This is quite a common question. People ask it for different reasons, but one of them is because the Scriptures also say that God never changes. He is immutable. For example, in Malachi 3:6: “I, the Lord, I change not, therefore you sons of Jacob are not consumed.” However, maybe a dozen times or so in the older translations, the Old Testament speaks about God “repenting.” Some of the modern translations instead use the word “relenting.”
The verb that underlies our English translations is the verb that means “to turn” or “to return.” So, Christians sometimes have a problem where they think: “How is it that God can be immutable and unchangeable, and at the same time, some passages say that He repents? Doesn’t that mean there is some change in God?” The answer has weighty implications.
I think that the best way to understand these texts is to recognize that our God is a covenant God. He enters into a relationship with us. In that relationship, He promises blessing for faith and obedience, and He promises judgment and cursing for unbelief and disobedience. He never changes in His absolute faithfulness to His covenant. As we respond to Him, either in faith or unbelief, in obedience or disobedience, we could say that our relationship to God changes. From our perspective, God certainly appears to take on a different character. However, if you remember the covenant background, you realize He hasn’t taken on a different character at all; He’s actually continuing to be what He promised to be.
In the last one hundred years or so, philosophers have sometimes spoken about what they call a “Cambridge change.” The name is related to the fact that the discussion took place largely among Cambridge philosophers. This concept recognizes that sometimes we speak about a change taking place when no real change has taken place. Let me try to illustrate it in a way that might be helpful.
Let’s say there is a young man we know, and he has been helped as a Christian by an older man in the congregation, whom he greatly respects. Then, that older man’s daughter comes home from college. The young man has never met her before, and he falls madly in love with her. He eventually marries her, and Mr. Smith, who had been a real mentor to the young man, now becomes his father-in-law. However, Mr. Smith hasn’t changed at all. The relationship has changed. Mr. Smith may be said to be something he didn’t seem to be before, but he’s one and the same Mr. Smith.
When we think about God and His relationship to man in light of what I’ve been saying about His covenant commitment to us, God is similar to the illustration of Mr. Smith. The only language we can use to describe these things is our human language with all its limitations. We can simultaneously say that God never changes, and yet God relents, repents, or even changes His disposition toward us.
One example of God’s relenting is in 1 Samuel 15. In that chapter, there are statements about God relenting, yet within the same context the author also says that God never changes. This passage illustrates from the biblical point of view that both of these things can be said without them being understood to contradict each other. Underneath all of this is the covenant relationship in which God constantly remains the same, yet our experience of Him differs in terms of our response to who He is and His covenant.
This podcast is from an Ask Ligonier Podcast session with Sinclair Ferguson and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, email firstname.lastname@example.org or message us on Facebook or Twitter.