This lecture is about God’s righteousness, justice, and immutability. The author differentiates between God’s retributive righteousness and his remunerative righteousness, evidencing both of these concepts from Scripture. He also roots God’s righteousness in the doctrine of the covenant.

2014. 12 pages. Transcribed by Jeanette de Vente. Transcription started at 3:25 and stopped at 54:43.

God Is Righteous, Immutable School of Theology Series: Lecture 13

God Is Righteous🔗

The Scriptures are very clear that God is righteous

And there is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me.Isaiah 45:21, ESV
Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness; you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness.Psalm 45:6-7a, ESV

God is righteous. He loves righteousness.

The LORD reigns, let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad! Clouds and thick darkness are all around him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.Psalm 97:2, ESV

Note there the two words: Righteousness and justice. There is a strong connection (as we shall see in a minute) between righteousness and justice. There is a justice component to the idea of righteousness.

Then perhaps one of the most important passages in the New Testament: Romans 3:21-26. James Montgomery Boice drew a heart in his Bible next to this passage, because he felt this passage was the heart of the gospel. Paul has said back in Romans 1:16-17 that the gospel is about the righteousness of God: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel…for therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith.” Now he is picking up that theme again in chapter three:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.Romans 3:21-22a, ESV

And then he goes on to speak about the work of Christ:

There is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.Romans 3:22b-26, ESV

Hebrew and Greek Vocabulary🔗

We were considering last [lecture] with the doctrine of God’s holiness that in Hebrew and Greek it is the same group of words for holiness and sanctification. In English we do not have a verb “to holify.” We use a different word, but it is the same thing. Holiness and to sanctify are the same thing, but two different words in English. But they are the same word in Hebrew and the same word in Greek. There is a similar thing here in the words for righteousness and “to justify.” The New Testament language of justification belongs to the same group of words in the Hebrew and Greek as the word for righteousness.

“Tsadiq” in Hebrew: God is righteous. We have seen that in Isaiah 45:21. God is righteous. It is a characteristic of God. It is something that God is in his essence, in his nature. It is a personal quality of God. He is righteous.

We have talked a couple of times about the so-called etymological fallacy; that is, a word does not mean what its root means, a word means what it means in its context. Words can transform through generations. You say “awesome” in a way that your forefathers would not have used that word “awesome.” You are about to develop an entirely different meaning to the word “awesome” than what it meant a hundred years ago, or what it still means in your hymnology. But etymology suggests that “tsadiq” in Hebrew means something along the lines of straightness (straightness meaning “conformity to a rule” or a maxim of some kind). God executes justice—either punishment or vindication or protection—because he is righteous. There is a connection between the idea of justice and the idea of God’s righteousness, God’s straightness, God’s unflinching conformity to a rule or standard. It is the way he is.

You can see perhaps already why the idea of righteousness is connected with the idea of immutability. Immutability simply means God cannot change. Later on we will talk about God’s immutability. That is why these two things are often considered together. God is unflinchingly committed to a certain standard. It is the way he is. It is his own standard; it is his own character. It is the way he is. In Greek it is “dikaios,” or “dikaiosuné.” Righteousness: Conformity to a standard. There is the same idea in Greek as in Hebrew.

No Distinction between “Righteousness” and “Justice” in Latin🔗

Now, this is just a matter of fact: From Augustine right through to the period of the Reformation, one thousand years and more, most of theology (at least in the western Church) was done through the medium of the Latin language, which did not distinguish between righteousness and justice. And that has led to a furore, a fire that is burning today. Some of you perhaps are completely unaware of it, and you are blissfully unaware of it, but there is a fire raging. And it rages not far from the corridors of this church; it certainly burns in seminaries, in the world of publications and literature, and in some of our denominations. It is over this issue of how possibly the Latin use of “righteousness” (“justificare” in Latin—almost the equivocation of righteousness and justice in the medium of Latin) has distorted our understanding of the biblical concept of righteousness and the biblical concept of justification.  

