The Providence of God
The Providence of God Defined
Having considered the creation of all things in general and the creation of angels and men in particular, we will now proceed to consider the providence of God concerning all His creatures. We understand this to be neither the singular foreknowledge of God nor the immutable decree of God concerning all that would transpire (see chapter 5), but rather the execution of that decree; that is, the immediate provision for, and dispensation of all things. This is to be observed in Genesis 22:8, “God will provide Himself a lamb for a burnt offering.” Providence is also referred to as ordinance (Psa. 119:91), God’s way (Psa. 77:13), God’s hand (Acts 4:28), God’s upholding (Heb. 1:3), God’s working (Eph. 1:11), God’s government (Ps. 93:1), and God’s care (1 Pet. 5:7).
The Heidelberg Catechism clearly and devoutly describes providence as follows:
The almighty and everywhere present power of God; whereby, as it were by His hand, He upholds and governs heaven, earth, and all creatures; so that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, yea, and all things come, not by chance, but by His fatherly hand; that we may be patient in adversity; thankful in prosperity; and that in all things, which may hereafter befall us, we place our firm trust in our faithful God and Father, that nothing shall separate us from His love; since all creatures are so in His hand, that without His will they cannot so much as move.
Providence is a divine power.
This is not merely due to providence being executed by the omnipotent One, but particularly in reference to the extrinsic execution of this power towards His creatures. It is therefore stated with emphasis, “And Jesus, immediately knowing in Himself that virtue had gone out of Him …” (Mark 5:30).
Providence is an omnipotent power.
When perceiving the magnitude of the work of creation; the innumerable number of creatures; the unfathomable diversity of their natures and appearance; the existence and continuation of each created object according to its own essential nature; the movement of animate, rational, and inanimate creatures; the precise order of all things both as to movement and the manner in which one object initiates the motion and progression of another object—one must lose himself in amazement regarding the infinite power and wisdom of God by which all things are maintained and governed.
By this power God irresistibly executes whatsoever He wills, and no one can prevent Him from doing so. “For the LORD of hosts hath purposed, and who shall disannul it? and His hand is stretched out, and who shall turn it back?” (Isa. 14:27); “My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure” (Isa. 46:10).
Providence is an omnipresent power of God.
This is not merely true in reference to the omnipresent Being of God, but particularly in reference to His energizing power in all His creatures. This power of God does not merely manifest itself generally in all things. Neither does it merely affect the initial secondary causes, which in turn further initiate motion and activity in all other secondary causes. This power of God penetrates the existence of every creature, and thus, in an immediate sense and via all secondary causes, affects the ultimate outcome of all things. The power of God is, therefore in all things and manifests itself in all that exists and moves. If we had clear perception, we would observe this power in everything.
That the providence of God pertains to everything is so clearly revealed in nature and in Scripture that whoever denies the providence of God is no better than an atheist, or at best, must be considered as blind as a mole.
First, consider the testimony of nature as expressed by Job.
“But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee: or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee: and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee. Who knoweth not in all these that the hand of the LORD hath wrought this?” (Job 12:7–9).
(1) Reflect upon whatever you encounter, viewing it from every perspective until you observe the omnipotent and omnipresent power of God in it. Every object testifies that its being and existence do not originate within itself; rather, it has been created by God and is therefore neither capable of existing by itself nor of generating itself, as the same power is needful for both. If it were independent from God, it would not be subject to Him, but would exist and function on the same level as God.
(2) Observe the orderly arrangement of the universe, and how everything has its purpose and functions accordingly. Observe how one thing does not interfere with another but cooperates with the function of the other. Consider the absence of confusion among creatures of various sorts and mobility. Notice how inanimate objects maintain their motion in such a precise and orderly fashion without either understanding this or its purpose.
How precisely do sun, moon, and stars know their courses and the time to rise and to set. How precise is the time schedule of low and high tides. The birds know when to arrive and when to depart; every flower knows when it must sprout; every species remains consistent both in its being and in its manner of procreation, so that from the creation of the world until now not one is missing. “Lift up your eyes on high, and behold who hath created these things, that bringeth out their host by number: He calleth them all by names by the greatness of His might, for that He is strong in power; not one faileth” (Isa. 40:26).
(3) Consider the rise and fall of kingdoms, the outcome of wars, and unexpected occurrences which can have significant consequences. Consider also the prophecies and the manner in which they are fulfilled, the extraordinary plagues which come upon those who are particularly ungodly, the unexpected deliverances of the godly, the answers upon their prayers, and all the wondrous ways in which various matters come to pass in nature and in grace. Whoever will not observe God’s hand in all these things must be entirely blind.
(4) Add to this the common sentiment and the acknowledgment of all men in whose heart, due to the innate knowledge of God, there is an impression of this. Even though by observation one person may acknowledge this more than another, and some labor to become atheists by attempting to deny everything, this awareness nevertheless remains in their heart and cannot be entirely erased.
We desire that whoever is as void of understanding as the animals of the field and cannot observe God’s providence in all this, may come to his senses as Nebuchadnezzar did, and confess with him, “And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and He doeth according to His will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay His hand, or say unto Him, What doest Thou?” (Dan. 4:35).
(5) Yes, whoever acknowledges the existence of God must also acknowledge His providence, for the one confirms the other.
Secondly, as the providence of God is evident from nature, so it is abundantly expressed in Holy Writ.
No person who considers the Bible to be the Word of God has ever dared to deny this doctrine. Some, however, twist and distort the Scriptures to such an extent that they, while adhering to the same expressions, seek to divorce the matter itself from its content. As we proceed, this will be confirmed by many texts, of which we here only mention Ephesians 1:11, where it is stated, “… who worketh all things after the counsel of His own will.”
