God’s Good Providence
Nehemiah 9:6-8; Romans 8:28-30 (text); Acts 14:15-17; Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 10
August 31, 2014 • Download this sermon (PDF)
Dear People of God: Today, we often hear many people, including Christians, refer to chance, luck, fate, fortune, destiny. Especially in our songs:
“Through the years, we all will be together, if the Fates allow.”
“The chances are your chances are awfully good!”
“Que sera, sera, whatever will be will be.”
These are also common in our sayings, such as “tough luck,” “my destiny,” “bahala na,” and in Chinese restaurants: “fortune cookies.” The word “potluck” is used even in our churches. But theologian R. C. Sproul says that chance should not be in a Christian’s vocabulary, because every molecule in the whole universe is under God’s control. In times past, this doctrine was known as Providence, a word that has fallen out of common Christian usage.
But what is Providence? Louis Berkhof has a classic definition: “that work of God in which He preserves all His creatures, is active in all that happens in the world, and directs all things to their appointed end.” Q&A 27 of the Heidelberg Catechism also has a definition by way of three things that God does as the almighty, everywhere-present, and all-powerful God: preserving (upholding), governing, and directing by any means all things in the universe.
He spoke the universe into existence through the Word and the Spirit. He can do anything he wills, according to his good pleasure. Not only is he Almighty; he also fills the universe. There is not a dot in space in which he is not present. This is why the psalmist says, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” (Psa 139:7) Or the Preacher, “And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him” (Heb 4:13). Is there any creature like him? None, for even the angels are subject to his power and control. An infinite gap exists between God and his creation, “Who is a God like you?” (Mic 7:18). We are like pots being shaped and molded by God according to his gracious will and purpose.
But you might think, “Well and good. I agree that God preserves, governs and directs all things. So what does it mean to me?” In Q&A 28, our catechism, as always, gives us not only the facts about God as Providence, but how it profits us, and what comfort does it give us.
So this afternoon, we will briefly meditate on “God’s Good Providence,” under three headings from Romans 8:28-30: first, “Those Whom He Foreknew He Also Glorified”; second, “All Things Work Together for Good”; and third, “According to His Purpose.”
“Those Whom He Foreknew… He Also Glorified”
We start with Romans 8:29, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” In several of our studies, we learned about predestination or election. Before God created the world, he already chose a people for himself, a people that he would save from sin and judgment. And this he did only according to his gracious will and purpose, not according to his people’s will. What was his purpose in choosing his people out of the whole mass of humanity? That they may be holy, blameless and conformed to the image of his Son, Christ Jesus, who lived a perfect, holy life.
And then in verse 30, we read that there is a “chain of salvation” that cannot be broken, because it is God who forges this chain. All those whom he had chosen before the creation of the world will be called or regenerated, and then justified in his divine courtroom. Finally, he will take them to his heavenly place in a glorious eternal life.
This is how God preserves his people. His preservation is not merely physical and material, because he satisfies the needs of his beloved people when they pray for their daily bread. More importantly, he preserves them spiritually. This is a great assurance and comfort: that before he even created the world, he already has decreed that his people will be saved from his wrath, preserved through the tribulations in their earthly lives, and glorified in heaven for eternity.
What’s even more striking is that Paul uses the past tense in these verses. True, our election was decreed in eternity past. But not all of God’s people have already been called, justified and glorified. Until Christ returns, there will still be many whom God will call and justify. And obviously, our glorification will not happen until the end of the world. But Paul is so certain of God’s promises that he says of God’s saving work, including our dwelling in the heavenly places, “All done! Finished! Mission accomplished!”
However, Christians should not think that God only loves and cares for the people that he saves from his wrath. Yes, he is wrathful against all unrepentant, hostile unbelievers. But he so loved “the world,” his whole creation, that he gave his only-begotten Son to redeem and restore the whole creation in eternity. He provides food, sunshine and rain to all his creatures, just and unjust. The psalmist says that he “gives food to all flesh” (Psa 136:25), and “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season” (Psa 145:15). The Israelites who returned from the exile worshiped the LORD because of his creation, saying, “you preserve all of them” (Neh 9:6). Paul knows this well when he says, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). And Hebrews 1:3 says that Christ “upholds the universe by the word of his power.”
But for his chosen people, his never-to-be-broken chain of salvation explains why Paul says in verse 29, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28).
“All Things Work Together for Good”
If you were raised in a Christian family who regularly went to Lord’s Day worship services and brought you to Sunday school, you would know all of the most common Bible stories: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, Joseph in Egypt, the baby Moses, David and Goliath, the birth of Jesus, and many others. All of these have stories that seem to say, “It just so happened.” “It just so happened” that the serpent tempted Adam and Eve, and they sinned. “It just so happened” that Joseph was sold as a slave in Egypt. “It just so happened” that the baby Moses was found by a princess of Egypt. “It just so happened” that David was bringing food to his brothers who were facing Goliath in battle. “It just so happened” that Herod wanted to kill all the babies in Bethlehem so Jesus’ family fled to Egypt.
Even the Bible speaks in this way sometimes. In narrating the story of Judah, one of the 12 sons of Jacob, Genesis 38:1 says, “It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers” and married a Canaanite woman. This led to a series of events in his life that ended in the birth of one of the ancestors of Jesus with his relationship with Tamar, his daughter-in-law. In the story of Ruth when she went out to the field to glean after the harvest, “she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz” (Ruth 2:3). Ruth and Boaz of course were Jesus’ ancestors.
