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A Crash Course on God’s Providence

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There’s some confusion about God’s providence. To be frank, I don’t quite understand it that well myself. That is not to say, however, that the Bible doesn’t lay out some parameters in our understanding of providence. However we understand God’s providence, we need to make sure it is in harmony with God’s Word. Consider the following principles regarding God’s providence.

First, God will never providentially operate in a way that is contrary to His nature or His Word.

God is holy (Lev. 19:2) and righteous (Psa. 145:17), and therefore will not providentially operate in a way that is inconsistent with His being. While God may manipulate nature and orchestrate events, He will never tempt people to do evil
(Jas. 1:13-14).

Second, God will never providentially operate in a way that violates man’s freedom of choice.

Contrary to the teachings of Calvin, Augustine, and Zwingli (all of whom taught that mankind is unable
to choose righteousness without being forced to do so by God), the Bible teaches that man is free to choose whether to obey or disobey God (cf. Josh. 24:15; Matt. 23:37; John 5:39-40; Rev. 2:5, 16, 21-22; 3:3, 19; 22:17). Therefore, God will not force someone to choose to do right or wrong. God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34-35) and will not nebulously ordain that some obey Him while coercing others to disobey Him. He can, however, override the outcome of someone’s evil decision and use it for good.

For example, God used the murderous intentions of Joseph’s brothers to deliver Israel (Gen. 50:19-20). God used the greedy slave owners who threw Paul and Silas in prison to bring the gospel to that region (1 Thess. 2:1-2). God orchestrated the cowardly, corrupt Pilate, the evil Jewish leaders, and the crooked Judas to bring about the crucifixion of Jesus, resulting in the gift of salvation to the whole world (Acts 5:30-31). God used the martyrdom of Stephen in Acts 7 to cause a widespread dispersion of Christians into the world to further spread the gospel (Acts 8:1).

Third, God’s providence must be distinguished from God’s miracles.

God’s miracles (a) are observable and quantifiable, (b) supersede natural law, and (c) teach an underlying truth. God’s providence, on the other hand, does not fit into any of these categories. Miracles are observable and quantifiable in that they can be seen and distinguished from natural events, such as a resurrection from the dead (John 11:43-44), floating disembodied fingers writing on walls (Dan. 5:5), and a dozen baskets of leftover food (John 6:13). Such examples are all undeniably supernatural events. Miracles supersede natural law in that they cannot be explained by natural phenomena. Additionally, miracles teach an underlying truth in that they are designed to elicit
a faith response (e.g. Heb. 2:3-4). For instance, when Jesus healed a paralytic, He explained the reason why was so that we “may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mark 2:10).

Consider an example of how God’s providence is different than God’s miracles. First, note that when Mary was still a virgin she
“was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:18-25; Luke 1:30-37) – a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isa 7:14). Mary’s conception while still a virgin cannot be explained naturally, thus it
was a miracle. On the other hand, Hannah, of the Old Testament, was unable to conceive because her womb had been “closed” (1 Sam. 1:6). Yet she “prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly” (1 Sam. 1:10), promising the Lord that she would dedicate her son to His service if He would bless her with a son. God “remembered her,” and her husband “knew Hannah his wife,” and she “conceived and bore a son” (1 Sam. 1:19-20). Clearly, Hannah’s conception can be explained by natural phenomena, whereas Mary’s conception can only be a miracle.

Fourth, God’s providence is not usually easily discernable.

Without the Bible specifically telling us that God is at work in the world, we would not know anything about God’s providence. Even now, we may suspect that God is working providentially in our lives,
but we may not be able to prove it. Mordecai was unsure whether God was using Esther to save the lives of the Jews, so he remarked, “Who knows whether you have not come to
the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Est. 4:14). The apostle Paul, unsure whether God orchestrated his meeting with the runaway
slave Onesimus, said in his letter to Onesimus’ master, Philemon, “For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever” (Phile. 15). If an inspired apostle was reluctant to claim something was an act of providence, we should be just as reluctant today. We know that God is at work behind the scenes (cf. Rom. 8:28), but we are frequently unaware of how, or even if, He is operating in a given circumstance.

An excerpt from my newest book, You Are A Theologian: Thinking Right About God.

This is another volume in the You Are A Theologian book series. Thinking Right About God challenges readers to think more Biblically about God’s attributes, His triune nature, and His sovereignty. Like the first book in this series, it is ideal for a broad range of applications: personal study, small group discussions, and college/young adult/adult Bible class curriculum.

