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

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greenbaggins

Administrator
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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.
 

whirlingmerc

Puritan Board Sophomore
Jonah was told to tell the Ninevites to repent and saw it as God being scandelously merciful and making a way for them to escape judgment... his only problem was he didn't like it

Nahum spoke distantly against the Ninevites, Johah was told to speak personally and that bothered Jonah enough to suspect God of living up to Jonah's worse fears, being scandelously merciful to His enemies and I don't think Jonah saw it as a change in nature but a long suffering and mercy that was there all along
 

KeithW

Puritan Board Freshman
So, if these passages are that clear, then what do we make of passages like Genesis 6, where God “repents” of making humanity?
Have you considered addressing the terminology used here before moving on to other explanations? For example, in Christianity when men "repent" they turn from one thing to another - they turn from man's worldview to God's worldview; they turn from disobedience towards God to obedience towards God; they turn from sin to God. Your question could be stated, does this definition apply to God?

A simple example of how to address the terminology could be to look at different translations of Gen. 6:6.
KJV said:
And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. (Gen. 6:6)
ESV said:
And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. (Gen. 6:6)
A lexicon could also be examined. Looking specifically at the entry which contains "repent",

nacham(Niphal) - 2. to be sorry, rue, suffer grief, repent
You also said,

... 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.
I have not heard of this before. For an example, could you explain how this applies to the judgment God performed against Sodom and Gomorrah? It seems that Jesus said that if the mighty works He did had been done in Sodom and Gomorrah they would have repented.

KJV said:
Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not: Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you. And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee. (Matt. 11:20-24)
This seems to imply that no opportunity of repentance was offered to them. And in the Genesis 18 account I don't see repentance being offered. Does some other Scripture contain this offer?
 

Contra_Mundum

Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
could you explain how this applies to the judgment God performed against Sodom and Gomorrah? It seems that Jesus said that if the mighty works He did had been done in Sodom and Gomorrah they would have repented.

2Pet.2:7-8 refer to Lot's righteous presence among those people. He was a wordless--assuming he never (?) spoke out--witness against the people. Rebuke is a method of warning.

But the strongest warning is found in Gen.14, when God allows ruin to overtake those cities, but ends by saving the king of Sodom by the hand of his servant Abram. Neither the king nor his city repents, though Abram, servant of the Most High God, bears witness before him of the righteousness of the king in Salem.

And though none of these examples were thought of as explicit warning, still men have consciences as God's inbuilt warning-service.

It will always be possible to comparatively judge God as insufficiently (or inordinately!) compassionate. After all, the wicked who died before the gospel came to the South Pacific (to name but one example) did not have the same opportunity as other wicked people who lived in 1C Jerusalem, or late 2nd millennium BC Sodom, to hear a particular word of warning. But this assumes that the warning offered must be the same in all cases, in order for justice to be fair. This we deny.

Jesus' words re. Sodom confirm this fact. They might have been warned more than they were, if Providence ruled otherwise--and the outcome been different. But the ultimate outcome is the same, because those who had more light rejected what they received as thoroughly as those who had rejected less.

God is consistent. He regularly shows his compassion in some degree, even to those who reject it.
 

KeithW

Puritan Board Freshman
Rev. Buchanan, thank you for interacting with my post. Mine was not on the basis of thinking God unjust or not sovereign or cannot do with His creation as He sees fit. Instead it was more of a request of Rev. Keister regarding what I initially read as a universal statement, "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." Maybe I was viewing this too universally. Does "oracle" here mean only prophets sent by God to nations or peoples with a message of warning and repentance?

2Pet.2:7-8 refer to Lot's righteous presence among those people. He was a wordless--assuming he never (?) spoke out--witness against the people. Rebuke is a method of warning.
I'm sorry, I'm not understanding this with regards to the previous verse,

KJV said:
And turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrha into ashes condemned them with an overthrow, making them an ensample unto those that after should live ungodly (2 Pet. 2:6)
God would still be righteous and just for His condemnation and overthrow even if no rebuke or warning may have been previously sent to them.
 

greenbaggins

Administrator
Staff member
Keith, I would say that it is a general rule, what I stated. I wouldn't want to go so far as to say that there are no exceptions. Sometimes a people is so far gone that alteration of the sentence is no longer possible.

As to Sodom and Gomorrah, God did not announce anything to that city. God doesn't have to do that, of course.
 

Contra_Mundum

Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
Rev. Keister is simply stating an important theological conclusion regarding the Word of God. Yes, God promises judgment--he has promised it upon the whole earth. He promised death in the Garden, and then he imposed his sentence. There is also some form of "suspense" of that sentence, in that along with all the cursing, there is a glimmer of hope.

If you hear the threat of doom, what should you do? Shouldn't you plead for mercy? If you don't plead, then of course you cannot expect it. There are those who do not plead defiantly. There are those who do not plead for a sense of desert and shame. There are those who do not plead because they are resigned. It really isn't the case that men do not plead because of total ignorance, for in everyone is the sensus divinitas, Rom.1:32. But perhaps there is ignorance of the merciful character of God, Jas.2:13.

If one does plead, legitimately, for mercy, then what will God do? The Scriptures are simply full of examples--God hears. Look at 1Ki.21:21 & 29. It is a pattern. Even the most (apparently) unqualified pronouncements of destruction are limited in unspoken ways.

As for Sodom, you made the claim that they were not warned. Jesus doesn't say "they weren't warned," but that if they had experienced the kind of signs shown to the 1C Jews, they would have responded in faith well over a millennium-and-half before--unlike the holy nation's response in Christ's day. I pointed out two instances and manners of warning shown Sodom, one which is explicitly confirmed by the NT text.

There is a certain truth to the observation that condemnation justly follows, regardless of opportunity to repent. What qualifies as opportunity? Is Conscience a divinely provided warning? What we actually encounter is a world where there is much more in the way of warning and opportunity than we often credit.

And the simple truth is, that every announcement of doom in advance of the fact serves as an additional indictment, upon the ears of anyone--even the target--who may hear it yet still make no sign of repentance.

In Sodom's case, it was not God's intent that they should be moved by their experience of either Abram or Lot, but rather hardened under the same means that soften others. If he had willed it, greater signs and warnings could have been sent to them, and they would have responded. That fact is held before the eyes of the 1C Jewish unbelievers, as proof of their perversity and the justice of their condemnation. It is not a case of "some" warning, vs. "none." But "lots" vs. "little."

I hope that clarifies my intent (and what I think Rev.Keister meant).
 

Jack K

Puritan Board Doctor
The initial post is a helpful way to explain passages where God seems to change his mind. Thank you for this. It's especially helpful to me as a guy who's teaching on Jonah this coming Sunday!
 
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