Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (God the Father: Divine Providence)

Scope

Caution concerning “Laws of Nature”

Divine Preservation of the Universe

Divine Concurrence in All Events

Divine Governance of All Things to Preordained Ends

Divine providence is God’s preserving his creation, operating in every event in the world, and directing the things in the universe to his appointed end for them.

Scope

God’s providence encompasses the following: the universe as a whole (Ps. 103:19; Dan. 4:35; Eph. 1:11), the physical realm (Job 37:1–13; Pss. 104:14; 135:6; Matt. 5:45), the animals (Ps. 104:21, 28; Matt. 6:26; 10:29), the nations (Job 12:23; Pss. 22:28; 66:7; Acts 17:26), man’s birth and life (1 Sam. 1:19–20; Ps. 139:16; Isa. 45:5; Gal. 1:15–16), man’s successes and failures (Ps. 75:6–7; Luke 1:52), things apparently accidental or unimportant (Prov. 16:33; Matt. 10:30), protection of his people (Pss. 4:8; 5:12; 63:8; 121:3; Rom. 8:28), provision for his people (Gen. 22:8, 14; Deut. 8:3; Phil. 4:19), answering prayers (1 Sam. 1:9–19; 2 Chron. 33:13; Ps. 65:2; Matt. 7:7; Luke 18:7–8), and judging the wicked (Pss. 7:12–13; 11:6).

An important distinction in studying God’s providence is between his general providence and his special/specific providence. God’s general providence involves his control of the whole universe (Ps. 103:19; Dan. 2:31–45; Eph. 1:11). His special/specific providence encompasses his control of the details of the universe, including the details of history (Acts 2:23) and the details in the lives of individual people, especially the elect (Eph. 1:3–12). Some, such as open theists, are willing to concede that God has general providence but deny that he has specific providence in the lives of people. However, Romans 8:28–30 and Ephesians 1:1–12 show that God’s control does extend to the lives of people, particularly his elect.

Caution concerning “Laws of Nature”

Before looking at the major components of God’s works of providence, it is important to note that the “laws of nature” are not rules that God is bound to follow. Rather, the laws of nature are what people have perceived to be the normal principles and processes of the universe. Since the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many have denied the possibility of miracles because miracles violate the laws of nature. In response to such arguments, Scripture teaches that God is the Creator, ruler, and sustainer of nature. The laws of nature are the normal ways in which he upholds the universe. However, these laws are under God’s sovereign control, so he has the right and the power to suspend them in working miracles. Since God is a God of order, his operation of the universe has regularity. But the laws of nature should not be regarded as independent of God and closing the universe to his interference. Rather, they should be viewed as the personal means that God ordained to normally operate the universe. And the laws of nature should not be seen as inviolate when producing the same effects in all conditions. Rather, they should be viewed as God’s normal way of producing effects in the universe, although God often uses them in differing combinations, resulting in various effects. Thus, one “law” usually does not function by itself; rather, God employs multiple circumstances, combining different “laws” as he sees fit.

Divine Preservation of the Universe

The first major aspect of God’s providence is his preservation of the universe. This preservation is the triune God’s ever-active work through God the Son in maintaining the things he created with all the characteristics and dynamics he gave them.

God the Son ever “upholds [Gk. pherō, ‘actively carries’] the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3). In Christ, “all things hold together [Gk. synistēmi, ‘stand together’]” (Col. 1:17). The apostle Paul said that in God we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). And Peter said that “the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” (2 Pet. 3:7). God revealed that he sustains the breath of people and animals, and if he would “gather to himself his spirit and his breath, all flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust” (Job 34:14–15). And when God takes away the breath of animals, “they die and return to their dust” (Ps. 104:29).

God preserves all things according to their own properties as long as he wills them to exist. God preserves what he created; he does not create new atoms, molecules, and energy. God preserves the dynamics of nature in relative stability and predictability, so that science and technology are possible. But God always retains the sovereign right to suspend or end the normal processes of nature. In the future, he will give his people resurrection bodies that will never die, and the current processes of death and decay will no longer exist. The “laws of nature” will be different in the eternal state (Rev. 21:1–22:5).

Divine Concurrence in All Events

The second major aspect of God’s providence is his concurrence in all events. God’s concurrence is his operation with created things, causing them (whether acting directly or ordaining them through secondary causes), through their properties, to act.

