Tag Archives: divine attributes

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.


God’s Jealousy

The following is a talk given to the morning assembly of the Cornerstone Christian School in Lynden, Washington on December 13, 2017.

When we think of jealousy we often think of it as being a bad thing.  Your parents might tell you it’s not good to be jealous of someone else’s stuff or their looks or whatever else.  When we use the word “jealous” in that way, what we’re really talking about is envy.  Envy is a sin.  It’s coveting, sin against the Tenth Commandment.  You want what someone else has.  In that sense “jealousy” is not good.

But there is another type of jealousy we can say is good.  There is a kind of jealousy where we would even say it’s wrong if it’s not there when it needs to be.  You can see it best in the relationship between a husband and a wife.  A husband should be jealous for the love of his wife, and a wife should be jealous for the love of her husband.  That’s normal.

Shai Linne has a song where he vividly describes this jealousy.  It’s on his album The Attributes of God.  The song is called “the Jealous One” (listen here) and the first part of the song goes like this:

Ok, let’s begin- let your mind roam
Our scene takes place inside of a home
The husband has just walked up the staircase
He glares into space with despair on his face
His soul is on fire, inside there’s a war
That can’t be denied, He stands outside the door
On the other side, His bride and her lover
Oblivious to the fact their lie has been discovered
So as they embrace and try to make haste
They have no idea what’s about to take place
Gun in hand, he longs to understand
What would lead his wife into the arms of another man?
He thinks back to the day they made their vows
Before God, before the minister and the crowds
Exchange of the rings, the joy of the reception
Now a tainted memory destroyed by deception
He had been faithful to her
Now the fire of his desire got him ready to do something hateful to her
He never thought his wife would be just a faker
And that her lust would make her a covenant breaker
The promise of fidelity they made was glorious
But now his jealousy has made him furious
And they can’t see the danger
No screams or pleas they make could ever ease the pain or appease his anger
He kicks open the door- they jump out of the bed
“Don’t move!” is all he said, gun pointed at his head
The screams of his wife as she clutches the covers close
Her lover spoke to plead for his life
The husband says to the guy- “Look me in my eye
My face will be the last thing you see before you die”
The husband cried inside- his love was bona fide
Trouble for the bride- double homicide

You see, what kind of husband would just be okay with that situation?  What kind of husband would just look the other way while his wife is unfaithful to him?  He would be a bad husband if he were not jealous for the exclusive love of his wife.  Jealousy in the marriage relationship is a good thing, isn’t it?  By the way, Shai Linne is not saying it’s okay for jealous husbands to kill their wives, and neither am I.  He’s simply saying that in our world, jealousy produces these strong emotions that sometimes make people act violently.  That’s what happens in human relationships.

In the Bible, God says that he has a relationship with us.  He compares the relationship with his people to a marriage.  God is the husband and his people are his bride.  This is found in a few places in Scripture, but the place where it’s described most is in the book of Hosea.  At the time Hosea was written, God’s people were being wicked and sinful.  They were worshipping idols.  God says this was unfaithfulness to him.  They were in a covenant relationship, a relationship which is like a marriage.  In that relationship they were only supposed to love him and be committed only to him.  But God says in Hosea that they were like a wife who commits adultery.  And God doesn’t look the other way.  He sees this and it arouses his jealousy.  He becomes righteously angry at their spiritual adultery and he expresses his jealous anger.  In chapter 1 of Hosea he says that he will have no mercy on his people.  He says they are no longer his people and he is no longer their God.  And there will be consequences.  It’s all very intense.

Let’s try to think a little more deeply about this.  First, what exactly is God’s jealousy?  We could say that it is God’s intense zeal to protect the exclusiveness of the relationship with his people.  It is God’s passionate desire to have all the love and commitment of his covenant people.  Furthermore, it leads to God’s wrath against his people when they are unfaithful to him.

