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Nothing is more practical than the doctrine of providence, for it engenders both faith and godly fear. When Christ teaches us how to deal with anxiety, He reminds us that God the Father feeds every little bird and clothes every flower with its lovely colors (Matt. 6:25–30). How much more, then, should we trust Him to care for His own beloved children? Whether one is willing to admit it or not, everyone constantly lives in the presence of the living God. The more the believer is conscious of God’s providence, the more it can be said of him, as B.B. Warfield wrote, “Everywhere he sees God in His mighty stepping, everywhere he feels the working of His mighty arm, the throbbing of His mighty heart.”

Our God is in control. While we cannot fully plumb the depths of God’s ways, we can still affirm that “of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever” (Rom. 11:36, KJV throughout). There are many things for which we do not know the reason, but for everything we know who has ordained them. Obadiah Sedgwick wrote, “No one is so fit to govern the world as He who made it.” His perfect wisdom, holiness, justice, power, love, and goodness will not fail.

Consequently, we can be like the child on board a ship who remained peaceful while wind and waves raged around him. When asked how he kept calm in such a violent storm, he replied, “My father is the captain.” How much more can the church sing: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea” (Ps. 46:1–2).

God’s providence benefits believers in many ways. Let’s consider five of them.

Trust in God’s Fatherly Sovereignty

First, the God-centered Christian worldview establishes our trust that our Father reigns over all things through His Son by the Holy Spirit. The Heidelberg Catechism says:

The eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (who of nothing made heaven and earth, with all that is in them; who likewise upholds and governs the same by His eternal counsel and providence) is for the sake of Christ His Son, my God and my Father; on whom I rely so entirely, that I have no doubt but He will provide me with all things necessary for soul and body; and further, that He will make whatever evils He sends upon me, in this valley of tears, turn out to my advantage; for He is able to do it, being Almighty God, and willing, being a faithful Father. (Q&A 26)

The doctrines of providence and adoption link arms to undergird God’s children with a wonderful confidence. The sovereign God is their loving Father in Jesus Christ, so that in all of life they “are pitied, protected, provided for, and chastened by Him as by a Father; yet never cast off,” as the Westminster Confession of Faith says (12.1). John Cotton exclaimed, “Is it a light matter for the God of heaven and earth to be called your Father, since you are but men?” As our Father, God will surely give “provision for a son here and provision for an heir hereafter,” for “God nurtures us” and “hath given us an inheritance.”

We live in a dangerous world. Disease, disaster, and war sweep many people into eternity every day. Evil men oppress and abuse the godly and the innocent. Unseen to our eyes, Satan and his host go about like roaring lions seeking to devour people and drag them to damnation (1 Peter 5:8). The deceptions and passions of sin rage in our hearts, so that we are never safe from ourselves. Realism demands that we live wisely and prudently in such a perilous place.

However, Christians need not live fearfully or anxiously but may cling to the promise of Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God.” Thomas Watson wrote: “All the various dealings of God with his children do by a special providence turn to their good. ‘All the paths of the LORD are mercy and truth unto such as keep his covenant’ (Ps. 25:10).” He concluded, “The grand reason why all things work for good, is the near and dear interest which God has in His people. The Lord has made a covenant with them. ‘They shall be my people, and I will be their God’ (Jer. 32:38).”

God’s providence comforts His covenant people. Sedgwick said:

No good man ever lacked anything that was good for him. I may lack a thing which is good, but not which is good for me: “The LORD will give grace and glory: no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly” (Ps. 84:11).

God has a special providence over His living church because we are the apple of His eye, His lambs, His children, and His jewels (Zech. 2:8; Isa. 40:11; 49:15; Mal. 3:17). His care for His people is entirely gracious, tender, mysterious, glorious, exact, and often extraordinary.

The God-centered Christian worldview establishes our trust that our Father reigns over all things through His Son by the Holy Spirit.

Faith in God’s providence supports the Christian’s service to God. It is his shield against all the attacks of Satan (Eph. 6:16). Warfield said, “A firm faith in the universal providence of God is the solution of all earthly troubles.” Rather than being paralyzed with fear or driven about by anxiety, the strong believer stands on the stable ground of divine providence and advances ahead in firm obedience and submission to his Master’s will.

Childlike Faith in Prayer

Second, people who believe in God’s providence are people of prayer who know and believe that their providing God commands, hears, and answers prayer. They know that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (James 1:17).

John Calvin said:

It will not suffice simply to hold that there is One whom all ought to honor and adore, unless we are also persuaded that he is the fountain of every good, and that we must seek nothing elsewhere than in him. . . . No drop will be found either of wisdom and light, or of righteousness or power or rectitude, or of genuine truth, which does not flow from him, and of which he is not the cause.

Prayer is the cry of childlike faith. When we pray, “Our Father which art in heaven . . . Give us this day our daily bread,” as our Lord taught us (Matt. 6:9, 11), we acknowledge God “to be the only fountain of all good, and that neither our care nor industry” can get us what we need and desire without His blessing, and therefore, we “withdraw our trust from all creatures and place it alone” in Him (HC 125).

