Robert E. Picirilli, “Toward a Non-Deterministic Theology of Divine Providence,” Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry (Spring 2014) Volume 11.1, 38-61. (The original article and the entire journal issue in which it appeared may be found here.)
Toward a Non-Deterministic Theology of Divine Providence
Robert E. Picirilli, Ph.D.
Robert E. Picirilli served as Academic Dean and Professor of Greek and New Testament at Free Will Baptist Bible College (now Welch College) in Nashville, Tennessee.
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
– William Cowper
In his history of the Northern Free Will Baptists, I. D. Stewart writes of the denomination’s founder: “[Benjamin] Randall’s horse stumbled and precipitated him upon the ground. He acknowledged the hand of Providence that kept himself from injury, but the loss of his horse, by a fracture of the shoulder, was a loss indeed, since he was unable to supply its place, and, without one, he could no longer travel and blow the gospel trumpet.”1
Similarly, when my wife died not long ago, all five of my daughters were for other reasons present in the city (where two of them did not live) and with us in the room. I said, more than once during the next few days, that it was providential that all of them were there. I am confident that it was.
Randall and I could have added, of course, that it was just as providential that he lost the horse on which he depended and that I lost my wife of almost fifty-nine years. But we do not usually attribute negative things to providence. And therein lies the need for a more thorough study of a subject that does not receive the attention it deserves. As Albert C. Outler—not a friend to a Biblicist theology—has observed, “Belief in the providence of God as the ultimate environment
1I. D. Stewart, The History of the Freewill Baptists, for Half a Century, with an Introductory Chapter: Volume I. from the year 1780 to 1830 (Dover, NH: Freewill Baptist Printing Establishment, 1862), 144. There never was a volume II.39
of human existence” is “the linchpin of traditional Christian doctrine.”2 Providence is, he writes, “God’s active ‘presence’ in this world—personal and gracious—in the continuance of creation, in the vicissitudes of history, as the divine love in which we live and move and have our being.”3
Introduction: The Traditional Doctrine
I turn first to Louis Berkhof, as I often have since those days long ago when I first encountered him in graduate school. His is a substantial work, and he devotes a chapter to providence, appropriately, as part of his treatment of the doctrine of God. He observes that “the word ‘providence’ has come to signify the provision which God makes for the ends of His government, and the preservation and government of all His creatures.”4 That is rather broad, as is the Bible: “I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure” (Isa 45:9–10). Among other things, Berkhof sets the Christian view of providence in contrast to both fatalism and chance, as well as to the view of secular science “that the world is controlled by an iron-clad system of laws.”5 For the Christian, God is at work in everything that happens, guiding it all to His desired ends.
Berkhof also makes the traditional distinction between general and special providence. The former denotes “God’s control of the universe as a whole” and the latter “His care for each part of it in relation to the whole.” But he is quick to observe that these are not really “two different kinds of providence, but the same providence exercised in two different relations.” He adds that special providence sometimes “refers to God’s special care for His rational creatures,” and that some theologians define a very special providence “with reference to those who stand in the special relationship of sonship to God.”6 G. C. Berkouwer adds the helpful note that in this very special providence “the love of God is revealed particularly.”7
Finally, Berkhof analyzes the doctrine of providence to include three main parts.8 (1) Preservation is the doctrine that God maintains the existence, nature, and powers of all things he created. (2) Concurrence is the doctrine that he is at work in all the acts of his creatures, so that nothing ever occurs “independently” of God. (3) Government is the doctrine that he works in everything so as to accomplish his purposes.
2Albert C. Outler, Who Trusts in God: Musings on the Meaning of Providence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 6.
4Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 165.
7G. C. Berkouwer, The Providence of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), 180.
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Berkouwer, citing the Heidelberg Catechism, comments that the third, government, speaks especially about “the purpose or end to which God leads all things,” while the first, preservation, may also be indicated by words like upholding, sustenance, or maintenance.9 He adds that sustenance includes “the entire process in which all things move toward God’s arranged end,” which leads him to observe that these two aspects of providence cannot finally be “viewed as two separate deeds.”10
In principle, these three doctrines seem an appropriate division of the material and belong to a larger discussion of providence. Berkhof’s treatment, as I have summarized it, is sufficient as an introduction to the subject. My purpose here does not include discussion of all the issues traditionally involved. There are many of these, including how God’s sovereign government of the world relates to human freedom, how God’s foreknowledge is involved in providence, how the presence of evil in the world can be justified in light of the goodness of an all-powerful, all-controlling God (theodicy), the relationship between miracles and natural processes, and so on.
Some matters, therefore, I will touch on only in passing. Those that concern me most I will give greater attention. It will be obvious to any informed reader, for example, that some of the issues will be those about which Calvinists (like Berkhof) and Arminians historically disagree. Indeed, some discussions of providence sound very much like traditional arguments about sovereignty and free will. I see no need to labor again, over issues that I have treated elsewhere,11 even though I will give this some attention in discussing how God’s providence involves human sin and relates to foreknowledge.
The Meaning of Providence
I begin with the word itself, which—like Trinity—does not appear in the Bible but is certainly grounded in the book.12 Providence is the activity of providing for. As Paul Helm expresses this, “‘The providence of God’ is a rather formal way of referring to the fact that God provides. And what could be more practical, relevant or down-to-earth than that?”13 James Spiegel begins his discussion of providence by explaining, “Generally speaking, the doctrine of divine providence affirms that God ‘provides’ for his creatures. The Lord not only created the entire universe—he also prudently manages it.”14 Thomas P. Flint states, “To see God as provident is to see him as
11Robert E. Picirilli, Grace Faith Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation: Calvinism and Arminianism (Nashville: Randall House, 2002). When discussed under the heading of providence, the issues are broader than those discussed in soteriology, although the principles are the same.
12At least, providence does not appear in the Authorized Version; I cannot guarantee, of course, that it does not appear in any contemporary English versions.
13Paul Helm, The Providence of God, Contours of Christian Theology, ed. Gerald Bray (Downers Grove: IVP, 1993), 18.
14James S. Spiegel, The Benefits of Providence: A New Look at Divine Sovereignty (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005), 19.
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knowingly and lovingly directing each and every event involving each and every creature toward the ends he has ordained for them.”15
Etymologically from the Latin, the word has two parts. The vide means to see, and the pro means in behalf of or before. The word means about the same thing we mean when we speak of foresight, at least when we use it not merely to mean looking ahead but looking ahead in such a way as to plan prudently and make provision for what we see coming. But etymology does not determine the meaning of a word, and providence (like all other words) means exactly what it is used to mean: namely, God’s active care for his created order (including human beings) so as to uphold, provide for, oversee, govern, and guide them toward the ends he has appointed for them. Pascal P. Belew defines providence as: “That activity of the Triune God by which He conserves, cares for, and governs the world which He has made.”16 In this definition, “the world” includes everything in existence in the natural realm.