We are not going into this tonight, but we will come to it later when we talk about justification. The doctrine of justification is a doctrine that is right in the crosshairs of much debate today, because there are some who are advocating that the Reformation Church (Luther, and that means us who subscribe to the Westminster Confession) have seriously misunderstood the doctrine on justification because of the way in which the Latin language has distorted the biblical meaning of justification or the biblical meaning of righteousness. That door is sort of ajar in this lecture, but I am not going to go through that door. I am going to wait until we get to the discussion on the doctrine of justification. But what we will say about the doctrine of justification is largely governed by the conclusions that we draw here with the respect to the biblical idea and the biblical concept of righteousness. So we need to look at what the word “righteous” means in the Bible.

Let me say in answer to that charge about Latin distortion (and it is a charge that is made with a great deal of frequency today) that it is perhaps 5% true, but no more than that. I think that Luther’s understanding of justification, governed as it largely was by a Latin use of terms, 95% of what Luther was saying was spot on biblical and sound. Perhaps there is a nuance here that we need to bring in to play that Luther did not emphasize a great deal. But if you say that the Church of the Reformation has completely misunderstood the doctrine of justification (those critics are even saying that the Roman Catholic Church misunderstood the doctrine of justification; in other words, the answer to the question, “How is a person saved?” has been misunderstood until the last 15 or 20 years), that is unbelievable. It takes a great deal of credulity even to suggest such a thing. A great deal of attention is being given to that issue right now. Well, I am going to try and close that door now and get back to the topic of righteousness.

Biblical Foundations🔗

Let’s look at some biblical foundations.

Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God.Genesis 6:9, ESV

I think blameless stands there in the sentence by way of explaining to you what he means by saying that Noah is righteous. Noah is righteous; that is to say, he was without blame. He was blameless. Not that he was perfect, but that he was a godly man. He was looked at and assigned by God as a righteous man. He walked with God.

Where did they get this notion of righteous from? Of course, this is Moses writing this, but Moses is saying that he was regarded as a righteous man in his own day. Where did they get this notion of righteousness from? Because if righteousness is conformity to the Law, the Ten Commandments (a standard), the Ten Commandments were not given in Noah’s time. That came in Moses’ time. So where did they get the idea of righteousness? The answer to that is that they must have gone back to paradise, and they must have taken with them from paradise, by oral tradition down through the generations, from Adam to Noah, ideas of what is good, what is right, and what it means to be in a right standing and in a right relationship with God. Righteous here, then, is synonymous with blamelessness. Righteous is a state of being without fault or blame.

Let’s go to the book of Psalms.

But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.Psalm 103:17-18, ESV

This is interesting, because you have got a combination of ideas here. You have “steadfast love” (that is a buzz-term in the Old Testament often associated with the idea of covenant), you have the word “covenant” itself here in the passage, and then you have the word “righteousness.” So you have “steadfast love,” “covenant,” and “righteousness.” And that leads to the idea that righteousness has the connotation in the Old Testament of covenant loyalty, or covenant faithfulness. Now, it can mean more than that, but it means faithfulness to the covenant. Covenant faithfulness.

I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations.Isaiah 42:6, ESV

Again, there is an association of the idea of righteousness with the idea of covenant.

Righteousness and Covenant🔗

So let’s proceed to some kind of definition of the word righteousness in the Old Testament: Conformity/loyalty to the covenant. It has the idea of “straightness,” or “consistency with a norm,” and perhaps the idea of integrity within a given relationship.

Now, because righteousness is conformity to covenant, there are necessarily two aspects: One is commitment to bless and another is a commitment to curse. When you think of covenants in the Old Testament, when God enters into a covenant there is a blessing on the one side and there is a cursing on the other side. There is the idea of reward and punishment. Historically some have emphasized one and not the other, and I think that is a part of the problem that is arising today in New Perspective on Paul or New Perspective on the idea of justification.

Retributive Righteousness🔗

Let’s look at two aspects of righteousness: Retributive righteousness. We are going to look at retributive righteousness to begin with. Think of the word “retribution.” Retributive righteousness: Righteousness as the judicial reaction of God to sinfulness and evil. Habakkuk 1:13: “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong”—the purity of God. And what is the response of the purity of God towards sin? Daniel 9:14: “The LORD our God is righteous in all the works that he has done.” The idea of God’s judicial response to sinfulness.

