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"...if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10). (Council of Orange: Canon 6)

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  • « Book Review: Reformation: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow - Review by: Matt Smethurst | Main | Does the Doctrine of Unconditional Election Makes God a "Respecter of Persons"? »

    Does God ever change His mind?

    Pastor John, I have a theological question for you. What would you say to someone (who was an Arminian) if you were having a discussion with them about the sovereignty of God in salvation and they stated that God does in fact change His mind (Exodus 32:14 is an example)?

    That is a very good question. Nowadays people like to have instant sound bite size answers to their questions, but that is not always possible. On this issue, it is important to lay the groundwork to provide a satisfactory, biblical answer and to do that necessitates serious study and application of the Scriptures. Let's take a look at this question from a few different angles.

    Hermeneutics is the science of biblical interpretation. One amongst many sound principles of interpretation is that we should base our view of God on the didactic (teaching) portions of scripture rather than the narrative (story) or poetic portions. This is why although the Bible says we can hide under the shadow of the Most High and under His wing find refuge, no Bible scholar expects God the Father to be a winged bird in heaven. This is obvious picture language where God uses images to speak to us highlighting the fact that just as a young bird finds refuge in the warmth and comfort of its mother's wings, we believers can find refuge in the Lord. The Lord is our rock and fortress, but that does not mean God is a literal rock or castle; or that because the Lord is our Shepherd and the Psalmist wrote, "your rod and your staff, they comfort me" God the Father has a literal rod and shepherd's staff that He uses with regularity in heaven. No, it is obvious picture language to describe something very meaningful about His relationship with His people, even though it is not to be viewed in wooden, literal terms.

    These expressions are what we call anthropomorphic language (taken from two Greek words, “anthropos” meaning human or man and “morphos” meaning form). God communicates with us in human words or form. When you think about it, that is all God has at his disposal when revealing His truth to us because as humans we can only understand human language. Birds speak a bird language to converse with each other and so too, human beings use a human form of communication.

    Likewise, when God communicates with us, He uses terms and images that are easy for us to grasp, even though if He explained them in the way He understood them, the concepts would be so far and vastly above our ability to comprehend that they would appear meaningless to us. God is infinite in knowledge and we as His creatures are finite. God has to remedy this in some way when He communicates with us so that He might provide a bridge of understanding. Just as a father smiles and engages in “baby talk” as he stands over the cot of his new born child, so God stoops to communicate with us in “baby talk” using language we can understand. Everything He communicates is true and meaningful, but expressed in terms finite minds can fathom.

    When we read a biblical story, it is easy to "read into" it to interpret it in ways unintended by the author. This is why sometimes a parable only teaches one main truth and not every detail in the parable can be stretched too far.. the parable merely provides a window to reveal a certain truth - for instance, that men always ought to pray... Incorrect interpretation occurs when we view minor details in the story in the same regard as an explicit statement of doctrine. Great care is needed so that we base our belief system on what it explicitly taught by the didactic portions rather than merely perhaps implied in the narrative ones.

    In reading certain narrative portions of Scripture, some have incorrectly concluded that God changes His mind. Yet the Bible is clear that not only does God not change in His essential nature (Mal. 3:6) but that He does not repent or change His mind. The Bible actually teaches this in a didactic portion. "God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?" Numbers 23:19.

    For the sake of argument though, lets try to imagine God literally changing His mind. I want to explain how this concept is inseparably linked with God's omniscience because for God to change His mind, He would need to make a decision and then be given new information He did not have before, so that He could either see the error of His ways, or choose a better course of action. It is important we see this.For God to change His mind, it would mean that God is learning new material as each day unfolds, and because you and I make that information known to God, or He sees that plan A is not working too well, because He is now armed with new information, He can make a better decision than the one He did previously. However, this idea would totally undermine God's exhaustive knowledge of future events (His omniscience) one of the very attributes of God. Such a thought is unthinkable. He would not be the all knowing God Scripture declares Him to be if indeed He ever learnt something. No, He has always had total, complete and infinite knowledge of all things from all eternity past.

    In the Bible, the true God mocks and ridicules the false gods, one reason being that they do not know the future as He does (Isa 41:22). The entire realm of eschatology (the study of end times) reveals that through predictive prophecy, God knows future events with certainty. This is the true God of the Bible:

    Isaiah 46:
    8 “Remember this and stand firm,
    recall it to mind, you transgressors,
    9 remember the former things of old;
    for I am God, and there is no other;
    I am God, and there is none like me,
    10 declaring the end from the beginning
    and from ancient times things not yet done,
    saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
    and I will accomplish all my purpose,’
    11 calling a bird of prey from the east,
    the man of my counsel from a far country.
    I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass;
    I have purposed, and I will do it.

