What is Providence?
Providence is God’s work of sustaining creation and his sovereign, benevolent control of all things, guiding them toward their divinely predetermined end in a way that is consistent with their created nature, all to the glory and praise of God.
Budding theologians who are eager to display their critical acumen by challenging traditional doctrines like the Trinity, the virgin birth, the deity of Jesus Christ and his substitutionary death on the cross, somehow give the doctrine of providence a pass. It seems that the doctrine of providence enjoys a privilege status and commands universal assent. For theists, it is intuitive and logical to conclude that God must be sovereign in sustaining, directing and ruling over the world in exhaustive detail if he is to be worthy of trust and worship.
Nevertheless, recent cataclysms of global proportions which include tsunami, destructive modern wars and recurring genocides have led critics of Christianity to question openly whether belief in a sovereign God is a flight of fancy. While believers may not be so easily shaken by such criticisms, nevertheless it is tempting for those suffering under such tragic circumstances to wonder secretly whether God’s providence has the welfare of his people at heart.
I shall only comment in passing this “pastoral problem of providence” as the focus of this series of posts is on the “logical problem of providence” – whether there is a coherent relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom.*
I am mindful that such an exercise in conceptual clarification and logical analysis of providence plays only a subsidiary role in sustaining faith in providence. Ultimately, providence is an article of faith based on the following provisions:
First, the Bible views history as the arena of God’s judgment and deliverance. God, as Lord of history determines the rise and fall of nations. “He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others.” (Daniel 2:21) He destroyed the army of Sennacherib to prevent it from conquering Jerusalem. (Isaiah 37) Later, God sent Nebuchadnezzar to punish Israel for her sins (Hab. 1). And yet again, God raised Cyrus to ‘liberate’ Israel from the yoke of Babylon. It is significant that the destruction and deliverance of Israel does not conform to any rigid pattern of history. God remains sovereign and free to do as he pleases. He is sovereign at the potter over the clay as he builds or plants nations when they repent or plucks and destroys nations when they persist in evil. (Jer. 18: 5-10) Nothing can thwart the purpose and plan of God. (Job 42:2)
Second, faith in the providence of God enables the believer to weather through the storms of life. That there is puzzlement and anguish for the believer who is suffering is acknowledged, but he who earnestly seeks God will remain steadfast in faith. Habbakuk rests his faith in God’s sovereignty even when he uses a ruthless gentile nation to bring judgment upon Israel. “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.” (Hab. 3:17-19)
Third, God skillfully redirects the evil deeds of men to accomplish his higher purposes. In the dramatic story of Joseph, we have a glimpse of the wisdom and cunning of providence as Joseph who was sold as a slave gained Pharaoh’s favour by delivering Egypt from a devastating famine. Joseph assured his wicked brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Gen. 50:20)
The intertwining of Divine sovereignty and foible human agency is revealed most astoundingly in the crucifixion of Christ. Satan and his human agents conspired with their evil schemes to oppose God. Judas betrayed his master to the self-serving rulers of Israel. The cowardly disciples panicked and fled when Jesus was arrested. The ruthless Roman authorities condemned Jesus to the cross after a mock trial. Indeed, the scandal of the cross appears to be the ultimate refutation of God’s sovereign control over history. If God failed to protect his Son when he was unjustly executed on the cross, how can he keep his followers safe? But even such sinful actions of rebellious humans are assimilated into God’s providential working. As Peter declared, the evil plans and wicked deeds of God only willy-nilly fulfilled the definite plan of God. “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” (Acts 2:23)
Fourth, the Lord is sovereign even though the suffering believer may entertain doubts when he is under dire circumstances. The believer is not spared from danger or trial, but he is ultimately preserved because of the providence of God. David found comfort in the fact that God was sovereign in his life: “But I trust in you, LORD; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hands; deliver me from the hands of my enemies, from those who pursue me.” (Ps. 31:14–15) For Paul, faith in providence leads to jubilation, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom.8:38-39)
Fifth, faith in providence is ultimately grounded in God’s work of salvation through Jesus Christ who is the key to divine providence.
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Romans 8:28-30)
1) God’s providence is perfect as it fulfills the eternal plan of the perfect God. It is exhaustive as in all circumstances, everything works together under the perfect control of God. “God the great Creator of all things does uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.”(Westminster Confession of Faith 5.1)
2) God’s providence is ultimately good: “The most wise, righteous, and gracious God does oftentimes leave, for a season, His own children to manifold temptations, and the corruption of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled; and, to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon Himself, and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for sundry other just and holy ends.” (Westminster Confession of Faith 5.5)
* Two classic works which address the pastoral problem of providence are:
1) John J. Murray, Behind a Frowning Providence (Banner of Truth, 1990). LINK to ebook.
2) John Flavel, The Mystery of Providence (Banner of Truth, 1963/1678). LINK to ebook.
– Models of Divine and Human Action in Providence – Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom. Part 2/7
– Compatibilism: Divine Permission and Human Action – Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom. Part 3/7