God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sov’reign will.
And then here comes a verse that, lo and behold, is missing from our text of this hymn in this hymnal:
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
I see these lessons on the providence of God as an attempt to interpret that verse: “Behind a frowning providence, he hides a smiling face.” I would like to build a people of God who can talk like that and know what they mean.
In fact, one of my little sub-goals in a series like this is to affect the vocabulary of the church. My guess is that most of you don’t use the word providence very much in your vocabulary. Except for the fact that there are schools named this and so there are probably cheers that include providence — “Give me a P, give me an R — it’s probably not something that you use. And I would like to so teach and reveal this scriptural truth to you,, that when you’re talking with your children, when you’re talking with a friend who hasn’t seen you for a year, and you go to a class reunion, and your baby died last year — born, lived two hours, and died — and they would say, “How are you doing?” And you would say, “God has dealt us some hard providence this year,” instead of saying, “We had bad luck.” The word luck creeps into our vocabulary when most of us don’t believe in it. But we don’t have anything to put in its place. We don’t know how to talk about untoward, unsavory, hard events that are tragic and painful when we believe in the sovereignty of God.
This whole series is an attempt to give you a way to talk about those and give you an understanding of those.
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain. (“God Moves in a Mysterious Way”)
A Religious Word
I’m tempted to read you some quotes from Spurgeon just right off the bat. He preached on the providence of God, but I’ll try to resist and see if I can fit it in where it belongs. I’ve got overheads and I have an outline and how far we’ll get, I don’t know. If we don’t get through all of them tonight, we will pick it up next week where we leave off. There’s a lot of introductory stuff tonight and not as many biblical texts. But starting next week, we’ll deal almost entirely with biblical texts coming at this thing of the providence of God from lots of different sides, but you’ll see where we’re going to go as I get in.
The word providence is striking. It comes from the word provide (provide, provide-nce) which has two parts:
Pro — Latin for “forward” or “in front of” or “on behalf of.” Pro-life and proactive would be two different meanings of pro, one “moving ahead,” and the other “on behalf of.”
Vide — from videre, “to see” in Latin.
So, you might think that provide would mean to see forward or to foresee, but it doesn’t. It means to “supply what is needed,” “provide something,” “to give sustenance or support.” And so, the noun providence has come to mean the act of providing for or sustaining and governing the universe by God. It’s really interesting to me that if you look up providence in Webster’s dictionary, it’s a religious word. Definition number three is given some kind of wider meaning. But the first two definitions have to do with God. Now, that’s interesting that a word exists to describe a way of looking at the universe, which is Godward.
So, the very existence of the word is a testimony to broad convictions about God behind the universe. I find that very remarkable, because usually, religious language is borrowed from outside and then you adapt it to spiritual things. I don’t know the whole etymology and history of that word. But it’s really interesting to think about. I think there’s a linguistic reason and a theological reason for why provide means “supply” rather than “foresee.” There’s a linguistic thought. Linguistically pro- means “on behalf of” as well as “forward,” so provide can mean “to see by on behalf of.” We say in English, “I’ll see to that.” If you just switch that around to to-see, we could create a new word “to-see,” which would mean “see to something,” which is what provide is — that’s what it is: to-see.
In other words, seeing something with a purpose is to make provision for what you see. Seeing to something is acting on behalf of something; it is providing. Thus, providence is the act of God’s seeing to the universe. I’ll see to that. I love that. God simply says, if we raise questions about the universe, Where did it come from? How does it stay in existence? How does it run? Why does it behave the way it behaves? Will it last? God answers all those questions with: I’ll see to that. And that’s providence.
God Perceives and Performs
Theologically, there’s a reason why seeing to means “providing for.” Let’s go to the Bible here. I’ve got it on the overhead. If you want to look in your Bible you can, but you can probably read it just as well here. I want to show you from Genesis 22 a theological reason why seeing has come to mean “providing” when it refers to God. Let’s just go ahead.
After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”
Now stop there. In Hebrew, this is very simply, without any adornment, “God will see.” It’s the word see, raah, in Hebrew. It’s a simple word: see — nothing fancy or theological about it. It’s used dozens and dozens of times in the Old Testament for simply see. “God will see for himself the lamb.”
