The question here is being answered because of the issue addressed in our post on the role of prayer as it relates to God’s sovereignty. If there are any questions it might be helpful to read that post first if you have not done so. You can scroll down to find it or click HERE to do so. I would encourage you as you read this post to take it in the light of what we’ve already established concerning the role of prayer in the Christian life. Now, to the question at hand.
I remember distinctly sitting in a pastors kitchen one day and reading a decorative plaque that said, “Prayer changes things.” I think it’s something we can all agree with, right? If you’ve read the previous post you will have noticed that we believe God has ordained the prayers of the saints as a means of accomplishing his purposes on earth throughout history. The question is, “Are we changing God’s mind when we do this?” Well, at CVCC we believe that the Bible teaches this is not the case, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a great question to consider. So let’s look at some passages together.
First, let’s consider the obvious. Does God change his mind?
Numbers 23:19 “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?”
Isaiah 14:24, “The Lord of hosts has sworn: “As I have planned, so shall it be, and as I have purposed, so shall it stand.”
Isaiah 46:8-11, “Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, 9 remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, 10 declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ 11 calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass: I have purposed, and I will do it.”
This is just the tip of the biblical iceberg of texts that could be mentioned. It will suffice to say, it doesn’t seem that prayer changes God’s unseen plans and purposes. But what about the passages in the Bible where God seems to change his mind? What on earth do we do with those?
Take Genesis 6:5 & 6 as an example, “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.”
Was God surprised by this? We know he was not because of passages like I Timothy 1:9, “God has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity.”
So, if the redemption of man was planned from all eternity, i.e., before time began, it’s pretty safe to say God is not sorry, the way we are sorry. When we do something wrong we are full of regret. We are sorry. It’s not the same with God, who does nothing wrong. Rather, we see God sorrowful in order to communicate his personal attitude toward the sinfulness of his creation. It is in the text to show us that God is not indifferent to these situations nor void of justice and compassion, which by the way are themes presented in the subsequent story of Noah and the Ark. e.g., God’s compassion, grace and mercy hand in hand with his justice.
Finally, consider Exodus 32. If there ever was a passage that seems designed (on the surface) to refute what we’ve said thus far it would be Exodus 32. Basically, what’s happened is that Moses has been with God on the mountain while the people of Israel, freshly rescued from Egypt, have already turned to idolatry. God tells Moses what is going on and says, in a nutshell, “I am going down to punish them with the fury of my wrath.” But Moses asks God (prays), “Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people” (v. 12). If you know the story, you know God relents. It seems like Moses changes God’s mind doesn’t it?
Well, I think it’s safe to say that what we’ve established so far proves God does not change his mind when he’s decided to do something. So what’s going on here?
The reality is that Moses is a type, or shadow of Jesus Christ. Moses is a mediator of God for the people. He is interceding for the people and pleading to God for them. Moses later tells the people that, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen” (Deuteronomy 18). John 1 and Acts 3 establish that this prophet is none other than Jesus Christ, the Messiah. The one who would present himself to God on behalf of the people and turn God’s wrath from them and absorb it on the cross. Moses is prefiguring what Christ will do for his people and what he does for his people.
“Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Romans 8:34).
So, do we change God’s mind when we pray? No.
Do the passages that show God grieving or relenting of wrath because of Moses’ prayer prove that God changes his mind? No. Rather they demonstrate God’s wrath against sin and his grace in appointing mediators for his people in order to save them from his wrath.
“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”