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God’s ways at times seem baffling. As the Apostle Paul says, they are inscrutable (Rom. 11:33). That’s why as Christians we often encourage each other to trust in God’s providence, to remember His invisible hand, and to rest in the knowledge that He orchestrates all things for our good (8:28). We call on providence when God’s ways are “past finding out” (11:33, KJV). When tragedy strikes. When joy surprises. When sorrow overwhelms. When opportunity knocks. When circumstances push us to the edge. When we have no answers. Somehow. Some way. As Christians, we know the solution lies deep in the providence of God.
The appeal of providence is that it places each moment of our lives—good, bad, and everything in between—in bold relief against God’s plan for all things. We tell ourselves that God is in control. Yet we still struggle to connect the chaos of our lives with the certainty of God’s design. As finite and fallen creatures, we often fail to trust that God will lead, guide, and direct us according to His good and sovereign will. One reason Christians have long spoken about providence is to bolster our faith amid life’s uncertainties.
As I was working on this article, I took a walk around the campus of Reformation Bible College, where I teach, and looped back to my office by way of our coffee shop to purchase an afternoon latte. While I was waiting for my coffee, I asked one of my students about something in his life. Unaware that I was writing an article on providence, he began reflecting on the difficulty of not always knowing God’s ways. He gave me a helpful illustration. When traveling by car, he told me he prefers having the map on his smartphone open so that he knows at all times where he is, where he is going, and how he will get to his destination. But, he confessed, he doesn’t like traveling when he has no map to follow but only a friend or family member to navigate the journey one turn at a time. His point was well made. He knows that he is to trust in God’s providence, but he wishes he could see the map that details the coordinates of his life.
In his classic work The Mystery of Providence, the Puritan John Flavel states, “It is the duty of the saints, especially in times of straits, to reflect upon the performances of Providence for them in all the states and through all the stages in their lives.” Flavel, in other words, urges Christians to meditate on God’s providence at every juncture of life and even to talk about His ways with fellow Christians. But to reflect in any meaningful way on “the performances of Providence,” we need to have a clear understanding of what we mean by the term providence.
There are few better resources for summarizing the Bible’s teaching on key doctrines than the Westminster Confession of Faith. In chapter 5 of the confession, we have one of the most precise definitions of providence in the history of the church. For the remainder of this article, we will examine the first four sections of chapter 5 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which detail the biblical doctrine of providence.
The opening section of chapter 5 relates providence to the outworking of God’s eternal decree (see WCF 3) in the realm of God’s creation (see WCF 4). It states:
God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy. (WCF 5.1)
In Truths We Confess, a splendid guide to the Westminster Confession, Dr. R.C. Sproul calls this paragraph an “unequaled summary of Reformed theology.” To begin with, notice that the confession connects providence with God’s work of creation. Since God created all things, He governs all things. God is not aloof or disengaged. He is actively involved in the world that He made, directing everything great and small according to His sovereign plan. Dear reader, God is not unconcerned with the events of your life. He is not surprised or taken off guard by your suffering. The God who made the galaxies knows the hairs on your head, the fears of your heart, the events of your life, and the details of your future (consider Matt. 6:25–34; 10:26–33).
The Bible is replete with verses that testify to God’s upholding, directing, disposing, and governing His creation. Here are just a handful. Psalm 135:6 teaches that God’s providence extends to all parts of creation: “Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.” Proverbs 15:3 reminds us that the “eyes of the LORD are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.” Daniel 2:21–22 explains that God “changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding; he reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with him.” Acts 17:24–28 declares that the “God who made the world and everything in it . . . gives to all mankind life and breath and everything . . . having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place . . . for in him we live and move and have our being.” And Hebrews 1:3 states that God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, “upholds the universe by the word of his power.” The manifold witness of Scripture is that God is in control of everything in heaven and on earth. As Thomas Watson observes, “God is not like an artificer that builds a house, and then leaves it, but like a pilot he steers the ship of the whole creation.”
The Westminster Confession links providence not only to creation but also to “the free and immutable counsel of [God’s] own will.” The events of creation and providence represent the unfolding of God’s perfect design for the world. Stated another way, God performs His eternal decrees in the works of creation and providence. But what are the decrees of God? The Westminster Shorter Catechism gives us a succinct answer: “The decrees of God are his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass” (WSC 7). More simply, whatever happens in your life is according to the infinite wisdom of God. As the psalmist states, “O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all” (Ps. 104:24).
