(See Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 5)
When a person is feeling down, others might say: “He has the weight of the world on his shoulders.” Well, that would be a gross exaggeration, wouldn’t it? But it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that God has the weight of the world on His shoulders.
Almighty God created the heavens, the earth, the sea and all that is in them, from nothing. But He didn’t just plant the universe down somewhere and leave it, like a port-a-cabin. He didn’t drop it off the back of a truck and drive away! No, He continuously upholds the whole universe. He constantly directs the stars in their courses. He unabatedly directs the sea creatures through the channels in the sea. He continually directs the flying creatures – including angelic beings. And He always directs all land creatures, including man. We call this upholding and directing God’s Providence.
The Nature of Province
What does Providence mean? Providence is the care exercised by God over the universe. And it has to do with God’s foresight and care for the future. Providence is one of those Biblical doctrines that brings the Christian comfort. It’s as Calvin says, “…ignorance of providence is the ultimate of all miseries; the highest blessedness lies in the knowledge of it.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1:17:11). It’s a good thing to know that the world isn’t spinning out of control. And it’s a real comfort to know that God has the future in mind.
In Hebrews 1:3 we’re told that God is upholding all things by the “word of His power.” Think about it, in the beginning God spoke, and things that were not – even a whole universe – became things that are.
It says in Hebrews 11:3, “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.” So, God spoke, and in six days the whole universe and everything in it appeared at His Word. And by that same Word He holds it all together, which is to say that everything in the universe is under God’s command. Therefore there is nothing in the universe that does not follow the command of God. (We’ll look at sin and evil in a moment, but for now, let’s acknowledge the fact that everything in the universe is under God’s sovereign control).
The sun, the moon, the stars, the birds, the bees, the trees, the bats, the cats, the rats – all are directed by God’s hand of providence. There’s nothing too big and there’s nothing too small. Blue whales in the sea and grey hairs on your head, all things are at the bidding of His sovereign command. Even the barnacles on the whale or the head lice in your hair are under God’s sovereign control. And all things – even the termites chomping the wooden doorpost in your house work for God. And God is working all things toward a glorious future.
So, God’s care for the present has to do with His care for the future. He cares for the present because He is bringing the present into the future. Everything God does is without error. Unlike you and me, God never makes a mistake. Yet He even uses your mistakes and my mistakes to bring to pass the future He has had in mind from the very beginning.
God knows the end from the beginning, and Providence has to do with God’s foreknowledge. The thing that God has in mind for the future is the thing He has had in mind in eternity past. Everything that is happening in the present is God bringing that future to pass.
If you’re going to bake a cake you don’t start with the finished product, do you? You start with the raw ingredients, but you know what the cake looks like before you begin. You add milk and eggs, and mix the raw ingredients together by stirring for a while. You stick it all in the oven where the heat and the yeast makes it rise. You take it out of the oven when its done – you let it cool – then you enjoy! Well, what’s so mysterious about God’s Providence? God knows what He wants to produce for an end product. So He makes the heavens, the earth, the sea and all that is in them. He adds water, and He stirs it all together. He applies heat and when He is finished He will have what He foresaw He would have. So, when you think about it, just as you use ingredients and utilize chemical reactions in baking a cake, so God also uses means to produce His end product.
We can say that God is the first cause – He spoke the ingredients He needed into being. And we can say that He uses second causes. That is, He uses the different reactions that the different things He has made have against each other.
Some of the kids I went to school with wore hobnail or ‘tackety’ boots. I used to envy them because they could slide on concrete and create sparks. Try doing that with your ‘plimsoles’ and you’ll fall on your face! Well, the Bible says, “Yet man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward” Job 5:7. The sparks begin to fly because there is a frictional reaction going on. Strike a stone with metal and you’ll see shooting stars. And so it is with man in the world. He reacts with his surroundings and the sparks fly. As soon as he is born man is in trouble with God and with God’s creation. For God has cursed the ground on account of man’s rebellion against Him.
Did man bite a stone with metal teeth? He might as well have! Like the clash of opposing sabres, the sparks began to fly when Adam bit into the forbidden fruit. “Yet man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward.”
Yet, God uses this trouble providentially. In fact, God had the Fall of Man in mind when He created mankind. But God did not make Adam sin, because the Bible is clear that God is not the author of sin. However, this is not to say that given the right set of circumstances Adam wouldn’t sin; even though Adam, along with all creation, had been created good by God. For, what happens when you mix yeast with flour dough? It reacts. What happens when you put it into a hot oven? It reacts even more. But it produces the thing you want when it’s all over and done – Bread! Well, it’s the same with creation. God is using all the reactions and inter-reactions between and amongst the things He has made to bring about the finished product He is after.
