This, then, that God, the Creator of the universe, is omnipresent, not only in His power, but also in His essence; that as the transcendent One He is immanent in all things, and that, too, as the living and. ever active God, Who continues to speak the Word that once creatively proceeds out of His mouth, and Who thus upholds all things by the Word of His power, is the basic idea of the providence of God.
From moment to moment, therefore, God is the Lord, and remains strictly and absolutely sovereign with relation to the world He created, not only because He created all things, but also because they are in His hand, and they exist only by His will. This is to be understood in the most absolute and unlimited sense of the word. The sun, and moon, and stars, the sea and the dry land, the mountains and the hills, forest and plain, trees and flowers, corn and wheat, rain and sunshine, gold and, silver; the bread we eat, and the water we drink, and the air we breathe; the light and the eye, the sound and the ear; our power of mind and will, the strength to labor and toil,—all things exist and continue to exist, each in their own sphere and according to their own nature, only by the will and word of God “in whom we live, and move, and have our being.” God is the Lord. Without Him nothing could have had being at all; and without His will nothing would continue to exist even for a moment.
And this providence of God implies, too, that He is absolute ruler of the universe, and that He governs all things according to His decree and eternal purpose. This signifies, in the first place, that in the world He created, the Lord maintains and executes His own ordinances, and strictly and sovereignly controls and directs the movement of every creature. The universe is not a dead, inactive thing, or combination of motionless beings: it is a living, organic whole. It is the creation and reflection of the living Word of God, of God of Whom it may be said that He is actus purissimus, i.e. activity in the absolute sense of the word. And so, everything lives and moves in all the rich and wonderful creation of God. The planets move around the sun in the firmament, even as they rotate around their own axes, and so the sun rises every morning to drive away the night, and sets every evening at its appointed time; the moon glides through the silent night, flooding it with its mellow, silvery light; and the planets, comets, and stars roam with incredible speed through the immensity of space, each keeping to their appointed course. Light it is said, moves with a rapidity of one hundred and eighty six thousand miles a second; and though with far less speed, sound also travels: the reverberation of thunder, the howling of the wind, the whisper of the zephyr, the song of the lark, the cry of the young raven, the roar of the lion, the spoken word, the prayer that leaves your lips,—all these, and thousands upon thousands of other sounds that constantly fill the universe, have wings, and fly into space. The color of the lily and of the rose, as well as their fragrance, the lingering glow of the setting sun in the western sky, the silvery path struck by the moon across the lake, the reflection of your face in the mirror, the beautiful span of the rainbow in the heavens,—they all live and move according to their own nature and laws. The clouds gather, the flash of lightning zigzags through the darkness, the rain descends, rivers and brooks restlessly meander to their destination, tides rise and fall, the seed falls into the earth and dies to rise again, the seasons follow one another in regular succession, your heart beats and the blood courses through your veins,—everything is constantly in motion. And then there is the movement of the living creature, of animals and men, of holy angels and wicked demons: the worm crawls along in its path, the sparrow takes off on its wings, the wild beast roams through the forest, man thinks and plans, desires and chooses, speaks and acts, the angels sing and attend to the Word of their Lord, and the devils believe and tremble! In all the wide creation there is nothing motionless or dead. And even if we could penetrate with our perception into the existence of a grain of sand, we would detect life and movement similar to that of the stars in the firmament!
The doctrine of God’s providence teaches us that God controls and directs all these movements and actions of the creature. As the Catechism expresses it: He “governs heaven and earth, and, all creatures,” and that “as it were by his hand,” God is the Lord. He remains absolutely sovereign in relation to the world. When we contemplate the manifold movements and activities of the various creatures, we notice that they are not all of the same kind. Some are involuntary and automatic: their organic functions are unconscious, determined, by what we are accustomed to call “law”; others are deliberate and voluntary, determined by the inner instincts and choice of the creatures themselves. And again, the former may be distinguished into two classes: those that occur regularly, so that their movements may be predicated accurately both as to time and space; and those that take place without such regularity of recurrence. The sun rises and sets each day of the year exactly at the appointed moment, so that the length of each day for a certain part of the globe can be predicted with absolute certainty; but the weathermen often fails even when he prepares his forecast one day ahead. And who is able to predict “rain and drought, fruitful and barren years?” Again, the deliberate or voluntary movements and acts of the creature may be distinguished into those that are the result of the limited instinct of the animals, and those that are the expression of intelligent will, the acts of men and angels. All these acts and movements are under the government and direction of the Sovereign of heaven and earth, and there is nothing that moves or stirs apart from or against His will.