Only one who is void of understanding would dare to suggest that his own government of the world would be more wise and better than is presently the case. He would not allow it to rain upon the sea, since there is sufficient water there. He would not tolerate the existence of so many mountains, rock formations, and barren territories. He would do well to those that are good, and bring evil upon the wicked. Poor man! With Icarus and Phaeton he would immediately plunge from his lofty position and turn everything up-side-down.
God does nothing in vain; unsearchable wisdom may be discerned in every work of God, and every one of them has a wonderful and useful purpose. The angels observe this and magnify God for it. Those with an enlightened understanding observe all this perceptively, believe everything at once, and search it out afterwards. Everything is beyond the reach of a fool. “For the ways of the LORD are right, and the just shall walk in them: but the transgressors shall fall therein” (Hosea 14:9). Observe what sin causes in the world, and this will confirm it for you.
The acts of God’s providence can be arranged under three headings: preservation, cooperation, and government.
The First Act of God’s Providence: Preservation
Preservation is defined as the immediate, energizing power of God whereby all creatures in general and every creature in particular is preserved in its being and existence. God does not merely preserve living creatures by providing them with their prescribed food and drink. He also energizes them immediately by bestowing upon each creature the energy needed to preserve its existence, apart from which food would serve no purpose. “For in Him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28); “And by Him all things consist” (Col. 1:17); “… upholding all things by the word of His power” (Heb. 1:3).
If this preserving and immediate influence were to be withheld for but one moment, the creature would at once be reduced to nothing, as no creature can of and by himself exist independently from God. This is implied in the word “creature.” “That He would let loose His hand, and cut me off” (Job 6:9); “Thou hidest Thy face, they are troubled: Thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust” (Psa. 104:29).
God has created some creatures in such a fashion that apart from this energizing and preserving power they need no other means to maintain their existence.
Others He has created such that they are in need of a variety of other terrestrial means. Between these means there is a relationship of secondary causes which exceeds our comprehension. The lesser of these secondary causes is frequently the means which the superior of these secondary causes utilizes. They in turn are causal in relation to the secondary causes which are inferior to them. “I will hear the heavens, and they shall hear the earth; and the earth shall hear the corn … and they shall hear Jezreel” (Hosea 2:21–22).
God has ordained that living creatures be preserved by food and drink, and He himself provides this for them. “O LORD, Thou preservest man and beast” (Psa. 36:6); “He giveth to the beast his food, and to the young ravens which cry” (Psa. 147:9). God does not need to avail Himself of means, neither can the means preserve the creature without His preserving influence. However, God uses the means to manifest His wisdom, power, and goodness, so that rational creatures would the better discern His hand, rejoice in this, and magnify God because of it.
God ordinarily uses the means, but occasionally He acts in an extraordinary manner to demonstrate His majesty and sovereignty:
(1) At times He preserves by means which otherwise are insufficient. In this manner God preserved Elijah, the widow, and her son for a long time by means of a small measure of flour and oil (1 Ki. 17:10ff.) In like manner the Lord Jesus fed five thousand people with five loaves and two fishes (John 6:9–10).
(2) God preserved some for a period of time without food and drink—for example, Moses, Elijah, and Christ, each for a period of forty days (Exo. 34:28; 1 Ki. 19:8; Mat. 4:2).
(3) God has preserved some by holding natural powers in abeyance. God preserved the three young men in the fiery furnace in this fashion (Dan. 3:17). He delivered Israel out of Egypt by causing the water of the sea to stand as walls on both sides until Israel had proceeded through on dry land (Exo. 14:22); this also occurred at the Jordan (Josh. 3:16). The Lord caused the sun to stand still (Josh. 10:13) and to move backwards by ten degrees (2 Ki. 20:11).
The Second Act of God’s Providence: Cooperation
The second act of providence is Cooperation, (concursus), that is, the concurrence of the power of God with the motions of His creatures. All creatures have received an independent and unique existence from God so as to move in a manner unique to themselves. They set themselves in motion, as man for instance walks, speaks, and works—all of which he does of himself. Since every creature exists, however, by the energizing and preserving power of God, and would not be able to exist without this, each creature’s activity comes about by the influence of God’s cooperative power, without which it would not be able to move. As is its manner of existence, so likewise is its manner of motion; both existence and motion are dependent upon God.
(1) The cooperation of God must not be understood to mean the energizing power of God which preserves the existence and faculties of all creatures but then ceases to function, leaving further activity and government to the creature. We rather understand it to be a preserving, initiating, and persevering power within the moving creature that influences its motion.
(2) Neither do we understand this cooperative power to be a general, discriminating, or proportionate influence which does not determine the creature’s activity, so that time, location, and manner of activity are determined by the creature, and thus would have its effect whenever it would please him. This would then be similar to the sun which has a general influence upon earthly matters, such as the growth of plants, the procreation of beasts and men, a rotting cadaver, and a sweet smelling flower. In this case the object and the effects are different, but the energizing influence is always the same.
One should not be of the opinion that He who is supreme in sovereignty and wisdom cooperates with various creatures in such a general and detached manner—not regulating the creature, but being regulated by the creature, thus giving the Creator the opportunity to cooperate according to the good pleasure of the creature. In this fashion we use the sun, wind, water, and fire according to our pleasure. God, however, energizes by a wise, sovereign, and special cooperative act, in which His activity precedes the activity of every creature, thus determining the time, location, and manner of activity, while preserving the creature in his motions until the act has been performed.
(3) Neither do we understand cooperation to be a suggestive influence which is either positive or negative in nature, nor an operation whereby opportunities and objects are made available. It rather refers to a physical (if we may use this word in this context), natural, immediate, and powerful influence which causes the creature to move voluntarily.
(4) This cooperation is also not mediate in the sense in which a craftsman uses his tools, and as the moon by means of reflected light from the sun affects earthly objects and illuminates the earth. This cooperation is immediate; God energizes mobile creatures by His own power and by virtue of His own Being. This is not merely true for the initial secondary cause which directly proceeds from Him, leaving it to itself to set everything else in motion, but with identical power He is involved in all secondary causes. Thus He is immediately involved with all consequences of the initial secondary cause, although creatures in respect to each other must be viewed as means in the hand of God.
