On the Historic Baptist Interpretation of Passages About God Repenting
In his work on the decrees of God titled Mountains of Brass, Hercules Collins (1647–1702) addressed the proper interpretation of biblical passages that speak of God repenting. The work containing this interpretation was originally a sermon preached by Collins at the Devonshire Square Baptist Church where his friend William Kiffin served as pastor. Both Kiffin and Collins were original signers of the Second London Confession of Faith in 1689. This view is consistent with the view of divine immutability contained in that confession. This excerpt from Collins’ sermon represents the traditional interpretation of texts in Scripture speaking of God changing His mind.
His decrees are compared to “mountains of brass” (Zech 6:1), which are immoveable, with him is not the least shadow of turning. It is not compatible with him, whose name is Jehovah, to change. If so, the church had been destroyed ere now. It’s not for want of sin in Jacob they are not destroyed, but because he is Jehovah, and changeth not (Mal 3:6). Neither is it possible he should change, because he perfectly foreknows whatever will come to pass. Indeed men who have not that power, do often will and purpose this and that, and change their mind after, not foreseeing the cause of the change; which if they had, would not have willed that which they must undo again, because it’s some dishonor to men to be changeable. But God is not a man, [that] he should repent (Num 23:19). “For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance” (Rom 11:29). When the Scripture speaks about God’s repenting he made man (Gen 6:6), it is not to be understood properly, as if God were capable of repentance, as man is. But it is spoken to our capacity. God is said to repent, when he doth such things as men do when they repent. When God withheld those judgments and effects of his anger he had threatened against Ninevah, he is said to repent. So when God lets out his judgment, the effects of his anger upon the old world, God is said to repent. According to our capacity, and man’s practice, who when he doth repent or a thing, doth shew it by some visible act. It’s because God’s compassions fail not, but are ever the same, that the church is not consumed (Lam 3:22). Though David’s house nor heart was as it should be; yet this was his comfort, God had made with him an everlasting covenant (2 Sam 23:5). God foreknew Israel would be a transgressor from the womb; yet for his name sake would defer his anger, and for the praise of his grace would not cut them off (Is 48:9). God foreknew Peter’s sin, Paul’s sin; yet that hindered them not from being chosen vessels, “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God” (1 Pet 1:1). So that whom he once loves, he must love to the end, because there can be nothing hid from him that might make him change his mind, as it is often with men. So that we may conclude with the apostle, He who hath begun the good work, will finish it (Phil 1:6).
Hercules Collins, Mountains of Brass: Or a Discourse Upon the Decrees of God (London: John Harris, 1690), 12-13.