When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide ”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” (Genesis 22:9–14)
Translation: literally, “the Lord sees,” “the Lord will see.” Now, theologically as you reflect on that, why the word see would be used to mean would be used to mean “provide.” I suggested in the Star article: “I think the deepest answer is that God never simply sees without acting. He is God. He is not a passive participant in a world that exists without his sustaining it.” He’s never a mere spectator. Never, never. He’s never just watching things and having nothing to do with them. Wherever God is looking, he is acting. He may not be acting in the same way. That’s something we’re going to have to tackle: whether God’s action in the world at any given time and place is the same as it is in other times and places. But I am asserting here at the outset my belief that God is always acting when he’s seen. If God perceives, he at least in some sense performs. If he inspects, he effects.
In other words, there is a profound theological reason why the word providence does not merely mean “know before” or “see before,” foreknowledge, but rather the active sustenance and governance of the universe. When God sees, he sees to, provide. His seeing is always with a view to doing. Where he patrols, he controls. So, God’s providence is seeing to the universe.
Now, I don’t know if this peculiar use of the word see is ever used when a human being is doing it. I don’t know. I will have to get out my computer and do some work on raah to see whether it’s ever translated “provide” or has that meaning. The implication, I suppose, being that, if it does, you wouldn’t want to read too much in here. These are theological reflections. I’m not saying that when Moses wrote those 14 verses, he was thinking all of this. I would hope that if I asked him, “Why did you use the word see?” He says, “Where’s the lamb?” And you said, “God will see the lamb.” Why did you say that?” I think it might reflect something like I’ve just said, but I don’t know for sure.
Where ‘Providence’ Leads
Now, what I want to do is give you a little foretaste of what I foresee in the next several weeks or through the fall as long as God gives us energy and time — questions we will try to face in the coming weeks.
How detailed is God’s involvement and control? In other words, has he set the universe in motion and intervene here and there to block and to stop, and then basically 85% of the time, 90% of the time, it’s hands-off, and things are kind of running by laws of physics and so on.
Does he see to moral evil? If so, is his involvement with moral evil the same as his involvement with moral good?
Does he see too natural calamities, like earthquakes and floods and tornadoes and plague?
Or we could bring it close to home: Babies born blind, babies with livers outside their stomach, outside their body, does he see to that? If so, how?
Does he see to national, international affairs? What’s the measure of his control over nations?
Does he see to personal and family matters down to the details of our lives, both painful and pleasant?
Does he foreknow all things? If so, is his foreknowledge infallible? If so, on what is his knowledge based? And does it imply that things could not be otherwise?
Does God’s foreknowledge and providence make prayer pointless?
Does God’s providence and rule make human choice meaningless? Does it mean that all our choices are governed by God and that we cannot be blamed or rewarded for the bad and good we do? What is the difference between providence and fatalism? Does this truth of providence bring joy?
So, those are questions that, if we tackle them, it will be amazing. And if we can resolve them, it will be more amazing because they have bent the minds of better people than I over the centuries. But I think they are the kinds of questions that, if you get into a conversation with a thoughtful unbeliever, trying to commend your faith to them and tell them a few things you believe, it won’t be long until you’re telling them you believe God is strong and wise and loving. And they’ll throw back at you a half-dozen contradictions between those three things in the world. And we may not be able to persuade them, but we need an intelligible response so that our consciences are clear that we’re not talking gibberish when we say God is love and that he rules the world of absolutely horrid pain.
I was just talking to Dr. Brushaber, the president of Bethel today. We had lunch together. And his mother passed away about a month ago. And then we talked about these kinds of transitions of nursing home and getting old and difficulties and he’s an only child away from California where they lived and you’re on the phone and his dad is eighty-something and he said, “She was just in horrendous pain for the last months of her life.” They tried different kinds of spinal things. It didn’t work. And finally, they put a self-administering morphine thing in her side, and that made her so groggy than she couldn’t be herself. And so, I don’t say lightly — I say less lightly today than 15 or 20 years ago — that providence means God was seeing to that in some way.
Providence in the Creeds
Why concern ourselves with the historic confessions of faith if Scripture is our final authority? Let me tell you why I’m asking this question: I have here historic statements of what providence means from the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Standards. Some of you have never heard any of those. And that’s OK. You can be a good Christian without having ever heard of any of those. However, I am going to introduce you to them.
And as I was typing this up this afternoon, I thought, well, they would probably ask, “Why are you doing this? Why don’t you just get to the Bible? We’re Baptists, and Baptists aren’t historically very creedal. And we believe the Bible is our final authority. So, get to the Bible. Don’t give us Westminster Catechism and Heidelberg Catechism.”
