Category Archives: Dogmatics/Systematic Theology

Does God Repent?

Christianity teaches that God is immutable.  In other words, he doesn’t change.  Oftentimes when I preach on this biblical truth, I get questions.  They usually come from older folks who’ve studied their Bibles a bit more and they’ve encountered passages which seem to challenge the teaching of God’s immutability.

People sometimes ask about God’s repentance.  There are Bible passages that appear to speak about God repenting or changing his mind.  That could lead us to one of two conclusions:  the Bible contradicts itself or our theology is wrong.  However, there is a third possibility.  Maybe we haven’t understood those passages properly.  In what follows, I want to look at one of those passages:  1 Samuel 15.

Earlier in the book of 1 Samuel, the people of Israel were without a king.  They looked around them at the other nations and they all had kings.  The people decided they needed one too and they agitated for one.  Finally, in 1 Samuel 9 and 10, God gave them a king in the person of Saul the son of Kish.  At first, Saul appeared to be a success.  However, in time his true heart began to show.  He was more interested in following his own will than God’s will.  That comes to a head in 1 Samuel 15.

King Saul was commanded by God to annihilate the Amalekites.  These were mortal enemies of God and his people.  The Amalekites had blood on their hands.  They weren’t innocent victims.  They also represented an ongoing danger to the security of the Israelites.  Saul was to go and attack them and erase their existence from the face of the earth.

Sure enough, he defeated them, but he didn’t obey God’s commands.  He spared Agag the Amalekite king and he also saved the best livestock from the Amalekites.  God noticed Saul’s failure to obey.  He came to Samuel and said in verse 11, “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.”  God regretted making Saul king.  The same thing is basically said at the end of the chapter, in verse 35, “And the LORD regretted that he made Saul king over Israel.”

The problem for many people comes with Samuel as he confronts Saul.  Samuel tells the king he’s been rejected by God.  Like the torn robe, the kingdom has been torn away from Saul and given to someone else.  That’s where we find the verse many people stumble over, verse 29:  “And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.”  Do you see the problem?  Verses 11 and 35 say that God regretted making Saul king.  But verse 29 says that God will not have regret because he is not a human being.  So which is it?  Does God have regret?  Does he change his mind or not?

Before I explain this, remember one important thing:  the Bible isn’t a human book.  It was given to us by the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is perfect God.  He knows what he’s doing.  We have these words together in the same narrative because the Holy Spirit put them here together.  It’s not an accident.  It’s not because of sloppy human beings who weren’t paying attention.  The Holy Spirit is behind this and he’s teaching us something here.

The same word can be used in the Bible in two different senses.  It happens more often.  As a classic example, you could think of the way Romans speaks of justification and the way James speaks of justification.  Romans speaks of justification as God’s declaration that we are right with him, whereas James speaks of justification as the vindication of our faith before our fellow human beings.  There’s no contradiction between these two when you understand that.  Something similar is happening here in 1 Samuel 15.

Let’s take the meaning of verses 11 and 35 first.  What does it mean that God regretted making Saul king?  It doesn’t mean that he thought he’d made a mistake earlier.  It doesn’t mean that he’s gone back on his decision and revised it in the light of the circumstances.  This language is meant to have us understand how God relates to human beings and how he reacts to them.  The Holy Spirit wants us to understand that God changes his position with respect to the people who rebel against him and reject him.  Because of Saul’s grievous sin, God was no longer pleased with Saul.  The relationship has changed.  God’s eternal decree is not in view here at all.  What’s in view here is how God interacts with human beings in time and space.  There is a real relationship — there is real interaction.  In this relationship, God is grieved.

You have to consider why God would reveal this.  It’s because there is a need for a king who will not grieve God or give him regret.  David would be that king, at least at times.  But even David fell and sometimes horribly.  There was a need for a greater king.  When King Jesus came, God said, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”  There’d be no regret with that King, and he’s our King.  Not only is he our king, but we share his anointing.  If we are in Christ by faith, we are kings.  If we place our trust in this Saviour, God will never say about us, “I regret that I have made you a king.”