As a chemist knows what reactions happen when he mixes different chemicals, so God knew what would happen when He put Adam and Eve in His Garden. And He knows what will happen each moment of every day because He is in the midst of the baking process ensuring that everything is going according to His eternal plan. No, God doesn’t make anyone sin. But He has factored sin and all the rest into producing the thing He wants in the end. That’s the nature of Providence. It is God bringing His eternal plan to pass in time.
God is the first cause, but He directs and uses second causes, which is to say that, just as you and I use ingredients to make a cake, so God uses means to bring about the end He’s had in mind from the beginning.
Providence in Nature
Nature is fallen. Sin and evil have entered into creation. How can this be if God is at the helm of creation guiding it home? Well, that’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it?
We’re going to have to say that God permitted the Fall of Man. But, are we going far enough by saying that God merely “permitted” Adam to sin by eating the forbidden fruit? What about what happened before Adam sinned? What about that angel who rebelled against God and became Satan? Did God simply “permit” an angel to become the Devil, along with a bunch of good angels who became demons?
So, what were asking is this: Does God simply “permit” evil as a necessary evil? Or did He bring evil to pass in His creation for a purpose? Therefore, we’re asking: Did God permit evil or did He purpose evil? Well, the logic of man wants to say that God simply “permitted” evil to enter His creation, which is to say that God saw evil as an inevitable entity. So He decided to go ahead anyway, and try to work around it! That, or arguments like that, might be man’s logic, but it’s not what Scripture reveals. The Word of God tells us otherwise. We could multiply verse upon verse that would show that God moves the hearts of men to bring to pass whatever God has purposed.
Ephesians 1:11 says, “In Him [Christ] we have an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will…” So we see that God, by His providence brings to pass all things, (even the Fall of man), according to whatever He has decided upon in eternity past.
Paul says in Galatians 3:22, “But Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” To be “confined under sin” is to be hemmed in together, enclosed, banded together under a bar of disability, to be shut up together. Therefore God has “shut up” all mankind together under sin.
The same word is used in Romans 11:32, “For God has committed them all to disobedience.” Literally it’s, For God has shut up all to disobedience. But the point we are trying to make is that it is God who shuts up man under sin and disobedience. But notice that it is man who sins, not God. Therefore God is not the author of sin. But, nevertheless He does move the hearts of men to do His will. But as James warns, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’, for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone” James 1:13.
So, God moves the hearts of men, but He never tempts them to sin. Yet this is not to say that God does not have men do what He wants them to do, even when they sin! God does the moving, man does the sinning. Therefore, we’re beyond saying God merely permits men to sin. What we’re saying is that God moves men to action. And sometimes that action of men involves sinning. But it is man who sins by his action, and not God by His action.
Keep in mind what we said about mixing chemical ingredients. A little leaven leavens the whole batch, yes? Well, let’s say that the little leaven of evil in creation began with Satan. And let’s say that you then bring Satan up to rub shoulders with mankind, even Adam and Eve. What might happen? Will Adam and Eve leaven Satan or will Satan leaven Man? What does the Bible say elsewhere? “Do not be deceived: ‘Evil company corrupts good habits’” 1 Corinthians 15:33. As you know, Satan deceived Eve who gave her husband the forbidden fruit and he ate.
So, does God sin by having the Devil deceive Eve in order for Adam to eat the forbidden fruit and bring about the Fall of Man? Of course not! You do know that Satan only gets to do what God wants him to do? Just look at Job chapter one if you don’t believe me. In Job 1:8 the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job?” So, the Lord wanted Satan to consider Job. Then it says in Job 1:12, “And the LORD said to Satan, ‘Behold, all that he has is in your power; only do not lay a hand on his person.”
Satan had to get permission from the LORD to do what he did to Job. And what Satan did to Job was exactly what God wanted Satan to do to Job. But was it God or was it Satan who is responsible for Job going through what he went through? Well, we know that Satan has to answer to God for all his sins. God didn’t make Satan destroy Job’s family and goods. And likewise neither did God make Adam eat the forbidden fruit. God holds both Adam and Satan responsible and accountable for their sinful actions in the Fall of man.
And what about the time when king David numbered Judah and Israel? Did God sin because He had David number Judah and Israel? Of course not! Yet it says in 2 Samuel 24:1, “Again the anger of the LORD was aroused against Israel, and He moved David against them to say, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah.’” You know that afterwards David’s heart condemned him. 2 Samuel 24:10 says, “So David said to the LORD, ‘I have sinned greatly in what I have done; but now I pray, O LORD, take away the iniquity of your servant, for I have done foolishly.’”
