One great Reformation truth is that Scripture is perspicuous (clear) in matters of faith and life. Yet this does not mean that it is equally clear everywhere. Some less clear passages speak of God repenting or relenting, such as Genesis 6:6, Exodus 32:14, and 2 Samuel 24:16. How can God change? In these passages, it seems that God was going to do one thing, but then changed his mind and did something else.
There is a religious movement today called Open Theism. According to Open Theists, God is open to change, learning as he goes along. In the words of Terrence Fretheim, "God adjusts to new developments.... The future is thus not locked in by a word that God speaks" (Exodus, p. 66). Interestingly, Mormons teach a similar doctrine, that God always progresses. This essay is a Reformation answer to that heresy. The historic teaching of the church is that God is immutable (unchangeable); this is also a confessional truth of the Reformation (as stated, for example, in the Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 7).
The notion of "God repenting," when understood in the light of Scripture as a whole, does not contradict the truth of God's immutability. Let's consider four things as we examine the Bible's teaching on God's relenting/repenting, focusing on Exodus 32:14: "The Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people."
The first thing to consider is that the "repentance" of God occurs in the context of the terrible sin that his people have committed. Israel made an idol, a golden calf, and worshiped it. They disobeyed the commandments that God had recently given them (Ex. 20), making him angry. But Moses interceded and reminded God of his Abrahamic oath and covenant. God then repented of his anger. His "repentance" was based on his promise and his oath to Abraham, the covenant of grace.
Application: Hebrews 6:17-18 reminds us of two unchangeable thingsGod's promise and his oath to Abrahamthat secure our salvation, for "it is impossible for God to lie." We learn from Exodus 32 that salvation is based on something deeper and more foundational than the treaty of the Mosaic covenant, namely, the unconditional promises made to Abraham (cf. Gal. 4:22-28). In other words, God is bound to the Abrahamic covenant because it depends on God's word, not on man's obedience. He did not change in Exodus 32; he remained true to his Abrahamic promises.
We also consider accommodation and anthropomorphism. Accommodation is, as Calvin stressed, the fact that God speaks to us, not in divine language, but in human language that we can understand. We cannot comprehend God, but we can apprehend him through human language in his Word.
Anthropomorphism means that God presents himself in human terms. For example, in Exodus (and elsewhere) we read that God sees and hears, that he has a mighty hand and a strong arm. Yet the Bible also says that God is invisible and immortal, without a body or parts like a man (1 Tim. 1:17; Deut. 4:15-16; Num. 23:19). This means that when Moses sings, "Your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy" (Ex. 15:6), it is a figurative description. Similarly, we say "he can fly" when we mean that he can run fast.
The concepts of accommodation and anthropomorphism help to explain the repentance of God. This language helps us to understand, in human terms, what happened when Moses interceded for Israel. Though God repented, we don't have to assume that he repented in the way we repentjust as we do not assume that God has eyes to see, as we do. This is the way biblical language works.
Application: God has stooped down to show us that prayer in accordance with his will is effective. Exodus 32:14 teaches us, through Moses' intercession and mediation, that God shows mercy to sinners. "You in your great mercies did not forsake them in the wilderness" (Neh. 9:19). In this anthropomorphic and accommodated way, God illustrates that he shows mercy to sinners. And this, in turn, points us to Jesus' intercession and mediation, which appeases God's just wrath for those who trust in him. God is not inviting us to peer into his secret counsel in Exodus 32:14, but he is pointing us to himself as revealed in his Son, whom Moses typified.
We should also consider the Reformation slogan, "Scripture interprets Scripture." Scripture is its own chief interpreter. When we find a less clear passage of Scripture, we interpret it by using texts that are clearer. For interpreting Exodus 32:14, the following texts are helpful: "God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind" (Num. 23:19). God "is not a man, that he should have regret" (1 Sam. 15:29). There is "no variation or shadow due to change" with God (Jas. 1:17). God knows the future because he predetermined it before the foundation of the world (Acts 2:23; Eph. 1:4, 11; Heb. 6:17; Rev. 13:8).
If we take Scripture as its own interpreter, along with accommodation and anthropomorphism, we see some of the doctrinal tension of "God repenting" start to fade. Although God did not change his thinking, humanly speaking he ceased to be angry, because Moses stepped in the gap. As God's eternal plan worked itself out in history, he became angry with sinners and then relented after Moses interceded. Similarly, God the Son stepped in the gap on the cross to take the place of wicked people. He not only died for sinners, but keeps on interceding for them despite their sinful hearts. This is more mind-boggling than God relenting in Exodus 32.
Application: When we use Scripture to interpret Scripture, a huge load of biblical interpretation is taken off our shoulders. Many Christians have heard of this method, use it, and appreciate it. Yet those who are outside of traditional Christianity, or who do not know the Scriptures, ignore this principle. But we should remember and be thankful that the best commentary on Scripture is Scripture itself.
Let's consider a fourth and final point. Exodus 32:14 should not make us question God or his Word. Instead, it should make us fall on our knees before him, questioning ourselves and our understanding as we affirm his immutability. He is ineffable and incomprehensible. His ways are past finding out. The secret things belong to him, not to us. Who has known his mind? Where were we when he spoke the galaxies into existence? Who can step out of finitude and comprehend or contain the infinite? Another of Calvin's themes was that it is better to die a thousand deaths than to go where Scripture does not go. God was justly intent on punishing wicked sinners. Moses pleaded with him to turn his anger away. God did turn, in mercy. It is hard for us to understand this, but it should lead us to worship, not to despair.
Application: There are bound to be difficult texts for us in the Bible, since we are fallen and finite creatures. Edward Leigh wrote: "A created understanding can no more comprehend God than a vial-glass can contain the waters of the sea" (quoted by Richard Muller in Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, III:166). The teaching of election and reprobation led Paul to his astonishing words in Romans 11:36: "For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever." We need to be of the same mind when we read Exodus 32:14 and consider God's immutability. These are deep and lofty matters that are beyond us. It is like peering at a star with a telescope: you know it is there, but beyond that you can say very little except words of amazement.
No doubt there are more things to consider as we wrestle with difficult texts like Exodus 32:14. I do not mean to remove the tension in this text. But where tension arises in deep texts, so does doxology. Perhaps this is one of those texts that will continue to shake us up, prod us, and poke us as we try without success to "nail it down." Maybe it is a good thing that Scripture is like a sword that cuts way down deep, even into our thoughts and intentions about God and his ways (Heb. 4:12). This makes us always remember that we can know God sufficiently, but not exhaustively or comprehensively.
At the same time, we can confidently say, on the basis of other Scripture teaching, that the Open Theists and the Mormons have misread these texts. Because the Bible teaches it, we can certainly say with Benedict Pictet that the "immutability of God is the fulcrum of our faith and the foundation of our hope" (quoted by Muller, III:313). But the sword of Scripture keeps our confidence in check, so we don't get arrogantwe are not immutable. The sword of Scripture keeps us on our knees next to Paul as he sings the hymn of the humble sinner saved by sovereign mercy: "Who has known the mind of the Lord?... To him be glory forever" (Rom. 11:34-36).
The author is pastor of the United Reformed Church of Sunnyside, Wash. He quotes the ESV. Reprinted from New Horizons, December 2009.