the person who plaintively exclaims with much self-pity, “Really I am a decent, kindly, likeable soul, only there is another horrid fellow with repulsive ways, who will come at
times and sit in my clothes, use my name, and get mistaken for me.”

In all of us there is a queer element of unexpectedness, the erratic eccentricities of which can never be predicted. The pattern of our character does not run through the web from end to end, but breaks
off suddenly and in the oddest ways into some other, here and there, that clashes with it noisily.

We never can be quite sure of ourselves. At any moment we may act out of harmony with the whole architecture of our nature, like that strange break-away-from-plan in Ripon Cathedral, or like a river that has burst its banks and goes roaring, not in its real bed at all.

God’s Character Never Changes

But, say the Scriptures, the crowning glory of God is that He never acts out of character. He never falls below His best, He cannot be false to His own blessed nature. This means that if even once you
come upon Him with no clouds and darkness around Him to confuse your mind, blur your vision, and tempt you to imagine things that are not there; if even once you meet Him face to face, then you know what He always is. You can depend upon that absolutely and forever.

The wonderful thing about Christ is that as people looked at Him, followed Him, and watched Him, it became apparent to them that this is what God must be like. They concluded that if there is a God at all,
then He must have Christ’s eyes, Christ’s ways, Christ’s ever-helpful hands, Christ’s character. We can safely argue this fact, for the creature cannot morally out-top the Creator; a greater cannot be formed
from a least.

Do not forget, says Scripture, that what God is, He always is. Stand upon Calvary and know that if today He loves like that, He always loves like that. Yes, even when our hearts become hot and suspicious of
Him or soured and bad-tempered toward Him for His ordering of our lives and crossing our wishes, He still loves us.

Christ knew that it is not easy to believe that. What was it in Him that first drew you to the Master? “God,” said Emerson, “enters by a private door into each individual.” And what, I think, attracted me to Him at the beginning was not even His compassion, nor His generosity in judgment, nor His odd faith in hopeless-looking folk. It was His winning honesty–the daring way in which He states the case against
Himself and the tenets most dear to Him–that drew me to Christ. He puts into words, quite staggering in their boldness, the doubts that hover in the background of our minds, but which we ourselves would
hesitate to express.

I know, He says, that days will come when this gospel of Mine will seem a mere exasperation, disproved by the hard facts of your life. Sometimes your tried hearts will be tempted to hurl it from you
impatiently as a thing visibly.

Love, love! Where is there any trace of loving kindness of God’s way toward me? Is He not rather like a grouchy neighbor who will not bother to give what cost him nothing, and would make all the difference
to me? A Father! Or an unjust Judge, who callously refuses what are my bare dues? We can always trust Christ to have thought things through and to have seen the other side of them. He is the Christ whose own life was so difficult and whose own faith was so tremendous. And His happy creed was no fairweather thing that a drop or two of rain would smudge and crumple and make run.

Carlyle, at times of trial, could not stand what he estimated to be the cheap and easy and dishonest optimism of Emerson’s mind. Carlyle thought of him irritably as one standing well up on the beach, out of the spray, chattily throwing a cheery word or two to poor souls wrestling for their very lives in great dark deeps, with thunderous billows knocking the breath out of them. Emerson’s view of God was
naive, according to Carlyle.

God Is Always Love

But it was from the darkness round the cross that there rings out a voice so sure that God is love. Stand there for a moment, and surely you feel that, there and then at least, beyond all doubting, God was
love. But in Him there are no moods, no caprice, no changeableness.

Do what you will to Him. However you may hurt and disappoint and break His heart, you cannot alter His essential nature. After all, in spite of all, through it all, He is still love toward you. Look, cries
Christ, pointing to a cluster of farmer’s huts, high on a sunny slope, there is a man openly irreligious, impudently immoral, yet God’s sunshine does not skip his fields!

If you have really been at Calvary, have really seen it all with your own eyes–if you know it and are sure of it-then, remember, that is not a mood from which He might pass, but His mind is settled toward
you.

His love for you is not something outside of God’s ordinary life to which He once turned aside, one supreme effort to which He braced Himself, and then fell back upon a lower and more selfish mode of
being. It is a sudden revelation of what His divine existence always is.

Always to be God means to stoop lower by far than any man could stoop, to bear what never a human heart would dream of bearing, to give oneself with an abandon of unselfishness that leaves us staring at
something almost unbelievable.

God’s wisdom is not wisdom, but omniscience. His power is not power as we know it, but omnipotence. Likewise, His love is a hugeness beyond all human reckoning. It is an everlasting Calvary.

Our mood changes, our emotions cool; for us there come dreary seasons of gray skies and dripping spiritual weather, but God does not change. What we saw Him to be, He still is.