If you know the story you’ll know that God offered David the choice of one of three punishments. Viz. 1. Seven years famine on the land. 2. David fleeing for three months as his enemies pursued him. 3. Three days plague on the land. David chose the third of his options: Three days plague on the land. Why did he choose that option? Well, he said, “Please let us fall into the hand of the LORD, for His mercies are great; but do not let me fall into the hand of man” 2 Samuel 24:14.
So, we see then that God can bring about anything He wants to bring about. Had David chosen any one of the three options, God would have providentially brought it to pass. So, we see the sovereignty of God in nature, as well as seeing the responsibility of man. David, as all men ought to, trusted in the LORD and His mercies. He did not trust in man.
Now, where does Satan fit into all of this? Well, 2 Samuel 24:1 says that it was the LORD who moved David to number Judah and Israel. But wait a minute! 1 Chronicles 21:1 says, “Now Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel.” So who was it that moved David? Was it the LORD or was it Satan? Well, if you keep Job in mind, you’ll see that the LORD moved Satan to move David to sin. God, the first cause, uses secondary causes or means to bring His eternal plan to pass.
And, meanwhile back in the Garden, who showed up there? Satan! So, God didn’t merely permit the Fall of Man, He purposed it. Without making Satan sin, and without making Adam sin, God brought the Fall of Man to pass, which is to say that the Fall of Man was part of God’s eternal decree or plan. But think about it, if God could create the universe out of nothing, then He can certainly make good out of evil! Yes? In fact Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”
There’s that word “purpose” again. God has a purpose for all things. What is His purpose? Well, He wants to bring good to those who are the called, i.e., His Church, those who love God.
But what about those who don’t love God? Well God uses the same things that soften the hearts of God’s elect to harden the hearts of those who don’t love God. You only have to consider Israel when it was in captivity to Pharaoh in Egypt. You would think that the Ten Plagues would have softened the hardest of hearts, wouldn’t you? But not Pharaoh’s heart! Time after time the LORD clearly demonstrated that He is the Lord of all creation. He providentially brought plague after plague upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians; just as He beforehand said He would. And just when you think Pharaoh is about to fall on his face before God, and worship Him, he hardens his heart against God instead!
What does Paul in Romans 9:17 have to say about this? “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.’”
Here we are three and a half thousand years later still talking about Pharaoh! But notice that God raised Pharaoh up for a purpose. That purpose was that God might demonstrate His power, and also that the name of the Lord might be declared in all the earth. That’s what providence is. It’s God demonstrating His power. And it is about the Lord having His name declared in all the earth.
God does at times leave His children for a time to different temptations and the corruption of their hearts. We’ve seen an example of this with king David. God might do this to chastise us for some former sins. And/or He might also do it to humble us, so that we might learn about the corruption and deceit of our own hearts. He might do this to raise our awareness of our sinfulness and so that we will stick close to Him.
The same things He uses to soften our hearts, He uses to harden the hearts of those who hate Him. One just has to think of the cross to see this illustrated. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” 1 Corinthians 1:18. Gospel preaching hardens the hearts of some, and softens the hearts of others, and it’s all under the providential care of God. For He says in Romans 9:18 that, “…He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.”
Just one last verse to illustrate the providence of God in action, Acts 2:23&24. Speaking of Christ, “Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death, whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it.”
Who crucified Christ? God or lawless men? Lawless men crucified Christ, yet they did so according to the determined purpose of God. They did it according to the foreknowledge of God.
Providence has everything to do with God’s foreknowledge. Adam’s sin has to do with God’s foreknowledge. Christ’s payment for sin has to do with God’s foreknowledge. Christ’s resurrection from the dead has to do with God’s foreknowledge. Where and when you were born and live have to do with God’s foreknowledge. Your being born again and my being born again has to do with God’s foreknowledge.
God has an eternal plan, and He brings that plan to pass by His providential care for His creation. Therefore trust in Him to bring to pass those things He has promised us in His Word. Sleep soundly at night in the knowledge that God is sovereignly working His purposes out. He is doing it continuously moment by moment, day to day, and year to year. It might seem mysterious to us, but He will do what He has promised to do, therefore, trust Him.
As Joshua said to the people of God on his deathbed, “Behold, this day I am going the way of all the earth. And you know in all your hearts and in all your souls that not one thing has failed of all the good things which the LORD your God spoke concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one word of them has failed” Joshua 23:14.