I have recently been studying through the Minor Prophets section of Scripture and have camped out in the book of Jonah. When you contemplate Jonah in depth, a question you need to ask is: “Does God change?” It is an exceedingly good question, a question that some answer without hesitation with a resounding “no”, while others say with all confidence, “Yes, yes He does.”
The ones who argue that God does not change will use passages like Malachi 3:6 (ESV) to support their claim. In this verse God says very clearly and plainly, “I the LORD do not change.”
Those on the other side of the argument will turn to verses like Jonah 3:10 (HCSB), where we read that God “relented” after they had “turned from their evil ways”. Or they will use verses like Hosea 11:8 (HCSB) where we are told that God had a “change of heart”. They will quote these verses and others like them to argue that God does change on occasion.
So which one is it? Does God change, or not? Which verses are right?
It is important when you study God’s word, and teach difficult doctrines like the immutability of God, that you do not simply take one or two verses that support your beliefs on a particular teaching and pin those against other challenging verses that seem to run counter to what you believe. It is never doctrinally sound to use certain verses to explain away other verses. “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16, ESV), and is, therefore, inerrant and true. Instead, one must interpret Scripture with Scripture. When we do, we learn that there are ways God does not change and ways in which He does. Let me explain.
First, the Bible teaches that God does not change in terms of who He is—in His essence and His attributes. For example, He is perfectly holy, righteous, and loving—that is the essence of who God is. He does not become more holy, more righteous, and more loving over time. This, of course, is a good thing. If He could change in one way, He might be able to change in another and become less holy, less righteous, and less loving.
Scripture, however, is also clear that God does change in terms of the way He relates to His creation. At times He blesses and at other times He curses; sometimes He rewards, other times He punishes. Often His response is contingent on the response of the individual(s). For example, before Jonah went to Nineveh God was dead set against the Ninevites. In Jonah 1:2 (ESV), God calls for Jonah to go to Nineveh because, He says, “their evil has come up before me”. In Jonah 3:4, we learn that the word God gave Jonah to proclaim to the Ninevites was that Nineveh was to be overthrown in forty days. After Jonah had delivered this message however, the Ninevites repented. In response to their repentance, God turned His wrath away from them.
In Jonah 3:10 (ESV), we are told, When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. In the book of Jonah, all throughout God’s Word in fact, we learn that repentance changes the way God responds.
Now when we say that God changes in the way He relates to us, He changes in a way that differs from how we would change. We are not all-knowing, so we do not know for certain what is going to happen from one moment to the next. God does—He is totally omniscient. He knows how we are going to respond beforehand, so He then knows how He is going to respond.
God knew when He first called Jonah to go to Nineveh that Jonah would eventually go. He also knew the Ninevites were going to repent and that He was going to relent. That being said, repentance is still essential. It is a vital part of God’s relenting. Though God is sovereign and knows how everything is going to play out, Scripture is clear that we are responsible. Unless we repent, we will perish (Luke 13:3).