But these events were not merely coincidence or luck or fortune. These were decreed by God before the creation of the world. All of these Bible dramas have one main plot: God working out his plan to save his people from sin. And this plan was all fulfilled in Jesus, who was born “in the fullness of time” in Bethlehem. This is why the resurrected Jesus preached to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44).
Moreover, all these stories involved the sufferings, afflictions and temptations of the main characters. But at the end of the stories, we always realize that the plot has a purpose. Joseph knew this after all the bad things that happened to him, so he told his evil brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen 50:20). But even Joseph only knew that all these evil things that happened to him was meant by God to save his family. At the climax of history, we know that Joseph’s story was a tiny part of God’s salvation plan, not only for Israelites in Egypt, but for all those who will believe in Christ, the greater Joseph, the savior of his family.
Again, this is a great comfort and assurance to us. God works everything for the good of his beloved chosen people. In this life, we have tribulations, and we may never know what God’s purpose was in allowing us to suffer. This is why the poet William Cowper penned these words:
Behind a frowning providence
he hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast;
unfolding every hour.
The bud may have a bitter taste,
but sweet will be the flower.
God the Providence might seem to be “frowning” a lot. But in the end, when we see him face to face, we will see his smile, because then he will reveal to us all his glorious plans behind all our sufferings.
This is what theologians call “divine concurrence.” As Providence, God directs all things, using all his creatures, whom he causes to act exactly as they are. In a sense, he “co-operates” with all his creation, whether nature or man. None of his creation independently works without God’s will. He acts in the faithful works of Abraham and Joseph. But even in the evil acts of the serpent, the Pharaoh and Herod, God is at work. This is why Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will” (Prov 21:1). A good example is the king of Assyria, who helped the exiles rebuild the temple: the LORD “turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work of the house of God” (Ezra 6:22).
But we must guard against the mistaken conclusion from these that God is the author of sin. He cannot and he will not, because of his perfect holiness. Sin is absolutely against his character. Therefore, even though God had decreed all things, even man’s evil deeds, man is still responsible for his actions. He cannot say, “God created me sinful” or “God made me do this.” The greatest and clearest example of this truth is in Peter’s sermon to the Jews in Acts 4. The crucifixion of Christ was an evil deed of the Jews and the Romans, but it was decreed by God. It was also decreed by God that the Jews and the Romans perform this evil deed. Yet, Peter condemned the Jews, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23).
Therefore, all things happen “according to his purpose.”
“According to His Purpose”
Finally, Romans 8:28 says that God works all things for all his people “according to his purpose.” What is his purpose? It is to save his people from sin all the way to eternal glory. And how does he accomplish this great purpose?
Q&A 27 says that God governs his creation. He is the King, the Sovereign over his kingdom. All mankind, whether Christians or non-Christians, are accountable to him, as subjects are accountable to their king. His rule is over all his creation (Psa 103:19; Dan 4:34-35). All cosmic events are directed by him, including the courses of the sun and the moon (Psa. 104:19; Jer. 31:35), and where lightning should strike (Job 36:32). And the most minute, insignificant events are governed by him, “And not one [sparrow] will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered” (Mat 10:29-30). Things that we call as luck or chance, such as coin flip, the drawing of cards, and the casting of lots, “its every decision is from the LORD” (Prov 16:33).
This is why in our last song, we sing, “The Lord is king, let the heavens ring! God reigns, let the earth be glad.” Again, we must warn against two false beliefs. For deists like Bette Midler, God, after he created the world, looks at it “from a distance.” He is not involved in its affairs. God is like a clockmaker who wound up the clock and put it on the table to run by itself.
The second misconception is the opposite of a distant God. God is so near that he is present in everything in the world. This is not talking about his omnipresence, but that all things in the world can be considered as gods. This is why I don’t like the line in our song that says, “In the rustling grass I hear Him pass, He speaks to me everywhere.” As if God is in the grass!
Beloved Chosen Ones of God: In Q&A 28, we find these words: “Q. What does it profit us to know that God created, and by His providence upholds, all things? A. That we may be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and for what is future have good confidence in our faithful God and Father, that no creature shall separate us from His love, since all creatures are so in His hand, that without His will they cannot so much as move.”
This is very comforting to all believers, since here, we see ourselves in the ebb and flow of our lives: adversity, prosperity, and what the future holds for us.
What is adversity? These are times when everything seems to work to make us miserable and suffer. When we or someone we love are fully healthy, and the next day, diagnosed with terminal cancer. When your relationships are so good and loving, only to find out that you have been betrayed by the one we love. When you have a good job one day, and the next day you get your pink slip from your boss. In our church, it is so often that we have a long list of prayer items because of so many people who are sick, jobless, or estranged from loved ones.
We read of many faithful men and women in the Scriptures and in the history of the church who endured all kinds of terrible sufferings. We hear now of horrible persecution of people who carry the name of Christ in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and Sudan. What is their comfort? That even in great adversity, there is a glorious future that holds, and that “no creature shall separate us from [God’s] love” in Christ.
What about prosperity? How do we react in times of prosperity? We are to be thankful when things are good. Morning and evening we ought to thank God for our salvation, for his provisions, for loving relationships. We are to be thankful that we hear the true gospel preached in our church. And we are to be confident in the many heavenly rooms that Christ has prepared for us.
Jesus Christ our Savior and King is also our Providence. He is God’s provision for our salvation when he endured all his sufferings on earth for our sins. After he ascended into heaven, he is now seated at the right hand of God with all power, glory and authority as our King who leads us individually and as a church even as we fight our spiritual battles. Amen.