Why The Doctrine Of Providence Matters Today

We live in a world that is hostile to Christian theology. Scripture is clear about the unbeliever’s attitude toward God and his word (Rom. 1:18-21). But when a person is regenerated, not only does he begin to have affections for God, his attitude toward Scripture is altered to the point that he longs to be changed and nourished by it (1 Pet. 2:2). While this characteristic should be clearly seen in every church, unfortunately, it is not the case. A number of churches today have become more pragmatic than theological in their approach to life and ministry (e.g., seeker-sensitive, emergent church). Theology is seen as an irrelevant subject and a waste of time; it is frowned upon as something that divides people. And in a society that promotes equality and unity at the expense of truth, sound theology is being sacrificed upon the altar of political correctness. This negative attitude toward theology has drastic consequences especially in practical Christian living. When Christians have wrong views of God, it inevitably leads to wrong living. In this article, I hope to shed some light on the doctrine of providence as a way to help the church respond to suffering and injustice biblically. I believe that a biblical understanding of God’s providence helps Christians live rightly and respond to suffering with childlike faith. As I apply this doctrine to the Christian life, I would also like to explain God’s providence from Scripture and show the past discussions and arguments on it. Understanding them will help us see how the doctrine of providence can impact our lives today.                 

God’s Providence in Scripture                                                   

Gregg Allison notes, “The church has historically affirmed that in addition to creating the world, God exercises control over his creation through his providence. This work includes his preservation of all that he created, his cooperation in the ongoing activities of the created order, and his government in directing the creation to fulfill his purpose.”[1] Concerning God’s preservation of all that he created, Allison notes that the writers of the New Testament affirmed divine providence on the basis of Hebrew Scripture (e.g., Prov. 16:33) and the teachings of Jesus about sparrows and other mundane realities of life (Matt. 10:29-30).[2]

Hence, God is not some indifferent deity that looks at his creation from a distance. He is very much involved in the preservation of his creation and while he can perform miracles to cause healing and life, he normally uses natural means to sustain and govern the existence of his creatures. Tim Sansbury states, “The vast majority of God’s work is done by secondary causes other than in the case of the miraculous.”[3] This is an important truth to affirm because it guards us against hypersupernaturalism. It is important to note that there are natural explanations as to why the world is functioning the way it is today. Thus, God is not a cosmic tyrant who forces his creatures to act against their will or nature. He works through ordinary means by creating every part of nature (animate and inanimate) to obey natural laws that establish order and life in the created world. Horton further explains that:

When the earth itself brings forth fruit, it is no less due ultimately to God’s generous and sovereign involvement than when he created trees in the first place. God not only created the world with its own inherent potential for fruitfulness, but continues to work in the Son and by the Spirit to enable creation to bring forth fruit—that is, to enable each thing to do what it has been “worded” to do.[4]

In regard to God’s cooperation in the ongoing activities of the created order (concurrence), John Andrew Quenstedt explains that God not only gives and preserves to secondary causes the power to act, but immediately influences the action and effect of the creature, so that the same effect is produced . . . by God and the creature, as one the same total efficiency—that is, by God as the universal and first cause, and by the creature as the particular and secondary cause.[5] We see an example of this in the case of Joseph who was sold by his brothers as a slave in Egypt (Gen. 37:18-36). While his brothers were motivated by jealousy and bitterness, God used their sinful actions to accomplish His plan to preserve His people from the famine. God also empowered Joseph to forgive his brothers (Gen. 50:15-21). Instead of giving them what they deserved, Joseph’s understanding of God’s providence caused him to conclude: 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 ESV). Joseph knew that his brothers were responsible for their sinful actions but he also understood that God used them to put him in a position of authority so he could be the means by which God preserves His people.

The third aspect of providence is government, which is “an act of divine providence by which God symmetrically arranges each and every creature, in its particular strength, actions, and suffering, to the glory of the Creator and the good of this universe, especially of the salvation of the godly.”[6] In Christ’s first coming, we see how the circumstances that surrounded the Lord’s birth reveal this aspect of providence. While Caesar Augustus was not aware that the decree he issued (Lk. 2:1-3) would lead to the fulfillment of Micah’s prophecy (Mic. 5:2), God in His providence orchestrated this event so that Joseph, who belonged to the house and line of David (Lk. 2:4) would go to Bethlehem to register with Mary (Lk. 2:5). God used the decree of Caesar Augustus and Joseph’s compliance to fulfill Micah’s prophecy concerning the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2).