Four Reasons We Need the Creeds
So why am I doing this? Why do I read those things? Why do I take out a big fat book and look up providence in the index and find it and study what somebody else thought about it rather than going right to the Bible? Why did I do that? Well, I thought: This is helpful. We need to think about why that is. And I’ve got four reasons here. And I’ll give them to you and then you can tell me what you think.
1. Avoid chronological snobbery.
All of these documents I’m going to read are from the sixteenth century. We live in the twentieth century and almost in the twenty-first century. So, that’s five centuries away. That’s a long time. But we consider the creeds because it helps rescue us from the pitfalls of (I get this phrase from C.S. Lewis) chronological snobbery . Chronological snobbery is thinking that your era has the last word and is smarter than every other era. And so, if you see things the way your contemporaries see them, you see them right. That’s snobbery. That’s chronological snobbery.
Just like ethnocentricity would be to say: white people and the way we do things in the West or in America, we see things right. And if you have a black perspective or a yellow perspective or a red perspective or a different kind of ethnic perspective, yours is, by definition, not ours, and therefore, not as good. That’s snobbery — bad.
We all read Scripture through a lens shaped by our time and culture. Reading what others saw in Scripture in another time and culture can reveal blind spots that we have and open us to things we totally missed. So, there’s reason number one. I know that I am prone to see things through a twentieth-century lens, Baptist lens, Piper-theology lens, rich lens, English lens. I mean, one is tempted sometimes to think that we could not have any objectivity at all, though I think the whole Bible is premised on the truth that you can see through.
2. Get outside your circle.
However, it does assume humility and humility is the opposite of chronological snobbery, and one manifestation of humility —which is my second reason — is to go outside your own little circle. It is presumptuous to assume that we can see all we need to see in Scripture without the help of others.
My son Abraham and I were talking about this century and what it was like at the beginning of the century, since we’re getting near the end, and what had not been invented. And it’s incredible. I mean, life for the first 10,000 years of humanity or whatever it has been, was almost the same until a hundred years ago. And then cars and airplanes and electricity and telephones and radios and televisions and computers and the life we know today is absolutely, stunningly, incredibly different from almost all of human history prior to a hundred years ago.
Now, that will make us cocky and say, “Why in the world didn’t Plato think of the computer?” Which is a good question, and I think there’s some theological reasons for it. But if you ask that with a sense of “Plato doesn’t have anything to teach you” or John Calvin or Luther or Jonathan Edwards because they lived in the dark ages of pre-scientific, pre-technological times. That would be snobbery. It would lack humility, and it’s of course irrational.
I took down off my computer the other day an excerpt from I think it was the Reuters news service of a British computer analyst about the global village, and he said if the world is a global village, the internet is the red-light district. So, having achieved the Internet says zilch about our capacities to understand right and wrong, and to discern good from evil and to make progress in moral dimensions.
3. Appreciate those soaked in Scripture.
Reason number three: because the writers of the historic confessions were more steeped in Scripture than we are, and they devoted years to Bible study that we haven’t. And I say “we” — I think I could say that safely in this room, that those fellows who gathered together to write the Westminster Standards and worked on them for about eight years, I think, knew the Bible backward and forward; they had been immersed in the Bible.
I’ve studied the Bible for a long time. I read certain parts of the Old Testament, I feel like a stranger and I’m still figuring out how this relates to that. How much more ordinary lay people, who haven’t devoted a lifetime to study? We would be foolish to think that our understanding of Scripture cannot benefit from those who have spent so much more time and effort in the wide range of biblical truth that we have.
4. Listen to a transgenerational body.
And finally, because the body of Christ is transgenerational. Have you ever thought about this? The body of Christ is transgenerational; meaning, some of it is dead and some of it is alive and some of is not born yet, and the dead people are in heaven. And thank God, a lot of those dead saints left behind writings.
So, if you care about saying “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’” you can’t say that about the past either (1 Corinthians 12:21). The glory of writing is that it enables us to hear the teaching of Christian teachers from centuries ago. Thus, we benefit from the larger body of Christ, not just that segment of the body that exists today.