This is the idea that came to the surface in Martin Luther in the Reformation. Martin Luther was reading the book of Romans. He was reading that statement in Romans 1:16, 17: “I am not ashamed of the gospel…for therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith.” What does the righteousness of God mean for Luther? It means God’s purity. It means God’s integrity. It means his conformity to Law. So the righteousness of God for Luther was a thing that caused him fear. He was unrighteous and God was righteous. God was pure and he was impure. God is without sin and Luther is full of sin. The more he tried to obey the Law, the more he tried to conform himself to the standard of God’s Law, the more he realized he was a sinner. And the righteousness of God was something that was altogether frightening. The righteousness of God meant that he was going to be punished. God is pure. God is just. God is righteous. And that means that unrighteousness cannot occupy the same space as righteousness. So he views the righteousness of God as something that is negative, something that is punitive, something that is judicial, and something that threatens.

How can Paul say that he is not ashamed of the gospel, because it is a statement about the righteousness of God? The righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel, but the righteousness of God for Luther was something that terrified, something that threatened, and something that frightened punishment. So Luther says (quoting from his own introduction to his commentary on Romans):

I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, “The justice of God.”Martin Luther, cited by Roland Bainton, Here I Stand, 1950

In Latin, the righteousness of God and the justice of God used to be the same word—“justificare.” So in the Latin Vulgate Bible that he is reading, the righteousness of God was the justice of God.

Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith.Martin Luther, cited by Roland Bainton, Here I Stand, 1950

He saw that in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed. But where is that righteousness of God that God demands of us to be found? It is to be found in Jesus. It is to be found by faith in Jesus. Luther is viewing the cross in an Anselmian way. He is viewing the cross as one that speaks of substitution and satisfaction. What did Jesus accomplish on the cross? He satisfied all the demands of the Law. He obeyed the Law. He provided a complete righteousness. And that righteousness of Christ is imputed/ reckoned to the account of the sinner through the instrumentality of faith. God demands integrity. God demands uprightness. God demands conformity to the Law. How can that be achieved? By faith alone in Christ alone! What did we just sing? “Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness my beauty are…” (Ludwig & Graf von Zinzendorf, 1739).

Luther looked at the righteousness of God and he was terrified, because the righteousness of God spoke to him of retribution. Retributive righteousness. It was a righteousness that threatened. But where did it threaten? It threatened his Son. It frightened the Lord Jesus. That punitive justice was meted out on his Son. God did not spare him, but freely “delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). It is the gospel that Luther saw. But what he saw was retributive righteousness, and that retributive righteousness is meted out on Jesus as our substitute and sin-bearer.

(Transcription of audio file from 25:21 to 26:09 omitted.)

Theological Issues🔗

The question has been asked theoretically: Is the retributive righteousness of God discretionary? Is God’s response to sin something which he has willed, and that he could have willed to be otherwise? Now, while you are still pondering why anybody would ask that question, read Samuel Rutherford’s statement:

God punishes sin by no necessity of nature. Nay, if he chose, he might leave it altogether unpunished.Samuel Rutherford, cited by James Walker, The Theology and Theologians of Scotland 1560-1750, 1982

William Twiss was the chairman of the Westminster Assembly (which brought forth the Shorter Catechism and the Larger Catechism), a [well-known] theologian, who wrote a 900 page book on supralapsarianism and why we should all confess it. He says:

God, by his absolute power, setting aside his decree or free constitution, can forgive sin without any satisfaction.William Twisse, cited by James Reid, Memoirs of the Westminster Divines, 1982

Now, why would anyone say such a thing? Because if you think of God as first of all sovereign—his sovereignty is paramount over everything; his lordship is paramount over everything—his sovereignty can will something other than what we actually know.

Now, that is theoretical theology at its very worst, and I have no time for that kind of theology. I think Rutherford and Twiss are absolutely wrong. I put it in here simply to show you that sometimes you can do theology just in your head, and you can run and you can run and you can run, and you have lost sight of the Bible. And all of a sudden you are asking not theological questions, but you are actually asking philosophical questions. They are theoretical questions, and I have no interest in theology that is not rooted in the Bible and that is not of immediate pastoral significance. But that is an example that is an example from the 17th century of how theology can sort of take on a life of its own and find itself in a place that is a million miles away from the revelation of God in the Bible.

If you come back to the revelation of God in the Bible, you have statements like Genesis 18:25: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” What is right? In other words, the implication is that God always needs to be just, but does not always need to be merciful. Now, some have objected on other grounds about the relationship between justice and mercy, but I am going to pass over all of that for time considerations.

