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Jonathan Master (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is professor of theology and dean of the School of Divinity at Cairn University. He is also director of Cairn’s Center for University Studies. Dr. Master serves as executive editor of Place for Truth and is co-chair of the Princeton Regional Conference on Reformed Theology.

Article by Michael Dewalt

God’s Providence

July 1, 2015 •

The LORD has established His throne in the heavens, And His sovereignty rules over all. - Psalms 103:19

There seems to be a renewal of theological emphasis today on the historical view of creatio continua (continual creation), referred to by some theologians as the doctrine of providence. Providence is the triune God’s activity in preserving creatures and bringing about their fruitfulness and ongoing diversity. It is through God’s providence that he made creatio ex nihilo (creation from nothing). The triune God’s unique work was to bringthe created universe, time, and space into existence from no preexistent material. James Montgomery Boice foresaw this theological renewal when he wrote the words,

“There is probably no point at which the Christian doctrine [Providence] of God comes more into conflict with contemporary worldviews than in the matter of God’s providence. Providence means that God has not abandoned the world that he created, but rather works within that creation to manage all things according to the “immutable counsel of His own will.”  

One of these worldview’s Rev. Boice had in mind is what theologians call occasionalism, the philosophical view that every moment is a direct ex nihilo creation; it tends to attribute sole causality for each and every thing to God. Unlike original or ex nihilo creation, in continual creation God always works through the integrity of secondary causes and processes. However, God does not create all existence ex nihilo every moment, as occasionalism holds. For this reason, referring to continual creation by the equally traditional term providence may be less prone to misunderstanding. Although there are significant areas of convergence between theology and science, presuppositions and inherent differences in objects of study will always play a formative role. Science is not wrong for being strictly empirical, but it is wrong for extrapolating from its observations of nature to claim that there is nothing beyond it. The hope for a renewed and consummated creation arises not from natural observation or probabilities, but from God’s promises revealed in Scripture according to His divine decree, His providence.

When one speaks of the doctrine of divine providence, he brings together his understanding of divine decree and his own understanding of the doctrine of creation. In some sense Romans 11:36 provides the rubric for the doctrine of providence, that all things are from God, to God, and through God. When Scripture speaks of providence, it speaks of more than space-time continuum which are simply created by God; the doctrine of providence is richer than that. There is more here in this doctrine than only a kind of cold causal continuous creation idea. The Westminster Confession of Faith is the finest confessional declaration of providence. It is a remarkably full statement for one paragraph and shows that the Puritans worked at thoroughly defining the doctrine of divine providence for the church. Yet, even with such development and explanation that chapter five gives the church, it is the experiential side of the doctrine of providence that the Christian wrestles with. Let us look at the disciplinary purposes of providence: to perfect believers, to protect the church, to parade the heinousness of sin; to perfect believers, to protect the church, to parade the heinousness of sin, to relate prayer to providence, and to show its moral character for the Christian.

Firstly, providence perfects believers. The Westminster Confession of Faith 5.5 is clear here: “God, doth oftentimes leave for a season” sending his providences to us to perfect godliness in believers. It is done by His “most wise, righteous, and gracious” character. John Flavel reminds us that “sometimes providences, like Hebrew letters, must be read backward.” It is better to look back at experiences and situations rather than to attempt to analyze them while enduring them. For every experience of life, the Christian can rest assured that it might be done “to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon himself.”

Secondly, providence protects the church from the sin of its own members and protects her from external destruction (Matt. 16:18-19). The church is going to abide because God will preserve her through his providence. All throughout the Old and New Testaments and church history, God wonderfully preserves his worldwide church through his providence. For example; Israel in Egypt, Israel in the Wilderness, and Apostles from persecution.

Thirdly, providence parades the heinousness of sin. God wants us to see the nature of things and wants us to understand what sin does (Rom. 1). Sin wreaks havoc and brings guilt to the Christian; even the natural man tries to suppress this truth. Believers need to understand that God’s providence exposes sin and keeps us watchful and sober of it.