And I’m not at all sure that segment of the body of Christ that lives today understands the Bible better than the segment that lived in the sixteenth century — not at all. And there is no necessary correlation between advance in technological finesse and insight into the way providence works and increase in understanding of Scripture. There’s no correlation. The knowledge necessary to interpret the Bible may have made some advances — text-critical advances would probably be the most significant, and some archaeological observations that would help define certain words and so on — but by and large, we’re not far ahead of where they were there.
I hope that you believe in history. I hope that you believe in history because without history, we’re just doomed to make all the same mistakes all over again and again. And that applies at every level. You can define history at the place where you work. Suppose you work in a company downtown or as a carpenter somewhere. And you say, “I don’t believe in history.” And if you mean that literally, then you won’t ever be an apprentice. Because you won’t ever want to benefit from what this fella learned for 25 years before you as to how to do carpentry or how to do bricklaying or how to do nursing or how to do anything. History is simply the accumulated wisdom of paths and we’re totally dependent on it. Be lovers of history.
Heidelberg Catechism, 1563
This is a catechism designed to establish the Reformed faith. When I say Reformed faith, it’s simply the big picture of the Christian faith that came out of the Reformers: Luther, Calvin, Zwingli. And they had so many precious, deep, profound things in common, that what separated them can be put to the side and that central thing can be called the Reformed faith. This catechism was written in Heidelberg, Germany, but attained widespread use and was affirmed at the Synod of Dort, as one of the reliable testimonies of the Reformed faith.
Q: What do you understand by the providence of God?
A: 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, yea, all things come not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.
The Heidelberg Catechism, by the way, as I’ve read it —I haven’t studied it in great detail — has a real, tangible concreteness about it that sets it off from the Westminster Confession of Faith. The Westminster is bigger and more thorough than the Heidelberg Catechism, but they have herbs and grass and rain and drought.
Belgic Confession, 1561
Now, I’m just introducing you to definitions. What we’ll do in the weeks to come is unpack those definitions, see if there are biblical texts. The Belgic Confession, 1561, composed for the churches in Flanders and the Netherlands and adopted by the reformed Synod of Emden in 1571 and the national Synod of Dort in 1619. What is it? What is providence?
Providence, in theological thinking, is usually put after the doctrine of creation. So, all that was involved in bringing the universe into being as it is, is creation, and then all of God’s involvement with it, sustaining of it, guiding and so on, is providence. That’s why these two are coming like this.
We believe that the same God, after he had created all things, did not forsake them, or give them up to fortune [luck] or chance, but that he rules and governs them according to his holy will, so that nothing happens in this world without his appointment.
You can imagine that when they were writing this, at that point, hours, days and weeks were perhaps spent over what word to use there: permission, ordination, cause. And they chose (they didn’t write English) appointment.
Nevertheless, God neither is the author of, nor can be charged with, the sins which are committed.
And if you’re reading sharply, you would add there “and he appointed.” So, he is not the author of what he appoints — if this is a correct definition, or reflects reality.
For his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible, that he orders and executes his work in the most excellent and just manner, even then, when devils and wicked men act unjustly. And, as to what he does surpassing human understanding, we will not curiously inquire into, farther than our capacity will admit of; but with the greatest humility and reverence adore the righteous judgments of God, which are hid from us, contending ourselves that we are disciples of Christ, to learn only those things, which he has revealed to us in his Word without transgressing these limits.
In other words, there may be questions you have that God does not answer yet in this world concerning the difficulty of these things — like, How can you be the appointer of sin and not the author of sin? What do you even mean by saying that. Now, unless you are saying in your mind right now, “Well, that just logically can’t be,” what I want to characterize me and you, the goal (whether I pull it off, God will judge), is that we take Scripture and try to be honest and fair with it as we read it. And if it looks to cause some problems for our so-called worldview or logic, we suspend judgment and say, “But it’s there; it’s there. And this is here. And if I can’t pull those together, I’m going to not condemn Scripture.”
Here would be just a text for you to keep before your mind. The crucifixion of the Lord Jesus was planned from eternity. At least, it was planned from 700 years before because Isaiah 53 describes it in some detail.
It was the will of the Lord to crush him. (Isaiah 53:10)
He could not have been bruised according to Scripture without sin. Every pound on the nail was sin; every thrust of the sword was sin; the thorns pushed into his head was sin; the spit in his face with sin; the shouting mobs — “Crucify him” — was sin. And all of that was the design — or to use this word — appointment of a sovereign God to bring about our redemption. So, this is not on the periphery of our religion. At the very center of our faith, the cross of our Lord Jesus, is this incredible problem. How can God appoint that which does not make sinner of him? And that we will tackle. But hold those things in suspension if you cannot put them together.
