Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 10
Question 27. What dost thou mean by the providence of God?
Answer. The almighty and everywhere present power of God, whereby, as it were by his hand, he upholds and governs heaven, earth, and all creatures; so that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, yea, and all things come, not by chance, but by His fatherly hand.
Question 28. What advantage is it to know that God has created, and by His providence doth still uphold all things?
Answer. That we may be patient in adversity; thankful in prosperity; and that in all things which may hereafter befall us, we place our firm trust in our faithful God and Father, that nothing shall separate us from His love; since all creatures are so in His hand, that without His will they cannot so much as move.
The doctrine of divine providence is a truth of great comfort to the Reformed Christian. Perhaps more than any other truth it sets the Reformed faith apart, for this doctrine teaches that everything that happens in this world and in our lives does so because God, who is our loving Father (Lord’s Day 9), has willed it to happen. God is the sovereign over all things. We are often short-sighted, knowing and looking at things only from our perspective in the present. Providence tells us that God has everything in view from the beginning to the end of time, that He has complete control over everything, and that everything has a purpose. This doctrine gives us the perspective of faith and teaches us that we have a God whom we can trust.
The Word “providence” is not found in the Bible, and is somewhat of an unfortunate word. Literally it means “to see before.” But providence is much more than that. It means not only that God sees things ahead of time, but that He actually planned and decreed everything. It means also that in time, God is actively upholding and governing all things.
The word most often used in the Bible to describe providence is the “hand” of God. By His hand God upholds all things, providing for them and keeping them in existence, and by His hand God governs all things, controlling their actions and moving them toward the end He has purposed for them. If God should remove this hand, everything would cease to exist and there would be nothing but chaos. “In him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
There are two common misconceptions on the teaching of providence. One is that God’s control is limited to the apparently good things that happen in this world. If something goes well, we acknowledge the providence of God, but we are reluctant to admit God’s hand in the evils that come our way. The other is that providence is merely God’s intervention. God is mostly a spectator of history, and once in a while He steps in to help. People will mostly ignore God in day-to-day life, but when there’s a calamity, they suddenly want God to step in and help out.
But the biblical truth of providence teaches that God has total and constant control of all creatures and events.
The Catechism describes providence in this comprehensive way. Providence is the “almighty” power of God. All His might is intimately involved in the work of providence. It is the “everywhere present” power of God. There’s no place in the universe that escapes this power of God (see Psalm 139). The scope of this power of providence includes “heaven, earth, and all creatures.” It includes things that grow, the weather, food, health, wealth, and all events. Nothing happens by chance. No, even drought, barren years, hunger, sickness, poverty, and every adversity, comes from God’s fatherly hand of providence. A destructive flood, a powerful tsunami, a massive hurricane, a devastating earthquake, a child’s death, a terminal disease, a heart attack, a car accident, a broken home, a bankrupt business, a lengthy war, an oppressive government, a red light….
Nothing exists independently of Him. Nothing happens apart from His willing it. Nothing happens by accident. There is no evil thing that happens without it being a part of His good purpose. His plan and His control extends over and includes every creature, every event, every single little detail of our lives.
This is the teaching of the Bible. “He giveth life and breath to all things” (Neh. 9:6). He feeds His creatures, both man and beast (Ps. 104:27), and He keeps them alive from moment to moment—”in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). He controls the moment of birth and the moment of death (Ps. 31:15 and 139:13-16). He holds the planets and all the heavenly bodies in their place and moves them in their courses (Ps. 8, 19, and 104:19).
Providence extends also to the details, the planned-out details, that bring every event. He controls every contingency. God controls the chain of events that lead to an earthquake, or a hurricane, or a war. Scientists and historians dig into the mystery of these contingencies to try to understand them, but God knew and planned and moved every one of them. He controls the weather changes, the movement of the earth’s plates, the political powers of the nations, the economies. And nothing happens by mistake or chance. Man is helpless to change God’s course of events.
Further, and very importantly, the control of providence extends also to the evil deeds of wicked men. While God is not morally responsible for men’s evil deeds, they do not happen outside of His plan or control. The fall of Adam and Eve into sin was not an unforeseen accident that required God suddenly to change His course of action. Pharaoh’s hardened heart, not to let Israel go, was according to God’s purpose (Rom. 9:17). The evils that Satan sinfully brought on Job were all under God’s control, and had a loving purpose from God (Job 1:12, 21, 23:10). Jehovah said unto Shimei, “Curse David” (II Sam. 16:10). And when unbelievers, by their wicked hands, took and crucified the Son of God, it was according to God’s “determinate counsel and foreknowledge” (Acts 2:23). Nothing that man will ever do will happen outside of the will and purposes of God. He is never surprised.
