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.
In this article we have a rather thorough and detailed expression of our Reformed faith concerning the truth of God’s providence. This truth was briefly mentioned already in connection with the doctrine of creation in Article XII, as follows: “That he doth also still uphold and govern them by his eternal providence, and infinite power . . . .” In the present article the term providenceitself does not appear, even as it does not occur in Scripture; but we have here an elaborate explanation of this doctrine and of its significance as an article of our faith. We may distinguish the following, items that are mentioned and treated in Article XIII:
1. God did not forsake His creation, or give it up to fortune or chance. This is the error of the ancient Epicureans. We may add that it is essentially the error of the modem Deists, who deny the truth of God’s immanence. And, as far as the rational creature, man, is concerned, it is the error of Pelagianism of every kind, which excludes man’s will from God’s government and control.
2. God so rules and governs all things according to His holy will that nothing happens in this world without His appointment.
3. Yet God is neither the Author of sin nor responsible for the sins that are committed, Notice that the implication here is that also sin does not happen without His government and control and appointment. But His power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible that He orders and executes His work, also with respect to the deeds of devils and wicked men, in the most excellent and just manner.
4. Our attitude with respect to the above is not one of curiously inquiring into what surpasses our understanding, but one of humility and reverence, and therefore one of being content to stay within the limits of God’s Word, as disciples of Christ.
5. This doctrine is one of rich comfort because it means that all things are under the direction of our heavenly Father, Who watches over us with a paternal care. Even our enemies cannot do anything without His will and permission.
6. On our part, this doctrine calls forth a firm trust in our heavenly Father.
There are especially two facts that draw our attention immediately when we read this article. The first is that the entire emphasis of the article is on God’s government and rule of all things. That element of providence which we call “preservation,” or the upholding of all things is not so much as mentioned in the article. In the previous article it is mentioned, but not explained. And the second fact, closely connected with the first, is that there is a strong emphasis on the practical significance of the doctrine of God’s providence for the believers in the midst of the world and in the midst of their enemies. A large part of the article is devoted to the unspeakable consolation which this doctrine affords us. Undoubtedly there is a historical reason for this two-fold emphasis of our Confession. And that historical reason is the fact that when our Confession was written, our fathers’ were in the crucible of suffering for Christ’s sake. Their faith was being put to the test. It was a time of severe persecution by the Spanish-Roman Catholic powers. And through them the devil himself was operating. And there must have been many occasions when it seemed to the Reformed believers that “the devil and all our enemies” were not only hurting the cause of the church of Christ, but were actually triumphant. It is especially, of course, at such times that the truth of the paternal care of our heavenly Father, Who rules and governs all things according to His holy will becomes a poignantly real and precious truth to God’s people. There are times when, as it were, God takes away every other possible support and says to His people, “Now trust solely in Me, and believe, when all the evidence seems to contradict it, that all things work together for good to them that love God, who are the called according to His purpose.” And at such times God’s people learn, as never before, to confess, “In Thee we do entirely trust.”
Providence and Faith
We may observe from the outset that the truth of God’s providence is a matter of faith. Both the Heidelberg Catechism and our Confession present it thus. Our Confession states this whenBeautiful and profound is the second part of the doctrine of Holy Baptism as outlined in our Form. Beautiful it is, because in lucid and simple language it uncompromisingly sets forth the truth concerning our salvation. That salvation is of God alone is the underlying theme and basis of all that is said. The Triune God originates, realizes, and perfects that salvation which is “signified in baptism. “He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil. 1:6) And all this deals with a very profound matter. The work of God is mysterious, surpassing the height and depth of our comprehension. That work, signified in holy baptism, has to do with the realization of the covenant of grace, which in effect is the external revelation of the internal life of our covenant God.
It does not lie within the scope of this rubric to discuss detailedly the doctrine of the covenant. It is sufficient to note here that according to the second part of the doctrine of holy baptism, it is God, the Father, Who establishes His covenant with us; God, the Son, Who seals it with His own blood; and, God, the Holy Spirit, who applies all the benefits of that covenant unto the people of God in the midst of the present world. This need not be interpreted to mean that each of the three Persons: of the Holy Trinity is individually referred to here. That explanation of the Form is valid and Scriptural that includes in the mentioning of the Father the Triune God. God Triune, Who is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and whom we address when in our prayers we say, “Our Father in heaven,” is He Who establishes an eternal covenant of grace with us. The mentioning of God the Son then must be construed as referring to the Son of God Incarnate. He is the Second Person of the glorious Trinity, but He is also the Son of Man. He is the Head of the eternal covenant, mediator, surety. As such He provides the basis of righteousness in His own blood, and on this basis alone the covenant is founded. The sole ground of our salvation is Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. All other ground is sinking sand. Hence, Jesus, our Savior, washes us in His blood from all our sins and incorporates us into the fellowship of His death and resurrection. This is the reality of baptism experientially. And when mention is made of the Holy Spirit in this connection the reference is then to the Third Person of the God-head as He is given to the exalted and victorious Savior and poured out into the church on Pentecost. That Spirit takes up His abode in the church and dwells with her forever, leading and guiding her into all the truth. Again, we remember that this is not some mystical influence or power, some strange feeling or experience but it is the Person of God working to bring unto ultimate perfection the everlasting covenant. God the Spirit effectually applies the benefits of Christ to His people till they shall all appear in the assembly of the elect in life eternal.