Westminster Catechism, 1647
This is a very famous catechism, the most famous probably. It’s the one that begins with this question: What is the chief end of man? The chief end of man is to glorify him and enjoy him forever. Along with the Westminster Confession and the Westminster Shorter Catechism, this larger catechism was prepared by the Westminster Assembly, a group of Calvinistic and Puritan pastors and theologians meeting between 1643–1652, about nine or ten years.
These Westminster Standards have been affirmed by most Presbyterian and Reformed bodies as the historic view of Reformed Christianity, and have been adapted by major groups of Baptists as well. I put that in here just because we are Baptists — for example, Keach’s Catechism, which we have adapted for Bethlehem’s use. So, if you go up in the file cabinets upstairs and look under catechism probably, you’ll find “Bethlehem Catechism” and inside I simply say, “I adapted this from Keach’s Catechism,” and Keach’s Catechism is a very lightly edited Westminster Shorter Catechism, which is just an editing of the larger catechism. So, when I say Reformed, and especially Presbyterian, don’t think that Baptists have historically believed anything very different. We just are stuck on this issue of baptism. That’s the main difference between us and the Reformers or the Reformed people here. OK, what’s the answer?
Q: What are God’s works of providence?
A: God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures; ordering them, and all their actions, to his own glory.
Now, that’s very awkward grammar. It looks like a word is missing, doesn’t it? A word is not missing. These two -ing words are nouns. And these are adjectives defining these two nouns: his holy preserving his holy governing all his creatures.
Why Study Providence
Why should we study the doctrine of providence? They asked that question in a couple of these confessions.
This is a beautiful, beautiful paragraph, I think. This strengthens my faith.
This doctrine affords us unspeakable consolation, since we are taught thereby that nothing can befall us by chance, but by the direction of our most gracious and heavenly Father; who watches over us with a paternal care, keeping all creatures so under his power that not a hair of our head (for they are all numbered), nor a sparrow can fall to the ground without the will of our Father, in whom we do entirely trust; being persuaded that he so restrains the devil and all our enemies that without his will and permission they cannot hurt us.
If that’s the fabric of your life, you will be a strong person in the midst of everything. It is rich, it is so rich. It’s Romans 8:28 in the context of Romans 8:
And therefore we reject the damnable error of the Epicureans, who say that God regards nothing but leaves all things to chance.
So, I thought I would go ahead and include that for you.
Q: Why should we study this?
A: That we may be patient in adversity [as opposed to becoming bitter and raising our anger at God], thankful in prosperity, and with a view to the future we can 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.
That asks a lot of you, that asks a lot of your faith. It really does. When tragedy comes, it really does.
Sweet and Bitter Providence
I read a biography of Martin Luther this past summer on vacation because I’m going to speak on him for the next pastors conference, and there was a point at which he had a gallstone or a kidney stone. Well, he swelled up like a balloon, he said, and every horrible procedure imaginable was used, and he prepared to die and the pain was incredible, and it passed, and he said he almost drowned in his own urine. But just think of what they had to deal with. And they were the ones who crafted these incredibly strong statements that nothing can move without the Father’s will.
You know that John and Diane Knight had their baby, Paul, with no eyes in July. And I met Paul when I came back from vacation. You prayed for him while I was gone. And he has two little shut eyes and there’s nothing under their skin. And they’re trying to do some surgery — I mean, figure out the kind of surgery that needs to be done so that the face is preserved. He’s a happy little boy. And John wrote me a note a couple of weeks ago: How can I show Christ’s banner to the doctors when going from specialist to specialist, and I’m jealous for my boy, and I query these doctors and sometimes they get upset at me that I’m not taking their word for it because I’m so concerned about his future. How can I show Christ to them?
Well, I gave him several answers, but my number one answer was: just keep believing what you already are so manifestly believe in. Keep living in the confidence, the joy, the peace, the remarkable submission to this founding providence that you already do, and it will be seen. It will be seen.
Texts on Providence
This definition right here is from Wayne Grudem.