In this all-inclusive sense, the word Providence (with a capital letter) is often used as a reverent way of identifying God himself, in the same way that other words so closely attached to the nature and works of God can stand as names for Him. For example, we sometimes say, “Heaven knows,” when we mean that God knows. We do this on a human level, too, when we address a judge as “your honor” or refer to a king as “his majesty.” The Bible also uses such indirect names,17 as when Heb 1:3 says that Jesus “sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high” (also Heb 8:1). In the same way, people sometimes say Providence when they mean God himself. The reason for this is that God alone is capable of exercising an all-encompassing providence over the world.
The Extent of Providence
Ultimately, God’s providence encompasses everything that transpires. Martin Luther said, “All things are done and guided, not planlessly but by divine providence.”18 Berkouwer defines providence as “God’s rule over all things,” as “God’s embracing in His prescient government all that occurs in the universe.”19 He also notes, “All the apparent surprises and accidents [in our lives] fall within the wide circle of God’s providential order.”20 This is harder for us to grasp without confusion, and this is a matter I wish to discuss at greater length because it especially involves one of the critical issues.
The book of providence is, in fact, the story of everything that takes place in the cosmos. As Rom 8:28 puts it, “We know that all things work together for good to those who love God,
15Thomas P. Flint, Divine Providence: The Molinist Account (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 12.
16Pascal P. Belew, The Philosophy of Providence (Butler, IN: The Higley Press, 1955), 11.
17These are sometimes called circumlocutions or periphrases.
18Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, 55 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1957), 1:25.
19Berkouwer, 9, 10 (emphasis his).
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to those who are the called according to His purpose.” All things? Yes, and God’s providential control of them is exercised for the certain accomplishment of His purpose for those who know Him. “Those who love God” and “those who are called according to His purpose,” are references to His children. So, everything ultimately fits into the concept, to be discussed further below, of God’s providence exercised in caring for His people; some have called this very special providence.
We have no problem seeing that this is so for all the things we recognize as good, but this includes all the bad things, too, whether 9/11 or the Holocaust or my wife’s death. God is providentially in control even over the wickedness of human beings! “Man’s activity falls, as the smaller of two concentric circles, completely within the greater circle of God’s purpose.”21 As William Plumer said, “Without Him atoms and planets, angels and devils, saints and sinners can do nothing.”22
This is the area where confusion easily sets in, and so some clarification needs to be offered. To begin, control does not mean that God actively performs or desires or causes everything that is done. To see that control is all-inclusive, one needs only to consider what it would mean to say that God is not in control, which is biblically unacceptable. Surely nothing goes on in this world that is out of God’s control. He has not lost control, and no other force in the world can wrest control from Him or otherwise defeat Him. The purposes that He has ordained will be achieved. Also, His purposes include the existence of evil in the world, whether we think we understand that or not. I do not think I understand the matter, more than an occasional glimmer that I have difficulty putting into words; and writing a theodicy (a justification of God’s goodness in the face of evil and suffering) is not within my present purpose.
When one of His moral creatures does wrong, God does not cause or actively desire that misdeed: that much is clear. Nothing God does makes it necessary for that person to sin. Here is where the Calvinist is likely to be careless in defining concurrence, as is Berkhof when he writes on that subject, “In every instance the impulse to action and movement proceeds from God”; and, “Each deed is in its entirety both a deed of God and a deed of the creature”; and “The divine concursus … determines him [the person sinning] efficaciously to the specific act.”23 To be fair, he also says, “The act is man’s alone, though its occurrence is efficaciously secured by God. And the sin is man’s only.”24 But the other statements make this ring hollow.
Concurrence may be given some lesser meaning, but it is not a good word to use in this way, and it will inevitably be taken to mean that God and man perform together the same action—as, indeed, Berkhof’s own words seem to affirm. These words, in the ears of many of us, sound like God effectively fixes things so that the sin is necessary. And if that is the case, then God is in
22William S. Plumer, Jehovah-Jireh: A Treatise on Providence (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1993, reprint from 1865), 15.
23Berkhof, 173, 172, 175 (respectively).
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some sense the cause of the sin. It is but a short step, then, to say that God actively concurs in the committing of sin, and that simply will not fit the biblical teaching.
The way out of this dilemma is to understand, first, that the committing of sin is always a matter of motive and will. It is not a sin, for example, to plunge a knife into another person’s chest; surgeons do that all the time.25 What is sin is for one person to intend harm to another by such an act. The sin lies in the willful intention of the sinner. Yes, God in His providence upholds the molecular structure of the murderer’s bullet as it leaves the gun and takes the victim’s life. But God does not uphold the sinful intention of the killer. God concurs with no sinner in his sin. (Some things are better to say than others, and it is better to say this than to say that every deed is entirely a deed both of God and of the creature, as above.) The intention to sin is one “event” in the world in which God’s providence, although in control, is not concurrent.26 Alvin Plantinga—by no means Arminian in his sentiments—appropriately suggests that the doctrine of concurrence, at least as traditionally understood, “is metaphysical overkill—little more, really, than an attempt to pay God unnecessary (and unwanted) metaphysical compliments.”27
This leads to the second key to understanding the dilemma: namely, that God is not the only actor in the universe. Some Calvinists have recognized this. Charles Hodge, for example, rejected the doctrine of concurrence on this very ground, saying that it “is founded on an arbitrary and false assumption. It denies that any creature can originate action.” He goes on to characterize concurrence as an unnecessary inference made “in order to secure the absolute control of God over created beings. … That we are free agents means that we have the power to act freely.”28 God intentionally created human beings in his likeness, with wills of their own, free (within limitations, of course) to act in accord with their own motives and decisions. The possibility of
25This is true also for virtue, as my friend Paul V. Harrison reminds me: Virtue does not inhere in the act of putting money in the offering plate, but in the intention of the giver.
26Berkouwer, 134–37, discusses the distinction I have drawn (although not exactly as I have drawn it) as a distinction between form (the sinful intention) and matter (the physical activity), and rejects it, pleading (with Calvin) “no need of a perspicuous synthesis” (137) and so resorting to mystery. And yet he affirms that “Divine activity … is always wise and good” (137), which has to mean that God never participates in sin, as the word concurrence inevitably suggests. Berkouwer, 137–141, likewise resists the usual (even among Reformed theologians) resort to the notion of permission in order to absolve God of guilt. Even so, he appropriately notes, “When permission is really used to indicate the manner of Divine ruling, by which He grants room within His ruling for human freedom and responsibility, then the line of Biblical thinking has not been wholly abandoned” (140). Precisely: in such thinking, the Biblical line has not been abandoned at all! For a better treatment of permission, see Helm, 171–73.
27Alvin Plantinga, “Materialism and Christian Belief,” in Persons: Human and Divine, ed. Peter van Inwagen and Dean Zimmerman (Oxford: Clarendon, 2007), 132. Flint, like Plantinga, holds to the Molinist view of providence, which relies heavily on the doctrine of God’s middle knowledge (which will not be discussed here); Flint’s treatment of concurrence, 87–94, is stimulating but highly philosophical.
28Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1884), 604. Paul Helm, 171– 82, appears to ignore the doctrine of concurrence and to give more credence to divine permission, but his treatment leaves me somewhat unsure.
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sin lies entirely within that realm and nowhere else. Nothing else in the created order sins, not even the vicious lion that kills and devours the helpless gazelle. As I said, then, this freedom to exercise one’s will and to sin is one area of activity in the cosmos where God’s providence is not concurrent with the sin involved in what transpires. When humans determine to sin, God does not sin with them; he does not uphold them in their intentions and so in the sins that lie in those intentions.
To be sure, a person cannot carry out sinful intentions without Him. One cannot sin independently of God. As Thomas Oden has said, “One cannot even sin without providence.”29 Were it not for God’s providential upholding of one’s physical being, he or she could not pull the trigger to kill, could not utter blasphemy or a lie, could not look on the pornographer’s non-art. But the sinning does not lie in the physical properties of such acts, which God’s natural laws uphold—for reasons and in ways that He alone understands fully. The sin lies in the wicked intentions of the moral agents who do such things, and the God who providentially upholds their existence and energies does not sustain those intentions. That is one reason we insist so strongly on freedom of the will, because it is in the will that sin occurs. God enables our choices for good or bad; He does not make the choices with us.
Berkouwer, who affirms a Reformed perspective, takes human responsibility seriously. He writes,
Anyone who does not take both this Divine ruling and human responsibility seriously can never rightly understand history. He will always assume one or the other of two basically erroneous perspectives: either he will make man the lord of history, creator of events, holding history in his hand … or he will make history a Divine game in which human beings are pushed about like chessmen, void of responsibility.30
Does the fact that God enables our disobedience mean that God created evil? Well, what it means is that God, when He created moral beings with wills of their own, created them capable of sin—and, yes, knowing that they would do so. That is how sin came to be part of the human experience, beginning with Eve and Adam. We leave it to God to explain that, confident that He can, that He had good and sufficient reason for doing so, reason that He has not deigned to reveal to us.31 Like the psalmist, we do not proudly concern ourselves with “things too profound” for us (Psa 131:1).
There is a third aspect of understanding this dilemma: namely, the teaching of 1 Cor 10:13: “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.” God’s providence not only includes
29Thomas C. Oden, The Living God: Systematic Theology (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998), 1:283.
31One common theory is that God knew that a greater good would result in a world where evil was possible than in one where it was not. While this may be true, it is human speculation and not biblical revelation.
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the circumstances of our temptation, but it also includes the way to avoid sin in every such set of circumstances.
Indeed, this truth only “works” in the context of free, moral agency. God never allows His children to be in circumstances that make sin necessary. In every set of circumstances, there is a way to avoid sin. Consequently, every instance of sin in a believer’s life involves freely choosing against the way of “escape” that God provided—when the believer could have chosen the way God provided and avoided the sin. Surely God did not at the same time provide the way to escape and the necessity of choosing against the escape.32
I note, with appreciation, that Spiegel distinguishes between high and low views of providence, with the high view being “that God’s control of the cosmos is absolute” and the low view being that God not only does not foreordain everything, but He also does not even foreknow everything and therefore is often surprised at a given turn of events and may even be mistaken in his estimates of what people will do!33 He proceeds to note that Arminius and Wesley (unlike himself and other Calvinists) make God’s exhaustive foreknowledge logically prior to His foreordination of things in order to preserve libertarian human freedom, but he acknowledges that this approach, too, holds to the high view of providence.34
I now leave this excursion into the differences between Calvinism and Reformation Arminianism, satisfied that the account I have briefly suggested is superior to the traditionally Reformed way of expressing matters of concurrence with the sins of human beings. Even so, we must not lose sight of the main point: namely, that God’s providence includes everything that takes place, including evil. We recognize the hand of providence in all the events that shape us and our world.
Aspects of Providence
Is there more than one kind of providence? Probably not, but perhaps this does not matter. In
32For a full discussion of the implications of 1 Cor 10:13, see Paul A. Himes, “When a Christian Sins: 1 Corinthians 10:13 and the Power of Contrary Choice in Relation to the Compatibilist-Libertarian Debate,” JETS 54.2 (June 2011): 329–44; Steven B. Cowan, “Does 1 Corinthians 10:13 Imply Libertarian Freedom? A Reply to Paul A. Himes,” JETS 55.4 (December 2012): 793–800; Paul A. Himes, “First Corinthians 10:13: A Rejoinder to Steven Cowan,” JETS 55.4 (December 2012): 801–06.
33Spiegel, 19, 15.
34Ibid., 27. He then proceeds, 27–29, to provide effete arguments against the Arminian view of simple (but exhaustive) foreknowledge. Helm, 39ff, prefers to distinguish a “no risk” view of providence (comparable to Spiegel’s “high” view) from a “risky” one. While he does not say so, apparently the “no risk” view could include classical Arminianism, and the “risky” view would include primarily those who deny God’s exhaustive foreknowledge. It is common for Calvinists to object that if a person’s choices are truly “free” (indeterministic), God cannot possibly know them; see Helm, 55f. The Arminian view is precisely that God foreknows even indeterministic choices intuitively. For a helpful (primarily philosophical) defense of the traditional view of providence and of a libertarian account of freedom, see Flint, 11–34.
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God’s all-inclusive providence there are different kinds of work. As already noted, it is traditional to distinguish between general and special providence. Some such distinction appears to be needed, at least to organize discussion. I prefer to treat certain aspects of providence.
Providence in natural law
Berkhof was right to indicate, as cited above, that in the Christian view of things, natural law is not all-controlling. Natural law itself is an expression of the will of God and, as such, is an important aspect of his providential care for the created order. Indeed, this is important enough to warrant some extended discussion.
The material universe (cosmos) is constructed to operate by natural law and does so function. There are many laws that make up natural law, and they are all ordained by God as part of His creating and sustaining activity. The so-called law of gravity is a well-known example. “What goes up must come down,” they say. Or, if you combine two molecules of hydrogen with one molecule of oxygen, you get water. Our eight planets (too bad, Pluto!) orbit the sun according to definable laws, with centrifugal force keeping them from plunging into the sun and burning to a crisp. Indeed, everything in the physical world functions according to natural law. God established these laws as part of the nature of the cosmos He created. He set them up to function as they do, and they uniformly function that way. As Spiegel notes, “Providence assures us that there are indeed ‘laws’ of nature; so our belief that nature is uniform is not mere instinct or custom but is justified and hence rational.”35
In earlier times, Deism was a popular worldview, insisting (with some oversimplification) that once God established the cosmos according to natural law, He then had nothing further to do with it. The Christian doctrine of providence is against that view, insisting that God actively continues to uphold the natural laws by which the universe operates and is, in fact, exercising his providential care for the created order in that very fashion. Futhermore, God continues to be active within the cosmos in ways that transcend natural law.
