If We Repent, He Will Relent

In Jeremiah 18, God sends the prophet to a potter’s house.  When Jeremiah arrived, the potter was at his wheel refashioning a ruined piece of clay into a useful vessel.  The potter and his clay are analogous to God and His people, says the Lord.  “Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does?” asks Jehovah.  He goes on, “Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel” (verse 6). However, this analogy differs from conventional views of divine sovereignty.  God describes Himself in much more flexible terms.  “At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it” (verse 8).  Like the potter who altered his original intention in response to the clay, so God demonstrates His willingness to shift His designs in response to human repentance.  He continues in verse 9, “Or at another moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to build up or to plant it; if it does evil in My sight by not obeying My voice, then I will think better of the good with which I had promised to bless it.”  The message is simple:  God withholds destruction from the penitent, but withholds good from those who rebel against His grace.  Although God is sovereign, He allows human obedience and disobedience – our free will – to affect the ultimate outcome.

“So now then,” He says to Jeremiah in verse 11, “speak to the men of Judah and against the inhabitants of Jerusalem saying, ‘Thus says the Lord, “Behold, I am fashioning calamity against you and devising a plan against you.  Oh turn back each of you from his evil way, and reform your ways and your deeds.” ’ ” God stated in verse 8 that sometimes He intends to destroy, to uproot, or to pull down a nation.  In this case, He directs His retribution against Judah.  However, God would relent should Judah repent:  “if that nation which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it” (verse 8).  The choice is simple:  repent or perish.

What makes God’s will on these matters difficult to understand is what He predicts in verse 12:  “But they will say, ‘It’s hopeless!  For we are going to follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart.’ ” This statement exposes the natural tension between human free will and divine sovereignty.  God is willing to alter His course in response to human obedience and disobedience.  His pleas in both verses 8 and 11 express that willingness to Judah.  However, He knows the outcome even as He pleas for reconciliation:  Judah will not repent due to their hardness of heart.  Has God sealed Judah’s fate?  Is Judah’s destiny fixed regardless of human response?

Determining an outcome and foreseeing an outcome differ from one another.  The weather forecaster who weighs all of the variables involved and accurately predicts 10 inches of snow in two days does not make it snow 10 inches in two days.  The parent who carefully observes the conduct of his or her children and by way of experience is able to predict their conduct does not cause their child to act.  In Jeremiah 17, God says, “I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds” (verse 9).  God took into account the hearts of Judah and realized that the people would not repent despite His most fervent pleas.  God’s sovereignty did not solidify His course.  As He stated in verses 8-10, He was willing to adapt to changes of heart.  The stubborn hearts of men sealed Judah’s fate.  “For My people have forgotten Me,” mourns God in verse 15.  “They burn incense to worthless gods and they have stumbled from their ways, from the ancient paths, to walk in bypaths, not a highway.”

Jeremiah 18 is a helpful passage for the follower of Jesus.  Jeremiah 18 teaches us that God is indeed longsuffering toward man.  Jeremiah prophesied in the waning days of Judah and witnessed the final destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.  And yet, God pled with His people even in that late hour.  God is not willing for any to perish.  Jeremiah 18 reminds us that our hearts must turn to God.  Habitual sin hardens our hearts, it sears our conscious, making it nearly impossible to turn that heart back to the Lord.  But above all, Jeremiah 18 shows us the true measure of God’s sovereignty.  He does not impose His will upon the inferior.  Our destiny is not fixed by some arbitrary choice.  On the contrary, God allows human free will a place in His plans.  If we repent He is willing to relent.  Our fate is far from sealed.  While the world spins and we breathe, there is hope.

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Wade Stanley Written by:


  1. Tom
    January 15, 2014

    The context of Jeremiah is critical – First of all, God is not talking about individuals, He is speaking of a nation: “O house of Israel” and in verse 9, “speak concerning a nation.” So many of the passages about God’s sovereignty are dealing with nations, not individuals. In Paul’s comments in Romans about Jacob and Esau, he is talking about nations, not Jacob and Esau as individuals. Even when Rebekkah was expecting the twin boys, God referred to them as ‘nations’ (Genesis 25:23). God had already told the nation of Israel at Mt. Sinai hundreds of years earlier that great blessings would come their way if they kept His commandments. But if they disobeyed, they would be punished and taken captive far away from the land God gave them. Jeremiah is speaking to a people who do not want to accept the divine judgment of captivity and think that God is unfair. God had warned them beforehand what would happen if they forgot God and now it was coming to pass in spite of the many false prophets who preached a more ‘positive’ message in Jeremiah’s day.
    It seems to be much harder for a nation to turn back to God than it is for individuals. We are not very encouraged about the future of our nation when we see how much she has been following the example of Sodom. But as individuals, there is still hope for all of us and if we repent of our sins, God will certainly relent and receive us as His Own.

  2. January 15, 2014

    @Tom Thanks Tom, that’s an important clarification. When God sets up the analogy, He directs His comments to the House of Israel: “Can I not, O House of Israel, deal with you as this potter does?” Views of God’s sovereignty are often skewed by a failure to distinguish between nations and individuals.

  3. Craig H
    January 17, 2014

    As you point out, we have a loving, gracious God and a Savior Jesus Christ. His attitude towards us is clear and explained in 2 Peter 3:9 ” The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” We should consider the lengths that the Father has gone to in providing us a path to eternal salvation, yet too often Christians focus on the wrath of God and encourage Christian to question the truth of His promise and the Hope that He has given as a gift.
    Mature Christians should assist those who are weaker in faith to understand the true characteristics of the Father and our Savior. A verse that is often memorized in word but too often overlooked in meaning comes from Hebrews: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6). The teaching (and Good News teaching it is) is that 1) we must have faith to please him and 2) that faith MUST include that we believe that he exists AND that he rewards those that “earnestly” or “diligently” seek him.

    Those without Christ in their lives that have not submitted in obedience to the Gospel are in grave danger of being eternally lost, yet God desires their obedience and subsequent salvation. For those of us that have been immersed and are living a new life in Him, we must trust the Savior and relish the hope we have been given as a gift and a helmet.

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