Remunerative Righteousness🔗

I want us to look at remunerative righteousness. I want you to consider with me something I have a suspicion that some of you have not really thought about, or if you have, you have pondered some of these verses and wondered what they mean. Psalm 4:1: “Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness!” You go before God and you remind him that he is righteous, and you want him to answer in his righteousness. I have a suspicion that some of you are going to say, “No, I don’t want God to answer in his righteousness; I want him to answer in his mercy. I don’t want him to answer as somebody who is sitting on a court of law as a Judge; I want him to answer as a heavenly Father who loves me.”

Psalm 35:24: “Vindicate me, O LORD, my God, according to your righteousness.” I wonder how many of you have prayed that: “Show me to be in the right.” Actually: “Show the world and show my enemies that I am in the right. And do so because you are a God of integrity and because you are righteous.” Some of you should be thinking of the book of Job, because that is what Job is doing. That is Job’s argument—that he is in the right and that he is innocent. Not that he is without sin, but that he is innocent. And he wants God to vindicate him.

Psalm 103:17: “But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children.” If you think of righteousness as God’s retribution upon sin, that does not fit in this text. This text is supposed to produce the warm and fuzzies here. The psalmist is saying the steadfast love of God is from everlasting to everlasting to those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children. If you are thinking of righteousness solely in the way that Luther was thinking of righteousness (namely, God’s punitive justice upon sin), how is it a pleasant thought that God’s righteousness is upon your children’s children? What the psalm has in mind here is something positive, something that brings assurance, something that brings confidence!

Isaiah 46:13: “I bring near my righteousness; it is not far off, and my salvation will not delay.” What does that mean? Or Isaiah 51:

Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and they who dwell in it will die in like manner; but my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will never be dismayed.Isaiah 51:6, ESV

This is a positive view of righteousness. This is remunerative righteousness. These texts are advocating God’s commitment to covenant promise rather than covenant threat. At the beginning of our time together we said that righteousness (in the Old Testament especially) is associated with the idea of covenant—that God will keep covenant. Now, what does it mean that God keeps his covenant? Well, he keeps his covenant which has both blessings and threats. They have blessings and curses. To the one who is outside of Jesus, God’s covenant faithfulness will mean that that person will ultimately be judged. To the one who is in Jesus, the one who believes the gospel, God’s covenant faithfulness means he will never leave you nor forsake you.

Here is the psalmist pleading the righteousness of God. He is pleading the righteousness of God. Which means, for the psalmist and from Isaiah 46 and 51, that God is so committed to his covenant that the person who is in Jesus, who is now imputed with the righteousness of Jesus, can come before God and can say, “Look at my righteousness.” Because it is the imputed righteousness of Christ. It is the righteousness that is reckoned to me in the gospel.

Dangers of Overemphasizing either Retributive or Remunerative Righteousness🔗

Emphasizing either retributive righteousness or remunerative righteousness to the exclusion of the other results in [various] expressions. I am going to give you a couple of them. One is from Albrecht Ritschl (nineteenth century):

God’s righteousness is his self-consistent and undeviating action in behalf of the salvation of the members of his community; in essence it is identical with his grace.Albrecht Ritschl, A Critical History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation, 2010

There is an aspect of that which is true, if Ritschl was only talking about the remunerative righteousness. But righteousness in God means his commitment to his covenant, which involves curses and blessings. It involves judgment upon sin as well as showing mercy to those who are in Christ. So there are two aspects to the righteousness of God, and Ritschl—one of the great fathers of Liberalism in the nineteenth century—is merely emphasizing one aspect at the expense of the other. I also want to suggest that that is in part what is taking place in modern discussions on so-called New Perspectives on Paul and New Perspectives on the idea of righteousness and justification in the New Testament. I have a little quotation [in the handout] from one of its principle exponents, namely, N.T. Wright.

How Can Righteousness Operate Remuneratively?🔗

How can that righteousness operate remuneratively? Let me suggest a couple of answers here.