Now what about verse 29?  Here the context is different than verses 11 and 35.  The words in verse 11 were spoken by God to Samuel.  The words in verse 35 were written by Samuel to the reader.  But in verse 29, Samuel is speaking to Saul.  He delivers God’s judgment to Saul.  His kingdom is finished.  And when Samuel says in verse 29 that God does not lie or have regret, he’s saying to Saul that this judgment is fixed.  It won’t be reversed.  This is the way it is.  God has said that and it’s not a warning.  This has been decreed and there’s no getting around it.

So, if we’re thinking about election, verse 29 is more applicable than verses 11 and 35.  Election is an unchangeable part of God’s decree, just like Saul’s loss of the kingdom was an unchangeable part of God’s decree.  You see, verses 11 and 35 are not about God’s eternal decree, but about God’s relations and interactions with human beings in history.  Like in any real relationship, God can and does react to what the other party does in that relationship.  It’s not that it takes him by surprise, but he comes down to our level and uses this human language and the notions of human relationships to help us understand our relationship to him.  I think you’ll find that any place in the Scriptures that describes God’s repentance or regret fits with what we find in 1 Samuel 15.  It’s used to describe a change in God’s position toward someone within the context of a relationship.

Therefore, in his essence, God certainly does not change.  He is immutable.  Human beings are the ones who change.  We’re fickle and mutable.  When we change for the worse, what follows is a change in our relationship to God.  It’s a real relationship and when that relationship sours, we’re the ones who need to repent.


Discern God’s Justice

“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a world without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” — that’s how H. Richard Niebuhr described the message of Protestant liberalism back in the 1930s.  In those days, there was a fairly clear dividing line in Protestantism between liberals and evangelicals.  The liberals didn’t believe the Bible to be the inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God and so they could discard the elements of Christianity they found unpalatable.  The evangelicals generally had a high view of the Word of God and maintained that how we feel about what the Bible teaches is irrelevant to whether it’s true or not.  However, something changed in the following decades.

Back when I was still in Hamilton, one of the hats I wore was that of an instructor in North American Church History at the Canadian Reformed Teachers College.  When I first took on the role, I was given a sort of general set of topics that the College wanted covered in the course.  One of those topics was “the Emergent Church.”  That suited me just fine because I’d been studying that topic for a couple of years anyway.

Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck characterized Emergent as a combination of “mystery, journey and uncertainty – the perfect porridge of not quite fundamentalist, not quite liberal.”  It was also described as a conversation.  To some, it was about a new style of worship, one that involves “couches, candles, and coffee” – integrating the smells and bells of Roman Catholicism with low-church American evangelicalism.  For others, it was about taking postmodern philosophy and bringing it into the contemporary church.  A precise definition of this movement has always been difficult.  It was diverse and those who identified with it resisted the notion of precise definitions.

You might have noticed that I used the past tense in the previous paragraph.  Emergent is now a thing of the past.  It’s run its course and nobody really talks about it anymore.  However, many Emergent thought-trends linger.  This is especially true when it comes to the character of God.

The year I started teaching the CRTC course, Rob Bell came out with his book Love Wins.  I showed my students the promotional video for the book:

The video sees Bell getting to the heart of the matter:  what is God like?  His rhetorical questions ooze a disdain for the traditional Christian understanding of God’s character, especially as a holy and just Judge who condemns unrepentant sinners to an eternal conscious torment in hell.  In Love Wins, Bell argued that everyone goes to heaven because of Jesus – in other words, all are justified.  Everyone is right with God through Christ.  For those who don’t believe, heaven is like hell.  But eventually, there in heaven, God’s love wins them over and everyone lives happily ever after.

Rob Bell promoted universalism back then — these days, it isn’t clear where he stands on anything.  Regardless of what’s happened with him, universalism is more popular than ever, especially in circles that might be described as “evangelical.”  There are numerous authors and preachers peddling the view.  Surveys would seem to indicate that they’re having an impact.  For example, the Ligonier State of Theology survey from 2018 found that 57% of respondents who identified as “evangelical” disagreed with the statement, “Even the smallest sin deserves damnation.”  The same survey found that 53% of evangelical respondents agreed that “God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.”  That reflects a particular take on the character of God.

