Difficult Scripture: Does God Repent?

Rethinking God’s nature is a dangerous, but exciting thing. What if we’ve misunderstood what it means for God to be sovereign and omniscient? This is a provocative question, and one that is increasingly being asked among theology professors today.

As youth workers, we can easily be intimidated to avoid difficult and confusing biblical passages. After all, most teenagers I know would prefer talking about how a Christian worldview effects their social media habits, rather than discussing controversial biblical passages. But we need to demonstrate the beauty and value of studying the Bible (all of it, not just the comfortable parts) seriously.

Many of us are intimidated to teach on passages where God “repents” or “regrets” or “seems to change His mind,” because we don’t know what it means or what the implications ought to be. (Keep in mind, this article presents only a brief look into the following texts. What follows is by no means the authoritative – or only theologically orthodox – interpretation. For a more thorough study, I recommend Millar Erickson’s What Does God Know and When Does He Know It?

Biblical Texts that Show God Repent, Regret, or Change His Mind

Genesis 6:5-6
“The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” (ESV)

Exodus 32:9-14
“And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.” But Moses implored the Lord his God and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’” And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.” (ESV)

Jeremiah 18:7-8
“If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it.” (ESV)

What Does the Hebrew Text Say?
Some of these passages may appear to portray a fickle God who can’t make up His mind. But nothing could be further from the truth! We can assure students that God is in control, and yet He is not passive about the happenings in our world.

The central question essentially comes down to this: how do we interpret the Niphal verb-form of the Hebrew word, “nhm.” The King James opts to translate nhm as “repent.” This has given some people the impression that God believes He has made mistakes and chooses to correct His previous “bad decisions.” But most modern versions translate nhm to mean either “regret” or “relent,” depending on the context. The Niphal verb-form was used to show that the action was being done to oneself; so when God relents, he is doing something that has direct impact on Himself (not only on others).

In these passages (and others like them), God is affected by human sin and responds with grief, sorrow, and loss. His action is a response to the sinfulness of humanity; and yet, in relenting, He takes that grief upon Himself and withholds the righteous judgment humanity deserves.

Consider this example: the sun does not actually rise or set, but earth moves in relation to the sun. This gives the impression that the sun rises and sets, but we know that’s not the case. God’s sovereign judgments are consistent. So is His grace for those who repent of their sin. God’s heart is grieved by human sin, but this does not mean God is the one who changed.

In particular, there are both striking parallels and distinct differences between the heart of man and the heart of God. Genesis 6:5, as read above, says that in man, “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” In response, verse 6 presents God’s heart as both grieved and regretful. And yet, rather than wiping away all of humanity in response to that grief, Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord and humanity was preserved in the midst of His judgment. Where humanity’s heart was sinful, God’s heart was grieved. Yet this grief never results in despair. Instead, God’s grief consistently brings judgment for whatever the sin which caused such grief, while also delivering grace to those who repent.

In Exodus 32:14, the Lord relents from obliterating Israel because of their idolatry and rejection of the Lord as their God. God had just given the Law on Sinai, and Israel already proved themselves as an unworthy, unfaithful people. Just like in Genesis 6:6, God brings judgment and yet relents from complete destruction by rescuing this faithful remnant.

Finally, in Jeremiah 18:7-8 the Lord declares that He will relent from sending utter destruction, though it is well-deserved, if the people would repent of their evil ways and return to Him. Once again, we see both judgment and grace at work. But God’s heart relents and is moved by compassion. He is eager to show compassion and grace, even while judgment continues for those who do not repent.

In a Nutshell
God’s “repentance” is always a response to human sinfulness, and is vaguely presented in Scripture as a way to demonstrate how our sin has grievously affected Him. Where the human heart strays into rejection of God’s lordship and embraces sin, God’s heart is grieved and moved by sorrow over our waywardness. But the good and final news is this: in response to our sin, He takes our grief upon Himself in order to save us from both sin (and the wages of sin), most clearly fulfilled through the incarnation, atonement, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Why This Matters for Student Ministry
The world of teenagers changes so quickly, it’s hard to keep on top of current trends. But thankfully, we serve a God who, like the sun, does not change (Numbers 23:19; Malachi 3:6). Assure your students that the sovereignty and omniscience of God is utterly reliable in a constantly shifting world. The unchanging character of God brings rest, peace, and confidence to His children.

These passages about the Lord “repenting” or “relenting” are a reminder that our sin has provoked God’s judgment. And yet, out of His compassion and steadfast love He has taken that judgment upon Himself in order to save and redeem those who repent by faith. Not only can we trust that God knows the future, we also rest assured that His sovereignty is the foundation of our freedom.

[END NOTE: In many of these difficult passages (primarily found in the Old Testament), the nature of God often comes into question. An increasing number of Christians today are embracing what is referred to as “Open Theology,” and I have had a number of students attend a Christian college teaching that God repents and changes His mind because He didn’t know what would happen. Greg Boyd, one of the leading theologians behind this movement, clarifies that Open Theists do not doubt God’s sovereignty or omniscience, but rather, “Open Theists…hold that the future consists partly of settled realities and partly of unsettled realities. …God knows the future as consisting of both unsettled possibilities and settled certainties.”¹

It is my opinion that while Open Theology presents a new and compelling vision of God, it uses passages which are not clear in order to reinterpret what is clear and consistent throughout Scripture about God’s nature. Although they say God’s sovereignty or omniscience are not being doubted, their statements certainly imply otherwise. For this reason, Open Theism presents a dangerous (though not heretical) view of God.]

¹ Gregory Boyd, The God of the Possible. (Dallas, TX; Word Books Publisher, 2000). 15-16.

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Mike McGarry is the Director of Youth Pastor Theologian, has served as a Youth Pastor for 18 years in Massachusetts, and has two youth group aged kids at home. He earned his D.Min. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has published three books – most recently, “Discover: Questioning Your Way to Faith.” Mike is committed to training youth workers to think biblically about what youth ministry is and to training them to teach theologically with confidence. You can connect with him on social media @youththeologian.

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