8 Features (and a Few Other Things) You Should Know about Divine Providence
Editor's Note: This post has been adapted from A New Exposition of the London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689, edited by Rob Ventura.
The opening chapters of the 1689 London Baptist Confession are concerned with the foundations of the Christian faith. Among these foundational concerns are truths pertaining to the original creation. Chapter 4 (Creation) is concerned with the establishment of the original creation, and chapter 6 (Sin and the Fall) with the defilement of that creation. Between these two we find a chapter on divine providence, which addresses the government of the original creation. This placement underscores the doctrine’s foundational importance and abiding relevance.
There is also an important connection between the chapter on providence and chapter three, which concerns the decree of God. We can think of God’s decree as His plan drawn up in eternity, and God’s providence as His execution of that plan in history. Whatever God has planned in eternity will come to pass in history. All that comes to pass in history was planned in eternity. The orderly progression of thought in the opening chapters of the confession is clear to see. God plans (chapter 3), creates (chapter 4), and directs (chapter 5).
So, what is the doctrine of divine providence? The first paragraph of chapter 5 explains:
"God the good Creator of all things, in His infinite power and wisdom does uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, to the end for the which they were created, according unto His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will; to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, infinite goodness, and mercy."
In this paragraph, the authors of the Confession outline eight features of divine providence that we should note:
1. Its Author
According to Paragraph 1, the Author of divine providence is “God the good Creator of all things.” We read in Genesis 1:31, “And God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good.” The divine Author of creation is also the divine Author of providence. The Baptist Confession refers to God as “the good Creator,” while the Westminster Confession describes Him as “the great Creator.” It appears that the writers of the Baptist Confession were concerned to emphasize the goodness of divine providence.
2. Its Foundation
The foundation of divine providence is described in Paragraph 1 as “His infinite power and wisdom.” The framework of both creation and providence is God’s infinite power and wisdom. “He has made the earth by His power, He has established the world by His wisdom…” (Jer. 10:12a). Christ, the wisdom of God, through whom all things were created, upholds all things by the word of His power (Heb. 1:3).
3. Its Essence
God “doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern.” These are the four essential activities of God in His providence. He upholds, directs, disposes, and governs all that He has created. He “works all things according to the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11). God actively works upon, in, and through what He has created.
4. Its Extent
Divine providence extends to “all creatures and things, from the greatest even to the least.” In Matthew 10:29-31 Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father's will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Jesus argues from the lesser to the greater. If even the sparrows are kept by God, how much more are you? In context, the practical application of all this is that we should put away sinful anxiety, especially in the face of opposition and persecution.
5. Its Nature
God directs and governs all things “by His most wise and holy providence.” The psalmist declares, “The LORD is righteous in all His ways, Gracious in all His works” (Ps. 145:17). The Confession uses two words to describe the nature of divine providence: wise (meaning that there are no errors), and holy (meaning that there is no evil).
6. Its Design
God directs and governs all things “to the end for the which they were created.” The apostle Paul writes, “For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist” (Col. 1:16, 17). All things were created for a purpose, and they are upheld and directed for the realization of that purpose. God’s control of creation is compatible with His purpose in creation. Providence is the direction of all creation to its intended purposes, including redemptive purposes. Creation is the stage upon which redemption is played out.
7. Its Causes
God directs and governs all things “according unto His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will” (Eph. 1:11). God’s perfect foreknowledge and unchangeable will are the exclusive determining causes of divine providence. While ‘foreknowledge’ in the Bible often refers to God’s special, previous knowledge of persons, it certainly includes His special, previous knowledge of events. God knows beforehand what will happen because He has determined beforehand that it will happen.
8. Its Goals
God directs and governs all things “to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, infinite goodness, and mercy.” Three times in Ephesians 1, where the apostle Paul highlights the sovereignty of God, he asserts that its ultimate goal is the praise of God’s glory (Eph. 1:6, 12, 14).
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From this overview, it is evident that the biblical doctrine of divine providence exposes at least two common errors:
Left to Chance?
The word “chance” is found in our English Bibles. When it occurs, it simply refers to a happening or event, without specifying the agency by which it came about. The idea that events occur that are unknown to God or outside of His control is foreign to the Bible (cf. Prov. 16:33; Matt. 10:29). The concept of things randomly occurring without any connection to God is essentially a pagan idea.
