(A Series of Lessons on the 37 Articles of The Confession of Faith, A Reformed Creed usually called The Belgic Confession.)
Lesson 11 Article XIII
The Providence of God and His Government of All Things
“We believe that the same good God, after He had created all things, did not forsake them or give them up to fortune or chance, but that He rules and governs them according to His holy wiJI, so that nothing happens in this world without His appointment; nevertheless, God neither is the Author of nor can be charged with the sins which are committed. For His power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible that He orders and executes His work in the most excellent and just manner, even then when devils and wicked men act unjustly. And as to what He docs surpassing human understanding, we will not curiously inquire into farther than our capacity will admit of; but with the greatest humility and reverence adore the righteous judgments of God, which are hid from us, contenting ourselves that we are pupils of Christ, to learn only those things which He has revealed to us in His Word, without transgressing these limits.
“This doctrine affords us unspeakable consolation, since we are taught thereby that nothing can befall us by chance, but by the direction of our most gracious and heavenly Father; who watches over us with a paternal care, keeping all creatures so under His power that not a hair of our head (for they are all numbered), nor a sparrow can fall to the ground without the will of our Father, in whom we do entirely trust; being persuaded that He so restrains the devil and all our enemies that without His will and permission they cannot hurt us.
“And therefore we reject that damnable error of the Epicureans, who say that God regards nothing but leaves all things to chance.”
Matthew 10;30; Luke 12:24 (God’s providence is all·comprehensive).
Nehemiah 9:6; Psalm 145:15, 16 (All things are preserved by the providence of God).
Deuteronomy 8:18; Proverbs 21:1 (Cooperation with his rational, moral creatures is a part of God’s providence).
Psalm 47:7, 8; Acts 17:24; Matthew 10:29 (God governs all his creatures).
Psalm 145:17 (God’s providence is perfectly just and holy).
Psalm 104:24; Isaiah 28:29 (God’s providence is wise).
Romans 11:36; Isaiah 63:14 (God controls all things for his own glory).
1. What do we confess in this thirteenth article of our Belgic Confession?
The contents of this article may be summarized as follows:
(a) We believe that all created things are always and absolutely dependent on God for their existence.
(b) We believe that although God rules and governs all things, nevertheless he is not the author of sin.
c) We believe in God even though we are unable to fathom the full depth of his divine ways.
2. What is the relationship between the doctrines of creation and providence?
Creation and providence are closely related because the former explains the origin of all things while the latter explains how and why things continue to exist.
Providence answers the question as to God’s reason or purpose with respect to his creation. It tells us that God is not alone able to bring all things into existence, but that he is also able to uphold and govern his creation so that his purpose shall be preached.
3. What would be the consequences if God would cease to uphold his creation for one minute?
The entire universe, including the human race; would pass out of existence. No trace of it would be left. Only God’s providence sustains the entire created universe from moment to moment.
4. What other, erroneous conceptions are there of the relation of God to his creation?
(a) All things happen by chance. Such an interpretation lies at the basis of such expressions as “luck,” “the breaks,” and so forth. Evidence abounds that men, fearful of the way things might come to pass in their lives, are willing to do all sorts of silly, superstitious things to ward off “bad luck.”
(b) God exercises control over certain things, but not others. The little things he ignores; only in the big things does he take serious interest. Among Christians this kind of attitude often manifests itself in prayer: the larger, more critical situations are brought to God in prayer, while the ordinary, customary things are regarded as within our own power to manage.
(c) Things continue by virtue of an inherent power, sometimes referred to as “Nature,” or “the laws of nature.” Consequently, popular accounts of modern discoveries in the scientific world seldom point to the God whose providential support and control ought to be seen as the very basis for the possibility of such a discovery.
d) God is very wise, so that things happen according to his most excellent foresight. God knows enough to read the future. The Confession states correctly that “nothing happens in this world without his appointment.”
(e) The fatalist ascribes all things to a blind, arbitrary power or principle. The “What can you do about it?” or “You have to take things the way they come” attitudes are expressions of this kind of philosophy.
(f) There are those who believe that things as they happen reveal a struggle between competing powers, Good and Evil. The bad things in life are due to the power of Evil, and the pleasurable things happen through the agency of the Good power.
