Previous article in this series: May 15, 2018, p. 373.
Means not to be despised
Nevertheless, we do not spurn as useless the means by which divine providence works, but we teach that we are to adapt ourselves to them in so far as they are recommended to us in the Word of God. Wherefore we disapprove of the rash statements of those who say that if all things are managed by the providence of God, then our efforts and endeavors are in vain. It will be sufficient if we leave everything to the governance of divine providence, and we will not have to worry about anything or do anything. For although Paul understood that he sailed under the providence of God who had said to him: “You must bear witness also at Rome” (Acts 23:11), and in addition had given him the promise, “There will be no loss of life among you… and not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you” (Acts 27:22, 34), yet when the sailors were nevertheless thinking about abandoning the ship the same Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers: “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved” (Acts 27:31). For God, who has appointed to everything its end, has ordained the beginning and the means by which it reaches its goal. The heathen ascribe things to blind fortune and uncertain chance. But St. James does not want us to say: “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and trade,” but adds: “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that’” (James 4:13, 15). And Augustine says: “Everything which to vain men seems to happen in nature by accident, occurs only by his Word, because it happens only at his command” (Enarrationes in Psalmos 148). Thus it seemed to happen by mere chance when Saul, while seeking his father’s asses, unexpectedly fell in with the prophet Samuel. But previously the Lord had said to the prophet: “Tomorrow I will send to you a man from the land of Benjamin” (I Sam. 9:16).
Providence or chance?
The only real alternative to providence is chance. Either God sovereignly rules over all things, or all things happen by chance. Then no one is in control; everything that happens just happens. “The heathen ascribe things to blind fortune or uncertain chance,” the SHC says. These two alternatives—providence or chance—are placed side by side in I Samuel 5 and 6. These chapters relate the outcome of the capture of the ark of God by the Philistines in the days of judge Eli. Eli’s wicked sons, Hophni and Phinehas, took the ark of God into battle against the Philistines, supposing superstitiously that doing so guaranteed a victory for the army of Israel. But the army was not victorious and instead was smitten. Hophni and Phinehas were killed and the ark was captured. After God plagued the Philistines (I Samuel 5 and 6 speak repeatedly of the fact that “the hand of the Lord was heavy” upon the Philistines), they determined to return the ark to Israel. They sent the ark back on a new cart, pulled by two oxen whose young calves were left behind. If the oxen pulled the cart containing the ark out of the land of the Philistines and into Israel without turning back, the Philistines would be sure that what had happened had not happened by chance, but by the hand (providence) of God. They said: “If it goeth up by the way of his own coast to Bethshemesh [in Israel], then he [God] hath done this great evil: but if not, then we shall know that it is not his hand that smote us; it was a chance that happened to us” (I Sam. 6:9). The hand of God or chance—these are the alternatives.
This is the popular explanation for events that take place in the world. Does something good happen that brings great joy? A promotion, a successful business venture, an investment windfall, an unexpected opportunity, a narrow escape from danger, a loved one lost in the mountains found, or a successful surgery? These things are merely a matter of chance—good luck, many would say, and always well-deserved. On the other hand, does something hurtful happen? A diagnosis of cancer, the death of a young wife and mother, a house fire, the death of a small child, a downward turn in the economy, a hurricane, or a pandemic—these are all bad luck. They happen quite at random, for no apparent rhyme or reason. “That’s the way the ball bounces,” or, “That’s how the cookie crumbles,” according to popular wisdom.
This is the implication of the teaching of evolution. As it is merely chance that accounts for the origin of the universe, so everything that now happens in the universe is due to random chance. For those committed to the teaching of evolution, there is no fatherly hand of God governing all things and working all things together for good. In the end, the alternatives are not providence or chance; the alternatives are God or being without God and without hope in the world. Bullinger (the author of the SHC) quotes James 4:13 and 15 as an example of the proper outlook of the Christian who possesses a living knowledge of the providence of God. He does not say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and trade, and get gain,” but rather, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that.” That is the attitude of the Christian who lives in the knowledge of the providence of God.
The use of means
The main concern of this third and last paragraph of the SHC’s chapter on providence is to underscore the important place that means have in the execution of God’s decree of providence. A distinctive feature of the Reformed faith is its emphasis on the use of means. God is a God of means. God has sovereignly ordained everything, but He has also ordained the means by which all that He has ordained will come to pass. For this reason, “[w]e do not spurn as useless the means by which divine providence works, but we teach that we are to adapt ourselves to them in so far as they are recommended to us in the Word of God…. For God, who has appointed to everything its end, has ordained the beginning and the means by which it reaches its goal.”
