Does God Ever Change His Mind?
By Pastor Don Roy Hemingway. Th.D.
All people are fickle, in varying degrees. I suspect we’d be shocked to learn how many times in the course of a normal day we change our plans, reverse course, or pull out an eraser to delete an appointment or a task we had set for the week. Changing our minds feels so natural to us as humans, it’s hard to envision life without it. In most instances the changes are harmless and typically result from unforeseeable circumstances, as well as the alterations that other people make that directly affect us. But what would it mean for God to change his mind? Does he? Could he? Or are all his plans and purposes immutable?
The importance of defining our theological terms with precision is most evident in the case of divine immutability. Here is a word that in contemporary evangelical circles evokes either protest or praise. Some see it as a threat to the biblical portrait of a God who does indeed change: he changes his mind (“repents”) and he changes his mode of being (“the Word became flesh”). Others are equally concerned that a careless tampering with this attribute of God will reduce him to a fickle, unfaithful, and ultimately unworthy object of our affection and worship. It is imperative, therefore, that we proceed cautiously, and yet with conviction, in the explanation of the sense in which God both can and cannot change.
Immutability as Consistency of Character
The immutability of God is related to, but clearly distinct from, his eternity. In saying that God is eternal, in the sense of everlasting, we mean that he always has existed and always will exist. He was preceded by nothing and shall be succeeded by nothing. In saying that God is immutable we mean that he is consistently the same in his eternal being. The Being, who eternally is, never changes. This affirmation of unchangeableness, however, is not designed to deny that there is change and development in God’s relations to his creatures. Consider the following:
Thus, to say without qualification that God cannot change or that he can and often does change is at best unwise and at worst misleading. Our concept of immutability must be formulated in such a way that we do justice to every biblical assertion concerning both the “being” and “becoming” of God.
Clearly, then, to say that God is immutable is not to say that he is immobile or static, for whereas all change is activity, not all activity is change. It is simply to affirm that God always is and acts in perfect harmony with the revelation of himself and his will in Scripture. For example, Scripture tells us that God is good, just, and loving. Immutability, or constancy, simply asserts that when the circumstances in any situation call for goodness, justice, or love as the appropriate response on the part of the Deity, that is precisely what God will be (or do, as the case may be). To say the same thing, but negatively: if God ought to be good, just, or loving as the circumstances may demand, or as his promises would require, he will by no means ever be evil, unfair, or hateful.
Immutability means that the God who in Scripture is said to be omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent has not been, is not, and never will be—under any and all imaginable circumstances—localized, ignorant, or impotent. What he is, he always is. To be more specific, God is immutable in respect to (1) his essential being (which is to say that God can neither gain nor lose attributes); (2) his life (God neither became nor is becoming; his life never began, nor will it ever end); (3) his moral character (God can become neither better nor worse); and (4) his purpose or plan(God’s decree is unalterable). Let’s look briefly at each of these in turn.
Constancy of Being, Life, Character, and Plan
Immutability is a property that belongs to the divine essence in the sense that God can neither gain new attributes, which he didn’t have before, nor lose those already his. To put it crudely, God doesn’t grow. There is no increase or decrease in the divine Being. If God would increase (either quantitatively or qualitatively), he would necessarily have been incomplete prior to the change. If God were to decrease, he would be, necessarily, incomplete after the change. The Deity, then, is incapable of development either positively or negatively. He neither evolves nor devolves. His attributes, considered individually, can never be greater or less than what they are and have always been. God will never be wiser, more loving, more powerful, or holier than he ever has been and ever must be.
This is at least implied in God’s declaration to Moses, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14), and is explicit in other texts:
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1:17)
I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. (Malachi 3:6)
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Hebrews 13:8)
When we talk about the immutability of God’s life, we are very close to the notion of eternality or everlastingness. We are saying that God never began to be and will never cease to be. His life simply is. He did not come into existence (for to become existent is a change from nothing to something), nor will he go out of existence (for to cease existing is a change from something to nothing). God is not young or old: he simply is. Thus, we read:
Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you will remain;
they will all wear out like a garment.
You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,
but you are the same, and your years have no end. (Psalms 102:25-27)
Immutability may also be predicated of God’s moral character. He can become neither better (morally) nor worse than what he is. If God could change (or become) in respect to his moral character, it would be either for the better or the worse. If for the better, it would indicate that he was morally imperfect or incomplete antecedent to the time of change, and hence never God. If for the worse, it would indicate that he is now morally less perfect or complete than before, and hence no longer God. It will not do to say that God might conceivably change from one perfect Being into another equally perfect Being. For one must then specify in what sense he has changed. What constitutes God as different in the second mode of being from what he was in the first? Does he have more attributes, fewer attributes, better or worse attributes? If God in the second mode of being had the same attributes (both quantitatively and qualitatively), in what sense would he be different from what he was in the first mode of being?