As always, we need to put our feelings to the side, and humbly listen to what the Bible says.  The Bible is God’s self-revelation.  One thing clear from Scripture is that God is just.  In his interaction with God in Genesis 18, Abraham recognized it already and appealed to it:  “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen. 18:25).  Exodus 34:7 sees God revealing himself to Moses as the one “who will by no means clear the guilty” — God just won’t look the other way when it comes to sin.  In Revelation 16:7, the altar speaks:  “Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments.”  God will always do what is right, as defined by his own holy character.

In connection with this, the Bible also speaks about God’s wrath.  It’s important to remember that wrath is not, properly speaking, an attribute of God.  Wrath is not essential to his being.   God’s wrath exists as a response to sin.  To express it more precisely:  wrath is how the holy and just God responds to sin.  Wrath is a function of the attribute of divine justice.

The Bible speaks repeatedly about God’s wrath against sin and sinners.  Let’s just take two passages, one from the Old Testament and one from the New:

For you are not a God who delights in wickedness;

evil may not dwell with you.

The boastful shall not stand before your eyes;

you hate all evildoers.

You destroy those who speak lies;

the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.  (Psalm 5:4-6)

For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’  And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’  It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.  (Hebrews 10:30-31).

You’d have to do one of two things to up-end this biblical teaching:  1) Deny that the Bible is the inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God; or 2) engage in some scarcely believable interpretive gymnastics to make the Bible say something it doesn’t say.

The same is true when it comes to what the Bible says about hell as the place and experience of God’s just wrath against sin.  The Old Testament speaks about hell in places like Isaiah 66:24.  It’s a place of undying worms and unquenchable fire (cf. Isa. 50:11).  No one spoke more about hell in the Bible than Jesus.  He says in Mark 9:43, “It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.”  And again in verses 47 and 48, “It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’”  That is a description of eternal conscious torment.  In Revelation 20, those whose names are not written in the book of life are thrown into the lake of fire, the second death, a lake of burning sulfur.  There they will be tormented with the devil day and night, forever and ever.

The error of universalism is not just about the character of God.  Ultimately, it follows through to the very nature of the gospel.  What’s the gospel about?  What’s so good about the good news?  The Bible teaches that the good news is so good because, in his love, God has provided a way of rescue from the judgment and condemnation we deserve for our sins.  When you deny this message, you obliterate the urgency of mission and evangelism.  If everyone’s going to heaven anyway, if “love wins,” why would you ever need to tell anyone about the cross?  The cross is emptied of its meaning as a substitutionary atonement.  While the universalist message might be appealing on a sentimental level, if you approach it with the Bible as your ultimate standard, you’ll discern that it’s a terrible, gospel-denying fabrication.  No, God is just.  Because of his justice, God has infinite wrath against sin and sinners — but the gospel promises that, for all who believe in the Saviour God has sent, that just wrath is turned away and his favour restored.


Discern God’s Sovereignty and Providence

In his book Is God to Blame?, Gregory Boyd tells the story of a woman named Melanie.  After preaching a sermon on living with passion, he was approached by this distraught middle-aged woman.  She used to be on fire for God, but a tragedy in her life deadened her spiritually and sent her into a pit of deep depression.  She said, “I used to love to read the Bible and pray, but now I find it both laborious and aggravating.  I just feel dead!”

She hadn’t gotten married until she was in her mid-thirties.  After three years, she and her husband still hadn’t been able to conceive a child.  Doctors told her it was unlikely she ever would because of a medical condition.  But then suddenly, it happened.  She was pregnant.  It seemed to be a miracle.  The pregnancy went fine, but as the baby was being delivered, something terrible happened and the baby died.  Their miracle had turned into a nightmare.  Melanie and her husband were left with a question that tortured them:  “Why would God miraculously give them a child, only to take the baby away while coming into the world?  Why did this happen to them?  Even more tormenting, why was God preventing them from conceiving again?”  Those are tough questions and the answers they received from other Christians didn’t satisfy them.

Greg Boyd’s answer is that God didn’t have anything to do with it.  God didn’t bring this tragedy into Melanie’s life.  Instead, God sees what happened to her and he wants to free her from her pain and help her get beyond it.  Boyd says, “…we have no reason to assume God put Melanie and her husband through this tragic ordeal.  Rather, we have every reason to assume God was and is at work to deliver Melanie and her husband from their ordeal.”