Left to Fate?
The doctrine of fate says that events will inevitably and unalterably occur due to blind, mechanical forces. This is the philosophy that says, “Whatever will be will be.” Like the word ‘chance’, the word ‘fate’ also appears in our English Bibles, but it never refers to events inevitably or unchangeably occurring apart from God’s previous determination and present control. Like the doctrine of fate, the doctrine of divine providence asserts that events will certainly and inevitably occur. Unlike the doctrine of fate, however, the doctrine of divine providence asserts that their occurrence isn’t due to blind, mechanical forces, but the sovereign predetermination of God. Fate is a meaningless, merciless, hopeless doctrine. Sometimes you’re dealt a good hand. Sometimes you’re dealt a bad hand. Whatever you’re dealt, there is no purpose or design behind it. In sharp contrast, the doctrine of divine providence is full of meaning, mercy, and hope. All of God’s dispensations have meaning and purpose, for they come from the hand of a wise, loving, and holy God who is working all things for His own glory and His people’s good.
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If we had to choose three adjectives to describe God’s providence, they would have to be “sovereign,” “wise,” and “good.” The Bible requires us to believe that all the events in our lives are under God’s sovereign control, and that everything in His providence is wise and good. This belief will help to protect God’s people against five things that hinder spiritual growth and maturity:
1. Sinful Anxiety
This includes worry about money, work, health, relationships, an uncertain future, and a host of other things. Anxiety in itself isn’t necessarily sinful. It can actually sharpen courage and preserve one from recklessness. Anxiety becomes sinful, however, when it leads to disobedience to God. Without a doubt, Jesus was anxious in the Garden of Gethsemane, but His anxiety never brought Him to disobey His Father. The doctrine of divine providence stimulates courage and safeguards against sinful anxiety.
It’s one thing to place responsibility where it belongs. It’s quite another to use other people as an excuse for one’s own failings, or to hold them ultimately responsible for providential occurrences that cause inconvenience or pain. Carnal blame-shifting feeds bitterness, resentment, and division. The doctrine of divine providence enables faith to see beyond secondary agencies.
Dissatisfaction can be good if it motivates to right actions, but the discontentment that springs from lust and greed is wrong. Such discontentment is aimed directly at God. The refusal to accept the station in life that God has allotted is to argue with Him, and to question His wisdom, goodness, and love. The doctrine of divine providence helps to neutralize an attitude of carnal discontentment.
The frequent verbalizing of dissatisfaction with one’s circumstances or other people is a sure indicator that one has not practically embraced the doctrine of divine providence. Again, carnal complaining is directly aimed at God. The doctrine of divine providence is a powerful antidote to complaining.
The root of all discontentment and complaining is an unthankful spirit. We must remember that as believers, God has not dealt with us according to our sins. We’re not in hell, but we deserve to be. Whatever our station or condition, we have much to be thankful for. The doctrine of divine providence is an incentive to gratitude to God.
The biblical doctrine of divine providence is highly practical. It affects the way one responds to people and circumstances. Do you really see all things as coming from the hand of a wise, holy, and loving God? How you respond to trials, afflictions, persecution, setbacks, and disappointments is telling you how big your God really is. The doctrine of divine providence also does away with carnal boasting and presumption, for if there is anything good about what we are or what we have, it is God who has done it. He must receive all the praise and glory.
Jim Domm has served as one of the pastors of Englewood Baptist Church in Englewood, NJ since 1995. He and his wife, Brenda, have been married since 1979. They have one married daughter and three grandchildren.
"The Good, the Bad and the Providence of God" by Nick Batzig
"Through the WCF, Chapter 5.1" by Phil Ryken
"Edwards and Interpreting Providence" by Thomas Kidd
Providence, ed. by Jeffrey Stivason
The Mystery of Providence by John Flavel
 See also Psalm 135:6; Isaiah 46:10, 11; Daniel 4:35; Acts 17:25-28; Romans 8:28.
 See 1 Samuel 6:9; 2 Samuel 1:6; Ecclesiastes 9:11; Luke 10:31.
 See Numbers 16:29; Psalm 81:15.
 Cf. 2 Cor. 11:28.
Image: Gathering Brushwood by David Bates