As James put it very grandly, think of the glory of a midsummer day, in that hushed hour of noon when everything is still, and the sun blazes down in its meridian splendor until every nook and cranny lies
saturated and soaked through and through with warmth and light. Ah! but the sun dips, and the shadows lengthen, and the chill of evening comes, and then the dark.

But God’s love is a sun that never sets. It is always, always, at its full noonday glory! He can never fall below His best, He cannot be untrue to His own nature.

If we could only be quite sure of that, and always certain of God’s Christlikeness, would not a mass of difficulties be as good as over! Plato, you remember, likened this life of ours to a wild tumbling
sea. He said that the best we can do is to knock together, as best we can with our poor numbed fingers, some makeshift raft of speculation. On that raft perched precariously, we may make our slow way, wet and miserable and in constant danger, to some kind of land. Yet there is some surer Word of God on which we can ride safely. There is. But having found it, fools that we are, in rough weather, just when we need it most, we let the blasts and heavy seas sweep us away from it again, and once more we are struggling in stormy waters.

Sometimes we are quite sure that God is love, and then one of the grim facts of life knocks at our door, wilting and withering our faith like a wild flower suddenly touched by the scythe’s sharpness. Or
perhaps the web of our days grows sad–colored and grey. We doubtingly ask, “Can it be hands that were pierced for us that weaves this for us?” Clouds rise from our own frightened minds, and we cry desperately that the sun has been extinguished.

If only we could understand that whenever and wherever God meets us we are dealing with the heart we see on Calvary. If only we would see that whatever comes to us, it is He who gave His Son, His best, His
all, who sends it to us. Then, if facing trouble, we could say with Fraser of Brea, “this is a harsh-featured messenger, yet he comes to me from God; what kindness does he bring me?”

If, like Dante (whose sour mind waded intrepidly down to the lowest deeps of hell because on the gates he had read the tremendous words, “Eternal love made me”), we had grasped, in a richer way than he
did, that wherever we come upon God, He is the same God still–still love, still eagerness to help, still thrilled to spend Himself for any confused, blinded, blundering lost soul that will accept it.

If, like Festus in Browning, immersed in life’s perplexities, we could take our stand on this as a fixed fact, “God, Thou art Love, I build my faith on that,” we could tolerate whatever life may send us. Then we would pull ourselves together, saying, “But I did climb Calvary, did see with my own eyes. I know in whom I have believed and am persuaded that He, who loved me there like that cannot have grown
harsh to me now. Would we not then face whatever was coming unafraid, meeting it with gallantry and calm?

God Is Always Holy

Yet it is desperately hard not to fall back at times into the foolish notion that God is like ourselves; sometimes better, sometimes worse, kind yesterday no doubt, but strangely forgetful now, inconsistent and incalculable as we are.

For one thing, the God we see on Calvary is a Holy God–One who loathes evil and to whom it is horrible that stately creatures like us should be soiled by it. God will make no compromise with it, but cost
Him what it may, He will hunt it down and chase it from His universe, and grind it into annihilation.

That we know. That is our hope–that the power behind things is stubbornly set on righteousness; that the original make-up of the world is opposed to evil: that this is no haphazard place, a mere chaos and
welter of moral confusion, where anything may or may not happen. We know that to sin is to fling ourselves against the powers that be; that evil is insanity, leading one straight, sooner or later, to inevitable punishment. That is the settled basis upon which we build our thinking.
A great nation wrongs the world, and we appeal to God with confidence, living through dark days unafraid, because He is on the throne. Much is amiss in the earth, so when nothing happens and reform
is slow to come, we boldly lay hands upon immortality, claim all eternity, argue that if things do not right themselves here, then there must be something more where evil does go down and where good does come to its own. It must be, we say. God must be holy or the ground gives beneath our feet, and human life is a mere gibbering madhouse.

Yet, although so sure of that in theory, nonetheless we are apt instinctively to deny it when life seems to contradict it. To assume that God is inconsistent and self-contradictory, that He makes exceptions and will surely do so in our favor; and that His laws are not laws, strictly speaking, with tremendous sanctions at their back, rather mere good advice, which we can take or leave; and that at times He lets go His holiness, stoops to unblushing favoritism, if it can be given such a name.

At a funeral we are all apt to take it for granted, in the face of very tremendous and outspoken Scriptures, that whatever the dead man may have been, all is now made somehow well for him. And, in truth, seeing that we have all failed and come short of God’s glory, what can we frail blunderers do but leave our erring fellow and ourselves to God’s illimitable mercy, and that hopefully.

Yet we carry it far. I once stood looking down at a dead scoundrel who had left a sinister trail of misery behind him though the years. His character had been a kind of upas tree, the deadly drip of which had poisoned and killed every fair thing upon which its shadow fell. “Ah, well!” said his wife softly, “he is at rest now.”

