What is God’s Providence?
God is in the heavens and He does whatever He pleases (Ps 115:3). He has decreed all things that will happen according to His eternal purpose (Isa 46:10; Eph 1:11; 3:11). The Bible also calls this the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God (Acts 2:23), or the counsel of His will (Eph 1:11).
When a man holds a completed book in his hands, it is a finished work. It was written by the will of the author, in the words of the author. The plot of the book follows in perfect alignment with the author’s intention. As the man begins to read the book, one page at a time, the action of the story is found on the current page. As time passes, so do the pages of the book. For us, in God’s story, today, is the current page of a finished story. We are moving through a story and through time, which God has ordained from beginning to end (Eccl 3:11; Isa 46:10; Rev 21:6). God, the Author, knows His whole story.
If God has decreed all things, we must also say that God is at work in all things. In fact, the primary character in God’s story is God Himself. God acts. This action by God is called, “providence.” God is the primary cause of all things (Rom 8:28), even as secondary causes, by willful beings, are real and responsible. God has a plan, and He is working His plan, which includes men and angels.
Everything God does, is for His own glory and for the fame of His name. God does not share His glory with another (Is 48:11). This includes acting upon the natural world. God causes the grass to grow (Ps 104:14), and He causes the wind to blow (Jer 10:13). God causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall upon the righteous and the unrighteous (Mt 5:45). This also includes the spiritual realm. He causes a man to be born again (1 Pet 1:3), which causes the church to grow (Eph 4:16).
In the providence of God saving His people, He performs all of the works of His people (Is 26:12), and His righteous ones declare all of His works (1 Chron 16:8; Psalm 46:8–10). Wise is the man who can say with the Psalmist, “I will cry unto God most High, unto God that performs all things for me (Ps 57:2).” For a Christian, to lay claim to anything he has accomplished would be theft of His glory.
A man is to work out his salvation with fear and trembling, but it is God who is providentially at work in him, to will and to do His good pleasure (Phil 2:12–13). “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,“ declares Yahweh (Isa 55:8). Therefore, man’s steps are ordained by the Lord, how then can man understand his way? (Prov 20:24). It usually looks like this, “The mind of a man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps (Prov 16:9).” And so the lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord (Prov 16:33).
All that God wills to happen will be accomplished perfectly according to His good pleasure (Isa 46:10), even in the case of evil instruments in His hands, like Babylon (Isa 48:14; Jer 51:11). Both nations and individuals can be used for God’s purposeful use of evil. Pharaohs’ heart was hardened by God to oppress Israel in Egypt. The Philistines also served to trouble Israel.
The Lord has made everything for its own purpose, even the wicked for the day of evil (Prov 16:4). This should give us great confidence that Christians under persecution from Islam, Adolf Hitler’s Fascism; Karl Marx’s Communism; or any other entity bent to do us harm remains under God’s dark providence. God is the restrainer of evil (2 Thess 2:7), so just as the oceans have their boundaries, so do the evil characters in His story. We must remember Satan’s liberty and limits with Job.
Job observed, “I know that You (Yahweh) can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted (Job 42:2).” God’s purposes are immutable. No scheme of man or of hell can operate outside God’s providence. Job had good theology, in recognizing God’s sovereign control in his suffering situation. Questions always arise in light of human suffering, but God is supreme, sovereign, good, and just.
God does purpose to do harm to some (Zech 8:14), but these actions are always done in perfect justice. God purposes to do good to some (Zech 8:15), and these mercies are always motivated by God’s heart of love. He remains good, righteous, and just in all that He does toward men. Often God’s judgments have different effects. Sinners are usually hardened when God executes just judgment against them. Saints are broken under the same conditions, and they actually draw near to God when rebuked.
Jesus Christ came into the world with a purpose (Jn 12:27; 1 Jn 3:8). Jesus came to save His people from their sins, and He came to destroy the works of the devil. God’s purpose in salvation is to save some people but not others (Rom 9:11). This is by predestined decree, forming two groups: vessels of mercy prepared for glory or vessels of wrath prepared for destruction (Rom 9:22–23).
The Lord knows those who are His (2 Tim 2:19). “He will send from heaven and save me (Ps 57:3),” which Christ Jesus did when He laid down His life for His bride, the church (Eph 5:25). Salvation is a perfect work of God, with no shadow or uncertainty. In His providence, He decreed those for whom Christ died; and the Holy Spirit appropriates salvation to blood-bought elect ones of God (1 Cor 6:20; 7:23; 1 Pet 1:19). No one that God the Father drags to Jesus will be lost (Jn 10:29), being kept with perfect assurance by Christ Himself (Jn 6:37, 44, 65).
