The God of the Bible decrees, creates and sustains. The foundational first paragraph of this chapter states the overarching government of God, the good Creator. The harsh or distant deities of false religions must not colour our views of our good God and his government. A grip on God’s goodness keeps us from a thousand errors and doubts when considering his providence.
To this God belongs infinite power and wisdom which cannot be exhausted, tested, or confounded. We have not a puzzle with which God wrestles, but a pattern which God works out, without strain or confusion. Faith rests on God’s goodness and greatness: “Too wise to be mistaken he, / Too good to be unkind.” This comprehensive declaration of control would be terrifying if not for God’s revealed character.
Divine government is truly universal. It assumes this past, includes the present and extends to all future things (Is 46:10–11). God is not merely maintaining or observing but acting. Nothing in all creation escapes the active, directive rule of its good, wise and holy Creator, who is always and everything all that he is. Infinite power and wisdom both underpin a most wise and holy providence, steering it toward the proper purpose of all things. There is nothing random. All things were made with a particular design and purpose.
Providence carries all things toward the working out of that design and accomplishment of that purpose. This gives us humbling and comforting peace. We look at all that happens in God’s world and our lives, confident that the good hand of God is behind it. We might wonder at providence, but we need not fear it nor challenge it.
All of this is in accordance with God’s mind and will. God works all things out, including salvation (Eph 1:11), in accordance with his infallible (faultless and error-free) foreknowledge. This is not merely predictive but properly determinative; God is actually directing all things. His will is both free (not in any way bound or influenced from the outside) and unchangeable (being fixed and sure from the very beginning). There are no accidents, and there is no confusion. God is not wrestling with the world he made, or proceeding by way of best guesses, even almost-infinitely good ones! He acts in accordance with his knowledge and his will, never taken unawares nor adapting his plans.
All thus terminates upon the Creator and not on any creature or combination of creatures: God must and will be magnified through providence. The pinnacle of providence was the accomplishment of redemption through the death of the Son (see Acts 2:22–24). The goal of God’s providential government is always the revelation of his greatness and his goodness (Ps 145:6-7).
This first paragraph is massively comprehensive. Subsequent paragraphs work out and apply specific issues and questions.
The first question is the use of means. This does not undermine or negate God as the architect and supervisor of his own world. God is the ‘first cause’, executing his own will most surely and completely, including what seems to be chance: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Prv 16:33).
However, we are not fatalists. God did not ordain that he would remain the first and alone cause of all effects but uses means. He governs a world he has marked with certain ordained sequences, regularities, patterns. Every new day and season remind us that we depend on God’s means for carrying out our lives (Gen 8:22).
Some things happen by way of second causes: things other than God—under his government—have a real impact on other things (that impact also being ordained). Necessary effects are those which invariably and essentially follow on: it is simply the nature of God’s things e.g. the sun for light by day and the moon and the stars for light by night (Jer 31:5). Things that are free have reference to the choices or responses that we make to certain circumstances, which then have an impact upon the outcomes e.g. fleeing to a city of refuge in order to increase the likelihood of living rather than dying (Ex 21:13, Dt 19:5). Contingency refers to an ‘if … then’ chain. If King Ahab dies in battle, then Micaiah is a truthful prophet (1Kgs 22:28, 34). It is the language of one thing depending upon another.
None of this in any way binds God. He is not a slave to the means he has appointed. They are all means to his ends. He is not obliged to work by them. So we still speak of ordinary and special providence. Ordinarily, certain means accomplish certain ends. That is true regularly (Is 55:10-11) and specifically (Acts 27:31, 44). Nevertheless, what we often call miracles, even ‘unusual coincidences,’ may be distinct acts of God working “without, above, and against” means. He can work without means, acting directly (Hos 1:7). God can work above means: a lion can shut its mouth at one meal and open it at another (Dan 6:22, though note that a means on this occasion was the sending of an angel). He can work against means: certain causes do not lead to their usual effects or have others. A bush can burn without being consumed (Ex 3:2-3); an iron axe head can float (2Kgs 6:6). All this is “as he pleases”—not caprice, but a reflection of his nature and character as the true and living God.
Understanding this keeps us from complaining, despairing, and boasting. It teaches us to be hopeful and careful about our perception and interpretation of providence.
Within this biblical framework, the confessors face the problem of evil and sin, addressing sin in general, in God’s children, and in the ungodly. They do not answer questions that the Scripture does not raise.
Paragraph 4 deals with sin in general. Providence encompasses everything, even the fall of angels and men. We might not understand how this can be even when we accept that it must be, in accordance with almighty power, unsearchable wisdom and infinite goodness that mortals cannot grasp (see 2Kgs 19:28; Ps 76:10; Gen 50:20; Is 10:6-7, 12). So complete is this truth that the same action can be properly ascribed to God as the first cause (2Sam 24:1) and to Satan as a second cause (1Chr 21:1). Even divine permission is deliberate. Never in our grasp of this (or our failure to grasp it!) must we attribute sin to the Lord, who is neither author nor approver of sin. Sin is always and entirely the responsibility of sinful agents. Each person answers for sin, either in hell or at the cross. When we wonder at how sin came into the world or why God allows sin to remain in the world, we must also wonder at God dealing with sin in the world—by the death of his Son. This moves us to true fear of the Lord: awed reverence for the God of our salvation (Rom 11:32–34).
Paragraph 5 deals with sin in the saints. God has proper and good purposes even in leaving his own children to temptation and to sin (including chastising, humbling, drawing, and stirring his people), always for his glory and for our good. Various scriptural examples help us to trace this in principle and in practice (2Chr 32:25-26, 31; 2Sam 24:1; 2Cor 12:7-9).
Paragraph 6 deals with sin in the unrighteous. The wicked are under God’s righteous government, bearing the penalties of the sins that they themselves commit. The language of this paragraph is thoroughly biblical. We see the Lord in righteousness hardening hearts: withholding grace, withdrawing gifts, giving over to sin. In all this, God neither causes men to sin nor simply watches while they sin. He acts so that the sinfulness of sin is seen and known and felt in men’s hearts and in the world at large. The condemnation of the wicked is because they deserve to be condemned, having rejected the Christ. The wonder is not that many are damned, but that any are saved. We rarely ask the question this way. Again, we say with Paul, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!”
We must never forget the Lord’s particular care for his people. There is a general care for all creation, and there is a particular care for the new creation. Imagine a righteous person willing to be responsible for a large group of children. That person would no doubt seek to exercise responsible care over the whole group. However, it would not be wrong of that person to have a particular regard for the well-being of their own children if they were part of that group. It would not mean that they disregarded the rest but that there would be particular motives and actions in play with regard to their own. So with the Lord: he has a particular regard for his own people (1Tim 4.10; Is 43:3–5). Even his chastising is governed for their good (Am 9.8-9). He works all things according to the counsel of his will, yes, but that will includes the good of his people (Rom 8.28), that they may be conformed to the image of his Son. Not only the sins of the saints, but every moment of their lives, every event of their existence, is ultimately purposed for their good, to the glory of God. This does not contradict God’s glory as the great end of his providence, but it staggers us in realising that he has ordained that our good will bring his glory and that his glory requires our good. Again, we bow before such power, wisdom and goodness.
22nd May 2021