As a father, one of the most frustrating things I can do to my children is change my mind.
Imagine I send the kids off for a day at school with these words: “Kids, get excited because we’re going to the beach this weekend!” And then, when picking them up: “You know, kids, I changed my mind. Going to the beach isn’t going to work this week.”
I can already hear the shrill complaints. There’s nothing more frustrating to a child than a parent who seems fickle. Much of life—as a child, a spouse, an employee, a citizen—is about managing expectations. But what if those governing your expectations flip and flop?
There are times in Scripture when God appears to change his mind. This is especially seen in the Old Testament as he interacts with his people. We meet this change rather early on when, just five chapters after pronouncing man “very good” (Gen. 1:31), we read: “The LORD regretted that he had made man on earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Gen. 6:6).
How can we relate to our Creator when he changes his mind so quickly? Apparently, God is a flip-flopping Father, which is a recipe for frustrated children.
But, of course, I’m leaving something out.
God’s Change and God’s Character
First Samuel 15 is key for understanding biblical statements about God having “regrets,” or “repenting,” or “relenting,” or otherwise changing his mind. Like Genesis 6, this chapter describes an apparent change in God: “I regret that I have made Saul king” (v. 11) and “the LORD regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel” (v. 35).
At first glance, this language makes God seem as fickle as the dad who reneges on the weekend beach plans. But in both Genesis 6 and 1 Samuel 15, something monumental plays a decisive role in God changing his mind—namely, human sin.
First Samuel 15 is key for understanding biblical statements about God having ‘regrets.’
In the first ten verses of 1 Samuel 15, Saul rebels against the word of God given through Samuel; only afterward does God express his regret. His regret follows man’s sin. Or, to put it differently, God changes when man changes.
But is God’s change the same as human change?
The reason 1 Samuel 15 is key to understanding statements of God’s change is because it connects apparent divine alteration not only to man’s sin (so God is not fickle), but also to God’s character (he’s acting consistently). As Samuel says to Saul, “The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours who is better than you. And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret” (1 Sam. 15:28–29; cf. Num. 23:19).
It’s remarkable that in a chapter where God appears similar to man in his ability to change his mind, we find one of Scripture’s strongest statements of his immutability. What’s more, his immutability is rooted in the reality that he is different from man.
How an Infinite God Talks to Finite Creatures
How can God express change in relation to man without changing who he is?
To ask the question this way is to answer it. When God enters into covenant with humanity, he describes that relationship in ways we can understand. This is God’s “accommodation” to us, who are of an entirely different nature as creatures. John Calvin referred to this as God “lisping”—his lisping of “regret” is meant to communicate his profound displeasure at sin. It doesn’t mean something in him has changed, but that something he created has; and he expresses his disappointment in words that we can grasp.
God’s lisping of ‘regret’ is meant to communicate his profound displeasure at sin.
God dynamically relates to his creatures. He can give of himself while losing nothing, relating to us without ever changing.
Following the principle, then, that Scripture interprets Scripture (in this case, allowing vv. 28–29 to interpret v. 11 and v. 35), I conclude that when the Bible attributes change to God, it’s an “anthropopathic” way of speaking. Anthropopathisms attribute human emotions (such as grief or regret) to God. They don’t directly describe his character or attributes; rather, they indicate a change in humanity’s relationship to him.
Change Is Good, and Bad
The fact that humans can change is a good thing when we change, by God’s grace, for the better. But change can also be bad. After all, human change for the worse prompted God’s expressions of regret. But even worse would be the prospect of change in God.
It’s no overstatement to say that if God could change—that is, in himself, in his character, in his purposes—the whole Bible would collapse.
It’s no overstatement to say that if God could change—that is, in himself, his character, his purposes—the whole Bible would collapse.
A fickle God is of no help to David, for example. Throughout his life David faced turbulent circumstances. When he cried out to God he often referred to him as a rock (2 Sam. 22:2–3; cf. Ps. 18:2). Why? Because a rock communicates permanence, something that can be depended on when everything else seems to be giving way.
Change is a constant in the human realm, but the perfection of immutability is divine.
Immutable for Better or Worse
If we change for the worse in sin, God’s immutability should spark fear. His righteousness will not change; on the day of judgment he will not have a sudden change of heart toward unrepentant sin.
Yet if we desire to change for the better, God’s immutability is the very basis for that improvement. We can be assured of salvation and persevere to the end because we know his promises and purposes don’t change—and our eternal happiness in Christ is as sure as his own perfection.
Our King is anything but a fickle, frustrating Father. He is ever faithful, ever true. His children, then, have no fear of arbitrary change. May we live in the freedom of his unswerving goodness and grace.
The Gospel Coalition