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, â€œanthroposâ€ meaning human or man and â€œmorphosâ€ 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 â€œbaby talkâ€ as he stands over the cot of his new born child, so God stoops to communicate with us in â€œbaby talkâ€ 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:
8 â€œRemember 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, â€˜My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose,â€™
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 terroristâ€™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, â€œDonâ€™t destroy this people. Donâ€™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, â€œWhat 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? Godâ€™s compassion had just come to the end of the ropeâ€”heâ€™d had it, â€œthatâ€™s it, Iâ€™m going to fry themâ€â€”and Moses in the greatness and generosity of his heart talked God out of it. Is that what heâ€™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 Godâ€™s people have influence by their prayers on evoking the future actions of God?
Well, letâ€™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 Godâ€™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? â€œThis is incredible. This is incredible, God. This is an awesome mission. Send anybody you want to, but just not me.â€ Mosesâ€™ response to Godâ€™s call is, â€œThis is amazing activity here, God, but I donâ€™t care enough about your people to lead them out of Egypt.â€ Moses has tipped you off that his heart of compassion is not nearly as large as the heart of God for his people. Moses didnâ€™t even want to be their liberator. Moses doesnâ€™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 whatâ€™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 heâ€™s got to have a heart for his people if heâ€™s going to intercede for them, if heâ€™s going to mediate for them. And so in Exodus 32, heâ€™s training Moses to be a mediator. The whole passage is about Moses being a mediator. Itâ€™s not about God changing his mind. Itâ€™s not about God having Moses exercise some influence on him.
Secondly, if you say that Moses changed Godâ€™s mind, you must say that Godâ€™s grace was conditioned by Moses, that Godâ€™s grace was prompted by Moses, that Godâ€™s grace was evoked by Moses. And, my friends, thatâ€™s blasphemy.
The cross lets us know that Godâ€™s grace is not evoked by anything in us. It is self-generated, and the cross is the expression of that prior grace. Itâ€™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. Thatâ€™s a horrendous caricature of the majestic, loving God of scripture. So this isnâ€™t just a little exegetical mistake that Boyd is making here, heâ€™s contorting the face of God. This passage is about mediation, itâ€™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 alongâ€”and weâ€™ll say this in just a momentâ€”the problem all along with open theism is it thinks that Godâ€™s sovereignty and manâ€™s responsibility are incompatible. Now we Calvinists, we Reformational Christians, happen to think that thatâ€™s incorrect. Godâ€™s sovereignty and manâ€™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 functionsâ€”as C.H. Spurgeon once saidâ€”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, â€œYippee! Itâ€™s almost over!â€ Daniel doesnâ€™t do that. He begins to confess his sins. He says, â€œLord, weâ€™ve been in exile all these years. The time, according to Jeremiah, is almost up, but weâ€™re still hard-hearted. We still donâ€™t love you.â€ 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 Danielâ€™s prayer, Jesus came. Let me say that again. In response to Danielâ€™s prayer, God sent the Messiah into the world. Danielâ€™s prayer was the instrument chosen by the sovereign God to bring his son into the world. Go back and read it sometime. Godâ€™s sovereignty, manâ€™s responsibility â€” no contradiction.