Providence

Providence
by

A study of Ruth clearly demonstrates how “God moves in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform[1]. We might imagine that our main characters never sat around thinking, “God is preparing me to be an Ancestor in the Royal Line of Judah!” More likely they were caught up, as we tend to be, in what they perceived as a difficult, ordinary life.

Only after they have played their parts well, can they look back and see how God was working alongside them all along. The story of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz provides a wonderful illustration of God’s Providence and a fantastic opportunity for us to delve deeper into this truth. Do you consider how God is currently working in your own life? Do you imagine what He might prepare you for?

What is Providence?

Noah Webster was a strong Christian and American patriot oft referred to as the Father of American Scholarship and Education (Webster, Noah). Webster had such strong feelings about the word “Providence” that Webster wrote a paragraph in his dictionary extolling and defending its value when a sentence could have simply defined it:

prov∙i∙dence … “In theology, the care and superintendence which God exercises over his creatures. He that acknowledges a creation and denies a providence, involves himself in a palpable contradiction; for the same power that caused a thing to exist is necessary to continue its existence. Some persons admit a general providence, but deny a particular providence, not considering that a general providence consists of particulars. A belief in divine providence is a source of great consolation to good men. By divine providence is often understood God himself.” [2]

Perhaps the best known, one sentence definition was written by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans:

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose”. Romans 8:28, English Standard Version [ESV]

Any worthy systematic theological literature will dedicate a chapter in its entirety to a discussion of Providence. This discussion typically follows a chapter dedicated to the doctrine of Creation. Furthermore, all study literature —or at least, all of our study literature– requires a paragraph to adequately and precisely convey the meaning of the term Providence. Wayne Grudem dedicates 40 pages to the doctrine of Providence, and defines it as:

“God is continually involved with all created things in such a way that he (1) keeps them existing and maintaining the properties with which he created them; (2) cooperates with created things in every action, directing their distinctive properties to cause them to act as they do; and (3) directs them to fulfill his purposes”. [3]

Where is Providence?

Most people already hold a working definition of the term, so why do we commit such care and precision to the term’s meaning? The simple fact is that while most people possess a basic understanding of the word’s meaning, they don’t actually believe it. In fact, many people in America might argue today that Providence isn’t even taught in the Scripture. How easily can this argument be debated?

Theoretically speaking, if the concept of Providence is false, then the passage previously cited in Romans 8:28 would also be false. However, the passage does not stand alone. For those who prefer to see more than a single prooftexting[4] reference, we have compiled a list of approximately 70 scriptural references to God’s Providence. Thus, the weight of Scripture attests this Doctrine so strongly that refusal to accept the doctrine would result in a refusal of the Scripture itself.

Why Providence?

Once we accept that the concept of Providence, as taught in Scripture, is true, we might immediately ask, “Why”? For what purpose does the Scripture reveal Providence to us? How does Providence help us? Strong and McClintock asked precisely this question in the Heidelberg Catechism back in 1563:

Question 28: What advantage is it to us to know that God has created, and by His providence does still uphold all things?

Answer: 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”.[5]

Those who believe in Providence find both comfort and knowledge – comfort that God is in control and knowledge that opposing doctrines are false. Providence actively opposes three major philosophical or doctrinal errors readily embraced by members of modern society. Those errors include:

  • Deism – God created the universe and left it to run, like a machine.
  • Fatalism – All things are subject to fate, or inevitable necessity.
  • Chance – Events occur without design, purpose, intention, or being foreseen.

Providence asserts the personal involvement of God in every turn of human affairs and His constant upholding of all natural process. These postulates directly counter the deist conception of God as detached from the current workings of the universe. Ultimately, Deists believe in a god who is neither personal nor involved in history, and who would never enter into history as Christ did, much less deign to a “personal relationship” with a man.