That introduces an important facet of the discussion. One does not violate the law of gravity, for example, by stepping off a tall building and expecting to float gently to the ground. To leap from the Empire State Building, in the providence of God, will result in death. No exceptions. I am not saying, of course, that God is not able to make a man fly, only that unless He acts in a way different from His usual way of acting (natural law), the jumper is doomed. The point is, of course, that God doesn’t usually suspend natural law. As Gen 8:22 promises, “While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.”
Most certainly God can work miracles, and probably we should include the suspension of natural law as part of our definition of a miracle—at least insofar as we understand natural law and what it means to “suspend” it. Berkouwer approvingly cites Abraham Kuyper to say that,
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in the end, a miracle “means nothing more than that God at a given moment wills a certain thing to occur differently than it had up to that moment been willed by Him to occur.”36 Paul Helm says that a miracle is “simply the way in which God has chosen to uphold the universe at that moment,” thus “giving some aspect of it a character which is (by human experience) unprecedented.”37 C. S. Lewis appropriately distinguishes between miracles and natural events by saying that the former are events that are not “interlocked with the history of Nature in the backward direction”—that is, they are not part of the regular cause-effect continuum—while natural events are.38 That seems to be a helpful distinction.
When Jesus walked on water, He did so miraculously. Except for Peter, as far as we know, no one else has ever done so, and even Peter soon sank (Matt 14:25–33). When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, He worked in a way that is different than what we observe in natural law (John 11:41–44). But this difference has been made only a few times in the history of the world, and even Lazarus had to die again.
How often does God, in His providential care for people, operate in ways that are not according to natural law? I do not know. No one knows. I suspect that it is not as often as some think. I referred earlier to my wife’s death. She died as a result of a number of things. She was born with a mitral valve that did not work properly, and so the doctors noticed early that she had a heart murmur—one we need not be concerned about, they said. Years later, she had breast cancer and had cobalt treatments (an earlier form of radiation therapy), which were successful but also negatively affected the tissue of the heart, so that later she was not a candidate for surgery. As she aged, the mitral valve defect worsened. Then her aortic valve hardened and malfunctioned. Finally, given all the circumstances, it was too late to do anything. All of that, mind you, was the evidence of natural law at work, and natural law is the active work of God in his providence.
Natural law seems inexorable. If you are exposed to the virus that causes a bad cold, and your organic circumstances are just right (just wrong?), then you will develop a cold. Under other “right” circumstances, you get prostate cancer. If your bad cholesterol clogs up your arteries, and your heart does not get enough oxygen, then you will have a heart attack. And so on. In all these things, and in everything physical, natural law is active—in the providence of God.
God willed the universe to operate according to natural law, and He upholds the laws He himself instituted. To be sure, natural law is not all-controlling; only God is that. But He uses natural law in exercising that control, and He uses it faithfully. Like the rest of His creation, natural law is good—except that some of the consequences of the fall affected nature negatively, and so we have thorns and disease and death.
38C. S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: Macmillan, 1947), 208. My thanks to Dr. Darrell Holley for pointing me to this source.
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Positive or negative, then, natural law is the most basic way God ordinarily governs the world in his providential care for it and for us. The regularity of natural law is, ultimately, good for us. Even disease and death serve to remind us of the seriousness of sin and call us to turn from our wickedness, escape the infinitely worse eternal death in hell, and experience what Milton called Paradise Regained. God knows what He is doing in the world by natural law, and what He is doing is providence.
Providence in caring for the created order
This is another aspect of natural law, but it needs to be mentioned in its own right, given that the natural order is not independent of God but is an arena in which He is always at work. And He is at work not simply to maintain order but to provide for the world He created, to provide for the welfare of all His creatures, whether plant, animal, or human.
The Bible has all sorts of things to say about this, and Psa 104:10–31 is especially powerful:
He sends the springs into the valleys, which flow among the hills. They give drink to every beast of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst. By them the birds of the heavens have their habitation; they sing among the branches. He waters the hills from His upper chambers; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of Your works. He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, and vegetation for the service of man, that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine that makes glad the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread which strengthens man’s heart. The trees of the Lord are full of sap, the cedars of Lebanon which He planted, where the birds make their nests; the stork has her home in the fir trees. The high hills are for the wild goats; the cliffs are a refuge for the rock badgers. He appointed the moon for seasons; the sun knows its going down. You make darkness, and it is night, in which all the beasts of the forest creep about. The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their food from God. When the sun arises, they gather together and lie down in their dens. Man goes out to his work and to his labor until the evening. O Lord, how manifold are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all. The earth is full of Your possessions—this great and wide sea, in which are innumerable teeming things, living things both small and great. There the ships sail about; and there is that Leviathan which You have made to play there. These all wait for You, that you may give them their food in due season. What you give them they gather in; You open Your hand, they are filled with good. You hide Your face, they are troubled; You take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. You send forth Your Spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the earth. May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in His works.
All this is Providence, pure and simple. And it is good.
Among many others, one also notes Psalm 29, which reveals that the voice of the Lord is heard in all aspects of the natural order. Verses 7–9 report, “The voice of the Lord divideth the flames of fire. The voice of the Lord shaketh the wilderness; … The voice of the Lord maketh the hinds to calve, and discovereth the forests: and in his temple doth every one speak of his glory.” As Berkouwer observes, concerning this passage, “This is Israel’s understanding of natural events.
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For Israel’s eyes are trained on Him.”39
The words of Jesus are simpler but no less powerful: “He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt 5:45)—a provision that includes, by the way, droughts and floods.
Consider Matt 10:29–31: “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.” God’s providence extends to the little birds and the hairs of one’s head, and so all events lose their “power to fill the believing heart with dread.”40 William Gurnall said, commenting on this: “Every event is the product of God’s providence; not a sparrow, much less a saint, falls to the ground by poverty, sickness, persecution, &c., but the hand of God is in it.”41
Similar is Matt 6:26: “Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?” In respect to this truth, the ancient John of Damascus said, “Providence, then, is the care that God takes over existing things.”42
Paul, in Acts 14:17, says that God “did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good, gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling out hearts with food and gladness.” Such is the providence of God in caring for the created order, effected by natural law. And it is clear that, in this sense at least, God’s providence applies both to those who fear Him and to those who do not: “He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt 5:45).
Providence in providing for God’s people
Gurnall was right to say, “Divine providence is a large volume, written thick and close with mercies from one end of our life to the other.”43 Perhaps this aspect of providence comes in the category of what Berkhof and others call very special providence. I am more inclined to refer to it as circumstantial providence, and to categorize all providence as manifested either in natural law, as above, or in the management of the circumstances of those who know Him as their Father. Helm observes that “it is highly likely that the average Christian tends to think that divine
41William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour: A Treatise of the Saints’ War against the Devil, with biographical introduction by J. C. Ryle, two vols. in one; first pub. in three vols. between 1662 and 1665 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1964), 1:96.