This means that we may not distinguish, either deliberately or thoughtlessly, between events that are “providential,” and others that have nothing to do with the providence of God, or between the “natural” and the “supernatural.” All things are providential, and all things are alike natural and supernatural. The unbelieving man of science takes delight in the discovery of laws, and in speaking of them as if they were something apart from God, forces inherent in the universe by virtue of which the world runs by itself. For the Christian a “law of nature” is nothing but God’s regular and orderly mode of operation. There are laws of gravity and gravitation, laws of contraction and expansion, of attraction and repulsion, principles of chemistry and physics, but they are all governed constantly, and that, too, “as it were by his hand,” by the living God. Even those “laws” that can be expressed in exact mathematical formulas reveal but the orderly way in which God works and rules the universe. God works harmoniously and in orderly fashion. The universe is no chaos. It is exactly because of this fact that man can be a “co-worker” with God, and that he can order his own life and activity according to God’s ordinances and times. How impossible this would be, if God’s mode of working were arbitrary! How impossible it would be for man to order his life, if the sun would rise at three o’clock in the morning one day, and at noon the next; or if he could not depend on the regular recurrence of the seasons; or if a stone thrown in the air would come down at a certain velocity today, at a different speed tomorrow, and would remain suspended aloft at other times! However, God is a God of order, and His orderly way of operation in the universe man discovers in order that he may arrange his own life and work accordingly. “Doth the plowman plow all day to sow? doth he open and, break the clods of the ground? When he hath made plain the face thereof, doth he not cast abroad the fitches, and scatter the cummin, and cast in the principal wheat and the appointed barley and the rie in their place? For his God doth instruct him to discretion, and doth teach him. For the fitches are not threshed with a threshing instrument, neither is a cartwheel turned about upon the cummin; but the fitches are beaten out with a staff, and the cummin with a rod. Bread corn is bruised; because he will not ever be threshing it, nor break it with the wheel of his cart, nor bruise it with his horsemen. This also cometh forth from the Lord of hosts, which is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in working.”. But the fact that God works in a regular and orderly fashion may not tempt us so to speak of “laws” as if these operated by themselves, independently from the living God. When lightning strikes your house or barn, it is His hand that directs it, and when the sun rises and sets at appointed times, it is again His hand that moves the solar system. When a tornado suddenly tears across a stretch of country, along a very arbitrary and unpredictable path, destroying everything in its way, it is the Sovereign of heaven and earth that guides the tornado “as it were by his hand”; and when a stone falls to the ground according to an exact mathematical formula, it is by His hand that the stone is pulled down.
But this is true also of the movement and acts of the living creatures, that move by an impulse from within. The sparrow that takes to its wings is directed in its course by the hand of the Lord of all: “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall.to the ground without your Father,”. Swarms of beetles fly down to settle on your bean crop, and they devour the plants in a single night, but the course of every one of them is determined by the same sovereign Lord: He directs their course “as it were by his hand.” Millions of invisible germs creep and multiply into your lungs, dragging you down into the grave; mosquitoes carry the malaria germ into your blood, prostrating you on your bed with a burning fever; the worm crawls along the ground, apparently without purpose; millions upon millions of fishes small and great sweep through rivers and lakes and oceans; the eagle soars into the sky, and the hawk glides in circles above its prey; the lion roams through the forest; and all the millions upon millions of living creatures move about on land and in the sea, in meadows and forests, on mountains, in deserts, or in the sky, swarming and creeping, flying and running, leaping and jumping; they sing and chirp, they cry and roar, they seek their food and rejoice,—all directed collectively and individuality by the hand of the Sovereign of heaven and earth. Not one of them is ever forgotten. “These wait all upon thee; that thou mayest give them their meat in due season. That thou givest them they gather: thou openest thine hand, they are filled with good. Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled: thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust. Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth.” .
And with equal force this is applicable to all the acts of God’s moral, rational creatures, men and angels. God is the Lord even in relation to the thoughts and intents, the desires and aspirations, the imaginations and determinations of the heart of man, and in relation to all his acts. Here, at least, the Pelagian insists, there is a limit to the sovereignty of the Most High. Man is a free, moral, rational creature. He has an intelligent will. He makes his own determinations, and that, too, by free choice, either for good or evil. Hence, his determinations, of will are beyond the control of God. He is a free agent. And he alone is responsible for his acts. It is quite impossible, therefore, that the thoughts of his heart and his deeds, which he performs as the result of his free determinations, can be predetermined, or that they can be controlled and governed by Gods. The freedom of God’s moral and rational creatures constitutes a limit to God’s sovereignty. Others less radical, but hesitant to confess God’s absolute sovereignty over the acts of men and angels, and fearful lest the latter’s responsibility is denied, rather describe God’s relation to these acts by the word permission. Especially with application to the evil acts, of men, they prefer to say that God permits them. Or the term cooperation is used to define God’s relation to the moral acts of God’s rational creatures. We make a threefold distinction in the concept of God’s providence, and speak of His preservation, cooperation, and government. In respect to the acts of His moral creatures, it is said that God cooperates with them and in them.
