If God Is Sovereign, Do I Make a Difference?
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.
According to 1689 London Baptist Confession, God upholds, directs, disposes, and governs all creatures and things by His wise and holy providence to the praise of His own glory. If that is indeed the case, a few questions immediately come to mind:
- Does it make any difference what I do? Should I try to get a better job? Do I need to see a doctor? Should I pray for the unconverted? Should I evangelize?
- How can God blame me for my sins? If God is in control of all things, how can He hold me responsible for my sin?
- What possible good can come from my sin? How can something that is evil be a part of his holy plan?
- How can a loving God harden people in their sin? Doesn’t this make God a minister of sin?
These are some of the perplexing questions that are taken up in the remainder of Confession’s chapter on providence. At least three salient features of divine providence are addressed in these paragraphs. Paragraphs 4–6 address the Problem of Sin, while the Preservation of the Church is covered in Paragraph 7. In this post, we will take a closer look at the Place of Means in paragraphs 2 and 3:
2. Although in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly; so that there is not anything befalls any by chance, or without His providence; yet by the same providence He ordered them to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.
3. God, in his ordinary providence makes use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them at His pleasure.
What are “means”? Very simply, means are things that are useful to achieve an intended end. For example, a car is a means of transportation to bring you to some desired location. A hammer is a means of driving nails to construct a building. Means are tools or instruments that are used to achieve some desired end. Paragraphs 2 and 3 address the matter of the use of means. Since God providentially orders all things and sovereignly brings to pass every end and result, and since no one can thwart God’s sovereign purposes, then does what I do really matter? Does what I do in the use of means really make any difference?
A Concession (Paragraph 2a)
Although in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly; so that there is not anything befalls any by chance, or without His providence;
The writers of the Confession begin by reiterating the teaching of paragraph 1 in shorter form. However, they express it as a concession. The idea is that although what has been asserted is certainly true, something else is equally true—something unexpected, something that may even appear to be utterly contradictory. Yet it is still true.
An Assertion (Paragraph 2b)
yet by the same providence He ordereth them to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.
This is the same truth that was asserted back in Chapter 3, Paragraph 1, on the Decrees of God.
God hath decreed…all things, whatsoever comes to pass; yet [not] so [that]…the liberty or contingency of second causes [is] taken away, but rather established;
“Second causes” are means. The Confession clearly asserts that all of God’s determinations are providentially ordered, and fall out according to means (secondary agencies).
Three adverbs in Paragraph 2 describe how this occurs. It occurs necessarily. That is, certainly and inevitably, according to God’s predetermination. It occurs freely. That is, not by coercion, especially in matters involving human choice. People freely choose what they want. Their choices aren’t forced upon them. Finally, it occurs contingently. That is, in dependence upon both the means and the ends ordained by God.
From the divine perspective, all things are predetermined, even the means. From the human perspective, all things take place through a series of events, and through the use of means, some planned, and some “random.” To us, the outcome is uncertain, and depends in large measure upon our choices and actions, as well as the apparent effectiveness of the means. In other words, the sovereign providence of God in no way suspends or negates the necessity and use of means. What we do or don’t do does indeed make a difference in the outcome of things. The Bible confronts us with a tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility—a tension between divine sovereignty and free, contingent events.
This tension appears to contradict logic and human reason. Sam Waldron puts it, “A course of events consisting of a series of free and contingent events is said to produce a predetermined result.” God is accomplishing fixed, predetermined purposes through free, responsible, and contingent agencies. As illogical or contradictory as this may seem, it is nevertheless true, as the following passages clearly demonstrate. Genesis 50:20: “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.”
The free, contingent events in this case were, amazingly, acts of sin that were intended by Joseph’s brothers for his destruction. Yet God used these very acts for the realization of His plan for His people.
Or consider 1 Kings 12:15, 24a:
“So the king did not listen to the people; for the turn of events was from the LORD, that He might fulfill His word, which the LORD had spoken by Ahijah the Shilonite to Jeroboam the son of Nebat. . . .Thus says the LORD “You shall not go up nor fight against your brethren the children of Israel. Let every man return to his house, for this thing is from Me.”’