The unilateral, that is, one-sided, character of the covenant of grace is emphasized in this description of the doctrine of Holy Baptism. Therefore is also that interpretation impossible that explains the future tense in connection with the description of the work of the Holy Spirit conditionally. God, the Spirit, will dwell in us,will sanctify us, will apply to us that which we have in Christ but all this willingness of the Spirit is contingent upon our cooperation and readiness to consent to His working. The incorrectness of this interpretation ought to be obvious on the very surface. The seal of the Holy Spirit is and can be no less conditional than that of the Father. There, too, the future tense is used, and consistency would demand that we then read: “God, the Father witnesseth and sealeth unto us, that He doth make an eternal covenant of grace with us, and adopts us for His children and heirs, and therefore will provideus with every good thing . . . etc.,” i.e., if we will permit Him to do so. This is directly in conflict with Romans 8:28, and many other passages of Scripture. The future in this connection is not even a mere future of time. It does not simply express what God Triune will do in times yet to come although it is certainly true that unto the very end of time He will work His own covenant-work unto perfection. However, we interpret the future tense to emphasize primarily certainty, factualness, so that the idea is that what is stated here concerning the Triune God will certainly and without any question or reservation come to pass.
We may illustrate the point. A father gives instruction to his child concerning certain things he expects the child to do. Upon completion of the giving of these instructions the child murmurs, “I don’t want to.” The father firmly states, “But you shall.” Father does not mean that some time in the future the desired work will be accomplished. Nor does he mean that the son will do this work if he changes his mind. But he means that in spite of all protestation and unwillingness on the part of the child, the work ordered will be performed at once. So it is with the work of God described in our Baptism Form. The devil opposes it. Man plots and plans to overthrow it. There is no acceptance of this work in all the world, for even the children of God by nature do not desire it; and yet, God “makes an eternal covenant of grace . . . washes us in the blood of Christ . . : and applies unto us all the benefits of salvation in Him.” Who will let it? Is God’s arm shortened that it cannot save? Nay, He is sovereign and does all His good pleasure, for “Whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified; and whom he justified, them he also glorified.” (Rom. 8:29-30)
As usual when the matter of the absolute sovereignty of God is brought forth, so here the age fold question is raised in the form of a critical objection. Does not this emphasis on God’s work destroy or completely nullify the responsibility of man? Does not this presentation leave man a stock and block? If God establishes, maintains and perfects His covenant according to the pleasure of His own will, there can be no incentive in man to aspire after Him in any way. This doctrine tends to carelessness and profanity! Doesn’t it?
On this point there is a mixed reaction of misunderstanding and of antipathy toward the truth. Many souls, we believe, are misled and beguiled by this intimidation of truth. It sounds so harsh, so cruel, so impossible that God would do all and leave nothing over for man. What these poor souls fail to consider, however, is that God in His grace does not treat His people as stocks and blocks, but activates them in the faith, so that as knowing and willing children they cannot resort to carelessness and profanity, but bring forth fruits of thankfulness in their part of the covenant. To this we will return momentarily but let it be remembered that there is a vast difference between the basis, ground, or establishment of the covenant and the reality of living the covenant life once that covenant is realized. And the realizing of one’s part in the covenant is the grace of God operatively and can never be the foundation on which the covenant is erected.
On the other hand, there are those that openly resent the truth that God is all in all. This stems from the proud enmity residing in the heart of man and seeking always to rob God of His glory. Man seeks self-honor and self glory in his arrogant and wicked way. He will speak of an eternity of glory, but then it must be something of his own making or at least something toward which he has contributed. Man will not obligate himself to God, but arrogantly he will claim that God owes it to him to give a future of joy and peace. A doctrine that erases even the smallest traces of the possibility of making such a claim, proud man will disown.
Our Baptism Form, however, proceeds in the third part of the doctrinal section to speak of our part in the covenant of grace. It is indeed noteworthy that the Form speaks of parts and not parties in the covenant. This distinction excludes the possibility of making that covenant a contractual thing. It cannot be a promise, an alliance, a pact or agreement between the parties. There is only one party in the covenant of grace, and that party is God. He is a party unto Himself. He is His own party; For His covenant is first of all the blessed relationship of fellowship within the Divine Being; and, secondly, the manifestation of that life of friendship as He reveals it in Jesus Christ. His Son in the relationship He establishes with those whom He has eternally given to Christ and as based on the merits of the cross.
It is a covenant of grace. And grace alone it is that gives to us that part in the covenant. Hence, on the one hand, that part is a gift, a blessing in the form of a privilege. Blessed indeed are they who possess it. On the other hand, as our Baptism Form states, God “admonishes us and obliges us” through baptism unto this part in the covenant. The privilege is also a responsibility, a duty, a calling to be fulfilled. And here we encounter no contradiction, for life itself even in the realm of natural things is filled with similar phenomena. Though in sin it is perhaps difficult to do and therefore often not done, we may look at the privilege of a man to labor and support his own as both a blessing and calling. His duty it is as breadwinner to provide for his family, but at the same time he is gifted with the ability to go to his place of labor each day anew. One has to witness the sick, infirm, maimed, and halt, who, though they may desire ever so much to be occupied, are not able.
And so it is in the covenant of grace. All men have not the ability to fulfill the human-part in God’s covenant. In fact, no man of himself possesses that. Neither is there any in the state of sin that desires to be active in fulfilling that part. On the contrary, man wills the very opposite and plainly shows it. But God, Who is, rich in mercy, calls us and brings us into saving fellowship with Christ, making us conscious of this: “that we cleave to this one God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; that we trust in Him, and love Him with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our minds and with all our strength; that we forsake the world and crucify our old nature, and walk in a new and holy life.” Concerning this, our part in the covenant; we have more to say, D.V., next time.