While the Providence teaches the personal involvement of God with man, the fatalist de-personalizes man by declaring man’s choices to have no meaning and by making no allowance for personal response. Fatalism lays the groundwork for an attitude of defeatism and leaves man as little more than a puppet on the stage of creation.

Chance is perhaps the philosophy most likely to deceive. Any event complex enough to prevent our full understanding of how the event occurred is easily categorized as a random — or chance – event. The workings of the universe, historical events, and personal experiences that we can’t understand are, too often, attributed to chance, particularly so when “bad things” occur that we do not wish to accept as Providence.

We often substitute “chance” as an explanation rather than recognizing God’s Sovereignty and our personal choices as contributing to the situations we find ourselves in and the results obtained. However, this leads to a god who can be surprised by chance, and thus is not all knowing; resulting in no sure means of salvation, as there might be a chance event waiting to trump it.

How about Evil?

It would be nice to just avoid the query. However, any conversation about God’s Providence should eventually come around to this timeless question. We can be quite happy to accept that good is part of God’s Providence (Romans 8:28) and yet, we may simultaneously decide of our own volition that anything bad is outside of God’s Providence. This ultimately contradicts the doctrine of Providence and we must accept both if we accept the teaching of the Scripture.

The book of Ruth, ESV provides an excellent historical narrative of how God can use our poor choices to ultimately bring about better things. For example, the Scripture tells us that Ruth’s father-in-law chooses to leave the land God had provided. This departure resulted in an Israelite breaking the Law and marrying a Moabitess, Ruth. The marriage was contrary to the revealed will of God thus making the marriage a sin (Deuteronomy 23:3, ESV).

However, this made Ruth a daughter-in-law to Naomi, enabling her exposure to God and, eventually, bringing Ruth to choose to serve God (Ruth 1:16, ESV). God’s Law, as related by Moses, further provided the framework for Ruth to marry Boaz. Through this marriage, Ruth becomes the great grandmother of King David (Ruth 4:17, ESV) entering her into the lineage of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Messiah (Matthew 1:5, ESV)!

This leads to an even more astounding illustration of how God does use evil to bring about the ultimate good. Do we not see Christ ever leading the way to His own wrongful crucifixion by men seeking their own agenda? Didn’t the prophets say (Luke 24:25-27, ESV) it would happen, just the way it happened, long before it happened? The Messiah, despised, rejected, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3, ESV), suffered evil, that we may be redeemed. This was God’s will (Luke 22:42, ESV) and plan all along, to turn the ultimate evil on its head for the ultimate good, sweet Providence!

Summary

God’s message to us through the Scripture provides the correct response to our mental struggles in grasping all the details of the doctrine of Providence:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts”. (Isaiah 55:8-9, ESV)

Thus, we should:

  1. Acknowledge/Affirm Scriptural teaching
  2. Avail ourselves of the benefits of such teaching
  3. Pursue greater understanding
  4. Bow in humility before God and His Word

God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform – there is a great, comforting truth in the phrase. Some doctrines revealed in the Scripture are difficult to understand. Even Peter admits to difficulty in understanding some of Paul’s teachings (2 Peter 3:16, ESV).

It is acceptable to not fully understand everything taught in the Scripture. But, it is not acceptable to disdain or discard any Scriptural teaching due simply to a lack of understanding. The Christian is a disciple of Christ. A “disciple” is a student. We are continually learning through the process of sanctification. We are life-long learners.


[1] Hymn by William Cowper

[2] Webster, N. (1828). American Dictionary of the English Language, Noah Webster 1828

[3] Grudem, W. (2009). Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Bible Doctrine

[4] By proof-texting we mean the use of individual scripture texts to produce apparent support for a doctrinal position without adequate regard for the contexts of the individual texts which may indicate differences and nuances. We do not include the use of texts for illustration or the use of texts which are properly taken in context and limited appropriately in what one tries to prove from them.

[5] Strong, J. & McClintock, J. (1563). Heidelberg Catechism, Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

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  1. I have been so beweildred in the past but now it all makes sense!

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