5. Which religious systems often underlie these erroneous views of the relation between God and his creation?
Deism and Pantheism. Deism holds that God created the world in the first place and then left it to work out its own destiny. For the deist God is like a clockmaker, designing and making the watch, winding it up, and letting it run down on its own power. Pantheism identifies God with the world, maintaining that God and the world are apparently and essentially one. “God” is the ocean, while the creature is like the drops of water which make up the ocean.
6. What do believers in the biblical doctrine of providence say to all these things?
First of all, we affirm that God is both transcendent, that is, far exalted above the creature, and imminent, that is, he is present in every part of space with his whole being. As such, God is a living God, active in history and concerned with the working of his creation. Nothing comes about, therefore, by mere chance. On the contrary, as this thirteenth article affirms, “God, after he had created all things, did not forsake them or give them up to fortune or chance.” Not some things, say the more important, are under his direction, but rather “nothing happens in this world without his appointment.” We confess, therefore, that this world is in all its operations strictly under the all-comprehensive providence of God.
7. What important and popular organizations today base their teachings and practices on a false conception of the relationship of God and the universe?
The Freemasons, many other “fraternal orders” and certain of the so-called “service-clubs” which speak of God as “the Grand Architect of the Universe,” or, strangely enough, refer to him as “Providence,” meaning that God is a loving being not too much concerned with us, nor too deeply offended with our sins, and certainly very much pleased with our token charities. Christian people ought not to join any such organization carelessly, even though pious expressions and philanthropic purposes are much in evidence. The Christian must hear in mind that he holds to the biblical idea of God, and that he may not compromise himself in order to fraternize with them to whom he is rather called to bear witness concerning the light which he enjoys.
8. Are even the sinful acts of men under the control of God’s providence?
Yes. Proof for this can be found in Acts 2:22. 23. where we read: “Ye men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God unto you by mighty works and wonders and signs which God did by him in the midst of you, even as ye yourselves know; him, being delivered up by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye by the hand of lawless men did crucify and slay…” In this text Peter declares plainly that the crucifixion of Christ, than which there is no more horrible sin, was nevertheless under the control of God’s providence.
9. But if God’s providence controls all men’s actions, good or evil, are men responsible for what they do?
Yes, men are responsible creatures even though they are governed by an all-comprehensive providence. God never controls the acts of human beings by forcing them to do something against their will. God rather so orders the circumstances and the conditions in the lives of men that, consistent with their own moral nature, without constraint, they always do exactly what God has foreordained. Therefore “God neither is the Author of nor can be charged with the sins which are committed,” since his decree concerning the sinful act is always in harmony with the self-imposed sinful nature of the creature who performs the act, so that the creature remains forever responsible.
10. But doesn’t it seem impossible that God should rule all things, including the actions of wicked men, and yet not be the author of sin?
The Belgic Confession is very frank on this matter. It teaches plainly that the doctrine of providence is to be appropriated by faith. It emphasizes the fact that creatures are always obliged to recognize that they have a limited capacity with which to understand the things of God. It is certainly true that we cannot understand fully God’s wonder-work of providence. But that is not due to the fact that providence is an unreasonable doctrine, but rather to the fact that God is Sovereign Creator, and we are creatures.
11. What very prevalent sin is indicated in this article of our Belgic Confession?
The sin of pride in which the creature seeks to inquire curiously into that which he has no right to expect to know. It is always the duty of a creature to be humble and reverent. And although this may seem to be the end of all advance in knowledge and understanding of God and the universe, actually this piety is the only basis upon which we can really expect to know anything at all. Therefore this article insists that we be “pupils of Christ,” for unless we obediently follow him, we are not going to find the real meaning of things. For he is the mediator of revelation; following hi m we come to see the fulness of the revealed meaning of things as created and upheld by that Creator who is at once the Covenant Jehovah. Let us, then, follow the urging of the Confession as it calls us to “adore the righteous judgments of” that God who orders and executes his work in the most excellent and just manner, even then when devils and wicked men act unjustly.”
12. What advantage is it for us to believe this?
This article of faith is of inestimable comfort for the child of God, since by it we are taught that nothing can overcome us by chance. Only that which is appointed by our Heavenly Father shall ever come to pass. Therefore we may be “patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and with a view to the future may have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that no creature shall separate us from his love, since all creatures are so in his hand that without his wilt they cannot so much as move” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 10, q. 28). This means that as Christians we ought never to be influenced by circumstances or crises to do anything contrary to his will. It is our duty to act so as to show others that we really believe in the God of an all-controlling providence, who “so restrains the devil and all our enemies that without his will and permission they cannot hurt us.”