God’s purpose for the people He saves, is for them to be set apart for holiness and godliness (1 Thess 4:7; 1 Tim 4:7), with Jesus as their example to follow (1 Pet 2:21). Although Christians remain in the world, following their regeneration and conversion (Jn 3:1–8; 1 Pet 1:3), the Holy Spirit indwells them to ensure their sanctification and subsequent glorification (Rom 8:9, 11). In other words, God is cleaning up His people and providentially guiding them, on the straight and narrow path of righteousness. Every situation faced by a Christian is by God’s design. The apostle Paul was afflicted in God’s providence, in order to keep Him humble (2 Cor 12:7–10). God permits bad providence in Christian lives, so that, in love, His people will be chastened for sin and to move away from sin (Heb 12:6).
It is the business of preachers, to declare the whole purpose of God to the people (Acts 20:27). Preachers must learn theology in order to represent God accurately. The whole counsel of God includes all of the doctrines of the Christian faith, including providence. In God’s providence, He has made provision for His Word to be written and to be learned. In the power and demonstration of the Holy Spirit, men of God preach the manifold wisdom of God to the church and to the rulers and authorities in heavenly places (Eph 3:10). God is revealing His providence, providentially.
God’s purpose does not change (Heb 6:17). We must remember that God’s story is a finished work. Therefore, the Bible can tell us portions, of the end of God’s story. These prophetic and apocalyptic revelations are trustworthy in light of the fulfillment of the portions of Scripture (e. g. first advent of Christ). Although these writing are limited in volume, we can rest assured that God’s providence will continue and prevail in the end. Jesus Christ created the heavens and the earth (Col 1:16). He sustains them by the Word of His power (Heb 1:3). And all things in heaven and earth are being worked, so they might all be summed up in Christ (Eph 1:10).
Romans 8:28 brings these musings on providence to a close, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good, to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” This is an encouragement to Christians, from God, through the apostle Paul. It is a message of providence to God’s people to help them understand and persevere through trouble in this world (Jn 16:33).
First, “we know” is the effect of special revelation for God’s regenerate people. Providence is despised by unbelievers, but it is precious to us who believe. We have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16).
Second, “God causes all things” is the heart of providence. God is not just working, He is causing. The extent of God’s causation is “all things.” What is excluded? Nothing is excluded. There is nothing that happens for which God is not the primary cause. When men sin, they are the cause in a secondary sense because sin cannot be attributed to a Holy God. God does allow the presence of sin and evil in the world as part of His providence, and He works in the realm of sin to accomplish His purpose (2 Thess 2:10–12). Thus, all people experience both light and dark providence in their lives. This truth spurs Christians to fear God and keep His commandments (Eccl 12:13). When providence comes, men should rejoice in Christ or repent to Him; and ultimately, they will do so according to His providence.
Third, “to work together for good” means that God’s cause will not be changed or thwarted by sin, Satan, the world, or the will of man. Everything that happens to a Christian, whether good or bad, will be given a contingency by God, so that it will lead to some good. All providence, whether perceived by us as good or bad, will have its good effect. Again, Christians are greatly encouraged that no bad thought, behavior, or circumstance will separate them for the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:35–39). Achan’s sin chastened Israel. John Mark’s fear and unbelief did not prevent his continuing ministry. Paul’s imprisonment led some, in Caesar’s household, to hear and believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Providential sufferings can later serve as providential salves for others.
Fourth, “to those who love God” shows this glorious verse of promise is reserved for God’s people. The wicked do not love God (Jn 5:42) and find no benefit in this passage. The Puritans referred to passages like this one as, “divine cordials.” This is medicine for a sick Christian soul. God’s love set upon a person, guarantees God’s care for a person through all trials and tribulations.
Fifth, “who are called” also distinguishes the lovers of God from the haters of God (Rom 1:30; 1 Jn 4:19). God calls all sinners to repentance (Acts 17:30). Some respond in what is call the effectual calling of the elect. In other words, God chooses some people to receive His love in Christ, and then He causes them to receive His love, and so they are saved. From the mass of humanity, living in spiritual darkness (Jn 3:19; Col 1:13), some emerge and are transferred to the kingdom of light and love. They are called by grace, and they come by grace (Jn 10:27; Eph 2:8–9).
Finally, “according to His purpose” tells us, this is completely the act of God. His purpose is eternal (Eph 3:11). It is unchanging. It is effectual, for it accomplishes the will of God (Eph 1:11). The souls of the elect, by definition, reveal God’s purpose to save some people. He loves them. They learn to love Him.
God’s providence is a glorious doctrine. It should be studied. It should be prodigiously taught. Our hope and prayer is that this small consideration will have its favorable effect upon the reader. Thank God that in His providence, He has included these written words, which come from a heart and mind filled with His written Word. We give glory to God, for His Spirit’s prompt, to write on a subject many learn to love, which of course, God knew before the foundation of the world and caused to happen in time. That is providence.
David E. Norczyk
Spokane Valley, Washington
November 22, 2020