In previous parts of God’s Sovereignty and Prayer, I have argued that God does not change his mind on some things (e.g., his promises), but that he does change his intended actions based on the prayers and response of people. If this is true, then it raises the issue of God’s immutability. If God’s decisions can change, as Scripture suggests, does that mean God changes? Does God’s “change of mind” in response to prayer constitute a change in God?
Some have answered these questions by suggesting that passages which talk of a change of God’s mind should not be taken literally. For instance, talk of God changing his mind is anthropomorphic language. The fear seems to be that if God can change his mind, this must mean God himself changes. Does God changing his mind constitute an actual change in God?
What does Scripture say about God’s immutability?
In Scripture God declares, “I the LORD do not change therefore you are not destroyed” (Mal 3:6). In this verse, God declares his faithfulness to Israel. This is similar to God not changing his mind with regard to his promises (see above). Because God is trustworthy and faithful, his people still exist.
Another verse is Heb 13:8: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” In this case, the writer of Hebrews is concerned with the doctrine of Christ. This is clear by the context. The preceding verse asks the readers to consider the faith and life of those who went before them and taught them the word of God. The next verse warns the readers not to be carried away by strange teaching. The writer is concerned that the people remain true to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a Gospel that does not change.
James writes, “Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (Jas 1:16-17). Here, James speaks of the goodness of God that does not change. “God, whose benevolent character is unchanging and unchangeable, is the source of everything that is good” (Mood, James, 74).
God’s character does not change. He is “the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Likewise, God’s eternal purposes do not change. However, within God’s eternal purposes there is room for a variety of actions. For example, Christ will return (unchangeable purpose of God), but when Christ returns is affected by prayer (see below).
God’s Actions May Change Based on People’s Response
This understanding of a certain amount of leeway within God’s eternal purposes is borne out in the many “if” statements of Scripture. As quoted above, God says, “If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray . . .” God told Jeremiah to go to the potter’s house to learn a lesson: if God has determined disaster on a nation and that nation repents, God will withhold judgment; conversely, if God determines to bless a nation and that nation turns from him and continues in sin, God will bring punishment instead of blessing (Jer 18:1-10).
In all these examples, God’s actions change based on the people’s response, but God’s character remains the same. God remains just, loving, and omnipotent. What changes is God’s response. In fact, if God’s response did not change, one might question those very characteristics of God. If God did not forgive those who repented, one might question his love. If God did not punish those who act wickedly, even if they were formerly righteous, one might question God’s justice. So it is proper to acknowledge that God changes some of his intentions and actions based on the response of people. He himself claims to do so. If God changes his intentions and actions based on the response of people, it follows that the prayers of God’s people may indeed affect the actions of God.
In all this, accepting that God changes his mind does not contradict Scripture nor does it attack the doctrine of the immutability of God. Rather, it clarifies the doctrine of the immutability of God. “God’s nature does not change, but God can change in his thoughts, will, and emotions. . . Christianity does not require an absolutely immutable God, one who cannot change in any respect—it only requires a faithful God” (Hall and Sanders, Does God Have a Future, 78). Grudem rightly observes that in speaking of God’s immutability, “God is unchanging in his being, perfections, purposes, and promises, yet God does act and feel emotions, and he acts and feels differently in response to different situations” (Bible Doctrine, 73).
A further observation should be made. Although the promises of God and certain pronouncements of God are unalterable, Scripture suggests they can still be affected by prayer. According to Scripture, prayer can affect the timing of God’s actions. One example of this is the coming of God’s kingdom. Scripture is clear that God’s kingdom will come (Dan 7:27). This is an unalterable fact proclaimed by God. However, Jesus tells his followers to pray that the kingdom will come (Matt 6:10). Why prayer for something that God has already determined will happen? Surely the idea is that the prayer for the kingdom to come affects when it comes. This idea of prayer affecting the coming of the kingdom in its fullness may be behind Peter’s call to “speed” the coming of the day of God (2 Pet 3:12) and Paul’s prayer of “maranatha” (1 Cor 16:22 KJV).
Is Prayer Effective?
So is prayer effective? First, God is in complete control of all things, including prayer. God’s people cannot make God do anything. Some things God decrees will not change, regardless of prayer. However, God is in relationship with his people and invites them to work with him in accomplishing his purposes in the world. Prayer is one of the ways God’s people work together with God. God will change his mind on some things because his people ask him. Also, God has given his people authority to represent him on earth. This means that his power stands behind the prayers of his people when they rightly reflect his will.
Although God may change his mind because of people’s prayer, this does not constitute an actual change in God. God’s character remains steadfast. He can be trusted to always be holy, just, and loving. God does, however, alter his actions based on the responses of people, including prayer. Once again, God is in relationship with his people.