To deny immutability to God’s purpose or plan would be no less an affront to the Deity than to predicate change of his being, life, and character. There are, as I understand, only two reasons why God would ever be forced or need to alter his purpose: (1) if he lacked the necessary foresight or knowledge to anticipate any and all contingencies (in which case he would not be omniscient, contrary to the claims of open theism); or (2) if, assuming he had the needed foresight, he lacked the power or ability to effect what he had planned (in which case he would not be omnipotent). But since God is infinite in wisdom and knowledge, there can be no error or oversight in the conception of his purpose. Also, since he is infinite in power (omnipotent), there can be no failure or frustration in the accomplishment of his purpose.
The many and varied changes in the relationship that God sustains to his creatures, as well as the more conspicuous events of redemptive history, are not to be thought of as indicating a change in God’s being or purpose. They are, rather, the execution in time of purposes eternally existing in the mind of God. For example, the abolition of the Mosaic covenant was no change in God’s will; it was, in fact, the fulfillment of his will, an eternal will that decreed change (from the Mosaic to the new covenant). Christ’s coming and work were no makeshift action to remedy unforeseen defects in the Old Testament scheme. They were but the realization (historical and concrete) of what God had from eternity decreed.
The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing;
he frustrates the plans of the peoples.
The counsel of the Lord stands forever,
the plans of his heart to all generations.
(Psalms 33:10-11; cf. Psalms 110:4)
The Lord of hosts has sworn:
“As I have planned,
so shall it be,
and as I have purposed,
so shall it stand. (Isaiah 14:24)
I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, “My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose,”
calling a bird of prey from the east,
the man of my counsel from a far country.
I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass;
I have purposed, and I will do it. (Isaiah 46:9-11).
Many are the plans in the mind of a man,
but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.
But he is unchangeable, and who can turn him back?
What he desires, that he does. (Job 23:13)
“I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. (Job 42:2)
So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath. (Hebrews 6:17)
Can God Change His Mind?
No treatment of the doctrine of immutability would be complete without a discussion of the problem posed by God’s alleged “repentance.” If God’s plan is unalterable and he is immutable, in what sense can it be said that he “changed his mind”?
The Hebrew word typically translated “change his mind” or “repent” is nacham. This word actually has a rather wide range of meanings, including everything from experiencing emotional pain such as grief or sorrow (cf. Genesis 6:6-7; Exodus 13:17; to the experience of being comforted (cf. Genesis 24:67; Genesis 27:42; Ezekiel 31:16; Ezekiel 32:31), to the more extreme notion of relenting from or repudiating a course of action previously embraced (cf. Deuteronomy 32:36 = Psalms 135:14; Judges 2:18; as well as retracting a statement or changing one’s mind regarding a course of action (cf. Exodus 32:12, Exodus 32:14; Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29;
This compels us to acknowledge the ambiguity of the English word repent and cautions us to be careful in ascribing it to God. Human beings repent of moral evil. We transgress God’s law and acknowledge our sorrow for having done so and our determination to change how we behave. Obviously, whatever else God’s “repenting” might mean, it does not mean he has sinned and is changing his ways. If that were the case, he would hardly be worthy of the title God; still less would he be worthy of anyone’s worship. This is why most English versions (except the KJV) use the word “relent” or “retract” or something similar.
Let’s look specifically at two passages, both of which use the word nacham.
God is not man, that he should lie,
or a son of man, that he should change his mind.
Has he said, and will he not do it?
Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? (Numbers 23:19)
And Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you. And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.” (1 Samuel 15:28-29)
Note well that 1 Samuel 15:11 and 1 Samuel 15:11 say that God “regretted” making Saul king. Yet here in 1 Samuel 15:29 and Numbers 23:19 it says that God cannot repent, “change his mind,” or “regret” an action he has taken. Scholars have generally said that there are four possible ways of responding to these texts:
Open theists contend that Numbers 23:19 means that whereas God generally can repent, in this particular case he chooses not to. However, were that true, Bruce Ware asks, “does it not follow from this text [Num. 23:19] that, while it is generally true that God can lie, in this particular case he chooses not to? That is, the parallelism of lying and repenting indicates that just as God cannot lie, he cannot repent. The question becomes, then, can God ever lie?”1 Assuming that all would answer the latter question no (cf. 2 Timothy 2:13; Titus 1:2; Hebrews 6:18), it would appear that “the parallel relation of God’s repentance with lying would lead one to conclude that this passage is teaching more than simply that in this particular historical situation God chooses not to lie or repent. Rather, just as God can never lie, so He can neverrepent.”2
One should also take note of the contrast made between God and man. God is said not to be like humans, who both lie and repent. Ware observes:
Does not the force of this claim evaporate the instant one reads it to say, in this particular situation God is not like a man and so does not repent? Do men (i.e., human beings) always repent of what they say they will do? If so, the contrast can be maintained. But if human beings sometimes carry out what they say and sometimes repent and do otherwise, and if God, likewise sometimes carries out what he says and sometimes repents and does otherwise, then how is God different from humans? The only way the contrast works is if God, unlike men, never repents. It is generally true, not merely situationally true, that God does not repent.3
This applies as well to the texts in 1 Samuel 15. In other words, “to say that God sometimes repents (e.g., 1 Samuel 15:11, 1 Samuel 15:35) and sometimes doesn’t (1 Samuel 15:29) would be to argue that he sometimes lies and, in the same sense as with ‘repent,’ sometimes doesn’t. But the truth is that God never lies, and so this text requires also that he never repents.”4
Two additional observations are in order. First, many have appealed to a common figure of speech known as anthropopatheia or anthropopathism (from the Greek anthropos, “man,” plus pathos, “affection, feeling”). Thus, an anthropopathism is a figure of speech in which certain human passions, feelings, mental activities, and so on are predicated of God. This, of course, is related to the more well-known figure of speech called anthropomorphism (again, from the Greek for “man” plus morphe, “form”), in which there are ascribed to God human body parts (e.g., eyes, mouth, nostrils, hands). Ware defines anthropomorphism as follows: “A given ascription to God may rightly be understood as anthropomorphic when Scripture clearly presents God as transcending the very human or finite features it elsewhere attributes to him.”5 Thus, God is figuratively portrayedas “relenting” from a course of action or “changing his mind,” but in literal fact he does not. Open theists often contend that we adopt this approach to the problem because of an extrabiblical presupposition concerning the nature of God derived from the Greek ideal of perfection. This alien, philosophical criterion is imposed on Scripture rather than allowing God’s Word to shape our concept of God himself.