42John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 9:41.
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providence has to do, not with every detail, but chiefly with special ‘providential’ occurrences.”44 He is probably right in this and definitely right in insisting that such special provision is only part of the all-encompassing providence of God. He notes, appropriately, that “it is a mistake to think that ‘general’ and ‘special’ are two labels for two separate boxes”; and that it is more accurate to think “of one providential order of amazing complexity within which God is working out different purposes for the different people within it.”45
I feel no need, by the way, to discuss whether God exercises this special or circumstantial kind of care for those who are not His children. I suppose He does. But the characters in the Bible, in whose lives we see the clearest manifestation of this kind of providence, are His people. Indeed, we are the ones who are likely to recognize His provision in the circumstances of our lives. And the biblical affirmation that angels are “ministering spirits, sent forth to minister to them who shall be heirs of salvation” (Heb 1:14) allows for the idea that God exercises special care for His children. Even Rom 8:28, mentioned above, makes those who love God, who are the called according to His purpose, the target of His working all things for good. This kind of providence, by the way, usually calls for no suspension of or exception to natural law. It involves God arranging circumstances in such a way that His people ought to recognize His care and provision for them in those circumstances.
Is this actually a different kind of providence? Probably not, if we understood just how God exercises His providential control over all things. From our perspective, this sort of provision is different from the regularity of natural law. For one thing, even though it requires no exception to natural law, as noted, neither is it achieved by natural law alone. In providential circumstances of this sort, there is often no way to explain what “happened” except as something God arranged in His own way. Here is where the presence of my five daughters at the time of my wife’s death fits in. Ordinarily, not all of them would have been here at that particular time. Nor did I arrange it; I did not know enough to do that.
Are we always aware of such providential management of our circumstances for our good? No. It may be that we are not even usually aware of it.
Lewis resists some of this, finding it “difficult to conceive an intermediate class of events which are neither miraculous nor merely ‘ordinary.’” He therefore abandons “the idea that there is any special class of events (apart from miracles) which can be distinguished as ‘specially providential.’” In this, He is simply affirming that “all events are equally providential.”46
What strikes me is this: if providence, in every aspect of it, is nothing more than the sum total of everything that takes place, then life might almost be as well conceived as without God, or
46Lewis, 208 (emphasis mine).
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entirely fatalistic, or subject to the randomness of chance. If God’s people cannot see the hand of God in the arrangement of the circumstances of their lives for their good, in a way that is not produced by natural law, then the doctrine of providence winds up with little value. Indeed, the Bible does not support such a view of life.
Instead, the Bible is replete with accounts of this sort of divine management of circumstances, and so it represents an aspect of providence that is of great significance. Consider Joseph, who could finally say to his brothers after the long, bitter trials he endured: “As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Gen 50:20).
Was it not providential that Abraham’s servant, on his arrival in Haran, was met at the well by Rebekah, the very one who would become Isaac’s wife (Gen 24:12–26)? Verse 21 is key: he “remained silent so as to know whether the Lord had made his journey prosperous or not.” Indeed, the Lord had done so, and His providential arrangement of things showed this to be the case.
Abraham himself experienced such providence. He believed that God would provide the sacrificial animal on Moriah (Gen 22:8), and when he had proved his faith in God in the offering of Isaac, “there behind him was a ram caught in a thicket by its horns” (v. 13). As a result, Abraham called the place Jehovah-Jireh: “The-Lord-will-provide”—providence, indeed.
The story of the raising up of Moses to lead Israel out of bondage begins with just such a manifestation of providence. When Jochebed put the baby in the bulrushes, who would come by but Pharaoh’s daughter (Did God whisper in her ear that she needed a bath, as someone has eloquently suggested?), who looked and took compassion on him, rearing him and preparing him—unintended by her, of course—for the role he would play (Exod 2:2–6). Coincidence or accident? Indeed, not.
And it was surely no accident that Xerxes, on the very night before Haman came to ask permission to hang Mordecai, could not sleep and asked for the records to be brought and read to him. He was thus reminded of Mordecai’s service, and this led to the deliverance not just of Mordecai but of the Jews (Esth 6:1)—of which Richard Sibbes wrote, “God oft disposeth little occasions to great purposes.”47 Such examples could be multiplied many times over.
Some Practical Issues
There are several “practical” issues involved in the doctrine of providence. I will discuss those that seem important for my purposes.
47Richard Sibbes, Works of Richard Sibbes, reprint of 1862–64 edition, ed. Alexander B. Grosart, 7 vols. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2001), 1:206–07.
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How we know what is providential
An important truth follows from the preceding discussion: We can only read the hand of providence after the fact. Those who use philosophical terminology would say that we must read providence a posteriori—after the event, in other words. We do not know a priori—in advance of history—what God’s providence will look like.
Perhaps this is overstated. If so, the reason is that it applies especially to circumstantial providence, as described above. We do know what natural law will look like, at least in some measure. If your dentist injects your gums with Novocaine in the right place, then you will not feel pain when he fills the cavity. However, even our knowledge of natural law is essentially after the fact. We have learned how it works from observing how it works, and from the regularity of its effects we discerned a way to state it (“empirical method,” in other words). E=MC2, Einstein said, and we assume that he was right even if we do not understand it—although some questions are beginning to arise, once again showing that science is knowledge “after the fact.” God has not given us, in the Bible, a physics textbook by which we define the providence manifested in natural law. Our science has to figure that out.
Regardless, I am referring here primarily to circumstantial providence. I did not know, in advance, that all my daughters would be here when my wife died. Nothing in God’s promises to care for His people signaled that He would arrange for that, or for the fact that Benjamin Randall was not injured when his horse stumbled “and precipitated him upon the ground.” But when such things occur, we look back and see how God exercised His providence in caring for us.
In the end, all we can do with providence is gather the facts and determine how we see God at work in them. In truth, we are not always astute enough to know whether a given event was arranged for our benefit, regardless of whether it seemed beneficial at the time. Perhaps it would be better to say, in light of Rom 8:28, that we do not always know how it was for our benefit. I do not ever expect to know how my wife’s death was for my final good, but I accept that it was and rejoice in my daughters’ comforting presence and in the assurance that God was and is at work.
There is an important caution in all this: namely, we must avoid hasty selectivity in our identification of the hand of providence in the events of our lives. It is easy to think that in some way God has singled us out, or some institution dear to us, in His arrangement of things that affect us. As already noted, God’s providence includes everything, and we must take a long look before we conclude that he has worked on our behalf, especially when the events analyzed involve things with historical breadth.
