The Repentance of God, Part 2

Let me prove this point from the Scriptures:

Daniel 4:35: All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
and he does according to his will among the host of heaven
and among the inhabitants of the earth;
and none can stay his hand
or say to him, “What have you done?”

In Daniel, God does what He pleases in heaven and on earth.

We see in that long chapter in Lamentations 3 that good and bad things come from the Lord.

Proverbs 16:1 The plans of the heart belong to man,
but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord.

In Proverbs, God controls the steps of man.

In Ephesians 1, God is the author of salvation. He calls and elects us according to His good pleasure. And even Jonah admits this in the end of his prayer in 2:9: Salvation is of the Lord.

James 1 says that God is unchanging. Whatever He decrees He performs.

But… in the Bible we find another set of passages, which seem to be in tension.[1]

The Bible uses terms like “repent,” “relent,” “regretted,” “grieved” to refer to God’s actions towards a particular situation. So, which is it? Is He sovereign or is He a mutable/changing/limited God?

At this point, let me give you an important principle of interpretation. The principle is that when either/or seems to do injustice to the Bible, consider both/and.

Ask yourself the question: “Would a both/and approach harmonize the Bible better than an either/or?” Do not feel that you always have to choose one position or the other? Sometimes both sides are complementary rather than antithetical. For instance, God is only a God of love! No, God is a God of love and a God of wrath. He is loving when He deems divinely appropriate to be loving and He is wrathful when He deems appropriate to be wrathful.

Sometimes two different ideas may be two sides of the same coin.[2]

Let give you an example from I Samuel 15:

The chapter begins with God telling Samuel to anoint Saul as king. God tells Saul to destroy everything in the city of Amalek. Saul is not to spare anything or anyone; women and children included. Saul destroys the city of Amalek, but then asks that they spare Agag, the sheep, lambs and so on. Then a few verses later, God says in verses 11: “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.” In a matter of verses God regrets having made Saul King. Then the last verse of the chapter stresses this point again: And the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.

Here we have both God’s approval of Saul as King and then His disapproval and consequent regret.

How can both be true at the same time?

When we consider this subject, people have come to two conclusions:

a) Some Christians want to emphasize the first part. They want to emphasize the decrees of God. These Christians tend to focus a lot of time on the transcendence of God; the decrees of God. They love discussing issues like infralapsarianism or supralapsarianism; when did God eternally elect men unto salvation? Was it before the fall or after the fall? This form of thinking tends to view God as far away; distant. Practically, they pray, but their prayer life suffers a bit, since God is relatively uninvolved in creation. When I first came to the Reformed Faith, my non-Reformed friends always referred to me as part of the frozen chosen.  But how does this group answer the charge that God repents, relents, and changes His mind and so on? Well, they generally appeal to the idea of anthropomorphism. This is the idea that because God is sovereign, when He communicates with us, He uses language that we can understand. He is not really changing His mind, He is just accommodating to our limited understanding. So relenting does not really mean relenting when it comes to God. When God says He has a ear or an arm or a nose, these are truly anthropomorphic ideas, because God is a Spirit.

b)  The second group of people emphasizes God’s second response. They are generally called Open-theists. They believe that the future is open to God, so if He anoints Saul as King and Saul does something God does not like, since God does not know the future, He simply changes His mind. They believe that God is limited in His knowledge and He will never interfere with our Libertarian Free will. In light of these verses, they do not view God as Sovereign.

Both views twist the truth. We can never pick and choose; we must do justice to both views. We are to believe all that God teaches.


[1] Largely taken from my former Professor John Frame and a series of lectures on Jonah by Pastor Rich Lusk from Trinity Presbyterian (CREC).

[2] Of course, the either/or is also a legitimate approach in some matters. For instance, does God hate sin? Yes, He hates sin. He does not both hate sin and love sin.

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