That sounds like a nice answer.  It’s an answer that appeals to many people today.  It’s an answer that comes out of a trend in theology known as open theism.  Open theists like Gregory Boyd don’t believe God is sovereignly in control of all that happens.  Instead, they believe God has given up control and allows the universe to take its course.  Events that happen are just as surprising to God as they are to us.  Open theists speak about God taking risks and chances and respecting and allowing for human freedom to the fullest extent.  Open theism is the logical endpoint of the Arminian view of God and his sovereignty – Boyd and others like him admit as much.   Moreover, as you can see from the story about Melanie, this is not some pie-in-the-sky ivory tower academic discussion.  How you view God and his sovereignty and his providence impacts how you reflect on what happens in your life, both the pleasant and the not-so-pleasant, even the ugly and heart-breaking.

As always, our plumb line for discerning truth has to be the infallible and inerrant Word of God.  We have to set aside our own feelings and opinions and let God speak.  When we do that, we discover three important related truths in the Bible.

First, the Bible speaks about God’s overarching absolute sovereignty.  He is fully in control of all things.  Psalm 135:6 says, “Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.”  God is, as we say, omnipotent — all-powerful.

Second, the Bible speaks about God in his providence is in control of all good.  He sovereignly ordains all the things that we experience as being good and immediately perceive as beneficial.  For example, Psalm 65:9-13 speaks of how God waters the earth so that crops grow.  God crowns the year with his bounty.  Few people have difficulty accepting this biblical teaching.

The third truth is far less palatable, but just as biblical.  God also sovereignly ordains and controls all the things that we experience as being difficult and have trouble perceiving as being beneficial for us.  There are numerous Scripture passages which teach this.  Here are a few:

I form light and create darkness;
I make well-being and create calamity;
I am the Lord, who does all these things.  (Isaiah 45:7)

Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that good and bad come? (Lam. 3:38)

You who have made me see many troubles and calamities
will revive me again;
from the depths of the earth
you will bring me up again. (Psalm 71:20)

In addition, you could also see Psalm 60:1-4, Psalm 66:10-12, Psalm 102:10 and Deut. 32:39.  Moreover, the Bible also teaches that all things (both the things we experience as good and those we experience as troublesome) work together for our good (Romans 8:28).  In the beautiful words of Answer 26 of the Heidelberg Catechism, God will turn to our good whatever adversity he sends us in his life of sorrow.  Nothing happens to us by chance — it’s all in the hands of our good, loving heavenly Father.

Sadly, open theism has made significant inroads.  Quite some years ago, I wrote about how Philip Yancey in some of his books used the language of open theism.  In books like Disappointment with God, Yancey writes of God having taken various risks and chances.   Today these kinds of views are widely accepted.  In fact, research just released by Barna shows that even among American Christians with an orthodox view of God, only a third believe that he is actively involved in their lives.   This reflects the kind of deist theology being peddled by Gregory Boyd and other open theists.  It’s a huge departure from the Word of God.

Anyone who’s experienced significant personal loss and suffering is likely going to struggle with what the Bible teaches about God’s sovereignty and providence.  Speaking personally, I struggled with it enormously after the loss of my mother to suicide in 2002.  The temptation is there to let your feelings dictate how you’re going to view God.  We need to resist that temptation and build on the only sure foundation:  God’s Word.  In the wake of my mother’s death, what got me through and helped me accept my Father’s will was what I knew for certain from the Bible:  the cross.  I looked at the cross and with my suffering and dying Saviour I saw the love of my Father.  The cross was a horrible tragedy, far worse than anything anyone will ever experience.  Yet out of that tragedy, our sovereign God brought the greatest good, both for the one who suffered (he was crowned with glory!) and for those who believe in him.  I came to see that the cross is how God proves his children can trust him.  I’m like a little child and I don’t understand all my Father’s ways and why he does things the way he does.  But I look at the cross, and I know he loves me and I know I can trust him.  That’s enough for me.


Can God Hate?


Discern Regeneration

Read this quote carefully:

We believe that all men everywhere are lost and face the judgment of God, that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation, and that for the salvation of lost and sinful man, repentance of sin and faith in Jesus Christ results in regeneration by the Holy Spirit.

Did you find anything wrong with that quote?  The first two clauses are fine — it’s the last clause that needs a careful look.  Does repentance and faith result in regeneration by the Holy Spirit?

