This article has been written in response to an Ask Footsteps! question received recently. If you have a question feel free to send it in and we’ll do our best to respond.
Quite a few passages in the Bible I have been reading lately make references to God repenting of what He has done or said. E.g In Amos 7 we read “The Lord repented for this: This also shall not be, saith the Lord God.” God’s judgements were turned away because of the earnest prayer of Amos for the people.
I suppose the question I have is, God is sovereign, he knows everything, so why would he repent of what he has done/is going to do? God cannot make mistakes. Maybe I am misinterpreting what is meant by this.
Thank you for a really good question which can perhaps be summarised as ‘Does God change his mind?’
Firstly, some key points:
- Repentance (in human terms) is the acknowledgement that we have done wrong or made a mistake, coupled with then changing direction.
- As you quite rightly identify, God is sovereign and knows everything (he is omniscient). The Bible also teaches us that he is immutable or does not change (see Malachi 3:6, James 1:17). We also know that by definition, everything God does is just and right.
- So, God does not make mistakes and he does not change his mind – if he did he would not be God.
We need to keep this in mind as we consider what the Bible mean when it tells us that God repents.
It is also helpful to remember that God is so great and so infinite that we cannot grasp what he is like with our finite human minds. Therefore in the Bible, to help us, God often refers to himself and his actions in human terms. For example, we read of the ‘arm of God’ doing this and doing that. We know however that God is a spirit and does not have arms – however this language is used to help us picture what God is doing. When the Bible tells us that God repents it is similar. Human language is being used to paint a picture of what God is doing. However, scripture never contradicts itself, so we have to understand these things in the light of all the other things God teaches us about himself.
Let’s look at some specific examples.
Amos and Moses – Prayer changes us, not God!
You mention Amos 7:3 where God threatens judgement on Israel, but ‘repents’ following Amos’s prayer. We can find a similar example in Numbers 14 when Moses’s prayer seems to make God change his mind.
As God is God, we can be completely sure that his divine will has not changed in these circumstances. He always knew exactly what was going to happen. His intention was always that he would be merciful and not carry out the threatened judgement. In fact what God is doing is making the threat in order to draw out the sincere prayers from Amos and Moses. In other parts of scripture, similar threats are used to lead the people to repentance. God knew exactly how each situation would play out. However, he loves it when his people pray, so places them in situations that make them pray. So, rather than God changing, it is Moses and Amos that are ‘changed’ (e.g. they were made to pray).
In Ezekiel 36 God makes lots of promises of what he will do, but then says ‘I will yet for this be enquired of by the house of Israel, to do it for them’. His promises are certain, but he expects his people to pray for them to be fulfilled. Again, this is prayer changing us rather than changing God.
King Saul – God’s demeanour changes, not his will
Another, perhaps harder, example is found in 1 Samuel 15:11 (also 1 Samuel 15:35). God says to Samuel ‘It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king: for he is turned back from following me, and hath not performed my commandments.’ Is God here accepting that he has made a mistake in making Saul king? Is he now changing his mind about Saul?
Applying what we know by definition of God, clearly not – he cannot make mistakes and nothing takes him by surprise. So what does it mean?
In reality, what changes here is God’s demeanour (outward behaviour) toward Saul – the way God is going to act towards him in the future. God uses the human term ‘repent’ to illustrate this. As a result of Saul’s repeated disobedience, God would no longer be with him. However, God’s will did not change. He always intended Saul to be king, for his reign to play out the way it did, and then for David to be king after Saul rather than any of Saul’s sons.
Interestingly in this very same chapter God also states that he does not repent (see verse 29)! In verses 11 and 35 he is referring to his actions (which do change), in verse 29 to his character (which cannot change). Thus there is no contradiction here as is sometimes claimed by Bible sceptics and liberal theologians.
Conclusion – An Unchanging Saviour
Hopefully this helps answer the question. In summary, God never changes his mind or makes mistakes. He does sometimes use human terms (such as repent) to describe his actions, and we need to understand these in their specific context and in the light of what else the Bible teaches us about God and his attributes – his sovereignty, omniscience and immutability (amongst others).
Lastly, it is hugely encouraging that God does not and cannot change his mind. Think of this as connected with our salvation. God has chosen his people, the Lord Jesus died and rose again to save them, the Holy Spirit regenerates them, giving them saving faith. No matter how much we backslide, no matter how hard-hearted we become, no matter how strong Satan seems, God (in all three persons of the trinity) cannot change his mind. Thus his people are eternally safe. We’re told that Jesus Christ is ‘the same yesterday, and today, and forever’ (Hebrews 13:8). Therefore in the words of John Kent,
|What from Christ that soul can sever,|
Bound by everlasting bands?
Once in Him, in Him forever;
Thus the eternal covenant stands.
None shall pluck thee
From the Strength of Israel’s hands