What a comfort this is as we look around us at evil, and think ahead to the end of the world and the great tribulation that will come under Antichrist. Because of this, nothing can separate us from the loving purposes of God for us. Not only is God’s will for us carried out despite the powers of sin and evil, but God wills even the evils and sin for our ultimate advantage and profit.
God’s Saving Purpose
Sometimes a person with a lot of power and authority will do things in a rather random and haphazard way, simply because he has the right to do them, or because he feels like doing them. You cannot explain his decisions or actions, and he will act differently from day to day, depending on how he feels.
God is not like that. Yes, God’s own will is the ultimate explanation for why He does things, but God does everything with a purpose.
What is God’s purpose? There are two aspects to God’s purpose: first, His own glory, and second, the good of His elect, saved people. Of the first aspect of God’s purpose we read in Romans 11:36: “Of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory forever. Amen.” Of the second part of His purpose we read in Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”
These two always go together. There is never a contradiction. God never pursues His own glory at the expense of His people. Nor does He ever do anything for our benefit apart from it bringing glory to Himself. In His eternal purpose He has designed things so that His glory and our good are inseparably bound up, the one with the other. As jealous as God is for His own glory, so certain it is that He will allow nothing to change or hinder His good purpose for us. And so the Catechism speaks of providence as His “fatherly hand” and says that because of providence, “nothing shall ever separate us from His love.”
What is God’s purpose for us? In time, it is to bring salvation to us, giving us the Holy Spirit, faith, and assurance, and sanctifying us to be conformed to the image of His Son. His eternal purpose is to bring us to glory with Himself. His purpose is always one of love. Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end.” From our point of view, we cannot always see this purpose of God. We live in the midst of the working out of the contingencies of our life, and to us they often look like mistakes. But with the eye of faith, trusting in the sovereign God of providence, we believe He is working out His eternal purpose for us. God is never surprised, never caught off guard. There are no mistakes in what God does. His way is perfect, and everything serves His great purpose.
Our Believing Response
What response does the truth of God’s providence bring?
The unbelieving man reacts to it. He likes to think he is the master of his life and destiny. He does not want to hear of a purpose greater than the ends he has in his own life. God may speak mightily through some event in his life, but he refuses to see the hand of God.
But how shall we respond?
First, we will be patient in adversity. Patience is more than just a passive endurance. Patience is a Spirit-worked strength to bear adversity with obedience and submission. Patience is active. By it we “joyfully carry” our cross. We “count it all joy” when we fall into different trials. Yes, we may pray to be alleviated, but we are glad because our Father’s hand is behind every trial, because He chastens every son whom He receives, because He uses every trial to purify us, because through affliction—in contrast to prosperity—God draws us closer to Himself, and because all affliction for God’s people works glory.
Second, we will be thankful in prosperity. Now that sounds so simple, but the truth about us is that the more we have, the less grateful we become. We grow accustomed to what we have, so that we are never thankful for it, till it is taken from us. We become covetous for more, which is ingratitude. What is it to be thankful? It is not only to have an attitude of gratitude, but to live in daily conversion and repentance, in constant love and service to God with all we have and all we are. The mercies of God should lead us to repentance.
Third, we should be confident about the future, not anxious. “That we place our firm trust in our faithful God and Father, that nothing shall separate us from His love.” Faith in the providence of God makes us look back to creation and ahead to glory. We put our eyes on things eternal. Then we can trust God, without fear. That doesn’t mean all our troubles will go away, that no creature will ever cause us harm. No, just this: no creature or event will ever come between us and God to separate us from His love.
Questions for Discussion
1. What does the word “providence” mean? What word does the Bible use to speak of this truth?
2. What is included in God’s work of providence? What language does the Catechism use to describe the comprehensiveness of God’s providence?
3. Why might someone react to and dislike the biblical teaching of divine providence?
4. Does God control even little things, like a mosquito bite or the blink of an eye? How?
5. Does God control the evil deeds of men? Can you prove this from Scripture? Does this make God the author of sin?
6. If God is good, how can He be the cause of natural catastrophes that result in the death of thousands of people?
7. What is the ultimate purpose of God in His work of providence? How does this fit with His purpose to save His people?
8. Can we always see God’s purpose as good in our lives? What confidence can we have in times of trial?
9. What is the great comfort of the doctrine of providence for the believer?
10. How should we respond, daily, to the providence of God?
11. From the life of Joseph, demonstrate: a) that God is sovereign over evil, b) that God controls natural calamities, c) that God has a saving purpose in providence, and d) how we ought to respond to God’s providence (see especially Genesis 50:20).