Survey Studies in Reformed Theology
Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
by Bob Burridge ©1996, 2006, 2010, 2016
Providence: The Symphony of Everything
Westminster Shorter Catechism
Question #8 How doth God execute his decrees?
Answer: God executeth his decrees in the works of creation and providence.
Westminster Confession of Faith IV – Of Creation (previous study)
In creation God gave material reality to his decrees. He made a setting suited for the display of his glory. He made man to live in that setting with the physical ability to receive divine revelation.
Westminster Confession of Faith V – Of Providence
In providence God preserves and governs his creation so that it will accomplish all He made it to achieve. He is ever revealing himself generally in the things made.
the revealed facts of the eternal plan of a Sovereign God.
The biblical doctrine of providence stands in contrast with the usual attempts made by fallen human hearts to explain the course of events in our world. The most extreme position is in those who deny that there is any kind of a god at all. But that is too irrational a position to be held widely. Even fallen man cannot fit it all together without admitting some concept of deity, though it’s distorted.
Deism treats God as Creator but not as Preserver God is seen as setting the physical universe in motion at creation. He made it with natural laws then let it go like a machine. Within the boundaries of natural laws, chance is presumed to be the governor of all things. They make no place for a personal God. Statistical descriptions of events account for what they observe. God to them is impersonal, and has neither covenanted with man to bless him, nor to reveal himself. God to them, if conscious at all, must wait to see what will become of his creation.
Fatalism destroys the personal nature of the Creator and of man. Everything is moving toward a fixed end with all the means toward that end being fixed as well. There is no room for a loving purpose or for individual worth. Each person is little more than a gear in a great cosmic machine that grinds impersonally toward inevitable finality. Nothing can occur that is not part of the whole motion of the cosmos. Therefore, since there is no personal God, there can be no real sin or rebellion. Fate is seen as the author of all that happens whether we call it “good” or “evil.” To the Fatalist, all is “meaningless, merciless, and hopeless”.
Pantheism makes everything to be an extension of god. God to the Pantheist is seen as present in all actions, and it extends Fatalism to the physical things themselves. If everything is god both being and acting, then there is no sin or action contrary to his pleasure. There is neither redemption nor a need of it. It denies the reality of the individual as a separate person. It eliminates the possibility of a true objective morality.
Mysticism sees god as totally “other” than His creation. The Mystic denies objectivity in God’s revelation. No one can really know god with any certainty, only subjectively. There is no certain purpose to anything. We must just accept things in our ignorance.
WCF 5.1 “God the great Creator of all things does uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.”
God governs all creatures, actions, and things. From the greatest even to the very least creature, action, and thing, God upholds, directs, disposes, and governs them. Many direct references in Scripture support this teaching.
Psalm 135:6 “Whatever the LORD pleases, He does, In heaven and in earth”
Proverbs 19:21 “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, But the counsel of the Lord, it will stand.”
Proverbs 21:1 “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the LORD; He turns it wherever He wishes.”
Nahum 1:3 “Jehovah doeth His will in the whirlwind and in the storm”
Matthew 10:29 “Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? and yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.”
Ephesians 1:11-12 “also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ should be to the praise of His glory.”
Colossians 1:17 “… in Him all things hold together.”
The Bible is very clear: Nothing in the universe is excluded from his providence.
and his free immutable will.
1. God’s foreknowledge is often misunderstood. The Greek word usually translated “foreknowledge” is prognosis (προγνωσις). The prefix “pro” means “before”. The base word is “gnosis”. it means “knowledge”. (The medical term “prognosis” is the prediction of the future course of some disease or condition.) God knows with certainty all that is going to come to pass. In the Bible the word has a special redemptive use.
Romans 8:29, “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren;”
We need to understand what kind of knowledge is meant in this verse.
There are several ways we use the word “knowledge” and its verb “to know”.
There is “propositional knowledge”. God knows all the facts about everything without exception and without degrees.
There is also “personal relationship knowledge”. God knows some persons specially in distinction from others. Since he knows everyone as a fact, the distinctions cannot refer to facts about someone. This knowledge is a special relationship he bears with these certain ones.