This paragraph of the SHC contains both a warning to the people of God and a response to a malicious charge against the Reformed doctrine of providence. On the one hand, the centuries’ old charge of the enemies of the sovereignty of God, whether in salvation or in providence, is that such a horrible doctrine (in their view) cannot be true because, if it were, it would rule out our responsibility. We would have no calling inasmuch as everything has been ordained by God and there is nothing that we can add to or take away from what God has determined. If God has determined all things, we do not need to work, take necessary precautions, use doctors and medicine, or plan for the future. Therefore, so the accusation of the enemies goes, the Reformed doctrine of providence cannot be true. Because it undermines our calling and responsibility, divine providence must be rejected.
On the part of certain “radicals” within the Reformed camp itself, there might be an inclination to misapply the doctrine of providence. There might be an inclination on the part of some to use the truth of providence to make men careless and profane. These radicals, then, justify indifference and unconcern as regards their natural life on the basis of the doctrine of providence. Such disdain of the use of means is promoted by some as a distinct act of piety and demonstration of trust in God. On the contrary, the Reformed reject such a perversion of the truth of God’s providence. “Wherefore we disapprove of the rash statements of those who say that if all things are managed by the providence of God, then our efforts and endeavors are in vain. It will be sufficient if we leave everything to the governance of divine providence, and we will not have to worry about anything or do anything.” This abuse of the doctrine of providence the Reformed faith rejects.
Bullinger appeals to Scripture in this paragraph of the SHC in order to show that this wrong and radical view of divine providence ought to be rejected. He makes reference to the life of the apostle Paul, specifically, the apostle’s shipwreck on the way to Rome. God had informed Paul that He had determined that he would arrive safely in Rome and preach the gospel there also (Acts 23:11). At the time the storm arose, He had further informed Paul that there would be no loss of life (Acts 27:22) and that “there shall not an hair fall from the head of any of you” (Acts 27:34). Did that result in a careless or profane attitude on the part of the apostle? Did he, then, not pray for the Lord’s safekeeping in the storm? And did he not take every precaution as the ship was battered by the wind and the waves? Of course he did, as the account in Acts 27 makes very plain. Paul understood, as every Christian ought to understand, that God’s ordering of all things does not rule out the way in which He will carry out what He has ordered.
This is true spiritually. Spiritually, God’s sovereign ordination of our salvation does not rule out the means by which He is pleased to accomplish that salvation. We even refer to the “means of grace,” which are chiefly the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. These means and others are used by God for our comfort, for the assurance of our salvation, and for our preservation in holiness. Included in these means, besides those designated as the “means of grace,” would be prayer, the singing of the Psalms, the fellowship of the people of God, and the reading of good books and magazines. God has ordained an end, but He has also ordained the way and means unto that end. These may never be divorced from each other. To despise the way and means is to despise the God who has ordained not only the end but the way and the means to that end. No one who despises the way and means of salvation can be saved.
What is true in the spiritual realm is also true in the natural realm. This is verified by our experience and is something that we observe on a daily basis. God is pleased to use means in the execution of His providence. He supplies us with our “daily bread,” but He does it ordinarily by our working. He shelters us from the cold of winter and the heat of summer, but He does it by our building a house in which to live and either by our making or buying the clothes that we need. He gives us our livelihood, but He does so by our driving to and from our place of employment daily. He makes us better when we are sick, but ordinarily He makes us better by means of the doctor and the antibiotics that he prescribes. He who despises the means and the way in which God is pleased to exercise His providential care over us despises the will of God.
God’s use of means is something that we observe daily in the world around us. God cares for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. But God does not care for the birds by dropping worms out of the sky every morning and evening. Instead, He is pleased to care for them in the way of their own searching and gathering. And even the flowers of the field are equipped by God with the means for transforming the light of the sun and the nutrients in the soil so that in this way the plants grow and flower. What is true in the brute creation is also true in the case of God’s rational, moral creatures.
In this way, God works out in His providence that which He has decreed eternally. In the case of the wicked, of course, God uses them in spite of themselves. They do not consciously employ God’s established means recognizing that they are God’s means, the means that He has appointed. Their health and strength, their job or business, their home and automobile are not God’s means, but their own, as they suppose. And therein is their sin. They make use of the means God has established in the creation without acknowledging that they are His means and without giving thanks to Him for supplying them. Nevertheless, they serve God’s purpose and fulfill that which He has ordained. Even sin and evil accomplish God’s purposes in providence.
Bullinger’s quote from Augustine is an appropriate conclusion to the chapter on the providence of God: “Everything which to vain men seems to happen in nature by accident, occurs only by his Word, because it happens only at his command.” This is the Reformed doctrine of the providence of God.