Even the division of the nation was ordered by God, yet it came about through human sin. Consider likewise the account of Ahab in I Kings 22:30, 34:
“And the king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, ‘I will disguise myself and go into battle; but you put on your robes.’ So the king of Israel disguised himself and went into battle… . Now a certain man drew a bow at random, and struck the king of Israel between the joints of his armor. So he said to the driver of his chariot, ‘Turn around and take me out of the battle, for I am wounded.’”
In this chapter, Ahab and Jehoshaphat consider attacking the Arameans. Micaiah the prophet declares that Ahab will not return from the battle alive. Ahab took steps to ensure his own safety. In spite of his efforts to preserve his life, he was killed in battle just as the Lord had announced through the prophet. The “random” shot of the Syrian bowman was the means of bringing about the predetermined death of Ahab.
We this also at work in the Proverbs:
“Plans are established by counsel; by wise counsel wage war” (Proverbs 20:18).
“The horse is prepared for the day of battle, but deliverance is of the LORD” (Proverbs 21:31).
Taken together, the two texts above teach that no military commander may expect his campaigns to succeed without careful planning. Yet victory or defeat are predetermined by God.
Such assertions of God’s providence become even more pronounced in the New Testament:
“I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3).
“Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins” (John 8:24).
Salvation or condemnation are predetermined by God. Yet, no one will be saved apart from repentance and faith. We also find prayer and providence together in passages such as Philippians 1:19:
“For I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayer and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.”
Paul’s deliverance was from God, but it came about through the prayers of God’s people. These are only a few of the places in Scripture that demonstrate how free, contingent events produce divinely predetermined results.
A Qualification (Paragraph 3)
God, in His ordinary providence maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them at His pleasure.
God ordinarily uses means for the realization of His sovereign purposes, but He is not bound to them. He is certainly able to suspend the laws of nature and perform miracles (Acts 7:36). He is certainly able to work without means (1 Sam. 5:1-4; Luke 1:31-35), above means (Gen. 21:1, 2; 1 Sam. 23:15-29), and against means (Dan. 3:26, 27; Matt. 27:62-66, 28:11-15).
In all of our decisions and actions, we must determine the best ends, in accordance with the teaching of Scripture, the best means to achieve those ends, again in accordance with the teaching of Scripture, and then leave the results with God. Consider how this applies in the following ten areas:
- Obeying Traffic Laws: wearing seat belts, observing speed limits, driving carefully
- Health Care: eating properly, taking care of our bodies, seeing a doctor when necessary
- Education: studying and preparing for one’s vocation
- Work: Pray that God will give you your daily bread, then go to work.
- Financial Planning: savings, investments, insurance, retirement
- Procreative Stewardship: Plan and prepare as you are being fruitful and multiplying.
- Parenting: Bring your children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. God must save them. At the same time, under the blessing of God, the rod and reproof give wisdom (Prov. 29:15).
- The Means of Grace: Use prayer, Bible reading, corporate worship, and fellowship for the spiritual nurture of your soul.
- Evangelism: Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. How will sinners hear without a preacher? (Rom. 10:13-17)
- Conversion/Salvation: Faith in Christ and repentance from sin are the appointed means of salvation. No one is saved without them (Acts 20:21).
With all of this in view, it is not hard to imagine a sinful human heart quickly excusing itself from responsibility for its sins. But the Word of God will not allow this, as the next paragraph makes clear. We see that in detail in our next post.
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
 Samuel E. Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith (Welwyn Garden City: Evangelical Press, 1989, 2016), 106.
 It isn’t actually illogical or contradictory. Our inability to explain something doesn’t necessarily involve a contradiction. For example, we may be unable to explain how God can be one and three at the same time. But this doesn’t demand the conclusion that the doctrine of the Trinity is illogical or contradictory.
 See 1 Kings 11:11, 31; 12:1-15