As you undoubtedly know, yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day (see, I’m here to help). At The Gathering, we took the opportunity to deal with a very important theological concept: The Providence of God. The following is essentially a transcript of that message altered a bit to make it a little more readable. You can view it on demand here.
One of the things many think about on St. Patrick’s Day besides wearing green and pinching people who didn’t is this being a “lucky day.” “The luck of the Irish” is a term that most Americans have heard and think about the little Lucky Charms leprechaun on the cereal box and how if you are lucky enough to catch one, he’ll lead you to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Certainly, the idea of luck is not limited to the Irish (which, most will say, would historically be considered bad luck!). We use the term all the time: “Look at that, parking spot right up by the door. Must be my lucky day!” “I got lucky and picked the right raffle number.” “Dude, you’re lucky she is both beautiful and has bad taste or you wouldn’t have had a shot!”
Luck is a big part of our vocabulary. I wonder if it’s a part of our theology? Is there such a thing as luck? When we say we’re “fortunate,” are we saying the same thing, but in a less secular way?
Luck in the Bible
Actually, you won’t find luck talked about in Scripture…primarily because it is a term that flies in the face of the sovereignty of God. Luck refers mainly to happenstance; chance. A great example is playing a game like Blackjack and many other card or dice games where you will only win if you happen to have been dealt a good hand or a good roll of the dice. Often, there is very little, if any, skill involved. We would commonly refer to this as either having good luck or the opposite: David luck. I hardly ever win at anything.
At the other end of the spectrum is the opposite of blind chance which is control. This implies purpose and the power to bring the results of purpose about. Theologically, we refer to this as providence. Now, if you break open the concordance, you won’t find the word “providence” in there in reference to God’s sovereignty. Again, it is a theological word used to describe a biblical concept.
What is providence?
In his book, Bible Doctrines, Wayne Grudem defines providence as God’s continual involvement “with all created things in such a way that he (1) keeps them existing and maintaining the properties with which he created them; (2) cooperates with created things in every action, directing their distinctive properties to cause them to act as they do; and (3) directs them to fulfill his purposes.
OK, that’s a good, thorough definition there. Let’s break it down. What is this talking about? In essence, the providence of God means that God is not simply some great cosmic clock-maker who created the world and then set it in motion and moved away hoping that everything works out. It’s not as one pastor I heard years ago say, “God did all He could when Jesus died, then He went back to heaven and left it up to us.” That is borderline heresy (and possibly, the other side of the border!). There is nothing in Scripture that says this. In fact, in the Great Commission, Jesus talks about all authority being given to Him and that He would be with us always to the end of the age. Further, He promised that when He returned to the Father, He would send the Comforter (John 16:7). Hebrews 1 tells us that He [Jesus] 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.” In Colossians 1:17, Paul says that “in [Christ], all things hold together.”
The providence of God means that He is constantly holding everything in the universe together, maintaining order, implying that if He removed Himself, even for an instance, cosmic chaos would result.
That’s the first part of the definition.
The second involves God’s intimate involvement in all that happen on the earth, including the actions of his creatures…that, of course, includes us. Ephesians 1:11 says, “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will…“. Isaiah 46:8-11 says,
“8 “Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors,9 remember the former things of old;for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me,10 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,’11 calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country.I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.
God is the Great “I AM” who will do what He pleases, regardless of our approval. He is God…we are not. That’s a fact you really don’t want to forget.
The Extent of God’s Providence
Put simply, the sovereignty of God is universal, meaning that it extends to all of creation. The following is just a small listing of some of the major areas of God’s control:
1. “Natural events”
These are events that have an immediate identifiable “scientific” cause like weather. We can explain the processes of how the rainbow is made and clouds form and weather patterns and systems. Scripture says, though, that God is the one who created the systems we see at work. Check out Job 37:6-13
6 For to the snow he says, ‘Fall on the earth,’ likewise to the downpour, his mighty downpour.7 He seals up the hand of every man, that all men whom he made may know it.8 Then the beasts go into their lairs, and remain in their dens.9 From its chamber comes the whirlwind, and cold from the scattering winds.10 By the breath of God ice is given, and the broad waters are frozen fast.11 He loads the thick cloud with moisture; the clouds scatter his lightning.12 They turn around and around by his guidance, to accomplish all that he commands them on the face of the habitable world.13 Whether for correction or for his land or for love, he causes it to happen.
2. The Animal Kingdom.
God is the Creator and Sustainer of all living creatures as we see in Psalm 104: 24-30:
24 O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.25 Here is the sea, great and wide, which teems with creatures innumerable, living things both small and great.26 There go the ships, and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it.[b]27 These all look to you, to give them their food in due season.28 When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.29 When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.30 When you send forth your Spirit,[c] they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.
3. The affairs and leaders of nations.
This one might stretch your belief in the control of God in this area when you thing of the condition of the world. Yet, nothing is going to happen outside of God’s oversight. More about that a little further down. Keep reading.
23 He makes nations great, and he destroys them;
he enlarges nations, and leads them away.
24 He takes away understanding from the chiefs of the people of the earth
and makes them wander in a trackless waste.
25 They grope in the dark without light,
and he makes them stagger like a drunken man.
Acts 17: 24-26
24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man,[c] 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place,
Proverbs 21:1 (love this one!)
The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord;
he turns it wherever he will.