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. (Systematic Theology, 315)
So, I’m taking the first one, “maintaining their properties” and calling it “sustaining,” and I’m just going to show you verses here. So, there are three categories of providence: showing the sustaining providence, showing the cooperating, concurring providence of God and all actions, and showing the guiding. So, here are two texts on sustaining:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. (Hebrews 1:1–3)
“He upholds all things” — this is the Greek pherō, the simple word “bearing.” He bears. You bear stuff on your back. You bear something in your arms. He upholds, he bears all things by the word of his power. That is an awesome statement. And it should make us worship. This kind of statement about the Lord Jesus, that he, by his word, holds this speaker stand in existence, and my shirt, my body, and your body, and my thought processes, and all that we know of created reality is there because he keeps saying, “Be there,” and if he stopped saying “Be there,” it wouldn’t be there.
Chesterton is no theologian. He’s not big on doctrine. He was by no stretch of the imagination reformed, but he’s a great seer of things. And he said that the difference between adults and children is that adults get tired of things and children say, “Do it again, do it again, do it again” forever and ever and ever. He said if we could stay childlike, we would look at the rising sun and we would say, “Oh, my God, he did it again.”
But we’re so naturalistic that we know the laws and explain things away. But if you believe the doctor providence, if you believe this sentence — that he upholds all things by the word of his power — you walk out tonight and if there’re stars out tonight, you should say, “He did it again. He did it again. He put them up there again.” Why? Why would he do that? To declare his glory. And then Colossians 1:16–17 says:
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
Well, I would like to have Paul here to query him about what all was in his mind when he said that, because he didn’t know anything about molecules. But all things, he said, hold together because of the work of Christ. So, he is the sustainer, the holder-together of all things. Here’s another way of saying it:
He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “In him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:26–28)
I think that means God wraps around us and sees to the living and the moving and the existing. He makes it happen. He holds it.
If he should set his heart to it
and gather to himself his spirit and his breath,
all flesh would perish together,
and man would return to dust. (Job 34:14–15)
But God is actively preserving, by Spirit, life in Psalm 104. I’m going to deal with providences in the inanimate realm, providences in the animal realm, providences among nation, providences in family life, providences in church and human decision. So, here’s the animals:
These all look to you,
to give them their food in due season. (Psalm 104:27)
Does that remind you of any teachings of Jesus? The birds, the lilies, it looks like the birds work pretty hard for the food. That’s all they do is collect food, as far as I can tell. They’re either building a nest or collecting food. And the Bible says God is giving it to them. God is involved in that. You should marvel at God when you see a bird get a little piece of string or pull a worm or walk around cocking his head like this like he gets what he wants.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.
When you send forth your Spirit, they are created,
and you renew the face of the ground.
May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
may the Lord rejoice in his works. (Psalm 104:29–31)
Six Implications of God’s Providence
I have six implications This is what I hope you can take away as the practical value of doing what we’re going to be doing — what we’ve done some of tonight, and what we’re going to do more of. What good is it and what difference will it make in our lives? Because theology that doesn’t make any difference, I’m not interested in.
1. Providence enables science.
God’s providence provides a basis for science, since the results of experimentation today will very likely be the same tomorrow. Now, many scientists who don’t believe in God would not attribute the regularity of natural laws to God and his sustaining providence. But if you believe the texts we just looked at, then you must say — ultimately — God makes science possible.
God is the one who keeps gravity being gravity. If God would just change his mind slightly, gravity would make this go up. And he can make plastic go up and flesh stay down. He could make hair go up and whatever. Anything that he wanted to, he could switch it around. And therefore, the constancy of the world that makes science possible, which makes all the things that we take for granted is owing to God’s providence.
2. Providence makes technology possible.
Another way to put it would be: it also gives the basis for technology, since I can be relatively certain that gasoline that starts my car today will start tomorrow. Technology, God makes that sort of thinking possible.
3. Providence makes me me.
It means that the continuity of our personality and body and mind hangs on God. That I am the same person today that I was yesterday is owing to the choice and act of God, moment by moment, to hold me in being as much as if I were re-created continually. Thus, all moral accountability that I have today, for the act I did yesterday, is dependent on God’s sustaining, unifying providence. Now, that’s a heavy one and I’d love to talk about it.
4. Providence humbles us.
We should be humbled and made to feel how utterly fragile and dependent we are.
5. Providence helps us see God’s gifts.
We should be made grateful that our life — not just at the beginning — but moment by moment is a free gift that we are not owed.
6. Providence brings us joy.
And finally, we should be made confident and joyful that the One who loves us so much that he would give his Son to save us will use all his wisdom and all his power and involvement in our lives to work all things together for our good.