    The Bible says He not only knows but actually declares the end from the beginning (v. 10). That's very clear isn't it?

    Arminianism is a belief that is inconsistent with itself. That is because if God does in fact know everything, including all future events, then of necessity, He knew, even before creation, the identity of those who would be saved and those who ultimately be lost. Arminianism does not want to go there, and wrestles and struggles, and indeed fails, to provide a successful intellectual remedy to what they consider to be a problem - the identity of the elect and non elect are fixed. This idea is not a "problem" in the reformed camp as it is what is believed. God, for His own Sovereign purposes has chosen people in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4) and in choosing some to receive mercy (but not all), He passes over others who will face justice for their sin.

    The point is that in both the Reformed and Arminian systems, when God's infinite knowledge is affirmed (which Arminians accept) then the unavoidable conclusion is that God creates people whom He knows will end up in hell. To deny this is to deny the omniscience of God, something that historically, Arminians have been unwilling to do. So they live with a gaping inconsistency that will not survive intellectual scrutiny.

    In recent years though a new movement has emerged called Open Theism. This movement has taken Arminianism to its logical intellectual conclusion. Knowing the "problem" that complete knowledge of the future means that the future is fixed, they have consciously taken the position that God does NOT know the future at all. They argue that because the future does not yet exist, even God does not know of it.

    In this scheme, the terrorist attacks on America on 9/11/2001 was unknown to God until the day actually came. He would have known about the terrorist’s plots, and their plans to hijack jet airliners, but He would not have known for sure if they would actually go ahead to carry out these plans until the events took place. Open Theists feel no shame in admiting this to be the case (even though they should). This view is way beyond Arminianism and crosses over into heresy. It is not a Christian belief at all. It is outside the bounds of orthodoxy altogether.

    So how do we deal with the narrative texts that Open Theists quote when seeking to undermine God's exhaustive knowledge of the future?

    Having now laid a foundation upon which we can build, I wish to now point you to an excellent article by Dr. Ligon Duncan on the subject. I appreciate Dr. Duncan's care and theological precision and highly recommend it.

    P.S. In writing this short blog article, there is a limit on how much I can communicate and so what I have sought to do was lay out the main issues involved and then point people to the article by Ligon Duncan which addresses the Exodus 32 passage. The whole article is worth reading but the section that addresses Exodus 32 is this one:

    You might want to turn Exodus 32 before you and just remember the context. This is right in the context of the golden calf. The people of God have already violated the first and second commandments before Moses can even get down from the mountain, and in the context of this, God threatens to destroy his people, and Moses intercedes. He intercedes and he says, “Don’t destroy this people. Don’t destroy this people that you brought out of the land of Egypt into the wilderness, because if you destroy this people, the nations are going to mock and say, “What did he do but just bring this people out in the wilderness to destroy them. So Moses fervently intercedes with God.

    Now what is Moses trying to teach us there the following things? One, that his influence conditions the compassion of God. Is Moses trying to teach us that his influence conditioned the compassion of God? God’s compassion had just come to the end of the rope—he’d had it, “that’s it, I’m going to fry them”—and Moses in the greatness and generosity of his heart talked God out of it. Is that what he’s trying to teach?

    Is he trying to teach us here that God changes his mind, that he reverses his intentions? Is he trying to teach us here the principle that God’s people have influence by their prayers on evoking the future actions of God?

    Well, let’s look at the passage for a second. Moses has already given you a textual clue to indicate that his heart of compassion is not as big as God’s heart of compassion. Where did he give that to you?

    In Exodus 3 and 4. Do you remember his call? God comes to Moses, he meets him at the burning bush, he calls him to be the prophet to his people, he sends him into Egypt, and what does Moses say? “This is incredible. This is incredible, God. This is an awesome mission. Send anybody you want to, but just not me.” Moses’ response to God’s call is, “This is amazing activity here, God, but I don’t care enough about your people to lead them out of Egypt.” Moses has tipped you off that his heart of compassion is not nearly as large as the heart of God for his people. Moses didn’t even want to be their liberator. Moses doesn’t expect you to turn a few chapters later and think that suddenly he has gotten to be more large-hearted than God, more patient than God. In fact, he shows his impatience throughout the account.

    So what’s happening here? God is training Moses to have a heart for his people like he already does, because Moses is the mediator. Moses is the mediator, and he’s got to have a heart for his people if he’s going to intercede for them, if he’s going to mediate for them. And so in Exodus 32, he’s training Moses to be a mediator. The whole passage is about Moses being a mediator. It’s not about God changing his mind. It’s not about God having Moses exercise some influence on him.

