By Dawn Wilson, Crosswalk.com
Christians often sing, “This Is My Father’s World: O let me ne’er forget, That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the Ruler yet.” Yet, this truth about God’s divine providence is sometimes misunderstood or just forgotten—even though it shapes human circumstances in countless ways. What does the Bible tell us about God’s divine providence and how is it a blessing in our lives?
What Is God’s Providence, and Why Is it Misunderstood?
The word “providence” combines the prefix “pro” with the Latin word videre—becoming provideo. While some scholars include the word “foresight” in its definition, the word “providence” has a wider scope than the foreknowledge of God. Explained in today’s vernacular, provideo breaks down into “pro” (meaning “on behalf of”) and videre (meaning “to see”). Bible teacher John Piper says provideo means “to see to something” and supply what is needed, much like the word “provision.” “In other words,” Piper says, “seeing something with a purpose is to make provision for what you see. … Providence is the act of God’s seeing to the universe.”
Most secular thinking assumes everything happens according to fixed natural causes. Secularists say, God—if He actually exists—is merely a spectator with no immediate control. Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., wrote about the 19th-century deistic view: “God, it was suggested, had created the world much as a clock, and had wound it up to move by its own direction. Contemporary writers suggest that though God created the world and set the original forces in order, God has either ceased to show His will or is unable to make His will productive within creation. This is “clearly in opposition to biblical theism,” Mohler said.
The Christian worldview acknowledges God’s intimate involvement in the affairs of every person and nation, and throughout nature. Wyatt Graham wrote, “God acts through His providence to minister goodness to a world gone awry.” His world is not left to random chance or fate. God is the Master Controller of the universe—or as Bible teacher Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth likes to say, “Heaven rules.”
In eternity past, by the counsel of His own will, God ordained all things. Yet this does not mean He is the author of sin; human responsibility is always in effect. God also created the laws of nature, of cause and effect, and every human is fully responsible for choices and sins. But God is active in both the willing and the working of His creatures to bring His purposeful plans to fulfillment or completion.
Is Divine Providence the Same as God’s Sovereignty?
The actual word “providence” is not a word found in the English Bible, but the Scriptures reference God’s way, ordinance, hand, upholding, working, government, care, and deeds—all legitimate substitutes for that word.
Though they seem to overlap, God’s sovereignty and providence are not exactly the same thing. “God’s sovereignty is His right and power to do all that He decides to do (Job 42:2),” John Piper wrote. “But notice that nothing in that definition of sovereignty refers to God’s wisdom or God’s plans. … When He decides to do a thing, He does it, and no one can stop Him. That’s sovereignty.” God will accomplish all He intends to do (Isaiah 46:10). “Providence, however, includes what sovereignty doesn’t,” Piper said. One might say that providence is “wise and purposeful sovereignty.”
Regarding sovereignty, Jerry Bridges quoted Augustine in “The Sovereignty of God’s Providence.” Augustine said, “Nothing, therefore, happens unless the Omnipotent wills it to happen; He either permits it to happen, or He brings it about Himself.” Bridges elaborated, “This means that nothing in your life is so small or trivial as to escape the attention of His sovereign control; and nothing is so great as to be beyond His power to control it.” We might sense His providence in that statement. The One whose “eye is on the sparrow” cares for us.
Kevin DeYoung said the early Reformed thinkers who exulted in God’s design and decrees, typically used the word “providence.” He wrote, “There is nothing wrong about celebrating divine sovereignty, so long as we understand that God’s inscrutable power is not exercised on a whim, but always as an expression of love for His people. His sovereignty is pro-us, which is why the Reformers talked about providence more than raw sovereignty.” As the Heidelberg Catechism says (point #27), “… all things come not by chance, but by His fatherly hand.”
What Scriptures Teach Us about God’s Providence?
The doctrine of the providence of God—linked to the doctrine of His sovereignty over heaven and earth, the weather, the physical world, the affairs of nations, and human destiny—is taught throughout scripture. God uses human failures and successes to accomplish His will (Luke 1:52). He provides protection for His people, preserves the animals, and even control’s the lion’s mouth—for good or to judge (Psalm 4:8; Psalm 104:27; Daniel 6:22; 2 Kings 17:25).
God sustains—upholds or “bears up”—creation in His providence to declare His glory. All creation is utterly dependent upon the Lord’s sustenance. He preserves it all (Nehemiah 9:6; Psalm 104:27-31), and He will complete His work in His children, guiding their every step. A key scripture on divine providence is Romans 8:28. God allows things for a reason, and both He and His plans are good. Kevin DeYoung wrote, “He does not merely turn hard situations for our good; He ordains hard situations for our good. Tim Challies takes this a step further, writing, “Thank God for His providence, and prepare to be amazed when, in eternity, God gives you the gift of seeing how often and to what extent He has kept you from sin.”