Berkouwer, in discussing this issue, cites a Russian theologian who welcomed Stalin as “the divinely appointed leader of armed and cultural forces.” He also reminds us that there were German Christians who welcomed Hitler’s rise as similarly providential, and then he cites the German theologian Kittel as insisting that “the Church under the Spirit and Word of God is
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not so weak that she does not have the authority to speak out as to whether the decision of these days is from God or from Satan.”48 Yes, but one must be very careful in interpreting the ways of providence, and whether a work is God’s or Satan’s. God’s providence is over all. Berkouwer rightly observes, “The interpretation of an historical event as a special revelation of Providence too easily becomes a piously disguised form of self-justification.”49
Berkouwer, again: “The selection of events which are revelatory and the manner of interpreting them is basically left to individual and subjective judgment.”50 While that is unavoidable, it signals that we must be cautious, using what Berkouwer calls “a norm according to which the particular events are both selected for judgment and judged.”51 That norm can be nothing more or less than the clear principles of the written Word, discerned and applied in faith: “The event speaks only because God speaks first.”52
Furthermore, what God has spoken and the “facts” of history must be read in faith: “Without faith, without constant listening to His explanatory Word, man is not able to distinguish basically between the exodus of Israel and the exoduses of Syria and Philistia. … We shall never recognize God’s finger in history without first meeting Him in the fullness of His revelation.”53 In that light, Berkouwer explains that “one can accept prosperity as the gift of God, and adversity as God’s hand graciously leading him to greater faith.”54
All this said, the technical discussion need not lessen our appreciation for the hand of providence in the circumstances of our lives. Our minds need to be attuned to discern that hand and to give God thanks.
Foreknowledge and providence
A few years ago, when neo-Arminian “open theism” had its fling among evangelicals, John Sanders made his case for denying the exhaustive foreknowledge of God in a book titled The God Who Risks. Interestingly, the sub-title was A Theology of Providence.55 Indeed, God’s foreknowledge has important implications for understanding providence.
I will not delve again, here, into the logical problem that arises when people view foreknowledge as making everything in the future necessary, given that I have already pursued this elsewhere.56 It
55John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Downers Grove: IVP, 1998).
56Robert E. Picirilli, “An Arminian Response to John Sanders’s The God Who Risks: A Theology of Provi
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must be sufficient to say, for now, that God’s foreknowledge does not limit future, free choices. The key to understanding this is to realize that foreknowledge only assumes the certainty of the future, not its necessity. Free choices are related to contingent events, events that can go one way or another. That God knows what a person will choose in the future does not make that choice necessary. Indeed, God knows it only if the person will choose it.
But how does this relate to providence, and why did Sanders think his denial of foreknowledge would impact the traditional theology of providence? It has always been assumed that if God sees the future, then He can exercise what I have called circumstantial providence and act to provide for His children who will be affected by it. Sanders, however, turned this on its head. He said that if God sees the future, then even He can’t change anything. For example, if God sees that I am going to have a wreck on the streets tomorrow, then He cannot bring about any circumstances to avoid the inevitable. His hands are tied by His knowledge.
As soon as we say something like that, we know instinctively that something is wrong. Indeed, something is very wrong with that line of argument. For one thing, it overlooks that the knowledge depends on the (future) facts, not vice versa. For another thing, it skips over all the contingencies that can go one way or another as a result of free, human choices. God knows the difference between contingencies and necessities. He knows that I will have that wreck tomorrow only as a result of many choices that will be made between now and then, including the choices of both drivers. He knows “all possible worlds” (as the philosophers like to express this), and that means He knows everything that will happen if any of the contingent choices of everyone involved are this or that. He knows what will happen if I take this street or that one, or if I leave early or am delayed, or if any of a thousand other things come into play. Knowing that a careless driver will run a stop light and hit me, if all the circumstances are right, leaves Him free to influence changes in the circumstances for my benefit—if His plan for me calls for that. Obviously, this means that His plan for me may work better, however, if I will indeed have that wreck. Only then will He know that wreck as a certainty, because He has determined to allow it in His circumstantial management of things.
What strikes me as an excellent illustration of how this works is found in 1 Samuel 23. David is on the run from Saul and, with his fighters, has gone to Keilah to deliver that city from the Philistines. He learns that Saul knows where he is and proceeds, through the priest (using, apparently, the Urim and Thummim), to seek the Lord’s direction. He asks two questions: Will the people of Keilah betray him to Saul? And will Saul indeed come after him there? To both questions the Lord answers yes. So David leaves and avoids any such encounter (vv. 10–13). It is self-evident that the Lord knew exactly what would happen if David stayed in Keilah, and that by his revelation he enabled David to avoid both of those contingencies. (I hesitate, but will suggest that this is a better lesson about foreknowledge than any philosophical-theological treatment of the subject that has appeared.)
dence,” in JETS 44.3 (September 2001): 467–91.
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And this is the reason that God’s foreknowledge is essential to His providential control over the circumstances of our lives. Most believers instinctively understand that God’s providential management of their circumstances assumes His foreknowledge of all contingencies, and that His management is all the better for that. Anyone who thinks that foreknowledge prevents God and man and circumstances from interacting with each other in time will be better off, biblically, by putting foreknowledge out of his thinking.
In order to properly understand the Bible, one must accept that God—regardless of His marvelous attributes—interacts with human beings and their circumstances in real time. Two important biblical events are clear grounds for this. One is the creation: God made, in time, a real world that did not exist before.57 Another is the incarnation: the second person of the Trinity entered the world in time and space by means of the birth of the God-man. God, although not limited by time and space, can operate in the time and space realm He created and controls.
Beyond these two most important facts, the Bible is filled with other things that likewise underscore this truth. Consider, for example, the tablets of stone that Moses brought down from Sinai. They were “written with the finger of God” (Exod 31:18). They were not engraved by God in eternity, regardless when He made the decision. God acted in time and space to write in stone the “ten words.”
First Samuel 15 (like almost any chapter in the historical books) is another good illustration. The timeline is: (1) Yahweh instructed Samuel to tell Saul to destroy the Amalekites; (2) Saul and the people spared Agag and livestock; (3) then Yahweh said to Samuel that He was sorry he had made Saul king and Samuel wept through a night; (4) Samuel met Saul and informed him what Yahweh had said that night, and that Yahweh had torn the kingdom from Saul that day and given it to a better man. If a sophisticated philosophical or theological reading of this accounts results in confusion because of foreknowledge and the Lord’s decisions in eternity, and so causes readers to wonder whether God and men and circumstances were really interacting in time, then that reading has weakened the biblical teaching. These acts of Yahweh were not performed in eternity, regardless of God’s timelessness. God spoke to Samuel, announced His regret for having made Saul king, and took the kingdom from Him then and there. God acted because and after Saul had acted wrongly. Unless the theologian can help the church understand foreknowledge in these terms, he or she does the church a disservice to confuse the issues with sterile foreknowledge.
Does God answer prayer?
This is an important question about providence. Do our prayers make any difference in how God providentially manages our circumstances? We can pick up the illustration used above to frame this. Let us suppose that God knows that a number of contingencies will occur, depending on the choices of everyone involved, which will lead to my having a wreck tomorrow if they are not changed. Suppose, then, that I, or someone else, prays for me to have a safe trip, or even
57This is usually called creation ex nihilo, creation from nothing.
