Is God Ever Surprised?
Welcome back to the Ask Pastor John podcast with longtime pastor and author John Piper. A longtime listener to the podcast, Romella, wants confirmation on something that she’s beginning to sense in Scripture. Romella asks, “Hello Pastor John! Is it true that nothing ever takes God by surprise?”
Yes, that is true. God is never surprised. To be surprised you have to be uncertain about what is coming. You have to be ignorant. God is never ignorant about the future or about anything. He is never uncertain about what is coming.
We can know this for at least two reasons. One is that the Bible shows that knowing the future, even the future of human decisions, is part of what it means to be God. And the other is that the Bible shows that God’s foreknowledge is not the knowledge of something different from his will and plan, but that he knows the future because he plans the future. So, let’s look at those one at a time along with passages to support them.
“God knows the future because he planned the future.”
1. Isaiah 41:22–23, God calls the idols to give an account. And he challengers them to show that they are gods. How does he do it? Like this: Announce to us what is coming! “Declare the things to come . . . that we may know that you are gods.” What does that mean? In other words, in God’s mind, the capacity to predict the future belongs to God as God. It was part of his deity to be able to declare things that come afterwards.
He makes the same point in Isaiah 42:8–9. He connects the power to foreknow and divine glory. “I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols. Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them.” So, you see the connection. I am Yahweh, and this is part of my divine glory. Before they spring forth I proclaim them to you. Foreknowledge, knowledge of the future, is part of my glory, he says.
Here it is again in Isaiah 45:21. God throws up the challenge of whether there is any other god besides him. And he does it by asking about their powers to announce the future. “Declare” — he says — “and present your case; let them take counsel together! Who told this long ago? Who declared it of old? Was it not I, the Lord? And there is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me.” So, here it is again. God says that what is at stake in his capacity to announce the future affairs of men and nations — that is a lot of human decision — what is at stake is his divinity, his goodness: I, the Lord. There is no other god besides me. When I predict the future, I show that.
And then this is really important, I think, in settling the issue. Then we see Jesus do the very same thing as God. He connects his foreknowledge — even his knowledge of sinful choices like Judas’s sinful choice and Peter’s sinful choice to deny him — he connects that with his deity (just like Isaiah did with God’s deity) in John 13:19 where he says, at the Last Supper, “I am telling you this now, before it comes to pass” — he is referring to Judas’s betrayal — “that when it does take place you may believe that I am” — period.
“Knowing the future, even the future of human decisions, is part of what it means to be God.”
Now, most of the English translations say, “that I am he,” which is understandable, because it sounds odd to just say, “that you may believe I am.” But that is what the Greek says. And we know where that phrase “I am” comes from. That is a play on the name of God from Exodus 3:14–15, “I am who I am. . . . [Tell them] ‘I am has sent me to you.’” Jesus is claiming to be God, and the basis of it is: I know Judas is going to betray me. This is huge.
The same thing is true of Peter’s denial. Jesus knows precisely who will deny him. He knows how many times he will deny him. He knows when in the morning he will deny him. Same thing with Judas. When, where, why. And he knew this about Judas from the beginning. We know that from John 6:64. When he chose Judas, he knew what he would do.
2. Now, here is the text that connects the prediction of God with the planning or the performing of God: Isaiah 46:9–10. “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me” — now, this is foreknowledge — “declaring the end from the beginning.” So, he declares it. He knows it. And then he goes on, “And from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my good pleasure [or purpose].’”
So, now we get a window on to how God knows the future. He knows it because he plans it and does it. He knows it because he plans it and performs it. Similarly, in Jeremiah 1:12 the Lord said, “I am watching over my word to perform it.” God doesn’t just predict; he does what he predicts. Or Ezekiel 12:25, “For I am the Lord; I will speak the word that I will speak, and it will be performed. . . . I will speak the word and perform it, declares the Lord God.”
“God doesn’t just predict; he does what he predicts.”
In other words, God knows the future, because he performs the future. He is never surprised, because he is not surprised at his own work. Foreknowledge is not an awareness of what the fates will make happen. Foreknowledge is not an awareness of what random chance is going to bring about. Foreknowledge is not an awareness of what ultimate human autonomy is going to produce. There is no fate. There is no random chance. There is no ultimate human autonomy.
What God knows is what God will do. The future is not some kind of freewheeling reality separate from God’s will that he is trying to catch on to and adapt to. He knows the future because he plans the future, and he is never surprised by what he plans.