Examples in Scripture abound. Joseph said that God, not his brothers, sent him to Egypt (Gen. 45:5–8). The Lord (Yahweh) said that he would be with Moses’s mouth to enable him to speak for God (Ex. 4:11–12). The Lord promised to deliver the enemies to Joshua and the people of Israel—the Israelites still had to attack, but the Lord gave them a great victory (Josh. 11:6). God turns a king’s heart to do as God wills (Prov. 21:1), and the Lord turned the heart of the king of Assyria to help the people in building the temple (Ezra 6:22). The Lord gave the people of Israel the ability to acquire wealth (Deut. 8:18). God works in believers “to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). God has ordered evil acts, such as when he moved Shimei to curse David (2 Sam. 16:11). He used Assyria to chastise his people (Isa. 10:5). He “put” a lying spirit in the mouths of Ahab’s prophets (1 Kings 22:23).

God’s concurrence in all events does not implicate him in sin. Men sin according to God’s predetermination in his decree but by secondary causes, so God does not directly and effectively cause the acts of sin (Gen. 45:5–8; 50:19–20; Ex. 10:1, 20; 2 Sam. 16:10–11; Isa. 10:5–7; Acts 2:23; 4:27–28). Also, God often restrains sin (Job 1:12; 2:6) or turns an evil act so it has good effects (Gen. 50:20; Ps. 76:10; Acts 3:13).

God’s use of second causes (indirect causes) helps explain his concurrence in events. The dynamics of nature do not function by themselves, but God provides their energy in every act (contra deism). Second causes are real, not identical to God’s power, or else there is no concurrence of the First Cause (God) with second causes (created things). God does more than simply give the energy to second causes to do something; he directs the actions of second causes to his intended end. In this way, God, not man, is in control. Of course, God can also work by direct causation if he so chooses.

This concurrence is not a cooperative synergism, which would involve partial participation by both God and man. Rather, both are entirely engaged in causing this action. God’s will is ultimately behind the act, and he provides energy. But man as the second cause initiates the action in time, in response to God’s direct causation or in response to man’s own desires as stimulated by circumstances. The concurrence is initiated by God, and he has the priority in the action, or else man would be independently sovereign in his actions. God’s concurrence is logically prior to human action and predetermines everything outside God. The arrangement is never that man initiates an act and that God joins in after the initiation. God provides not energy in general but actual energy to do specific acts in his decree.

God’s concurrence is also simultaneous. Man never works independently of God in anything. God always accompanies man with his (God’s) effectual will, yet without coercing man to violate his nature in any act. There is a simultaneous working, and the act is the product of both causes (God and man), though in different ways. As Berkhof describes it, “This divine activity accompanies the action of man at every point, but without robbing man in any way of his freedom. The action remains the free act of man, an act for which he is held responsible.”

Divine Governance of All Things to Preordained Ends

The third major aspect of God’s providence in and over the universe is his divine governance of all things. This governance involves God’s continual active rule over all things so that, through them, he will accomplish his ultimate purpose of glorifying himself.

God governs as King of the universe. The Bible’s main theme is the glorious reign of the triune God, so its central point is the kingdom of God over all creation. God ever retains and exercises sovereign rule in and over all matters in the universe. God is King as well as Father (Matt. 11:25; Acts 17:24; 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:15; Rev. 1:6; 19:6).

God adapts his governance to the nature of the creatures. He ordinarily governs the physical realm by his laws of nature and the mind through the properties of the mind. God mediately governs humans in their moral choices by “moral influences, such as circumstances, motives, instruction, persuasion, and example,” and also through direct divine operation by the Holy Spirit in their inner nature.

God’s governance extends over all his works—past, present, and future (Pss. 22:28–29; 103:17–19; Dan. 4:34–35; 1 Tim. 6:15). It is detailed, even over the smallest things (Matt. 10:29–31), over things that might commonly be ascribed to chance (Prov. 16:33), and over good and evil acts of men (Phil. 2:13; Acts 14:16). God is the King of Israel who will save and restore his people (Isa. 33:22), and he is King over all nations, having ultimate authority over all the earth (Psalm 47).[1]


[1] MacArthur, J., & Mayhue, R., eds. (2017). Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (pp. 218–221). Crossway.