One wondered if he were: if all the vivid warnings of the grim consequences of deliberate sin are only nursery tales, with no substance behind them. And then there came a memory of that day when
Christ was preaching and was interrupted by the rending of rafters overhead, the falling dust, and then the sudden sky broke through. Eager, heated faces peered down as they lowered a poor object, too far
gone to have a touch of faith himself, before the Master’s feet. He looked up gratefully, smiled at these hot, resourceful, desperate friends, “Your faith has saved him,” He said happily; and it did.

God’s love is very wonderful, and He seizes upon any loophole so perhaps, that woman’s faith and sturdy affection that years of ill-usage had not killed, might somehow have pulled him through.

Yet, where it touches us and our dear ones, we just do not believe that God is holy. We feel that His moral laws will swerve, will bend aside on our behalf. We think He is much too good-natured to mean
what He says, or really to stand by it.

We are well aware that there are many things in our character that ought to be put right, yet we are not alarmed, and leave them there, feeling that God will find some way to evade His own solemn words and let us off. It is the vainest of vain dreams! He cannot, and do we wish it? That is a fearsome prayer of Luther, “O Lord God, punish us, we pray Thee, punish us, but be not silent toward us!” Yet sometimes we can pray it.

In any case, whether we like it or not, there is a dreadful truth in the great fact of Karma that lies, like a shadow, over so much of the East. “Sow an act, and you reap a habit; sow a habit, and you reap a character; sow a character, and you reap a destiny,” as Thackeray put it in words long ago grown trite, and they seed themselves so inevitably.

God Is Always Calling the Lost

It is not that God changes. Always His hands keep seeking, always His voice is calling, calling, calling our name like a mother calls her lost child’s, desperate until He finds us. Only, there is the fearsome
mystery of the human will. We think that we can set ourselves against the Almighty, can resist Him, can look Him impudently in the face and openly defy Him. Sometimes it is the rebel soul that has its way!

There came a time when even the tenderest of the prophets, rejected, broken-hearted, and beaten, cried out in despair, “Ephraim is joined to his idols, let him alone” (Host 4:17). There was a day when
Jesus Christ, with His eyes full of tears, could only cry, “0 Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered thee; and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate” (Matt. 23:37, 38).

John Donne, whom some rank as perhaps the noblest of all English preachers, had a tremendous passage that some critics put among the best of English prose. It is appalling in its terrible, slow,
accumulating coldness of horror, until the heart is not far from screaming. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God: but to fall out of the hands of the living God, is a horror beyond
our expression, beyond our imagination.”

Then, after musing upon His inexplicable patience toward us how time after time, thwarted and denied, He begins again as hopefully as ever in some yet other way-he ends, “that this God at last, should let
this soule goe away as a smoake, as a vapour, as a bubble; and that this soule cannot be a smoake, a vapour, nor a bubble, but must lie in darknesse, as long as the lord of light itselfe, and never sparke of
that light reach to my soule to be excluded eternally, eternally, eternally from the sight of God!”

That is great English, but the words are not well chosen. No one is excluded from God’s presence; but one can shut himself out. God cannot be false to His own nature; “if we deny Him He will deny us.” We
cannot have both sin and Him; it must be one or other. Sin is always a madman’s choice. Let us beware lest, like miserable Judas throwing down his accursed pieces and hating himself for his incredible folly, we too stand one day looking down bewildered at the poor little nothings, faded and rotted, that lie in our hand, trying to take it in, to beat it into our stunned brain, “For this, for this, for this, I have lost
God!”

But to end there would mean there would be no gospel, but one of those half-truths which can be, of all things, the most cruelly untrue. Ben Jonson held the opinion that even Shakespeare would have been a
greater writer, if he had not “forgot that last and greatest art, the art to blot.” Few things in the New Testament are so interesting and illuminating as its corrections and its emendations. “That you may know the love of Christ,” writes Paul. Then he pauses, turns back, and puts his pen through that. He writes above it, “that is silly, you can never know it, for it passes knowledge.” Or, to the Galatians, “Now that ye know God,” and then he strokes that out, and substitutes, “or, rather, are known of Him.”

So here in 2 Timothy Paul also paused, looking back, and read what he had quoted, the ink not yet dry: “If we deny Him, He will deny us.” He did feel that is true, and yet it might mislead. So he added
the glorious parallel fact which is even more foundational: “if we are faithless, He remains faithful–for He cannot be untrue to Himself” That is the teaching of Christ.

