Image from Ligonier Ministries

In the first post in this series I laid out two sets of passages, those that indicate that God doesn’t change his mind, and those that indicate that he does change his mind. In the second post, I made the case that since God is present to all points of time and space, he never encounters new information that requires him to change his mind. So, the short answer to the question of whether God changes his mind is NO.

But what about the passages that say otherwise? As a reminder, those include:

  • “And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” (Genesis 6:6 ESV)
  • “So the LORD changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.” (Exodus 32:14 NASB)
  • “It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king: for he is turned back from following me.” (1 Samuel 15:11 KJV)

What are we to make of these passages if in fact God does not change his mind?

Let’s remember the most basic fact of Scripture – God is the creator (Genesis 1:1). The gap between the Creator and the creation is infinite – unless God chooses to reach across that gap and communicate with us. But to do so, God must necessarily “stoop down” to our level to accommodate our limited and finite minds. Language about God is always going to be “sort of like” rather than “just like” what it would mean for us. For instance, God is the Father, and I have a father, and because of this common use of terms I can grasp something about who God is – so long as I bear in mind that God’s Fatherhood is infinitely greater than human fatherhood.

Sometimes the Bible speaks of God’s arm (Isaiah 30:30) and hand (Exodus 9:3) and eyes (2 Chronicles 16:9). Because I have an arm, a hand, and eyes, I can grasp some of what these passages are saying about God’s power, actions, and knowledge, but it would be a grave mistake to assume that God has a physical body like I do. When the Bible describes God, it does so in language that is “sort of like” but not “just like” the language we use as creatures.

Consequently, when the Bible portrays God as changing his mind, or repenting of an action, or regretting a decision, we must bear in mind that this language is not going to mean for God what it means for us. And given God’s infinite presence and perfect knowledge, such language could not be literally true of God. For this reason, commentators through the centuries have traditionally suggested that such passages should be understood accommodatively. Here are three examples from the fifth century:

Regarding Genesis 6:6, Salvian observed:

Rather, the Divine Word, to impart more fully to us a true understanding of the Scriptures, speaks “as if” in terms of human emotions. By using the term “repentant God,” it shows the force of God’s rejection. God’s anger is simply the punishment of the sinner. (Governance of God 1.7)

Regarding Exodus 32:14, Augustine commented:

Though we sometimes hear the expression “God changed his mind” or even read in the figurative language of Scripture that “God repented,” we interpret these sayings not in reference to the decisions determined on by almighty God but in reference to the expectations of man or to the order of natural causes. (City of God 14.11)

And regarding 1 Samuel 15:11, John Cassian argued:

Although, indeed, the foreknowledge of God could not be ignorant of his miserable end, he chose him from among many thousands of Israelites and anointed him king…And so after he became reprobate, God as it were repented of his choice and complained of him with, so to speak, human words and feelings, saying, “I repent that I set up Saul as king, because he has forsaken me and not carried out my words.” (Conferences 17.25)

So to summarize:

  1. There are passages that say God does change his mind, and there are passages that say he does not.
  2. Given what the Bible says about the omnipresence and omniscience of God, especially regarding the future, the notion that God changes his mind is incoherent.
  3. That means that the passages that claim that God does change his mind should be understood as accommodative language.

But this leaves us with a serious question – if God doesn’t change his mind, then does that mean God doesn’t respond to us? And if God is not genuinely responsive, then why should we bother praying to him? Or for that matter, why should we bother doing anything?

I hope to show in the final post that because God is unchanging in his omnipresence and omniscience, he is actually more responsive than we could ever imagine! But that’s for next week, Lord willing.