4. Extends even to the bad things that happen
Probably nothing illustrates this point more than the account of Joseph. As a teenager, he is sold into slavery to some Egyptians due to jealousy. After years in captivity and because of the blessing of God, he’s promoted to second in command of all of Egypt! How’s that for climbing the corporate ladder? Now, look at what happened when he comes face-to-face with his brothers for the first time as they have come to Egypt for food:
Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7 And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.
Don’t misinterpret this. This doesn’t mean that God caused the evil that led Joseph’s brothers to want to kill him or ultimately sell him into slavery, but because of His providential, sovereign control, it means He can use the most vile people (even the Devil, Himself, as He did in Job) to bring about His purpose. This is the emphasis behind Romans 8:28:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,[a] for those who are called according to his purpose.
5. God’s providence extends even to things that appear to be chance.
This deals with the question of “luck”. I think Proverbs 16:33 is one of the coolest passages:
The lot is cast into the lap,
but its every decision is from the Lord.
Now take a look at this in action in Acts 1:21-25
21So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” 23 And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias. 24 And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen 25 to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26 And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.
OK, we have to stop for a second and unpack this a little. Notice they didn’t just flippantly throw the dice and say, “well, let’s see how this works out….” Further, they didn’t handle it democratically.
They wanted God’s choice and they knew they didn’t know who that was. They didn’t want this to be who the majority of them wanted, but, believing Proverbs 16:33, they asked God to choose by controlling the roll…and they cast the lots.
There are at least two important implications to the extensive providence of God in the world:
1. Nothing happens outside of either God’s prescriptive will (God directly causes or “prescribes” that something happens) or His permissive will (God allows or “permits” something to happen) will. If He doesn’t want it to happen, it WILL NOT happen. However, due to the fallen condition of man as a result of our sinful fall, evil happens in the world and God often allows it to happen. Through it, though, God has a purpose that will, in some way, ultimately glorify Himself.
2. Fate or luck does not exist. Nothing happens by chance. Uh…period.
Responding to God’s Providence
OK, one more time, in case we didn’t get a grip on this point earlier: He is God and you are not. It really doesn’t matter if you like the idea of providence or not. As Paul said, in Romans 9, “Who are you, O Man, to answer back to God.” This does not mean we do not make willing choices, but if Scripture is true in light of a king’s heart being as a stream of water in the hand of the Lord so that He turns it any way He wishes as He did with Pharoah in dealing with the Children of Israel, then we have to ask, “Who formed our will to make those choices?
You do something because you want to. Does that eliminate God from giving you a particular “want to?” Can’t He convince you of your desires and even shape them…even if you don’t even realize it so that it is what you want to do more than anything? I mean something shapes your desires, right? Do you prefer some mindless force or blind circumstances, alone, to do it? Would you not rather the good and gracious God influence you? Are we really that naive as to think anything or anyone can do better than God? Does He not have rightful control over those whom He has made? Again, Romans 9, verse 20, Paul argues, “Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay….?
This should not be something that we should want to fight against unless we are hell-bent on our own autonomy which is what led to the fall of man in the first place. God’s providence ensures us that God will bring about His good purpose, despite our most valiant efforts to the contrary!
Nothing illustrates this better than one of the two times Abraham tried to pass his wife, Sarah, off as his sister to the leaders of the land. He did this because she was beautiful and he feared he would be killed in order to get to his wife. Here’s a brief account of what happened from Genesis 20:
Abraham journeyed toward the territory of the Negeb and lived between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar. 2 And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. 3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.” 4 Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people? 5 Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” 6 Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. 7 Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.”
Look at that. God didn’t let the king sin. He stepped in and kept the sin from happening even though the king wanted Sarah. God was like, “No, you don’t. You just think you do. You’re not going to do it.” Now, could the king still have gone through with it? Seems clear he could have because God gave a pretty stern warning if he proceeded, but do you really think there was a practical option for the king? Do you actually think the king wasn’t going to be convinced by that? Yeah…not happening.
We’re not victims to some blind and uncaring fate or chance. God has a plan and will see that plan through completely. I’m thankful for that! I go back to Isaiah 46:9-11:
I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
10 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,’
11 calling a bird of prey from the east,
the man of my counsel from a far country.
I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass;
I have purposed, and I will do it.
God’s will is going to be done. This should remove fear from our lives. Check out what Jesus said in Matthew 10: 28-31:
Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.[g] 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?[h] And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.
If God calls you to do something (which should be confirmed through His Word along with godly counsel according to His Word), then you can pursue it with confidence.
God’s providence in the world is reason for God to be worshiped and adored (you’ve heard of prayers of adoration, right?). He is worthy to be worshiped for being GOOD and IN CONTROL! For either one of those two characteristics to be lacking would be catastrophic for us.
Read what Jonathan Edwards in his sermon, “God’s Sovereignty in the Salvation of Men”, said about worshiping God because of his sovereignty:
Our Lord Jesus Christ praised and glorified the Father for the exercise of his sovereignty in the salvation of men. Matt. 11:25,26. ‘I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in thy sight.’ Let us therefore give God the glory of his sovereignty, as adoring him, whose sovereign will orders all things, beholding ourselves as nothing in comparison with him.
Be encouraged! Even though it seems as though this world is getting crazier and more out of control, it’s not out of God’s control. Everything that He has purposed will come to be. You can bet on it.