In Matthew 7:23 Jesus will say to the lost at the final judgment, “…`I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice iniquity.'” He cannot mean he will be unaware of them until that moment. It’s that he did not know them personally, covenantally, and redemptively.
This is a common use of the verb “to know” in the Bible. For example, Genesis 4:1 tells us that Adam “knew” his wife. The NASB says he “had relations” with her. The verb there is “yada’ ” (יָדַ֖ע), the normal Hebrew word for “to know”.
Scripture often speak of God “knowing” some in a way that he doesn’t know others.
Genesis 18:19 speaks of Abraham saying, “I have known him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice…”
Jeremiah 1:5 “before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you…”
John 10:14 “I am the good shepherd; and I know my own, and my own know me.”
1 Corinthians 8:3 “If anyone loves God, he is known by Him.”
Galatians 4:9 “Now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things…”
Romans 11:2 “God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew.”
God knows all the facts about every person without exception or imperfection, even what is yet future. Therefore these verses cannot mean factual knowledge. It must mean a special bond with some and not with others.
Foreknowledge predates all contingencies. Ephesians 1:4, “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, …”
Foreknowledge is not a hypothetical knowing of things not yet done. The Bible speaks of God foreknowing people, not events. It says, “whom he foreknew”, not “because of what he foreknew.”
What we might do in the future cannot determine God’s disposition toward us. It cannot refer to what facts God knows, because he knows all facts about all people and their future acts. It must be a covenantal bond sovereignly established by God toward certain persons, and it is equivalent to his election to redeem certain ones.
2. God is sovereign and therefore most free. He cannot be coerced or affected by anything outside of himself. Anything that controls another is sovereign over it by definition. God is ultimately sovereign over all things (see: Theology Proper, Chapter 2, God’s Independence and Sovereignty).
3. One of the basic attributes of God revealed in Scripture is his immutability. James 1:17 God is the “Father of Lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow.”
If the universe proceeded in an uncertain path, determined by the influences of creatures whose ideas and actions are introduced at some point in time, then the plan of God is not eternal and unchangeable. If the plan of God, and therefore his understanding of the universe is mutable then God himself is mutable. But the knowledge of the God of Scripture does not change or depend upon things outside of himself. The course of events is certain in the mind of God and his decree of providence is comprehensive.
Nothing outside of God, things created and temporal, can impose direction to the eternal plans of its Creator. It’s not possible that something that begins in time can determine the course of an eternity determined before it existed. A cause must precede its effect or it no longer may be considered a cause.
In considerations such as these God’s eternality, immutability, sovereignty, and independence converge for us. Such convergence helps remind us that the attributes of God are not divided in the nature of God. It’s the revelation of them under separate headings that makes known to us finite creatures.
The revealed purpose of the decrees of creation and providence is the glory of the Eternal God.
Colossians 1:16 ” … all things have been created by Him and for Him.”
1 Peter 4:11 “…that in all things God may be glorified…”
WCF 5.2 “Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, He orders them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.”
WCF 5.3 “God, in His ordinary providence, makes use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at His pleasure.”
(The idea of “secondary causes” was introduced in the general discussion of the Decrees of God in WCF III, WSC 7).
All things come to pass immutably and infallibly. There is a relationship between those decrees and the means God uses to execute them. God uses the natural laws he created to drive the physical universe toward his eternal plan. He also moves people and nations in the unfolding of his plan. The created persons God employs are held responsible for their actions as the efficient causes. God sometimes acts directly without using ordinary means such as when he produces miracles, supernatural events. This is when we say God acts without, above, or against ordinary means.
Yet in all the use of these means the purposes of God and his eternal personal attributes cannot be not violated.
how can persons be held responsible for sinning?
Clearly God tells us that he holds individuals responsible for their sins. The Bible calls those deeds the true works of the creature. The connection between the decrees and the employment of means which produce wicked results is not directly revealed to us in Scripture. There is no real contradiction or conflict involved as long as we do not assume things not revealed. We should not attempt to understand the universe and history using products of our own imagination. We have such a finite knowledge of the universe, and our knowledge is limited by the effects of our inherited condition of sin.