The Lord teaches us to go to Him with every need, with all our frailty, with all our cares. Knowing that He is our provider, we should seek from Him our food and drink, health, clothing, good relationships in our families, success in our callings, the Spirit’s power in our churches, and peace for our nation. We should cast “all [our] care upon him; for he careth for [us]” (1 Peter 5:7).

Knowing God’s providence fosters humility, which is vital for prayer. The Holy Scriptures remind us that no matter how hard we work, we cannot get anything unless we receive it from His hand (Ps. 104:28; John 3:27). Indeed, we cannot move a finger, blink an eye, or think a thought without His enablement. We may have the greatest skills and the most impressive list of experiences and references, but “it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth” (Deut. 8:18). Even with strength and skill, we might toil all day and fail to attain our goals. “Except the LORD build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the LORD keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain” (Ps. 127:1).

Therefore, we must trust in God alone and seek all good things from Him. Oh, to have a true sense of our constant dependence on Him! So often people go to work day after day, buy groceries, take medicine, pay bills, and enjoy pleasures—but do not give a thought to Him and the fact that all depends on His will. Their hearts are lifted up in pride, they forget the Lord, and they say, “My power and the might of mine hand hath gotten me this wealth” (Deut. 8:17). Their prayerlessness is the nail that seals the coffin of their spiritual deadness. But the child of God has the Spirit of adoption crying in his heart, “Abba, Father” (Gal. 4:6). He knows by a Spirit-infused instinct that all deliverance from evil and enjoyment of good comes from his Father. And therefore, he prays. And you? Do you pray? Are your prayers a sincere seeking after Him who is the fountain of all good? Do you really believe in the God of providence?

Patience in Adversity

The Heidelberg Catechism highlights three more benefits of knowing God’s providence:

That we may be patient in adversity; thankful in prosperity; and that in all things, which may hereafter befall us, we place our firm trust in our faithful God and Father, that nothing shall separate us from His love; since all creatures are so in His hand, that without His will they cannot so much as move. (Q&A 28)

A third benefit, therefore, is patience in adversity. We naturally respond to adversity by sinking into self-centered bitterness or falling into despondency. However, even when our circumstances are turbulent or painful, the Christian should cultivate inner quietness by exercising faith in God’s providence. David said, “I opened not my mouth; because thou didst it” (Ps. 39:9). Godly quietness under sorrow comes not from hardening our hearts and shutting down our emotions but from clinging to God in the midst of the storm.

Christian patience in adversity (“longsuffering”) is a supernatural fruit of God’s Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Unbelievers may grimly resign themselves to circumstances they cannot change; believers, however, persevere in faith, believing that the greatest evils will be turned to their profit, and will work for their good, in the hands of a loving, faithful God. By God’s grace and in answer to prayer, we can be “strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering” (Col. 1:11). By the Spirit, Christ’s disciples are willing cross bearers (Luke 9:23).

Those who believe in providence rest in God’s purposes for their afflictions. They understand and approve of God’s intention to train up His children to mature holiness by their sorrows and trials (Prov. 3:11–12; Heb. 12:5–11). They say, “Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now have I kept thy word. . . . It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes” (Ps. 119:67, 71). Though they often cannot see how, they trust that God is glorifying Himself through their struggles, not least by showing that He is worthy of their faith and godly fear even when He does not give them happiness here and now (Job 1:1, 8–11, 20–21). They live in union and communion with Christ and rejoice to suffer with Him, knowing that one day they shall reign with Him in glory (Rom. 8:17). They resolve to “run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:1–2).

The Christian’s hope in God’s purposes depends on faith that He really does control all things. Johannes VanderKemp said, “If no universal Ruler directed whatsoever comes to pass, how should good men be able to quiet and comfort themselves in all their tribulations? Would not their condition be worse than that of the wicked?”

One of the greatest trials a believer may endure is that of spiritual darkness. Westminster Confession of Faith 18.4 notes, “True believers may have the assurance of their salvation divers ways shaken, diminished, and intermitted,” sometimes “by God’s withdrawing the light of His countenance, and suffering even such as fear Him to walk in darkness and to have no light” (see Isa. 50:10). Anthony Burgess explained that God may temporarily withdraw a believer’s joy and assurance of His love so that His beloved child may taste the bitterness of sin and learn to hate it more, grow in humility, treasure joy and peace and not take them for granted, glorify Him by obedience, and increase in compassion to comfort others.

Whether or not the saint walking in darkness can discern its spiritual benefit, he can rest in knowing that his sovereign God always works for His glory and the good of His elect. William Gurnall said, “The Christian must trust in a withdrawing God.”

Dear believer, imagine for a moment that everything in life always went “your way.” You were never afflicted. You never faced adversity. What would you be like? I know what I would be like: I’d be a spoiled, immature, self-centered, proud sinner who only believed in myself. Though my flesh does not always want to admit it, I know deep within that I’ve needed every affliction that my heavenly Father has ever sent my way to deliver me from myself and to conform me increasingly to His Son. Without adversity, I never would be a sin-hater, a Christ-lover, and a holiness-pursuer. I would not be the Christian that I am. I suspect you are no different from me.