    Secondly, if you say that Moses changed God’s mind, you must say that God’s grace was conditioned by Moses, that God’s grace was prompted by Moses, that God’s grace was evoked by Moses. And, my friends, that’s blasphemy.

    The cross lets us know that God’s grace is not evoked by anything in us. It is self-generated, and the cross is the expression of that prior grace. It’s a mockery to the love of God to say that somehow he looks down upon us, and we coax him into loving his people and having compassion. That’s a horrendous caricature of the majestic, loving God of scripture. So this isn’t just a little exegetical mistake that Boyd is making here, he’s contorting the face of God. This passage is about mediation, it’s not about God changing his mind.

    Finally, what about the issue of Moses interceding and the relation to the decree of God? Well, you see the problem all along—and we’ll say this in just a moment—the problem all along with open theism is it thinks that God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are incompatible. Now we Calvinists, we Reformational Christians, happen to think that that’s incorrect. God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are not in contradiction. We may not be able to explain fully how those things work together, but they are not contradictory. And so the fact of the matter is, God often uses the prayers of his people as the instrument for the accomplishment of his will. But in that case, prayer functions—as C.H. Spurgeon once said—like a carrier pigeon.

    You know, the carrier pigeon is sent from home base with its message out to the place where the message is to be taken, and then it comes back home to the place from which it was sent. And, Spurgeon says, prayer is just like that. Prayer begins in the heart of God and lights in the heart of his people, who send it back to him where it returns from whence it came. And so God uses the prayers lifted up for the accomplishment of his will, but it is his heart where the origins of those prayers lie and they are sent out to ours. Do our prayers effect the plans of God? Not by themselves, but they may be the instrument which God has ordained from the foundation of the world to accomplish his will. Think of Daniel 9. Daniel picks up Jeremiah, he finds out that the children of Israel are to be in Egypt for 70 years in exile. Now if I had found that, and I was in exile, I would have said, “Yippee! It’s almost over!” Daniel doesn’t do that. He begins to confess his sins. He says, “Lord, we’ve been in exile all these years. The time, according to Jeremiah, is almost up, but we’re still hard-hearted. We still don’t love you.” What does he start to do? He starts to plead for God to answer his promises. And if I read my Bible right, at the end of Daniel 9, we are told that in response to Daniel’s prayer, Jesus came. Let me say that again. In response to Daniel’s prayer, God sent the Messiah into the world. Daniel’s prayer was the instrument chosen by the sovereign God to bring his son into the world. Go back and read it sometime. God’s sovereignty, man’s responsibility — no contradiction.

    Posted by John Samson on July 4, 2011 09:29 PM

    Comments

    This was a superb, excellent article; it read wonderfully. But I do wonder on one point: placing didactic pasages over the poetic narrative, as regards to understanding Almighty God. Not that I necessarily disagree with your conclusions, though.
    - John G. Lewis

    Hi John G. Lewis,

    Thanks for your encouraging words. There is a limit as to what I can write in a short blog article, but perhaps the following may be of help in the way of explanation:

    All Scripture is equally inspired by God. Each passage has to be interpreted correctly and that means that even when we LITERALLY believe the Bible, we should interpret the parables as literal parables, poetry as literal poetry, the narratives as literal narratives, the historical genealogies as literal historical genealogies (rather than look for a secret hidden message) and on and on we can go.

    One rule of interpretation is to build all doctrine on necessary rather than possible inferences. A necessary inference is something that is definitely taught by the text. The conclusion is unavoidable. It is necessary. A possible inference is something that could or might be true, but not something actually stated by the text. Some refer to this as the distinction between the implicit and the explicit. An implication may be drawn from the text of scripture, but we then have to ask if the implicit interpretation is a NECESSARY ONE rather than a POSSIBLE one. We can all have our theories, and we do, but a sound principle we should employ is to not teach as DOCTRINE something that is only a possible interpretation. We should build doctrine ONLY on necessary interpretation.

    In practical terms, to make these kind of distinctions are often a lot harder than it might first appear because it means we have to take a step back and analyse exactly why we think a verse teaches something. In other words, it means testing our traditions and doing a lot of thinking. Yet this is something we should do constantly. Paul exhorted Timothy to “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” (2 Tim. 2:7)

    All of us should be prepared to hold up our preconceived notions to the light of Scripture to see if these assumptions are valid or not. The result of this process often involves the killing of some sacred cows, but that’s a good thing, if what we have held to be true cannot actually be supported by the biblical text. We all have our blind spots and traditions but we are not always aware of them. Therefore, the serious Bible student asks questions of himself and of the text constantly in order to determine what the sacred text actually says and then he builds his thinking on that.