[Firstly], when the nation keeps covenant. Exodus 23:22: “But if you carefully obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries.” This is not a promise to the USA; this is a promise to Israel. It is similarly a promise to the New Testament church, by the way, but this is a promise to Israel as a theocratic state. So long as they walked faithfully in God’s ways, God would keep his covenant with them. God would bless them. He would be an enemy to their enemies. That is the promise that was made. They would see remunerative righteousness. Or Deuteronomy 28:1: “If you faithfully obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth.” This is a repeated promise—the promise of Exodus 23 repeated now on the plains of Moab, just before they cross over into the Promised Land. Moses repeats this covenant promise to Israel that if they are faithful to the covenant, God will be faithful to the covenant too, and he will exalt them high above all the nations of the earth.

What happens when the nation is unfaithful, as it was in the time of Elijah, or Isaiah, or pre-exilic prophets like Amos and Micah? Well, they are still sometimes loved for the father’s sake—God’s mercy extends to children’s children. “The steadfast love of the LORD…his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant” (Psalm 103:17-18). And there is also a sense in which even in the retributive justice of God [they experienced God’s remunerative righteousness]. What is the exile? Why did they go into exile? They went into exile because they failed to walk according to the covenant. They experienced not the remunerative righteousness of God, but they experienced the retributive righteousness of God. God punished them! But there was still remunerative righteousness even in that punishment! There was the remnant, according to the election of grace. Even out of the exile the “Daniels” and the “Ezras” and the “Nehemiahs” and so on can be seen.

Can Individuals Plead the Remunerative Righteousness of God?🔗

Can individuals like you and me plead the remunerative righteousness of God? Psalm 35:24: “Vindicate me, O LORD, my God, according to your righteousness.” Can you plead that? Have you ever prayed that? Have you gone before God and said, “Lord, look upon my righteousness! Look upon my integrity!” You are evangelical reformed Christians—you believe in the doctrine of total depravity. You come pleading for mercy, don’t you? You come confessing your sin and you plead for mercy. We say, “I don’t want justice; I want mercy.”

Please forgive me if I step on somebody’s toes here. I [am going to use] a very stark example. Suppose you are a victim of rape. You are an innocent victim. You are a totally, totally innocent victim. And you are a victim of this atrocity. This horrible, horrible thing has happened to you. And the [attacker] is getting away with it. You come before God and you say, “Lord, because I am a believer, because I am in Jesus Christ, look on me. This was not my fault. And I want justice here. I want you to come, and I want you to come in blessing. I want you to come with your remunerative righteousness. Vindicate me, O Lord, My God!”

Isn’t that what Job is doing? As you read the book of Job, you might be tempted to say halfway through the book, “No one is that pure!” When Job is pleading his innocence chapter after chapter, you [might] suddenly blurt out and say, “Nobody is that pure!” But the fact is that God says so. God says right at the beginning of the book of Job three times that he was a morally upright man. He feared God; he shunned evil; he was the godliest man on the face of the earth. And he is pleading for vindication. He wants a fair trial. He is pleading the remunerative righteousness of God.

I think we do it this way. Look at 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” He is faithful and just. There is a sense in which John is saying, “If you are in Christ, when you come before God with your sins as somebody who is in Christ, the just thing for God to do is to forgive you.” Wow! Really? Yes! That is what John is saying. He is saying you come before God and you say, “Jesus has died for these sins. He has taken the full unmitigated wrath of retributive righteousness. He has taken it all. You have no choice here but to forgive my sin.” That is the boldness! That is the gospel audacity of what John is saying here! God is faithful and just. It is the just thing to do, it is the right thing to do, because Jesus has already paid the penalty! Christ has kept covenant for us.

Despite the fact that we are sinners, there is a sense in which in Christ we are covenant-keepers. We are covenant-keepers in Christ. We are law-keepers in Christ! We wear the spotless robe of Jesus Christ, and we hold it up before God: “Deal with me according to my righteousness—the imputed righteousness of Christ. So it is the just thing to bless me!” That will test how much you believe the gospel. It really tests whether we really believe the gospel, and that in the gospel the spotless righteousness of Christ is reckoned to our account.

God’s Justice/Righteousness and Society🔗

God is righteousness and just. Not only is God righteous, but God does righteousness. You see provisions in the Old Testament Law code for food for the poor: laws of Israel with respect to gleaning. Or the laws of Israel with respect to usury and not lending with interest to your brother in need. It was not a carte blanche forbidding of all lending with interest, but it was a particular law to those who were poor. Or the provision that in the year of Jubilee all land reverted to the family. Or clothing: If you pawned your cloak it had to be given back at night, so that the person would not die of cold in the night. The provision for a fair trial: “You shall not bear false witness” etc. God is righteous, God is just, and he does justice. He loves righteousness. And you see that in the provisions that God made for the land of Israel.

