You’ve probably come across those passages in the Bible where God changes His mind after a prophet intercedes for the Israelites. Maybe you’ve even been part of discussions about how to reconcile such passages with those other passages that explicitly say God does not repent, or change His mind. Two common solutions have been proposed. Most liberals and open theists have settled for a smaller God, a God whose will conforms to ours. They have settled for a God who reacts to new information. A God whose actions are determined by our “free will”. An Arminian God, if you like. But others have sought to preserve God’s sovereignty in the face of this apparent contradiction. And the most common solution to the puzzle can be summarized in these words by R. C. Sproul:
“I think that what we have here is the mystery of providence whereby God ordains not only the ends of things that come to pass but also the means. God sets forth principles in the Bible where he gives threats of judgment to motivate his people to repentance. Sometimes he spells out specifically, “But if you repent, I will not carry out the threat.” He doesn’t always add that qualifier, but it’s there. I think this is one of those instances. It was tacitly understood that God threatens judgment upon these people, but if somebody pleads for them in a priestly way, he will give grace rather than justice. I think that’s at the heart of that mystery.”
While I do believe that this is the right way to handle the mystery, I was thinking about this issue last night and I noticed something that I’d never noticed before. It’s something kind of obvious, but many who have handled this issue seem to never consider it. There is a distinct contextual dichotomy that exists between the passages that speak of God repenting or changing His mind, and those passages that speak of God not changing His mind. I am persuaded that it is a worthwhile dichotomy, and I will briefly show you why.
1. GOD ALWAYS REPENTS FROM EXPRESSING HIS WRATH
I noticed that ALL the passages in which God repents have to do with God’s wrath and God’s punishment of sin. He is always repenting from punishing the Israelites for their sins, upon intercession or mediation. For instance:
“Thus the Lord God showed me, and behold, the Lord God was calling to contend with them by fire, and it consumed the great deep and began to consume the farm land. Then I said, “Lord God, please stop! How can Jacob stand, for he is small?” The Lord changed His mind about this. “This too shall not be,” said the Lord God,” [Amos 7:4-6]
“Then the LORD relented and did not bring on His people the disaster He had threatened.” [Exodus 32:14]
“Now therefore mend your ways and your deeds, and obey the voice of the Lord your God, and the Lord will relent of the disaster that he has pronounced against you.” [Jeremiah 26:13]
2. GOD NEVER REPENTS FROM EXPRESSING HIS MERCY AND GRACE
On the other hand, I noticed that ALL the passages that speak of God never repenting or never changing His mind have to do with God’s blessings, or God’s mercy and grace. For instance:
“God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent. Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good? Behold, I have received a command to bless; He has blessed, and I cannot reverse it. [Numbers 23:19-20]
and this one,
“And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor relent. For He is not a man, that He should relent” [1 Samuel 15:29]
or this one,
“I the LORD do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.” [Malachi 3:6]
and in the New Testament,
“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” [James 1:17]
Why this imbalance? Why is it that God only changes (or seems to change) His mind when it comes to punishing our sins but never seems to do so when it comes to blessing us? If Moses and other prophets like Amos could reason with God and convince Him to relent from punishing the Israelites, why couldn’t the sins of the Israelites and their disobedience cause the same change of heart concerning God’s promise of blessing? It is obvious from the look of things that, people sin, God promises wrath, someone interceded, people repent, then God relents. But when God promises blessing, even when the people stray, His promises still stand. If it is indeed possible to change God’s mind, why can we only change His mind towards not cursing us and we seem not able to change His mind towards not blessing us?
THE “CROSS” ROAD
It is in this mysterious dichotomy that I found an amazing truth. And this truth lies in the conditions necessary for God to “change His mind.” If we look at the Old Testament, there were always five events that transpired in the cycle of God changing His mind. First, the people sinned. Secondly, God intended to punish their sin. Thirdly, a prophet interceded. Fourth, the people repented. Fifth, God relented. Does this cycle look familiar? Yes, it is the whole redemptive cycle that is at the heart of the biblical narrative. And this cycle in the old testament was only foreshadowing the ultimate cycle fulfilled in the New Testament: We are sinners, God intends to punish sin, Jesus intercedes, we believe and repent, God relents. The Gospel!
Do you want to change God’s mind? Then preach the Gospel.
You see, we cannot look at sinners and then say that they are “almost” saved or on their way to salvation. The paradox of the grace is that we can tell unbelievers “you are headed to hell” without fearing that they could be among the elect; and when they get converted, we can talk to them as if they were always on their way to heaven.
This is the paradox of the gospel.
This is the paradox of God changing His mind. At the cross, the passages about a God who changes His mind meet the passages about a God who never changes His mind. At the cross, God’s wrath against sin is expressed fully, with no repentance. At the cross, God’s mercy is expressed fully, with no repentance. At the Cross, God’s wrath and God’s mercy kiss.
And the most amazing thing happens. Sin is punished, sinners are forgiven, and God is glorified.
It may look like God’s mind has been changed, but it’s really our hearts which have been changed.
For the fame of His name,