(5) One should also not understand this cooperation to be such as if God were collaterally involved in the activity of the creature, as is true when two horses draw a wagon. This would mean that the creature by virtue of a God-given innate ability would then function independently rather than that God would energize the creature in order for it to be in motion. This would additionally mean that God would merely join Himself to the activity of the moving creature, executing this task jointly, each by exercising power independently. God’s initiative precedes the motion of the creature, however, stipulating the creature to a specific object, place, and time. Having initiated and determined the creature’s motion in this manner, God then proceeds to further involve Himself in the creature and its motion, thus accomplishing what He has purposed.
We therefore understand the cooperation of God not merely to refer to His omnipotent and omnipresent power whereby He preserves the existence and faculties of all creatures but also to be a special, physical, natural, immediate, and tangible operation by which He precedes the creature in every motion, directing this motion and preserving the created object while in motion. Thus He permeates all secondary causes and their motions to their conclusive effect.
Socinians, Roman Catholics, and Arminians deny this, and therefore we must give further explanation.
This truth is confirmed by both Scripture and nature.
It is first of all evident throughout the entire Bible.
Consider for instance Acts 17:28, where a clear distinction is made between the being and the motion of the creature. It is confirmed that the creature both moves in God and has its being in God. To move in God is being active due to the influence of divine power. This is also exemplified in the following passages. “Thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise Thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psa. 139:13–14); “Hast Thou not poured me out as milk, and curdled me like cheese? Thou hast clothed me with skin and flesh, and hast fenced me with bones and sinews” (Job 10:10–11); “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, as the rivers of water: He turneth it whithersoever He will” (Prov. 21:1). Water follows its own course, but God directs it whithersoever He wills. Although the heart of the king may be highly exalted above his subjects, it nevertheless does not function independently from God. The king may have as many plans as he wishes, but the Lord nevertheless inclines him towards His will and causes him to act accordingly.
Add to this Isaiah 10:15, where it is stated, “Shall the ax boast itself against him that heweth therewith? or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it? as if the rod should shake itself against them that lift it up?” The prophet says that as an axe, saw, and rod cannot set themselves in motion, but must be set in motion by someone else, so it is likewise for every creature and man. God sets them in motion in harmony with their nature by means of His cooperative influence. The Lord causes “His sun to rise” (Mat. 5:45). The Lord caused “the stars in their courses” to fight against Sisera (Judg. 5:20). David acknowledged, “For Thou hast girded me with strength unto the battle: Thou hast subdued under me those that rose up against me” (Psa. 18:39). “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).
Secondly, this is also evident from reason and nature itself.
(1) It is an irrefutable principle that the manner of operation proceeds from the manner of existence. Since each creature is dependent upon God in its existence, it is likewise dependent in its motions.
(2) Either man is entirely independent from God—which is most absurd to maintain, as it would be contradictory to be a creature and yet be independent of the Creator—or if man is dependent, then he is also dependent in all his motions. For otherwise he would be independent in this area, and if he were able to be independent in one area, he would also be able to be independent in other areas, and consequently in every area; this is contrary to the nature of a creature.
(3) If God did not energize the motions of every creature, it would not be necessary to pray, “Create in me a clean heart” (Psa. 51:12); “Thy Spirit is good; lead me into the land of uprightness” (Psa. 143:10); “Keep the door of my lips” (Psa. 141:3). There would be no need to pray for victory in war or for any other matter. Since, however, we are commanded to pray, it is evident that God energizes by His cooperative power. Then (if God did not energize the motions of every creature) there would also be no need to thank God upon receipt of a blessing for body or soul; for if God had not done it, one would not be permitted to give thanks to Him, but would rather have to express his thanksgiving either to himself or to another creature who had bestowed the blessing.
(4) Then God would not be Lord, but rather a servant of the creature—similar to the sun which man uses as and when he pleases. God would then have to be readily available with His general influence when the creature specified it, the creature determining in which manner His influence was to be used. Then one would not be able to say, “I shall do this, the Lord willing,” but rather, “The Lord will have to exercise His influence according to my will.” Then it would not be as God wills, but as man wills, contrary to James 4:15.
God is not the Author of Sin
The thought might occur as to whether the consequence of such cooperation would not be that there is but one cause of all motions and activities. Then God would be the only active agent and man and all creatures would be entirely passive, being set in motion as the strings of a musical instrument which are entirely passive and whose motion is caused solely by the player.
My response to this is: “Not in the least!” For even though creatures function as means in relation to each other, God using them in the execution of His work and purpose, they are nevertheless the primary cause of their motions and activities. This is not true in respect to God as if they were independent from Him, but in respect to other subordinate causes as well as the results of their activities. There is no inconsistency in the fact that two causes of a different order have the same result, especially since the result is one and the same, proceeding from both sources in a different manner.
The designation of God as the sole cause of all motions, deeds, and activities, and the proposition that man is therefore passive and inactive is the result of blindness and ignorance concerning God’s power and wisdom.
It is an error which is refuted by both Scripture and nature.
First, since God has imposed a law upon man to which promises as well as threatenings are appended, man is therefore not passive, but is himself the moving cause of his deeds.
God can neither impose a law upon Himself, make promises to Himself, nor threaten Himself. Since the law with its promises and threatenings has been given to man for the purpose of regulating his conduct, man must therefore be active himself and thus receive either what has been promised or threatened.
Secondly, if man were merely passive in all his motions, he could not be subject to punishment, for punishment is the execution of justice in response to transgression of the law.
If man had not committed anything but was merely a passive object of God’s activity, he would not have committed any evil, and thus, on the basis of justice, could not have been punished and condemned.
