We believe that the same God, after he had created all things, did not forsake them, or give them up to fortune or chance, but that he rules and governs them according to his holy will, so that nothing happens in this world without his appointment: nevertheless, God neither is the author of, nor can be charged with, the sins which are committed. 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 doth 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, contenting 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. 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. And therefore we reject that damnable error of the Epicureans, who say that God regards nothing, but leaves all things to chance.
Article XIII, The Belgic Confession
We live in tumultuous times. There is in our land and in the world at large abounding lawlessness. One gets so accustomed to the terrible manifestations of sin that nothing shocks him. There are staggering and insoluble problems facing mankind such as the depletion of natural resources, overpopulation and a dwindling food supply. Millions suffer hunger and deprivation. The nations of the world are an armed camp and the threat of a nuclear holocaust is more than imaginary. The result is fear, tension, and anxiety among men. They know not where to turn. Many madly pursue pleasure and “drown their troubles” in drink or the lusts of the flesh. They become cynical and nihilistic and argue that nothing in this life makes sense. But the child of God is unmoved by these circumstances. He is not afraid. In fact he can and he does rejoice even in these things. That is true of his personal life too. Experiences which would shatter and destroy a man—the loss of a dear child through death or of a marriage partner—he bears with quiet faith. Why? Why is he not afraid in the face of all the fearful phenomena of the world? Why is he able to face and bear even the deepest tragedies, even death itself without being overcome? The answer is, he believes: ” . . . that the same God, after he had, created all things, did not forsake them, or give them up to fortune or chance, but that he rules and governs them according to his holy will, so that nothing happens in this world without his appointment . . .” He knows that his God: “worketh all things after the counsel of his own will.” (Eph. 1:11)
It is this truth, providence, of which Article XIII of our Confession speaks. The term, providence, is not found in the Bible. It really is not a very good term, for it does not express the idea of this great doctrine. The word is derived from the Latin and literally means: to see beforehand. This, God neither does, nor reveals concerning this doctrine. God does not merely see ahead what shall be or not be and then adapt Himself to these circumstances. God determines what shall be and He “rules and governs them according to his holy will, so that nothing happens in this world without his appointment.” Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens by chance. Everything great and small, good and bad is governed according to God’s holy will and happens by His appointment.
Three elements are usually distinguished in the doctrine of providence. Providence includes preservation. By this is meant that God continues to give existence to all creatures. Moment by moment God sustains all creatures by His powerful Word. Should God cease this preserving, creation would cease to be. God causes the sun to shine, gathers the clouds together and makes the rain to fall. It is God Who makes the seed sprout in the earth and grow to bear fruit. God causes the creatures of the earth to be born, to live for an appointed time and then to return to the dust. He preserves the mighty lion but also the tiniest insect. God is simply everywhere in all His mighty power preserving all things.
This is true not only of the brute creation but also of man. God determines and controls even the moral acts of men and angels. This element of God’s providence has come to be called by the unfortunate term, cooperation. Unfortunate, we say, because the term cooperation is really incorrect. The impression is left that God merely works with men. This is simply not true. God and man do not work together in some kind of cooperative effort. The Confession states it beautifully when it says: “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.” Scripture itself leaves no doubt as to this great truth. The Lord says through His prophet to Cyrus: “I have holden to subdue nations before him; and I will loose the loins of kings, to open before him the two leaved gates; and the gates shall not be shut . . . For Jacob my servant’s sake, and Israel mine elect, I have even called thee by thy name: I have surnamed thee, though thou hast not known me. I am the Lord, and there is none else, there is no God beside me: I girded thee, though thou hast not known me . . . I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” (Isaiah 45:1-7) Scripture teaches us that: “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will.” (Prov. 21:1) Confessing this truth brings us before that ancient problem of man’s responsibility. There can be no doubt about the fact that the Bib1.e teaches that every man is answerable to God for his deeds whether good or bad. God in His strict justice punishes the ungodly in hell because of all their sin. They justly deserve His holy wrath. Yet God controls all of his actions. Whatever may be said concerning this; certainly one thing is true. God never violates man’s will. No man sins because God forces him to sin. Man sins willingly. Whatever a man does, he does because he wants to do it.