Now, it is undoubtedly true that man is a moral being, and that as such he may be said to be a free agent in a certain sense. He is endowed with intelligence and will. Accordingly, he acts with conscious choice and determination from within. He is a person, the subject of his own actions, and responsible for them. Even in his lowest state, he retains some knowledge of God, and acts in relation to Him. The work of the law is inscribed in his heart, and his conscience either excuses or accuses him. And God will surely bring him into judgment, that he may receive according to his work. But all this does not alter the truth that God remains sovereign also with respect to man’s moral acts. He controls them, governs them, and through them fulfills His own will, and realizes His own counsel. One dare not say that God permits the acts of His moral creatures, either good or evil, for that would postulate an agent capable of operating in independence from Him, and imply a denial of His absolute sovereignty over men and angels. Nor does the term cooperation precisely denote the relation between God’s sovereignty and man’s acts as a moral agent, for this suggests a relation of equality. Reformed theologians are wont to define the relation by the terms primary cause, and secondary causes. And this distinction has a good deal in its favor. It avoids the danger of destroying man’s moral nature, and of presenting God as the Author of man’s moral actions; and yet, it leaves man utterly dependent upon God. Certain it is that the relation between God’s providence and man’s moral acts is such that on God’s part it is one of absolute sovereignty, on man’s part it is one of dependence. His freedom is never sovereign. It is a creaturely freedom, and, therefore, dependent. God is immanent, too, in the hearts and minds, the thoughts and inclinations, the desires and determinations of men, as the living Lord, governing them according to His will, so that, even though man remains the conscious and willing author of his own acts, it is God that brings them about, and thus, accomplishes His eternal purpose.
This is the clear teaching of Scripture. The sons of Jacob certainly acted as moral agents, following the inclination of their own evil hearts, and seeking to accomplish their own purpose, when they sold their brother Joseph to the Midianites; yet God so controlled and sovereignly governed their every intention, that His purpose was accomplished, as Joseph later explains: “But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as. it is this day, to save much people alive.”. The sons of Eli certainly did wickedly, and “the sin of the young men was very great before the Lord,” ; and deliberately they refused to hearken unto the voice of their father; “notwithstanding they hearkened! not unto the voice of their father, because the Lord would slay them.” God so governed their sinful way, that in the way of their sin they should be slain according to His purpose. I . Sovereignly God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, and the Word of God must even be proclaimed to him: “And in very deed, for this cause have I raised thee up, for to shew in thee my power; and that my name may be declared in all the earth.” . Nor dare it be said that Pharaoh was first hardening his own heart, and that God’s hardening of the king’s heart was merely an act of retribution, as is frequently alleged, for before Moses even reaches Egypt the Lord informs him that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart, so that he will not let the people go. . The haughty ruler of the world-power boasts of his own strength, and intends to accomplish his own evil purpose: to destroy Jerusalem and the people of God; and he is not at all conscious of the fact that God uses him to cut off “nations not a few; yet, he is only the axe that boasts against the hand that heweth therewith, and the saw that magnifies itself against the hand that draws it. ff. There is no doubt about it, that Judas, and the Sanhedrin, and all the powers that rose against the Lord Jesus to slay Him, acted as moral agents, when they fulfilled their evil way upon the Savior, yet they crucified Him through the determinate counsel of God. . And so the Church confesses, when Peter and John return to them, being released by the rulers of the Jews: “Lord, thou art God, which hast made heaven and earth, and the sea and all that in them is; Who by the mouth of thy servant David hast said, why did the heathen rage, and the people imagine vain things ? The kings of the earth stood up and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord and against his Christ. For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together, For to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done.” . Indeed, “the kings heart is in the hand of the Lord as rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will.” . In the light of all these passages, there can be no question about the Scriptural teaching on this point: God? is the Lord, and He sovereignly governs and controls to His own purpose all the purposes and acts of men and angels, both good and evil. He sits enthroned on high in the heavens, and accomplishes whatsoever He pleases. And there is no power in heaven or on earth that can even for a, moment take the reins out of His hand, or thwart His sovereign purpose.