How to Reconcile the Immutability of God with “Repent” Passages

On the one hand, we have passages that tell us that God does not change (James 1:17, Malachi 3:6, Numbers 23:19, and Hebrews 13:8. These are quite clear: God does not change. God does not move on to plan B. God is not “open” in this sense to the future. Since these are the clearer passages, we should start with these, and not with the passages that are less clear, like the repentance passages. Going from the clear to the unclear is what the orthodox do. Going from the unclear to the clear (and imposing thereby their own pre-conceptions on to the texts) is what heretics do. This is the error of the open theists (read Socinians!).

So, if these passages are that clear, then what do we make of passages like Genesis 6, where God “repents” of making humanity? Is this a contradiction with the above set of passages? The answer is no. It doesn’t contradict at all. There is not even any paradox involved. What happens is this: God is utterly consistent in His treatment of human beings, depending on their state and their relationship to Him! Those who are God’s children and have a relationship to Him of child to Father (through adoption) can expect to be treated in a very consistent way. This would be a way that includes discipline, for the Lord disciplines those He loves. However, the Lord will never again treat His child the way a judge treats the defendant.

Similarly, those who are not in a right relationship with God can always expect Him to treat them as a judge treats the guilty defendant. God is long-suffering, and so sometimes that judgment takes a while. Nevertheless, the judgment will come. In other words, what changed in Genesis 6 was humanity, not God. It kept on changing for the worse (see verse 5). When that happens, the relationship changes, and God is always consistent in His treatment of people based on the state of that relationship.

The idea of covenant is heavily involved here. The first category of people we described above are members of the covenant of grace, and will always receive consistent covenant-of-grace treatment. Those not in that covenant are still condemned under the covenant of works, and thus, the more evil they do, the closer to judgment they get.

To sum up here, God does not change. He is always consistent with His character, and always treats people based on the state of the relationship that person has with God, a relationship that is covenantally determined.

One other thing must be mentioned here, and that is the “relenting” of the prophetic literature. Take the case of Jonah, for instance. After Jonah’s rebellion, he goes into Nineveh and preaches the world’s shortest sermon, (“40 days, and you’re toast”). The people repent and God relents. What is going on here? Take note of the 40 days. Why give Nineveh 40 days? Why not just say that it’s going to happen tomorrow? Because, built into every single judgment oracle in the OT, is the understood condition that if the people repent (i.e., their relationship with God changes!), the judgment will either be delayed or eliminated. So the relationship change works in reverse, too. If the relationship changes for the worse, God brings judgment. If it changes for the better, God holds off on judgment. God is rigidly consistent in this! In other words, God does not change, man does.

7 Comments

  1. February 4, 2015 at 12:02 am

    […] the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Winnsboro, S.C. This article appeared on his blog and is used with […]

  2. Reed Here said,

    February 4, 2015 at 8:55 am

    Regarding Jonah, it is interesting to note that his complaint against Gid is based on the consistency of God’s character, not that He “changed His mind” in relenting,

    But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Jonah 4:1-3

  3. roberty bob said,

    February 4, 2015 at 1:23 pm

    Gerhard Aalders comments thusly . . .

    When we read in verse 6 that “The Lord was grieved [repented / was sorry] that he had made man” and that “his heart was filled with pain,” we are dealing with clear-cut anthropomorphic figures of speech. We certainly cannot conceive of God having regrets, as human beings have, about his own actions. “God is not a man, that he should lie, or the son of man, that he should change his mind” (Numbers 23:19). But Scripture frequently uses expressions that are human in their scope and concept, and then ascribes these to God. This is done only in order that the intent may become clear to our limited human understanding. Here we have a clear instance of the use of such an anthropomorphism. The intent is to express the serious breach that had taken place in the relationship of God to man as the devastating consequence of man’s sin and rebellion.

  4. michael said,

    February 4, 2015 at 9:52 pm

    As for Nineveh, Nahum does a fairly good job of bring about her judgment even after Jonah’s.

    As for the other parts of the OP, I like to look to Peter in 1 Peter 5 to gain an Apostolic understanding of how God deals with restoring, confirming, strengthening and establishing His people in His Covenant.

  5. Panopeia said,

    February 5, 2015 at 2:36 am

    You can delete this I don’t mind, but a general question: why is nobody commenting (on any blogs I know of) about the 2,500 year old Jewish tablets found that seem to corroborate the Bible? Is it an old story? Not a big deal? Important or not important for apologetics? Just looking for some context and a general take on it…

  6. February 6, 2015 at 9:02 am

    There is an q and a on youtube with Spoul, MacArthur, and Horton, how these passages are reconciled for anyone interested. Allot of wisdom.

  7. Reed Here said,

    February 6, 2015 at 1:55 pm

    Panopeia, welcome. As per blog rules, please identify yourself for us.

    This blog is primarily focused on doctrinal issues. Apologetics do come into view, but only secondarily. Nothing wrong with apologetics, just not our focus.

    As to the recent explanation of what amounts to commercial bills of sale, etc., found in Iraq, yes I read about them (I expect many here did). I do pay attention to archaeological issues, and appreciate when they support what I already know to be true because the Holy Spirit has said it is true.

    I’m actually more interested in recent archaeological discussions surrounding some artifacts demonstrating that King David is an actual historical figure. At least that surprise is shared by those who doubt the Bible’s accuracy. In God’s grace, I’m not one of them.


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