Thirdly, if man were merely passive and God was the only active agent in his motions and deeds, all motions and deeds, both natural as well as sinful (far be it from God, that He should do wickedness) would have been committed by God and would have to be attributed to Him.
Then God rather than man would be walking, speaking, writing, or reading. Man would neither pray nor believe, but God would be praying to Himself, and believing in Himself through Jesus Christ. Man would not be guilty of making idols; man would not use God’s Name in vain; man would not break the Sabbath; man would not be disobedient to his parents; man would not be guilty of hatred, wrath, and anger towards his neighbor, etc. Man would not be a hater of God, since he would be but passive and thus inactive. All of this would have to attributed to God which would be the ultimate act of blasphemy.
Fourthly, Scripture states plainly that man walks, sees, hears, speaks, believes, and prays.
It also states that man sins, and is thus righteously subject to punishment. It is unnecessary to quote all the texts which mention this. Paul states, “For we are labourers together with God” (1 Cor. 3:9). This is also confirmed when he states, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12–13). God is the efficient cause of this activity, but man is the subjective cause of that same work, producing these activities from within himself.
These activities must therefore be attributed to man according to the following principle: The name is attributed to the formal cause. In Philippians 2:12–13 man is exhorted to be active towards his salvation, being convinced and stirred up concerning his duty. He is simultaneously instructed, however, concerning his sinfulness and spiritual impotence, so that he would entertain no notion concerning the goodness of his will, nor be encouraged to be active towards this in his own strength. On the other hand he ought not to be discouraged when he perceives his weakness, but should rather be encouraged by the fact that God helps him by being the initiator of his action, working powerfully in him to take hold of this power and be engaged by virtue of this power.
Objection #1: Does not such cooperation make God a cause of sin?
Answer: By no means! One needs to make a distinction between the activity itself, such as understanding, willing, seeing, hearing, speaking, working, and the context in which this activity must occur: the law of God. The activity itself is natural and as such neither good nor evil; however when viewed within the context of the law, according to which it ought to be judged as far as subject, time, and manner are concerned, this activity becomes either good or evil. When discussing God’s cooperation we understand this to refer to the natural dimensions of this activity or motion itself. This is neither true, however, in reference to the misuse of this activity, to the lack of conformity to the law, nor to the evil in this activity.
One person can be the cause of activity in another person, but not of the evil which accompanies it. The government causes the executioner to scourge the thief, but is not the cause of the cruel manner in which he may do so. A player causes the strings to bring forth sound, but not the dissonance; this proceeds from the string. A rider may drive his horse and thus cause progress. He is not the cause of its limp, however; this is due to a flaw in the horse. Such is the case here. The activity itself proceeds from God, but man spoils it due to his inner corruption. Consequently, it is not God but man who is the cause of sin.
Objection #2: Does this initiating and definitive cooperation of God not eliminate the freedom of man’s will?
Answer: By no means! The freedom of the will is not one of neutrality; that is, of indifference whether or not to do something, but of necessary consequence, coming forth from one’s own choice, pleasure, or inclination to do or not do something. God’s cooperation enables man to be active in harmony with his nature, that is, by the free exercise of his will. There is thus harmony between God’s cooperation and the will of man. God activates the will and man then exercises his will.
The Third Act of God’s Providence: Government
The third element of the providence of God is Government, whereby God governs all things in general and each thing in particular for purposes predetermined by Him. God’s Word teaches throughout that God governs and directs all things. “The LORD reigneth” (Psa. 93:1); “… Him who worketh all things after the counsel of His own will” (Eph. 1:11); “I am the LORD that maketh all things” (Isa. 44:24). We can organize all these things under four particular headings: the independent entities, the greatness or insignificance, the goodness or evil, and the outcome of all matters.
The first heading is concerned with independent entities which are either animate or inanimate.
The animate entities are either rational or irrational. The rational entities are angels and men. God governs the angels for they are “sent forth to minister” (Heb. 1:14). God governs the entire conversation of man. “The preparations of the heart in man, and the answer of the tongue, is from the LORD. A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the LORD directeth his steps” (Prov. 16:1, 9). Irrational creatures either live sensibly or merely have a vegetative existence. The Lord governs all that which is sensibly alive, such as the birds. “Behold the fowls of the air … your heavenly Father feedeth them” (Mat. 6:26). The Lord governs the animals. “… the LORD sent lions among them …” (2 Ki. 17:25). The Lord calls the locust, the cankerworm, the caterpillar, and the palmerworm, “My great army which I sent among you” (Joel 2:25). He governs the fish of the sea. “Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and ye shall find” (John 21:6). The Lord also governs all vegetation such as plants, trees, and herbs. “He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man” (Psa. 104:14). The Lord governs all inanimate creation, such as sun, moon, stars, rain, hail, snow, thunder, lightning, wind, the mountains and all their natural resources, and the sea and rivers (cf. Psa. 148; Psa. 29:3; Jer. 10:13).
The second heading concerns the magnitude or insignificance of matters.
Large objects are as incapable of governing themselves as are the small objects, and therefore are in need of divine government. Small objects, to the very least of them, are governed by God in all circumstances, occurrences, and motions. It is to the glory of God that He who has created all things—even the very smallest objects—and causes them to exist by His influence, also governs them. This is true for the buttons on our clothing, the shoes on our feet, and the hairs on our heads. “But the very hairs of your head are all numbered” (Mat. 10:30); “Neither were their coats changed, nor the smell of fire had passed on them” (Dan. 3:27); “Your clothes are not waxen old upon you, and thy shoe is not waxen old upon thy foot” (Deu. 29:5).
The third heading concerns the goodness or evil of a matter.