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more generally for my welfare. Can God answer that prayer and bring about circumstances that will lead to different choices and so to my avoiding a wreck?
Yes, He can. Will He certainly do so? Not necessarily. We will know what God has done by observing what transpires.
Lewis affirms that our prayers have an effect on things, discussing the “problem” that supposedly arises when we also affirm that God knows for certain, in advance, every event in history. Rather than regarding such answers as “special providence,” Lewis believes that God, in eternity, foreknew our prayers and arranged natural law in such a way as to incorporate the answer. Consequently, “(S)omething does really depend on my choice. My free act contributes to the cosmic shape. That contribution is made in eternity or ‘before all worlds’; but my consciousness of contributing reaches me at a particular point in the time-series.”58
The Calvinist’s explanation is similar, as Spiegel indicates. The difference is that my prayer in time was decreed by God before it was foreknown, and so it is a “secondary cause for the accomplishment of his will”—thus pleading again that God’s decrees include the means as well as the ends.59 He cites Thomas Aquinas’ well-known observation that “we pray, not that we may change the Divine disposition, but that we may impetrate [ask for] that which God has disposed to be fulfilled by our prayers.”60
Such discussions are needlessly clouded by the confusion humans find in discussing human freedom and divine foreknowledge, as discussed above, but they lead to the sound conclusion that our prayers do, indeed, make a difference in how God acts. God may know and decide things in eternity, but He acts in time. The connection between our prayers and His acts are as real as if He had never known or planned them. I find it helpful, and believe it accurate, to say that the interaction between our prayers and the active working of God is exactly the same as it would be if He did not know the future in advance—except that then He would truly be limited and lose control.
God can bring about circumstances that change people’s minds, by the way, without interfering with their freedom. I may plan, for example, to go work in my garden tomorrow. He can send rain and I will change my plans, but He will not have infringed on my freedom in doing that.61
Every affirmation in the Bible about prayer, then, makes clear that God takes into account our prayers. In that case, it is clear that prayers can affect God’s exercise of providence. As Helm notes, “Nothing can be allowed to detract from the teaching of Scripture and the conviction of
61This observation involves what some philosopher-theologians call middle knowledge. I am not persuaded that the concept adds much to the discussion and have no desire to pursue it here. For a complete (but highly philosophical) presentation of middle knowledge and providence, see Flint, especially 35–71.
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Christians that God brings about certain events because people ask him to (Jas 1:5).”62 James 5 is helpful: “The prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up” (v. 15), and “the effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (v. 16). Prayer may not be the only thing that God considers when acting, but it most certainly makes a difference in what He does and does not do. Belew observes that “God does in and through and for one whose heart is conditioned by prayer what He otherwise will not do,” citing as biblical examples the prayers of the Israelites in Egyptian bondage, which “God heard” and acted on (Exod 2:23–24); and God’s revelation to Daniel, which came in answer to prayer, so “that Daniel and his fellows should not perish” (Dan 2:18).
Does prayer sometimes make a difference in what God would otherwise do providentially by natural law? Apparently so. James 5 affirms that Elijah prayed that rain be withheld from Israel, and there was no rain for three and a half years; and then he prayed for rain, and rain came (vv. 17, 19). This brings us back to miracle, of course, where God acts in a way other than by the regular course of nature. For that matter, so does the healing in verse 15—if, indeed, it is an instant reversal of the course of disease. Not all healing is such a reversal, of course. Miraculous reversals of natural law, always possible in God’s providential work, are relatively few and far between, and my purpose in this treatment does not include giving further attention to miraculous activity.
Some Practical Applications
No doctrine is meant solely for intellectual stimulation or satisfaction. All expressions of the word of God, including those we call “theological,” are meant for our Christian faith and behavior. That is true of the doctrine of providence, and I am exercised by the realization that anyone reading this treatment will immediately consider how it applies to his or her own experiences.63 In that regard, I want, first, to raise a very important and practical question: How does the doctrine of providence apply when life is bad and Christians suffer?
Some Christians’ lives are tragically and devastatingly bad—and as a result of what appears to be random events. Consider the case of a faithful believer who as a result of no carelessness of his own is injured in an accident, is paralyzed from the neck down, is subsequently divorced by his wife, and spends the rest of his life subject to abuse from his caretakers. But one does not need to imagine the very worst circumstances possible: many Christians suffer in one way or another most of their days, and without anyone apparently being “responsible.”
In other cases, suffering may come as a result of the wrongs others inflict, entirely undeserved by the one suffering. In still other cases, we may suffer as a result of our own failures or wrongdoing. It is all too easy for us, whatever the reasons for people’s suffering, to recite Rom 8:28 and proclaim that God’s providential care is being exercised in their behalf. But we must not be glib. We are not
63I thank a special friend, Mrs. Norma Trout, for reminding me of this.
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knowledgeable enough about the active ways of our God to be able to say just how providence is at work in their lives. Neither we who observe nor they who experience such difficulties may ever be able to see how God’s providence was exercised in their behalf. While we will believe that, in ways we cannot understand, God is at work in all the circumstances of their lives to bring about His good purpose for them, we must leave it to God himself to show how this can be true, and He may very well not reveal that until redemption is final. Sometimes, we have to acknowledge that there are no answers to our questions. Suffering does not always “make sense.”
Whenever wrongdoing, whether by ourselves or others, causes suffering, we can be sure that God did not desire or cause the wrong. As I have indicated earlier, He has not concurred in any sin. He permitted it, of course, and for His own good but undisclosed reasons. The fact that He incorporates human wrongdoing into His purpose for us does not in any way excuse that wrongdoing.
Furthermore, the doctrine of providence does not mean that we will always, or even usually, escape the consequences of our actions or the actions of others. God’s “laws” are at work in such matters, too. Even so, our understanding of providence means that even in these consequences, God graciously undertakes to work in such a way that His good purpose for our lives, and for His government and glory, will be accomplished.
In conclusion, I have chosen three important implications for emphasis. As Spiegel insists, “A doctrine of providence should be assessed according to its moral impact.”64
Embracing the all-encompassing providence of God in all the things that affect us is meant to strengthen our faith. This will be manifested in at least two closely-related ways: in submission to His providential control over all things, and in a settled confidence, even courage, in the face of unexpected or undesirable circumstances in our lives. We human beings, by nature, want to run our own lives. Appropriating the doctrine of providence means that in faith—that is, in obedient and loving trust—we put our lives in His hands and bow to His rule. As Robert Adams has said, we do this “without having a blueprint of what he is going to do,” which “entails a loss of control of our own lives.”65
If God is in control and He works all things for the good of those who are His, as Rom 8:28 informs us, and if we trust Him, then there is no alternative but submission under His hand. This is not a blind submission, but the confident submission of those who are assured of God’s love and care for them, and of His management of the affairs of their lives in that love. Calvin
64Spiegel, 213. His final chapter, “Moral and Devotional Applications,” provided some of the stimulus for my concluding section.