1 Corinthians 2:14, “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to
him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.”
Romans 3:11, “There is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God.”
Man’s own desires direct him when he acts as a secondary cause of events. He acts freely. He acts according to his own desires. He is not constrained by God to do evil he does not want to do.
Even our evil intentions, which offend God and rebel against his revealed moral principles, are used providentially to promote the glory of God and blessings to his people.
Remember Joseph and the wicked acts of his brothers: Genesis 45:7-8 “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance. Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his household and ruler over all the land of Egypt.”
Genesis 50:20 “as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.”
Peter explained the most wicked act in human history by this principle – Christ’s unjust crucifixion
Acts 2:23 speaks of the crucifixion of Jesus saying, “this man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.”
Note concerning the evil doers in these cases:
1. They did evil. There was a real sin committed.
2. They, not God, were held responsible.
3. They did the evil freely. They were not coerced against their will.
4. They accomplished what was decreed by God.
There is no conflict in God. He reveals in his moral law what pleases him morally. He reveals as his overall plan that which includes and employs the evil of creatures to accomplish his purposes. These may both be called “the will of God”. Obviously the terms for “will” or “desire” are used in distinct senses.
Terms such as “decretive will,” “perceptive will,” and “permissive will” can be confusing. They can also help. They are not describing desires with different content or conflicting goals. They are biblical terms describing various ways God’s desires are described to us.
“decretive will” – This is God’s will to decree all he actually decrees and brings into reality.
“preceptive will” – His moral principles are made known to us as precepts, commandments, and rules. They show us what is consistent with the Creator’s eternally good and perfect nature.
“permissive will” – God also desires to permit (Acts 14:16) rebellion by creatures in his creation. They will be used to further his ultimate goal of complete self-revelation of his glory (Romans 9:22). His purposes include the employment of the evil deeds contrary to his perfect moral standards.
Deuteronomy 29:29 “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.”
The relationship between what God decrees to allow, and what he reveals as wrong morally for his creatures, is not fully explained, but these are not logical opposites. Any contradiction is in our own minds.
God obviously determined that the best possible universe should contain mutable creatures which are morally fallible, and that those creatures would carry out evil deeds. This kind of universe must better reveal the many attributes of God than would one made up only of infallible, immutable, and eternally holy creatures.
So then, does it matter then what I do? since all outcomes are determined by the eternal decrees of God? It certainly does matter. God commands obedience of us who act not knowing in advance how all things will unfold. Our obligation is obedience. God does not require full comprehension by his creatures of how each act, thought, or word fits into his plan.
Some ask, “Certain persons will be saved no matter what the church does, therefore why bother to evangelize?” This assumes that salvation is pre-determined, but the means toward it are independent of God’s creatures. God’s plan is revealed in our obedience as well as in the final outcome of things. When we obediently evangelize we see God at work in us. We are the means God has chosen to use in gathering his children into his eternal family.
It’s foolish to speculate about what might be in the secret mind of God. It’s even more foolish to use that ignorance as an excuse to disobey God’s instructions for us. That would evidence that the Savior is not at work in our hearts.
Our duty is to do what we are commanded to do. When we disobey God we should come in humble repentance asking God to move us to do what is right. We should get busy representing him and his redemptive work of grace to the world he put us in.
WCF 5.4 “The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God so far manifest themselves in His providence, that it extends itself even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, but such as has joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering, and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to His own holy ends; yet so, as the sinfulness thereof proceeds only from the creature, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin.”
God’s providence is a manifestation of his “almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness.” This providence extends itself to include all sins, and to the entry of sin into God’s universe. This is not “bare permission” as if God merely allows such actions but does not really want them to occur. Yet “permission” is a proper term for the actions of secondary causes. Acts 14:16, “In the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways;” Even the wrath of man shall be turned to the praise of God. Psalm 76:10, “For the wrath of man shall praise You: With a remnant of wrath You will gird Yourself.”
