The Westminster Confession has followed up its treatment of God’s eternal decrees in Chapter III with the treatment of creation in Chapter IV. The subject of the providence of God follows most naturally.
1. God, the great Creator of all things, doth uphold,(a) direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things,(b) from the greatest even to the least,(c) by His most wise and holy providence,(d) according to His infallible foreknowledge,(e) and the free and immutable counsel of His own will,(f) to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.(g) a. Hebrews 1:3
c. Matthew 10:29-31.
2. Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly;(a) yet, by the same providence, He ordereth them to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingent1y. (b)
a. Acts 2:23.
3. God in His ordinary providence maketh use of means,(a) yet is free to work without,(b) above,(c) and against them,(d) at His pleasure
c. Romans 4:19-21.
4. The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God, so far manifest themselves in His providence, that it extendeth itself even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men,(a) and that not by a bare permission,(b) but such as hath joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding,(c) and other wise ordering and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to His own holy ends;(d) yet so as the sinfulness thereof proceedeth only from the creature, and not from God; who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin.(e)
b. Acts 14:16.
5. The most wise, righteous, and gracious God, doth oftentimes leave for a season His own children to manifold temptations, and the corruption of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption, and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled;(a) and to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon Himself, and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for sundry other just and holy ends.(b)
6. As for those wicked and ungodly men, whom God as a righteous judge, for former sins, doth blind and harden,(a) from them He not only withholdeth His grace, whereby they might have been enlightened in their understandings, and wrought upon in their hearts;(b) but sometimes also withdraweth the gifts which they had,(c) and exposeth them to such objects as their corruption makes occasion of sin;(d) and withal, gives them over to their own lusts, the temptations of the world, and the power of Satan(e) whereby it comes to pass, that they harden themselves, even under those means which God useth for the softening of others.(f)
b. Deuteronomy 29:4.
7. As the providence of God doth, in general, reach to all creatures; so, after a most special manner, it taketh care of His church, and disposeth all things to the good thereof.(a)
Nothing happens by chance. It never “just happens.”
Nor does anything come about by fate. The first section emphasizes the relationship God’s eternal decree has to providence. Because in His eternal and unchangeable counsel God has predetermined all things, it must follow that He executes His purpose by continual control of all creatures and their actions. This is not a difficult step for faith to make. In turn, we must admit that it is a most difficult logical jump for the unconverted mind to make. We should add that it is also impossible for the confessing child of God to understand it if he sets aside faith and uses only the powers of his natural understanding and imagination. This subject must be approached by faith in Jesus Christ, with the Scriptures alone serving as the sufficient light to guide the steps of our consideration.
The Scriptures teach and the Confession acknowledges that man and every creature has existence as a gift from God. That the creature has this existence does not make the creature self-existent. The ground for the creature’s existence and for its activity are both found not in them, but in God. “In Him we live, and move, (literally: are moved — RVO) and have our being” (Acts 17:28a). The exact way in which God exercises His sovereign control over the universe, and each creature therein, is not revealed. But that it is a fact cannot be disputed. The psalmist tells us that Jehovah “preservest man and beast” (36:6) even to the extent that He holds “our soul in life, and suffereth not our feet to be moved” (66:9). It cannot and may not be doubted that “He upholdeth all things by the word of His power” (Hebrews 1:3).
Not only is it a fact that the creatures existence does not make him self-existent, but also that any creature has properties and powers, the exercise of these does not make the creature independent and beside God. Let us pause to look up the oft-neglected book of Job. Consider verses 6-13 of chapter 37. Also consider the strength of the statements found in Psalm 135:6-13. It is God that feeds the beasts (Pslam 104:21-27;147:9). He increases or decreases nations (Job 12:23) and sets up or takes down kings (Daniel 2:21). He directs the steps of each individual (Proverbs 16:9; James 4:13-15). He causes the demoralized Egyptians to give away their possessions (Exodus 12:36). He moves the hearts of men (Proverbs 21:1). He causes the saint to work out his salvation (Philippians 2:12-13). And the Bible does not grow weak in describing God’s control over even the sinful acts of men, moving Shimei to curse, David to boast, and the Jews to crucify (II Samuel 16:10, 24:1, Acts 2:23:4:27-28).Consider with faith and let us be humbled. A flu “bug,” a cancerous growth, an insect bite, a crashing car — all are in His hands.
And let us glorify Him. For that is the end design of His sovereign control. Romans 11:36.
Sections two and three deal with the manner in which God’s providence operates. Although His providence is most certainly sovereignly efficacious, yet the manner of God’s providence is consistent with the mode of activity of every creature.
God controls His creatures and their activities, minuscule and magnificent. This control is always perfectly consistent with the nature of the creature. After all, it is not the case that the creature is independent and God must cooperate with it. God created that creature and gave it its power and mode of action. Ever after He preserves it and guides it. God’s decree of creation is in perfect harmony with His decree of providence, and vice versa. God is not a God of confusion.
Each creature acts responsibly. And yet it cannot be denied that God was present. Consider each man used by God for the writing of Holy Scripture. He was so controlled by God that the product was infallible. Nevertheless, there is the spontaneous exercise of his faculties by each writer. Thus each creature gets freely in accordance with the law of its nature.
God ordinarily works His purposes through means, using the agency of the creature. Remembering that God made that creature according to His purposes, it is not strange to consider that He uses that creature, without violating its nature, for the fulfilling of His purposes. In all of the created sphere, including the operation, of grace, God ordinarily uses means. That is, He uses other creatures (each in perfect harmony with its nature) in their relation and interrelationship to other creatures, to effect His purposes. Thus in history we see the hand of God, accomplishing His will through all of creation.