Whatever is good in nature or in grace is of the Lord. “Every good and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). The evil is either the evil of punishment or of sin. The evil of punishment proceeds from God. God sends and governs the evil of punishment either as a righteous Judge or as a loving Father. “Out of the mouth of the Most High proceedeth not evil and good?” (Lam. 3:38); “Shall there be evil in a city, and the LORD hath not done it?” (Amos 3:6). The evil of sin does not proceed from God, for He is holy (Isa. 6:3) and light (1 John 1:5). “He is the Rock, His work is perfect: for all His ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is He” (Deu. 32:4); “Far be it from God, that He should do wickedness; and from the Almighty, that He should commit iniquity” (Job 34:10); “… there is no unrighteousness in Him” (Psa. 92:15). Since God prohibited evil and will punish it, He is therefore not the cause of sin. This we wholeheartedly proclaim and declare before the entire world. It is therefore slanderous to maintain that the Reformed Church teaches that God is a cause of sin.
God’s Government and Sin
Nevertheless God’s government also encompasses sin, for otherwise the entire human race, being sinful in its deeds, would be removed from God’s government. God’s government regarding sin cannot be denied by someone who believes God’s Word, from which we will prove this with utmost clarity.
For a correct understanding of God’s government relative to sin we must take notice of three matters which pertain to every sin: the natural activity, the deviation in this activity, and God’s government in bringing this activity to a good end.
(1) The natural activity, considered in and of itself, proceeds from God. This has been demonstrated in discussing the second act of providence, cooperation.
(2) We shall soon demonstrate that God governs sin to a good end.
(3) The deviation, the abuse of the energizing power of God, the corruption of this power, and the irregularity of the activity as far as manner and objective are concerned—whether such activity is internal or external—do not proceed from God, but from man himself. Man is nevertheless not independent in the act of sin for he corrupts the energy upon which he depends for his activity. God’s government concerning sin relates 1) to its commencement, 2) to its progression, and 3) to its ultimate outcome.
First, God initially permits the occurrence of sin.
“So I gave them up unto their own hearts lust: and they walked in their own counsels” (Psa. 81:12); “Who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways” (Acts 14:16). God permits sin, but not in such a manner as if the sinner were discharged from the demands of the law, for then God would approve of sin and would not be able to punish sinners. He permits it in such a fashion, however, that He does not prevent the sinner from sinning. He is, nevertheless, capable of preventing sin, and at times also does. “For I also withheld thee from sinning against Me; therefore suffered I thee not to touch her” (Gen. 20:6).
This is not a matter of indifferent observation, whereby the sinner is merely allowed to go his own way. It is rather an active permission, not relative to sin as proper object itself, but relative to the circumstances. This does not merely consist in God refusing to coerce the free will of the sinner by forcing him to renounce his will. (Even when God prevents the sinner and does not permit him to sin—as we just observed with Abimelech—He nevertheless does not eliminate the freedom of his will.) Rather, God influences man in a manner agreeable with his nature so that he arbitrarily acts or does not act.
This active permission consists of the following acts:
(1) Man’s activity as far as his faculties and activity are concerned originates with God who restricts and sustains him with His powerful influence, enabling him to exist and move so that he works and is active.
(2) God permits situations to occur, of which man would make correct use if he were still perfect. He is still under obligation to utilize such situations correctly. Due to his corruption, however, he abuses them. David’s lust was kindled when he observed Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11:2); Ahab’s wrath was kindled in response to the words of the prophet Elijah (1 Ki. 21:20). Lusts are even kindled by the law itself. “But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence” (Rom. 7:8).
(3) In withholding from man the ability to withstand sin, God righteously and sovereignly refuses to impart new grace to man when he has the opportunity and is inclined to sin. He wills to leave him in his evil frame, rendering him capable and inclined to commit all manner of sins. “There shall ye serve other gods day and night; where I will not shew you favour” (Jer. 16:13).
(4) As a righteous judgment upon past sins, God does withdraw His restraining power which is normally exercised towards the sinner, leaving him to himself. “Howbeit in the business of the ambassadors of the princes of Babylon … God left him, to try him” (2 Chr. 32:31).
(5) As a righteous judgment, God gives the sinner over to his own lusts and thus punishes sin with sin. “And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient” (Rom. 1:28); “… because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this cause God shall send them a strong delusion, that they should believe a lie” (2 Th. 2:10–11); “Let him alone, and let him curse; for the LORD hath bidden him” (2 Sam. 16:11).
(6) God gives the devil free play to focus all his efforts upon man, whom he drives from one sin to another, taking advantage of man’s lusts which have been aroused. “But the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD troubled him” (1 Sam. 16:14); “Thou [lying spirit] shalt persuade him, and prevail also: go forth, and do so” (1 Ki. 22:22).
(7) God hardens the heart, causing it to be as stone, thereby permitting the sinner to persevere in sin without being sensible of it. God Himself uses such expressions, saying that He does this. “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.… And He hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (Exo. 7:3, 13). This act of hardening is not an infusion of some evil or sinful frame, but a holy and secret operation whereby common but abused gifts are withdrawn in an extraordinary manner. The Lord then fully withdraws Himself so that there is neither impression nor feeling concerning God or the conscience. God leaves the sinner over to his own raging lusts and allows the devils to have free play so that the sinner in this state cannot do anything else but sin and is hardened as a result of continual sinning. Therefore that which is attributed to God is also attributed to Pharaoh. “But when Pharaoh saw that there was respite, he hardened his heart” (Exo. 8:15). Such is God’s government relative to sin at the outset of its commission.
Secondly, God’s government also extends to the progression of sin.
God determines the measure, time, and limitations; that is, thus far and no further, to such an extent and no more, and for such a duration and no longer. This we observe with Laban. “It is in the power of my hand to do you hurt: but the God of your father spake unto me yesternight, saying, Take thou heed that thou speak not to Jacob either good or bad” (Gen. 31:29). Esau was determined to kill Jacob, but must kiss him instead (Gen. 33:4). Baalam desired to curse in order to earn the wages of unrighteousness, but each time he was compelled to bless (Num. 24). The devil desired to eliminate Job, but each time the Lord determined his deliverance. “… only upon himself put not forth thine hand” (Job 1:12); “… but save his life” (Job 2:6).
