Are God’s Providence and God’s Sovereignty the Same?
This summer, you, Pastor John, finished up a book on the providence of God, a six-hundred-page book coming out in a little over a year from now. We talked about it recently in episode 1371. Sometimes I say it’s a book about the sovereignty of God, which leads to a question from Massiel in the Dominican Republic.
“Hello, Pastor John! I was looking for definitions on the sovereignty of God and the providence of God, and couldn’t really find one that would make me understand the difference between the two terms. Could you please explain it, Pastor John? Are they synonyms? How would you define each glorious truth?”
Reality in High Definition
That’s an excellent question, and I will answer very specifically, in just a moment, the very question that was asked. But first, it really is important to say a few words about definitions, and specifically definitions about words that are not used in the Bible. Providence is not a word in the English Bible. In that sense, it is like the words Bible, biblical, Trinity, discipleship, evangelism, exposition, counseling, ethics, politics, charismatics.
“God’s sovereignty is his right and power to do all that he decides to do.”
None of those words is in the Bible, which shows that the reality that words point to is more important than the words themselves, even though the words are precious and indispensable — and in this case with the Bible, inspired and God-given. They are God’s inspired words, but they are pointing to reality. And that reality may be so woven into the Scriptures that it’s helpful to have a word that pulls the threads of reality together — a word that may not be in the Bible itself.
Now, what’s the implication of that for definitions that I’m being asked for? Well, since providence is not used in a specific biblical text, there’s no biblical governor on its definition, its meaning. We can’t say, “The Bible defines providence this way.” We could only say that if the Bible actually used the word providence.
Whenever you ask, “What does [blank] mean?” What does providence mean? What does justification mean? What does faith mean? Whenever you ask what anything means, there has to be a meaner — one who means — if the meaning is going to have any validity, so that you can say it means this and not that. So, if the meaner is not the Bible writers, then when I use the word providence, I must assign a meaning. I’m the meaner, and that’s what I do in the first chapter of my book on providence. I don’t assign it an arbitrary meaning, I hope. If you do that, nobody will understand you. You don’t have any shared meaning with people because you’ve chosen a meaning that’s just so far off the charts it doesn’t make any sense to anybody. So, I try to stay close to what other meaners have meant by the word in church history. But I do choose the meaning.
Now, you can see what that implies when we are trying to talk about the biblical view of providence, since the Bible doesn’t use the word. It implies that the issue before us — in those conversations about the meaning of providence and in my book — is not the meaning of the word providence. I choose a meaning to use in my book, and I will choose one here because you asked me to. The issue is this: Is the reality, which I see in the Bible and call providence, really there? That’s the issue. Let me say it again: Is the reality, which I see and describe in my book, and which I call providence, really there in the Bible?
There’s no point in quibbling whether the word providence is the best word for the reality. That’s relatively unimportant. The all-important thing is whether there is a reality in the Bible — which means there is a reality in the universe — that corresponds to my description of the goal, nature, and extent of God’s providence.
All-Powerful God, All-Good Provider
Here are my answers to your question, Massiel: no, sovereignty and providence are not the same. God’s sovereignty is his right and power to do all that he decides to do. Job 42:2:“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” But notice that nothing in that definition of sovereignty refers to God’s wisdom or God’s plans. It’s just right and power: you have the right and you have the power to do what you decide to do. When he decides to do a thing, he does it, and no one can stop him. That’s sovereignty.
So, to make sovereignty a Christian concept, not just a philosophical one, we have to bring in other things we know about God from the Bible, like wisdom and justice and righteousness and grace. Providence, however, includes what sovereignty doesn’t. Providence, as I use the word and as most Christians have used it, is sovereignty in the service of wise purposes. Or you could say providence is wise and purposeful sovereignty. Since his purpose is so central to his providence, I spend a hundred and fifty pages or so clarifying what the Bible says God’s ultimate purpose is.
It’s not very helpful to try to nail down the meaning of a word like providence by picking apart its etymology — the history of its pieces, like pro-vidence. Because the Latin behind pro-vide or -vide is ambiguous. It can mean “to foresee” or “to see toward.” And we have an idiom in English, “see to that.” That’s an interesting idiom, isn’t it? What does it mean? It means, “take the steps to make sure it happens.”
“Absolutely everything that needs to be done to bring about his purposes, God sees to it that it happens.”
In fact, I think that is one of the most helpful paraphrases of God’s acts of providence. It is God’s seeing to everything. Absolutely everything that needs to be done to bring about his purposes, God sees to it that it happens. Isaiah 46:10: “[I declare] the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’” In other words, “I will see to it.” See to it — pro-vide. “I will provide. I will see to it that everything works together for the goals that I have for the world.”
From His Fatherly Hand
Let me close with one example from history that I think is so beautiful. This is Question 27 of the Heidelberg Catechism. The date on that is 1563.
Question: What do you understand by the providence of God?
Answer: The almighty, everywhere present power of God, whereby, as it were, by his hand, he still upholds heaven and earth with all creatures and so governs them that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed, all things come not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.
That’s a good summary of God’s providence: wise and purposeful sovereignty.