WCF 5.5 “The most wise, righteous, and gracious God does oftentimes leave, for a season, His own children to manifold temptations, and the corruption of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled; and, to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon Himself, and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for sundry other just and holy ends.”
God’s purpose in Creation, and its execution by his Providence, includes great benefits for those he has loved as children from all eternity. This care extends to include the sinful acts and desires of the elect. God promises that even the lingering corruption of their hearts is to be turned for their good.
The confession breaks down this benefit into five biblical categories.
1. As a loving Father, our God chastises us when we need correction. Hebrews 12:6 “for those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives.”
2. When we wander from moral good we are further impressed with how deep our corruption extends, and how deceitful our hearts can be. It humbles us and reminds us that we are fallen creatures saved only by the grace of God through Christ.
3. Our lapses into corruption improve our understanding of our complete need to depend upon God.
4. Our moments of sin teach us to keep watch that our hearts remain in subjection to what pleases our Lord. We should be driven to God’s word, prayer, the encouragement of our brothers in Christ, and to the worship of the church.
5. Our understanding is limited. It can only rise to the level God has made known to us. The Westminster scholars add that there may also be other just and holy purposes which God has not revealed. These ends may ever remain unknown to us as it was in the case of Job’s sufferings.
WCF 5.6 “As for those wicked and ungodly men whom God, as a righteous Judge, for former sins, does blind and harden, from them He not only withholds His grace whereby they might have been enlightened in their understandings, and wrought upon in their hearts; but sometimes also withdraws the gifts which they had, and exposes them to such objects as their corruption makes occasion of sin; and, withal, gives them over to their own lusts, the temptations of the world, and the power of Satan, whereby it comes to pass that they harden themselves, even under those means which God uses for the softening of others.”
God blinds and hardens some people. This is clear in several specific cases in the Bible. In Romans 9:15-18 Paul writes, “…He has mercy on whom He desires and He hardens whom He desires”
Yet in all this God remains a righteous judge and bases his hardening upon “former sins.” In such cases God withholds from them his restraining and enlightening power.
Acts 14:16 “and in the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways.”
Acts 17:30 “therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent”
God may withdraw what gifts they had, and expose them to situations which yield sin due to their own corruption. In this he leaves them to their own lusts, temptations, and the power of Satan. The result is that they harden themselves even when exposed to the same means which God may use to soften others.
Romans 1:22-28 “…God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity”
Pharaoh was hardened regarding his allowing the children of Israel to leave Egypt at the request of Moses. Exodus 8:32 “But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and he did not let the people go.”
WCF 5.7 “As the providence of God does, in general, reach to all creatures; so, after a most special manner, it takes care of His Church, and disposes all things to the good thereof.”
We have formerly demonstrated the infinity of God’s sovereignty, and the universality of his decrees. Here we see that there is a special extension of providence to the Church. Ultimately all dispositions of God toward the church promote her own true good.
Romans 8:28 “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.”
(Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.)
Questions and Comments for Follow-Up Discussion
1. How does providence differ from creation as means for the execution of God’s decrees?
2. Differentiate the Reformed doctrine of providence from Deism, Fatalism, Pantheism, and Mysticism.
3. What aspects of creation and what created beings are included in God’s providence? Cite support from Scripture.
4. Define the term “foreknowledge” as it is used in Scripture for the basis of God’s redemptive decrees. Explain how mis-definition of foreknowledge can introduce external contingencies making God’s decrees depend upon his creatures instead of upon his own eternal and perfect determinations.
5. How do secondary causes in the universe occur most freely by the creature yet by divine providence they fulfill all that God has intended?
6. Illustrate from Scripture where God holds men responsible for their wicked acts, yet it is clear that the acts were decreed by God for his ultimate glory and good.
7. If the decrees of God extend even to Adam’s first sin and to all other sins, how is it that God is neither the author of sin, nor is held responsible for it?
8. What benefits could there be in God leaving his spiritual children to fall at times into temptations?
9. In what way is God involved in the sins of the wicked?
10. How is God’s providence specially disposed toward his church?