Why Does God Regret and Repent in the Bible?
Welcome back to the Ask Pastor John podcast. Ryan, a podcast listener, writes in to say: “Hello Tony and Pastor John! I am a frequent listener of the podcast from Northern Ireland, and I find all of the resources at desiringGod.org to be extremely helpful and insightful in my walk with Christ. My question is about God ‘regretting’ his decisions. Two times the Bible says that God regretted something he had done in the past (Genesis 6:6–7; 1 Samuel 15:11). And in at least 15 places the Bible says he regretted, or that he might regret, something he was about to do in the future (Exodus 32:12–14; 2 Samuel 24:16; 1 Chronicles 21:15; Psalms 106:45; Jeremiah 4:28; 18:8; 26:3, 13, 19; 42:10; Joel 2:13–14; Amos 7:3, 6; Jonah 3:9–10; 4:2). I stumble over the idea of a sovereign God regretting something, as though he would do it a different way if given another chance.” What would you say to Ryan?
This is a huge and important issue. Back in the mid-1990s, I was embroiled in disputes over what is called “Open Theism,” which argues that God is open to the future in the sense that he does not have exhaustive knowledge of what is coming in the future. And so, he is open-ended. I regard that position as profoundly wrong, unbiblical, dishonoring to the Lord, and undermining to the gospel and to God’s purposes in the world.
So, you can see why I was embroiled in this controversy. One of the arguments used by open theists is that there are passages in the Bible where God regrets or repents — as the old King James says — what he has done and, therefore, must not have been able to foresee what would come of his decisions. Otherwise, he would not have done them if he really regrets them.
“God may well be capable of lamenting over something he chose to bring about.”
Ryan, in asking this question, has mentioned two of these: Genesis 6:6–7 and 1 Samuel 15:11. So what I am going to do is take just one of those, 1 Samuel 15:11, because I think if we can show how one is explained, then other passages in the Bible fall into place as well. When Saul disobeys Samuel, God says, “I regret” — or, King James, I repent — “that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.” That is 1 Samuel 15:11. So, some have argued, as I said, that, since God repents or regrets making him king, therefore, if he had it to do over again, he wouldn’t because he couldn’t see what was coming. Else, why would he repent or regret if he knew in advance the consequence of his decision and chose to do it anyway?
Now, I don’t think that is a compelling argument against God’s foreknowledge — his complete, exhaustive foreknowledge — of what was going to come of Saul and for several reasons. I will just mention a couple. One has to do with the complexity of God’s emotional life. And the other has to do with the context in 1 Samuel 15 where I think the writer explicitly does something to keep us from drawing a wrong conclusion about God’s foreknowledge.
“God’s way of repenting is unique to God.”
So, the first problem with that view is that it assumes God could not or would not lament over a state of affairs that he himself chose to bring about. But that assumption, I think, is not true to experience and not true to the Bible. And more importantly, God’s heart is capable of complex combinations of emotions infinitely more remarkable than ours. He may well be capable of lamenting over something he chose to bring about. And God may be capable of looking back on the very act of bringing something about and lamenting that act in one regard, while affirming it as best in another regard. Here is an example from my experience. See if this helps.
If I spank my son for blatant disobedience and he runs away from home because I spanked him, I may feel some remorse over the spanking — not in the sense that I disapprove of what I did, but in the sense that I feel some sorrow that the spanking was necessary and part of a wise way of dealing with my son in this situation, and great sorrow that he ran away. If I had to do it over again, I would still spank him. It was the right thing to do, even knowing that one consequence would be alienation for a season. I approve the spanking from one angle, and at the same time I regret the spanking from another angle. If such a combination of emotions is possible for me in my finite decisions, it is not hard for me to imagine that God’s infinite mind — the infinite complexity of God’s emotional life — would be capable of something similar or even more complex.
“God is able to feel sorrow for an act in view of foreknown evil and yet go ahead and do it for wise reasons.”
But most important is the context of 1 Samuel 15, not just my effort to imagine God’s emotional life. Verse 11: “I regret” — or repent — “that I have made Saul king.” Then, as if to clarify and protect us from misusing verse 11, he says in verse 29 — so, this would be 18 verses later — “The Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret [or repent], for he is not a man, that he should have regret [or repent].” Now, the point of the verse seems to be that, even though there is a sense in which God does repent — it says so in verse 11: he did — there is another sense in which he does not repent in verse 29. It’s the same word in Hebrew. He does repent. No, he doesn’t repent.
And the difference would naturally be that God’s repentance happens in spite of perfect foreknowledge — and that is what it means to be God — while most human repentance happens because we lack foreknowledge. God’s way of repenting is unique to God. God is not man that he should repent, the writer says, meaning God is not man that he should repent as a man repents in his ignorance of the future.
“When God makes a promise to us, he knows all future circumstances and will never be caught off guard.”
For God to say, “I feel sorrow that I made Saul king” is not the same thing as saying, “I would not make him king if I had to do it over.” Oh yes, he would. God is able to feel sorrow for an act in view of foreknown evil — foreknown pain and sorrow and misery — and yet go ahead and do it for wise reasons. And so, later when he looks back on the act, he can feel that very sorrow for the act that he knew was leading to the sad conditions, like Saul’s disobedience.
One of the great implications of all of this is that when God makes a promise to us, he does it with complete foreknowledge of all the future circumstances and is, therefore, never caught off guard by anything. And so, his promises will stand according to his infinite wisdom.
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