Practical and Pastoral Importance of Providence

Understanding the doctrine of providence biblically and historically is not an end in itself but a means to an end. When providence is rightly understood, Christians are able to live wisely for the glory of God. I have identified three reasons why the doctrine of providence matters in the church today:

Providence assures Christians that God cares for them in every season.

When we heard about COVID-19 late last year, we probably did not think it would change our lives in an instant. But now, we all live in the “new normal” environment caused by the pandemic. Indeed, 2020 was a difficult year for everyone in the world and with all the tragic events that happened last year, people have questioned the goodness of God. They ask, “Where is God in all of this? Does he care? If he is good, why did he allow this to happen?” These are some of the questions that have plagued the world for many centuries. I have found John Calvin’s words helpful in affirming God’s providence in times of adversity:

But these calumnies, or rather ravings of distracted men, will be easily dispersed by pious and holy meditation on providence, which the rule of piety dictates to us, so that from this we may receive the best and sweetest fruit . . . Then the heart will not doubt that God’s singular providence keeps watch to preserve it, and will not suffer anything to happen but what may turn out to its good and salvation.[7] 

When Calvin wrote about suffering that turns out to its good, it is important to remember that this applies to believers. Paul tells the Christians in Rome that ". . .  we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28 NIV). Thus, God allows his children to experience suffering so that they can be conformed to the image of his Son (Rom. 8:29). In other words, God's goal in our sanctification is not earthly security but spiritual maturity (Jas. 1:4). Hence, Christians must not feel abandoned when they go through various trials because God in his providence is using them to strengthen their faith in Him. But when there is a lack of understanding of providence, Christians can be paralyzed by fear or unbelief, and become like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind (Jas. 1:6 NIV). In times like these, Christians need to find refuge in God's providence so that they could experience the peace that surpasses all understanding despite the trials they might be experiencing in life (Phil. 4:7).

Providence helps Christians respond biblically to evil and injustice.

Throughout the church’s history, theologians have debated about evil and its relationship to God and human free will. Allison writes, “While wrestling with the problem of evil, the early church did not follow the proposal of Marcion . . . (Who) resolved the problem of evil by proposing the existence of two gods, one of who was responsible for the evil in the world. Not only did the church find this solution unsatisfactory; it condemned it as heresy.”[8] Regarding human free will, Allison reminds us that the church’s affirmation of divine providence did not entail a belief in the loss of human free will . . . Thus, the church affirmed the compatibility of human freedom and divine providence.[9] Allison states, “God has included human beings—their choices and actions—in his providential plan. He accomplishes this plan through the intermediary decisions and works—both good and evil—of responsible human beings.”[10] Since nothing happens outside the providential plan of God, believers can respond to evil and injustice in a way that expresses their faith in God. Calvin rightly said that “. . . when we are unjustly wounded by men, let us overlook their wickedness, remember to mount up to God, and learn to believe for certain that whatever our enemy has wickedly committed against us was permitted and sent by God’s just dispensation.”[11] But when a believer does not have a biblical understanding of God’s providence, he can be overwhelmed by bitterness to the point that he takes matters into his own hands. Lacking a strong view of providence can also lead believers to seek secular and political solutions to perceived problems in the world. Horton notes, "One point at which fundamentalism and liberalism differ significantly is over what constitutes sinful actions. Where the one emphasizes personal morality, the other emphasizes social justice. In liberalism, sin is reduced to social, economic, and political structures that oppress and keep humanity from flourishing. Both errors are deeply reductionistic and allow us to take ourselves off the hook by transferring our own guilt to others: bad people or bad policies. However, by going deeper in its analysis and broader in its scope, the doctrine of original sin encompasses sinful actions and structures.” Let us always remember that the answer to evil is always the gospel of grace. Indeed, Jesus changed the world not by fighting for his rights but by laying down his life for sinners (Phil. 2:6-8).  Horton writes, “Jesus endures his trial, and instead of demanding an autonomous right to interpret good and evil for himself, he submits to “every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4).”[12] Sansbury rightly concludes, “The Cross does prove that even the most awful event can be willed by God for good in a way we will agree is good.”[13] 

Providence encourages Christians to take risks for the cause of Christ.