Moses, in his day, had a high moment when God was so real and near to him that he seemed to see and hear Him proclaiming Himself as “the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and forgiving
transgression and sin.” His people never forgot that. Though they failed, they came back to God each time at last. They took His promise in their hands, and boldly held it before Him, pleading, “You have told us that You would be gracious and forgiving always. You put no limit to it; You gave no conditions. Therefore, have pity on us, who need You so, and pardon us out of pure grace.

God Keeps His Promises

You too have had high moments when God was very close: the day your mother died, the first day in a home of your own, or when a little one was born to you. Your heart was touched and tender, and you swore you would be faithful. You made a convenant with God and He with you. Oh, it is long ago now, and you had quite forgotten, have grown and dusty, and quite ordinary after all! But God remembers. He still stands by His covenant. His promises still hold and are open to you. He faithfully abides, even if we fail.

That is the dominant note of Scripture the amazing, persistent loyalty of God. You hear it everywhere. “Turn ye, turn ye, for why will ye die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek. 18:31). “All day long I have stretched out imploring hands to you” (Rom. 10:21). God, says Paul, haunts us like a begger not to be repulsed. He keeps following us and breaking in on us again whenever He sees any chance of gaining our attention. He pleads with us to be reconciled to Him, who has nothing but love in His heart for us.

The son in a far country, says Christ, forgot all about the father, but the father all the time remembered him. He saw him far off because his eyes were always searching the road by which he must come,
and he always was slipping out to look for him. “That’s him,” he cried, when he at last saw a far-off, shabby, hesitating, limping figure. “That is surely him,” and he ran to him.

It is a wonderful reading of God’s heart, and oh, the splendor of the fact that it is true! We sin, and God’s answer is love; we heap up more sin, and He gives more love; we make our sin an inexcusable thing,
and His answer is Calvary. Though we are faithless, He abides faithful to His own essential nature. He cannot be untrue to Himself.

When Oliver Cromwell, the Protector, died, it was a wild September day with the winds howling, and his soul had to wade through a deep patch of darkness. He asked his minister, “Tell me, is it possible to fall from grace?” “No, it is not possible.” “Then I am safe, for I know that I was once in grace.” And again, “I think I am the poorest wretch that lives, but I love God; or rather am beloved of God.” Again that same correction! Again that clinging to the thought that, though we fail, God will stand to His convenant! It is our only hope.

I think that minister was too audacious. I have fallen from grace a thousand times. I have grown cold and hard and torpid–sick of the whole business. But it is strangely difficult to escape from God. He
follows us, haunts us, hems us in, will not be repulsed nor take refusal! Once in the flock of the Good Shepherd, we have at our back an immensity of sleepless skill and patience that, however often we may
spill through each inviting gap in every hedge, finds us again.

It is slow work, herding sheep–slow tiring work! They are so apt to stray and to follow one another. They are so stupid and so easily tired. They are flustered into yet another stampede by just nothing at
all. Yet it is a poor shepherd who loses even one.

And the most comfortable passage in the Bible is that in which Christ tells us that His own good name and honor and obedience to God are bound up in His getting us home safely: “I came down, not to do
Mine own will, but the will of Him that sent Me: and this is the will of Him that sent Me, that of them that He hath given Me, I should lose–not one” (John 6:38, 39). If you are not there at the last, Christ’s
glory will be dimmed. “But,” God will say to Him, “did I not tell you I must have that soul of Mine? Where is it?”

That is what the Calvinists meant by their doctrines. They were not proud, but very humble. They could find no standing ground within themselves, so they flung themselves on God. They built, not upon their
faith, but on God’s faithfulness; not on their love to Him so fickle and uncertain, but on His love to them, steady and sure. They did not build on their puny ineffectual efforts, but upon His eternal thoughts
and plans. And so must you and I.

“One of the most convenient hieroglyphics of God,” says Donne in a more Christian place, “is a circle; and a circle is endless; whom God loves, He loves to the end; and not only to their own end, to their
death, but to His end; and His end is that He might love them still.”

“Often and often,” says Samuel Rutherford, “I have in my folly torn up my copy of God’s convenant with me. But, blessed be His name, He keeps the principal in heaven safe; and He stands by it always.”

Arthur John Gossip (1873-1954) preached this sermon shortly after the sudden death of his beloved wife. He ministered in Great Britain as the pastor of four different churches, as an army chaplain, and as a
professor of practical theology at Trinity College, Glasgow, Scotland. This sermon comes from his book From the Edge of the Crowd, published in 1924 by T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh, Scotland.

THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS TAKEN FROM CLASSIC SERMONS ON THE ATTRIBUTES OF GOD AND PUBLISHED BY HENDRICKSON PUBLISHERS, INC., BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT WITH AND PERMISSION OF KREGEL PUBLICATIONS, 1989, PAGES 146-158. THIS MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.

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