Thirdly, God’s government also extends to the ultimate outcome of sin.
He governs sin either to declare His righteousness, to show forth His grace, longsuffering, and mercy, or to benefit His children, keeping them humble and making them careful. “But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive” (Gen. 50:20); “O Assyrian, the rod of Mine anger, and the staff in their hand is Mine indignation. I will send him against an hypocritical nation … and to take the prey. Howbeit he meaneth not so … but it is in his heart to destroy and cut off nations not a few. I will punish the fruit of the stout heart of the king of Assyria, and the glory of his high looks” (Isa. 10:5–7, 12). “Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on Him to life everlasting” (1 Tim. 1:16).
Such results do not naturally issue forth from sin; neither does God first determine to extract good results from sin after it has been committed. Having decreed to glorify Himself in such a fashion and to bestow certain benefits upon His children, God rather uses the wickedness of man in a sanctified manner to accomplish the outcome. As the sun is not defiled by the rotting of a stinking cadaver, God likewise, while men and devils commit sin, remains holy and operates in a holy manner relative to the commencement, progression, and ultimate outcome of sin. God uses sinners as if they were executioners, lions, and bears, in order to execute His judgments by means of their fury, and thus with a crooked stick He strikes with straight strokes.
The fourth heading concerning the providence of God relates to the outcome of all matters.
These results are either necessary consequences or are contingent in nature. Therefore these also include whatever occurs as a result of such matters as the free exercise of man’s will, the outcome of wars, marriage, and the day of one’s death.
First, some results are certain and a matter of course, being determined by the law and order of nature.
Such is true for the circuits (trajectories) of sun and moon, for eclipses, for the occurrence of low and high tides, and for the fact that fire ascends and that whatever is heavy descends. All these are governed by God. This is confirmed in the following texts. “He appointed the moon for seasons: the sun knoweth his going down. Thou makest darkness, and it is night” (Psalms 104:19–20); “They continue this day according to Thine ordinances: for all are Thy servants” (Psalms 119:91).
God can, however, intervene in this established plan and cause progression contrary to the course of nature. Upon the prayer of Joshua the Lord caused the sun and moon to stand still (Josh. 10:13) and He caused the sun to return ten degrees upon Hezekiah’s request (2 Ki. 20:11). The Lord caused iron to float (2 Ki. 6:6), and the three young men to be unharmed in the fiery oven (Dan. 3:25). The prophecies also have a certain and determined fulfillment which God is not willing nor are His creatures able to change. “But how then shall the Scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be?” (Mat. 26:54).
Secondly, the results of some matters are contingent.
This is not true in reference to God, for not the least thing happens by chance. His counsel shall stand and He will do all His pleasure. They are contingent, however, both relative to secondary causes (relative to which they could have turned out differently) and relative to the connection between causes and their effects, for which the results were neither planned, regulated, nor expected. God, however, governs all these contingent results according to His counsel and will, executing them with certainty and without any impediment. This is exemplified by unexpected manslaughter in which God caused this blow to come upon the slain person (cf. Deu. 19:5; Exo. 21:13).
Is there anything more unpredictable than the casting of the lot? God’s government nevertheless extends to this, and He causes the result to be according to His will. “The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the LORD” (Prov. 16:33). This is evident in the lot which fell upon Jonah (Jonah 1:7) and upon Jonathan (1 Sam. 14:42). What is more unpredictable in nature than the falling of a sparrow from the roof or a hair from the head? God’s government, however, also extends to these. “One of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered” (Mat. 10:29–30).
Thirdly, God also governs all actions which occur as a result of the free exercise of the will of man.
God does not remove the freedom of the will, nor does he coerce man to act contrary to his will. Rather, He inclines and governs this will, be it by internal inclination or by external circumstances and events, so that man accomplishes those matters decreed by God by virtue of his own arbitrary determination and inclination. This is confirmed in the following texts. “He fashioneth their hearts alike” (Psa. 33:15); “… the answer of the tongue, is from the LORD … the LORD directeth his steps” (Prov. 16:1, 9); He turneth it (the king’s heart) whithersoever He will” (Prov. 21:1); “… God which worketh … to will …” (Phil. 2:13).
Fourthly, God governs the outcome of wars, sending one nation to punish the other or to be a punishment to each other.
He does not always give the victory to the nation which is strongest numerically, most clever, and most courageous, but to whomsoever He will. “How should one chase a thousand, and two put ten thousand to flight?” (Deu. 32:30a); “It is nothing with Thee to help, whether with many, or with them that have no power” (2 Chr. 14:11); “There is no king saved by the multitude of an host: a mighty man is not delivered by much strength. An horse is a vain thing for safety” (Psa. 33:16–17); “The horse is prepared against the day of battle: but safety is of the LORD” (Prov. 21:31). All texts in which God is said either to sell or give one nation into the hand of another nation, or to deliver a nation, serve to illustrate this (cf. Judg. 3:8; 6:1).
Fifthly, God’s government also extends to marriage, directing a partner to every man.
Some He joins together in judgment as punishment upon their sins, some for the purpose of chastening, and some for the mutual comfort of soul and body. How unsearchable are all those peculiar ways and unusual events relative to marriages! God, however, governs them all according to His determinate purpose, and as long as the world remains there will be some marriages in which such providences will be evident. “LORD … send me good speed this day … let the same be she that Thou hast appointed for Thy servant Isaac” (Gen. 24:12–14); “… a prudent wife is from the LORD” (Prov. 19:14); “What therefore God hath joined together …” (Mat. 19:6).
Sixthly, God determines every person’s age.
