In our preceding article we quoted at length from the Reformed Dogmatics of the late H. Bavinck, in which a brief resume is set forth of the doctrine of the providence of God. We concluded that article by calling attention to the word providence, noting that the word itself is hardly Scriptural but that it has had a place in the history of the doctrine of the Church for ages. H. Bavinck notes that the word itself is of heathen origin, but that it can be used, provided that we understand the Scriptural significance of that which this truth is supposed to set forth. Before we proceed with the doctrine itself, let us first call attention to the confessions and see what they teach with respect to this truth.
LECTURES ON THE AUGSBURG CONFESSION—First Series, page 734
It is also affirmed in the Article that God “preserves universal nature.” This is over against the varying forms of Deism and Rationalism. The whole texture of the Article under review consists with the doctrine of a constant, active providence of God in the world he has made. As this came into being through an omnipotent act of God, its existence is that of created dependence upon its author. The universe considered as a whole, or in its several parts, is not a structure so perfect as to be able to continue apart from the upholding hand that gave it being. The power calling it into existence lives in and sustains it through every succeeding moment. Even what are known as inherent laws and forces of nature are no more than living modes of the divine activity, continuing and conditioning all that exists. Deism is justly chargeable with prime inconsistency in allowing a miracle at the commencement of the world, and then affirming the divine indifference or inactivity in its subsequent existence. God could not, as he would not, create and leave alone. This would contradict both his being and work. In maintaining the fact and the necessity of the preservation of nature by God, these Reformers affirmed a truth in keeping with the highest philosophy, no less than with the uniform teachings of Holy Scripture.
This quotation appears in a chapter which treats the subject: “The Cause of Sin.” We know that the Augsburg is Lutheran. We may return to this chapter when we call attention to God’s Providence and Sin. In the paragraph quoted above, the truth of the providence of God is maintained, declaring that “God could not, as he would not, create and leave alone.” It may be of interest to quote later from this chapter what is said of the cause of sin.
SECOND HELVETIC CONFESSION (A.D. 1566) Pages 839-841.
We believe that all things, both in heaven and in earth, and in all creatures, are sustained and governed by the providence of this wise, eternal, and omnipotent God. For David witnesses and says, “The Lord is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens. Who is like unto the Lord, who dwelleth on high, and yet humbleth himself to behold the things that are in heaven and earth?” (Ps. 113:4-6). Again, he says, “Thou hast foreseen all my ways; for there is not a word in my tongue which thou knowest not wholly, O Lord,” etc. (Ps. 139:3-4). Paul also witnesses and says, “By him we live, move and have our being” (Acts 17:28); and “of him, and through him, and from him are all things” (Rom. 11:36).
Therefore Augustine both truly and according to the Scriptures said, in his book De Agone Christi, cap. 8, “The Lord said, ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall to the ground without the will of your Father.’ By speaking thus he would give us to understand whatsoever men count most vile, that also is governed by the almighty power of God. For the truth, which said that all the hairs of our head are numbered, says also that the birds of the air are fed by him, and the lilies of the field are clothed by him.”
We therefore condemn the Epicureans, who deny the providence of God, and all those who blasphemously affirm that God is occupied about the poles of heaven, and that he neither sees nor regards us or our affairs. The princely prophet David also condemned these men when he said, “O Lord, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked triumph? They say the Lord doth not see, neither doth the God of Jacob regard it. Understand, ye unwise among the people; and ye fools, when will ye be wise? He that planted the ear, shall he not hear? and he that formed the eye, shall he not see?” (Ps. 94:3, 7-9).