The doctrine of providence reminds us that while the precise purposes of God may be veiled from our sight, we can still draw comfort from knowing that whatever befalls us comes from God’s good and wise plan for our lives. Certainly, this precious truth lies behind the many exhortations in Proverbs for us to trust in God. We place our faith in the Lord and not in our own understanding, because He will make our paths straight (Prov. 3:5–6). It is the Lord who establishes our steps (16:9). His purposes stand forever (19:21). One of the ways my wife and I reinforce these truths in our family is to challenge each other to trust in God’s wisdom, to be content with what God gives, and to be faithful in what God calls us to do each and every day. We rest in God because we know that nothing is outside the scope of His providence. There are no “maverick molecules,” as Dr. Sproul used to say. All that comes to pass is according to His will and for His glory.
In the next section, the confession introduces a difficult but important distinction between first and second causes. It states:
Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, he ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently. (WCF 5.2)
Earlier in the confession, the Westminster divines (as theologians were called in the seventeenth century) made this same point:
God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. (WCF 3.1)
These two statements are among the most tightly worded and theologically weighty portions of the entire confession. We have already seen that God’s providence is the cause of the execution and ongoing operation of His predetermined plan for all things. When we think about God’s governance of creation, we must reject any notion of providence that suggests that God withdraws from the world on the one hand or that He treats humans as robots on the other. We reject both Deism and fatalism, since both distort God’s relationship with the world. In Deism, God does nothing. In fatalism, God does everything. Neither of these positions is acceptable.
By declaring God as the first or primary cause of all that comes to pass and asserting the legitimacy of second causes, the confession affirms a concursus of divine sovereignty and human freedom, meaning that God accomplishes His purposes through the free choices of creatures and other secondary causes. As Joseph tells his brothers, who sold him into slavery, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). Joseph’s siblings were guilty of conspiring against their brother and lying to their father about his death (read Gen. 37), but God worked through these events to accomplish His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (see Gen. 50:24). Likewise, as the book of Exodus chronicles the actions of Pharaoh against Israel, we learn that Pharaoh hardened his heart and refused to release Israel from slavery in Egypt (e.g., Ex. 8:32). But we are also repeatedly told that Pharaoh’s actions were the result of God’s hardening his heart (e.g., 9:12). These biblical texts illustrate a co-working or convergence of divine and human wills.
Geerhardus Vos explains the principle of concursus:
Every individual has only to look at his life history to discern that there was a higher hand that governed it. At this point faith in God’s co-working is most closely connected with our dependence upon Him. He directs even our free acts, and however far above our comprehension may be the manner in which he does that, in any case it must be a co-working, a concursus. Not matter, not fate, not chance can affect us, if our freedom is to be maintained, but only the co-working of God (Ps. 104:4; Prov. 16:1; 21:1).
God is the primary and ultimate cause of all things. But this statement, according to the confession’s summary of the Bible, does not negate the laws of nature or the free actions of humans. In the mystery of God’s providence, God uses ordinary and regular means to bring about His sovereign purposes. J. Gresham Machen clarifies the relationship between God as the first cause of all things and second causes such as gravity or our personal decisions. He concisely states: “God makes use of second causes to accomplish what is in accordance with His eternal purpose. Second causes are not independent forces whose cooperation He needs, but they are means that He employs exactly as He will.” Machen then gives an illustration to reinforce this point.
Imagine you discover a bullet hole in a pane of glass. You would naturally conclude that the hole was caused by the passage of a bullet through the glass, which was caused by the firing of a gun, which was caused by the pulling of a trigger, which was caused by a person holding a gun. As Christians, we affirm that God is sovereign over everything. Since He ordains whatsoever comes to pass, He is the first cause of these events. Yet we would not say that God pulled the trigger. Nor would we attribute the breaking of the glass to God. Machen insists that the person who fired the gun is responsible for the damage caused by the bullet. God’s providential rule does not nullify personal liability.
The confession develops the principle of concursus to make the point that God is sovereign and that we are responsible, moral creatures. Since God is the first cause of everything that happens, “all things come to pass immutably and infallibly” according to His predetermined design. God’s eternal plan for the world is unchanging and unfailing. However, He ordered the events of history to transpire “according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently” (WCF 5:2).
Observe that the Westminster divines identify three types of secondary causes: necessary, free, and contingent. A necessary cause, from our vantage point, is one that is required for us to go about our days. For example, Genesis 8:22 states, “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” The normal seasons of the year are necessary for us to enjoy the rhythms of life. As Jeremiah 31:35 reminds us, the Lord gives the sun “for light by day” and the moon and stars “for light by night.” Certainly, God does not need His creation. But in His wisdom, He has so organized the world that we need the sun, moon, and stars to experience the days and nights that He has prepared for us (see Ps. 90:12).
