The Providence of God—Preservation

We have already remarked that the doctrine of the providence of God is generally treated from the aspects of three elements which constitute the Lord’s providential control of all things: preservation, cooperation, and government. We now plan to call attention to these-three elements in particular. 

Calling attention to the element of preservation, we do well to distinguish between creation and preservation. Fundamentally, of course, the providence of God is preservation. Cooperation is but another aspect of this preservation of God, from the aspect of the Lord’s preservation of all His moral-rational creatures. And government emphasizes this preservation of the Lord from the viewpoint of its purpose and goal. But, we do well to distinguish between preservation and creation. Of course, we realize that God’s act of creating and His work of preservation both refer to the almighty and omnipresent power of the Lord. This lies in the very nature of the case. The almighty power of the Lord is equally involved in both. The one is no less a phase of His almighty power than the other. However, we must not identify: them. The confessions certainly do not identify them. We read in Lord’s Day 9 and 10, and we quote: “That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (who of nothing made heaven and earth, with all that is in them; who likewise upholds and governs the same by His eternal counsel and providence). . . . .” And, in answer to Question 27, “What dost thou mean by the providence of God?” we read: “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.” And in Article 13 of our Belgic Confession we read: “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 the world without His appointment . . . . . . .” Also the Word of God distinguishes very clearly between creation and preservation. As we have noted in our articles on the doctrine of creation, creation is that mighty work of God whereby He called into being the things that are not as if they were as by an act of His omnipotent will. But the continued existence of all things is not ascribed in Scripture to a creative work of God, but to His preservation of all the things He has created. The Word of God abounds in these passages. Generally speaking, we read in Heb. 1:3: “Who being the brightness of His glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high.” And in Colossians 1:16-17 we read: “For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.” And inNehemiah 9:6 we read this: “Thou, even thou, are Lord alone; thou hast made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth, and all things that are therein, the seas, and all that is therein, and thou preservest them all, and the host of heaven worshippeth thee.” Besides, how beautifully this doctrine of the Lord’s preservation of all things is set before us in Psalms 104 and 148. In Ps. 104 we read: “Thou hast set a bound that they may not pass over; that they turn not again to cover the earth. He sendeth the springs into the valleys, which run among the hills. They give drink to every beast of the field: the wild asses quench their thirst. By them shall the fowls of the heaven have their habitation, which sing among the branches. He watereth the hills from his chambers: the earth is satisfied with the fruit of thy works. He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man: that he may bring food out of the earth; And wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengtheneth man’s heart. . . . . .He appointed the moon for seasons: the sun knoweth his going down. Thou makest darkness, and it is night: wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth. The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from God. . . .There go the ships: there is that leviathan, whom thou hast made to play therein. 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.” And in Ps. 148:7-13: “Praise the Lord from the earth, ye dragons, and all deeps: Fire, and hail; snow, and vapours; stormy wind fulfilling his word: Mountains, and all hills; fruitful trees, and all cedars; Beasts, and all cattle; creeping things, and flying fowl: Kings of the earth, and all people; princes, and all judges of the earth: Both young men, and maidens; old men, and children: Let them praise the name of the Lord: for his name alone is excellent; his glory is above the earth and heaven.” 

We must not confuse preservation with creation. Although it is true that the preservation of the world is as much due to the immediate power of God as its creation, this does not necessarily prove that preservation is creation. That preservation is nothing else than a continuous creation, that God is creating the universe anew each moment, is a conception against which very serious objections can be lodged. These objections are set forth by Hodge in his “Systematic Theology,” Vol. I, 579-580. First, the doctrine of a continuous creation of the world and all its-creatures destroys all continuity of existence. If God creates any given thing every moment “out of nothing,” then it ceases to be the same thing. This would be self-evident. It may be wholly similar to what had existed before, but it is surely something new, and therefore not the same thing. It is as much disconnected from what had existed before as the world which had been created originally by God according to Genesis 1. This simply must mean that the unbroken continuity of all things, as created by the Lord at the beginning of time, is broken. 

