Learning about God’s providence over my entire life, from before the foundation of the earth, through birth, to second birth, and throughout my life turned my world upside down. When I first became a Calvinist (believing the “Five Points”) my world no longer fit together nice and neat. My future career choice went from accountant to counselor to teacher to pastor. My zeal for Christ cost me many friends. My new theology strained family relationships. And the only thing that gave me confidence and consolation was knowing that God was in control – not just over my salvation, but over every minute detail of my life. All of us know that providence is no mere doctrine, it is our life. It is not just known intellectually, but experientially.
Here in Article 13 of the Belgic Confession we are taught what providence is intellectually and experientially. Here we confess to believe that the God who is our Creator (Art. 12) is also our Father who cares for everything. This providence extends to every atom, corner, and creature in the universe. And because He cares for us especially, we receive great practical benefit from knowing and experiencing this.
The Nature of Providence
Article 13 opens with a brief description of what providence is, saying:
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 will… And therefore we reject that damnable error of the Epicureans, who say that God regards nothing but leaves all things to chance.
To begin with, providence is not fortune or chance. God did not give creation over to wind down according to natural laws outside of His will and concern. Instead, providence is God’s rule and governance of all things in accordance with His will. We see an example of this taught in Hebrews 1:3, which says that the Father made all things through the Son, and by that same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, “upholds the universe by the word of His power.” The words that God spoke in the beginning to create, are the same words that continue to care for creation. Thus God is described in Scripture as our Maker (Psalm 95:6), our Potter (Isaiah. 64:8), and our Knitter (Psalm 139:13).
This is totally contrary to the “damnable error of the Epicureans” mentioned at the end of Article 13. Epicurus (341–270 B.C.) was a Greek philosopher who founded a school of philosophy in Athens that taught that the purpose of life was pleasure – sensual pleasure. And when it came to “god,” he taught that “god,” what he called “the All,” was not concerned with the affairs of men because “he” too was a supreme Epicurean, living in eternal pleasure. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.
The Extent of Providence
Thus, in contrast to Epicureanism, the our Confession summarizes the Scriptures in teaching 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 ordains and executes His work in the most excellent and just manner, even then when devils and wicked men act unjustly.
Beloved, this teaching is so important, so revolutionary, so world-changing to so many people, that the Reformed faith is flourishing in a pleasure-filled place like Southern California. Don’t take this for granted. Treasure it. For most Christians do not hear about this sovereign God in their churches.
We believe that God is absolutely sovereign, as the Psalmist says, “Our God is in the heavens; He does all that He pleases” (Psalm 115:3). And in His sovereignty He has been pleased to ordain everything that comes to pass: “In Him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will (Ephesians 1:11; emphasis mine).
Yet, although He is in control of everything and He ordains everything, we confess that God “neither is the Author of nor can be charged with the sins which are committed.” So while Scripture clearly teaches that God “works all things according to the counsel of His will,” it also clearly teaches that God is not the author of sin or can He be found guilty for sin (e.g., James. 1:13; 1 John 2:16; Acts 4:27–28).
We see this demonstrated most clearly in the death of Christ. In Acts 2:23 we read
this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.
Notice what we learn here. First, Jesus Christ was predestined to die (“the definite plan and foreknowledge of God”). Second, those who killed Jesus Christ are responsible (“you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men”). God predestined the death of Christ, yet man is charged with sin. How can this be? Because sovereignty and providence mean that God ordains not only the end (Christ is killed) but also the means (man naturally is sinful, Jesus incited them to hate Him, there was an ungodly government in Israel in those days, etc.). Thus the Confession says that God’s ordination of all things is done “in the most excellent and just manner, even then when devils and wicked men act unjustly.” This is also echoed by Theodore Beza (1519–1605), who said
Nothing happens by chance, or without a very righteous decree of God (Ephesians 1:11; Matthew 10:29; Proverbs 16:4). Nevertheless, God is not the Author of, or culpable for, any evil which takes place. For His power and goodness are so incomprehensible, that even when, in order to do something, He makes use of the devil or wicked men, whom He then justly punishes, yet He does not fail to decree and to do well and righteously His holy work (Acts 2:23; 4:27; Romans 9:19–20).
Our Attitude to Providence
As with all doctrines in Scripture, we are to respond in a fitting way. When it comes to God’s providence over everything, heaven and hell, sin and salvation, “herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 27), we are to respond in this way:
And as to what He does surpassing human understanding, we will not curiously inquire 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.
Reverence and humility. These are two virtues that we need to cultivate in our flippant, feel-good society – especially amongst professing Christians. We are reminded that “the secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deuteronomy 29:29).
Our Confession follows the classic Protestant distinction, both Lutheran and Reformed, between God hidden and God revealed. There are things that we will never know such as how exactly did God ordain Adam’s fall into sin and why exactly tragedy occurs in our lives. But we do know that what God has done or what He permits is for His glory and our good. We need not inquire into the hidden mind of God, but only to adore His revealed truth to us and our children.
So what comfort does knowing God’s providence give us?
This doctrine gives 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.
Providence is experienced as we are comforted to know that since nothing comes upon us by chance our heavenly Father is always watching “over us with a paternal care” so that not even a hair can fall from our heads without His will, without His knowledge, without His care.
Providence also is experienced as knowing that God is in control gives us something, or someone, in whom to “entirely trust.” He is our Father and we can rely and lean upon Him even more so than our earthly fathers, whether they are good or bad fathers.
The author of our Confession, Guido de Brès, experienced providence in these two ways as well. He was no mere speculative theologian, giving us teaching which he himself had not experienced, but he was intimately acquainted with the Lord’s providence. In a letter dated April 12, 1567, he wrote to his wife from prison, looking at imminent death at the hands of enemies of the Gospel:
My very dear Catherine Ramon, my precious and most loved wife and sister in our Lord Jesus Christ … You know well enough that when you married me, you married a mortal man whose life was not sure for a single minute. Yet it has pleased our good God to give us about seven years together, and five children. If the Lord had wanted us to live together longer, He has the means to make it happen. But it is not His pleasure; so, His will be done and that be sufficient to you. Remember too, that it was not by chance that I fell into the hands of my enemies, but through the providence of my God…My God, You have let me be born at a time and hour determined by You, and through all the time of my life You have preserved and protected me in the face of unimaginable dangers, and You have fully delivered. And now, if that the hour has come in which I must leave this life in order to go to You, Your will be done…Especially forget not the honor which God has shown to you by having given you a man who was not only a minister of the Son of God, but also a man so esteemed and privileged by God that He honored him with the crown of martyrdom. I am joyful and my heart rejoices. I lack nothing in all my troubles. I am filled with the over-flowing riches of my God…I had never thought that God would be so merciful to a poor creature as I am … Adieu, Catherine, my dear good friend … Amen.
Questions for Further Study
1. Can you think of any examples of Epicureans in our day?
2. What is the opposite of providence? (cf. HC 27)
3. How much is controlled by God’s providence? (Ephesians 1:11)
4. Was Adam’s fall predestined?
5. If so, was he responsible for his fall into sin? How about Esau? Pharaoh? Judas?
Rev. Daniel R. Hyde is the Pastor of the Oceanside United Reformed Church in Oceanside, California.
The author suggests the following resources for further study on providence: Paul Helm, The Providence of God (Contours of Christian Theology; Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1994); Thomas Watson, All Things for Good (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, reprinted 1994); and Jerome Zanchius, The Doctrine of Absolute Predestination, trans. Augustus M. Toplady (Grand Rapids: Baker, reprinted 1977).