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  • Adam Butler

Providence of God: An Introduction

Many people find the providence of God difficult to understand, especially in light of seemingly contradictory circumstances. “If God really is as powerful and loving as the Bible claims, why does he not simply do away with all of the evil in the world?” “If God is provident, why does he not let everyone into heaven?” These are real questions that are often asked by people with real concerns. God’s providence, then, is better explained by understanding his nature. God’s nature is such that it allows for him to be completely loving, as well as ultimately provident over all he has created. The providence of God makes sense in light of his nature as loving, personally involved in his creation, and still allowing for the free-will of the human beings he has made.


What is the providence of God?


Millard Erikson defines it as “the continuing action of God by which he preserves in existence the creation he has brought into being and guides it to his intended purposes for it” (Erikson, 359). That is, God created the universe, the world and everything in it, and now continues to be actively involved in its well-being. Scripture reveals this to be true to readers as well; Jesus states in Matthew, “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they” (Matt 6:26)? God takes care of even the birds; it is implied through Jesus’ question that human beings are significantly more important to God than are all other living creatures. He says later in the passage, “But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith” (Matt 6:30)? Even the grass is taken care of by God; again, Jesus suggests that human beings have little to be anxious about concerning sustenance or physical clothing. Essentially, the love of God our Heavenly Father is displayed to his children through his providence over them. Just as an earthly father cares for and protects his children, God does the same for mankind.


In fact, the word “providence” comes from the Latin word providere, meaning “to foresee” (Erikson, 359). So, not only is God involved in his creation day-to-day, he also has knowledge of the future of all that can and will happen. This is made possible through one of the aspects of God’s nature, his omniscience. That is, his knowledge of everything at all times. In other words, God is not surprised by anything; whatever happens to his children is seen and known by him. According to Erikson, “We can face danger, knowing that he is not unaware or uninvolved” (Erikson, 359). Having established that fact, followers of Christ who have received salvation can have confidence in their faith and through any circumstance or trial that may arise.


Wayne Grudem would add to the definition that, in addition to being involved with the guidance of creation, God “keeps them existing and maintaining the properties with which he created them; cooperates with created things in every action, directing their distinctive properties to cause them to act as they do, and directs them to fulfill his purposes” (Grudem, 315). There is an observable order, or a set of laws by which creation and nature abide; these have been set in place by their creator, God. Hence, everything moves with a purpose and follows the instructions given to it by God. According to Hebrews, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb 1:3a). Everything within the created universe is held in place by, and ultimately points back to the God who created it.


This, then, is what Grudem means when he says that God cooperates with all things. T. H. L. Parker would argue that “from the beginning, God ordered the course of events toward Jesus Christ” (Parker, 706). That is, everything God has created ultimately serves his universal purpose of fulfilling the gospel and drawing fallen humanity toward Christ as the ultimate atonement, or payment, for sin. This idea is clearly illustrated in Romans 1:20, when Paul states that “his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” God’s glory and redemptive purpose for creation is laid out for all to observe; therefore, man has no reason not to accept Jesus’ gift of salvation for his or her life. That is ultimately the goal of God’s providence; it is part of his reconciliation of humanity (Parker, 706).


In summation, God created an orderly world, but did not remove his divine hand from its daily existence. Rather, he continuously upholds and provides for the needs of his creation, from humanity to the birds of the air, to the very laws of nature by which everything follows.

“Everything happens for a reason” is a commonly stated phrase but may not be entirely true in every scenario. For instance, as Grudem points out, “it is incorrect for us to reason that if we know the “natural” cause of something in this world, then God did not cause it” (Grudem, 319). Because God is the sustainer and provider for the created world, this does not imply that he is the cause behind every circumstance therein. This should be noted when asking the previously posed question of “if God is all-good and all-powerful, why is there evil?” Erikson answers this question by saying, “God does not always prevent sin. At times he simply wills to permit it” (Erikson, 373). Sin exists because of the fallen nature of humanity, a result of our free-will (Genesis 3). Therefore, disease, death, tragedy, pain, and all things of the like are simply byproducts of the choice by man to rebel against God and disobey him.


Could God have created a world in which humans were not free? That is, could God have made humans love and obey him by default? The answer is that he most certainly could have, though there would be no real love involved. Love, by definition, is freely given. Therefore, humanity is not forced into a relationship with God or into his presence against their will. This is one of the aspects of God’s redemptive purpose, and ultimately his providence as well. Only the Holy Spirit can convict humanity of sin, thus allowing for Christ’s salvation to make us alive in Christ and forgive our sin (2 Cor 7:9-10).


Therefore, salvation is entirely the product of God’s providence as well. As Paul says in Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8-9). It is not by human choice that salvation occurs, but it is entirely the work of Christ in the lives of the believers. Humans may decide to believe in God and the gospel, though God’s providence is what allows lost people to be found in Jesus Christ.