We’re discussing regeneration.  It’s a doctrine where there’s often confusion and misunderstanding, even among confessionally Reformed believers.  Let me try and make it as clear as I can.

Regeneration has several aliases.  The Bible calls it being born again (John 3:7), being born of the Spirit (John 3:6), and being born of God (1 John 5:1).  Whatever expression may be used, it’s clear that this is something that happens at the beginning of a Christian’s spiritual life, whenever that may be, and however that may be experienced.  It is something that happens once — it’s not an ongoing process in the Christian’s life.  This much is clear from passages like 1 Peter 1:23 which says of believers, “you have been born again.”  There the perfect tense is used in Greek, which indicates a completed action with effects into the present.  We find the same thing in 1 John 3:9, 4:7, 5:1 and 5:18, except in these passages the Holy Spirit speaks of being born of God.

Why is there a need for human beings to be born again or regenerated?  Jesus tells us in John 3:3, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  What does it mean to “see the kingdom of God”?  It’s the same thing as entering the kingdom of God (John 3:5).  It’s the same thing as not perishing but having eternal life (John 3:15-16).  In other words, unless you are born again, you cannot be saved.

Let’s dig into this a little deeper.  What does the new birth do?  It brings someone to spiritual life.  Without spiritual life, there’s no possibility of faith and repentance.  Ephesians 2:1 says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked…”  Before regeneration, before being born again, a person is a spiritual corpse.  It’s categorically impossible for a spiritual corpse to repent of sins and believe in Jesus Christ.  Regeneration precedes repentance and faith.  It must.

Now it must be said that there is a development in the historic Protestant formulation of this doctrine from the Scriptures.  Amongst the Reformers, there was sometimes a tendency to collapse what we call sanctification and regeneration together.  You can find this in John Calvin’s Institutes — for example, “I interpret repentance as regeneration…” (3.3.8).  Under the influence of Calvin, this phenomenon is also in the Belgic Confession, in article 24, “We believe that this true faith, worked in man by the hearing of God’s Word and by the operation of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a new man.”  Here regeneration is being used to denote the work of the Holy Spirit in our sanctification, the life-long process of growing in holiness.  However, that wasn’t the way Christ was speaking of regeneration/being born again in John 3 — as if the Pharisee just needed to grow in holiness some more.

In time, doctrinal controversies forced theologians to become more precise in their formulations and terminology.  The most important controversy was with the Arminians or Remonstrants in the early 1600s.  Here we have to tread carefully, because it’s easy to lump all Arminians, past and present, together into the same camp.  The views of Arminius himself are quite complex — it would be too simplistic to just say point blank, “Arminius believed that regeneration follows faith.”  He did, but he also taught that there was a sense in which it precedes (see here for a lengthy essay with far more detail from a sympathetic perspective).  Whatever the case may be, the views of Arminius and his Remonstrant followers led the Synod of Dort to express the Reformed doctrine of regeneration with more precision.  In chapter 3/4 of the Canons of Dort, in articles 11 and 12, regeneration is described as a work of God’s sovereign grace “which God works in us without us.”  Moreover, those who are effectually regenerated “do actually believe.”  Regeneration unambiguously precedes faith in the Canons of Dort.

In the years since Dort, Arminians have become clearer as well.  These days we find unambiguous declarations in statements of faith that repentance and faith result in regeneration.  The statement I quoted at the beginning was taken from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website.  Numerous other organizations and churches use the same or similar wording.  When you see anyone suggesting these days that repentance and faith result in regeneration, you can be almost 100% sure that such a person is an Arminian.  It’s a big tip-off to the presence of Arminianism.

Regardless of how imprecisely Calvin and his immediate heirs used the terminology, today we have no excuse.  Historical theology teaches us how important it is to use terms with as much precision as possible.  For the sake of truth and God’s honour, let’s do that.  The sovereign work of the Holy Spirit prior to faith which makes a dead sinner come to spiritual life is regeneration.  The work of the Holy Spirit after repentance and faith which transforms a believer’s life, and in which the now-spiritually alive believer has a role to play, is sanctification.  If we maintain that distinction and use those terms, it becomes a lot easier to discern when we’re being faced with Arminian denials of God’s sovereign grace.