No one will die any earlier nor live any longer than God has decreed. He will die at such a location and in such a manner as God has determined. Until that moment God will provide food and shelter, preserving his body. But then all the doctors in the world will not be able to prolong His life by one hour. “… and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation” (Acts 17:26); “Seeing his days are determined, the number of his months are with Thee, Thou hast appointed his bounds that he cannot pass” (Job 14:5); “Behold, Thou hast made my days as an handbreadth” (Psa. 39:5). (Cf. chapter 5.)
God’s Providence and the Use of Means
We have thus observed that everything, without exception, is governed according to God’s decree. God generally executes all these things by way of means, however, having bound man to them. Whenever the means are properly used, God generally blesses His own ordinances. An ungodly farmer who properly prepares his land generally has a fruitful harvest, and a godly farmer who has been lax in his preparation will have to witness the harvest with empty hands. When a godly person does his best, however, God surely blesses the most insignificant means. A person tempts God when he does not wish to use the means and nevertheless desires to see results.
This doctrine of the providence of God is of great benefit to those who make proper use of it. A blind, natural, and unconverted person can neither extract any benefit from this doctrine nor obtain comfort from it. He cannot do so even though he observes and believes in the providence of God and desires to strengthen himself by means of it when an extraordinary trial comes his way. His patience is a coerced patience, as he is not able to do otherwise. He resigns himself to a fatum Stoicum, that is, stoical fate, saying: “Circumstances had to be this way and nothing can change them.” When he cannot do as he pleases, he tries to make the best of it. How will an unconverted man comfort himself with the providence of God, since God is against him? Whatever befalls him serves to his perdition if he is not converted. Therefore it is a terror unto him.
However, all the benefits which may be derived from this doctrine are for the children of God. The clearer they may know themselves to belong to God, the more benefit they may extract from the providence of God. Come, therefore, all you who mourn greatly, inwardly, and continually over sin; who continually flee to the Lord Jesus to be justified by His blood; who yearn for communion with God; whose desire it is to love, fear, and obey the Lord, even though this is often accompanied with much darkness and sin. Come, I say, sit beside me for a moment, listen, and let my words enter into your ears and hearts.
Practical Exhortations Concerning the Doctrine of Providence
Accustom yourself by frequent meditations, attentive observation, and diligent exercises to believingly observe God’s hand in all things. As you would observe the rays of the sun entering a room through a window, observe His preservation, cooperation, and government, concerning both creatures and their activity. Accustom yourself continually to discern God’s active hand when you observe the sunrise in the morning and the shining moon and stars at night in their respective circuits; as you observe everything sprouting forth from the earth; when you take note of what occurs in the earth; and when you observe both victory and defeat in time of war, as also the extraordinary events and turn of events in time of peace.
Do likewise regarding your own life, whether you are healthy or ill, whether you continually encounter tribulation, one cross following another; whether you experience deliverance and prosperity; whether a person looks at you either in a friendly or sullen manner, speaks either gruffly to you or helps and comforts you; or whether someone turns his back to you, seeks to trap you, opposes you, speaks well or evil of you. All these things, from the least to the greatest, are under God’s control. It is not enough merely to state this and believe it to be true, for this will have but little effect upon you.
I beseech you, however, to endeavor by constant activity and by continually focusing vividly upon and viewing it to familiarize yourself with this truth.
May you thus continually perceive God’s hand working in and by secondary causes in such a manner as if these causes did not exist, but as if God worked these things immediately. Endeavor by thus being continually exercised to acquire a habitual frame of mind which will make it clear and easy for you to see God at work.
Believe me, this requires more effort to learn than you may think. Our atheistic and worldly hearts continually detract us from such observations and acknowledgement, and this will bring on a darkness which will hamper us. Therefore, apply yourself in this matter, praying for much light to enable you to be attentive and to be continually engaged in such observations. You will experience that your soul will derive great benefit in every way. Beware, however, of too much effort spent in searching out the manner in which God preserves, cooperates, and governs, for this would have a detrimental effect upon you, it being an unsearchable mystery. Rather, believe and observe this doctrine each time with new attentiveness. Speak about it and communicate this to others, and you will perceive that your journey through this world will be attended with more comfort and holiness.
Secondly, do not merely focus on the acts of providence, but accustom yourself to perceive therein God’s majesty, power, wisdom, righteousness, and goodness.
Acknowledge these attributes with astonishment and joy. All creatures are His; all activity proceeds from Him; and He governs everything in heaven and on earth. This is true regardless of how large the universe may be, how many creatures (great or small) it may contain, and how diverse all activity may be. May this acknowledgement engender a humble fear and reverence in you. Is not He, and He alone, the Lord? Are not all things in His hand to use them either for or against you? Are not all creatures His servants who look unto the hand of their Master?
Stand therefore in awe of Him and bow before Him in godly fear while exclaiming, “The Lord is God,” and “the Lord reigns.” God demands this. “Fear ye not Me? saith the LORD: will ye not tremble at My presence, which have placed the sand for the bound of the sea by a perpetual decree, that it cannot pass it: and though the waves thereof toss themselves, yet can they not prevail; though they roar, yet can they not pass over it?” (Jer. 5:22). Oh, how sweet it is in contemplation of the fact that God is the moving cause of all things to bow before Him and to worship Him!
Thirdly, no longer depend upon secondary causes;
No longer rely upon your belongings, strength, wisdom, and ability; no longer concern yourself with friend or foe; do not depend upon naval forces, fortifications, and soldiers; do not look so much to this or that individual or to the means, as if your only expectation were to be from them. If God so pleases, He will overturn all your dependencies and expectation from the means. He will turn everything upside down; what you thought to be your deliverance will prove to be your ruination, and what appeared to be your ruination will be your deliverance.