The question that I want you to think about and ponder is: What does a “just society” look like? We are not a theocratic society—we are not Israel—but how do you apply the laws of righteousness in a modern society? Paul says that we are to make prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings “for all people, for kings, and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:1-2). What kind of laws would need to be passed reflecting the righteousness of God, the justice of God, in a modern society, so that Paul’s prayer in 1 Timothy 2 can be fulfilled? I am sure you are going to answer that in different ways, but I want you to start thinking about that. How would you apply the way God’s righteousness is revealed in society in the Old Testament in a modern non-theocratic state?

Immutability and Veracity🔗

We segue now from the righteousness of God to the immutability, and in part the veracity, of God. Immutability means God cannot change. It is a closely related idea to righteousness. The veracity of God is simply his integrity in relation to what is specifically said and promised in the word of his covenant. God does not and cannot lie. Titus 1:2: “God, who never lies…”

The immutability of God is a more general doctrine that God does not change. Psalm 102:27: “You are the same, and your years have no end.” Malachi 3:6: “For I the LORD do not change.” James 1:17: “The Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” We should not use this notion to think of God in some way as static, like a statue. Nor should we allow this doctrine of the immutability of God to lead to the Greek idea, for example, of the Unmoved Mover. What this is saying to us is that God is dependable. He is not whimsical or arbitrary or unpredictable.

The “Repentance” of God🔗

There are two problems. One is the “repentance” of God. God repents. Or perhaps a better translation would be that God relents. You are familiar with these passages where God says one thing, and then there is a prayer, and then God seems to change his mind and seems to go back on what was his intention. There is a very famous one in Jonah 3:9, 4:2, for example. You are all familiar with these passages in the Old Testament where the text seems to suggest that God repents, or God relents, or changes his mind. How is that compatible with immutability?

(Transcription of audio file from 50:18 to 50:54 omitted.)

I am suggesting here that you should keep in mind four things. One: God does not change in his essential being/attributes. His attributes define him, and if his attributes were to change, He would change. Secondly, God’s decree (or sometimes “the will of his decree”) does not change. Psalm 33:11: “The plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.” Thirdly: God’s covenant faithfulness does not change. His commitment to the covenant, his commitment to do the right thing, his commitment to his promise and threat does not change. When God enters into a covenant, it cannot be broken. Fourthly, God’s revealed truth does not change (in distinction to postmodernity where truth is relativized). When God reveals something to be true, it is always true. It never changes.

So what do you do with these “repentings” or “relentings” in God? Well, one thing you can do (and the traditional thing to have done with those) is to say they are anthropomorphisms. They are God speaking to us like little children and saying it looks to us as though he changed his mind. He wants you to pray, he wants you to ask, he wants you to enter into the difficulty of the decision, but God knew what he was doing all along, and these are just God accommodating himself to our frail human understanding. He is speaking to us as though we are little children. But we understand, of course, that God does not really change in his eternal decree. That is one traditional way of dealing with these “repentings” in God.

Another way (and one that I am more and more drawn to, one that Vern Poythress has been alluding to in the recent years at Westminster Seminary) is that in God’s “temporal omnipresence,” God in his transcendence never changes, but God is also present with us. Let me put it in the way that he puts it: he views the events of yesterday as in the past and the events of tomorrow as in the future. So when God in his imminence (not in his transcendence, but in his imminence) is present everywhere, he is present then in the course of history. So there can be change associated with God’s imminent presence, but not with God’s transcendent presence. That may be a way of addressing the issue of “repentance” in God.


The second problem is the incarnation. What about the incarnation of Jesus? Of course, the incarnation of Jesus did not change anything in the deity of Jesus. His deity remained absolutely the same. He took to himself something that he did not have before (he took human nature), but that did not change or alter in any way his divine nature. It altered his person in that his person now has two natures, but it did not alter his nature/essence. We will come to that when we talk about Christology. But there it is: the righteousness and the immutability of God.

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