The Confession of Faith, Chapter 5: God's Providence
The word 'providence' has more to do with 'foresight' than with 'providing', although clearly the meaning of the two words is not dissimilar. When we talk about the providence of God we are asserting that God's interest in the world extended beyond the bare fact of creation; that he continued, and continues, to be profoundly interested and intimately involved in the world that he made. So much is this involvement basic to the outworking of salvation that God built it as a provision into the covenant of grace – while earth remains, seedtime and harvest, day and night, and summer and winter shall never cease.
The Confession's doctrine of Providence is defined as God's upholding, directing, disposing and governing all things according to his own will. It is, therefore, broader than our conceptions of it. We often think of God as a director of events, working towards a pre-disposed end. But in fact the plan of God is much more comprehensive. What stands is upheld by him. What falls is disposed by him. What takes place in between is all governed and directed by him.
The first paragraph of Chapter 5 of the Confession of Faith qualifies this in several ways. It reminds us, first, that providence extends from the greatest to the least of all things. What is obvious to us, as well as what appears insignificant, is all subject to the superintendence and control of Almighty God. Far from the world's being at the mercy of chaotic and unbridled forces, the God of Creation and Providence has such a plan for his world that the most minute details, as well as the greatest movements of men and nations, are part of it.
Second, his providence is wise and holy. As God is, so his decrees are. What God has, God is. His plan for the world reflects his own being. That means that when we see disaster and catastrophe striking, we have to realise that there is a wise and holy purpose in all that transpires, even if these events do not sit easily on our frames of reference.
Third, God's providence is directed by his foreknowledge and his immutable will. He is, in other words, not upheld, directed or governed. Which makes it remarkable that in Christ the God of Providence became a subject of Providence. There is a divinity that shapes our ends. And our beginnings too.
Fourth, God's providence works to the praise of the glory of his attributes, name and nature. The good of his church is a secondary matter. The glory of his name is primary. And that, indeed, is the chief end of faith; to acknowledge the hand of God in every act of life and living, and to give him all the glory.
The Confession's doctrine of Providence has a marvellous statement about the ways in which God causes events to come about. Avoiding an impersonal, cold fatalism, the Confession grounds its doctrine in the personal nature of God's workings in the world.
This is an emphasis which is of supreme importance. For too many people, Providence is regarded as a theological word for blind chance, or mere fate. But the workings of history are in the hands of a loving, merciful God, so that even the most strange and inexplicable events in our lives find their ultimate explanation in him.
For this reason, the Confession emphasises the fact that God is the 'first cause' of all things. He is the unoriginated originator of all that takes place in the lives of men and in the affairs of the world. The hand that writes the Book of our Providence is moved by a heart of love and by a mind of ultimate wisdom. C.S. Lewis once compared our lives to the serialised reading of a novel on radio. Imagine someone listening week by week to the story being read, not knowing what the next instalment would bring, or what the next twist in the plot would be. But in the studio, with the script in his or her hand, the reader has access to the whole narrative. And, if the author is the reader, he or she has access to the whole development of the plot.
Our lives are lived by installments. We know what has been, not what will be. But we also know that there is a studio where the ultimate author of our Providences knows the whole story from beginning to end. That is a source of immeasurable consolation for God's children.
Having stated that God is the first cause of all that takes place, the Confession then reminds us of the importance of second causes. It is through second causes that God causes events to take place. The world has been created by him, and he has built a blueprint into its order. While he is intimately connected with every event, the outworking of his plan defers to the ordinary workings of second causes. What does this mean?
It means that some things happen necessarily. If the temperature falls below zero, water freezes. If a ball is thrown into the air, it will come down. If two is added to two, it will be four. These conform to the law of necessity. They make for order and stability in the world. God has so ordered his Providence that there are many things that are necessary consequences of other things. He does not have to intervene in a miraculous way in order to make them happen. They happen because that is how his Providence operates. Indeed, even Christ's miracles obeyed these principles of Providence. When Christ handled the bread and fishes, there was a necessary consequence which could have been no other way.
Some things happen freely. The choices that we make, and that can affect our lives to such a great degree, are choices we make freely. The actions of men, though modified by sin. There is free will, free choice, free movement on the part of men. God's Providence, despite the claims of those who do not like the doctrine, does not detract from the freedom of individuals. Indeed, it is arguable that there could be no freedom except in the context of a wise and all-encompassing government of the world.
