Q. What do you understand by the providence of God?

A. Providence is the almighty and ever present power of God by which he upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that lead and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty—all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 27).

*******

This is my favorite Lord’s Day in the entire Catechism.  I absolutely love its poetic description of providence.  ”Sovereignty” is the word we hear more often.  That’s a good word too.  But if people run out of the room crying whenever you talk to them about sovereignty, try using the word “providence.”  For some people God’s sovereignty sounds like nothing but raw, capricious power: “God has absolute power over all things and you better get used to it.”  That kind of thing.  And that definition is true in a sense, but divine sovereignty, we must never forget, is sovereignty-for-us.  As Eric Liddel’s dad remarked in Chariots of Fire, God may be a dictator, but “Aye, he is a benign, loving dictator.”

Coming to grips with God’s all-encompassing providence requires a massive shift in how we look at the world.  It requires changing our vantage point—from seeing the cosmos as a place where man rules and God responds, to beholding a universe where God creates and constantly controls with sovereign love and providential power.

The definition of providence in the Catechism is stunning.  All things, yes all things, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand.”  I will sometimes ask seminary students being examined for ordination, “How would the Heidelberg Catechism, particularly Lord’s Day 10, help you minister to someone who lost a limb in Afghanistan or just lost a job or just lost a child.”  I am usually disappointed to hear students who should be affirming the confessions of their denomination shy away from Heidelberg’s strong, biblical language about providence.  Like most of us, the students are much more at ease using passive language about God’s permissive will or comfortable generalities about God being “in control” than they are about stating precisely and confidently to those in the midst of suffering “this has come from God’s fatherly hand.”  And yet, that’s what the Catechism teaches.

And more importantly, so does the Bible.

To be sure, God’s providence is not an excuse to act foolishly or sinfully. Herod and Pontius Pilate, though they did what God had planned beforehand, were still wicked conspirators (Acts 4:25-28).  The Bible affirms human responsibility.

But the Bible also affirms, much more massively and frequently than some imagine, God’s power and authority over all things.  The nations are under God’s control (Psalm 2:1-433:10), as is nature (Mark 4:41Psalm 135:7147:18148:8), and animals (2 Kings 17:25Dan. 6:22;Matt. 10:29).  God is sovereign over Satan and evil spirits (Matt. 4:102 Cor. 12:7-8Mark 1:27).  God uses wicked people for his plans—not just in a “bringing good out of evil” sort of way, but in an active, intentional, “this was God’s plan from the get-go” sort of way (Job 12:16John 19:11Gen. 45:8Luke 22:22Acts 4:27-28).  God hardens hearts (Ex. 14:17;Josh. 11:20Rom. 9:18).  God sends trouble and calamity (Judg. 9:231 Sam. 1:516:142 Sam. 24:11 Kings 22:20-23Isa. 45:6-753:10Amos 3:6Ruth 1:20Eccl. 7:14).   God even puts to death (1 Sam. 2:6252 Sam 12:152 Chr. 10:414Deut. 32:39).  God does what he pleases and his purposes cannot be thwarted (Isa. 46:9-10Dan. 4:34-35).  In short, God guides all our steps and works all things after the counsel of his will (Prov. 16:3320:2421:2Jer. 10:23Psalm 139:16Rom. 8:21Eph. 1:11).

It’s worth noting that Lord’s Day 10 is explaining what the Apostles’ Creed means when it says, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.”  If God is the creator of all things and truly almighty, then he must continue to be almighty over all that he has created.  And if God is a Father, then surely he exercises his authority over his creation and creatures for the good of his beloved children.  Providence is nothing more than a belief in “God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth” brought to bear on our present blessings and troubles and buoying our hope into the future.

You can look at providence through the lens of human autonomy and our idolatrous notions of freedom and see a mean God moving tsunamis and kings like chess pieces in some kind of perverse divine play-time.  Or you can look at providence through the lens of Scripture and see a loving God counting the hairs on our heads and directing the sparrows in the sky so that we might live life unafraid.  “What else can we wish for ourselves,” Calvin wrote, “if not even one hair can fall from our head without his will?” There are no accidents in your life.  Nothing has been left to chance.  Every economic downturn, every phone call in the middle of the night, every oncology report has been sent to us from the God who sees all things, plans all things, and loves us more than we know.

As children of our Heavenly Father, divine providence is always for us and never against us. Joseph’s imprisonment seemed pointless, but it makes sense now.  Slavery in Egypt makes sense now.  Killing the Messiah makes sense now.  Whatever difficulty or unknown you may be facing today, it will make sense someday–if not in this life, then certainly in the next.

We all have moments where we fear what the future may hold.  But such fears are misplaced if we know the one who holds the future. The fact of the matter is all my worries may come true, but God will never be untrue to me.  He will always lead me, always listen to me, and always love me in Christ.  God moves in mysterious ways; we may not always understand why life is what it is.  But we can face the future unafraid because we know that nothing moves, however mysterious, except by the hand of that great Unmoved Mover who moves all and is moved by none, and that this Mover is not an impersonal force but the God who is my Father in heaven.