However, contrary to this assertion, most evangelicals appeal to anthropopathism because of what they believe Scripture explicitly teaches concerning the omniscience and immutability of God. It is the “analogy of faith,” Scripture’s harmonious interpretation of itself, not Greek philosophical presuppositions, that governs their treatment of such problem texts. Passages such as Numbers 23:19 and the others cited earlier are unequivocal: God is not a man. Therefore, he does not lie. He does not change his mind the way people do. He does not promise and then fail to fulfill. Those who appeal to anthropopathism insist that we are justified in interpreting the unclear in the light of the clear and utilizing a figure of speech generally acknowledged as entirely legitimate.
Second, and even more importantly, we must recognize the difference between unconditional divine decrees and conditional divine announcements (or warnings).6 The former will occur irrespective of other factors. The latter may occur dependent on the response of the person or persons to whom they apply. Occasionally something explicit in the context will indicate which of the two is in view. Most often, however, statements of divine intent are ambiguous. That is to say, one must determine from other data whether the declaration or determination of God is unconditional or conditional. For example, what we find in the case of Jonah and the Ninevites is most likely not an unqualified and unconditional declaration of purpose. Consider carefully the nature of this passage from Jeremiah (Jeremiah 18:5-12):
Then the word of the Lord came to me: O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: “Thus says the Lord, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds.”
But they say, “That is in vain! We will follow our own plans, and will every one act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart.”
That God declared his intention to destroy Nineveh, only to withhold his hand when they repented, is thus no threat to the doctrine of immutability. On the contrary, had God destroyed Nineveh notwithstanding its repentance, he would have shown himself mutable. William Shedd explains:
If God had treated the Ninevites after their repentance, as he had threatened to treat them before their repentance, this would have proved him to be mutable. It would have showed him to be at one time displeased with impenitence, and at another with penitence. Charnock… remarks that “the unchangeableness of God, when considered in relation to the exercise of his attributes in the government of the world, consists not in always acting in the same manner, however cases and circumstances may alter; but in always doing what is right, and in adapting his treatment of his intelligent creatures to the variation of their actions and characters. When the devils, now fallen, stood as glorious angels, they were the objects of God’s love, necessarily; when they fell, they were the objects of God’s hatred, because impure. The same reason which made him love them while they were pure, made him hate them when they were criminal.” It is one thing for God to will a change in created things external to himself and another thing for him to change in his own nature and character.7
All this is simply to say that God’s immutability requires him to treat the wicked differently from the righteous. When the wicked repent, his treatment of them must change. Therefore, according to Strong, God’s immutability “is not that of the stone, that has no internal experience, but rather that of the column of mercury, that rises and falls with every change in the temperature of the surrounding atmosphere.”8
Thus we see that it is a principle of God’s immutable being (as revealed by him in Scripture) that he punishes the wicked and recalcitrant but blesses and forgives the righteous and repentant. If God were to reveal himself as such (as, in fact, he has done), only to punish the repentant and bless the recalcitrant, this would constitute real change and thus destroy immutability. God’s declaration of intent to punish the Ninevites because of their sinful behavior and wickedness is based on the assumption that they are and will remain wicked. However, if and when they repent (as they did), to punish them notwithstanding would constitute a change, indeed reversal, in God’s will and word, to the effect that he now, as over against the past, punishes rather than blesses the repentant.
What all this means, very simply, is that God is dependable! Our trust in him is therefore a confident trust, for we know that he will not, indeed cannot, change. His purposes are unfailing, and his promises unassailable. It is because the God who promised us eternal life is immutable that we may rest assured that nothing, not trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword, shall separate us from the love of Christ. It is because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever that neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, no not even powers, height, depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:35-39)!