The Creation and Fall of Man. and His Incapacity To Perform What Is Truly Good
We believe that God. created man out of the dust of the earth, and made and formed him after His own image and likeness, good, righteous, and holy, capable in all things to will agreeably to the will of God. But being in honor, he understood it not, neither knew his excellency, but willfully subjected himself to sin and consequently to death and the curse, giving ear to the words of the devil. For the commandment of life, which he had received, he transgressed; and by sin separated himself from God who was his true life; having corrupted his whole nature; whereby he made himself liable to corporal and spiritual death. And being thus become wicked, perverse, and corrupt in all his ways, he has lost all his excellent gifts which he had received from God, and retained only small remains thereof, which, however, are sufficient to leave man without excuse; for all the light which is in us is changed into darkness, as the Scriptures teach us, saying: The light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness apprehended it not; where St. John calls men darkness.
Therefore we reject all that is taught repugnant to this concerning the free will of man, since man is but a slave to sin, and can receive nothing, except it have been given him from heaven. For who may presume to boast that he of himself can do any good, since Christ says: No man can come to me, except the Father that sent me draw him? Who will glory in his own will, who understands that the mind of the flesh is enmity against God? Who can speak of his knowledge, since the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God? In short, who dare suggest any thought, since he knows that we are not sufficient of ourselves to account anything as of ourselves. but that our sufficiency is of God? And therefore what the apostle says ought justly to be held sure and firm, that God worketh in us both to will and to work, for his good pleasure.
For there is no understanding nor will conformable to the divine understanding and will but what Christ has wrought in man; which He teaches us, when He says: A part from me he can do nothing.
Genesis 1:27; 2:7; Isaiah 43:7 (The creation of man).
Genesis 5:1, 2a; 9:6; I Corinthians 11:7; James 3:9 (Man was created in the image of God ).
Genesis 3; Romans 5:12:19; II Corinthians 11:3 (The fall of man into sin).
Jeremiah 17:9; Matthew 5:19, 20; Romans 7:18; 8:7 (The corruption of man resulting from the fall).
1. What are the contents of our Confession in this fourteenth article?
We may summarize this article as follows:
(a) We believe that God created man good and after his own image.
(b) We believe that the sin of mankind stems from the fall of Adam and Eve in Paradise.
(c) We believe that fallen mankind is enslaved to sin and in desperate need of grace through Christ.
2. How can we describe God’s provision for man in Paradise?
We may consider question and answer 20 of the Westminster Larger Catechism as a very good summary of man’s estate in Paradise. It reads: “What was the providence of God toward man in the estate in which he was created?
Answer: The providence of God toward man in the estate in which he was created, was the placing him in paradise, appointing him to dress it, giving him liberty to eat of the fruit of the earth; putting the creatures under his dominion, and ordaining marriage for his help; affording him communion with himself; instituting the sabbath; entering into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience, of which the tree of life was a pledge; and for bidding to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon the pain of death.”
3. What is the Significance of the statement: “God created man out of the dust of the earth?”
First of all, it indicates the never-to-be-forgotten fact that man is a creature, and as such different than and subject to his God. Man is not “God in miniature,” nor a “splinter of the divine,” but a creature always dependent upon his Creator. Second, man created out of the dust of the earth is closely related to the created world. As the crown-bearer of creation he was given the task to subject the world to himself and to produce out of it its inherent treasure, in order that he might lay it in homage before his Creator-Lord. To this task man comes not as a stranger, but as a part of that creation which he is under God to develop.
4. What errors must be avoided when we confess that mankind was created after God’s own image and likeness?
We must not (a) think that the image of God consists in a physical resemblance to God. God is a pure spirit and has no body. Therefore such an idea is entirely impossible. (b) We must not identify the likeness with the essence. One of the most serious sins is that pride which would elevate man to the level of God. Man is merely image-bearer, not God himself, much as he might try to convince himself that he is actually God. (c) We must remember that man was made in the image of the Triune God, and not in the image of God’s Son alone. That is why we read in Genesis 1:26, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” According to this view Christ came in order to resolve the great contrasts between eternity and time, finity and infinity, etc. Truth is that Christ came not to resolve contrasting things of that sort but rather to pay the penalty for sin.
