Whenever someone preaches about grace, there’s this scene from Genesis 18 that often gets brought up. God has every intention of destroying the city of Sodom for its wickedness. But Abraham won’t stand for this. He asks God, flat out, “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city?” God’s reply: Well, if there are fifty righteous people, no. What about 45? Abraham asks. No, God says. 40? 30? 20? No, no and no. 10? And God answers, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.” Of course, we quickly find out that there aren’t even 10 righteous people in the city of Sodom, so God does eventually destroy it. However, when I’ve heard this story preached, the pastor points to the negotiation between Abraham and God as an example of God’s overwhelming grace. Even though God is compelled to bring to justice, He will spare the unrighteous majority for the sake of obedient minority. God wants people to turn to Him.
That at least is the way the story has been preached to me, and that’s certainly one way to read it. However, one thing that has always baffled me about this scene is Abraham. “Far be it from you!” he tells God. “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” He questions God’s plan. Somehow, by speaking with Abraham, God reaches a new agreement. The plan shifts. It sounds insane, but it seems like the unchangeable, eternal Alpha and Omega changes His mind.
Does God change his mind?
It’s a legitimate question, especially when you consider the sheer number of passages in the Old Testament that claim that He doesn’t. “God is…not a human being,” Numbers 23:19 tells us, “that He should change His mind.” While everything else will “perish,” the psalmist writes in Psalm 102, God will “remain the same…” In Malachi 3:6, God, speaking for Himself, declares, “I the Lord do not change.” We read similar similar claims in 1 Samuel 15: 2-3, James 1:17 and Hebrews 13:8—God doesn’t change, period.
But what, then, do we do with the passages where God appears to, well, change his mind? Because there are a lot of them.
In Exodus 32, after God sees His people worshipping a golden calf, He’s ready to rain calamity until Moses reminds Him of His promises to Israel; then we read that “the LORD relented from the calamity He had threatened to bring on His people.”
We see the opposite shift occur in 1 Samuel 2:27-36, where God, after the prophet Eli’s sons commit a heinous act, revokes His promise to Eli that “members of your family would minister before me forever.” Instead, God states, “all your descendants will die in the prime of life.” Yeah. Whoa.
God also expresses disappointment over past decisions. “I regret that I have made Saul king,” God tells his prophet in 1 Samuel 15, “because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.” If God was all-knowing and unchanging, why would He allow something He would later regret? We read that God is unchanging, and yet we see that God is surprised by events (Isaiah 5:3-7), willing to test His people to see if they will remain obedient (Judges 2:20-3:5), and vocal about times that He did not know the final outcome (Jeremiah 7:31). That doesn’t sound very unchanging to me. It sounds kind of contradictory.
So what do we do with all of that? What has been done with that?
Well, there are a few perspectives. There are those who believe that God doesn’t change His mind, period. To do so would be contrary to His nature. As Charles Spurgeon asserts, “God is a master-mind…and once having settled [His plan], mark you, He never alters it.”
There are others that argue that what appears to be God changing His mind are actually instances of God doing what He has always done: responding accordingly to the obedience of His people. In 1 Samuel 2, for instance, when God decides to revoke His blessing from Eli’s family, He is not
flip-flopping. God hates sin and loves obedience, and whenever either is exhibited, He responds in kind. This is not contradictory, many argue; this is consistency. R.A. Torrey puts it this way: “…if God does remain the same in character… then if any city or any person changes in attitude
toward sin, God must necessarily change in His attitude toward that person or city.” The same, Torrey says, is true of repentance.
So, what’s the answer? Kind of. In a way. Of course, I would argue that the question lurking behind this question is an even scarier one. Does God change? That’s really what we’re asking. If we’re honest, the supposedly “immutable” character of God seems to change from Old Testament to New Testament, or book to book, or even verse to verse. If we’re honest, it’s a little worrisome.
Most scholars and theologians believe that Scripture describes and supports “ontological immutability”—meaning, that God by his very nature cannot and will not change. “We do not know what substance that is which we call God,” argues Charles Spurgeon, but “whatever it is, we call it His essence, and that essence never changes.”
Another framework for understanding this is something called “progressive revelation.” Essentially, the idea is that, as time has gone on, God has revealed His character to human beings more and more, culminating in the person of Jesus Christ. This doesn’t mean that God changes or alters His character. “Rather, Walter A. Henrichsson suggests, “it is our understanding of God and His revelation that progresses. God never changes.” In other words, nothing makes complete sense until you have Jesus. Then, and only then, can you see the full picture of God’s character.
A third view, albeit more controversial, is something called “open theism.” At the most basic level, open theists believe that God, in His love, has chosen not to know our future choices in order to give us complete free will. In this sense, God does change. He changes alongside us. As scholar John Sanders argues, “God is a personal agent who experiences the give-and-take of historical life with His creatures. God changes in His relationships as He works with us so God has a history.” It’s worth considering. If God truly is a personal God, would He not meet us where we’re at, in this time and space, and allow us, in love, to choose freely?
These are a few attempts to answer the questions. They are not complete answers, nor do they fully satisfy. But I appreciate all of them because they all spring from the same core belief: that we serve a good and loving God. It can be tricky, sometimes, to reconcile Scripture with that belief. But faith fills in the gaps.
Does God change his mind? Maybe. Does God change? Yes
and no. Is God good? Yes. That might have to be enough for now.