Providence and Guidance

A wise Puritan once said, “Providence is the Christian’s diary not his Bible.”  Let me illustrate.  Imagine the boy who is trying to decide which college to attend.  He simply can’t make up his mind and so he decides that he will go to that college which his parents or friends mention first in their next conversation because, he thinks, in that way he can discern the Lord’s will for his life.  Or think of the boy trying to decide whether or not to ask a girl to marry him.  He says to himself, “If Mary Beth calls me before 5:00 O’clock then it is a sign from the Lord that I should marry her!  What’s happening here?  These boys are treating God’s providence as if it were their Bible rather than their diary.  What they are doing is not much different from reading tea leaves or palm lines.

Perhaps one of the saddest divisions of the first Great Awakening came as a result of this very thing.  George Whitefield and John Wesley were at the very center of a theological division.  Both men were two of the most well-known preachers of the time.  The issue centered on a Calvinistic understanding of predestination.  For Whitefield the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination was a doctrine to be embraced and loved.  It was the assurance and hope of the believer that God had sovereignly elected them to salvation.  For Wesley it was, to say it in his own words, “a doctrine full of blasphemy.” 

Whitefield knew of their differences but, having an ecumenical spirit, still asked Wesley to come to Bristol and lead the work that he had started.  It was a group numbering forty or fifty thousand people.  Wesley’s friends were also aware of their differences and so wrote to Wesley encouraging him “to enter no disputes, least of all concerning predestination, because this people (Bristol) [are] so deeply prejudiced for it.”  Wesley almost immediately cast off this counsel. 

Shortly after his arrival he was challenged by those who, like Whitefield, embraced the doctrine of predestination.  So, Wesley sought God’s guidance on what to do; should he preach against it and then print the sermon or should he not?  Wesley made his decision. He reported that he made four lots or four pieces of paper with four options on each slip and then he drew one. Wesley wrote in a letter, “The answer was ‘preach and print.’” And so, Wesley did.  For him, like the teenage boy above, the matter was decided by providence. 

Now, I can hear the objections. Well, how shall we live? Yes, the Bible tells us to do or not do certain things but how do we know what to do when the Bible is silent? How does a young man know where to go to college or whom to marry? These and other things are not in the Bible.  So, don’t we need to read the signs of God’s providence in order to figure out the will of the Lord? Let me put it as clearly and as simply as I am able. 


Dear brothers and sisters, just because the Bible doesn’t tell us to go to this or that college doesn’t mean that the Bible is silent. In the absence of a precept the Bible furnishes us with principles which are to be wisely applied to all of life. Think of Ephesians 5:15-17, “Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil. So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” Paul is telling us that our daily lives are to be in accord with our new nature – we are no longer foolish but wise. Let me be even more direct. Walking wisely in our day to day lives is not something different than understanding what the will of the Lord is. In other words, whether I apply principles or precepts I am seeking to do the Lord’s will daily.

Think of it this way. Who am I to pick one providential act over another and declare that God will use it to answer this or that question? What is more, by what authority do I set myself up as the infallible interpreter of the event? This is not to say that patterns are absent from providence any more than the Spirit’s supernatural operations are lacking. However, even these are not dislocated from the Scripture.  

Let me give one example. Take our young friend who can’t decide on whether or not to propose to his young sweetheart. Where does he begin in the decision process? He starts with the Bible. He asks, what does the Bible say to my situation? 

1.      It is sad to have to say this today, but he is to marry a she (Romans 1:26-27).

2.     Our young believing friend is also to marry a believing woman (II Corinthians 6:14-18).

3.     He is also to respect both his and her parents in the process (Exodus 20:12).

4.     And he is to be able to support a family (II Thessalonians 3:11-12).

These are just a few of the principles given in Scripture which speak to or toward the issue. However, when it comes to the actual question, should I propose to Mary Beth, well, our friend must decide if such a thing is wise. Perhaps we should also say that if our young friend does decide to propose but after marrying regrets his decision, then he must apply himself wholeheartedly to the marriage in order to make the best of an unwise decision – if that is truly what it was. And again, he can do that by heeding the Scripture because that is his, and our, only sure guide.

Jeffrey A. Stivason has been serving the Lord as a minister of the gospel since 1995.  He was church planter and now pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.

Jeffrey Stivason