Malachi 3:6 declares, “I the LORD do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.” Similarly, James 1:17 tells us, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” Numbers 23:19 is clear: “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should change His mind. Does He speak and then not act? Does He promise and not fulfill?” Based on these verses, no, God does not change. God is unchanging and unchangeable. He is also all-wise. So He cannot “change His mind” in the sense of realizing a mistake, backtracking, and trying a new tack.
How then do we explain verses that seem to say that God does change His mind? Verses such as Genesis 6:6, “The LORD was grieved that He had made man on the earth, and His heart was filled with pain.” Also, Exodus 32:14 proclaims, “Then the LORD relented and did not bring on His people the disaster He had threatened.” These verses speak of the Lord “repenting” or “relenting” of something and seem to contradict the doctrine of God’s immutability.
Another passage that is often used to show that God changes His mind is the story of Jonah. Through His prophet, God had told Nineveh He would destroy the city in forty days (Jonah 3:4). However, Nineveh repented of their sin (verses 5–9). In response to the Assyrians’ repentance, God relented: “He had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction He had threatened” (verse 10).
There are two important considerations involving the passages that say God changed His mind. First, we can say statements such as “the LORD was grieved that He had made man on the earth” (Genesis 6:6) are examples of anthropopathism (or anthropopatheia). Anthropopathism is a figure of speech in which the feelings or thought processes of finite humanity are ascribed to the infinite God. It’s a way to help us understand God’s work from a human perspective. In Genesis 6:6 specifically, we understand God’s sorrow over man’s sin. God obviously did not reverse His decision to create man. The fact that we are alive today is proof that God did not “change His mind” about the creation.
Second, we must make a distinction between conditional declarations of God and unconditional determinations of God. In other words, when God said, “I will destroy Nineveh in forty days,” He was speaking conditionally upon the Assyrians’ response. We know this because the Assyrians repented and God did not, in fact, mete out the judgment. God did not change His mind; rather, His message to Nineveh was a warning meant to provoke repentance, and His warning was successful.
An example of an unconditional declaration of God is the Lord’s promise to David, “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16). There is no qualification expressed or implied in this declaration. No matter what David did or did not do, the word of the Lord would come to pass.
God tells us of the cautionary nature of some of His declarations and the fact that He will act in accordance with our choices: “If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it. Now therefore say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, ‘This is what the Lord says: Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions’” (Jeremiah 18:7– 11). Note the conditional word if: “If that nation I warned repents [like Assyria in Jonah 3] . . . then I will relent.” Conversely, God may tell a nation they will be blessed, but “if it does evil in my sight [like Israel in Micah 1] . . . then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do.”
The bottom line is that God is entirely consistent. In His holiness, God was going to judge Nineveh. However, Nineveh repented and changed its ways. As a result, God, in His holiness, had mercy on Nineveh and spared them. This “change of mind” is entirely consistent with His character. His holiness did not waver one iota.
The fact that God changes His treatment of us in response to our choices has nothing to do with His character. In fact, because God does not change, He must treat the righteous differently from the unrighteous. If someone repents, God consistently forgives; if someone refuses to repent, God consistently judges. He is unchanging in His nature, His plan, and His being. He cannot one day be pleased with the contrite and the next day be angry with the contrite. That would show Him to be mutable and untrustworthy. For God to tell Nineveh, “I’m going to judge you,” and then (after they repent) refuse to judge them may look like God changed His mind. In reality, God was simply staying true to His character. He loves mercy and forgives the penitent. “Has God forgotten to be merciful?” (Psalm 77:9). The answer is, no.
At one time we were all enemies of God due to our sin (Romans 8:7). God warned us of the wages of sin (Romans 6:23) in order to cause us to repent. When we repented and trusted Christ for salvation, God “changed His mind” about us, and now we are no longer enemies but His beloved children (John 1:12). As it would be contrary to God’s character to not punish us had we continued in sin, so it would be contrary to His character to punish us after we repent. Does our change of heart mean that God changes? No, if anything, our salvation points to the fact that God does not change, because had He not saved us for the sake of Christ, He would have acted contrary to His character.