There is far more we can say about it.  If you look in article 1 of the Belgic Confession, you find a list of God’s attributes.  It’s a good biblical list, but it is not a complete list.  God’s jealousy is not directly mentioned there.  The Westminster Confession of Faith is another Reformed confession, used by our Presbyterian sister churches.  The Westminster Confession has an article mentioning God’s attributes as well.  It’s a fuller list than you find in the Belgic Confession.  But there too, we don’t find any explicit mention of God’s jealousy.

This is because God’s jealousy is usually connected with another attribute of God.  Some connect it to his righteousness and holiness.  They say because God is righteous and holy, he must be jealous for the love of his people.  There is truth to that – in Joshua 24:19, Joshua says to Israel, “You are not able to serve the LORD, for he is a holy God.  He is a jealous God…”  You find the same thing in the Second Commandment.  We hear it every Sunday:  you shall not worship idols, “for I the LORD your God am a jealous God.”  His holiness means that he must be jealous for the exclusive love of Israel.  If they don’t love him exclusively, they will face his holy judgment and wrath.  He will visit “the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation” of those who hate him.  That’s righteous, holy wrath.

However, in view of what we read in Hosea and elsewhere, we can also see God’s jealousy as connected to his love.  If a husband didn’t love his wife, there would be no jealousy if she were unfaithful.  Similarly, if God didn’t love his people, there would be no jealousy if they were unfaithful.  God’s love is therefore at the root of his jealousy.

One of the key things to remember about God’s jealousy is that it has a background against sin.  To say it more correctly, it has a background against the possibility of sin.  A husband is jealous for the love of his wife, because we live in a broken world where we know unfaithfulness happens.  He doesn’t want his wife to be unfaithful to him.  But in a perfect world where nobody was ever unfaithful, jealousy wouldn’t need to exist.  It’s the same with God.  He is jealous for the love his people, because there is a fallen world where unfaithfulness happens.  God doesn’t want his people to be unfaithful to him.  Therefore, because it is a broken and fallen world, God expresses his jealous love in his Word.

Whenever we sin against God, we are being unfaithful to him.  Whenever we break one of his commandments and do our will instead of his, we are committing spiritual adultery.  We are God’s people, but we are not acting like his people.  Instead, we’re acting like we belong to someone else.  The Bible says that our sin is covenant-breaking – it violates the relationship with God and provokes his jealousy.

This is why we need Jesus.  As I mentioned, God’s jealousy exists within the context of his relationship with his people.  We have a special word for that relationship:  the covenant.  God has his covenant with us, with believers and their children.  This is a relationship between a holy God and a sinful people.  The distance between these two could not be greater.  But there is someone who has bridged that distance.  That someone is the Mediator of the covenant, Jesus Christ.  He goes between a sinful people and a holy God and he makes the relationship work.  He does that in two particular ways.

One is that Jesus took the jealous wrath of God on himself before and during his time on the cross.  Though he had never done anything to deserve it, he took our place.  Jesus took our hell in body and soul.  He took the punishment against all our unfaithfulness.  If we are trusting in Christ, then God promises that all our unfaithfulness and spiritual adultery is forgiven.  We are restored to a healthy relationship with him.  The breach has been healed.

With his blood shed on the cross, Christ wipes our slates clean.  There’s not a trace of unfaithfulness left on our account with God.  That’s good news!   But the good news gets even better.  Our Saviour doesn’t just leave our slates clean.  He fills them up with his own righteousness.  He was consistently faithful to God.  He never worshipped idols.  Jesus never provoked his Father to jealousy.  He was always 100% committed to God, loved him perfectly, obeyed him flawlessly.  The Belgic Confession echoes the Bible when it says that “his obedience is ours when we believe in him.”  When we are joined to Christ through faith, God looks at us and he sees Christ and his faithfulness, his love, his commitment.  He sees us as he sees his own Son.

The forgiveness offered on the cross plus the obedience offered during Christ’s life makes the covenant of grace work between us and God.  Even though we are still sinful and imperfect, we can still have this beautiful relationship with a holy God.  It’s all through Christ, through Christ alone.