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18 thoughts on “Yes, All Things, In Fact”

  1. ATB says:

    So good! Jerusalem will offend Athens.

  2. David says:

    I, too, love this part of the catechism. But I often wonder how it squares with the Psalms of Lament. I’m thinking about Psalm 44. God’s providence/sovereignty is on display in that Psalm. But that doesn’t mean that the praying community stoically accepts everything that comes to pass. They take the opportunity to lament and boldly pray for God to act.

    So, I guess the question is…. How do we apply the doctrine of providence to piety? This, obviously, is where the catechism goes next. Q and A 28. Once again the catechism provides a solid answer (Patience, thankfulness, hope….). But sometimes I wonder about that word ‘patience’. That word, it seems to me, has been used to squash, silence people in their grief. What about Lament? Must painful experiences always be endured with patience? (I guess it depends on how one defines the word). Your thoughts?

  3. Brad says:

    Reading in Otto Weber today:

    Speculation about God’s “providence” holding sway in all things does not “cost” anything. But faith in God and in his providence does “cost” something, for it cannot exist at all without the practical knowledge that I am not intended to do the will of the Evil One but rather to do God’s will and to pray that his will be done… It is faith in the Creator who does not let himself be dethroned as Creator by all of the creature’s own work and be all of sin, nor as the Lord of the Covenant. It is faith in Christ. (Foundations of Dogmatics, vol 1 p. 506)

  4. Tad Caldwell says:

    I have recently come to understand the beauty of catechisms. As a baptist I was not taught them as a child, but I am currently teaching the New City Catechism to my 3 year old. It is heart warming to see her answer the questions, and then begin to draw connections. She recently asked me “Daddy, why did God make duck?” I asked her back, “Why did God make you?” She said “To glorify Him”. I said “So, Why did God make duck?” She said “To glorify Him.” I was thrilled to see her draw that connection with a little prompting.

  5. Marshall says:

    I believe God hardens hearts and does it in a way that doesn’t make him the author of sin. But, I don’t know how to explain that other than how I just typed it. Any suggestions?

  6. One of my favorite characteristics of God! Thanks Pastor Kevin DeYoung.

    @Marshall, one way to look at it is to explain that the only way we do good is by God’s grace. So, perhaps God gives us less grave or more grave at differing times in our lives.

  7. Chris says:

    I remember reading a story a few years ago about a man that broke into a home, tied up the husband, raped his wife and daughter in front of him, then burned them alive. Is it really ok to say that God was active and intentional in that? And if all things come from the hand of God, how does human responsibility fit in? I’m not looking for the “mystery” answer, which is just lazy. And Im really not trying to attack, these are honest, genuine questions. I’ve leaned toward Calvinism most of my Christian life, but have been finding it somewhat contradictory lately. Thanks for your insights.

  8. Darren Blair says:

    Marshall –

    The answer to your question depends upon which denomination of Christianity you appeal to.

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (re: “The Mormons”) holds that in some instances, God permits sin to happen as a testimony against the person who commits the act.

    This is stated directly in Alma ch. 14 (Book of Mormon), wherein Alma (a religious leader) and Amulek (his companion on his current mission) are forced to watch as the rulers of a wicked people murder a number of those who the pair have redeemed:

    8 And they brought their wives and children together, and whosoever believed or had been taught to believe in the word of God they caused that they should be cast into the fire; and they also brought forth their records which contained the holy scriptures, and cast them into the fire also, that they might be burned and destroyed by fire.

    9 And it came to pass that they took Alma and Amulek, and carried them forth to the place of martyrdom, that they might witness the destruction of those who were consumed by fire.

    10 And when Amulek saw the pains of the women and children who were consuming in the fire, he also was pained; and he said unto Alma: How can we witness this awful scene? Therefore let us stretch forth our hands, and exercise the power of God which is in us, and save them from the flames.

    11 But Alma said unto him: The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory; and he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day.

    (The rulers who committed this eventually assembled one and all in the prison in which the pair were being held and openly mocked and taunted God in addition to the pair. The minute they were finished, an earthquake struck the city; while Alma and Amulek were spared when the prison collapsed, the rulers were – to a man – crushed by the debris.)

  9. Rachel says:

    I echo Chris’s question Pastor DeYoung. How do you respond to a fellow Christian who is going through intense suffering? I have known pastors who refuse to say, “I’m sorry”, because they don’t want to apologize for the providence of God. However, as a result, they sometimes come across as cold and uncaring. Do you have any thoughts on how to balance this?

  10. Matt Shockey says:

    Darren,

    Mormonism/LDS is not a denomination of Christianity. It is a distortion and a heresy. When asked the question, “How many gods are there?” the historic, orthodox, biblical, and true Christian answers “ONE” without reservation or disclaimer. The standard Mormon answer is an evasion: “We worship one God, Elohim,”….but the fine print is that there are actually other gods. A basic perusal of the Old and New Testaments reveal that there is one God…period. Mormonism is blasphemy. I know this will anger you. But I hope and pray that God softens your heart to search the Bible and that he reveals to you the horrid discrepancies between Mormonism and true, biblical Christianity. I pray that this truth would set you free, and that you would find life in the real Jesus Christ. Not the Jesus Christ who is the “brother of Satan.” Not the Jesus whose atonement works “after all you can do.” Not the Jesus who appeared in the Americas. Not the Jesus who was spirit-baby at one point. But the Jesus Christ of history and of the Bible.