A third element of providence is government. By this we mean, God rules all things. But He does not rule all things arbitrarily. He rules His entire creation in such a way that He infallibly guides it to its eternal purpose. God’s eternal purpose is the perfect manifestation of His glory in Christ and His Body, the Church. To that goal, toward that grand purpose God directs every creature. All things, therefore, must serve that purpose willingly or in spite of themselves. Again the Scriptures speak clearly to this point. Joseph was sold into Egypt, and, while his brothers meant it for evil, God meant it for good to save much people. (cf. Genesis 45:1-7) Judas must betray Christ, and he perishes; but through the cross Christ made atonement for the sin of the elect. So it is that all things great and small, good and evil are directed by God to reach His eternal purpose. In this connection the article presents an emphatic warning against “curiously inquiring into what he (God) doth surpassing human understanding.” This warning is especially directed against curiously inquiring into the matter of man’s responsibility and God’s sovereignty.
In this connection Article XIII teaches two things very plainly. The Article instructs us that “no thing happens without his (God’s) appointment.” This includes even sin. Sin is not some force alongside of God, but it too falls within the scope of His providence. But at the same time: “God neither is the author of, nor can be charged with, the sins which are committed.” This is the teaching of Scripture. The Bible teaches that God raised up Pharaoh to show His power and declare His Name throughout the earth. The history reveals that very plainly. Long before Pharaoh, in the hardness of his heart, pursued Israel to his watery grave in the Red Sea, God had told Moses: “I am sure that the king of Egypt will not let you go, no not by a mighty hand. And I will stretch out my hand, and smite Egypt with all my wonders which I will do in the midst thereof: and after that he will let you go.” (Exodus 3:19, 20) One can only conclude: “Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and who he will he hardeneth.” If you object to this and ask: “Why doth he yet find fault?” Why does God hold a Pharaoh accountable for his evil deeds? the Scripture answers firmly: “Nay but O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?” (Cf. Romans 9:15-23) Man may not reply against God. This does not mean that we ought speak here of a paradox, an apparent contradiction. Many do. But they use the paradox as support for their inconsistencies and denials of the truth and especially their denial of the truth of God’s absolute sovereignty. There are no inconsistencies or contradictions either in God or in His revelation to us. We may not understand or comprehend these things, but that does not mean they are contradictions.
This is the Biblical stance of our Confession. We must understand that God’s “power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible, that he orders and executes his work in the most excellent manner, even then, when devils and wicked men act unjustly.”
We may note in this connection that the doctrine of providence teaches us to consider all of God’s works as miracles or wonders. A miracle is not something out of the ordinary; nor is it something contrary to natural law. A miracle is that act of God whereby He breaks through this creation to reveal His grace. The central miracle is the Wonder of Jesus Christ. All miracles speak of this. And all God’s works are wonders. Is it any greater that Jericho’s walls fell down than that the mighty oak should grow from the little acorn? Is the conception and birth of a child any easier for us to understand than the healing of a leper or even the raising of someone from the dead? All God’s works are wonders and all those focus on THE wonder, Jesus Christ and the salvation of the elect in Him. Thus it is that all things in this creation under the providence of God are preserved and governed to serve the full manifestation of His glory in the resurrected Church in Christ in the New Creation.
How true it is then that: “This doctrine affords us unspeakable consolation.” Nothing happens to us by chance. All things occur under the direction of our heavenly Father “Who watches us with a paternal care.” He sends health, but also sickness. He gives life, but also death comes at His command. Prosperity, poverty, affliction, pain, sorrow, joy—all these are sent us out of His gracious love for us in the Lord Jesus Christ. By means of them all we are brought into His fellowship in Christ. In the knowledge and confidence of that blessed truth we can sing triumphantly: “And we know that ail things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose . . . Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . Nay in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.” (Romans 8:28-37) This is true: “For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.” (Romans 11:36)