In all our afflictions, but especially after we have come out of afflictions (Heb. 12:11), we shall find that the bitterness of our sorrows is far outweighed by the sweetness of God’s good purpose. Our loving Father will not waste one tear of His dear children (Ps. 56:8). Samuel Rutherford said, “When I am in the cellar of affliction, I look for the Lord’s choicest wines.”

Thankfulness in Prosperity

A fourth benefit of providence, which can be as difficult to exercise as patience in adversity, is thankfulness in prosperity. Although adversity is real, frequent, and sometimes overwhelming, we are also immersed in God’s good creation, which is to be “received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:4). God “giveth us richly all things to enjoy” (6:17). We never lack good gifts, and therefore, never lack reasons to praise the God of providence (Eph. 5:20). Wilhelmus à Brakel said, “The proper use of God’s providence will render you an exceptional measure of gratitude and will teach you to end in the Lord as the only Giver of all the good which you may receive for soul and body.”

Gratitude is essential to godliness. Without thanksgiving, we cannot obey God’s will: “In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thess. 5:18). Calvin said,

I call “piety” that reverence joined with love for God which the knowledge of his benefits induces. For until men recognize that they owe everything to God, that they are nourished by his fatherly care, that he is the Author of their every good, that they should seek nothing beyond him—they will never yield him willing service.

Both adversity and prosperity have their dangers. “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me: lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the LORD? Or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain” (Prov. 30:8–9). Both adversity and prosperity have accompanying duties: “Is any among you afflicted? Let him pray. Is any merry? Let him sing psalms” (James 5:13).

Knowing God’s providence fosters humility, which is vital for prayer.

At the heart of thankfulness is the faith to look past God’s good gifts to appreciate the goodness of God Himself. The Christian loves God more than His gifts and, while grateful for daily mercies, counts the Lord as his portion (Lam. 3:22–24). He sings, “Blessed be the Lord, who daily loadeth us with benefits, even the God of our salvation” (Ps. 68:19).

People rarely appreciate the good things they receive, for they delude themselves into thinking they deserve them. Few have learned the lesson of Jacob: “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth faithfulness, which thou hast shewed unto thy servant” (Gen. 32:10). The fact is that we deserve to be tormented in the flames of God’s wrath and to be denied even a drop of water (Luke 16:24–25).

When I visited my father after his open-heart surgery, I found him crying with thankfulness. When I asked why he was so grateful, he said: “A nurse just came in and moistened my lips with an ice cube, and I couldn’t help but think of the rich man in hell who had not one drop of water to cool his tongue. I deserve his portion.”

Have you ever been truly thankful for an ice cube? May God help you and me to be truly grateful for the smallest kindnesses shown to us by Him and by each other.

A Good Expectation for an Unknown Future

Finally, providence grants us as Christians an assured trust in God for the unknown future. Therefore, Christians should be eternal optimists. Heidelberg Catechism 28 says that the doctrine of providence encourages us to “place our firm trust in our faithful God and Father.” Literally, the Dutch reads, “have a good expectation.” Child of God, do you have a good expectation for your future? The hand of our Father rules the world, and no one can stop His purposes from being fulfilled (Dan. 4:35). “God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:9). You are in the hand of the Father and the Son, and there is no safer place in the world (John 10:28–29).

Since God rules over all things, we can rejoice now that we will one day arrive safely at our everlasting inheritance. Paul says: “If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8:31–32). Paul glories in the certain outcome of providence:

I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (vv. 38–39)

The doctrine of providence also implies that the opposite is true. If God is against you, who can help you? Nothing in all creation can shield you from the wrath of God if you continue in your sins and refuse to receive His Son with a broken-hearted faith. If you are an unrepentant sinner, consider that you are an enemy of the God of providence. You do not trust His fatherly sovereignty but deeply resent Him and prefer to worship gods of your own imagination. You proudly rely on yourself rather than seeking His grace in prayer. You do not have a thankful heart, though every day you breathe God’s air and drink His water. If you do not repent, then He will take all good away from you and use His sovereign power to punish you forever.

By His providence, the Lord is gathering a people to Himself out of this wicked world. The most extraordinary providence of God is His sending His Son to redeem sinners (Gal. 4:4–5). When evil men crucified Jesus Christ, they fulfilled the sovereign purpose of God that His Son die as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45; Acts 4:27–28). God raised Christ from the dead by His power, and now Christ sits at God’s right hand as the King of kings and Lord of lords (Pss. 2:6; 110:1).

Today, God is working through the gospel so that everyone who turns from sin, trusts in Christ, and calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved (Rom. 10:13). Could it be that God’s providence arranged for you to come across this article so that you would be converted and follow Christ? If you are not yet saved from your sin, then recognize that you are not reading these words by accident. God is speaking to you. By God’s grace, turn away from what you have formerly relied on and put your hope in the living God. And then rejoice, for God causes all things to work together for the good of those converted by His call, those who love Him (Rom. 8:28). In all their afflictions on the way to glory, they can say, “We are more than conquerors” (v. 37).

God’s Providence Summarized in The Westminster Confession

Dying to Sin and Living to Righteousness

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From the February 2021 Issue
Feb 2021 Issue