Christians must realize, then, the vitality of avoiding taking particular verses out of their intended context which speak of the providence of God. Romans 8:28, for instance, is a commonly misinterpreted verse of the Bible. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). By itself, the verse seems to imply an aspect of God’s providence which is not necessarily in alignment with the rest of scripture- that is, God works every circumstance out for good. Some may read this statement and assume that every harmful or tragic scenario will ultimately be resolved because of God’s providential nature. However, a closer look at the context and intended message of this particular passage of scripture reveals that Paul is speaking specifically about sanctification–the process of the believer becoming more like Christ. Assuming a different meaning strips the passage of its desired meaning.


Erikson goes on to say that “God can also direct sin. While permitting some sins to occur, God nonetheless directs them in such a way that good comes out of them” (Erikson, 373). The most obvious Biblical example of God’s providence over man’s sin is Genesis 50:20, in which Joseph says to his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” Joseph’s brothers had attempted to kill him, taking all that he had and leaving him in a pit, though through the providential work of God, Joseph was saved and even made a prominent authority figure over Egypt. So, while God may not prevent sin, since man has the free-will to choose disobedience even so, he may use it for his glory in the long run. Grudem sums up this idea by stating, “God uses all things to fulfill his purposes and even uses evil for his glory” (Grudem, 327).


Every aspect of creation, humanity, and their respective natural essence are for the glory of God. His purpose and will are accomplished by creation. Michael Horton notes that “God always exercises his power, holiness, righteousness, and wrath—as well as love and mercy—in conformity with his goodness” (Horton, 347). God’s love covers all, as does his righteousness. God’s righteousness is his nature of being just as a judge (Psalm 50:6). Therefore, he is provident in his very nature- all creation is an example of the character of God. Distinguishing the true definition of the providence of God will provide Christians with the proper ability to complete the ministry of Jesus we are called to (Mat 28:18-20).


Accordingly, providence is necessary to ministry in that it builds our dependence and trust on the promises of God. Knowing that God is provident over all creation and the purposes of every human being, people can be relieved of potential anxieties about ministry, and even about daily existence. As 1 Peter 5:6-7 states, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” God’s care for his children is one of the facets of his providence- through his love, he promises not to leave or forsake his children (Deut 31:6, Heb 13:5). This matter has great value for the purpose of ministry, being that ministry is never in vain if it is done in the context of a belief in God’s promise of providence.


Regarding the providence of God over pain and evil, knowing that evil is to be expected may come as a comfort to some in terms of how to approach the issue through ministry. Christians were never promised ease and comfort in the midst of following Jesus. Jesus says in John 16:33, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” Jesus’ promise of tribulation should not come as a surprise to those who claim to love him; as stated earlier, the effects of sin are evident within the world. However, understanding that God has the power to control tribulation is also indisputable in scripture. Erikson says regarding this issue, “there is no promise that persecution and suffering will not come, but rather that they will not prevail over us” (Erikson, 362). In the Biblical case, Job is tested by Satan, only because Satan was given the consent of God to be able to take away all his earthly possessions (Job 1:12). Job was later struck with other trials, each of which God’s glory and providence shone through (Job 40-42).


Dependence on God for daily necessities is also made possible through God’s providence. While he was instructing the disciples how to pray, Jesus taught them to say, “give us this day our daily bread” (Matt 6:11). Thus, it is not only vital to have faith in the providence of God, it is just as important to communicate with God that we fully submit to and believe in him in light of his providence and sovereignty. The sovereignty of God is demonstrated in line with his providence, and essentially teaches that God is the supreme authority, above everything he has created. Colossians 1:17 says, “And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Without God, all of life is meaningless, purposeless, and valueless.


Likewise, ministry without God is the same. The value of ministry comes form the fact that his sovereignty and providence provide meaning for everything done in Jesus’ name. The father is glorified though everything he has made, especially through the worship of said creation. Luke tells us that even the rocks worship God when man remains silent (Luke 19:40). Erikson points out this fact by saying, “God is described as controlling nature, so much so that its elements are personified as obeying his voice” (Erikson, 365). If creation obeys the voice of the sovereign God, so must his children. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism famously states, “the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”


Conclusion


God is completely in control of everything he has created. While sin has corrupted God’s perfect creation, he still remains sovereign and in control. Hence, his creation is expected to be faithful, as he is faithful. Nothing that happens is unknown to God. He is actively involved with his children, so that they may one day freely choose to glorify him, giving him the praise that he is due. As God says in Isaiah 46:9-10, “remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.”


 

Erickson, Millard. “Chapter 17: God’s Continuing Work: Providence.” In Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013), 358-82.

Grudem, Wayne. “Chapter 16: God’s Providence.” In Systematic Theology. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 315-54.

Horton, Michael. “God,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd ed. Edited by Daniel J. Treier and Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017.

Parker, T. H. L. “Providence of God.” In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd ed. Edited by Daniel J. Treier and Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017.



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