Christians sometime say that God is a “God of second chances.” Where did this saying come from, and what does it mean?
Christians have a wide variety of names and epithets for God. Some of these names come directly from the Bible, such as Father (or Abba), the King of Kings, Jehovah Rapha (“the God Who Heals”), and Emmanuel. Other names for God were coined in modern times, such as “the man upstairs” and “the God of second chances.”
Based on my research, the expressions “the God of second chances”and “the God of a second chance” have been in regular use in Christian circles only since the 1970s and 1980s. I think it’s likely that Richard Robert’s memoir He’s the God of a Second Chance published in 1985 was the book that began to propel this term into popularity in Christian circles. Richard Roberts is the son of Oral Roberts, so his book, its message, and its title all carried a great deal of influence.
Here are some details about how I researched the history of this term. One of the quickest and easiest ways to track the popularity of a Christianese word or phrase over time is to see how often it appears in the titles of Christian books. I searched several online library catalogs to find book titles containing either of the expressions “God of second chances” or “God of a second chance,” and I discovered that the number of book titles with these phrases has been going up from decade to decade. Here are several of those titles, grouped by decade:
- He’s the God of a Second Chance by Richard Roberts (1985)
- Jonah: Meeting the God of the Second Chance by O.S. Hawkins (1990)
- The God of Second Chances by Don Baker (1991)
- The God of a Second Chance: A Backslidden Preacher Finds New Hope by Oliver Phillips (1996)
- Surprised by God: Experiencing Grace from the God of Second Chances by Stephen Arterburn (1997)
- The God of Second Chances: Stories of Lives Transformed by Faith by Marcia Nelson (2001)
- The God of the Second Chance: Starting Fresh with God’s Forgiveness by Greg Laurie (2002)
- Discovering the God of Second Chances: Jonah, Joel, Amos, Obadiah by Kay Arthur and Pete De Lacy (2005)
- The God of Second Chances by Erik Kolbell (2008)
- The God of Second Chances: A True Life Story by Kathy Ashdown (2010)
These book title results suggest two things to me: First, the expression “God of second chances” has been increasing in popularity and is probably on its way to becoming a well-known Christianese term. And second, authors and publishers apparently think that potential readers will find the term “the God of second chances” attractive and engaging, so therefore they are using this Christianese expression in some of their book titles. They’re probably right about that. It doesn’t take the wisdom of Solomon to understand that there is a large demographic of Christians and even non-Christians who are interested in learning about what God has available for people who have faced major setbacks and need the kind of a miracle that only God can provide.
Another method I used to research the history of the term “the God of second chances” was Google’s free Ngram Viewer tool, which can produce graphs showing the relative popularity of words and phrases that have appeared in published books. As the graph below illustrates, the phrase “God of second chances” is currently the most popular form of the saying (at least as of the year 2000), and this phrase began to appear in books around 1980 and has increased rapidly in use since then. The variant form “God of the second chance” began to appear with some regularity in the 1970s, and although it too rose in popularity in the 1970s and 1980s, it is used only about half as often as the primary form “God of second chances.” Coming in a distant third, the phrase “God of a second chance” has seen some increase in use since the 1980s, but it still isn’t nearly as popular as the first two variations. (See this graph live on the Ngram Viewer website!)
Even though these terms have increased in popularity over the past few decades, there are nevertheless some Christians who criticize the use of the term “God of second chances” on theological grounds. In 2015 Aaron Wilson came out with his book God Is Not a God of Second Chances: And Other Good News from the Gospel, and in 2016 Wilson wrote an article on The Gospel Coalition website reiterating his concerns about this term.
Critics of the saying “God of second chances” often argue that “second chances” isn’t what the gospel message is primarily about. I’ll explain what they mean by using the biblical analogy of running a race (1 Corinthians 9:24, 2 Timothy 4:7). Imagine that living out the Christian life is like running a race. Christians begin at the starting line, and when they sin they move backwards (i.e., farther away from the finish line). If you sin enough, you can even find yourself quite some ways behind the starting line! But when Christians do the things they’re supposed to do (loving God, loving others, sharing the Gospel, helping the needy), they move forward (closer to the finish line). According to this analogy, when our sins cause us to move backward behind the starting line, God forgives us and puts us back on the starting line so we can attempt the race again with a clean slate. It’s a persuasive metaphor, right?
But what the critics point out is that Jesus died not just so that we can restart our race anytime we sin ourselves into a negative position. To continue using the race analogy, God doesn’t just restore our position at the starting line—God actually places us at the finish line. In other words, Christians finish the race not through our own repeated efforts to run the race but by the grace of God through the power of the cross.
So is the Christianese term “the God of second chances” worth using? I think it is. Like many Christianese words and phrases, they can be useful in some conversations and not others. To someone who is hurting or is in need of a reminder about God’s grace, saying that God gives second chances can be a welcome reminder of God’s love and grace. But in a conversation about heavy theology, then simplistic concepts like “second chances” will probably have to give way to more precise metaphors and analogies.