Thirdly, there are things that happen contingently. We could not predict their happening, nor envisage their occurrence. We would call them chance events, strange coincidences for which there is no apparent reason. They cause us to be amazed and to stand open-mouthed, for often they have opened doors for us in our lives that we could never have found for ourselves. The lot is cast into the lap; but the disposing of it belongs to God.
We ought to have no difficulty in working with concepts like coincidence and chance. For Christians such random events are explained because there is a God in Heaven who has all things in his hands. He works all things together for good to those who love him.
The Confession's doctrine of Providence reminds us that God has built laws into the universe which function according to his design. By these laws God causes all things to come to pass. He is the first cause of all things. But these second causes are the material reasons why things happen. Science is the study of God's second causes.
In paragraph III of the chapter on Providence, the Confession of Faith talks about the means God uses to work out the designs of his eternal plan. The statement is that "God in his ordinary providence maketh use of means". Ordinarily, the providence of God respects means and methods – circumstances come about in our lives through other events, people and situations. There is not always miraculous intervention. Through entertaining strangers, people have often been visited by angels and have received blessings (Hebrews 13:1). Through attending the word preached, people ordinary receive a blessing from God. In his ordinary workings, God makes use of means.
It seems to me that there is something fundamental here. God has made arrangements by which his grace respects the events and circumstances of life. Speaking of the covenant blessing, others could say that they found it in fields of the wood (cf. Psalm 132:6). The blessing of God comes to us in particular places, at particular times and in particular circumstances. We must never imagine that God is purely interested in invisible souls. He is interested in whole persons. The events that shape our lives are significant. The people we know, the friendships we make, the things we go through, the illnesses we have, the bereavements we suffer, the highs and lows – all of these shape our character and make us, under God's hand, what he intends us to become. We are the clay in the potter's hands, and the ways he shapes us and blesses us and deals with us often cause us to be astonished.
This should colour our preaching as ministers, and our dealings with one another as Christian brothers and sisters. We know nothing of the life situation in which our colleagues, our contemporaries and our congregations find themselves. We see only a very little, and then we see often only what we want to see, and we then interpret it so wrongly. We must always realise that we know nothing of the total providence which is shaping people at any given time. The means by which God causes his plan to be worked out in our experience embraces all of a person's life. That ought to give us pause. It ought to make us grateful that he has married his grace to our lives in his marvellous providence that makes use of everything in our cup.
God Working Without Means
But the Confession reminds us that God is able to execute his purpose and plan without any means at all. He can work immediately – that is, without going through any channel. That is how he created the world. He said 'Let there be', and there was. He healed by immediate intervention, in extraordinary ways.
There are questions about the supernatural that continue to cause men and women to ask questions for which there are no easy answers. The mysteries of our universe often are a source of amusement for some, and a puzzlement to others. But if we truly believe in a supernatural God, who is free to work in his own sovereign way without any channel of working, or any method known to us, it ought not to surprise us that things happen that cannot be explained. Why should God not break in? We might look at this world as a closed system, into which we are locked. But it is not so closed as to exclude the Creator. He is able to break in the most unexpected and mind-blowing ways.
God Working Above Means
The Bible reminds us that God is able to work sovereignly above the apparent means and methods which we see. For instance, Abraham and Sarah bore a son when they were past the age of childbearing. To look at them (indeed, as they looked at themselves), no-one could conclude that God's purpose would be fulfilled and that a son would be conceived by them or born to them. Yet the Bible's testimony is that God did fulfill his purposes, and the son of the promise was, in fact, born to the patriarch. God worked through means, but in this case he brought a sovereign power to bear on the means he used.
God Working Against Means
At the pleasure of God, the Confession reminds us, he is free to work against the ordinary laws of the world and the means of his providence. Ordinarily, iron sinks. But to fulfill his purpose, on at least one occasion God made iron float. Ordinarily, fire burns and consumes. But on at least one occasion God allowed his servant to be thrown into a fiery furnace and God worked against the means and methods of fire and flame.
Such a God as this is the supernatural God of the Bible. Belief in this God is largely lost at the end of the twentieth century. Yet it remains the heart of evangelical faith. We ignore it and lose it at our peril.