Last week in Sunday School we had a big discussion (started by yours truly, I’m afraid) as to whether or not God ever changes his mind. It came out of the account in 1 Sam. 15:11, where God states that “I regret that I have made Saul king…” Our teacher stated “well, we know God can’t really regret anything he did, because God doesn’t change his mind.” His defense, of course, was that God doesn’t change, period, and the Bible says as much.
Well, it does and it doesn’t. In this post I’m going to look at some of the “proof texts” that suggest God DOESN’T change, and in the next one I’ll examine “proof texts” that suggest he DOES. My hope is that by looking at the context for both, we can get a consistent picture besides “the Bible is paradoxical on this point” (although that, too, would be a valid conclusion).
So, let’s have a look. Since this was a Presbyterian church, I’ll start with a prooftext linked from the Westminster Confession of Faith, James 1:17 (all quotes ESV):
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
This sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? But what does it say in context? Take a look at the whole passage, James 1:2-17. James is contrasting God’s not changing, with the “double-minded man” of verse 8, and even more so he’s objecting to the notion somebody must’ve promulgated, that God might actually tempt someone (verse 13). In this context, James is saying that God doesn’t pull the dirty trick of tempting someone to violate a divine law…rather people’s own desires lead them to sin (v. 13-14). “God doesn’t change” here is evidence that God doesn’t pull a fast one on his people.
A second passage that was quoted by one of our class on Sunday was Malachi 3:6-7:
For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts…
Of course, all my friend read was the first half of verse 6: “I the LORD do not change.” But the context makes it clear that God’s not talking about some overarching notion of immutability here, but about the fact that he keeps his covenants (see Malachi 2:4-5). God, unlike the faithless Israelites (see Mal. 2:10-11). So here again, God’s unchanging nature is set in clear contrast to human fickleness and faithlessness. “I do not change” here means “I keep my word.”
My friend also quoted Numbers 3:19:
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?
Actually, here again my friend only quoted the first half of the verse. The second half makes the statement far more clear, and specific. God says the truth, and does what he says. This is actually part of Balaam’s oracle. Remember that Balaam was hired by Balak the king of Moab, to come out and curse Israel so that they (Israel) wouldn’t kick their (the Moabites’) butts the way they had the Amorites (see Num. 22:1-6). After a truly funny story about Balaam’s misadventures, he gets up to the cursin’ place and blesses Israel. Balak, not surprisingly, is peeved, and asks Balaam why he didn’t do what he was paid to do. Balaam’s answer is that God doesn’t go back on his word and curse those he promised to bless. So again, we have a pattern here. God sticks to his promises.
There are more verses to look at, I’m sure. I chose these because they were represented in several articles, people’s Bible footnotes, and in my discussions, as the classic proofs that God can’t possibly change. Taken in context, I’d have to say, if this is all the better they can do, I’m not convinced. As some wag has said before, a proof text is a text lifted out of context as a pretext. Restoring the context, at least in these verses, suggests to me a much more limited interpretation for the passages…and a very consistent one: