Chapter 5

Chapter 5

1 God, the good Creator of all things,1 in his infinite power and wisdom,2 upholds, directs, organizes and governs3 all creatures and things, from the greatest to the least,4 by his perfectly wise and holy providence,5 to the end for which they were created.6 He governs in accordance with his infallible foreknowledge and the free and immutable counsel of his own will,7 to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, infinite goodness and mercy.8

Divine providence may be defined as the implementation in time of God’s decree that was conceived in eternity. It is a plan that is tied in all its details to the person of Christ, for ‘all things were created by him and for him,’ and ‘in him all things hold together’ (Col 1:16, 17). It is God’s plan for providing what his creatures need to fulfill their role in his world. Because his power is infinite, all is done just as he planned. Because his wisdom is perfect, there are no mistakes, nothing he has not accounted for. By his powerful word he sustains all things, for otherwise they would cease to exist. More, though, is involved in his providence than simply maintaining the world, for he also directs all things towards the ends he has ordained. To insure that they reach those ends he controls all things so that the roll of the dice falls as he has determined (Prov 16:33) and governs all things, even turning the heart of the king wherever he desires (Prov 21:1). While the devastation of a hurricane or the destruction of an invading army may cause us to wonder about God’s plans and purposes, we can rest assured all is working out according to his wise will. We need not fear that the suffering involved is the result of his malice or indifference, for his will is perfectly holy and thus free from all taint of sin. So perfect is his plan and its execution that no natural catastrophe or wicked decision of man ever causes him to have to change it. Some may prefer to believe that the trials and hardships of life are cosmic accidents of life in no way governed by the will of a loving God, but the Christian find great comfort in knowing that the One who has saved him directs the course of everything that happens, and all for the good of those who love him. We cannot always understand his unsearchable judgments and unfathomable ways, but we do believe on the basis of Scripture and personal experience that we can trust that what he does is good and merciful and right. For this reason we should praise him now and most certainly will praise him forever.

2 In relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God who is the first cause, all things occur immutably and infallibly, so that nothing happens to anyone by chance, or outside his providence.9

God does not simply direct the overall course of events in history and leave the details to work themselves out. Even the things we would call chance are directed by his providence. Because he guides all things and decrees how they will happen, all events are unchangeably fixed and will not happen other than as God chooses. When the lot was cast, God knew precisely where each tribe would be located. When Isaiah prophesied about the ruler who would free the Israelites from captivity, there was no doubt, even though it was four hundred years later, that his name would be Cyrus. When the Jews had Jesus nailed to the cross, this was in accordance with God’s set purpose and foreknowledge (Acts 2:23). It is not just the broad principles of the plan, but the details of the plan that God has worked out in his providence.

Yet by his providence he arranges them to occur according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.10

God’s control may be exercised through second causes. (A second cause is an agent that produces a given effect, but is itself the product of some prior cause.) Sometimes these causes are fixed laws, and sometimes they are people. God brings rain to a dry land when moisture from a nearby storm system is introduced by wind currents into the area. He may choose to feed a hungry man by sending someone his way who is moved by compassion to give him something to eat. God may act independently of natural laws and cause the waters of the Red Sea to separate so people can walk through on dry ground or cause Lazarus to rise from the dead. Whether he acts through fixed laws or not though, rain that descends from the cloud produced by evaporation is as much a part of God’s plan and his activity as is the raising of a dead man.

3 God in his ordinary providence makes use of means,11 yet is free to work outside,12 above13 and against14 them at his pleasure.

Ordinarily God makes use of people, physical laws and other such means to achieve the ends he has in mind, and does not intervene directly into the course of history. God ordained that certain laws of nature would be in effect that man could depend on, like the perpetual procession of the seasons of the year and day and night (Gen 8:22). The natural means God uses are so trustworthy that scientists can study them and make use of their constancy. God normally makes use of these means, but is not bound by them. He may choose to heal a man of pneumonia through the use of modern medicines and technology, but he is not limited in his ability to heal by the work of physicians. He may give a drug an power beyond what is expected or even work without the use of medicines in a completely inexplicable manner. He may give a woman the ability to bear children well past the time she should be able to or he may suspend altogether the power of fire to do harm.

Some would argue that if God were truly all-knowing and had planned everything that happened down to the final detail, there would be no need for miracles. By means of his infinite wisdom and power he would simply have created things with the properties necessary to bring about the ends he desired at the proper time. For these people the existence of a miracle is evidence that something went wrong in God’s plan; something took him by surprise so that he had to resort to direct intervention. Our answer to this is simple. God performs miracles because God has a purpose that can be served by that miracle, and that purpose has been revealed. The Bible often calls miracles signs. They are wonders that not only catch our eye and attention, but point us beyond themselves to the existence and character of God. Miracles reveal God in a way that ordinary events do not.

4 The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God, are so far expressed in his providence, that his sovereign purposes extend even to the first fall and all other sinful actions of angels and human beings.15

God’s providential control extends even to the sinful actions of those he has created. If God’s plan included only the good that man accomplished, much would be left out and therefore uncertain. God did not simply hope the greatest evil ever committed by man, the crucifixion of his Son, would come about. He was delivered up for death according to the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God. The Babylonian armies may have had nothing but conquest and plunder on their minds, but they were sent to Israel by the Lord for his own purposes.

This is not merely by a bare permission, for he most wisely and powerfully limits and by other means arranges and governs sinful actions, so that they bring about his own holy purposes.16

Even a godly young man being unfairly sold into slavery was intended to bring about God’s good purpose of saving a nation. Joseph’s case makes it clear for us that more is involved in God’s providence with regards to the evil in the world than simply permitting it to happen. His plan included the wicked acts of these brothers, but he limited their evil by having them sell Joseph rather than kill him. Further, he had them sell Joseph to a band of merchants who were headed for Egypt rather than to one that was headed from Egypt to points east. He governed their evil deeds so that his holy design of preserving his people would be accomplished.

Yet [in all this] the sinfulness of these actions comes entirely from the creature, and not from God, who is altogether holy and righteous neither is he nor can he be the author or approver of sin.17

God’s plan included Joseph being sold into slavery, but according to the Biblical account, the evil of this injustice lay solely with the brothers’ wicked hearts. Though God governs and directs sinful actions, he does so in such a way that the sin proceeds from man, not from him. Though he directs man’s sinfulness, he is neither its author, nor does he approve of it. His revealed will shows us that he hates what is evil and desires that men act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with him.

Some have wondered how God can ordain the sin man commits and not be responsible for it. The answer lies in man’s free will. Reformed theologians do not deny that man acts on the basis of choices that he makes for himself. Despite the charges that predestination makes men puppets or robots, we hold that men act based on their own free will. This is not the Arminian freedom that says men can choose things that are completely contrary to their nature. Rather, we hold a man makes choices that are influenced by his own intellect, limitations of circumstances, parental training and human nature. When he acts though, he chooses for reasons that seem to him at that moment sufficient for his decision. Joseph’s brothers chose to sell him instead of kill him not because they had insight into God’s secret will, but because the money or the accusing conscience or something else made that seem the best choice to them. God providentially delivered Joseph to Egypt, but the evil act that brought them there was the responsibility of the brothers alone.

5 The perfectly wise, righteous, and gracious God often leaves for a time [even] his own children to various temptations, and to the corruption of their own hearts. He does this to chastise them for their former sins, or to show them the hidden strength of the corruption and deceitfulness still in their hearts so that they may be humbled, and to bring them to a closer and more constant dependence on him for their support, and to make them more watchful against future occasions of sin, and for various other just and holy ends.18 So whatever happens to any of his elect it is by his appointment, for his glory and for their good.19

It is not just the evil of the unrighteous, but also the evil of his own people that God directs towards his own holy goals. We might think that it would be best if God were to at the new birth immediately give the believer a perfect will that wanted only what was good. Even here though we see how God works what seems to be a less than perfect situation for his own glory and the good of his people. He uses our fall into temptation to reveal the sinfulness that remains within us so that we might learn to be humble. This humility in turn leads us to remember our constant need for him. In the end, all our sin and the sin of the world, along with the good that God blesses us with is used to bring about good for the elect. What a blessed thought to realize that even our own rebellion, though it breaks our hearts and God’s, will be used ultimately to our advantage. God is indeed most wise and righteous as well as good and gracious.

6 As for those evil and ungodly people whom God as a righteous judge blinds and hardens because of their sins,20 he not only withholds his grace from them by which they might have been enlightened in their understanding and affected in their hearts,21 but sometimes he also withdraws the gifts which they had,22 and exposes them to situations which their corruption makes an occasion for sin.23 Moreover, God gives them over to their own lusts, the temptations of the world, and the power of Satan,24 so that eventually they harden themselves by the very means which God uses for the softening of others.25

God works even through the sins of his people to bring about their good and his glory, but he does not deal in the same way with the sins of the wicked. The grace he grants to the elect by which their eyes are opened to spiritual truth he withholds from these. Their sins do not lead to brokenness and repentance and on to renewal and strength, but rather to deeper blindness and harder hearts. Those who continue in their rebellion come to the place where even the things they once understood to some extent are lost to them. This is but another example of the progression of sin in a man’s life. It is a power that is never content with the destruction and corruption it has caused, but is always seeking to extend itself. Rather than pulling them up out of their willful rebellion, he abandons them to their own natural sinfulness, to the temptations of the world and the power of Satan. The very things that God uses to break the hearts of some only hardens the hearts of others.

7 As the providence of God reaches out in a general way to all creatures, so, in a very special way, it takes care of his church and controls all things for the good of his church.26

Providence, God’s activity in the world that insures his plan will be fulfilled, extends to all his creatures. He controls the rain that falls on the righteous and unrighteous, he orders the seasons, he sets boundaries for the nations as well as the seas, he removes and sets up kings, with and without their consent. This providence though is directed in a special way towards the care of his people. The redemptive purpose of God lies at the very center of world history. “The providential government of God over mankind in general is subordinate as a means to an end to his gracious providence toward his Church, whereby he gathers it out of every people and nation, and makes all things work together for good to those who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28), and of course for the highest development and glory of the whole body. The history of redemption through all its dispensations, Patriarchal, Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Christian, is the key to the philosophy of human history in general. The race is preserved, continents and islands are settled with inhabitants, nations are elevated to empire, philosophy and the practical arts, civilization and liberty are advanced, that the Church, the Lamb’s bride, may be perfected in all her members and adorned for her Husband” (A. A. Hodge). It seems sometimes that the story of the church is hardly more than a small footnote in the great history of the world. Eternity will reveal, however, that the great kings and empires are only footnote to the real story which is concerned with God’s redemption of his people.