Fourthly, providence shows prayer’s relationship to providence. There are those who ask, “Why pray at all if provenience exists? Can we pray for intervention?” Here, the Christian has to understand that God delights to give gifts to his children and delights to answer prayer. Jesus says, “ask and you shall receive” (Matt. 7:7). The secret lies in this: the Christian may pray for things, provided they pray these things in subjection to God’s will. The Christian is called to bring everything to God’s will in prayer. There are many things in this area that are obvious; it is always right to pray for salvation for you nearest and dearest. It is always right to pray for rulers, but all that the Christian prays for needs to be brought in the Spirit that his name would be hallowed, his glory had, his kingdom come, and his will be done. That whole opening section of the Lord’s Prayer conveys the spirit in which we ought to pray in regards to God’s providence. There are broad encouragements to pray for anything that would promote God’s glory. If it does, then this is something worthy to pray for; in His wise decree and providence, God joins to this prayer. God does this not because the Christian prays, but because Christians subject themselves to the will of Himself at the hallowing of His name. This is the pattern and mindset that Christians should have when they pray in relationship to God’s providence.

Fifthly, providence has a moral character and highlights the suffering righteous. How does one grasp this when God loves his people, and at the same time allows tension in divine providence such that one cannot grasp his love? God’s footsteps are planted in the seas, but in reality that is the Christian’s struggle. Often one is looking for God’s footsteps and discovers that they are in the sea and cannot be seen. The biggest question for God’s people is: Why do the righteous suffer? Why in God’s providence does the Christian suffer? The Christian must remember the principle that much of the suffering of the righteous is paternal chastening (Prov. 3, Heb. 12, & Ps. 119). First, it is character-building and makes the Christian partake of Christ and His holiness. One cannot read this into events themselves, but the Holy Spirit works it in our hearts in retrospect. God has put Christians in this world to prepare them for the glory to come. Additionally, in some of the suffering of the righteous, God is vindicating himself, showing Christians who he is. Thirdly, the suffering of the righteous helps the Christian think eschatologically. It is typical to desire to be settled, know where one is going, what one’s wage is, and to have everything figured out, and yet God keeps his church under cross-providences to work in us the eternal weight of glory. And fourthly, the suffering of the righteous is because of our union with Jesus Christ. His sufferings are not only atonement, but also the imprint of the gospel in our lives. The Christian cannot follow him without being a sufferer for him and with him.

The benefits of God’s providence are endless, let alone fully knowledgeable, but consider a few. The doctrine of God’s providence gives the Christian patience in adversity. The believer is joyfully resigned to the will of God for God’s glory, by God’s Word, through God’s Spirit, trusting in his fatherhood. The Christian is to say, “I remember Him for the grace of submission.” For when things come into his life, he has four lessons he can be sure of in every experience: to acknowledge the Lord, to justify God, to approve of the Lord, and to believe in Him (Rom. 8:28). For the Christian is called to cleave to the Lord as his dearest friend even when it seems like his is the greatest enemy. The Christian might also learn thankfulness in prosperity. True thankfulness is always an act of faith and always roots in the soil of one’s own unworthiness. It is Jesus Christ only that makes such thanksgiving acceptable. God’s providence gives the Christian a firm trust for the future. Lastly, the Christian learns to know God more as a Father from his repeated acts of providence. Lastly, the Christian learns to know God more as a Father from his repeated acts of providence. In the words of Corrie ten Boom, “My life is but a weaving, / Between the Lord and me.” As our father weaves thread after thread into the tapestry of our lives, we can weave our part in earnest, leaving to Him the rest. 

Michael Dewalt serves as Director of Admissions and Assistant Professor of Theology at Faith Theological Seminary, Digital Content Manager and Rhetoric and Logic Tutor at Granite Classical Tutorials, and Adjunct Professor in the Bible and Theology Department at Lancaster Bible College.  He and his wife Emily have been blessed with one son, Wyatt Cash.

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