Though God’s kindness is meant to bring people to repentance, He also hardens, and He can bring disaster and use evil for His purposes. He also controls death. Do those seemingly harsh actions make Him ruthless or cruel? No. As Eric Liddel’s father said in Chariots of Fire: “He is a benign, loving dictator.” In other words, DeYoung says, “The power of providence has a benevolent purpose.” God’s awesome power is released in awesome love and holiness. God normally works in His creation through countless, daily acts of providence—orchestrating and ordering events and lives; but sometimes He intervenes through miracles to accomplish His will.
What Are Some Examples Divine Providence in the Bible?
We see God’s providence in Abraham telling his son Isaac, “God will provide” the needed sacrifice (Genesis 22:7-8). God caused Pharaoh’s daughter to hear the cry of a tiny baby, and later used well-taught, sensitive Moses to change the destiny of His chosen people (Exodus 2:1-10; 3:6-10). Naomi struggled to understand God’s dealings with her and her daughter-in-law, Ruth, but she didn’t doubt His plan (Ruth 1:20; 4:13-17). God worked in the hearts of the pagan Egyptians, King Artaxerxes, King Nebuchadnezzar, and King Darius. The Father also worked in Job’s circumstances—giving Satan permission to ruin the patriarch’s life—and Job grew in vibrant faith.
God’s providence is written throughout the book of Esther, even though the casual reader might not be aware of it. God—whose name is not mentioned in the book—orchestrated a beauty contest, a king’s insomnia, and a dinner banquet to advance His purposes and rescue His people from Haman’s evil plans and the king’s irrevocable edict.
In a wonderful New Testament example, Saul of Tarsus persecuted the early church, but the entire time—as Saul “kick[ed] against the goads” of conviction after witnessing and approving of Stephen’s death—God providentially prepared him for future ministry.
One might wonder how man’s free will to sin makes sense in regard to God’s sovereign providence. It is impossible for the finite mind to fully understand the dynamics, but God prescribed the sinful choice of Judas while Judas was also morally responsible. Jesus says as much in Luke 22:22: “The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed. But woe to that man who betrays him.” Even though sinful people crucified Jesus, God used their evil acts to bring about His will; and in fact, in Isaiah 53—a Messianic chapter—Christ’s crucifixion was planned and appointed. It was the Father’s will to “crush” the Son as an offering for sin. We’re not to debate the free will and sovereignty puzzle as much as to be comforted by God’s sovereign wisdom and care and to make wise decisions in alignment with His Word.
How Should We Respond When Life Hurts?
When we hurt, we’re inclined to forget God’s provident care. Stephen Witmer says, “We suffer from providence amnesia.” According to the Heidelberg Catechism, we should study God’s providence so we can “be patient in adversity… thankful in prosperity, and with a view to the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father.”
Albert Mohler notes, “Death, acute and chronic physical pain, profound mental anguish, and manifold other forms of suffering face both believers and unbelievers on a daily basis. … what distinguishes the Christian biblical worldview is its affirmation that God is the sovereign Lord in whom all creatures, forces, and experiences find their purpose and meaning.” The sovereign Lord “gave the world His ultimate sign of power and providential love on the cross,” Mohler said.
Christians don’t like to use the words “bad luck,” but, Piper wrote, they don’t have anything to put in their place, if they don’t have a vocabulary that includes God’s providence. But Christians, even though they may not comprehend God’s secret scripts, can always trust Him. God is not passive or uninvolved. “Where He patrols, He controls,” Piper said.
Many hurting believers find comfort in a poem by William Cowper: “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” Cowper wrote, “Behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face.” God does not answer all our questions in tough times, but what appears to be hurtful might be the help we desperately need.
DeYoung says John Calvin’s toughest statements about divine sovereignty were found in his chapters on God’s providence (Institutes, Book 1, Chapters 16-18). Calvin thrilled in divine providence, DeYoung said, because it reminded him that in all of life’s surprises and suffering, God has a “special care toward us.”
Nancy and Robert Wolgemuth wrote in You Can Trust God to Write Your Story, “The hardest parts of the story God is writing in your life are not random or meaningless. They are full of purpose. And in due time, all that He has intended for you and for this world will come true. In the meantime, He will always be with you. That’s a truth you can always trust.”
AlbertMohler.com, “Getting It Right from the Beginning, Part Two”
Crossway.org, “What Is Divine Providence?”
DesiringGod.org, “The Providence of God” (Sessions 1 and 2)
Hymntime.com, 'This Is My Father's World'
TheGospelCoalition.org, “Something Better than Sovereignty”
GotQuestions.org, “What Is Divine Providence?”
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/naruedom
Dawn Wilson and her husband Bob live in Southern California. They have two married sons and three granddaughters. Dawn assists author and radio host Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth with research and works with various departments at Revive Our Hearts. She is the founder and director of Heart Choices Today, publishes Upgrade with Dawn, and writes for Crosswalk.com and Christianity.com. Dawn also travels with her husband in ministry with Pacesetter Global Outreach.
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