  11. Darren Blair says:

    Matt –

    I’m going to challenge you to do something that very few critics of the LDS faith have ever done.

    The challenge?

    Instead of telling me how I’m wrong, tell me how *you* are right. Give me quotations from scripture, denominational leaders, and others all wrapped up in a nice little bow of rhetoric. After all, you can’t just knock the competition’s cars when you want to sell cars of your own; that’s only half the job.

    I’ll even give you some assistance by helping you weed out some bad arguments –

    1. The Godhead consists of Heavenly Father (who most people refer to as “God”), Jesus, and the Holy Ghost, three persons separate in physical nature but united in purpose. Referring to them as “three Gods” is something of a leap in logic.

    2. The actual theology holds that everyone who existed before the creation of the world is quite literally the spiritual sibling of everyone else. This means that, at the spiritual level, you and I are brothers. Critics of the church like to downplay this, as “Jesus and Satan are brothers!” gets more shock value going.

    3. The church’s stance on salvation is that simply saying “I believe!” isn’t enough; a person has to actually try and live in a fashion befitting a Christian or else their confession is suspect. This is what “after all we can do” comes down to.

  12. Matt Shockey says:

    Darren,

    1. Plenty of critics far more learned, able, fair, and persuasive than I have taken up your challenge and succeeded, IMHO.

    2. When I talked about “gods,” I wasn’t referring to the LDS conception of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I don’t think the LDS conception is biblical, but that wasn’t what I was going for. Understandable…I wasn’t clear on that. What I was getting at is this….is there one God in all the cosmos and beyond, Yahweh, over all, or is there more? Answer the question. “I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God” Isaiah 45:5. The are myriads of other verses that say this same thing.

    3. Nowhere does the Bible teach a pre-existence of souls. Neither does it teach that Satan and Jesus are brothers in any sense of the word. Satan is a fallen angel, created by Jesus (and the Father, and the Holy Spirit). Speaking of Jesus, Colossians 1:16 says, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” The first chapter of John’s Gospel is also scrupulously emphatic on this point. All things. All things. All things.

    4. I’m sympathetic to your third point. SAYING “I believe!” isn’t enough, but actually believing is. But we a have to ask the question, “Enough for what?” If we mean “enough to be saved,” then the bible emphatically teaches that it really is this simple. The bible also teaches exactly what you said: “a person has to actually try to live in a fashion befitting a Christian or else their confession is suspect.” A Protestant like myself is very careful to point out that these fruits, obedience, good works, etc, are not what saves a person. But they ARE the outward evidence that one is, in fact, saved. If that’s all you mean by “after all we can do,” then I apologize for assuming too much. In my experience, Latter Day Saints usually mean more than what you’ve said.They usually mean something that limits Christ’s atonement by making it syncretic with man’s good works. In other words…It’s not enough in and of itself. That’s just what i’ve gathered from experience…and this is from real conversations, not just something I went and Googled. I grew up in Southeastern Idaho…I’m good friends with plenty o’ Mormon. No, that doesn’t make me an expert.

    I guess my main contention is that, from the get-go, Mormonism has a faulty, inadequate conception of God. As far as being considered “Christian,” this is not a good start. Your God is not the only god that exists. Mine is. Yours is provincial. Mine is infinite. I could quote a thousand verses. But let’s just start with a simple question, Darren. In all the universe, cosmos, all that exists, and beyond, in the totality of existence, how many gods are there?

    Also, let me know if you want my email and we can keep up the conversation that way instead of using up Kevin’s comment feed.

    Sincerely,
    Matt

  13. Darren Blair says:

    1. Understand that I worked my fanny off to get an MBA, during which time I did paper after paper. Just saying “other people” was never academically acceptable.

    2. The answer is – “Heavenly Father is the only God that humanity has to worry about; whether or not there are others is immaterial at this point and so not something that humanity should worry about.”

    3. The problem with making such an argument from Colossians is that one has to *start* with the premise that humanity is created rather than begotten. You need to make your stand by first proving that everything was created.

    4. A common illustration used to explain this point is a story about a child who desires a new bike. Although the child tried as hard as they could to save up the money needed, the child just could not earn enough through chores and odd jobs. However, as a reward to the child for trying, the child’s parents ponied up the difference between what the child had saved and the purchase price. Similarly, if God knows that a person is actually trying their best, then grace will come in to make up the difference.

    5. Based on past experience, I prefer to keep discussions out in the open lest anyone cast aspersions about what happened. If you do wish to take things to e-mail, then I reserve the right to keep a record of the conversation via Word document. Fair enough?

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  15. Nikolaas Pienaar says:

    Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is one of the best treatises on providence I’ve read.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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