But God is not restricted to his ordinary means. Man is. We cannot eat bread today and soap tomorrow expecting the same results. We cannot go through doorways today Andy walls tomorrow. God created each creature, but He is not dependent upon them. Ordinarily He uses them, but He does not have to use them. It is not that God must use the creature as a secondary cause. The Almighty remains infinitely greater than His works. He is the Transcendent One.
Therefore, He can make axeheads to float, asses to speak, and dead wombs to give birth. He can make fire to be without effect. And He can make the dead sinner alive.
But the creature is dependent upon God’s providence. And, according to the decree of that providence, he is dependent upon the other creatures about it. Therefore, we must make use of the God-made means of grace for the consciousness of salvation. Thanks be to God. Sections 4-6 speak of the relation of providence to evil.
Section four tells us in general terms that there definitely is a relation which God has to sin. The words used to describe that relationship are: permission, bounding, ordering, and governing. One might question the use of the word permission if it were not accompanied by the other words, if this section were read without the previous, and if the proof texts cited were not considered.
Sinful actions are ordered and controlled by God. Joseph was sinfully sold into Egypt, God meaning it “unto good” in order “to preserve life” (Genesis 50:20;45:5). Pharaoh hardens his heart that God might show His power and declare His name throughout the earth (Exodus 14:17; Romans 9:17). God determined that men would wickedly crucify His Son (Acts 2:23).
Yes, there is a very definite relationship which God’s providence has to sin.
But that relationship is not that God authors sin, nor does He approve of it. The responsibility for each and every sin lies directly upon the creature. The Westminster makes no attempt to explain this. It simply states the fact. This is not a weakness, but its strength. Faith believes. The natural mind may shake its head sarcastically at such a conundrum and may inquisitively pry and wantonly trifle. But faith believes and glorifies God. “How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord, or who hath been His counsellor” (Romans 11:33b,34)?
God hates sin and manifests that in His every deed. He is the “awful, irreprehensible, and righteous judge and avenger thereof” (Canons of Dordrecht, I-l 5).
Before passing on, it is fitting to quote q. 19 of the Larger Catechism. Q. 19.
What is God’s providence toward the angels?
A. God by His providence permitted some of this angels, willfully and irrecoverably, to fall into sin and damnation,(a) limiting and ordering that, and all their sins, to His own glory;(b) and established the rest in holiness and happiness;(c) employing them all, at His pleasure, in the administrations of His power, mercy, and justice.(d)
Sections 5 – 7, but especially 7 show that all of God’s providential ways are not of importance. Rather He uses some as means to ends. His control of the physical universe is subordinate as a means to an end to the control He has over His moral creatures. Thus, too, His providential government over mankind in general is subservient to His gracious providence toward His Church. Egypt, Ethiopia, and Seba are all for the sake of God’s people (Isaiah 43:3). All is ours and we are Christ’s and Christ is God’s (I Corinthians 3:22-23).
Whereas in section seven we see the general idea of God’s providence toward His people, in section five we have God’s providence in relation to His people and their sin. God’s people are not immediately translated from the earth and out of this body of death and sin at the moment of regeneration! We remain on earth and in the earthly house of this tabernacle, and that for a good reason, according to God’s providence. Notice, however, that it is only “for a season.” Undoubtedly the Westminster derived such language from I Peter 1:6.The purpose which the providential government of God has with regard to sin in relation to His people is defined in four infinitive clauses: to chastise or to discover and to raise and to make.
How beautifully expressed. God uses sin to admonish, teach, and warn His people. Just think how much more we would sin if we were not chastised for our sin to the degree that we are. Do we not flee from sin in the measure that we do because we have learned and are still learning by personal experience how horrible and devilish and powerful sin is? Never complain when sin is preached. When a sermon pricks and makes you quake, rejoice, for it drives you to the throne of grace.
Why does God put the treasure of the life of Christ in an earthen, sinful vessel? He does so “that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us”‘(II Corinthians 4:7).
Section six is occupied with God’s providence towards those who are not His people, and their sins: A difficult subject; but a Biblical subject.
Notice first the verbs which are used to express the divine action: “doth blind and harden,” “withholdeth, ” “withdraweth,” “exposeth,” “gives over.” These are frightening words. But we must understand that God performs this activity “as a righteous judge.” As that judge He performs these actions upon the wicked and ungodly “for their former sins.” Thus God is not unjust in this activity. He is perfectly right in this action, for He is rewarding man for his sin.
There is a result of this activity of God. When God justly rewards the wicked and ungodly for their sin, then “it comes to pass, that they harden themselves.” Those who are the objects of grace, when exposed to that same expression of judgment repent and confess, but the wicked and ungodly confirm themselves in the way of evil. The difference is grace.
The language of the Confession that God “exposeth them to such objects as their corruption makes occasion for sin” might seem to say that God tempts man to sin. But “God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth He any man: but every man is tempted when he is drawn away of his own lust and enticed” (James 1:13b-14). God is His most wise providence gives good things to the just and to the unjust. The graced ones receive them humbly and with gratitude. But the wicked and ungodly in their corruption make these good gifts occasions for sin which, to say the least, they are not thankful for and greedily desire more of the same for the satisfaction of their lusts.
A most wise and holy providence. That is how the Westminster describes it. It so upholds, directs, disposes, and governs all creatures that the material serves the animals, and they both serve mankind, while they all serve the elect in particular. God has put all things under Christ’s feet that He might use it all for the sake of the Church, which is His Body (Ephesians 1:22-23).
Because of our belief in this most wise and holy providence, “we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).