    Here’s one text as an example: John 20:19 says, “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

    Many people read this narrative passage and conclude that Jesus walked through the locked door in order to present Himself to His disciples. But does the text actually say that? No, it does not. The text might be teaching that. It is certainly a possible inference drawn from the text, but by no means a necessary one. There are other possible explanations.

    Concerning this verse the ESV Study Bible says (correctly in my opinion), “Some interpreters understand the doors being locked to imply that Jesus miraculously passed through the door or the walls of the room, though the text does not explicitly say this. Since Jesus clearly had a real physical body with flesh and bones after he rose from the dead… one possibility is that the door was miraculously opened so that the physical body of Jesus could enter, which is consistent with the passage about Peter going through a locked door some time later (see Acts 12:10).”

    To state the principle again: we should build all doctrine on necessary rather than possible inferences, on the explicit and not the implicit. All else is speculation.

    Another rule: Interpret the unclear passages in Scripture in light of the clear. Though all Scripture is God breathed, every passage is not equally clear (easy to understand). Even the Apostle Peter struggled with Paul’s writings at times, as he found some of it “hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3:16)

    When determining what the Bible teaches on a particular topic, find the passages which CLEARLY address the issue at hand and make this the starting point of your doctrine, rather than an obscure (or less than clear) passage. Once that which is clear is firmly grasped and understood, then proceed to study the passages which at first seem to be unclear, using the other hermeneutic rules.

    In narratives, something may be implied from a story (as in the case above), but we should always ask if it is a necessary implication in the text and secondly ask if that possible interpretation is countered by something explicitly stated elsewhere in Scripture in the didactic (teaching) portions. We do this all the time naturally - which is why we dont think of God as a winged bird with feathers... why? because elsewhere (in the didactic teaching in John 4:24, God reveals Himself to be a Spirit rather than localized in one place with a physical body (He is omnipresent, etc, etc,).

    This distinction I make is not mine in the way of origin. It is a carefully thought out method of interpretation employed by all sound teachers of the Bible. It is not a method of Reformed people to deny Arminians.

    Of course, none of us follow our own interpretive rules consistently, which is why Christians and even scholars make mistakes, and why we dont all see things the same way. We ALL have our blind spots and traditions. Those most blinded to their traditions are those who dont believe they have any.

    If there is a contradiction between two views, at least one of them is wrong.. If we could see our glaring mistakes personally, we would change our views instantly, but that is what theologians call one of the noetic effects of the Fall - we just dont think as perfectly now since the Fall of Adam... God is not confused even if we are.

    When we read a biblical story, it is easy to "read into" it to interpret it in ways unintended by the author. This is why sometimes a parable only teaches one main truth and not every detail in the parable can be stretched too far.. the parable merely provides a window to reveal a certain truth - for instance, that men always ought to pray. Incorrect interpretation occurs when we view minor details in the story in the same regard as an explicit statement of doctrine. Great care is needed so that we base our belief system on what it explicitly taught by the didactic portions rather than merely perhaps implied in the narrative ones.

    Dear Rev. John Samson:

    Thank you for your explanation. I see, and agree, when you state in the middle (and repeat at the end), the point that we should build all doctrine on the necessary, rather than the possible; on the explicit, as compared to the implicit... And then making a general parallel of the explicit with the didactic. This is very fair, certainly; thank you for making this clear.

    By the way, I agree with you also when you mention the thought that we do not *think* quite as well, as a result of the Fall. Yes, and I don't think this is even properly recognized by us Christians: the extent and power of sin upon our thought; the many and various ways we can be influenced. All the more reason to be careful drawing conclusions!

    Thank you again very much for your kind reply,
    Grace annd Peace,
    John G. Lewis

    John,

    another one for the honor roll! :)

    While reading it a couple of Biblical ideas came to mind to post.

    The first comes from learning about Godly "baby talk".

    We see in John 21 Jesus patiently talks baby talk to that child, Peter, starting with focus on the "lambs" that were surely coming into his apostolic ministry so that Christ through Peter would establish them, too, in the Truth.

    With that I would only note a Greek word that is used twice, once by Peter and once by Paul. Both Scriptures establish this idea of God "changing" our minds, wills and emotions to understand His Eternal Purposes through baby talk when calling us and electing us because He had already chosen us before the foundation of the world.

    The Greek word is: λογικός
    logikos
    log-ik-os'
    From G3056; rational (“logical”): - reasonable, of the word.


    It is used at Romans 12:1 and 1 Peter 2:2.

    Thanks again for this yum yum food! :)

    Not to go against what you have written, but you misunderstand the open view of God. Greg Boyd does a great job of laying the view out there, and it is not what I thought it was. I thought it was all about God not being omniscient and all too. Not advocating Open Theism here, just saying I was misinformed like a lot of people until I read some of Greg Boyd and it made more sense than the way most people present it.

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