Does God Repent and Change His Mind?

More thoughts on God’s knowledge and foreknowledge:

Having done some recent articles on issues concerning divine knowledge, another set of passages is raised by those who claim God does not know the future or that he does not have perfect knowledge, that he grows in his understanding, and so on.

Some passages seem to suggest that God changes his mind, or that he might be surprised by things, or that he regrets decisions he had made. A quick way to deal with some of these verses – at least the ones about God repenting – is to point out that some translations like the KJV do not use the best English word – at least for modern readers. Compare these versions of Jeremiah 26:13:

“Therefore now amend your ways and your doings, and obey the voice of the Lord your God; and the Lord will repent him of the evil that he hath pronounced against you.” KJV

“Now reform your ways and your actions and obey the Lord your God. Then the Lord will relent and not bring the disaster he has pronounced against you.” ESV

There are a number of these passages where the KJV renders the term in question as ‘repent’. But even if we stick with that translation, we must bear in mind that a core part of that term has to do with a change of mind. God does NOT repent in the sense of admitting to any wrongdoing and having to turn from it. Consider Numbers 23:1:

“God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent.” KJV

 “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind.” ESV

But those who do not believe that God has exhaustive knowledge of all things, past, present and future – actual and potential – will still latch onto the word ‘relent’. They claim this means God changed his mind, because things did not go the way he thought they would.

But this too can be answered rather easily. Not all promises or prophecies are unconditional in nature. Some of them very much depend on what humans do. If they obey, then such and such WILL be the outcome. But if they disobey, then other things will be the outcome. Simply read about the conditional blessings and curses as found in Deuteronomy 28 for example. Says John Frame:

God reserves the right to cancel them or reverse them, depending on peoples’ response to the prophet. . . . Some prophecies, then, may appear to be straightforward predictions, but they are, according to the principle of Jeremiah 18:5-10, really warnings, with tacit conditions attached.


Sometimes, as in the passages from Jeremiah, Joel, and Jonah, those tacit conditions have to do with obedience or disobedience, repentance or complacency. Sometimes, as in Genesis 18:16-33, Exodus 32:9-14, and Amos 7:1-6, prayer is such a condition. When the prophet intercedes for his people, God relents from the judgment he has announced. The prophet stands before the throne of God himself and pleads for God’s people, and God answers by relenting.

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As Steven C. Roy explains: “I suggest that divine repentance denotes God’s awareness of a change in the human situation and his resulting change of emotions or actions in light of this changed situation.” Or as Bruce Ware puts it: “When God is said to repent, it indicates 1) his awareness that the human situation has altered and 2) his desire to act in a way fitting to this changed situation.”

Then we have passages where God is said to remember something (eg., Genesis 9:15-16; Exodus 6:5) or forget something (eg., Psalm 9:18; 13:1; Jeremiah 23:39). Are these examples of God having real limitations in his knowledge? No. Like much of what has been discussed here, we are often dealing with metaphorical language, including anthropomorphisms (discussing God in human terms). As Douglas Wilson writes:

“Then God remembered Noah” (Gen. 8:1). Does God smack his forehead in this passage? “Oh, yeah! Noah!” Or in Exodus 6:5: “Man, that was close! I almost forgot. The covenant!” The answer for anyone who understands how human languages work is, “Of course not.” And again, if human reason cannot comprehend human figures of speech, then how will it do with time and eternity?


It is important to note that while we are dealing with figures of speech in poetic and prophetic passages, we also have necessary figures of speech in the historical passages when an infinite God focuses Himself at a finite point in order to interact with men….

Norman Geisler and H. Wayne House say of such figures of speech: “God may sound indefinite to us because He desires to speak in terms that solicit a response from us. He wants to involve the hearer in the implications of the answer. God uses language of sequential thought and indecision to communicate, not to satisfy a lack in his knowledge.”

Some will also object and say that if God is grieved about something people do, or is disappointed by what they do, then he cannot know ahead of time that they will act this way. One thinks of Genesis 6:5-6 where we read: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”

But it does not follow that God did not know how the people would respond. Many of the prophets were told by God well ahead of time that the people would NOT listen and would be stiff-necked and rebellious, etc. Have a read of these passages for example: Deuteronomy 31:16-20; Isaiah 6:8-13; 30:8-12; Jeremiah 7:21-29; Ezekiel 2:3-8 and 3:4-9.