A number of Christian missionaries who took great risks and made sacrifices for God had a biblical understanding of providence (e.g., Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, William Carey). Hence, it is important to know how this doctrine developed in church history so that it can inspire us to follow the example of those who have gone before us. Allison explained that:

While the church has substantial agreement over God’s providential care of the inanimate universe and the plant and animal kingdoms, great division has historically existed over God’s providential relationship to the moral choices and actions of human beings. The Reformed position (and views similar to it) affirms the decrees of God as the foundation for everything that happens is part of the providential plan of God. The Arminian position (and views similar to it) holds “that God’s providential involvement in or control of history must not include every specific detail of every event that happens.[14]

I have found the Reformed position to be compatible with Scripture since it takes the whole of Scripture and explicates it in a way that is biblically accurate and coherent (Isa. 46:8-10; Ps 39:4; Matt. 10:28-31; 1 Pet. 1:1-2; Ps. 55:22; Ps. 54:23; 1 Peter 5:7; Ps. 91:1; 90:1, Zech. 2:8; Gen. 15:1; Jer. 1:18; 15:20; Isa. 49:25; Isa. 49:15) John Calvin states, “Indeed, the principal purpose of Biblical history is to teach that the Lord watches over the ways of the saints with such great diligence that they do not even stumble over a stone (cf. Ps. 91:12).”[15] Hence, when Scripture is taken as a whole, it affirms that God’s decree is the ultimate cause for the outworking of His providential plan without undermining the role of secondary causes to accomplish his will.

Hence, Christians should take risks for the cause of Christ at all times since nothing happens outside God’s providential plan. But unfortunately, many Christians have not been living by faith today. Indeed, the pandemic has exposed the idol of earthly security as some believers refuse to live missionally in a time when the world desperately needs to hear the gospel. We need to remember that God did not redeem us to stand idly while the world desperately seeks for answers that would give them hope. So how can the doctrine of providence help us take risks in a God-honoring way?   

We need to recognize that we have taken many risks even before the pandemic (e.g., boarding a plane, driving on the highway, entering a hospital) and it is mainly because of God’s providential care that we are still alive. Calvin reminds us that a believer must find solace in the fact that his Heavenly Father so holds all things in his power, so rules by his authority and will, so governs by his wisdom, that nothing can befall except he determine it.[16] This does not mean that we can just be plain careless and irresponsible with our actions. We must remember that God has given us the means to protect ourselves from harm (we are to wisely appropriate those means and observe the proper protocols during this pandemic). But while we choose not to be careless in this situation, it does not mean we take time off from doing the Lord’s work. We need to understand that this pandemic gives us unique opportunities to share the gospel with our friends and relatives. If we do not seize the moment, we might not have the same opportunities when everything goes back to normal. Indeed, this is a great time for the church to point the lost to Christ who alone can give them hope and salvation. And as we take risks for the cause of Christ in a time of great uncertainty, let us always remember that God is ultimately in charge and that our faith rests not on protocols or politics but on the providence of God.

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Allison, Gregg. Historical Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Kindle.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.

Horton, Michael. Pilgrim Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Digital.

Schmid, Heinrich. The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Luther Church. Translated by Charles A. Hay and Henry E. Jacobs. Minneapolis, MIN: Augsburg, 1899.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Gregg Allison, Historical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 277, Kindle.

[2] Ibid., 277.

[4] Michael Horton, Pilgrim Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 111, Digital.

[5] John Andrew Quenstedt, Theologia Didactico-Polemica sive Systema Theologicum (Leipzig, 1715), 1.531, in Schmid, 180.

[6] Ibid., 1.533, in Schmid, 187-88.

[7] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 1:218.

[8] Gregg Allison, Historical Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 281, Kindle.

[9] Ibid., 279.

[10] Ibid., 284.

[11] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 1:220-221.

[12] Michael Horton, Pilgrim Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 137, Digital.  

[13] Tim Sansbury, Video Lecture. Knox Theological Seminary, Ft. Lauderdale FL, Lesson 61, September 14, 2018.

[14] Gregg Allison, Historical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 277, Kindle.

[15] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 1:206.

[16] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 1:224.