Get Your Copy Here

Your comments are welcome and encouraged, even if they are in disagreement. However, please keep your comments relevant to the article. For my full comment policy, click here.

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5 Responses to A Crash Course on God’s Providence

  1. Brett August 10, 2017 at 5:38 PM #

    Good Article Ben. I especially like the last point. We know God works in our lives by Faith; not by experience. We can misunderstand experiences. In any given case we do not have enough information to declare what God did OR did not do. I just know by Faith He works in our lives.

    I would slightly challenge the third point on miracles. NT Miracles include 3 elements which are referenced many times in the NT as 1 – sign (for authority of a man), 2 – wonder (no alternative explanation) and 3 – Power (dynamo). TWO of the Three have ceased. Power continues. Part of the struggle is the term natural law……the NT would argue that all laws only exist because of supernatural intervention (including gravity). Therefore, God’s power is always working. He may and can intervene in “laws” but it will not be done in such a way as to create wonder or for the purpose of sign.

    Why the nuance? I am afraid the word Providence is used because we are afraid to ask for God’s Power, lest we be misunderstood as Pentecostal. People do not pray enough because they do not Know by faith that God has the Power to intervene including outside of physics for example; only His work will not create wonder or a sign.

    I pray for healing, however it may occur; not God how to do it (be with the doctors, the hand that holds the scalpel, the medicine, etc.). Simply Heal in any way your Will desires, lest we not receive because we propose to bind God.

    Pray for God’s Power to be at work. He can do amazing things.

    Again, great article that is much needed!

    • Ben August 15, 2017 at 9:47 AM #

      Thanks Brett. I appreciate what you are trying to do here, and agree with your sentiment. While it the difference between the miraculous work of God and the providential work of God is often a fine line, there is still a line between the two. Providence always works within the realm of natural law (which is itself upheld by the power of God, Colossians 1:17). Yet God’s miraculous work is the temporary circumvention of the natural phenomenon. Both are by the power of God, but the difference needs to be made. We pray for God to heal sickness, grant safe travels, and to bless a pregnancy. God can, and does intervene providentially today in these matters, but does so within the natural realm. I dedicate much more attention to this nuance in my book, You Are a Theologian: Thinking Right about God. The blog post was only a tiny excerpt.

  2. Lynn McDaniel August 11, 2017 at 7:09 PM #

    Ben, I highly recommend the book PROVIDENCE by Cecil May, Jr. You an order from Gospel Advocate. It is Excellent! Thanks.

  3. Nathan August 12, 2017 at 11:51 PM #

    Ben,

    You really need to do some reading in the authors (mainly Reformed authors) that you like to critique so much. There are so many caricatures in your posts that demonstrate that you clearly do not understand Reformed theology.

    Just to give one example. No one has ever taught that man cannot choose righteousness without being forced. It is true that no man can choose God of his own accord, according to Jesus’ own teaching in John 6 as well as Paul’s teaching in Romans 8. This does not mean that God has to force anyone to believe. God does, however, change our hearts and give us a new nature. This rebirth, which can only come from God as taught by Jesus in John 3, means that our eyes are opened and our understanding has been cleared so that we turn to Christ in repentance and faith. That is the biblical teaching, and it is what the Reformers taught as well.

    I implore you to try to actually understand the views you are critiquing so as to represent them fairly. Even if you disagree there is no excuse for not representing them accurately.

    • Ben August 15, 2017 at 9:56 AM #

      Nathan, you have proven the point of the article. Reformed theology, in its teaching or “irresistible grace,” teaches that the people upon which God chooses to save cannot resist Him. God indeed forces His grace on some, while forcing others to be unable to choose Him. Perhaps the nuance could be made (what you are arguing) that, according to Calvinism, God chooses who will choose to have faith in God. Yet Calvinism also teaches that God chooses who will have faith in Him. See Article XIV of The Articles Of The Canons of Dort (1619). “Faith is the gift of God; not in that it is offered to the will of man by God, but that the thing itself is conferred on him, inspired, infused into him. Not even that God only confers the power of believing, but from thence expects the consent, or the act of believing: but that He, who worketh both to will and to do, worketh in man both to will to believe, and to believe itself, […] and thus He worketh all things in all.” Thus, you are guilty of circular reasoning.

      I implore you to see the necessary implications of Calvinism. Honesty demands that we fairly represent not just the surface teachings of Calvinism, but also consequences of Calvinism.

      Instead of clinging to the name “Reformed theology,” how about “Biblical theology”?

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