65Robert Adams, The Virtue of Faith and Other Essays in Philosophical Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 19–20, cited by Spiegel, 216.
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rightly stated that “ignorance of providence is the ultimate of all miseries; the highest blessedness lies in the knowledge of it.”66 Theodor Zahn was also right: “Faith is sure that no evil, either great or small, from the slightest mishap in everyday life to the most terrible calamity, can befall us without the will of God.”67
This does not mean that we are passive. God has revealed to us the ways He expects of us. In those ways we are to seek, as our first priority, “the kingdom of God” (Matt 6:33). That entails pursuit of many things, including (but not limited to) obeying his commands, our own spiritual wellbeing, the conversion and edification of others, the advancement of the gospel, the building of the body of Christ, showing mercy to those in need, and the unhindered worship of God.
Our submissiveness does not mean, in other words, acceptance of things as they are. But it means that we will not resist or rebel against God’s providential working in our world and our circumstances. J. C. Ryle, commenting on Luke 13:33, said first that “we ought to seek to possess a spirit of calm, unshaken confidence about things to come.” Then he added, appropriately, that “we are not to neglect the use of means, or to omit all prudent provision for the unseen future. To neglect means is fanaticism and not faith. But still, when we have done all, we should remember, that though duties are ours, events are God’s.” He goes on to say that this frame of mind will keep us from being over-anxious about things and “add immensely to our peace.”68
None of this means, as already noted, that we do not make mistakes that we did not need to make, or that others do not make mistakes that affect us in ways we need not have been affected, or that God in fact wants everything to transpire in just the way it does. There is, after all, evil in the world—both moral and otherwise—that was not God’s original plan. It does mean, however, that we face life—whatever it brings us in the providence of God—with confidence, and that, too, is the face of trust.
Prayer is one manifestation of faith. It is at least a way to signal our dependence on God. Prayer is needing God. Of course, it is more than that; it is worship, for example. But in a treatment of providence, it is especially an expression of our desires that He take a hand in matters beyond our control and guide us in matters that appear to be within our control.
In light of the discussion above, as to the fact that God’s providence has room for our effective prayers, this need not be discussed at length again. But it is important for us to understand that
66John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols.; vols. 20, 21 of The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1.17.11.
67Theodor Zahn, Bread and Salt from the Word of God in Sixteen Sermons, trans. C. S. Burn and A. E. Burn (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1905), 276.
68J. C. Ryle, Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977), 2:138–39.
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God’s providential working in the affairs of men and things depends on our prayers. The Bible everywhere encourages us to pray, and to do so without ceasing.
Interestingly, Spiegel incorporates into his discussion of the moral benefits of the doctrine of providence the Christian’s right to lodge a complaint about circumstances. But such a complaint is made only to God, as the one in control of all things, including the wrongs committed against us by others.69 This may be a stretch of the doctrine itself, but one recalls that David and other inspired psalmists sometimes spoke their complaints, without sugar-coating them, to God; see, for example, Psa 44:13–23. After all, such a prayer of complaint serves to remind us that God is in control, and it is, by implication, a prayer that God will change things.
We do not pray in order to change God’s mind. Instead, we pray to seek His providential actions on behalf of ourselves and others who need God to act on their behalf. This includes physical needs, although these are always less important than spiritual needs. But it is right to pray for all sorts of things, as the Bible itself gives clear evidence. We pray for God to send laborers into His harvest, for those who are physically and spiritually ailing, for persons in civil authority, and so on. And since we know that He answers prayers, we pray in confidence—and, like Jesus in Gethsemane, in submission to His will—and that He hears us and will act in the way that is best for the accomplishment of His eternal purpose for us.
Praying in submission to the hand of God in providence is a form of patience. And Spiegel reminds us that Christian patience is really “patience with God.”70
Thomas Fuller contemplated narrowly escaping death by an archer’s arrow and suggested this prayer in such a circumstance: “Let me not now be such a fool as to pay my thanks to blind Fortune for a favour which the eye of Providence hath bestowed upon me. Rather let the narrowness of my escape make my thankfulness to thy goodness the larger, lest my ingratitude justly cause, that, whereas this arrow but hit my hat, the next pierce my head.”71
Spiegel discusses the philosophical justification for gratitude, concluding (in agreement with Fred R. Berger) that it is “a proper response to a benefit freely and intentionally granted to a person for his or her own good.”72 Assuredly, the good things God providentially does for us meet all three criteria: He acts freely and on purpose and for our ultimate good. And it is a sin to fail to thank Him for such benevolence.
70Ibid., 219 (italics original).
71Thomas Fuller, Good Thoughts in Bad Times and Other Papers (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1863), 5.
72Spiegel, 223–24, citing Fred R. Berger, “Gratitude,” Ethics 85 (1975): 298–309.
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This may be the most important practical application of the doctrine of providence. In the broadest sense, providence means that we can thank the Lord in everything, as the Bible requires. In light of the discussion above, my conclusion is that we do not thank God for everything. Rather, we thank Him in everything, as the Bible says we should. I have not directly thanked Him for the death of my wife, for example, although I have thanked Him for His providential control in that, and for His loving work to bring that about, along with everything else, in accord with His eternal and benevolent purpose for everyone who is touched by that loss.
But we need not leave this as only general. We also need to cultivate the habit of thanking God for his circumstantial management of specific things in our lives. This means, first, that we pay attention to His hand at work. All too often, we take for granted the apparently “accidental” things that affect us. There are no merely accidental things in the lives of God’s people. We should condition ourselves to look at the good things that happen to us that we did not arrange, the things that might have been otherwise that were for our benefit, the things that seem “arranged” but we cannot explain how.
And when we have seen these things, we should thank God for them as tokens of His providence. While I was engaged in this writing, I visited my older sister in South Carolina, who is recovering from a stroke. One day on a side trip, as the weather chilled, I noticed that my car’s heater was not putting out warmth, and I dreaded the long trip back to Nashville, the next day, in the cold. When I got back to my sister’s room, one of her sons “happened” to be there, and I just “happened” to mention to him my predicament. He gave me directions to a mechanic friend of his, and the next morning I was there when he opened for business. I told him my problem, and how I came to be there, and asked him to take a look. He decided that the only thing wrong was that I was low on coolant. He put in nearly a gallon of the stuff and would not take a penny in payment. Was God’s providence at work in all those “happenings”? I think so, and I enthusiastically thanked both the mechanic and the Lord.
To express these three benefits of the doctrine of providence yet another way, we only need to cite 1 Thess 5:16–18:
Pray without ceasing.
In everything give thanks:
For this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.73
73I am grateful to Paul V. Harrison for providing me with a number of pungent citations regarding providence, including the ones cited in this paper from Calvin, Cowper, John of Damascus, Fuller, Gurnall, Luther, Oden, Ryle, Sibbes, and Zahn.
JBTM Robert E. Picirilli