Does God Change His Mind?
We know that God is absolute holiness (1 Samuel 2:2; Isaiah 6:3; Matthew 5:48; 1 Peter 1:15-16; Revelation 4:8), good (Exodus 34:6; 1 Chronicles 16:34; Ezra 3:11; Psalm 25:8; Mark 10:18), and love (Psalm 36:7; Psalm 109:26; 1 John 4:9-10). We also know that He is omnipotent (Jeremiah 32:17), omnipresent (Proverbs 15:3), omniscient (Psalm 139:1-18), and omnibenevolent (Psalm 100:5). His omniscience and holy nature are the two characteristics that concern us most in our present discussion, since, if God is truly holy and all-knowing by nature, then He cannot at any point be in error since that would be a contradiction. The only thing God cannot possibly do is violate His own character and nature. To give you an idea of how absurd the notion is of God being in error, imagine for a moment that you have the heaviest rock in the state you live in, and you wanted to prove this rock could float of its own accord on the local lake. You manage to get the rock to the shore, and you push it off the dock into the middle of the lake. You and I both know logically what would happen. That rock will sink to the bottom of the lake. No matter how much you believed it would float, it sank fast. The nature of that rock is such that it cannot float on its own accord. You cannot change the rock’s nature. Likewise, to suggest that God repents as we as fallen, sinful humans do is to also suggest He is capable of error. And if God is capable of error, then He is not absolute holiness, good, or love. And He certainly is not omnipotent, since the power of sin is stronger than He is. He also cannot be omnibenevolent since the presence of error in His character would make it possible for Him to be spiteful and cruel with no reason behind it whatsoever. In essence, He would cease to be God and would be no better than any of us. Do you see the problem this whole issue brings up?
And yet Scripture tells us that God somehow repented! Are we getting mixed signals? Is Scripture fallible in its data? The answer is no to both questions. What is happening here is a failure of human language to adequately express spiritual truth, and without proper study, we can find ourselves in some very troubling places, theologically speaking, not to mention on a personal spiritual level. As R.C. Sproul wrote: “The Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy. Not that He is merely holy, or even holy, holy. He is holy, holy, holy.” So, let’s find out where we go wrong on this.
What Does Sacred Scripture Say?
Exodus 32:14: "So the Lord changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people." John 1:14: "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father full of grace and truth." Malachi 3:6: "I the LORD do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed."
Throughout the New Testament, we find numerous warnings to repent of our sins, and accounts of those who repented and were saved. Indeed, it is very likely that you, my reader, heard the word repent at some point before your conversion, used as an admonition to you to turn away from sin and wrongdoing and embrace Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior. The word repent finds its way into sermons regularly, in Christian hymns and contemporary music, films, etc. We associate the word with an admonition to stop sinning because we have been widely accustomed to doing so. In other words, we understand the word only as it applies to us, to fallen humanity in desperate need of a savior. However, God is not in need of a savior, and Scripture informs us that He has no need or reason to repent. “God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?” (Numbers 23:19). So, what is going on when other verses tell us that God repented? This requires a bit of discernment as to the intention of the various authors in their use of the word. The word itself merely signifies a change in approach or behavior. On its own, it carries none of the meanings we apply to it, since we generally understand it, as noted previously, in terms of fallen man. When used in reference to God, it means that He has made certain accommodations for humanity as a benefit of His grace. John Calvin, the noted Reformer, wrote this:
“The repentance which is here ascribed to God does not properly belong to him but has reference to our understanding of him. For since we cannot comprehend him as he is, it is necessary that, for our sake, he should, in a certain sense, transform himself. That repentance cannot take place in God, easily appears from this single consideration, that nothing happens which is by him unexpected or unforeseen.The same reasoning, and remark, applies to what follows, that God was affected with grief. Certainly, God is not sorrowful or sad; but remains forever like himself in his celestial and happy repose: yet, because it could not otherwise be known how great is God’s hatred and detestation of sin, therefore the Spirit accommodates himself to our capacity.”
In short, God does not repent in the way we humans do, but simply makes accommodations for us, seeking our highest good, even when we deserve nothing but His judgment and wrath. He is perfect, holy, good, all-knowing, and is completely immune to all error and sin. Anyone who suggests otherwise is engaging in false teaching. When we see the word repent used in reference to God’s course of action, it simply means that he accommodates us in order to encourage us to seek His will, do what He has commanded of us, and come to a knowledge of salvation through and in Jesus Christ.