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. 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. 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. 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. 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.