Notwithstanding, we do not condemn the means whereby the providence of God works as though they were unprofitable; but we teach that we must apply ourselves unto them, so far as they are commended unto us in the Word of God. Wherefore we dislike the rash speeches of such as say that if all things are governed by the providence of God, then all our studies and endeavors are unprofitable; it shall be sufficient if we leave or permit all things to be governed by the providence of God; and we shall not need hereafter to behave or act with carefulness in any matter. For though Paul did confess that he did sail by the providence of God, who had said to him, “Thou must testify of me also at Rome” (Acts 23:11); who, moreover, promised and said, “There shall not so much as one soul perish, neither shall a hair fall from their heads” (Acts 27:22, 24); yet, the mariners devising how they might find a way to escape, the same Paul says to the centurion and to the soldiers, “Unless these remain in the ship, ye can not be safe” (Acts 27:31). For God, who has appointed every thing his end, he also has ordained the beginning and the means by which we must attain unto the end. The heathens ascribe things to blind fortune and uncertain chance; but St. James would not have us say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such a city, and there buy and sell;” but he adds, “For that which ye should say, If the Lord will, and if we live, we will do this or that” (James 4:13, 15). And Augustine says, “All those things which seem to vain men to be done advisedly in the world, they do but accomplish his word because they are not done by his commandment.” And, in his exposition of the 148th Psalm, “It seemed to be done by chance that Saul, seeking his father’s asses, should light on the prophet Samuel;” but the Lord had before said to the prophet, “Tomorrow I will send unto thee a man of the tribe of Benjamin,” etc. (I Samuel 9:16)
In this article it is beautifully stated that, although the Lord has willed and determined all things, namely that all the souls with Paul in the ship would be saved, this Divine will and decree does not negate the means which we must use, inasmuch as also these means have been included in God’s Divine decree and will.
We believe that he not only created all things, but that he governs and directs them, disposing and ordaining by his sovereign will all that happens in the world; not that he is the author of evil, or that the guilt of it can be imputed to him, as his will is the sovereign and infallible rule of all right and justice; but he hath wonderful means of so making use of devils and sinners that he can turn to good the evil which they do, and of which they are guilty. And thus, confessing that the providence of God orders all things, we humbly bow before the secrets which are hidden to us, without questioning what is above our understanding; but rather making use of what is revealed to us in Holy Scripture for our peace and safety, inasmuch as God, who has all things in subjection to him, watches over us with a Father’s care, so that not a hair of our heads shall fall without his will. And yet he restrains the devils and all our enemies, so that they cannot harm us without his leave.
In this article of the French Confession of Faith, the all-comprehensive character of the providence of God is maintained. We certainly subscribe to the statement that the Lord is not the author of sin and that the guilt of evil cannot be imputed to Him. Nevertheless, the Lord makes wonderful use of all devils and sinners.
God, the great Creator of all things, doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness and mercy.
II. Although in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly, yet by the same providence he ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.
III. God, in his ordinary providence, maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure.
IV. 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, and that not by a bare permission, but such as hath joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to his own holy ends; yet so as the sinfulness therefore proceedeth only from the creature, and not from God; who, being must holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin.
V. 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; and to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support unto himself, and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for sundry other just and holy ends.
VI. As for those wicked and ungodly men whom God, as a righteous Judge, for former sins, doth blind and harden, from them he not only withholdeth his grace, whereby they might have been enlightened in their understandings and wrought upon in their hearts, but sometimes also withdraweth the gifts which they had, and exposeth them to such objects as their corruption makes occasion of sin; and withal, gives them over to their own lusts, the temptations of the world, and the power of Satan; whereby it comes to pass that they harden themselves, even under those means which God useth for the softening of others.
VII. 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.
We call attention to the fact that these articles of the Westminster Confession of Faith stressed the all comprehensive character of the providence of God. And we should also note that the providence of the Lord is presented here as centering particularly in the salvation of His Church. This, incidentally, also applies to the other confessions from which we quoted thus far. The providence of God does not merely set forth the Lord’s almighty and omnipresent control of all things, but all things are governed by Him for the salvation of His church which He has loved from before the foundations of the world. This is also and most certainly true of the Reformed Confessions, such as our Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession of Faith from which we will quote, the Lord willing, in our following article. In these confessions, too, all emphasis is laid upon the truth that the providence of God affords the people of the Lord a most wonderful comfort, the assurance that all things always work together for good for them, that also all the powers of sin and darkness serve no other purpose, as far as they are concerned, than their ultimate and everlasting salvation.