Since creatures cannot but move otherwise than through His energizing power, what can they give to you or take from you? Why then do you look to them, since every one of them bears this testimony, “It is not to be found with me”? Moreover, to depend upon the help of creatures is to be guilty of idolatry and departure from the Lord. “Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the LORD. Blessed is the man that trusteth in the LORD, and whose hope the LORD is” (Jer. 17:5, 7). Oh, learn this great lesson! Let those who do not know God look to the creature and to the means and depend upon them. You, however, must expect everything from the Lord, carefully using the means as means and looking beyond all creatures to God Himself. This will engender both steadfastness and strength within your heart. “They that trust in the LORD shall be as mount Zion, which cannot be removed, but abideth forever” (Psa. 125:1).
Fourthly, be not fearful of creatures, as they cannot initiate their own motion.
It is God alone who governs and controls them. If you have an encounter with them, God who controls them has sent them. They cannot do anything but execute God’s will. God obstructs them in their activity and causes them to depart again. Who would fear a sword, stick, or stone when it is lying upon the ground and does not move since it is not in anyone’s hand? If it is God’s will, anyone desirous to curse you will bless you; if they desire to slander you, they will praise you; and if they desire to kill you, they will kiss you. “If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31). And since He is for you, children of God, why do you fear?
For all your enemies it is true that it is but as if a terrifying mask conceals the countenance of a friend. “When He giveth quietness, who then can make trouble?” (Job 34:29). Therefore, “Fear not them which kill the body” (Mat. 10:28). How quiet a soul may be which, while conscious of his enemies, “dwelleth in the secret place of the most High” and abides under the shadow of the Almighty (Psa. 91:1)!
Fifthly, do not be angry and vengeful towards those who have harmed you, for it is according to the Lord’s command (2 Sam. 16:11).
“Who is he that saith, and it cometh to pass, when the Lord commandeth it not?” (Lam. 3:37). It is true that they have done so with evil intention, but the Lord uses their evil deeds as a rod to chastise you (Isa. 10). We must not act as a dog which bites the stone that has been cast at him, but must look higher to the hand of Him who uses our enemies against us and refrain from murmuring against the Lord. To be vengeful or angry against the means used is to be opposed to the One who used them. Therefore never focus upon the evil-doing of man alone, as if he functioned independently, but rather “hear ye the rod, and who hath appointed it” (Micah 6:9), and turn to Him who chastises you (Isa. 9:12).
Sixthly, possess your souls in patience.
This is so needful, for evil things do not come upon you by chance even if they are caused by people. Yes, even if your own foolishness and sin are the cause, it is nevertheless of the Lord who hath decreed this concerning you, who controls it, and who executes it. Therefore with quiet submission say, “For He performeth the thing that is appointed for me” (Job 23:14).
(1) Is He not the absolutely sovereign Lord? Do you begrudge Him this? Do you not rejoice that He is so? Would you not defend Him if anyone were to challenge His absolute right to govern? Would you desire that the link of His providence would break for your sake, desiring that His will not govern you, but that your will would govern Him? If so, how do you dare to resist Him? Be quiet therefore, and let His will—simply because it is His will—be fully accomplished towards you.
(2) Is He not your Father? Has He not loved you with an everlasting love? Behold, in love He caused this evil to come upon you. “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten” (Rev. 3:19). He has compassion upon you, is merciful towards you, is with you in your affliction, knows your distress, sees your tears, and hears your cries. He will deliver you at His time and in His manner.
(3) The result will be to the further glorification of His power, faithfulness, and goodness. This will cause you to be that much more humble and holy. The more abundant the tribulation will have been, the more abundant the comforts will be.
Therefore, deny yourself and take up your cross, and follow Jesus (Mat. 16:24).
Do not be fretful and “despise not the chastening of the LORD; neither be weary of His correction” (Prov. 3:11). “Rest in the LORD, and wait patiently for Him” (Psa. 37:7). Say with David, “I was dumb, I opened not my mouth; because Thou didst it” (Psa. 39:9). Surrender yourself as clay in the hands of your Maker, and let Him mold you as it pleases Him. He shall guide thee with His counsel, and afterward receive thee to glory (Psa. 73:24). Is all not well then, regardless of whether He has led you in a way of sorrow or joy? To be blessed is to be blessed indeed.
Seventhly, the proper use of God’s providence will render you an exceptional measure of gratitude and will teach you to end in the Lord as the only Giver of all the good which you may receive for soul and body.
It will cause you to observe God’s goodness, faithfulness, and benevolence. This will cause you to rejoice, to praise and magnify God, to speak to others about His attributes, and to place yourself with a willing heart in God’s service. He it is who, out of pure love bestowed His goodness upon you. At times He has done so in a most remarkable way and a marvelous manner. Since it came from God, we must also end in Him. “For of Him, and through Him, and to Him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever” (Rom. 11:36). “In every thing give thanks” (1 Th. 5:18). Continually follow David’s example and say, “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits” (Psa. 103:2). Oh, how sweet it is when contemplating upon former affliction, helplessness, and our unworthiness to receive anything, to then perceive that the Lord Himself thinks upon us and delivers us! What desire this engenders to magnify the Lord in it and to rejoice in Him!
Eighthly, such proper use of providence yields to the soul a proper perspective and a quiet confidence in God concerning the future.
The passionate lusts of the flesh are held in check, and the cross will not be feared. One will cease with the intense, immoderate, and sinful use of the means and surrender the matter in the Lord’s hands. One will then be satisfied with the manner in which He performs it, knowing that it will be well. “Commit thy way unto the LORD; trust also in Him; and He shall bring it to pass” (Psa. 37:5); “Casting all your care upon Him; for He careth for you” (1 Pet. 5:7); “The LORD will perfect that which concerneth me” (Psa. 138:8). Behold, such benefits may be derived from the providence of God. Therefore, “Whoso is wise, and will observe these things, even they shall understand the lovingkindness of the LORD” (Psa. 107:43); “Who is wise, and he shall understand these things? prudent, and he shall know them? for the ways of the LORD are right, and the just shall walk in them” (Hosea 14:9).
Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service