So God DOES know the outcome in advance, yet it still grieves him. How could it not? Because God is a personal and loving God, he does hurt and grieve when his creatures disobey him and turn from him. And consider also Jesus: he fully knew that his people would mostly reject him, but he still grieved over that. As we find in Luke 19:41-44:

And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”

Any parent of wayward children knows all about this this: while they do not have perfect knowledge like God does, they know their rebellious kids well enough to know that they will fail to do this or refuse to do that – and that is greatly disappointing and hurtful, even though the outcome is nearly certain. So one can know things ahead of time and still be bothered by it. As Ware states:

When God is said to repent, it indicates his real experience, in historically unfolding relationships with people, of changed dispositions or emotions in relation to some changed human situation. Just because God knows in advance that some event will occur, this does not preclude God from experiencing appropriate emotions and expressing appropriate reactions when it actually happens. So, although God may have known that the world would become morally corrupt (Gen. 6:5-6), that Nineveh would repent (Jonah 3:5-10), that Moses would plead for his people (Ex. 32:11-14), and that Saul would fail as king (1 Sam. 13:8-14; 15:1-9), nonetheless God may experience internally and express outwardly appropriate moral responses to these changed situations when they occur in history. That is, he may literally change in emotional disposition and become angry over increasing moral evil and flagrant disobedience, or he may show mercy in relation to repentance or urgent prayer. And, this may occur in historical interaction with his human creatures even though he knows, from eternity past, precisely what would occur and what his response would be.


Again, analogies fail. Nevertheless, this situation is like the experience of a mother who takes her eight-year-old daughter to the dentist’s office for her first filling. The mother, with her vast experience of such procedures, may “know” exactly what will happen and anticipate each step of the process. Yet, as she sits beside her daughter, who is reclining fearfully and tearfully in the dentist’s chair, and as she observes the dentist intensely at work, she may feel distress, anguish, even pain as she stares into the frightened and confused eyes of her precious little girl. The fact that she “knew” previously everything that would occur did not preclude her from entering into the existential situation, feeling genuine and heartfelt pity. So too with God. While he can know everything about some future situation, he also may enter fully into the existential unfolding of that situation and respond appropriately, changing in emotion and disposition in a way fitting the changed situation itself.

These and other objections raised by those into freewill theism or openness of God theology can be answered. Yes, often the objections they raise are done with good intentions, to try to protect God and his goodness from various accusations. But such attempts often cause more harm than good, especially in denying the whole counsel of God.

In sum, John Piper warns that denying God’s foreknowledge of “all that shall come to pass is practically and pastorally harmful.” He writes:

Bad theology hurts people. Sooner or later wrong thinking about God leads to wrong believing. And wrong believing leads to the weakening of moral and spiritual life, and finally to condemnation. Most Christians see intuitively that denying God’s foreknowledge of free human actions will tend to undermine the confidence of the church that God can guide persons and nations, that he can answer prayer concerning the hearts of the erring and lost, that he can predict the future, that he can be assured of final triumph, and that all things will work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose. Some generation will pay the price of this wrong thinking about God. And the closer the wrong thinking gets to the center of God and his personal perfections and his saving ways, the sooner and the more painful will be the payment. Eternal things are at stake in the denial of the exhaustive foreknowledge of God.

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2 Replies to “Does God Repent and Change His Mind?”

  1. Thanks Bill, I agree the old KJV doesn’t explain things too well in translation from Hebrew or Greek sometimes. As you know the word ‘Love’ has about 5 meanings. I believe God to be an all knowing person like our AI computers but perfect in that whatever way we go he knows the outcome. That is why its best to pray first for His direction so His Will is being done and not our wills. God has a Will for this earth and our lives and it is up to us to tap into it. He also knows the exact time/date that Jesus Christ will return but that is determined by how much we follow Him in getting people saved as the gospel has to be preached to every person first before Jesus returns.

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