This is the gospel, this is the good news that warms our hearts in love for God.  When we see Christ in his glory living and dying for us, then we’re in the right place to begin hating all our unfaithfulness.  We’re in the right place to see it as something to be suffocated.  We have to kill it.

Because we’ve been rescued by Christ and saved by God’s love, we don’t want to provoke him to jealousy anymore.  How do we avoid doing that?  First of all, we have to recognize that when the Bible speaks about God’s jealousy oftentimes it’s in the context of idols.  Exodus 34:14 says, “For you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.”  Idols are not just Baal, Ashtaroth and all those false gods of the Old Testament.  Idols are anything we turn to the in place of God.  John Calvin once said that we are idol factories.  We crank them out.  We create them out of everything and anything.  Idols are anything we turn to in the place of God for joy, satisfaction, or purpose.  Sports can be an idol.  So can money, music, sexual pleasure, work, and just about anything.  We need to see our idols and see them for what they are.  Jeremiah 2:13 says that they are broken cisterns that can’t hold water.  They can’t sustain life.  Idols are never going to bless you – instead, they’re only going to destroy you.  Part of the way they do that is by wrecking your relationship with God.  Once you see that reality, you will see that there is a superior joy, a superior satisfaction, and the highest purpose in God, in loving God and living in his ways.  Listen to what his Word says about the reality of idols.  Don’t listen to the world and its fantasies about idols.  The world tells us lies about our idols.  The Bible tells us the truth, and it’s that truth that will set us free.  It’s that truth that will help us to steer clear of provoking our God to jealousy with our idols.

I don’t think we reflect very often on God’s jealousy.  That’s too bad, because this is something included in the Bible to make us see the real nature of God’s relationship with us.  When we sin against God with our idols, it’s like a spouse cheating.  The spouse cheated upon takes it personally.  The spouse cheated upon feels hurt and angry.  God’s jealousy tells us that God takes it personally when we’re unfaithful to him.  What kind of God would he be if he weren’t like that?  What would it say about his love if he weren’t jealous for our love?   Seeing this reality of what our God is like and what our relationship to him is like is meant to draw us closer to him, meant to motivate us to care about being faithful to him.  May he help us with his Holy Spirit to do that.


Our Redemption Reveals a Great and Praise-worthy God (Lord’s Day 5)

As you know, God has many attributes.  In its first article, the Belgic Confession lists many of these.  For example, we confess from the Scriptures that God is eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, immutable and infinite.  That’s just part of the list.  It’s good that we reflect and meditate often on these attributes of God.  Scripture encourages us to do that very thing.  For instance, in Jeremiah 9:23,24, God says, “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me.”  Knowing God is not only recommended, it’s also necessary.  John 17:3 tells us that knowing God is the essence of eternal life.  Speaking prophetically of those Jews who would oppose the influence of the Greeks, Daniel said that “the people who know their God shall be strong and carry out great exploits.”  That’s in Daniel 11:32.  We find ourselves engaged also in spiritual warfare, we have to constantly do battle with the unholy trinity of the world, the devil, and our own flesh.  To be strong in this battle the knowledge of God is essential for us too.

So, last week as we considered Lord’s Day 4, we reflected on God’s justice.  Many today don’t care to reflect on the fact that God is just.  But Scripture reveals it and so we believe it.

Today as we come to Lord’s Day 5 we can move on to consider some of the other attributes of our God.  And we’re going to do that in relation to our redemption.  Lord’s Day 5 is the first Lord’s Day in the second part of the Catechism dealing with our deliverance.  It’s concerned with how we may be delivered from the temporal and eternal punishment that we deserve.  Temporal refers to punishment in this life and eternal refers to what happens after we die.  Apart from Christ we deserve punishment both now and forever.  But is there a way out?  The Catechism follows the teaching of the Bible and tells us, yes, there is a way.  Out of his own character and attributes, God makes a way.  In this we see much reason to give praise and adoration to our God.  Reflecting on his attributes is not an intellectual exercise, but a devotional one.  We want to bring greater and richer praise to the God who saves us.

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