Next, the confession refers to free agency. Everything God has made works according to its nature. God designed us as creatures to be moral agents who are responsible for all our thoughts, musings, feelings, words, deeds, behavior, and so on. We must answer to God for our actions. The confession states that when God created Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, they were “under a possibility of transgressing, being left to the liberty of their own will, which was subject to change” (WCF 4.2; see WCF 3.1; 9.1–5). This means, among other things, that when Eve took of the forbidden fruit, she did so of her own accord. Notice the actions described in Genesis 3:6. The woman saw that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was good for food. She delighted in what she beheld. She desired the wisdom that the tree offered. She took. She ate. She gave to her husband with her. And he ate. As a result of their actions, they were cursed (see Gen. 3). In the words of the ancient Preacher, “God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes” (Eccl. 7:29). In ways we cannot fully fathom, God determines our finite lives while never undermining our voluntary actions (read carefully Acts 2:22–24 and note the confluence of God’s definite plan and the lawless conduct of those who crucified Jesus).
Third, God’s providence does not discount contingent secondary causes. From the standpoint of human agency, a contingent cause is one that is dependent on something else to occur. Contingent causes often come in the form of “if-then” scenarios. Scripture gives us several examples. In Exodus 21:13 and Deuteronomy 19:5, if an Israelite is guilty of unintentional killing, then God has appointed a place for that person to flee for refuge. In 1 Kings 22:13–36, the prophet Micaiah warns of the death of Ahab to demonstrate his credentials as a spokesman for God. If the king of Israel dies in battle, then he, Micaiah, will be proven to be a true prophet. But, as Micaiah explains, if Ahab returns in peace, then “the LORD has not spoken by me” (v. 28). The credibility of Micaiah as a prophet is contingent on whether Ahab returns from battle dead or alive.
When we discuss the relationship between primary and secondary causes, we are affirming that God ordains and governs all things in such a way that accounts for natural laws and human activity. God’s sovereignty does not destroy but establishes second causes. His eternal purposes are worked out in history on the plane of providence. As the first cause of all things, God wisely and purposefully accomplishes His sovereign decree through the regular cycle of seasons, the rise and fall of empires, the ups and downs of markets, and the daily endeavors of finite, morally responsible, decision-making, sinful people (see, for example, Isa. 10:5–19, especially vv. 6–7).
The next two sections in chapter 5 of the Westminster Confession make two important qualifications about God’s providence. The first qualification concerns miracles: “God, in his ordinary providence, maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure” (WCF 5.3). The world that God has made is not closed to His intervention. Normally, God uses secondary means such as the laws of nature to accomplish His divine purposes. However, God is under no obligation to limit His providential rule to these means. He may determine to part the waters of the Red Sea or heal the sick or cast out demons or raise a person from the dead to demonstrate His power to redeem His people. These supernatural activities are not intended to contradict or undermine God’s use of ordinary means but are meant to broaden the scope of God’s providential rule. As Archibald Alexander Hodge argues, “The order of nature and miracles, instead of being in conflict, are the intimately correlated elements of one comprehensive system.” God uses natural law, human actions, and divine miracles to accomplish His eternal and immutable plan for His glory.
The other qualification the confession makes about God’s providence is that His divine sovereignty over all things should in no way be taken as suggesting that He is the author of sin. It states:
The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God so far manifest themselves in his providence, that it extendeth itself even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, but such as hath joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering, and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to his own holy ends; yet so, as the sinfulness thereof proceedeth only from the creature, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin. (WCF 5.4)
The central thrust of this section lies in the claim that sinful actions proceed only from angels and humans and not from God. To prove this point, the Scottish theologian David Dickson appeals to the testimony of Moses (Deut. 32:4), David (Ps. 5:4), Daniel (Dan. 9:14), Habakkuk (Hab. 1:13), Paul (Rom. 3:3–5), James (James 1:13–18), and John (1 John 1:5; 2:16). He then makes several arguments based on these and several other biblical texts to show that God is not the author of sin:
- Because God is essentially and infinitely holy and good, He is pure and free from every spot and blemish.
- Because God is absolutely perfect, He cannot fail or be deficient in His work.
- Because God is the Judge of the world, He is the Forbidder, the Hater, and the Revenger of all sin and unrighteousness, as contrary to His holy nature and law.
The Westminster Confession’s chapter on providence takes us behind the scenes of history to impress on us that absolutely nothing is outside the purview of God’s reign. He knows all things. He ordains all things. He directs all things for the good of those who are in Christ and for the glory of His triune name (Eph. 1:3–14). When we are pressed and flummoxed and hurt and saddened and amazed by God’s mysterious providence, the precision of Westminster helps us sing with William Cowper,
Deep in unfathomable mines
of never-failing skill
he treasures up his bright designs,
and works his sov’reign will.
Even more, we stand before our sovereign God and say with the Apostle Paul, “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36).