God’s providence provides solid instruction and comfort for believers. Yet for those who don’t believe, discussions of God’s providence will never answer all of their questions or provide satisfying answers for them. So trying to conclusively prove these things to them is probably a fool’s errand. Nevertheless, there are some Scriptures which seem to teach a view of God’s providence which is different than mine. Some Scriptures make it seem like God’s decrees are not firm and stable, but vary with the changes in human events.
With reference to God’s providence, some Scripture speak of God having repented that he made human beings (Genesis 6:6) and that he raised Saul to the throne of Israel (1 Samuel 15:11). Some also speak of God repenting of the evil he had resolved to inflict on his people if they themselves repented (Jeremiah 18:8).Other Scriptures seem to indicate that his decree is said to be annulled. God had, through Jonah, proclaimed to the Ninevehites that they would be destroyed in forty days. But immediately after they repented, he was merciful to them (Jonah 3:4-10). In another place, God deferred from his sentence of death upon Hezekiah after his tears and prayers (Isaiah 38:15; 2 Kings 20:15). Hence, many argue that God does not rule over human life by an eternal degree. Instead, they argue that God works according to the merits of each individuals. And as they make choices he deems right and just, he works within each single year, day, and hour.
Now, speaking of repentance, I hold that it cannot actually exist in God any more than ignorance, error, or impotence could exist in him. If you believe that God can “repent,” then you must also believe that God either doesn’t know what the future is, or that God makes hasty decisions and then comes to regret them. But such thoughts are so far from the meaning the Holy Spirit in the Scripture. For Scripture declares that God is not a human being that would repent. Yet, in the same chapter, the two truths—that God doesn’t repent and that God repented of his installation of Saul on the throne—sit side-by-side each other. Comparing the passages to one another removes the appearance of contradiction, however. When it is said that God repented of having made Saul king, the term change is used figuratibely. Shortly after, it is added, “The Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind” (1 Samuel 15:29). God’s immutability (unchanging nature) is plainly asserted. Therefore, it is certain that when God administers human affairs, his ordination is perpetual and above every thing like repentance or changing his mind. God’s constancy is affirmed even by his enemies, as Balaam exclaims: “God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?” (Numbers 23:19).
What then is meant by the term “repentance”? The term is used to describe God to us in human language. Because of our weaknesses, we cannot reach God’s height. So any description we receive of him must be communicated in a way that we can find intelligible. The language which “lowers” God to our level does not describe God as he really is, but as we perceive him. Although God is incapable of feeling perturbed, he declares that he is angry with the wicked. When we hear that God is angry, we ought not to image that there is any emotion in him but we ought to consider the mode of speech which is being used to accommodated to our reason and intellect. From our perspective, God appears to us like one who irritated and angry when he exercises his judgement. Applying such insights to the term repentance, we should imagine repentance as nothing more than a change of action. When the term is applied to God, the term simply means that God’s procedure has changed. In the meantime, there is no overturning of his counsel or will. There is no change of his affection. What he has foreseen, approved, and decreed from all eternity, he still accomplishes with unvarying consistency, even though it may appear to us as changes happening.
Scripture, therefore, does not imply that God’s decrees were overturned, even though judgment was withheld from the Ninevehites and the life of Hezekiah was spared. When God threatens judgment, there is always a tacit condition dependent upon the result. Why did the Lord send Jonah to the Ninevehites to predict the overthrow of the city? Why did he decree Hezekiah’s death through Isaiah? God could have destroyed them both without a message of the impending disaster. He had something else in view than to merely give them a warning of death. He did not wish them to destroyed, but rather, reformed, and saved from destruction. When Jonah prophesies that Nineveh would destroyed in forty days, he did so in order to prevent its overthrow. When Hezekiah was forbidden to hope for longer life, it was so that he could obtain a longer life. God wished to arouse them to repentance, which he did through his threat of judgment.
If I am correct, the very nature of these cases causes us to realize that tacit conditions exist in God’s threats of judgment. The Lord rebukes king Abimelech for taking Abraham’s wife: “But God came to Abimelech in a dream of the night, and said to him, ‘Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is married.'” After Abimelech’s excuse, God speaks this way: “Now therefore, restore the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.” (Genesis 20:3, 7). In the first announcement, God makes a deep impression on his mind so that Abimelech would be eager to obey. And in the second pronouncement, God clearly explains his will. Since the other passages can be explained a similar way, you must not infer from them that the Lord changed from his former counsel in any way just because he withheld his judgment. When he announces his coming judgment, he moves to repentance those he wishes to spare. He paves the way for his eternal decree instead of varying it at all through either will or language. The only difference is that he does not express in many words what is easily understood. The words of Isaiah remain true: “For the Lord of hosts has planned, and who can frustrate it? And as for His stretched-out hand, who can turn it back?” (Isaiah 14:27).
“Blogging the Institutes” is my on-going attempt to paraphrase John Calvin’s work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. You can find out more about the series in the Introduction. For all the posts in this series, check out the Master List.