Thursday, January 12, 2012
The doctrine of divine providence is closely linked with God’s sovereignty; it is however, not synonymous with sovereignty. It is equally true that providence concerns God’s governing of all things, yet it is not the same as his eternal decree. In providing a working definition, then, it is wise to consider God’s providence as the outworking of his eternal decree, through which he governs all things toward one ultimate end, namely, the praise of the glory of his grace. This is a loaded definition. A thorough discussion is necessary in order to justify the definition and give support through Scripture.
Providence is understood to be the governing aspect of the outworking of God’s wise, free, and holy decrees. The Puritan writer John Flavel said concerning providence,
“There is a twofold consideration of providence, according to its twofold object and manner of dispensation; the one in general, exercised about all creatures, rational and irrational, animate and inanimate; the other special and peculiar. Christ has a universal empire over all things (Eph 1:22); He is the head of the whole world by way of dominion, but a head to the church by way of union and special influence (John 17:2). He is the ‘Savior of all men, specially of those that believe’ (1 Tim 4:10). The Church is His special care and charge. He rules the world for its good, as a head consulting the welfare of the body.”#
The quote has been provided for two reasons, namely, it gives a conceptual understanding of the doctrine as well as a distinction in the “type” of providence.#
Concerning the conceptual aspect, the idea of ruling the world is what must be understood if a biblical reality of providence is ever to be communicated properly. It is not enough, however, to state that God rules the world; it must also be conceded that He only does that in one way, specifically, for its good.
Secondly, concerning the “type” of providence. God works all things according to his eternal and immutable decrees. This statement suggests that God is at work in all the universe. From the burning of the sun to the hair that falls to the ground. There is a general working of this providence (say, type a), and there is a special working of this same providence (type b). The special providence concerns redemptive history, salvation of the elect,# and the special care given to Israel and the Church. From this it is possible to move toward another aspect of the doctrine of providence which concerns God’s eternal decree.
God’s Eternal Decree
God, in his wisdom, has purposed and designed everything to work according to the council of His will. A fitting passage is found in the book of Ephesians. Paul says, “In Him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the council of His will (Eph 1:11).# Concerning the decrees of God, the Westminster Confession wisely says, “God’s decrees are the wise, free, and holy acts of the counsel of his will, whereby, from all eternity, he hath, for his own glory, unchangeably foreordained whatsoever comes to pass in time, especially concerning angels and men.”# This affirmation by the Westminster divines is a remarkably biblical statement. It is simply another way of affirming the text quoted above, he “works all things according to the council of his will.”
Moreover, it seems there is an over-arching and ultimate decree of God which is foundational to the most basic theological study in relation to providence. People often speak of “the decrees of God” in the plural which, at face value, appears appropriate, but left alone would not do justice to the biblical text. For Paul to be rightly understood, an ultimate singular decree is the point of his communication. It is therefore necessary to point out with emphasis Paul’s use of the singular aspect, he writes τὴν βουλὴν τοῦ θελήματος αὐτοῦ (the purpose of his will). It is a misconception to argue for numerous decrees if the idea is supportive of multifaceted purposes; because there is one specific reason for why he does all that he does, namely, his glory. In addition, they would give the impression that God has various meanings or layered points of interest in the activities of the universe, which does not fit the biblical revelation. Scripture is abundantly clear that God’s ultimate decree orders all things to work toward “the praise of his glory.”
A qualifier needs to be made at this point. What Paul is getting at by using the phrase τὰ πάντα (all things) is just that—all things! The Bethlehem Elder Affirmation of Faith, in its eloquence, expounds on this,
“We believe that God upholds and governs (providence) all things (decrees) from galaxies, to subatomic particles, from the forces of nature to the movements of nations, and from the public plans of politicians to the secret acts of solitary persons—all in accord with his eternal, all-wise purposes to glorify Himself, yet in such a way that He never sins, nor ever condemns a person unjustly; but that His ordaining and governing (providence) all things (decrees) is compatible with the moral accountability of all persons created in His image.”#
Consider the supportive Scriptural evidence, here listed categorically:
a. God governs the nations,
“The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation” (Acts 17:24–27; cf. Dan 2:20–21; Rom 13:1; 2 Kings 19:10–12, 20, 25, 32; Rev 17:12, 16–17).#
b. God governs individuals, “The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord” (Prov 16:1; cf. 16:9). “The king's heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Prov 21:1).
c. God governs the forces of nature, “For I know that the Lord is great, and that our Lord is above all gods. Whatever the Lord pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps. He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth, who makes lightnings for the rain and brings forth the wind from his storehouses” (Ps 135:5–7; cf. Luke 8:22–25; Matt 5:43–45).
d. God governs evil spirits and Satan,
Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, 'I will entice him.' And the Lord said to him, 'By what means?' And he said, 'I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.' And he said, 'You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.' Now therefore behold, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has declared disaster for you” (1 Kings 22:21–23; cf. 1 Chron 21:1–7; 2 Sam 24:1; Job 1:6–12, 2:1–6).
f. God governs calamities, “Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come? Why should a living man complain, a man, about the punishment of his sins” (Lam 3:37–39).
g. God governs seemingly insignificant things, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (Matt 10:29). “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Prov 16:33).
h. Moreover, in connection with God’s governing all things, it is here warranted to touch upon one of the hardest questions to face, namely, God is sovereign over evil. Consider what the Scriptures teach,
“Do two walk together, unless they have agreed to meet? Does a lion roar in the forest, when he has no prey? Does a young lion cry out from his den, if he has taken nothing? Does a bird fall in a snare on the earth, when there is no trap for it? Does a snare spring up from the ground, when it has taken nothing? Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it” (Amos 3:3–6).
All through the Scriptures, God is revealed as the one who not only created all things, but also the one who has the power, right, wisdom, and ability to govern as he chooses. “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things” (Isa 45:7).
On the heels of the above verses, it is important to state the theological implications of life for Christians who either do not understand the truth of God’s providence in all areas of life, or who flat-out reject God’s providence in all areas of life. Mankind, since the fall, has been fashioning God into his own image. One of the deadliest effects of the fall concerns the fact that man is unwilling to receive God as the sovereign ruler of the universe. Rather, as Paul asserts, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom 1:21). This statement reveals the cosmic treason of humanity. Will God be overthrown? Does man have a right to form God into his own image? μὴ γένοιτο! Paul in response to certain disagreement to the sovereign freedom of God in election speaks in this way,
“What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, "Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?" But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, "Why have you made me like this?" Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles” (Rom 9:14–25).
In the present writer’s experience, it has not been uncommon to encounter people who become indignant and offended at such a concept of God. Especially in relation to the presence of evil and suffering in the world, and that of election and will.# People get angry at the biblical evidence. Simply put, many well intentioned people are completely ignorant of what they are doing to God’s Word when they refuse to allow the Scriptures to speak. There are two specific issues in relation to this truth. First, most people who reject the sovereign providence of God in all things make the fallacy of a category mistake; that is, they are putting God into the wrong category (ie. the creature’s reality or realm or box) and trying to make sense of the biblical data based upon a presupposition that God is supposed to govern and operate the universe the way they believe is right.
This fact leads to the second point: these people have fashioned a god according to their own making and are rejecting the true and living God. His truth is too offensive, and they can not accept it. There is no possibility of reconciling the biblical evidence and holding a god that is formed in man’s own image. Unfortunately this is the state of many people in the church today.