Secondly, according to the doctrine of a continuous creation, there is no existing or external world. Mind you, preservation is continuous creation. This means that in preservation God is creating the world every moment anew. We never really have any real, objective existence. Every moment what is is being replaced by something else. As stated above, this “something else” may be exactly the same as what had existed before, but it is certainly something else. We can, therefore, never lay our hands upon anything real. This means that idealism is the real thing. Idealism transfers the world of reality from the objective, material world of existence around us to a state of mind. If preservation be continuous creation, then we are continually dealing with a material world which is constantly being replaced by something else, and which, therefore, is being constantly destroyed, Hence, an objective world never really exists. 

Thirdly, the doctrine of a continuous creation certainly destroys the reality of sin and man’s responsibility. Calvin speaks of first and second causes. God is the first cause and His moral-rational creatures are second causes. This, of course, must not be explained dualistically, as if we must conceive of two independent powers operating in the universe. There is only one power operating in the universe. This is certainly held before us in the doxology of the Lord’s Prayer: “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, even forever.” But when we speak of second causes, we mean that man is a moral-rational agent. God is not the Creator of sin. He made man good in His own image, and He made all things good. The whole world is corrupt because of the sin of Adam. The children of men constitute a human race, and of this human race Adam was the head. Because of the sin of Adam all mankind is under condemnation and all men are born dead in sins and in trespasses. However, if preservation be continuous creation, then this organical unity is destroyed. Then the sin of Adam cannot possibly affect us. This must lead to two things. On the one hand, God then becomes the Creator of evil. Then all the evil in this world, being disassociated and divorced from Adam, owes its existence to the creative intervention of the Lord. Sin, then, does not develop organically from Adam, but is the product of God’s constant and continuous creation. And, on the other hand, every man becomes individualistic. Every man stands on his own. All men, then, are sinners, not because of the sin of Adam, but because they are created sinful. And every man is individualistic. And this is Pelagianism, which denied original guilt and pollution. Pelagianism, and also Arminianism, sets forth the heresy that all men are conceived and born inherently good; all men have the will to do good; they do not perform evil because they are evil, but become evil because they choose this corruption. And all this is directly in contradiction with the Word of God. The Scriptures speak of the creative work of God as taking place at the beginning of time, and it also speaks of this creative work of the Lord in connection with the rebirth of the elect sinner and the creation of the new heavens and the new earth. But it also stresses that the continued existence of this world is due to God’s work of preservation. 

Preservation means that all things owe their continued existence to God’s omnipotent and omnipresent power. Every creature is sustained continuously in harmony with its own peculiar being and nature. This applies to all creatures. It also applies to all moral rational creatures, including the evil as well as the good, the powers of darkness as well as the kingdom of our God, in Jesus Christ our Lord. This element of the providence of God is known as cooperation. We will not discuss this element of God’s providence in this article, inasmuch as we expect to call attention in greater detail later to the doctrine of God’s providence in its relation to sin. We now merely wish to observe, in a general sense, that preservation is God’s continuously sustaining power as it causes all creation to continue to exist. Every creature is sustained by God according to its nature, the tree as tree, the animal as animal, the plant as plant, etc. The Lord never violates or annuls the nature of any particular creature. This is certainly emphasized throughout in the Word of God. Nothing happens by chance. There is no such thing as “luck.” And we should be careful never to include this word “luck” in our vocabulary. The Bible speaks of the hairs of our head as all being numbered, that we cannot make one hair white or black, that not a sparrow falls off the housetop without the will of our heavenly Father, and that He gives to every lily of the field its beauty and bestows upon it a glory that Solomon never knew. Indeed, there is no truth of which we are surer and which we live and practice as little as this truth of the Lord’s continuous preservation. We say that it was providential of God when we missed a train or plane that subsequently suffers disaster, and we often fail to understand that it would have been just as providential had we boarded that particular train or plane which would have resulted in our death. And these examples can be multiplied. However, the confessions and the infallible Scriptures ascribe all things to God’s providence, and this includes adversity as well as prosperity, sickness as well as health, death as well as life, the “bad and evil” as well as the “good.” Nothing happens by chance, but all things occur according to and by the Lord’s constantly providential care over all things. This is what we mean when we speak of God’s providence from the viewpoint of preservation. In subsequent articles we will call attention, the Lord willing, to this providence of the Lord as consisting of government and cooperation. The former refers to God’s control over all things as the Lord guides all things to His own determinate end, and the latter refers to all the acts of His moral-rational creatures as always under the direct control of the living God.