WCF Chapter 5 | Of Providence
God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). We study God’s decree—his eternal plan—to grapple with his sovereign foreknowledge. We reflect on God’s providence—his working all things—to appreciate his present involvement in our world. God has not left us to fend for ourselves.
Still, the relation of God’s decree and his ongoing work in this world raises challenging questions. We wonder how providence affects human choices. We struggle to relate providence to human sin. And, if God works all things for the good of the church, why does providence sometimes seem hard even for Christians? We can’t answer all these questions to the satisfaction of our curiosity. We can’t perfectly harmonize Scripture’s teaching on how a good God can be totally in charge of a broken world. But trying to understand God’s work in our world can help us develop more mature trust in him.
How Does God’s Providence Work? (5.1–3, 7)
“God, the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things.” The living Word who created everything still “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3). Nothing is outside of God’s control. King Nebuchadnezzar learned the hard way that God “Does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” (Dan. 4:35). The king discovered that “the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (32). Truly God is “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords.” To him belongs “eternal dominion” (1 Tim. 6:15–16).
Because God is the “First Cause” of everything, even “second causes” are under his control. God is involved even when his hand is invisible. Nothing can evolve independently or be emancipated from the Creator. God commonly uses means to work his will. Skilled doctors are merely instruments in the great Physician’s hands. But God isn’t bound to means. God can work without means, as when Jesus raised Lazarus with his mere voice (John 11:43–44). God can work above means, as when he provided a son for aged Abraham and barren Sarah. God can work against means, as when he preserved his servants in a fiery furnace (Dan. 3:27).
And God’s providence is not only sovereign, it is also good. He governs according to his perfect “wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.” No one else has a fraction of the qualifications to unfold world history. And God’s goal is perfect. God’s providence brings him glory and promotes the good of the church. We can’t always see how. But we believe that he will glorify himself (Lev. 10:3) and that, because of his rich love for the church, he will, at the close of history, present her to himself perfect (Eph. 5:25–27).
How Does God’s Providence Relate to Sin? (5.4, 6)
We might prefer to say that God merely “permitted” the fall and deny God’s “ordering and governing” of sinners in their sin. But God doesn’t merely permit or establish boundaries. He decrees. He orders. God governs sin; the first sin and all subsequent sins. God moved David to number the people (2 Sam. 24:1–2), which was a great sin (10). The Lord put a lying Spirit in the mouths of Ahab’s false prophets (1 Kings 22:21–23). God blinds and hardens sinners, actively withholds his grace, withdraws gifts from wicked and slothful servants (Matt. 25:26–30), exposes them to temptations, and gives them over to their lusts (Rom. 1:24). “God has consigned all to disobedience” (Rom. 11:32).
But God has a good plan for sin. The two plainest biblical examples of this truth are the horrible sins against Joseph and Jesus. Actions that sinners meant for evil God ordained for good (cf. Gen. 50:20; Acts 2:23). We might object to that plan because we can’t understand it. But is our ignorance a credible argument? Even humans can write stories that challenge comprehension. We might struggle over how God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. But by doing so God was executing a plan for the Egyptians to send Israel to their own land laden with gifts they would need for the journey (Ex. 12:36). In his inscrutable plan “God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” of his people (Rom. 11:32).
And let’s not forget how God providentially restrains sin. If God ordained limits on Satan’s assault against Job (Job 2:6), he could also completely stop Satan’s work. Even the demons sensed that Jesus could have consigned them to hell immediately (Matt. 8:29). He didn’t. But he does keep sin from totally overpowering this world. He will defeat it. And he will be more glorified than if there had been no sin.
Why Do Believers Struggle under God’s Providence? (5.5)
It might seem strange that the confession’s teaching on providence deals mainly with its darker side. Of course, everything the confession says about God’s redemption of humanity could also be considered under the heading of providence. But providence does often rattle our faith. Yes, our heavenly Father providentially cares for his children (Matt. 6:25–34). But sometimes his care feels lacking. How can we make sense of providence when God leaves “his own children to manifold temptations, and the corruption of their own hearts”?
God is good to chasten believers for former sins.
David lost a child as consequence for adultery and murder (2 Sam. 12:13–14). Even as God’s royal son David had to learn that he was not above the law and that sin has consequences. As the best Father God “disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (Heb. 12:10). We won’t always know when suffering results from former sins. But we should always consider the possibility.
God troubles believers’ souls to help our self–examination.
In the midst of trials we ask harder questions and arrive at more honest answers. Our struggles can help kill our pride as we admit the spiritual battle that rages within us (Rom. 7:21–25). Upon deep soul-searching Paul concluded that his divinely-appointed thorn in flesh was to keep him from becoming conceited by his unusually blessed ministry (2 Cor. 12:7–10).
God’s frowning providence can strengthen our faith.
Believers’ hard times can “raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon himself.” Only after Asaph’s feet had almost stumbled did he realize that God was his greatest treasure, the strength of his heart, and his portion forever (Ps. 73:2, 25, 26).
Troubled times can make Christians more spiritual attentive.
Difficulties can be God’s way of making his children “more watchful against all future occasions of sin.” Maybe this is why Jesus caused Peter to relive the agonizing memory of denying his Savior and friend. Harder times were coming. He needed to put to death fear of man or he would never live out his love for Christ (John 21:15–19).
For many other “just and holy ends” God might seem to leave us on our own. But providence teaches God’s people to keep trusting in him. No matter what God sends us we should trust Jesus’s reassuring words: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).
William Boekestein pastors Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He has authored numerous books including, with Joel Beeke, Contending for the Faith: The Story of The Westminster Assembly.