5. What does the “image of God” involve?
We must never forget in this connection that man was created to fill a certain office, according to which he would enjoy the Covenant friendship of Jehovah as a devoted and privileged servant. God endowed him therefore with those capacities which would make possible such lofty service. Man possessed originally a true knowledge of God, so that he could interpret all things, “thinking God’s thoughts after him”; he was also endowed with true righteousness, so that he was in perfect harmony with God’s will and rule; and he was holy, that is, perfectly devoted and consecrated to God. The Confession states very plainly that man was made “after His own image and likeness, good, righteous and holy, capable in all things to will agreeably to the will of God.” Man was so made as to be able to do that for which he had been designed. Having a perfect heart, he was able to will the good, to desire to do God’s will in his life. As such his “excellency” was that he was image-bearer of God, sustaining a covenant relationship to God in which it was his calling to serve Jehovah out of love for him as his most intimate friend.
6. Was man absolutely perfect at the time of his creation?
No, he was “subject to fall” (Westminster Larger Catechism, ans.17). Therefore man at the creation did not know the highest possible perfection. The redeemed, elect race in Christ is not subject to fall, since it is linked with the “second Adam” who is the Lord out of heaven.
7. What does the Bible tell us about the origin of evil in the human race?
The information given by the Bible on this matter may be summarized as follows:
(a) Adam and Eve, our first parents, were sinless as they came from the hand of God.
(b) It was from an outside source that sin entered the human race, our first parents having given ear “to the words of the devil.”
(c) Satan tempted Eve with something that was in itself good (cf. Genesis 3:6), but which she sought to obtain in the way of disobedience to God.
(d) Adam fell through the instigation of Eve, who had already sinned.
(e) Immediately after yielding to the devil and to sin, Adam and Eve reveal that they no longer are in fellowship with God, and they seek to hide themselves from him.
8. Did mankind lose the image of God entirely through the fall?
No. “Small remains thereof” sufficient “to leave man without excuse” remain. These remains of the image of God man uses for sinful purposes, since he is no longer willing to serve God and since he is a willing slave of the devil.
9. How does this fourteenth article of the Belgic Confession describe the fall?
First, Adam and Eve listened to the words of the devil. They ought never to have admitted these words into their hearts without first subjecting them to the only standard of truth, the Word of God. Second, our first parents “being in honor…understood it not, neither knew” their excellency. This means that they failed to realize that they already possessed the highest possible good, and that the devil could not possibly give them something better. Third, the Confession declares that this sin was not an accident nor something which resulted because of man’s ignorance, but that our first parents “willfully subjected” themselves to sin, transgressing “the commandment of life.” Adam and Eve sinned in fullest responsibility, since now they had come to love Satan’s lie, namely, that God is not the highest good.
10. What was the result of the fall for mankind?
In a single word, death. By sin man became separated from God, “who was his true life.” Man lost, therefore, those gifts which made him to excel as God’s friend servant, retaining only small fragments thereof. Oh, the misery that has come to pass as a result of man’s fall into sin! And sad it is that men are concerned with the consequences of sin, the misery of sickness and calamity and death, but have no use for God against whom they sin , and whose grace in Christ is the only remedy for sin.
11. To what position does this article call us as a conclusion to its statement of man’s fall into sin?
It declares that “we reject all that is taught repugnant to this concerning the free will of man.” In a beautiful paragraph, worthy of memorization by every true, Reformed child of God, the Confession emphasizes that we are saved by grace oIlly through Christ, and that not one bit of our salvation can in any sense originate with us. Reformed Christians reject therefore every form of doctrine which seeks to make man capable of some act whereby he secures for himself salvation. It seems that in our day many nominally Reformed Christians find it impossible honestly and fearlessly to “reject” such doctrines.
12. But must we reject the teaching of those who fail to preach salvation by the grace of God alone?
Yes, it is absolutely necessary to reject without reservation such teachings. The reason is this: If we at any point allow the entrance of something other than man’s total inability to do any good apart from grace in Christ. we therefore alter the entire system of biblical truth. One cannot deviate at this point without involving himself in serious alterations of biblical truth all down the line. God is one, and his truth is one, that is, it is a consistent unity, with all the parts fitting beautifully into a single pattern. Let us pray fervently for grace that we as Reformed Christians may be found worthy of the glorious confession : By grace alone!