GOD’S MYSTERIOUS PROVIDENCE
God’s works of providence are His most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures and all their actions.’ (Shorter Catechism, answer to Question 11.) The Scriptures very clearly teach that all things outside of God owe not merely their original creation, but their continued existence, with all their properties and Powers, to the will of God. He upholds all things by the word of His power, Heb. 1:3. He is before all things, and in Him all things consist, Col. 1:17. ‘Thou art Jehovah, even Thou alone;Thou hast made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their hosts, the earth and all things that are therein, the seas and all that is in them, and Thou preservest them all,’ Neh. 9:6. ‘In Him we live, and move and have our being,’ Acts 17:28. He is ‘over all, and through all, and in all,’ Eph. 4:6.
Throughout the Bible the laws of nature, the course of history, the varying fortunes of individuals, are ever attributed to God’s providential control. All things, both in heaven and earth, from the seraphim down to the tiny atom, are ordered by His never-failing providence. So intimate is His relationship with the whole creation that a care- less reader might be led toward pantheistic conclusions. Yet individual personalities and second causes are fully recognized, —-not as independent of God, but as having their proper place in His plan. And alongside of this doctrine of His Immanence the Scripture writers also present the kindred doctrine of His Transcendence, in which God is distinctly set forth as entirely separate from and above the whole creation.
Yet as regards God’s providence we are to understand that He is intimately concerned with every detail in the affairs of men and in the course of nature. ‘To suppose that anything is too great to be comprehended in His control,’ says Dr. Charles Hodge, ‘or anything so minute as to escape His notice; or that the infinitude of particulars can distract His attention, is to forget that God is infinite . . . . The sun diffuses its light through all space as easily as upon any point. God is as much present everywhere, and with everything, as though He were only in one place, and had but one object of attention.’ And again, ‘He is present in every blade of grass, yet guiding Arcturus in his course, marshalling the stars as a host, calling them by their names; present also in every human soul, giving it understanding, endowing it with gifts, working in it both to will and to do. The human heart is in His hands; and he turneth it even as the rivers of water are turned.’ (Systematic Theology, I, p. 583.)
It is almost universally admitted that God determines when, where, and under what circumstances, each individual of our race shall be born, live, and die, whether it shall be male or female, white or black, wise or foolish. God is no less sovereign in the distribution of His favors. He does what He will with His own. To some He gives riches, to others honor, to others health, to others certain talents for music, oratory, art, finance, statesmanship, etc. Others are poor, unknown, born in dishonor, the victims of disease, and live lives of wretchedness. Some are placed in Christian lands where they receive all the benefits of the Gospel; others live and die in the darkness of heathenism. Some are brought through faith unto salvation; others are left to perish in unbelief.
And to a very large extent these external things, which are not the result of individual choice, decide the person’s life course and eternal destiny. Both Scripture and every day experience teach us that God gives to some what He withholds from others. If it be asked why He does this, or why he does not save all, the only available answer is found in the words of the Lord Jesus, ‘Yea, Father, for so it was well-pleasing in Thy sight.’ Only the Scripture doctrine of the fall and redemption will give us any light on what we see about us.
It is to be remembered that those who receive these gifts, whether spiritual or temporal, receive them through pure grace, while in regard to the others God simply withholds those gifts which He was under no obligation to bestow. Nations, as well as individuals, are thus in the hands of God, who appoints the bounds of their habitation, and controls their destiny. He controls them as absolutely as a man controls a rod or a staff. They are in His hands, and He employs them to accomplish His purposes. He breaks them in pieces as a potter’s vessel, or He exalts them to greatness, according to His good pleasure. He gives peace and fruitful seasons, property and happiness, or He sends the desolations of war, famine, drought and pestilence. All of these things are of His disposing, and are designed for intelligent ends under His universal providence. God is no mere spectator of the universe He has made, but is everywhere present and active, the all-sustaining ground, and all-governing power of all that is.
Although the price of the sparrow is small, and its flight seems giddy and at random, yet it does not fall to the ground, nor slight anywhere without your Father. ‘His all-wise providence hath before appointed what bough it shall perch upon; what grains it shall pick up; where it shall lodge and where it shall build; on what it shall live and where it shall die.’ (Toplady, Preface to Zanchius’ Predestination, p. 14.)
Every raindrop and every snowflake which falls from the cloud, every insect which moves, every plant which grows, every grain of dust which floats in the air has had certain definite causes and will have certain definite effects. Each is a link in the chain of events and many of the great events of history have turned on these apparently insignificant things.
Throughout the whole course of events there is progress toward a predetermined end. Dr. Warfield has well written: ‘It was not accident that brought Rebecca to the well to welcome Abraham’s servant (Gen. 24), or that sent Joseph into Egypt (Gen. 45:8; 50:20,. ‘God meant it for good’), or guided Pharaoh’s daughter to the ark among the flags (Ex. 2), or that, later. directed the millstone that crushed Abimelech’s head (Judges 9:53), or winged the arrow shot at a venture to smite the king in the joints of the armor (I Kings 22:34). Every historical event is rather treated as an item in the orderly carrying out of an underlying Divine purpose; and the historian is continually aware of the presence in history of Him who gives even to the lightning a charge to strike the mark (Job 36:32).’ (Biblical Doctrines, p. 14.)
‘In the great railroad stations,’ said Dr. Clarence E. Macartney, ‘you can see a metallic pencil come out and write in great characters on the wall the time of the arrival or departure of the trains. The metallic pencil seems to write of itself, but we know that hidden in an office somewhere the mind and hand of a man are operating the pencil. So in our own life, we note our own deliberations and choices and decisions, and yet in the fabric of our destiny there seem to be other strands, strands not of our own weaving. Apparently trivial events play their part in great issues.’ (Moderator’s sermon on Predestination, preached before the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., 1924.)
Man’s sense of moral responsibility and dependence, and his instinctive appeal to God in times of danger, show how universal and innate is the conviction that God does govern the world and all human events. But while the Bible repeatedly teaches that this providential control is universal, Powerful, wise, and holy, it nowhere attempts to inform us how it is to be reconciled with man’s free agency. All that we need to know is that God does govern His creatures and that His control over them is such that no violence is done to their natures.
Perhaps the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom can best be summed up in these words: God so presents the outside inducements that man acts in accordance with his own nature, yet does exactly what God has planned for him to do.