What We Believe (6): Providence

This is the sixth in a series of articles on Reformed Doctrine, under the heading, What We Believe. The familiar question-and-answer method is being followed. Rev. Elco H. Oostendorp of Hudsonville, Michigan, deals with “The Doctrine of God” in this first section of the series.

What do we believe about God’s Providence?

This is beautifully confessed in Answer 27 of the Heidelberg Catechism: “Providence is the almighty and ever present power of God by which he upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty–all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand.” This answer indicates that there are two elements in God‘s providential concern for His creation. By His preservation He upholds all things in heaven and earth, and by His government He rules them so that all things are directed to the attainment of His purpose. This answer of the Catechism speaks of providence in a very practical way, and in the context of confession of faith in God as our Father because of Christ His Son (Q. & A. 26) the thought of God upholding and ruling by “His hand” makes what can easily be thought of very abstractly an intensely personal matter. The preserving care of our heavenly Father is a precious aspect of the Christian‘s only comfort in life and in death (A. 1).

What is involved in preservation as an aspect of Gods providence?

When God created the universe He gave His creatures an existence of their own, distinct from that of God Himself. However, the creation does not exist independently from God. Paul says of men, in Acts 17:28, “For in him we live, and move, and have our being,” but this is true of all creatures, each in its own way. This is taught very clearly in the so-called nature psalms, such as 104, 145, 146, 147. “O Jehovah, thou preservest man and beast” (Ps. 36:6). Compare also many passages in the prophets, e.g., Isaiah 40:12–26. God upholds His creatures in different ways; there is an immediate outgoing of divine power by which all things continue to have their being, but God also uses means to sustain His creatures according to their nature. So we also must use the means that He has ordained for us as men, who are intelligent agents under God. The story of Jesus’ temptation by the devil in which He was asked to throw Himself down from the temple trusting to God‘s care, but replied, “Thou shalt not make trial of the Lord thy God,” is but one illustration of this principle in Scripture (Matt. 4:5–7).

What is meant by Gods providential government?

The Bible teaches that God has a plan according to which He is directing all things. The sacred story recorded in the Bible gives us some insights into how the Lord rules events to accomplish His will. From Scripture we learn that this involves all events, including the sins of men and demons. Not only what we consider “big” and important events, but also the most insignificant details are included. Jesus speaks of the hairs of our head all being numbered and that not even a sparrow falls to the ground without the will of the heavenly Father. That the sinful actions of men are also under the control of God is ilIustrated very clearly in the history of Joseph, and we have the key to that history in his word to his brothers (Gen. 50:20), “As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” This is also illustrated in what the prophet says about God’s control of the wicked kings of heathen nations (e.g., Isa. 37:26–27).

Doesn’t Gods control of the sinful actions of men make Him the author of sin?

No. We cannot harmonize the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of men, but it is plainly taught in Scripture that the fact that an event, such as the sin of Joseph‘s brothers, is in God’s plan and overruled by Him for good, does not make man’s action any less Sinful. Men act freely and are therefore responsible for what they do. The fact that Judas would betray the Lord was foretold in the Scriptures, and was a very important part of the plan of salvation, but Jesus plainly held him responsible. Therefore we can never plead the sovereign rule of God as an excuse for our sinful acts. God‘s providence is not fatalism, so that we are like pawns on a cosmic chess board.

Does God work in the wicked and the elect in the same way?

Just as there is a difference between election and reprobation, so also there is a difference in the way God works in people. In Philippians 2:13 Paul says, “God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” This can be said only of those who are working out their salvation (vs. 12), but not of the unsaved. In that sense we can speak of a special providence as reflected also in the language of Jesus, for example, in Matthew 6 and Luke 12. This is also taught by Paul in Romans 8:28, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (RSV).

What is meant by what are sometimes called “special providences”?

People frequently see the hand (finger) of God in unusual events in personal lives or the history of nations, for example, the storm that wrecked the Spanish armada and saved England. There is a real danger that we see the hand of God only in the exception or the favorable. This is closely related to the mater of answered prayers. Answers to prayer do not involve a contradiction to the doctrine of providence; when God sends blessings in answer to our prayers we must believe that those prayers are also included in His plan and are links in the course of events by which He works in our lives.

What are miracles?

The subject of miracles is usually discussed under the providence of God because miracles are supernatural acts of God which seem to disrupt the usual workings of His providence. A good definition of a miracle is found in Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. 618: “A miracle may be defined to be an event, in the external work, brought about by the immediate efficiency, or simple volition of God.” Hodge distinguishes miracles from works of divine saving grace, which are also supernatural, but confined to the inward life of the hearts of men. So for example, the conversion of Saul of Tarsus was a divine work of saving grace, but it was accompanied by miraculous signs, the light from heaven, the voice of Jesus, his blindness and its cure by Anannias. The Christian Reformed Compendium correctly stresses that miracles are performed for the purposes of redemption and revelation. Some of the miracles recorded in Scripture are both redemptive and revelatory (e.g., Jesus’ resurrection, while others are only revelatory or signs pointing to redemption (e.g., making water into wine). In performing miracles God intervenes in the usual order of nature and brings to bear a higher law or power. Belief in the reality of the miracles recorded in Scripture is essential to the Christian faith. Opposition to miracles is not new, although very common today. Hodge writes: “A supernatural event is an event which transcends the power of nature, and which is due to the immediate agency of God. M. Guizot is undoubtedly correct in saying that belief in the supernatural, thus explained, is the great difficulty of the age.” The M. Guizot he refers to was a French writer who wrote in 1861! Faith in a God who can and did work miracles is itself a gift of divine grace (Eph. 2:8); and it is also only by that kind of faith that we can see and trust the hand of our heavenly Father working all things together for our good in His providence.