The Bible teaches that God does not change (Mal. 3:6). How should we interpret other passages that describe Him as repenting (Gen. 6:6)? Today, Sinclair Ferguson brings clarity to this apparent contradiction.
NATHAN W. BINGHAM: We’re recording live from Ligonier’s 2022 National Conference and I’m joined by one of Ligonier’s Teaching Fellows, Dr. Sinclair Ferguson. Dr. Ferguson, what does it mean when scripture says that God repented? For example, Genesis 6:6, Jeremiah 26:13, 1 Chronicles 21:15.
DR. SINCLAIR FERGUSON: Well, I think this is quite a common question to ask. I think people ask it sometimes for different reasons, but one of them often is because the scriptures also say that God never changes. That He is immutable. So for example, in Malachi, "I, the Lord, I change not, therefore you sons of Jacob are not consumed." But in the Old Testament, I don't know how many times, maybe a dozen times or so in the Old Testament, that speak about God, in the older translations, repenting. I think some of the modern translations, relenting. The verb that underlies our English translations is the verb that means to turn or to return. And so, I think Christians sometimes have a problem. How is it that God can be immutable, unchangeable, and at the same time, there are these passages that say He repents? Doesn't that mean that there is some change in God? And that has pretty weighty implications.
So here, I think, is the best way to understand it. Our God is a covenant God. He enters into relationship with us. In that relationship, He promises blessing to faith and obedience, and judgment and cursing to unbelief and disobedience. He never changes in His absolute faithfulness to that covenant. But as we respond to Him, either in faith or in unbelief, in obedience or in disobedience, I think we could say that our relationship to God changes. And certainly from our perspective, God, Himself, appears to take on a different character. But in fact, if you remember that background, you realize He hasn't taken on a different character at all. He's actually continuing to be what He promised to be.
Philosophers, I guess, in the last century, I mean, last 100 years or so, philosophers have sometimes spoken about what they sometimes call a Cambridge change. And it's related to the fact that the discussion took place, I think, largely among Cambridge philosophers, in which they recognize that sometimes we speak about a change taking place when no real change has taken place. Let me try and illustrate it in a way that might be helpful.
Nathan W. Bingham is very well... No, let's not try Nathan W. Bingham, because I might get myself into hot water here. But here is somebody we know, here's a young man we know, and he has been helped as a Christian by an older man in the congregation whom he greatly respects. And then, that man's daughter comes home from college. He'd never met her before, and he falls madly in love with her. He eventually marries her, and Mr. Smith, who had been respected by him and who in fact had been a real mentor to him, now becomes his father-in-law. But Mr. Smith hasn't changed a whit. 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 relationship to man in light of what I've been saying about His covenant commitment to us, God is like that. The scriptures... Because the only language we can describe these things in is our human language and all its limitations. We can simultaneously say that God never changes, and yet God relents or repents or even changes his disposition towards us.
There's one example, I think it's in 1 Samuel 15, I need to look it up, where simultaneous, not quite simultaneously, but within the same section, we've got this statement of God relenting. And yet, within that context, the author is saying that God never changes. I think that's a very good passage for us to look at, to see that from the biblical point of view, both of these things can be said without them being understood to contradict each other. I think underneath all that is this covenant relationship in which God constantly remains the same, and yet, our experience of Him differs in terms of our response to who He is and His covenant.
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